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.
Though “worship” is regularly used to mean the musical portion of church services, the term itself does not carry this level of specificity. Worship can mean much more than “singing in church,” and many suggest that it is theologically problematic to use it in that sense. To be precise, the term “corporate worship” is used here to refer to the responsive activities of the visible, gathered assembly of local congregations.
In 2011, Robert T. Coote of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research published a list in Christianity Today of the top twenty-seven most enduring hymns, based upon a survey of twenty-eight hymnals from six major American Protestant denominations published since the mid-19th century. It was during this time that denominations began the practice of regularly publishing their own hymnals. Coote’s final list included twenty-seven that appeared in at least twenty-six of the twenty-eight hymnals. Thirteen of the hymns were included in each hymnal, and these will be examined in this discussion.
Contemporary songs have been appearing regularly in corporate worship since at least the 1960s. Today, because most of these songs do not appear in hymnals and are usually sung in churches that do not use them, it would be practically impossible to determine a similar list of contemporary selections using the same methodology, so we must look a different way. Churches that use these songs must license them and reports use through Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI). The top thirteen songs, current as of September 30, 2014, will be examined.
There are two immediate differences that appear without even examining the music or texts on this list. First, excluding number twelve on the list, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” the composition dates of the top hymns spans a length of one hundred forty-four years, with an average date of 1788. The composition dates of the top thirteen contemporary songs span eleven years and have an average date of 2008. Some disparity is to be expected, since the CCLI database would not reflect the use of songs that are either in the public domain or are freely available in hymnals. Still, this evidence would indicate that there is a striking age bias among churches employing exclusively or primarily newer song material, since no song composed prior to 2002 appears on the CCLI list.
Second, Isaac Watts, the prolific and pivotal English hymnwriter, is the only one to appear more than once on the hymns list. Conversely, Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, Jonas Myrin, Reuben Morgan, and Jesse Reeves all appear three times on the contemporary list. While the hymns generally involve the work of two people, the poet and composer, the contemporary songs often boast a team of songwriters, with some of the names, such as Tomlin and Redman, appearing together so frequently they provoke comparisons to some of American popular music’s most prolific collaborating teams, such as Bacharach and David or Lieber and Stoller.
Fundamental differences in music and text abound between the two groups. At the basis of this difference is our gradual shift as a society from music-makers to music-consumers. When the thirteen hymns were written, there was no such thing as recorded music. Music was “done,” more than consumed. As recorded music has become the standard in churches, the very definition of “music” has changed. Kenneth Hull highlights this difference by describing an occasion when he asked a student to bring him “the music” for a particular piece, only to have the student return with a CD.
Hymn settings, as can be seen with all those considered in this study, are self-contained pieces that begin and end with the poetry. The harmony is found within and dictated by the four-part vocal arrangement, making the songs ideal for large-group participation. The performance standard for congregational use is set by the notation of this vocal arrangement. Generally, instrumental accompaniment maintains the harmonic framework found in the vocal lines.
During the 20th century, the recording industry changed the practice of American music. Instead of live music being the norm and emphasizing participation, recorded music became pervasive. Electronic amplification expanded the limits of what one could accomplish with otherwise common instrumentation. As a result, popular music became much more instrumentally driven, and church music composers began to employ emerging sounds. Because contemporary songs tend to mimic the vernacular style of the moment, nearly all of them are written in a style that is meant for solo or small-group, with the congregation learning by rote, and singing along much as it would at a popular music concert or while listening to Top 40 radio. Vocal harmonies, if there are any, are dictated by the instrumental arrangement, and are often improvised by the performers, instead of being notated in the score. In other words, commercial recordings set the standard for performance.
Rhythmic differences are perhaps the most obvious to the casual listener. Heavily borrowed from the rock music style, many of the earliest objectors to both rock music and contemporary worship songs were most concerned with the backbeat, the practice of emphasizing the normally weak beats in a given meter, which they believed to negatively influence the subconscious and cause young people to lose inhibitions and behave sensuously and aggressively. While this theory is highly debatable, it highlights the shift in church music from being distinctively “other” to copying the vernacular musical sounds of the culture.
Even more noticeable is the heavy syncopation; a characteristic that does not appear in any of the hymns. Conversely, all the top contemporary songs make use of syncopated rhythms. “Here I Am to Worship” by Tim Hughes contains only sporadic syncopation, while others, such as “Blessed Be the Name of the Lord” by Matt and Beth Redman, feature multiple syncopated rhythms in nearly every line.
Example of syncopation from “Blessed Be the Name of the Lord.”Such rhythms can be difficult even for trained musicians, so they require much practice for congregations to sing accurately. Bert Polman suggests that these rhythms are so prohibitive of successful congregational singing that would be better suited to be sung exclusively by ensembles.
Polman also highlights how the commercial nature of contemporary songs presents potential problems of vocal range. A well-rehearsed artist may possess an expansive range and be able to sing melodies inaccessible to most congregants. The range of hymns typically lies within the span of an octave. The largest range in the hymns in this study is a 9th. The lowest pitch is a “C,” which is the pickup to the stanza of “All hail the power of Jesus’ Name.” The highest pitch is “E,” found in several of the hymns. Therefore, the range of all the hymns lies within that of most individuals.
