Modern Hymns vs Contemporary Worship

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PierceBeachy

Puritan Board Freshman
I’m curious to hear how you all would define the difference between a modern hymn and contemporary worship or just modern Christian radio music.

I understand hymns have much more depth, scriptural foundation, are more God-focused and less man-focused, etc., but what actually classifies a hymn as a hymn? Something like depth is subjective, so while hymns have more depth, I don’t think it’s a good qualifier. There are some beautiful hymns written with children in mind that I wouldn’t consider very deep theologically, but speak of “simple” and beautiful truths.

Anyway, I’m curious to hear what everyone thinks.
 
I’m curious to hear how you all would define the difference between a modern hymn and contemporary worship or just modern Christian radio music.

I understand hymns have much more depth, scriptural foundation, are more God-focused and less man-focused, etc., but what actually classifies a hymn as a hymn? Something like depth is subjective, so while hymns have more depth, I don’t think it’s a good qualifier. There are some beautiful hymns written with children in mind that I wouldn’t consider very deep theologically, but speak of “simple” and beautiful truths.

Anyway, I’m curious to hear what everyone thinks.

That's a good point. While hymns are generally "better," there are many bad ones. And "In Christ Alone" is easily better than most of the hymns in the hymnal I used growing up.
 
I’m curious to hear how you all would define the difference between a modern hymn and contemporary worship or just modern Christian radio music.

I understand hymns have much more depth, scriptural foundation, are more God-focused and less man-focused, etc., but what actually classifies a hymn as a hymn? Something like depth is subjective, so while hymns have more depth, I don’t think it’s a good qualifier. There are some beautiful hymns written with children in mind that I wouldn’t consider very deep theologically, but speak of “simple” and beautiful truths.

Anyway, I’m curious to hear what everyone thinks.
A hymn is a song used in worship. Much contemporary worship music wasn't originally written for worship, or it might be judged to not be fit for worship, and thus not properly a hymn. But I think it's better to say that if it's used for worship it's a hymn, and there are good hymns and bad hymns.
 
I've always wondered how non EP folks differentiate between a hymn and a spiritual song.
My ability to explain musical stuff is virtually non-existent, but from my experience, hymns have a certain cadence and rhythm that other songs do not. Of course, when we go back in time, all bets are off. Early hymns, such as from the early 100s like "Phos Hilarion," are more akin to spiritual songs than hymns, though it is listed as a hymn.
 
I've always wondered how non EP folks differentiate between a hymn and a spiritual song.
What I heard, and this would have been from Southern Baptists, was that a hymn was an uninspired song of praise and a spiritual song was either a particularly spiritual song composed by someone of the day (!) or an inspired non-canonical song.
 
I’m curious to hear how you all would define the difference between a modern hymn and contemporary worship or just modern Christian radio music.

I understand hymns have much more depth, scriptural foundation, are more God-focused and less man-focused, etc., but what actually classifies a hymn as a hymn? Something like depth is subjective, so while hymns have more depth, I don’t think it’s a good qualifier. There are some beautiful hymns written with children in mind that I wouldn’t consider very deep theologically, but speak of “simple” and beautiful truths.

Anyway, I’m curious to hear what everyone thinks.
Brother, you've put your finger on the problem with debates over worship song in broad evangelicalism. Hymns and contemporary p&w are on the same spectrum. I grew up with revivalistic gospel hymns. After my conversion in college, I was really impressed with some of the p&w music I encountered, much of which was just paraphrased Scripture passages sewn together. I was also drawn to the more robust hymns.

Then I encountered something that was in a different category altogether - metrical Psalms. God's word, translated from the original Hebrew in a metrical form and set to music. I was immediately hooked. Metrical Psalmody was the dominant music of the Reformation, but was largely replaced by man-made worship songs in the 18th and 19th centuries. Ever since then, it's been a question of whose hymns to use, and what style to sing in. The arbitrary standards that men set up are obliterated when you merely compare the hymns of men to the hymns of God.
 
With regard to style, I'd say that it's not that it's indifferent so much as it is that the same song can be poured into vastly different musical containers that really change the dynamic when sung. This would apply to metrical psalms as well set atypically.

I have little to no experience with modern Christian radio music, so I can't speak to that, but I have some limited exposure to modern hymns/contemporary.

