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Hymns have greater theological depth?

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  • Hymns have greater theological depth?

    Often times I hear people claiming that hymns have a greater theological depth than contemporary worship music.

    While I certainly agree that there are some shallow CCM lyrics out there, I'm not convinced that hymns have gone any deeper than CCM. In other words, I'm thinking that for every 'deeper theological hymn, I can find a well-known CCM equivalent.

    If my theory is wrong, then I should expect to find examples of hymns that broach theological topics not 'mirrored' on the CCM side. I can't think of any but maybe some of you can.

    If I'm right, then my theory is that we mistakenly have the PERCEPTION that hymns go deeper because of 2 things:

    1. There are a lot of CCM worship songs with shallow lyrics. There are a few hymns that are poorly written as well but this deficient is more rampant amongst CCM.

    2. Even those CCM songs that go to the same depth, aren't as poetic or well worded.

    Here's an example for point #2.

    How Great Thou Art has an equivalent with How Great Is Our God. Both have the same message. Both go to the same level of depth regarding the greatness of God. How Great Thou Art just says it better. It is more 'poetic'. But that doesn't mean it goes any deeper theologically than How Great Is Our God.

    Thoughts?

  • #2
    I agree. There are CCM songs out there that have theological depth. If we are going to be honest about the hymnal, if they are all so great and more profound, why are people only using 30 out of the 300 that are in the hymnal? And out of those 30, why do people use 3 of 4 stanzas?

    Where I think our perception becomes biased is because of CCM radio. CCM radio, by design (that isn't necessarily wrong), play what's popular, and that's going to be driven by factors that outweigh theological depth. It's also a consumer-driven cycle of radio popularity driving more WLs (especially young leaders) to download and use the songs, which drives up radio play (because they are popular downloads), wash-rinse-repeat.

    In my opinion it's part of a broader paradigm shift over the last 20 years of breadth over depth. Services go from 2 hours to 1 hour or less. Preachers are preaching from The Message instead of KJV or NKJV (if they are using Bibles at all). We traded in button-down shirts and dress shoes for hipster jeans and sneakers. We've went from Jesus as our Lord and Savior to Jesus as my buddy. The music side is a reflection of the rest of the changes.

    It's up to the leaders to buck the trend a bit and get back to songs that reflect the lordship of Christ, the tenets of salvation and message of the cross. I have confidence the next generation of leaders will swing the pendulum the other way.
    If we want to go places we haven't been, we will have to do things we haven't done.

    Comment


    • #3
      One point that seems to get lost in this discussion a lot is that when people refer to "hymns" they are usually referring to hymns that have remained in hymn books, which is only a small percentage of hymns that were actually written.
      For example, Isaac Watts composed about 600 hymn texts, of which maybe about 6 are still in hymn books today.
      What happened to the other 99%?
      Charles Wesley composed over 6,000 hymn texts, of which maybe 12 are still in use today.
      What happened to the other 99.8%?

      If people want to compare the greatest hymn texts in the history of the western world with all of the mediocre songs in the barely-50-year-old history of CCM then of course the comparison will favor the hymn texts.
      But over time the cream of CCM will rise to the top and those of us who are contemporary worship songwriters will (hopefully) continue to improve at our craft and there is no reason why any contemporary writer would not be able to produce a song of comparable theological quality to the best of Watts or Wesley.

      There are some excellent songwriters at Sovereign Grace, plus Townend & Getty and many others - even D.A. Carson and R.C. Sproul have taken a crack at composing worship music in recent years.

      Just a few thoughts...

      Alex
      ...a man of few words, all carefully chosen (hopefully)

      Comment


      • #4
        Alex, I'm with you completely. There are a ton of contemporary songs out there, and to be sure, some of them are not very good. Over time, some of these songs will become classics just as some of the vast number of hymns that were written have. Years from now, somebody will have a small collection of finely crafted contemporary songs, and they'll be complaining about how the brand new tunes aren't as good as the "old songs." Neverending cycle.
        Eric Frisch
        www.ericfrisch.com

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        • #5
          I actually agree with the sentiment that hymns have greater theological accuracy and depth. They were also written for different purposes, different times, and different theological bases. St. Patrick's "I Bind Unto Myself Today" is a prime example of hymn-awesomeness, of which *there is no current-day equivalent*. Some texts go deep into the gospel narrative in detail that cannot be broached in a simple repetitive chorus. Some texts go into poetic phrasings with far more nuance than today's simple versions do.

          If there was a modern-day equivalent, I'm sure that Graham Kendrick would have picked one for use in his "The Source" modern worship series. It's not there.

          "How Great Thou Art," as great a hymn that is, is not a prime example. That is because it was penned in 1955 and came to prominence during the emotion-laden Billy Graham rallies, as sung by George Beverly Shea. Let's talk public domain, folks. Let's talk pre-1922.

