Songs vs. Hymns

First off, my title is bogus—they’re all songs and, to a lesser extent, they’re all hymns. But the intent of the title is still obvious: there is a tension we feel between modern Christian music and the older stuff.

For the sake of clarity, when we’re talking about older music, we’re including anything from “Sacred Head” to “Old Rugged Cross” to some of the stuff you even sang in your youth group. For contemporary, let’s focus more on the last 20 to 30 years and popular Christian music (with a mindful eye for that which has made its way into congregational singing).

The tension between these two veins of Christian music is most plain in the congregational divide of those who sing them—older, more conservative congregations tend towards hymns, and younger congregations toward the contemporary. Beyond that, there is a slight intellectual disdain for the new stuff; in fact, I’ve heard it said, “When you’re talking about Christian music it’s pretty safe to substitute ‘bad’ for ‘Christian.’” Some people claim those who sing older songs are stuck in the past and can’t reach out to the community. Some people claim those who sing new songs are trendy and shallow. Some people don’t care what we sing but think contemporary Christian music is just bad.

So let’s compare a couple songs. For our hymn, I’m going to use “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” by Robert Robinson, a favorite of mine and beloved by hipsters world over. Here are the original lyrics for your convenience:

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount, I’m fixed upon it,
Mount of Thy redeeming love.

Sorrowing I shall be in spirit,
Till released from flesh and sin,
Yet from what I do inherit,
Here Thy praises I’ll begin;
Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Here by Thy great help I’ve come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.

Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood;
How His kindness yet pursues me
Mortal tongue can never tell,
Clothed in flesh, till death shall loose me
I cannot proclaim it well.

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

O that day when freed from sinning,
I shall see Thy lovely face;
Clothèd then in blood washed linen
How I’ll sing Thy sovereign grace;
Come, my Lord, no longer tarry,
Take my ransomed soul away;
Send thine angels now to carry
Me to realms of endless day.

Notice the song is optimistic and the first verse is praise-oriented. Throughout the length of the song, there is strong use of metaphor and allusion (relying on biblical literacy), and there are glimmers of an array of theological topics, including our hope in the afterlife, atonement, and humans’ sinful nature. Yet, despite these themes, “Come Thou Fount” is still focused on hope and grace. 

For popular Christian music, let’s look at “What a Beautiful Name” by Hillsong Worship, presently at the top of the Christian Billboard charts. 

You were the Word at the beginning
One With God the Lord Most High
Your hidden glory in creation
Now revealed in You our Christ

What a beautiful Name it is
What a beautiful Name it is
The Name of Jesus Christ my King

What a beautiful Name it is
Nothing compares to this
What a beautiful Name it is
The Name of Jesus

You didn’t want heaven without us
So Jesus, You brought heaven down
My sin was great, Your love was greater
What could separate us now

What a wonderful Name it is
What a wonderful Name it is
The Name of Jesus Christ my King

What a wonderful Name it is
Nothing compares to this
What a wonderful Name it is
The Name of Jesus
What a wonderful Name it is
The Name of Jesus

How sweet is your name, Lord, how good You are
Love to sing in the name of the Lord, love to sing for you all?
Death could not hold You, the veil tore before You
You silenced the boast, of sin and grave
The heavens are roaring, the praise of Your glory
For You are raised to life again

You have no rival, You have no equal
Now and forever, Our God reigns
Yours is the Kingdom, Yours is the glory
Yours is the Name, above all names

What a powerful Name it is
What a powerful Name it is
The Name of Jesus Christ my King

What a powerful Name it is
Nothing can stand against
What a powerful Name it is
The Name of Jesus

You have no rival, You have no equal
Now and forever, Our God reigns
Yours is the Kingdom, Yours is the glory
Yours is the Name, above all names

What a powerful Name it is
What a powerful Name it is
The Name of Jesus Christ my King

What a powerful Name it is
Nothing can stand against
What a powerful Name it is
The Name of Jesus

What a powerful Name it is
The Name of Jesus
What a powerful Name it is
The Name of Jesus

Though this song is over 100 words longer, it has 62 less unique words and the average word is a character less. Only 10% of the words (as compared to 25%) are seen as complex words. The song does make use of allusions (albeit simple ones); it touches on the sin of humans, atonement, and creation, yet overwhelmingly, “What a Beautiful Name” is focused on praise. 

