Hymns and Modern Worship Songs: What's the Difference?
"If it was good enough for Isaac Watts, it’s good enough for me.” Few of us would come right out and say this, but I confess to thinking along those lines. Over two decades of writing and speaking about singing and liturgy, I’ve been accused of being a liturgical traditionalist. Skim through the proliferation of lyrics mass-produced in recent decades, and, whatever your particular taste in music, it’s impossible not to observe how different they are from the psalms and hymns the Church has been singing for centuries. That’s precisely by design. They were written not only to be different, but to be better, more relevant, to conform to a new ethos.
Some years ago, while visiting a church on our family vacation, we were invited to rise and sing the following:
You are my wholeness,
You are my completeness.
In you I find forgiveness,
Yes, in you I find release.
It’s a wonder you take all those blunders I make
And so graciously offer me peace.
Bewildered, I reread the lines. Unless I was missing something, it appeared that the writer of these words had managed to flip everything around. The eternal living God who made the earth, the sky, the sea, and all that in them is, had been reduced to a means of individual self-discovery, “you are my completeness,” the added bauble that finally makes me whole, as if God were a fashion accessory that puts the finishing touch on my outfit.
I looked around the congregation. Hands were raised; eyes were pinched shut with emotion. What was I missing? There were references to forgiveness and peace, vague ones, but blunders? Only those “who think of sin but lightly” will refer to their offences as blunders. The psalmist uses no such reductionist terminology. “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (51:4). To my ear, the flouncy cadence of the lines about blunders sounded so different from the earnest sobriety of David on his face confessing his evil to a holy God.
But, surely, this song had to get better. How could it get worse?
And in you I find true friendship,
Yes, your love is so free of demands,
Though it must hurt you so,
You keep letting me go
To discover the person I am.
Maybe I was being too critical, and the lyricist was onto a deeper truth in the line, “your love is so free of demands.” I wanted to be more generous, find at least a morsel of truth that might redeem these lines.
While I cast about, I tried to picture the persecuted church singing this; imagine Christian martyrs throughout the centuries lustily joining in with “your love is so free of demands” as the fagots were lit beneath their feet at the stake. Not only was it nonsensical, singing this made a mockery of the persecuted church, then and now. Isaac Watts put it far better: “Love, so amazing, so divine/Demands my soul, my life, my all.”
It felt like the fabricator of this ditty of self-actualization had learned his theology from a pop-psychology textbook—not from the Word of God. Truth and the honor of Christ were at stake. I looked down the pew at my family; we all stopped singing.
Historically, the finest poetry woos us away from self-absorption and makes us less self-referential. The best poetry “turn(s) us from ourselves to thee,” as one poet put it. The Christian’s chief end is to do all things to the glory of God alone; how much more so when we are taking poetic words on our lips, addressing God in sung worship?
Though we were no longer giving voice to these words, the rest of the congregation dutifully murmured onward:
And like a father you long to protect me,
Yet you know I must learn on my own.
Well, I made my own choice,
To follow your voice,
Guiding me unto my home.
Impotent and passive, the father figure portrayed by this lyricist now sits wringing his hands and waiting. How vastly different this is from the God of the Bible: “I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’” (Isaiah 46:9-10). How equally dissimilar this is from the God portrayed in the rich canon of the Church’s hymnody.
The final plumage of self-praise in “You Are My Wholeness” shifted to praising the songwriter’s own choice. Unwittingly, all those who sing these words are praising themselves for following someone’s voice. We’re left to fill in many gaps, including who this someone is. Though the Apostle Paul calls us to do everything in the name of Jesus Christ (Colossians 3:17), oddly, while ostensibly singing to him, there is zero mention of the triune God, Father, Son, or Holy Spirit, in this reductionist doggerel.
Wouldn’t ruined sinners rescued by Christ want to sing more like this?
Why was I made to hear thy voice,
And enter while there’s room,
When thousands make a wretched choice,
And rather starve than come?
SING A NEW SONG
Hence, I confess, because of lyrics like “You Are My Wholeness,” I had retreated into traditionalism. There’s so many great psalm versifications and hymns to sing, let’s solve the problem. Instead of being subjected to such unworthy lyrical nonsense, let’s simply stick with the best of the past. I thought I’d found my safe place in self-righteous traditionalism.
