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Hymns have greater theological depth?

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  • pianomandan
    Random Thoughts:

    I've played piano/organ/guitar for more funerals than I ever wanted to. In almost all situations I am asked to feature a song that was written during the lifetime of the deceased.

    The choruses of the 70's and the 80's really did tend to be shallow. CCM is different; it has verses. In many ways CCM songs are just modern hymns.

    Many songs in the hymnal are theologically incorrect. I had a pastor about 10 years back that loved to point out (to me, in private) what was wrong with the hymns we did at our traditional service. There wasn't a balm in Gilead, it wasn't a bleak mid-winter, the night wasn't silent, etc, etc...

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  • NickAlexander
    Here are some others that many know, even though you may not:

    I Bind Unto Myself Today (attrib. to St. Patrick). One of the great ancient hymns brought to life, a personal commitment prayer that links that with solid exegesis. The prayer "Christ Be With Me..." part is the climax of this wonderful hymn, and served as the basis of Tim Hughes' "Everything", but the other parts are more well known.

    Hail Thee Festival Day: One of the great joyous songs. NOTHING in CCM P&W COMES CLOSE to the joy in this song. NOTHING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    All Glory Laud And Honor: Another Great Joyous Triumph. Just reading these lyrics lifts my soul that modern songsmiths--as great as they are, cannot touch.

    VENI CREATOR SPIRITUS (translated: O Come, Creator Spirit Come): You want to call the Holy Spirit down in your gatherings? Why not use the hymn of the ages? This hymn was sung (in English) before every session in a retreat in 1967, that led to the birth of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, that's how powerful it was.

    O Sacred Head Once Wounded: Eloquence and Emotion. The power of Christ's passion come to breathtaking life.

    This is just the beginning.

    BTW, I have to disagree with you strongly, Greg.


    I'm not saying it's a bad song in its own right. It's a good song, one that I have used. But it has a number of problems. First of all, it has the double-octave melody, rendering it harder to sing than the original hymn. Secondly, they are focusing on two separate events. The CCM praise song focuses specifically on Christ's salvific action on the cross, along with verses that focus upon the Father's might and awe. The hymn is actually far more personal... the author is a wretch, and goes into detail as to how he has been transformed: he's been taught to fear, delivered through many dangers, toils, and snares, etc. The CCM song makes no personal focus on how grace can change a life on a personal scale; it's the story of the cross and resurrection, but not a lot of clarity as to what it means to be "set free."

    That's not a dig on either song. They're different songs. They both do very well for the purposes that they have been written. One cannot replace the other, not even close.

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  • gregrjones
    Since I'm struggling to get a list, let me get this started.

    Here is a list of the most popular 25 hymns:


    The last 5 they list are modern, so I'll just list the top 20 from the site (I'm not sure where their source is):
    1 Amazing Grace
    2 How Great Thou Art
    3 Holy Holy Holy
    4 It Is Well
    5 Great Is Thy Faithfulness
    6 Praise To The Lord The Almighty
    7 Be Thou My Vision
    8 All Creatures Of Our God and King
    9 All Hail The Power Of Jesus
    10 Blessed Assurance
    11 To God Be The Glory
    12 When I Survey The Wondrous Cross
    13 Jesus Paid It All
    14 A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
    15 How Firm A Foundation
    16 Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing
    17 Crown Him With Many Crowns
    18 At The Cross
    19 What A Friend We Have In Jesus
    20 Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus

    For many of these songs, I can think of a CCM alternative that says the same thing. Granted, it might not have lyrics that are as well written or poetic... Examples include:

    Hymn - CCM Equivalent
    Amazing Grace - This Is Amazing Grace (Wickham)
    How Great Thou Art - How Great Is Our God (Tomlin)
    Great Is Thy Faithfulness - Forever (Tomlin)
    To God Be The Glory - Glory To God Forever (can't remember artist)
    Holy Holy Holy - Holy Is The Lord (Tomlin)

    The above seems to solidify my thought that it isn't so much that hymns have greater depth, but that their lyrics are written with greater poeticism. But this is true of the way people spoke English over 100 years ago in general. Reading the writings of our founding fathers, I see a depth of vernacular that greatly shadows how your average politician speaks today even given their speech writers.

    However, there are few hymns on this list that go into theological territory that I think is deeper than any CCM equivalent I can think of. Here are those:

    It Is Well
    Be Thou My Vision
    All Creatures Of Our God and King

    But with CCM songs like these, I'm not so sure that CCM's shallowness holds (except for your average K-Love fare)....
    You Won't Relent (Jesus Culture),
    Jesus Take The Wheel (just kidding :-)
    I Know Who I Am (Israel Houghton)
    I Will Search (I think Israel Houghton as well)
    Ten Thousand Reasons (Redman)
    Last edited by gregrjones; 04-18-2015, 07:29 AM.

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  • gregrjones
    Originally posted by TheOldATrain View Post
    From recently or from previous eras?
    As long as it is well known, I'm not sure it matters. Recent hymns are usually not as well known....j Anything you'd find in a hymnal is my suggestion.

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  • NickAlexander
    To be frank, I'm terrible when it comes to lists like this. I like too many of all types.

    Instead, I would find detractors of the current P&W millieu, search their blogs, and highlight the hymns that they like the best.

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  • TheOldATrain
    From recently or from previous eras?

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

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  • NickAlexander
    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.

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  • TheOldATrain
    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...

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  • NickAlexander
    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.

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  • TheOldATrain
    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.

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  • NickAlexander
    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.

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  • TheOldATrain

    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...

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  • tlhartsfield
    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?

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  • gregrjones
    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.

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