I'd say one difference is the relative weight to the chorus vs the main stanzas. The most notorious "contemporary" stuff is the stererotypical 7-11, 7 lines performed 11 times. Stylistically, you can make a classic hymn more contemporary by repeating the chorus an extra 2-3 times. Conversely you can downgrade the chorus in something more modern by repeating it less and emphasizing the content more.

The other difference is how meaty and substantive the stanzas are in terms of their doctrinal content. Something very simple can still be quite profound and something complex can be vapid gibberish.

Note, I am strictly unsophisticated when it comes to music and these are non-technical perceptions and observations.
 
Old hymns were (usually) all verse. Then around the mid-1800s it was verses + chorus/refrain (convenient for revivals). Now, the verses are incidental, it just a (vain?) repetition of the chorus. At that is how I broadly see it.
 
Old hymns were (usually) all verse. Then, around the mid-1800s, it was verses + chorus/refrain (convenient for revivals). Now, the verses are incidental; it is just a (vain?) chorus repetition. That is how I broadly see it.

Then why do we do it? Really! Why do we do it?

During Christmas and Easter silliness, we do many things that we've just made up, and we do it because we like them. That's the only conclusion I've been able to come up with. For any Christian to think, no to even having an idea, they can do something--produce something In Worship out of his head that somehow fulfills the rpw. We have 350 years from the 1500s to the mid-1800s where we were set only one example.

What's the point...
 
Here's my rather odd perspective, regardless of whether it's a Psalm, hymn, or song: if the congregation has a sudden case of laryngitis would the music continue unabated? That's the crux of the matter. The effects on modern music are profound. Much is written where the congregation can kind of hum along if it wishes to, but if it can't follow along across bridges, odd syncopation, meaningless inflections, improvised repeats, etc. what difference does it make? The band plays on.
 
The effects on modern music are profound. Much is written where the congregation can kind of hum along if it wishes to, but if it can't follow along across bridges, odd syncopation, meaningless inflections, improvised repeats, etc. what difference does it make? The band plays on.

Most moderns I've spoken with deny that there is any ethical component to music. Music, they say, is whatever you wanted to be--whenever you wanted to be.

I strongly disagree.
 
Asking to differentiate between these musical genres is like asking someone to describe the difference between a computer and a phone. Once upon a time, there was a clear delineation.

In general - bearing in mind that these are broad brush-strokes, a hymn is:
  1. Metrical - fitting into a standard English syllable pattern and rhyme scheme
  2. Strophic - divided into verses of equal length and identical meter
  3. Homophonic - all the voice parts move together in more or less the same rhythm
  4. Participatory - intended to be sung by the entire assembly
  5. Accessible - singable by musicians and non-musicians alike in terms of range and harmonic/rhythmic complexity; this usually means
    • A melodic range of a tenth (octave + 3rd) or less
    • All voice parts within standard ranges for those groups (sopranos below E5, altos below C5, tenors above C3, basses above E2)
    • Rhythms comprised primarily of half, quarter, and eighth notes
    • Primarily diatonic harmonies with occasional forays to the dominant, relative, or parallel keys (this means that in C major, you might go to G major, A minor, or C minor somewhere in the middle of the verse - but you might not!)
  6. Traditionally orchestrated - generally intended for a congregation or choir, either a cappella or with "classical" polyphonic instrumentation: piano, organ, or orchestral instruments - and usually capable of being rendered equally well either with or without instruments
Hymns as a genre are NOT defined by complexity of lyrics or music, especially with the advent of American hymnody. Lutheran chorales are much more likely to be in a minor key and to have a complex non-standard meter, with more involved counterpoint and a wider harmonic vocabulary. English hymns are often more straightforward metrically, with simpler counterpoint, but the depth of the lyrics and the "interest" level of the harmony is frequently comparable to the Lutheran counterpart. It's in American revivalism where you are more likely to find simple lyrics, frequent refrains, and a harmonic vocabulary often composed of 3-5 chords. Incidentally, while it can be easy to look down on those features of American hymnody, one need only find some movie from the 40s, 50s, or 60s that features some of these hymns being sung (say by a group of young men going off to WW2) in order to grasp what a moving experience these hymns could be. They weren't meant to be performed in a German or English church with a pipe organ...

