Allow me to put on my worship pastor hat for a moment. I’m not the first person to write about this, and I won’t be the last. As you can tell from my title, I want to bust the myths that surround hymns and modern praise songs. Each form of worship has their staunch adherents who won’t budge. I appreciate both hymns and praise songs very deeply. Both have played a huge role in my growth as a believer and as a worship pastor. With that in mind, as best I can I want to crush some myths and build some bridges between the two forms so that hopefully, if you’re teachable, you too can appreciate both and worship God regardless of the style of music being played.
With all that said, let’s look at a few myths about modern worship music vs. hymns that should be busted.
Modern worship music is theologically shallow and hymns are theologically rich.
Now it’s time for a moment of honesty from all sides. I don’t care if you love hymns or if you love praise choruses or if you love both, you must admit that there are theologically shallow songs in both camps. With that admission, let’s test the myth.
From the hymn camp I have chosen two examples of theologically shallow songs: Precious Memories and In the Garden. Now before you get your pitchforks and torches, hear me out. Go read the lyrics to these songs and then come back here for the rest of the story.
One complaint about modern worship music is that it’s theologically shallow, too focused on personal experience, not focused enough on the truths of the Gospel. Yet, these two hymns, perhaps two of the most beloved, aren’t theological. In fact, Precious Memories doesn’t even mention the name of Jesus. In the Garden is nearly romantic in its lyricism as it speaks of the author’s intimate encounters with Jesus.
Folks, there’s nothing very theological to see here, move along!
Now, I’m not saying these aren’t good hymns. I’m only saying that they’re not very theological at all, yet they are beloved hymns. They speak mostly of the experiences we have in our faith, and because of this they tend to stir sentimentality, nostalgia, and longing for more experiences.
That sounds an awful lot like the criticisms levied at modern worship music! So let’s look at a two modern worship songs to see if the shallow moniker holds up. Let’s look at Scandal of Grace and 10,000 Reasons. Here are links to their lyrics.
Hillsong United recorded Scandal of Grace. I challenge anyone to compare the lyrics of this song to any hymn in your hymnal for theological content. It is rich with truth! It is written in modern English! If you sang this song to yourself while you worked, showered, drove, you would be repeating to yourself precious truths of the Gospel over and over.
10,000 Reasons was written by Matt Redman. Taking on the form of many of the Psalms, this song encourages us to worship the Lord, regardless the day, the circumstances of our lives, regardless of the season of our lives because he is good and his name deserves praise! Again, singing this to yourself as you work will remind you of the goodness of God, his worthiness to be praised, and that we should worship at all times!
So not all hymns are theologically rich and not all modern worship songs are theologically shallow. In fact, I would contend that the trajectory of the worship music being written has been toward deeper content than simple repetitive lyricism. Speaking of repetitive . . .
Modern worship is too repetitive while hymns are not.
It is true. Much of the worship music being written today have repetitive elements. In fairness, it has to be noted that the amount of repetitiveness often has more to do with how the worship leader is leading the song than how the song was actually written. However, repetitiveness is not something to apologize for. Go read Psalm 136. Go read the lyrics to the hymns Blessed Be The Name or The Nail Scarred Hand.
Repetition is a time-tested, time-honored literary form. God used it; many of our hymn authors of the past have used it, yet modern worship music authors get criticized for it. Can repetition be a poor substitute for a well-crafted lyric? Absolutely. However, not all repetition is bad, in fact, it is a way to condition the heart to the message of whatever is being sung.
All good worship songs, be it a hymn or a modern song, have repeating themes, whether they be a chorus/refrain that brings the worshiper back to the main point of the praise, or a simple hallelujah or amen that repeats throughout the song that simply offer praise to Jesus. To shun repetition is to cripple a big part of any song’s ability to have an impact.
Modern worship songs are me-centered and hymns are more God-centered.
Ok, this one is easy. Take a look at the picture on the right. See all those songs that start with the word I? You guessed it. Many of them are me-centered. That’s just a sampling from the Baptist Hymnal. And guess what: that isn’t a bad thing. King David was the king of me-centered songwriting. Look at Psalm 18. The first section of that Psalm is clearly centered around the words I, me, and my. David declares who God is to him, which is a subjective way of describing God, yet we have it here, preserved for us in the Scriptures.
When David wrote about his desires and his feelings, he connected them with the truth he knew about God. That’s what the hymn writers have done. That’s what modern worship songwriters do as well. It is accurate to say that our whole worship music library cannot consist only of me-centered songs, but we do need them to be a part of our expression of worship.
Clearly, there are bad modern songs being written for worship. There have been some worship songs written in the last twenty-five years that could be easily be mistaken for a love song to a girlfriend or boyfriend in the right context. And their shelf life will expire, if it hasn’t already. But hey, there are bad hymns too. Charles Wesley wrote over six thousand hymns. Isaac Watts wrote over seven hundred hymns. Yet collectively we only sing a handful of them compared to how many they wrote. Apparently, they wrote bad songs too.
Let’s face it. There’s no logical or lyrical reason to criticize one collection of songs over the other. If you like hymns, great! If you like modern worship songs, great! Have the humility to be teachable. Neither library of songs is greater. Both libraries of songs have great songs and not-so-great songs. You might say the hymns are time-tested, and this is true. But time-tested doesn’t make for superior anymore than saying modern songs are fresh and new. There’s nothing wrong with having a preference so long as your preference doesn’t lead you to arrogance and condescension toward people with a different preference.
I hope you have enjoyed this venture into worship myth busting. If you have any questions or comments, leave them in the comments below.