Faith, Music

In praise of the hymn

I write in praise of the hymn as a tool for worship in the Christian church.

My youngest son was baptized a few months ago in his mom’s church, and I attended. I was thrilled (in tears, really) to see my son baptized. But the worship featured a rock band and a slate of songs I’d never heard before. I tried to sing, but struggled to discern each song’s melody and structure and so managed only a few feeble mumbles. Even though I’d been to church, I left feeling like I hadn’t fully worshiped. (I’m sure God understands.)

Inside BethelThis isn’t about condemning the modern rock-band style of worship, although it doesn’t work for me personally. This also isn’t about reverting to the old days of pipe organs and choirs. It’s about making it easy for everyone, especially newcomers and visitors, to participate in worship.

Participation means more than just showing up. The word worship means to express devotion to a deity, which implies actively doing. Now, I can’t sort out scripture from tradition in modern Christian worship. The Bible tells us to sing praises to God, and I assume this is why worship services have included singing for a very long time. When the music plays, participation means singing along.

I love to sing, so singing in church is particularly important to me. Thanks to some natural ability and many years of school choir, I learn songs quickly, by ear. Ask my sons, who are subject to my constant singing in the car. But that choral training also taught me that songs with a predictable, repetitive structure are the easiest and fastest to learn.

Most praise songs are structured like pop or rock music, starting with a verse-chorus structure but adding bridges and key changes. You have to hear the whole song a number of times before you feel that structure and can anticipate the melody. I think many of these songs are truly great. I especially like this one: It Is You by The Newsboys. I chose a video of it that shows the lyrics much as you’d see them projected on a screen in church. When I first heard it, I had to try to sing along with it it probably twenty times before I could sing it through.

Hymns, on the other hand, usually feature three or four verses sung to the same melody. If you are visiting a church and they sing a hymn you don’t know, with each verse you become more able to sing along. If you have a good ear, you might even be singing out by the last verse. Simply put, hymns make it easier for you to participate. Here’s a modern hymn, a reflective and mournful piece called In Christ Alone, which was written in 2001. Even though this hymn is complex, by the end I’ll bet you will at least be humming along to the melody.

It Is You sounds more like the music I listen to outside of church. I wouldn’t play In Christ Alone in my car or around my house. But when it comes to worship, especially when songs I don’t know are involved, I’d rather sing a hymn like In Christ Alone any day. Then I can really give my voice to God.

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I once belonged to a church that sang
a cappella. It was beautiful! Read about it.

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13 thoughts on “In praise of the hymn

  1. I think I know what you mean. Some of the modern praise songs are great, but I end up feeling a little like I used to in exercise class, a half-step or two behind everyone else until I learned the routine. Yesterday, we sang “Open Now Thy Gates of Beauty” (several good versions on YouTube) and when one woman (who can really, really sing) started the descant, her voice soared and it brought tears to my eyes. That experience was very moving, and made it worship the way you explained it.

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    • I really do enjoy singing many of the praise songs that I know well. But yes, there’s something about a good, serious hymn that can move me like no praise song ever can. I’m a pretty serious dude; a lot of the praise songs are just too shallow to really move me.

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  2. Michael says:

    Since I often listen to the praise station in the car, I’m “programmed” enough to belt out the modern stuff as well as the hymns. :)

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    • Yeah, I had a couple CDs of “Praise Song Greatest Hits” and used to listen to them in the car, so I know those upside down and backwards and can belt them too. But that was a long time ago and a lot of newer songs have been added to the standard church repertoire and I struggle to learn them.

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  3. What you like in Church music is very subjective. We all worship in different ways – and I am just as happy to listen to songs like ‘In Christ Alone’ wherever I am (love that song). But in too many churches the hymns sound like dirges. There needs to be a mix.

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    • You’re absolutely right. I know plenty of people who adore the rock-band worship style, for example. My point was about making it easier for people to participate, and I offered a perspective on that, but mine is by far not the only valid one.

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  4. I like that you expressed your personal preferences for worship music without showing a disrespectful attitude toward those who prefer other styles. I am with you; I like the old hymns, and I am not truly comfortable in the “rock band” setting for worship. The hymns seem to address biblical truth one doesn’t often hear in the choruses of today. Oh,yeah; and I like choirs and organs.

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    • I am currently in a church where I’m not crazy about most of the music we use in worship. But I’m there because I feel God is calling me to be there. In other words, it’s not about me and my preferences.

      If I had my druthers, I’d sing a cappella in four-part harmony in church. I got to do that for several years and it was truly outstanding. I really miss it. But I’ll give up my druthers for whatever service God has in store for me.

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  5. kim says:

    I can relate to your comments about “rock’
    ‘ style worship music. Personally, I don’t mind too much if a song has a rock beat ,as long as the music doesn’t get in the way of what worship is all about. Unfortunatly, thats usually not the case! while same newer style music has important themes in it, too often its just repetition.Hymns tend to reveal the heart of God and the writer of the hymn. Long live the hymns!!

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  6. Biggest problem with the video projection of lyrics is that it makes singing the song, of any kind, harder for those of us who are used to reading music. There are no notes, no bars, nothing to see except rhythmless words.

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    • I don’t read music. I sang in choirs as a boy and had to learn to pick up songs by ear, and got good at it. In my adult life, I was once part of a church that sang a cappella in four-part harmony. Our hymnals used shaped notes, which were supposed to aid in the process, but it was all Greek to me…except that over time, I came to be able to deal with the notes enough that they helped me predict the next note in an unfamiliar song. I still wasn’t reading music, but I was gaining a sense for it, and it did help me sing more successfully.

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