Hymns, Psalms and Spiritual Songs: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I think American evangelical church culture is beginning to solve the so-called "worship wars" between older (though by no means ancient) "hymns" and more recently composed "praise-and-worship songs." But we still have a long way to go.

On the one hand, a growing number of longstanding (historically "traditional") congregations are incorporating contemporary songs in their corporate worship. Some opt for multiple services offering multiple styles or genres of music (and perhaps differing dress codes). Many have attempted (some successfully, others not so much) some variety of blending between old and new forms of worship.

I myself have seen effective and ineffective attempts at everything from traditional (in a variety of traditions) to full-blown contemporary, and everything in between. And one thing I have noticed, in particular, is that effectively leading congregational worship requires more than deciphering and employing a particular stylistic formula or template. Rather, it requires tremendous pastoral wisdom and leadership, a dedication to excellence in all aspects of congregational worship, and the skill to carry them out. Many churches, unfortunately, lack one or more of these critical areas, and therefore are struggling to make their times of corporate worship genuinely worshipful.

Let me speak for a moment on one particular issue that has not, in my opinion, received enough attention from modern, evangelical American pastors and worship leaders: song writing and song selection. This crucial issue is often the source of much disagreement (and much poor judgment) within churches. Mark Moring, editor for Christianity Today's Entertainment section, expresses a sentiment common among critics of "contemporary worship" when he refers to "the power of hymns vs. the relative mediocrity of most of today's modern worship and praise choruses." He states this in such a way as to suggest that the genre of hymn is inherently superior to the genre of "worship and praise choruses" (which, of course, is a misnomer, since very few modern praise-and-worship songs consist solely of choruses!). But the apostle Paul validates a variety of genres when he exhorts the first-century Ephesian (5:19) and Colossian (3:16) believers to sing to one another and to God "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs"—in other words, all sorts of songs that are intended to exalt God and edify the Church. The issue is not genre, but effect.

Suppose that Moring was not suggesting that hymns are intrinsically superior to other types of "spiritual songs," but that the storehouse of hymns handed down for generations are in reality superior to most of the songs that have been written over the past two or three decades. He may very well be right about that. And if he is right, then we need to address the issue head-on.

Awaken The DawnIn Christ AloneEven as a "modern" person in my late 20s, I share Moring's lament of the state of contemporary worship song writing and his gratitude for good hymnody. The Church has been blessed by many wonderful songs written in recent years. But we have also been cursed by a greater proliferation of mediocre-to-downright-lousy modern songs. I suspect that the commercialization of "worship music" plays a significant role in this. I suspect also that theological drift, widespread biblical illiteracy, and a general decline in "churchmanship" among the young have made substantial contributions. But I am encouraged by the work of folks like Keith & Kristen Getty, Stuart Townend, and Sovereign Grace Ministries—writers of "contemporary hymns"—as well as artists who are reclaiming and updating historic hymns (this album is exemplary, in my opinion). Modern praise-and-worship song writers have much to learn from these modern hymnodists as well as the great ones of old.
Come Weary Saints
What have they to learn? In short: patience, thorough acquaintance with Scripture, theological thought, deep prayer, historical awareness, and artistry. Good songs, whatever genre, are not formed in the studio through slick production, but are crafted with care by diligent, biblically saturated, God entranced, spiritually sensitive, artistically gifted saints of God.

A number of factors make a great worship song or hymn. First, it must be biblically sound and theologically rich. It must teach biblical truth as well as voice our response to that truth. Many modern worship songs lean way too far in the response direction. Second, it must be well-written lyrically. It must be thoughtful, creative, and original while testifying to eternal truth. Far too many modern worship songs are simply strings of cliches and add nothing to our repository of church songs. Third, it must be singable by a congregation, not simply by a solo artist. I find that many songs that I find very worshipful personally or in a conference (read: concert) setting do not work well in a multigenerational congregation, and so I try to reserve them for my personal worship times or specific, "niche-focused" events. There are probably more elements to a good worship song that I've omitted, but if we work on these three we will make substantial headway in the quality of modern worship songwriting.

We need to get past the debate between hymns and modern praise-and-worship songs (and please stop calling the latter "choruses"!) and start working hard to improve the composition of all the songs of the church. "Sing to the Lord a new song" the psalmist tells us (Pss 33:3; 96:1; 98:1)! We must continue to write church music, not only for our generation, but for generations to come—songs of enduring quality, in the footsteps of the great hymn-writers of the past. In order to do this, we've got to overcome our infatuation with newness for newness sake and reacquaint ourselves with the best that the saints of the past have to offer. We have to place God, rather than our feelings, back at the center of our songwriting process. We have to work hard to write well, and not aspire to church song writing unless we are committed to mastering the craft. And as church leaders of various roles, we must ensure that we are using the best available songs from all eras of Christian history, up to the present.

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