          In fact, let's talk "I am not Skilled to Understand." If that hymn was not relevant to today, then Aaron Shust would have penned better lyrics than those he did for "My Savior Lives." Instead, he chose to swipe the old lyrics and integrate them in his contemporary masterpiece.

          Let's talk "Jesus Paid It All." Great 19th century hymn. Kristian Stanfill adds a total of two lines, and it becomes copyright-protected, and CCLI-Top100 material.

          Let's talk Tomlin. "Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)", "The Wonderful Cross", "Take My Life And Let It Be", "Crown Him With Many Crowns", and "Joy to the World." Apparently the old hymns do the heavy lifting for him to craft simple choruses around.

          In short, anybody who pits hymns vs contemporary praise songs simply is not educated enough to know that contemporary praise songs have been using hymns for a long time now.
          Nick Alexander
          Host, The Prayer Meeting Podcast
          Worship that is Contemporary, Traditional, Charismatic, Contemplative, Spontaneous, based on the Church calendar, play it whenever you want.
          Find out what Nick Alexander can do for your conference, retreat or workshop.

          Comment


          • #6
            Originally posted by efrisch View Post
            Alex, I'm with you completely. There are a ton of contemporary songs out there, and to be sure, some of them are not very good. Over time, some of these songs will become classics just as some of the vast number of hymns that were written have. Years from now, somebody will have a small collection of finely crafted contemporary songs, and they'll be complaining about how the brand new tunes aren't as good as the "old songs." Neverending cycle.
            One example I thought of after my original post was Jesus Culture's "You Won't Relent". There is some great theological depth in that song for sure.

            Comment


            • #7
              The irony will be, however, that if any contemporary songs become classics, they will be ignored like the hymns in a contemporary service. When you only focus on 5 years or less in your format, you cannot use any classic songs and remain "relevant" in your presentation. How's that for a conundrum?
              Tony Hartsfield

              Comment


              • #8
                Nick,

                As I said, comparing repetitive contemporary choruses and un-nuanced pop worship lyrics with the best of the classic hymn texts is not a valid comparison - you're comparing apples and strudels.

                If we're going to talk about contemporary worship music that might actually stack up with some of the aforementioned hymn classics then let's talk James M. Boice's "Hymns For A Modern Reformation." (available through the A.C.E.)

                Let's talk R.C. Sproul's "Glory To The Holy One" (a collection of hymn texts with classically-composed tunes and orchestral arrangements).

                Let's talk D.A. Carson's "Shout With Delight" (hymn texts) and "For The Love Of God" (contemporary-style tunes). If he's a theological lightweight then I'd like to know who's heavy :^)

                Let's talk Sovereign Grace's "Grace Has Come" (a contemporary treatment of several key passages from the book of Romans) or this passage-by-passage treatment of 2 Peter.

                As you say, it is good that in the last ten or fifteen years contemporary songwriters have discovered the vast riches of classical hymnody and have incorporated them into contemporary worship; but there are also an increasing number of contemporary theologians and songwriters who are aspiring to add to said riches rather than just recycle the same old pious clichés and worn-out musical formulas...
                ...a man of few words, all carefully chosen (hopefully)

                Comment


                • #9
                  I am thrilled there are contemporary song-writers who are dedicated to infusing new song with theological depths, that match the greats. Thank you for drawing my attention to these (unknown to me) songwriters.

                  But there's a bigger question here, and I'd like to know your thoughts.

                  I did a recent comparison of the CCLI charts... and... the Christian Radio charts of last year.

                  There is clearly a 1:1 relation to them both.

                  A classic worship song would go through this process:
                  (1) it would be written, sometimes in a group, sometimes by a lone songwriter.
                  (2) it would be recorded by the songwriter, or that person's church band.
                  (3) that song would make the rounds, until it nabs the attention of a gatekeeper in worship circles.
                  (4) this gatekeeper would pass it (among other songs) to the bigger artists, the signed artists, those who are committed to finding material for their next project.
                  (5) the bigger artists choose to record it.
                  (6) after which they choose to whether it ought to be released to Christian radio (appealing to the Becky-centrics out there).
                  (7) Perhaps they craft a music video or a live performance of such a song. They monitor the results on YouTube.
                  (8) They cannot release every song on the album... even Tomlin's breakthrough "Arriving" had only 5 songs that really resonated. But with each song release they gage the response of the listeners, until they have reached mass saturation.
                  (9) Listeners ask their worship leaders to consider playing such a song. That song becomes pushed into the CCLI Top 200.

                  ...

                  Where are the popular songs that have great theological depth, those that match the ancients, and are picked up by Christian radio/churches worldwide?

                  Because these great hymn-writers of today are all but ignored by the gatekeepers who could instill theological richness in our churches, for the most part, these songs are in an echo chamber.