Until reading in Psalms. I love singing Psalms, and I’ve always tried to avoid debate with my exclusive-psalm-singing brethren. “Oh, you only sing Psalms?” Only? The Psalms are the very words God breathed by his Spirit to the ancient poets who penned them. There’s nothing only about them. But it was throughout those very psalms that I was repeatedly called to sing a new song (33, 40, 96, 98, 144, 149). As the psalms were once new expressions of praise for old covenant deliverances, so new manifestations of the gracious deliverance of our God call for new “songs of loudest praise” to give voice and substance to our new covenant gratitude.
But it wasn’t just in Psalms. In Revelation the saints and angelic hosts, in a culminating torrent of splendor “…sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation’” (5:9). My traditionalism was getting pummeled.
THE MOUTHS OF BABES
Meanwhile, my children began to work on me. “Daddy, don’t read us another book. Tell us a story, one you make up yourself.” I pointed to the walls of books in our home. There are so many wonderful things to read. “No, Daddy, make up a story.” That was twenty years ago. I’ve been making up stories ever since, my children often my chief critics. But writing books was one thing. Attempting to write a new hymn terrified me.
Then, I hit on a solution. I would have a character in one of my children’s books (The Accidental Voyage) write a hymn. Throughout the story, my protagonist gnawed his pencil in fits and starts. It was perfect. If he managed to craft a poem that resembled a singable hymn, I was safe. More likely, if my efforts in his persona were an unmitigated disaster, I simply blamed the adolescent protagonist. What do you expect from a twelve-year-old? I felt liberated and furiously worked in secret on several other hymns. But exposure was around the corner.
After writing a birthday sonnet for a pastor friend of mine, he asked me to write a new hymn for the Thanksgiving service—in a week. His was a discerning congregation of hymn-savvy Presbyterians. What did he think I was, a performing circus animal able to crank out poetry that would stand up to their scrutiny? I declined.
Besides, my father, after a long battle with cancer, had recently died. I didn’t feel much like writing a new hymn. We had sung hymns at my father’s bedside, recited and sang psalms, the thirty-fourth emerging as one of his favorites. “This poor man cried to you and you delivered him out of all his trouble.” He would often ask me to read it, then lean back on his pillow, close his eyes, and smile as I read.
Though I had declined to write the hymn, I found myself looking up biblical passages on thanksgiving, always drawn back to my father's favorite Psalm and the phrase, “O, taste and see that the Lord is good.” I was thrilled with the Eucharist and Lord’s Supper implications of the text. But the days before the Thanksgiving service were clicking by and all I had was an initial idea. Neophyte muse that I was, how could I possibly write a hymn in so short a time, one that would be worthy of the high worship of God?
Three days before the Thanksgiving service, I managed to produce five stanzas that began like this:
We rise and worship you, our Lord,
With grateful hearts for grace outpoured,
For you are good—O taste and see—
Great God of mercy rich and free.
The next stanzas explored the salvific roles of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for which every Christian has unmeasured cause for thanksgiving. To match the poetic meter, the accompanist had chosen a Long Meter existing tune. As the congregation rose, I sweated and fidgeted as we sang this new song.
HOSTILITY TO FORM
As Augustine put it, “I count myself among those who learn as they write and write as they learn.” And did I ever need to learn several important things about hymns and writing them in these early efforts.
My poetry tutorials, however, began much earlier. God placed me in a hymn-singing, literary home, where we would snuggle up on the couch and listen to my mother read aloud from Shakespeare, even Chaucer in Middle English. Not understanding a word, I was charmed by the sounds and cadence of the poetry. In my adult life, during decades of teaching history and literature, including the writing of poetry, I watched with mounting apprehension as our culture descended further into a post-poetry, post-literacy malaise, the Church dutifully in tow.
Along with post-modernity’s hostility to form, dismantling culture and disfiguring art, our ability to define and appreciate poetry has been marred. We’re taught to disparage poetic conventions such as meter and rhyming, and anything else that gives shape and order to art. Literary experts say that we are to read poetry just like we read prose, as if poetry was a literary birth defect of prose rather than its own genre with its own rhetorical qualities.
For thousands of years, poetry has included various metrical patterns and parallelisms of sound, rhyming being one of the most delightful and anticipated. In our moment, however, vers libre, is celebrated as the highest form of poetry, emotive free verse that defies the conventions of the ages. With lines capriciously designated, much of this material is little more than fragmented prose masquerading as poetry.
