Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Comparing Hymns and Contemporary Songs

Protestant denominations have been singing people since the days of the reformation. Their hymns represented the mettle and fortitude they displayed in breaking away from the religious establishment and forging ahead in their new faith traditions. The American versions of these faith traditions initially carried on the mantle of hymnody, with much content being shared between denominational lines. In many churches today, hymns and hymnals remain, either as a vital piece of corporate worship practices or as a sentimental nod to the past.

In other churches, including churches in most if not all major denominations, there has been a decided shift. Popular music idioms have become a pervasive, and in many cases, the standard mode of musical expression in the American church. This discussion will compare and contrast the musical and textual characteristics of some of the most enduring hymns with those of today’s most popular contemporary songs. Since hymn texts are often edited and altered in various ways, all hymn examples and quotations will be from The United Methodist Hymnal. Read More

Also see
Modernized hymns: Hymns, or contemporary songs with old words?
While I agree to a large extent with Jonathan Aigner's analysis, I am concerned that it may lead some churches to reject all more recent compositions out of the mistaken belief that they suffer from the same defects. Repetitive phrases and refrains in hymns and worship songs are not necessarily a bad thing. They are evident in traditional hymnody in both the Western and Eastern Churches and are characteristic of the indigenous worship music of the global South. Responsorial singing with a choir or cantor singing the verses of a Psalm and the congregation a refrain has a long history in the Christian Church. The Psalms themselves incorporate repetitive phrases. They are also songs with an irregular meter as are a number of early Christians hymns--Gloria in excelsis, Phos hilaron, and Ted Deum laudamus.

Refrains and repetitive phrases enable younger children to participate in the congregational singing.

I believe that it is a mistake to idealize and in turn idolize any particular form of worship music.

A major consideration in the selection of a hymn or worship song for use in church services is singability. In other words, the typical unmusical singer in the congregation is able to sing it. Chris Tomlin's "How great is our God," whatever else we may think of it, meets that criterion. The song was written in 2004 and may have retained its popularity for the past 12 years for that very reason. The song is also God-focused.

The broad category of "contemporary Christian music" went through a number of changes in the last decade of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first century. Songs were increasingly written for what was becoming ubiquitous in some churches--the praise band and the praise team. Now and then, however, a song has been written that the congregation not only can sing but also is God-focused, Scriptural, and theologically sound. I believe that it is a mistake to write off the genre entirely.

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