In general, again bearing in mind that these are broad brush-strokes, a contemporary song may or may not be metrical and strophic; but my rather subjective sense is that one finds a higher proportion of irregular meters and more complex verse layouts (bridge after the 2nd chorus, then back to verse 3, then the refrain two times, etc...). A contemporary worship song will more often be marked by highly syncopated rhythms and is more likely to be "performative", with a wider vocal range and higher difficulty level to the musical line. The harmonies are usually simpler than in most hymns, though the 3-6 chords used may have a more "modern" flavor (meaning that in C major you might have a lot of B-flat major chords instead of G major). Contemporary worship songs are also written with guitars, vocal soloists, and percussion in mind, and they reflect a different approach to music in that instead of having carefully worked-out counterpoint between the four voice parts, you typically just have a bass line and a melody. Yes, many praise songs have 2nd and 3rd counter-melodies, but I believe there is still a demonstrable sense in which the "chord" drives the music rather than the careful correct counterpoint of a proper hymn. Contemporary songs, despite often having less musical substance, are much harder to sing for the average non-musician... there's much less "togetherness". Sadly, because of our society's addiction to novelty and stimulation, the idea of being able to sing together on a metrical psalm or hymn gets written off as "boring". Sigh...

As far as substance goes, while theological depth is not a defining characteristic of a hymn, I do believe there is something unique about the vapid subjectivism and doctrinal barrenness of much modern contemporary music. While American hymnody can be particularly simple, it still at least expresses a basic level of doctrine that is orthodox within the confines of its tradition. That tradition might be Baptist or Wesleyan but regardless, the hymn will give basic and faithful expression to key tenets of its doctrinal home. Not so for a lot of contemporary music which often has completely meaningless or worse, irreverent and banal lyrics. Sloppy wet kiss, anyone? That aspect of contemporary music really does differentiate it from hymnody, though again, I am painting in broad strokes and this does not apply across the board.

That said, with the development of contemporary music as a genre, and its effectively complete takeover of large parts of the American church, the lines have become blurred. I really challenge anyone to show me how, based on the above criteria, "In Christ Alone" or "How Deep The Father's Love" are NOT hymns. Okay, they were written with the traditional CCM ethos in mind, but on every other one of those points, they're hymns. Likewise, when you go to a church and you have the traditional guitar and vocals supplemented by a cello and a baby grand piano, and they're singing "contempified" versions of "Jesus Shall Reign", or "Amazing Grace" with a refrain between each verse. This is because faithful Christians who long for greater depth are realizing that it can be found in some of the older hymns and psalm settings, and they're reaching out to appropriate that material in the only ethos with which they are familiar - the contemporary ethos.

On the flip side, modern hymnals have more and more contemporary songs. Particularly in mainline denominations, each new hymnal has a greater degree of new and ethnically diverse hymns (not to mention doctrinally pluralistic). While I appreciate the trend in contemporary services toward greater use of hymns and psalms, the latter trend is nothing more than deplorable. If there's anything worse than trying to notate a contemporary or ethnic hymn in the music notation of 18th-century western Europe, it's watching two dozen septagenarians in a sanctuary that seats 300 trying to sing such a hymn with organ accompaniment. But in the Reformed evangelical world, a number of otherwise more traditional churches are incorporating better elements of contemporary music, such as newer musical settings of the Doxology or contemporary hymns by figures such as the Gettys.
 
I would submit that the theology of many is influenced more by Kristyn Getty than by their own pastor.
 
In the 2 years and 4 months we've been singing psalms at my church, I have gotten two complaints. One from a woman who has since left the church and the second from a woman who suggested maybe she should go somewhere else (don't know if her husband will have a say). Both complaints were that by setting the psalms to familiar tunes, all they could think about was those familiar tunes. The second one also said the psalms are good for Bible study, but she's uncomfortable singing them. I told her we will keep doing them as long as I'm the one leading.

But I've made a point to ask anyone who talks to me about music, if they have ever been in a church that sang psalms. I have not once gotten a yes. For some reason, seemingly every non-reformed church has decided to avoid psalms and only sing feel good hymns and contemporary ballads.
 
I’m curious to hear how you all would define the difference between a modern hymn and contemporary worship or just modern Christian radio music.

I understand hymns have much more depth, scriptural foundation, are more God-focused and less man-focused, etc., but what actually classifies a hymn as a hymn? Something like depth is subjective, so while hymns have more depth, I don’t think it’s a good qualifier. There are some beautiful hymns written with children in mind that I wouldn’t consider very deep theologically, but speak of “simple” and beautiful truths.