Literary elites assure us that traditional poets were simply being cute with words, showing off, being crafty in their slavish devotion to convention. I wonder if they might also tell us that Michelangelo was just being crafty with marble, that medieval architects were simply showing off with stone-vaulted ceilings, or that J. S. Bach was merely being cute with counterpoint.
Critics of poetic conventions asked 20th century poet Robert Frost why he didn’t write in free verse; he replied with an apt simile, “Writing poetry that doesn’t rhyme is like playing tennis with the net down.” Frost believed that there was something inherent in the genre that demanded structural boundaries if it is to be what it is. But his was a voice crying in a literary wilderness.
How does this relate to sung worship? Observe the congregation in a contemporary service, and it becomes clear that it is difficult to sing lyrics composed to post-poetry dictates. Throughout much of Western Civilization, poetry was composed to be sung by the whole clan. Today, singing is now largely done for us by commercially popular, celebrity entertainers, or those who imitate them. The congregation has become avid listeners, but increasingly inept participants in full-voice singing.
Finding myself a guest in many different churches, most arranged with the entertainers and their instruments on center stage, I’ve been observing congregational singing for years. Many people are not singing at all, especially the men, and most of those whose lips are moving, are murmuring more than full-voice singing. Why is that?
Whatever our playlists look like, and however lustily we might sing in the privacy of our cars, let’s be frank, one who is not a pop musician feels uncomfortable attempting in public to sing like a solo-voice entertainer. It turns out, though they call themselves worship leaders, they are not leading us. They are doing it for us. Our participation is irrelevant to the performance. Join in if you care to; either way, it will not change the instrumental, high-volume sound pulsing through the worship center.
So, how are we to write, compose, and sing new songs that reflect the ethos of worship rather than the ethos of entertainment? David played his harp, a solo performer—for the sheep. But he wrote psalms to be sung by the congregation, young and old, without any consideration for generational preferences. Hence, as we attempt to craft new songs, the hymn writer will not write for a solo performer or for a choir. A good hymn could be sung by either, but the writer of a new hymn, like David, will intentionally craft poetry accessible for the whole congregation of God’s people to sing with full voice.
When Christians of all ages and various singing abilities rise to their feet to sing the praises of their Redeemer, if things are to be done decently and in order, they will want to sing with one voice. Though it is more difficult to observe when hymn poetry is subordinated to the musical score, as in American hymnals, for centuries, virtually all hymns have been written in regular rhyme and meter. Solo entertainers can sing metrically irregular songs, and often do, but singing free verse worship songs is difficult for the congregation.
WHAT MAKES A GOOD HYMN?
Our greatest problem discerning what is worthy to sing in worship is firstly a theological problem. Egalitarians don’t make good worshipers. Sinners, undone by their crimes in the face of a holy God, falling on their faces before the Sovereign Lord who has paid their vast debt in full with his precious blood, make better worshipers. We must get our theology right before we can correct our doxology.
Another problem we have with evaluating what is worthy to sing in worship is that we no longer think of hymns as poetry, and in our post-poetry culture, we have lost the literary tools to require the highest standards for that poetry. What we sing before the face of our Redeemer in worship must be the finest human poetry, set to the most appropriate human music, shaped by the biblical ethos of worship.
Music in worship is not firstly about loud instruments, multi-colored lights, or soloists aping entertainment celebrities, as we see in the ubiquitous nightclub liturgy of our present situation. Music in worship is first and last about the voice of the congregation singing to and with one another the word of Christ. Paul put it this way:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach
and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as
you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with
gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you
do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of
the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father
through him (Colossians 3:16-17).
Here, Paul tells us how and what to sing. New songs of new covenant worship find their substance and boundaries in this locus classicus of sung worship. Notice, three times we are told to take Christ’s name on our lips in our singing, and we’re told three times in the whole context of the passage to sing our thanksgiving. Which strongly suggests that new lyrics will be Christ-centered and filled with gratitude.
The passage reveals three more functions of hymns, summarized by hymnologist Erik Routley: New covenant hymns will codify doctrine (“teach and admonish”), unify the Church (“one another”), and glorify God (“to God”). We have seen decay of all three of these functions in most of the new songs of recent decades. Praise choruses and worship songs have been generally reductionist in theological content, saying less and less about doctrinal truths, often never using the name of Christ.
