Roundtable: Hymns vs Contemporary Worship Music

Worship is in an extremely important component of the Christian life. As Christians, our whole lives should be a living sacrifice of worship to God, but undoubtedly, praise and thanksgiving through song play a big role (just look at Psalms). With the rise of Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) in the last 50 years or so, the previous popular choice for corporate worship time, hymns, have become less prominent in some circles. 

So which do we prefer? Some of the Premier digital team give their thoughts on the subject of hymns vs contemporary worship music. 

Marcus Jones, digital editorial assistant: Hymns

As much as I love the contemporary stylings of Hillsong and the guys down at Bethel, nothing beats a good ol’ hymn. Though it’s nice to have songs with the contemporary musical arrangements we’re more accustomed to, it’s all about the content, so for me, the lyrics are the most important part. Hymns have some of the most encouraging and passionate words you will ever recite. I will concede they can become lost behind the complexity of ye olde English, but that’s what I love the most. Hymns make me want to go away and research the lyrics and find the history and biblical basis behind them. 

Like most songs, hymns have backstories, some of which are truly amazing.The writer of ‘It Is well’, Horatio Spafford, lost his business in the Great Chicago fire and his four daughters died at sea travelling to England. Using all of that tragedy, he penned a hymn that is still regularly sung today due to its reassuring lyricism. It is this heartfelt cry, alongside sound doctrine, that make hymns extremely powerful.  

Hymns have some of the most encouraging and passionate words you will ever recite

Probably the greatest thing about hymns is that they can be sung acapella without any real need of instruments. Many were written without any musical arrangement, so adopted the melodies of contemporary songs of the day. With the availability of instruments widespread, our contemporary worship songs are hardly ever sung without the aiding of instrumentation. I think there’s something in us, as the saints of God, lifting up just our voices in unison to declare truth, and that is what hymns are all about. 

Favourite hymn: 'Before the Throne of God Above'

Adam Brennan, digital producer: A mix  

There seems to be a bit of a false dichotomy in the Church nowadays. On the one hand you have the old hymn lovers. You know, the doctrinally rich, uncompromising, Christ-centred songs which your grandparents know all the words to. On the other hand, you have the younger Christians who appreciate the more contemporary, less word-heavy kind of music. 

Well, the problem with some of the old hymns is that they are so steeped in doctrine that a contemporary audience cannot always relate. What’s more, there’s a perception that in order to appreciate the old hymns you have to be just that: old. On the other hand, you could argue that contemporary Christian music is just mimicking the world too much. In some cases, this is pretty well-founded. There’s no real substance in the lyrics and it rarely confronts the modern culture with the full truth of the Gospel message.

There’s no real substance in the lyrics and it rarely confronts the modern culture with the full truth of the Gospel message

I think the best choice is the perfect blend of the two. Contemporary and edgy music with a doctrinally sound, thought-provoking message. One artist who did this well was Keith Green, who used the Scripture that defined many of the old Christian hymns, while managing to engage with the youth culture of his time.   

So in my opinion, we need to work out a way of breaking this false dichotomy of the old hymns versus the “new” ones. For those of us who are put off by the old hymns, it’s important that we realise the necessity of incorporating the full Gospel message. 

Favourite song: 'You Are the One', Keith Green 

Harry Hughes, senior digital editor: Contemporary  

Even though I put down ‘contemporary’, my heart was still torn. Yes, I love some of the contemporary classics that Hillsong have put out in recent years, especially the melodically rich ‘Magnificent’ and the euphoric, greeny-grey chords of ‘Eagle's Wings’. But the older hymns, including ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘When I survey the Wondrous Cross’ are so powerful as to put the hairs on your face on end. The words - “See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down” are sung, as Marcus says, without any need for musical instruments, and are so much more powerful for it. I don't know the history of Isaac Watts who wrote the song, but I am sure he too, like Horatio Spafford, had quite a life, full of uncompromising passion for Christ and the cross. And so as I write, I realise that it is the sentimentality and rich musical accompaniment of Hillsong that I love most, and at the same time, the lack of just those same flourishes that touches me so much about the older folk songs our forefathers used to sing.

...the older hymns, including ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘When I survey the Wondrous Cross’ are so powerful as to put the hairs on your face on end

Perhaps that is why I am so mesmerised by Jeff Beck’s rendition of ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’ (featured in the movie Atonement). Like Adam says of Keith Green’s 'You are the One', it too mingles old and new and breaks boundaries, incorporating the Gospel message - “Re-clothe us in our rightful mind, in purer lives thy service find, in deeper reverence praise” - with a melody as beautiful as the juxtaposition of an autumn wind with a scarlet sunrise. 

Favourite song: 'Elegy for Dunkirk', Jeff Beck (Dear Lord and Father of Mankind)

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