Anyway, I’m curious to hear what everyone thinks.
I think there is a general concept of what people think of as a 'hymn'-as over against newer contemporary styles - as a slower, more stately, more congregational-singing-friendly format, and there have been comments in the thread explaining meter and such. But there isn't really a valid reason except for tradition for that style to claim the name 'hymn,' and not contemporary styles. The label of hymn got appropriated for congregational worship songs in the 17th century?, or really much earlier I guess before the Reformation, but the word "hymn" is from the Greek word "hymnos," and in Scripture it describes a Psalm (in the Septuagint and in the apostles' usage). I find the appropriation of that Greek word for uninspired song somewhat egregious (probably too strong a word) since 'hymn' had, at least or especially in the Protestant church after the Reformation, been connected with the inspired Psalms.
 
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In the 2 years and 4 months we've been singing psalms at my church, I have gotten two complaints. One from a woman who has since left the church and the second from a woman who suggested maybe she should go somewhere else (don't know if her husband will have a say). Both complaints were that by setting the psalms to familiar tunes, all they could think about was those familiar tunes. The second one also said the psalms are good for Bible study, but she's uncomfortable singing them. I told her we will keep doing them as long as I'm the one leading.

But I've made a point to ask anyone who talks to me about music, if they have ever been in a church that sang psalms. I have not once gotten a yes. For some reason, seemingly every non-reformed church has decided to avoid psalms and only sing feel good hymns and contemporary ballads.
It's crazy to me that people would leave a church because they don't want to sing God's word back to him.
 
I think modern hymns would be songs that are specifically written to be congregation friendly (gettys, matt Boswell and Matt papa, some sovereign grace).

I view contemporary worship as songs that sound like a rock show, and doesn't require the voices of a congregation. Any contemporary worship video on YouTube would probably be a good example.
 
For some reason, seemingly every non-reformed church has decided to avoid psalms and only sing feel good hymns and contemporary ballads.
If you mean singing an entire Psalm, then sadly yes I've experienced the same. But there are many modern non-reformed worship songs that incorporate parts of the Psalms. That is common. I used to sing quite a lot even in a Hillsong-type church.
 
I think there is a general concept of what people think of as a 'hymn'-as over against newer contemporary styles - as a slower, more stately, more congregational-singing-friendly format, and there have been comments in the thread explaining meter and such. But there isn't really a valid reason except for tradition for that style to claim the name 'hymn,' and not contemporary styles. The label of hymn got appropriated for congregational worship songs in the 17th century?, or really much earlier I guess before the Reformation, but the word "hymn" is from the Greek word "hymnos," and in Scripture it describes a Psalm (in the Septuagint and in the apostles' usage). I find the appropriation of that Greek word for uninspired song somewhat egregious (probably too strong a word) since 'hymn' had, at least or especially in the Protestant church after the Reformation, been connected with the inspired Psalms.
I respectfully disagree. Tradition - usage - is in this case a valid reason to broadly define hymns according to the criteria I gave above. One could qualify, of course, by saying "hymn as used in the English-speaking world dominated by the notation style and harmonic tradition of modern western Europe" - but in colloquial usage that qualification could usually be assumed with a degree of safety for most of the past 2 centuries.

When contemporary music first came on the scene, it was deliberately different, and in my opinion, intentionally iconoclastic and subversive in a way that few people really appreciate. The psalm-singers in here can no doubt resonate as many feel the same way about hymn-singing, and with not a little justification. The point is that at the outset of the CCM/P&W movement, there was a real and sharp delineation between hymnody and that. The lines have now become blurred, and in 20 years my fussy and semantic stance on the word 'hymn' may no longer tenable. We are even now entering an age where awareness, much less conception, of "tradition" in the context of Euro-American culture dating back to 1700 is fading quickly. Be that as it may, I think at the present time it is feasible to draw a broad distinction between psalmody, hymnody, and contemporary worship songs, with qualifications.

For what it's worth, by way of self-deprecation, I don't consider chorales and hymns to be separate categories - they are all hymns to me. So my fussiness is not applied with consistency.
 
If you mean singing an entire Psalm, then sadly yes I've experienced the same. But there are many modern non-reformed worship songs that incorporate parts of the Psalms. That is common. I used to sing quite a lot even in a Hillsong-type church.
You're right. And that was too broad for me to say. It's just been true with the folks I've spoken to. I know there are many songs based on the psalms, but many times it's just pulling the parts of whichever psalm that makes the singer feel good.

Sovereign grace does psalm 62. It's a nice song, but it feels very different than psalm 62. But I also don't think I ever noticed the difference until I started singing full psalms myself.
 