As far as actual music goes, I can’t really tell you much. Lauren has explained to me that Pop Christian music, like all music, has some really gifted contributors but is generally not noteworthy on the contemporary stage. Nonetheless, it tends to demonstrate more complex music-making and a higher level of skill than traditional hymns. Older songs—though there are exceptions like Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”—are generally simpler songs, keeping to I, IV, and V chords, bar form, and a choral style—which makes them ideal for a congregational use. 

While the round goes to contemporary music with a slight edge in musical aptitude, a brief note on hymns and the place of music is in order: songs are not meant to all sound the same; a variety of tunes means a variety of moods—allowing for songs of lament along hymns of encouragement. For more information, check out this great article on the subject.

My bias here may be too obvious, but in my mind I know that churches will profit from singing both the old and the new. As with all art, we should never be content to mimic what is popular in wider culture and we should instead, ourselves, be inventors and creators. But we cannot forget the past. Instead, we use the hymns of old as a link to the past and the church throughout the centuries, and in the meanwhile, we blaze forward in creative song. 

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7 Comments

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  1. Is there a group for Christians that don’t care for old dated hymns, but also don’t like any songs written in the last 10 yrs?

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    • Yeah, they’re reasonable people. Also, out of curiosity, what’s an example of an “old dated hymn”?

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      • Come Thou Fount would be an example of what I am referring to as an old song. Not that the meaning is dated, but the language used is irregular. To it’s defense, the music still holds it’s own even today, which is why I think it is such a good song. You take those words and put it to new music and it would lose a lot of it’s appeal.

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      • I think I can agree with that. In Come Thou Fount’s defense, in particular, it is rarely sung with the original lyrics and is most common in later versions. You can find them on Wikipedia.

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  2. One view that you didn’t cover is that we only sing the old songs that stood the test of time. Isaac Watts, the “father of Christian hymnody,” wrote at least 750 hymns, and I would guess that we sing about 30. Many of the songs that are being released today will be forgotten, 1) because most aren’t that good (likely every genre across every age), and 2) because they aren’t meant for congregational worship, which is the group of people that have memories older than themselves. Another part of this is the purpose of songs and hymns – the writers are trying to fulfill different human desires, hopefully all pointing towards God. When Watts complained about the music in his congregation, his dad said, “Who do you think you are? King David?” That is what inspired Watts to write. Would we all be so inspired.

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  3. I also find it interesting to think about the trends of contemporary music in worship, as compared to the older songs. Certainly, as you alluded to, a majority of the complexity has shifted from the words of the song to the music. Whether it is the exciting rhythmic syncopation of “Blessed Be Your Name” (good luck correctly conducting that one) or the extreme vocal range of “In Christ Alone” (better not start that one too high – that is, if you can sing low enough to hit the first note #tenorproblems), it seems that contemporary arrangers are focusing more on bringing the thrill of a pop concert to the music than intricately strung words.

    Don’t hear that as a bad thing, though – it’s certainly more relevant to our generation. More relevant = more attractive, usually. And as for simple verses, generic statements of praise or worship are relatable to more situations and tastes than are complex phrases of Ye Olde English. So I get it, and it is effective a lot of the time. I don’t think we should get rid of either category of music in our worship. But I think a healthy balance of intellectual, spiritual, and musical depth is the recipe for a long-lasting song or hymn (“O Sacred Head” that you referenced earlier is a great example of this, in my opinion). Something that can reach into your heart, challenge your perspective a little, and leave a memorable tune to remember it by.

    P.S. I believe Beethoven is the composer you were thinking of that wrote the music for “Ode to Joy.”

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    • Yeah, you bring up something I hadn’t mentioned: songs as evangelism and a way to bring people in. That I think, is the best trait of modern music. But as you said, what we’re ultimately aiming for are songs that are both mentally/spiritually edifying as well as competently composed. Thanks for the comments, Jordan!

      P.S. Saying Mozart composed “Ode to Joy” was a test. You were the first to pass.

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