The contemporary songs, written to suit the range of a specific performer, often feature a range that makes them difficult for successful congregational singing. The refrain of “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)” by Tomlin reaches a high G, which is also highly problematic for congregations. Transposition does not always solve this dilemma, since transposing up will often place the top pitches out of reach; conversely, transposing down causes the range to slip too low for successful congregational singing. In fact, in live recordings of contemporary songs led by male vocalists, female audience members can be heard either switching between octaves throughout the song in order for the range to be more accessible, or simply singing the lowest notes with a glottal fry.
Tessitura is also an issue. The range of Redman’s “10,000 Reasons” is extreme, but it also sits up very high in the range through most of the refrain, which is repeated numerous times.
For most congregants, this range would eliminate successful participation. Again, transposition is not a viable option, as lowering the key significantly would place the melody of the stanzas too low.
When considering the structural forms represented on the two song lists, more specific differences arise. All of the hymns are strophic in form, with at least four stanzas each; therefore, the form could all be analyzed simply as A. “Guide me, o thou great Jehovah” follows this pattern:
Guide me, O thou great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land.
I am weak, but thou art mighty; hold me with thy powerful hand.
Bread of heaven, bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more;
Feed me till I want no more.
Open now the crystal fountain, whence the healing stream doth flow;
Let the fire and cloudy pillar lead me all my journey through.
Strong deliverer, strong deliverer, be thou still my strength and shield;
Be thou still my strength and shield.
When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of death and hell’s destruction, land me safe on Canaan’s side.
Songs of praises, songs of praises, I will ever give to thee;
I will ever give to thee.
All of the other contemporary songs feature stanzas irregularly combined with refrains, codas, bridges, and other various repetitious devices. This is true of the structure of “How Great Is Our God” by Tomlin, Cash, and Reeves:
The splendor of a King, clothed in majesty
Let all the earth rejoice, all the earth rejoice.
He wraps himself in light, and darkness tries to hide
And trembles at his voice, trembles at his voice.
How great is our God, sing with me,
How great is our God, sing with me.
How great, how great is our God.
Age to age he stands and time is in his hands
Beginning and the end, beginning and the end.
The Godhead Three in One, Father, Spirit, Son,
The Lion and the Lamb, the Lion and the Lamb
Name above all names, worthy of our praise.
My heart will sing, how great is our God.
How great is our God, sing with me…
Though there are two stanzas, there is a bridge separating the second stanza and the second statement of the refrain, giving it a form of ABACB. Some are even more extreme examples. The form of “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)” by Myrin and Redman is ABABABAA’A’’. “Mighty to Save” by Ben Fielding and Reuben Morgan is ABABCCBB. Thus, “How Great Is Our God” or any of the other contemporary songs cannot be adapted for hymn singing without making abridgements or, in some cases, completely reworking the song’s framework. The long and winding unpredictability evident in many of these songs makes it more than difficult for a congregation to follow.
A strophic form necessitates a certain amount of musical repetition; if there are four or five stanzas, a melody will be repeated that many times. Such repetition is not as noticeable because of the inherent textual variation between the stanzas. In fact, in eight of the hymns the opening line or phrase is not repeated at all, and there is no noticeable repetition throughout the rest of the stanzas. In others, they are repeated only as a punctuating motif, and each statement concludes a new thought or idea. For instance, in “Abide with me: fast falls the eventide,” each stanza concludes with the way the hymn begun, although the function varies.
…Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
….O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
….Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.
…I triumph still, if thou abide with me.
…In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
Throughout the course of the hymn, we see this motif being used to evoke God’s presence in various life scenarios. Similarly, “Crown him with many crowns” begins each stanza with the opening “Crown him” statement, but each stanza introduces another divine facet or characteristic worthy of royal praise. Christ is crowned “Lord of life, Lord of peace, and Lord of love.”
Textually, the contemporary songs are more repetitive than the hymns, and not only because of multiple restatements of the sections. Each of these songs, whether it is the title or a sort of thematic “tagline,” has a phrase that is repeated multiple times. The most extreme example from the contemporary list is Redman’s “Blessed Be Your Name,” which states that particular phrase or a close variant of it thirty-three times throughout the song. “Here I Am to Worship,” one of the shorter songs by word count, manages to repeat the phrase “Here I am” more than ten times. “10,000 Reasons” repeats either “Worship his holy name” or “I worship your holy name” fifteen times. “How Great Is Our God” repeats that phrase seven times. Several of the songs actually have more than one of these “taglines.” “Mighty to Save” by Ben Fielding and Reuben Morgan repeats the title phrase, and the words “conquered the grave” eight times each. “Our God” by Reeves, Tomlin, Redman, and Myrin uses the word “God” a total of forty-nine times. Pervasive use of repeated words and phrases is not seen in any of the most enduring hymns. If every piece of music is to fulfill a specific part in the liturgy, and thus communicate the truth of the Christian story, this kind of repetition doesn’t seem ideal.