In the 2 years and 4 months we've been singing psalms at my church, I have gotten two complaints. One from a woman who has since left the church and the second from a woman who suggested maybe she should go somewhere else (don't know if her husband will have a say). Both complaints were that by setting the psalms to familiar tunes, all they could think about was those familiar tunes. The second one also said the psalms are good for Bible study, but she's uncomfortable singing them. I told her we will keep doing them as long as I'm the one leading.

But I've made a point to ask anyone who talks to me about music, if they have ever been in a church that sang psalms. I have not once gotten a yes. For some reason, seemingly every non-reformed church has decided to avoid psalms and only sing feel good hymns and contemporary ballads.
My husband and I were both saved during the "Jesus Movement" of the 60s and first half of the 70's. While I would say it was predominantly charismatic, there were churches more Reformed, like the New Life Churches under Jack Miller (prof at WTS). The movement in general morphed into the shepherding movement ( Ft Lauderdale guys like Derek Prince, Ern Baxter, Don Basham) and the faith movement ( all the big names in the "name it and claim it" crowd). SGM with Mahaney was a lingering remnant of the shepherding movement that went Calvinistic ( and very legalistic- I speak from our years in SGM).

Anyway, I have never experienced such glorious and joyful worship as those early days ( for us it was the Ft Lauderdale shepherding crowd) with the presence of the Lord so heavy at times. Those such as some Escondido men, who reject such experiential Christianity, I suppose missed ever being in such worship.

The thing was in retrospect, every single song we sang- and singing could go an hour- was scripture set to music. Some were psalms, but the songs came from all over the bible. I got rather adept when I was seated by a visitor of finding the references to every song quickly for them. Some were rather short but some had several verses in a row. Some were peppy and people clapped, many were more solemn and slower. There must have been a couple hundred at least. It was a time of revival and so many young people were getting saved. It was marvelous really, and in retrospect how wonderful that their introduction to worship was so entirely scripture saturated.

It seems to have dried up, that glorious presence of the Lord in worship. I have wondered if it was from leaving the bible behind for modern songs, even decent ones. Maybe it was because so many of us got married and had kids and started to have distractions about the cares and worries of this life. Maybe it was the rotten doctrines in the charismatic movement and the over emphasis on demons and so many errors. We are grateful to have gotten early exposure to WTS and amil eschatology and so forth, but even so, we were off in various ways, along with everybody else in our youthful crowd. Maybe it was a lack of prayer. LLoyd-Jones talks a lot about revivals and how they come and go, and often it is inexplicable. But I miss it. And I miss that worship that was so beautiful and scripture saturated. I suppose you would call it "contemporary" except that it doesn't seem to exist anymore in church services.
 
You're right. And that was too broad for me to say. It's just been true with the folks I've spoken to. I know there are many songs based on the psalms, but many times it's just pulling the parts of whichever psalm that makes the singer feel good.

Sovereign grace does psalm 62. It's a nice song, but it feels very different than psalm 62. But I also don't think I ever noticed the difference until I started singing full psalms myself.
I hear ya brother. :)
 
Maybe it was because so many of us got married and had kids and started to have distractions about the cares and worries of this life.
Lol, I know what you mean. This past year I've done things different. My wife and I have intentionally tried to make worship for our family more of a passionate and emotional thing. On Sunday mornings I enjoy lifting up my hands to God in prayer and song. Basically being more expressive. Sometimes I'll have my hands raised while singing a song, and one of my kids needs attention, but then I get right back to worshipping. I also want them to see me putting my feelings and emotions into worship. But I say this as someone who is very aware of the charismatic dangers.
 
Hymns are four part harmony and compiled in book form.

Worship songs are unison and presented on a screen. (Preferably with Papyrus font.)
 
Both complaints were that by setting the psalms to familiar tunes, all they could think about was those familiar tunes

It's interesting how the same thing produces different reactions in different people.

Especially as someone who's not musically adept, discovering that tunes burned into my memory could be used to sing God's word has brought me immense joy this year. For example, I enjoy Come Thou Fount, but I LOVE the Trinity Psalter Hymnal's Song of Zechariah and being able to use the tune on all sorts of hymns and psalms in 8.7.8.7.D, such as the Trinity Psalter's #91. I love All People that on Earth Do Dwell (Psalm 100) to the Doxology. I love being able to leverage Amazing Grace to all sorts of Psalms in Common Meter. Using Be Thou My Vision on 10.10.10.10's is great as well.

(Preferably with Papyrus font.)
:rofl:
 
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