Furthermore, instead of unifying the Church, the shift to lyrics and music that suit the ethos of entertainment, has created a generational rift, disunifying the Church. Some churches have a traditional service and a contemporary one, thus, dividing the congregation by tastes and age rather than bringing Christians together with one voice in song. A good test if a lyric will unify the Church is to ask if the persecuted church would choose to sing it; would the early church sing it; would Christians have sung it in the Reformation, the Great Awakening, or the Missionary Movement of the 19th century?
Lastly, the third function of singing to the glory of God has been under attack for decades. When churches prefer singing what entertainers sing at concerts, or what Christian radio stations are playing, there is a pull to imitate the entertainment industry and its popular celebrity method of singing, church worship leaders now attempting to look like and sound like they are on stage at a concert.
The late Keith Green, himself a vanguard of contemporary Christian singing, was offended by the “‘look at me!’ attitude I have seen at concert after concert, and the ‘Can’t you see we are as good as the world!’ syndrome” of fellow rock and roll performers. Decades later, would Green be less offended by what he would see were he alive today?
However noble the intentions, the entertainment arrangement is the perfect storm for singing to the glory of the performers on the stage. Routley quips that when the three functions of hymns, codify, unify, glorify, are absent, he wished for the song to have “the short life of all rootless things.”
NEW REFORMATION HYMNS
Finally, Paul tells us to write and sing new hymns “with all wisdom,” that is to do so skillfully; which means those who presume to craft new hymn lyrics or compose tunes for those lyrics need to study, develop their skills, know what they are attempting, stand on the shoulders of the great hymn writers of the past—Cowper, Watts, Wesley, Havergal, Bonar and many others.
It was while immersed in the study of our hymnody that I became so reluctant to attempt writing a new hymn. How could I possibly measure up with the best hymn writers of the past? Then it occurred to me: I don’t write books because I think I’m the best writer in the world, any more than I love my wife because I think I’m the best husband in the world, any more than I parent my kids because I think I’m the best parent in the world, any more than I worship Christ because I think I’m the best worshiper in the world. Neither do I write hymns because I think I’m the best hymn writer in the world.
Then, one frosty December evening, as I scribbled in front of the fire, I found myself toying with the idea of attempting a carol. When I came to my senses, I contemplated tossing my notes into the fire. What was I thinking? Christ’s Advent? The sacred mystery? Angelic heralds? The culmination of thousands of years of prophecy? The best of the existing carol canon guaranteed failure. Carols are uniquely rich with celebratory atmosphere, evocative of rejoicing and feasting, sleigh bells, and every charming winter association imaginable. Hymnologists tell us the best-loved hymn of all time is actually a carol, Charles Wesley’s “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” It was literary suicide to attempt a carol.
Because of my fears, early scribblings for this carol lay dormant for several years; hymn writing can sometimes be like that for me, an initial burst of ideas, then nothing, just an imaginative black hole. And then another Advent season approached. I read aloud from Luke’s gospel with my family; we sang a carol. When the kids were tucked in their beds, I pulled out my initial notes and sifted through the scribbled idea banks and word banks. Late that night, with fear and trembling, I managed to set down six stanzas as they appear below, beginning with the angelic announcement of Christ’s Advent to the shepherds, proceeding to our Lord’s sinless life, Gethsemane and the cross, the resurrection, concluding with Christ’s triumphant Second Advent.
What wonder filled the starry night When Jesus came with heralds bright! I marvel at his lowly birth, That God for sinners stooped to earth. His splendor laid aside for me, While angels hailed his Deity, The shepherds on their knees in fright Fell down in wonder at the sight. The child who is the Way, the Truth, Who pleased his Father in his youth, Through all his days the Law obeyed, Yet for its curse his life he paid. What drops of grief fell on the site Where Jesus wrestled through the night, Then for transgressions not his own, He bore my cross and guilt alone. What glorious Life arose that day When Jesus took death’s sting away! His children raised to life and light, To serve him by his grace and might. One day the angel hosts will sing, “Triumphant Jesus, King of kings!” Eternal praise we’ll shout to him When Christ in splendor comes again!
Douglas Bond is author of Grace Works! (And Ways We Think It Doesn't) and twenty-seven other books of historical fiction, biography, devotion, and practical theology. He is lyricist for New Reformation Hymns, directs the Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, speaks at churches and conferences, and leads Church history tours in Europe. His book God Sings! (And Ways We Think He Ought To), from which this post is an excerpt, is available at bondbooks.net; order today and receive a free Rise and Worship cd