Why Don’t You Sing More Hymns?

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25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them …
(Acts 16:25, ESV – YouVersion.Com)

For all those who have heard or said, “why don’t you just sing more hymns” …

What exactly is a “hymn”?

According to Merriam-Webster.Com, a hymn is:

Etymology: Middle English ymne, from Old English ymen, from Latin hymnus song of praise, from Greek hymnos

1 a : a song of praise to God b : a metrical composition adapted for singing in a religious service
2 : a song of praise or joy
3 : something resembling a hymn

My guess is that Paul and Silas weren’t singing “A Mighty Fortress is our God”.  I doubt they were singing “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand” or even “Victory in Jesus”.  They weren’t singing “Come Thou Fount” and they weren’t singing “The Old Rugged Cross”.

What were they singing?  Songs of praise to God.  I’d guess they were songs that were known and established in their culture, perhaps songs from the temple.  Maybe they were singing refrains of praise that they’d just composed themselves.

The point is … Hymns are songs of praise, specifically composed to be sung as praise and worship to God.

Back in my college days in the quest of a Music Degree, I remember reading about this in Music History.  They discussed some of the things that would classify a song as a hymn, other than it’s lyrical nature.  Things like “metrical” and “strophic form” come back to my remembrance.

Nevertheless, as people of worship in our modern era, that comment “why don’t sing more hymns” constantly comes to the ears of those in leadership. I have to confess, I’ve resisted the urge (though not with success on more than one occasion) to respond with a smart, arrogant jab such as “what, you mean nobody writes hymns anymore”?

Truth is, people don’t really know any better.  To them, a “hymn” is one of those songs they sang in the traditional church as they grew up.  It had a page number.  Forget the fact that many of the modern choruses we sing these days have now found their ways into the more recently published hymnals.  Does this validate those songs in some way?

Enough questions.  How about our response?  What are people really saying when they ask this question.  I submit that they are saying “these songs are part of my heritage, they were foundations in my faith, and they are important to me”.  I believe they are saying, “there is solid theological truth in the lyrics of these songs, and we should sing them”.  Perhaps they are even saying “we’ve sang these songs in our churches for several generations, each passing them down to the other … can we not continue this heritage”?

As leaders do we brush this away?  Or do we listen?  Don’t be concerned about “what” a hymn is, and whether or not the songs you are so excited about are called “hymns” or not.  There is a deeper message crying out in that question that so many of us grow weary in hearing.

As leaders, how do we respond?

Add your comments below and join the discussion.

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  • Sarah

    You have stated all the reasons why I so miss singing the old songs, call them hymns or whatever, they were the “old songs” that we grew up on and loved…and still love today. I’ve have nothing against the new scripture songs, but I do wonder what on earth chruch leadership has against the old songs that were contained in hymnals? Worship for me was so much more while singing “the old rugged cross” instead of singing the same scripture song three, four oh lets do it again five times. Christmas is positively dismal when carols are delagated to a couple of quickly sung songs, just to appease us old timers. I feel like a second class citizen in my own church and it hurts.

  • Greetings from Wordwise Hymns. Thanks for the balanced article. As one who has studied this subject for decades, I’ve heard all the arguments, pro and con. Sometimes “tradition” is looked upon as a totally negative thing. But the word simply refers to that which is passed on, handed on from one person to another, or one generation to another. To be sure, it can be abused. But that sense of continuity and connection with our heritage is important. Those churches that have abandoned the hymn book, in order to be “contemporary” have robbed their congregations of this important link.

  • Tracie

    You have summed up quite nicely the reason that so many of us beg to sing the hymns of our youth. While some of the new songs are quite meaningful, many are very hard for a congregation to sing, since they were written by a recording artist for professionals – not to mention that we are not given any music to read, in order to try to learn them. I’ve never understood the hostility towards the old favorites – why must it be all or nothing? To paraphrase my old Brownie book, Learn new songs, but keep the old; one is silver and the other gold.

    • Tracie, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Most “worship” songs were written in a vernacular popular performance style, so they are actually very problematic for congregations. There are a number of songs, though, that can be pared down and sung in a strophic, choral style that is more conducive to congregational style, like some of the Townend/Getty songs, “In Christ Alone,” etc.

  • We choose most of what we sing from the vast base of Christian hymns, also singing new hymns that are written. We must connect Christians to their history while also realizing that corporate worship is not a time to feel good about God, but a pedagogical and responsive act of homage and submission.

    Oh, and it has been said that “we are what we sing.” If that’s the case, the contemporary Church has a lot of explaining to do.

    http://togodpraiseandglory.wordpress.com/

  • I understand what you mean, Sarah, but it’s important to remember that singing hymns is not just for one particular part of the Christian population. It’s been very recent that we’ve decided we needed to compose and sing church music in a vernacular, secular style.

    Think about it. When my dad was a teenager in the 1960s, he listened to The Beach Boys, The Beatles, and the Lovin’ Spoonful on the radio, but on Sunday morning, he sang Watts and Wesley and Crosby and Cowper and Luther and other hymns, while also singing newer hymns being written in that same style. There were no steel guitars and no soaring falsettos.

    There is no reason why younger people cannot sing hymns. Hymns are for children and adults.

    I’m with you. It’s wrong, but because people feel so emotional about this issue, it’s very hard to speak truth in a meaningful way.

  • Maurice

    I realize that many churches are trying to reach out to young people, which is
    great! But in the process, I wonder if some older people are being turned away from church or miss out on being able to worship heartily, because it is hard for them to worship authentically through the “rock-n-roll” style of contemporary music that is so prevalent in many church nowadays. (The contemporary music of this decade is even quite different from the intimate lyrics and styles of “Choruses” in the 80s and 90s, which in turn were different from even earlier styles. In the worship style of this decade, it’s really hard to hear congregational singing even when the congregation is large, because there are simply too many new songs, and the song leaders, the bands and over-amplified loud speakers often drown out the voices of those in the congregation.)

    • These are great observations, Maurice. I think it’s a conversation that needs to continue. Some churches do a great job of honoring the traditions and sentimental songs of the past. Others leave them behind. I serve in a church that embraces both the old and the new, and we strive week in and week out to craft worship environments at worship setlists that move people to encounter God. Sometimes it means a little newer, and sometimes it means a little older.

  • Brian Schallow

    We are Spiritual, Intellectual, and Emotional beings. In that order; from greater to lesser. We are in the lesser stage in this country right now, Everything has to be emotional or it is boring. Just look at the show American Idol. They could care less about the song or the music; what they are looking for is a good show, and what I like to call HD (High Drama). It is sad that instead of the church affecting the culture the culture is affecting the church. Also the deacons and the ELDERS are to run the church not the young and the restless.

    • PrecioustoHim

      There is no emotion in 70% of the contemporary church songs being sung today. Just people going through the motions. But when the ole’ hymns are being sung, ‘Just As I Am’, ‘Amazing Grace’, ‘How Great Thou Art’, etc; there is substance of praise being lifted to God as we enter into worship and the emotions well up inside of us as the words tell a story and the ole’ altar call songs wake up the soul and get feet moving and hearts opened up towards the love and saving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
      There are not many contemporary songs that reach down that far. I enjoy Third Day, but I especially love the ole’ hymns.