Why Are We Singing, Again?
The tone of contemporary songs tends to be more of an intimate and relational nature based on personal experience. Nine of the thirteen songs speak directly to God in the second person. Of those, seven shift back and forth from second to third person, sometimes within the same section. In “Our God,” this is seen clearly: “Our God is greater / our God is stronger / God, you are higher than any other.” It is curious why the lyricist chose this, instead of choosing one, “God, you are greater…” or “…Our God is higher than any other.” Shifting between voices is not unheard of in hymnody, and it is seen in one of the hymns in our list, “Come, ye thankful people, come;” however, in the list of hymns, no other text toggles between second and third person within a single section.
Moreover, the intimate tone in in contemporary texts often mimics that of romantic love. Jenell Williams Paris suggests that these songs portray God as a “leading man” or and a “divine partner who is the ultimate boyfriend – a strong, benevolent, wooing man.” Paris highlights “Here I Am to Worship” as one of these songs, where just in the nick of time, God “Opened my eyes, let me see.” Many of the other songs contain such nuances. “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)” presents perhaps the strongest such language: “My chains are gone, I’ve been set free / My God, my Savior has ransomed me / And like a flood his mercy reigns / unending love, amazing grace.” These motifs are pervasive within contemporary songs.
Hymns also use intimate, personal language for God and commonly speak in second person. “O sacred head, now wounded” employs deeply emotional parlance in speaking about God, especially in the third stanza:
What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend,
For this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end?
O make me thine forever, and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to thee.
Likewise, “Abide with me” throughout intimates that God’s personal, relational presence makes all the difference between failure and success, sorrow and joy, complete loss and total gain. These hymn texts, however are more microcosmic than contemporary songs in their view of God’s actions in their personal lives. According to Jeffrey Vanderwilt, the relational descriptions in hymn texts like these “suggest that, while intimacy with God or Jesus is available in this life, such intimacy will be infinitely greater in the next life.”
Theologically, the hymnists expend a great deal of work addressing Divine character and personality. The hymn “Holy, holy, holy! Lord God almighty” is saturated with such theological content. It presents the Trinitarian God as transcendent and omnipotent, a completely “other” being, unattainable by human device or understanding. This theme is introduced in the first stanza and is developed throughout the hymn. The contemporary songs in this study often hint around at Divine characteristics, but none of them develop them to any depth.
According to Lester Ruth, the lack of theological depth is simply due to the fact that it is not expected by the consumers for whom the music is written; these consumers expect their emotions to be stirred, thus awakening their affection for God. Once again, the relational aspect is enters into the conversation. Consider this text from “Revelation Song” by Jennie Lee Riddle:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty
Who was, and is, and is to come, yeah.
With all creation I sing: Praise to the King of Kings!
You are my everything, and I will adore you!
This refrain alludes to the heavenly liturgy, but there is no substantial theological development throughout the rest of the song. There are bits of Christology present, but there is no concrete outworking of the theology, other than that Christ satisfies ones own felt needs and is therefore worthy of adoration.
Hymnody has never been a static collection. Contrary to what most believe, all the hymnals surveyed show a great diversity of content. Even today, new hymns are being written in the traditional four-part hymn style. Other songs have been adopted into the ranks of traditional hymnody from other genres, such as spirituals, folk songs, and gospel songs. Even a few contemporary songs have found inclusion in hymn-singing traditions, and deservedly so, such as those of Keith Getty.
However, because of the various difficulties associated with the construction of contemporary songs, their exclusive use in public worship will create several significant challenges. Theologically, there are issues, as well. According to Donald Hustad, because of the consistent lack of theological depth and dimension, there is a growing dearth of theological understanding among worshipers, in accordance with the ancient principle, lex orandi, lex credendi (as we worship, so we believe). Thus, one can surmise that such a dearth could possibly even lead to an ethical crisis among the Christian community. Kenneth Hull even goes so far as to say that contemporary Christian worship reflects and induces a cultural narcissism. Simon Chan notes that though “the didactic function of hymn singing has been recognized throughout church history,” it is “undermined by poor compositions, lyrics with questionable theology and words that convey largely individualistic religious experiences.”
Lastly, Bert Polman suggests that many of these songs are not musically suitable for congregational participation. If he is correct, exclusive use of contemporary songs in singing is chipping away at the congregation’s role in corporate worship that it has enjoyed since the reformation. The unavoidable syncopated ad lib, commercial sound used by most contemporary music is slowly chipping away at the congregation’s primary place in corporate worship. Instead of instruments and ensembles that support the congregation with good breath and sustained sounds, we have chosen a single leader or a small group of amplified voices, along with instruments that don’t encourage confident, sustained singing or aid the congregation. When this happens, congregations are no longer following the Pauline admonition to sing to God in community, but are instead a mere accessory to the performers. Whatever style we call ourselves, it is imperative that we choose well, that we choose from the best of all available songs, and that the voice of the congregation is supported and encouraged. Above all, we must commit to singing congregational songs that bring the truth of the Christian God and God’s story back into the heart, mind, and mouth of the congregation.