The Great Controversy: Hymns Vs. Praise Worship

“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

What Happened to My Hymns?!

What Happened to My Hymns?!

I miss my hymns. That’s not nostalgia, that’s a need. “Let the word of God dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs…”  Colossians 3:16

So, I’m preparing for this blog and researching the most popular Christian songs of all time, and the list is long:

  • “ I Just Need You.” Toby Mac
  • “ Shackles” Mary, Mary
  • “Oh, Happy Day” Edwin Hawkins
  • “I Can Only Imagine” Mercy Me
  • “Oceans” Hillsong

Just to name a few. Really? Those are great songs, but if I’m in a dark place, I seriously doubt if I’ll have Kirk Franklin’s “Stomp” in my headphones! “Redeemed” by Big Daddy Weave can inspire me in a single service, but “Redeemed How I Love to Proclaim It!” by Fanny Crosby has inspired me for a lifetime. It’s the power of hymns.

A hymn is a song of praise and adoration to God. In ancient Greek culture, hymns were not necessarily Christian. Hymns were melodies praising the gods of the day. It seems that Christians shared the practice and directed attention to the one true God. Sounds like Kirk Franklin or Lecrae, but that’s for another blog.

Hymns are generally more formal, classical, and liturgical than spiritual songs. They have been a mainstay of Christian worship services for generations.  But they seem to have fallen on hard times.  Praise teams gather where the chorister once stood. The sale of hymnals has plummeted. And for years churches have chosen to drop the morning hymn from their order of service.

But change is in the air! Robert Webber, David Brooks, and other Christian writers and researchers have noted the beginning of a postmodern return to more traditional and historical worship forms. Hymns are growing in popularity among young and old alike, and not a moment too soon. Because hymns play a unique role in the Christian life. What’s so special about hymns?

Hymns Teach Scripture

The late minister and educator R. W. Dale once said, “Let me write the hymns of the church and I don’t care who writes the theology.” Dale understood the value of hymns for teaching the Bible. Hymns from “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, to “Break Thou the Bread of Life,” to “Holy, Holy, Holy,’ can teach more theology in 3 minutes than many people hear in 3 months.

Hymns Round Out God’s Personality

Hymns, spiritual songs, and praise and worship songs are different by design. They highlight different attributes of God. Different shades of his character. Praise and worship songs remind us of the nearness of God. They are intimate. We need that. But God is more than my “buddy”, God is my King. Hymns are more transcendent, more mystical, more majestic. We need that too.

Hymns Encourage Depth

I mean no harm, but if I hear one more lazy lyricist tell me, “One of these days and it won’t be long, you’ll look for me and I’ll be gone”, my head is going to explode!  In some of our services, we are drowning in clichés:

  • “Touch your neighbor!” “Turn to your neighbor.”  “High five your neighbor” (You get the picture)
  • “Won’t he do it?”
  • “Give God some praise.”
  • “I’m gettin’ ready to close” “…. I’m gettin’ ready to close” “…..I’m gettin’ to close….”

Hymns are a refreshing return to phrases that actually mean something! The lyrical content of hymns is generally richer and more intricate than praise and worship songs. Not better, necessarily. Just richer, deeper. We need that.

Hymns Add Variety

Don’t get it twisted. I’m still a fan of praise teams and I prefer my lyrics on the screen. I love my hymns, but not as much as Tamela Mann, Thomas Whitfield, John P. Kee, Hillsong, Vincent Bohanon & SOV, Sir the Baptist, and a grip of other Christian artists too long to mention. But variety is not only the spice of life, it’s the salvation of a predictable worship service. Do yourself a favor and spice up the service with a well -placed hymn.

Hymns Make You Sing!

The Bible is saturated with song. It seems that a happy heart Is inspired to sing. And talent has nothing to do with it. Hymns were written and structured to be sung with other believers. Not alone, but together.  Of course, that’s a goal in praise and worship also. But what many of those songs lack is familiarity. Great hymns are stamped in our memory banks.

Hymns Connect Generations

The only thing more challenging than leading a multi-generational church is leading a multi-generational worship service. What pleases one group is a problem for another. Solution? Try weaving familiar hymns into the order of service or the praise and worship set.  Grandma might not know, “Hallelujah! We Have Won The Victory,” but she does know, “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine!” Sing them both.

So, what do you think?  What are some of your favorite hymns and why? What memories do hymns bring to mind? Are they still singing hymns in your church? Would they work in your service?