                  Proof positive: I just searched CCLI's Top 2000 charts from the last ten years (a total of over 7200 songs total), and none of the songsmiths/songs you had listed even charted. Perhaps you can give me a title or two, but for the time being, all the real deep stuff is all but ignored.
                  Nick Alexander
                  Host, The Prayer Meeting Podcast
                  Worship that is Contemporary, Traditional, Charismatic, Contemplative, Spontaneous, based on the Church calendar, play it whenever you want.
                  Find out what Nick Alexander can do for your conference, retreat or workshop.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    My main thought is, I hope the industry "gate-keepers" become obsolete as soon as possible; and in the information age there is no reason why that can't happen.
                    Way back in the 20th century almost the only avenue for distributing new worship music was the worship recording industry, but with the greater availability of the necessary technology to record and distribute worship music there is no longer the need to depend on the industry to find excellent worship music.
                    Most of the writers I mentioned earlier I discovered by word-of-blog or through personal correspondence with pastor friends of mine or other worship leaders and songwriters on sites like this one.
                    And if it's a matter of wanting to use songs that are familiar to the congregation because they have been hearing them on K-LOVE, there are plenty of ways to use technology to introduce new songs that are not on the radio - at one of my former churches we posted YouTube links on the church's web site for our Sunday service music, and I have also heard of churches creating Spotify playlists of their Sunday sets for those of their congregants who are into that.
                    In the big picture I share your frustration with the excessive correspondence between radio play and Sunday usage; but in the small picture I know that in our individual spheres of ministry, as long as we are given the go-ahead to use whatever worship music we deem fitting for Sunday worship then we have options available outside of Christian popular culture.
                    ...a man of few words, all carefully chosen (hopefully)

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      You do realize that when somebody critiques the shallowness of the general praise and worship scene, they are not critiquing the pockets of brilliant theological exegesis in the corners that you are familiar with; they are critiquing the circle of song-life that I had detailed above.

                      If the goal is to bypass the gatekeepers (which many songwriters have done in this information age, by way of YouTube), then the goal is for the songwriters ... to paraphrase that theological giant Steve Martin... to be so good that they cannot ignore you. Those songwriters need to craft something so mindblowingly "anointed" that it garners millions of hits on YouTube.

                      Alas, if you were to look at the number of songs which actually have done garnered a major following, the one thing that all of them have in common... is that they are heavy on emotions. Those songs with incredible theological insight and depth? ... er ... not so much.

                      Didn't the late Rich Mullins push the thought that if you have a great theological point, you oughta write a book?

                      Maybe if one of these contemporary songwriters were to inundate his video with cute pictures of cats.

                      But in the meantime, it is intellectually dishonest to pair the exception-to-the-rule as the-rule.
                      Nick Alexander
                      Host, The Prayer Meeting Podcast
                      Worship that is Contemporary, Traditional, Charismatic, Contemplative, Spontaneous, based on the Church calendar, play it whenever you want.
                      Find out what Nick Alexander can do for your conference, retreat or workshop.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Yes, I do realize that; but what would be much better is if everyone did a bit less critiquing and a bit more writing (if they have the ability) or research into excellent contemporary music that has already been written.

                        And yes, I realize that it is intellectually dishonest to compare the exception-to-the-rule with the rule - that's my whole point about people who compare the top few Watts/Wesley texts with the mediocre majority of contemporary music and why I mentioned a few contemporary theologians and hymn writers that I consider to be exceptional. Let's compare the best of today with the best of yesterday rather than the ordinary of today with the best of yesterday.

                        Like I said, in the big picture I agree with you and I wish it didn't have to be that way (the whole worship pop culture song-cycle administrated by industry gatekeepers).

                        But in the small picture, the only thing that you or I or anyone else in a position to influence the content of Sunday morning worship can do about it is to either take the Isaac Watts challenge and write better stuff and distribute it through whatever channels God makes available to us or take the time to find the excellent stuff that is already out there.

                        Fortunately (and providentially), God has not placed the burden of responsibility for the spiritual worship "health" of the entire universal church upon my shoulders (or yours). We're only responsible for the specific churches or spheres of ministry within which God has placed us to serve, which is why I try not to spend too much time worrying about what is going on "out there." If God ever gives me a greater sphere of influence than the walls of my own church, whether through songwriting or scholarship or anything else, then glory be to Him and I'll try to steward that influence wisely. In the meantime the only thing I can do is serve Him with humility and excellence within the sphere that He has given me...
                        ...a man of few words, all carefully chosen (hopefully)

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          I think there's an equally worthy goal: find those songs that are theologically deep and profound, AND have charted on the CCLI Top x00. Then trumpet those.

                          We will keep spinning our wheels, until we find those songs that have gained traction amongst churches and ministries worldwide.
                          Nick Alexander
                          Host, The Prayer Meeting Podcast
                          Worship that is Contemporary, Traditional, Charismatic, Contemplative, Spontaneous, based on the Church calendar, play it whenever you want.
                          Find out what Nick Alexander can do for your conference, retreat or workshop.

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            so that we are all on the same page, can someone list a few hymns that they consider to be theologically deep?

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              From recently or from previous eras?
                              ...a man of few words, all carefully chosen (hopefully)

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