The Great Controversy: Hymns Vs. Praise Worship

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“The Great Controversy: Hymns vs Praise & Worship!”

Intro: The battle is intense, bordering on comical. Praise and worship has been blamed for everything from declining church attendance to the Kennedy assassination.  And when some people hear “hymns”, they see bonnets and white beards. What’s a church to do?

Last week we looked at some of the distinctions between hymns and praise and worship songs. Hymns are songs of adoration and praise to God. They are generally more formal, classical, and liturgical than praise and worship songs. Praise and worship songs are generally more intimate, contemporary, approachable, and repetitive.

Now, I am to the left of most folk when it comes to church music and worship.  If it’s too loud for you, it’s probably just right for me. My playlist has gotten me into trouble for years. But I absolutely love hymns!

  • I love the theology of hymns.
  • I love the gospel of hymns.
  • I love the structure of hymns.
  • I love the harmony of hymns.
  • I love the depth of hymns.

I also love the memories of hymns. And therein lies a challenge. I think we should acknowledge that a strong element of the appeal of hymns is nostalgia. Hymns take us back. And since most of us suffer from “selective amnesia”, older is generally better.

But don’t confuse nostalgia with the Holy Ghost. There has always been this drive to hold on to the past. In 1723, Thomas Symmes was writing new music-hymns. Look at the criticism he recorded:

  • “It’s not as melodious as the usual way!”
  • “There are so many new tunes, we shall never be done learning them.”
  • “It’s a contrivance to get money.”
  • “The practice creates disturbances and causes people to behave indecently and disorderly!”
  • “It is a needless way, since our fathers got to heaven without it!”


I love it! That was the criticism that your hymn writers got when they introduced “new” music. Certainly, some of the criticism then and now is warranted.  There are strong hymns and sentimental hymns. There are good praise songs and some not so good. But we generally prefer old wineskins to new, even if the old wineskins are tired and ineffective.

No one fully understands what Paul meant in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19 when he encouraged the church to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” But it is clear that he’s encouraging variety. Frankly, we need good hymns and great praise and worship. We need variety. There are 4 gospels, not 1. Each with a different perspective of the good news. There are multiple generations in our churches, not one.

I’m not advocating for an eclectic service that has a totally different feel from one week to the next. But it’s important to realize that God is God to us all. Young and old. Traditional and contemporary. As much as I love hymns, my default is to favor spiritual songs-new songs.  I believe God’s priority is for us to sing a new song, do a new and fresh thing, Ps.96:1, Ps. 105:2. Even if that means breathing new life into old lyrics.

I teach Christian Worship and Black Liturgy. In his book, Worship Matters, Bob Kauflin reminds us of several healthy tensions or balances that churches should establish with their music and worship in church.

Head and Heart

Our music and worship should engage our entire being. It should reach our emotions without stooping to emotionalism. This is incredibly important for a generation that values a tangible experience with God. Some of us are much more comfortable in a fairly cerebral worship setting. That’s good but not good enough. We are holistic beings and God wants to impact every part of us.

Vertical and Horizontal

God is our primary audience in worship. It’s what distinguishes our worship services, hymn singing, and praise and worship from empty entertainment. ( Sidebar. There is a legitimate and productive role for entertainment, but that’s for another blog.) But although God is our primary audience, He is not our exclusive audience. We have a responsibility to lift each other in our worship services with song, testimony, exhortation, and word.  

Ephesians 5:19 encourages us to sing to “address one another”, in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” In other words, it’s not enough to focus our attention solely on God with our music and worship. God says we need to also focus on how our music and worship can lift up the church.

Rooted and Relevant

Hymns are appealing because they have rich theological roots. They also remind us that we are a part of a body of believers that is much older, and broader, and bigger than our local church. Hymns carry memories and traditions that we value.  But hymns can fade into traditionalism when they are unfairly compared to spiritual songs of a new generation. They both have their place. Roots without relevance is useless.

When modern worship and contemporary praise and worship songs are strategically sprinkled with classic hymns, it is a recipe for a spiritual feast.

So, what are your thoughts? What would you change about the music in your worship service? Is it rooted? Is it relevant? Is it too cerebral? Too emotional?  Share/Comment/Thanks

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