Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

Hymns, Choruses, What’s the Difference?

Do a Google search on the difference between Hymns and Choruses, and I’ll give you a dollar if you can find a straight answer.

According to Eastman’s Bible Dictionary the word Hymn in the New Testament is used for the benefit of Christians from a Greek Culture to understand. Musically the Jews had used Psalms in their music, whereas the Greek used Hymns. If you read the Psalms, some are long, wordy and epic. Other Psalms are short and to the point, mainly in a section called the “Psalms of Accents” which were to be sung by the people on their way to the feasts in Jerusalem. The basic structure of a psalm lyrically is one continuous thought or theme.

The Hymn on the other hand is generally centered around finishing the lyrical or musical thought at the end of the refrain. Basically in modern form we would say that Hymns are all verses and no choruses.

Then there is the modern Chorus structure: Verse, Chorus, Verse.  The verses build (both lyrically and musically) to the summation thought in the chorus. This is of course a very simplistic view of all of these types of songs but I thought it would be good to lay a foundation for this discussion.

What Type of Songs Should Be Sung In The Church Today?

If there is one thing I’ve learned in 12+ years of leading worship is that just about everyone will have an opinion on song choice.

“Hymns are too old fashioned”

“Those new songs just don’t have the same depth as the old songs”

“That’s NOT a worship song!”

And many more. The point is that there are a lot of different expressions in the history of the church, and all of them are equally valid and invalid in their own ways. Twice, both in Ephesians 5:19, and Colossians 3:16 the Bible tells us to sing in Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs. These verses have shaped how I see song selection and stylistic expression in the church more than just about any verse in the bible.

Psalms

In the book of Psalms itself I see both hymns and choruses, but for our purposes, I don’t think I’m too far off to Insert “modern worship songs” for Psalms. I see a lot of good in modern worship songs. The bible tells us over and over to sing “a new song” to the Lord. Amazing Grace, Come Thou Fount, and Be Thou My Vision don’t make the cut for that command. New songs, express the fresh faith, of a new generation of Christians. They also lend themselves well to worship events where Words (overheads, hymnals, etc) aren’t readily available like camp fires and home groups, much like the Psalms of Accents in the Bible.

There are downsides to the modern songs. They haven’t stood the test of time, whereas generally speaking, bad hymns have been forgotten. Not just musically, but there are many modern worship songs with great music but questionable theology or that lack in depth. Many of the criticisms towards modern songs about their lack of depth, unrealistic view of the world (all sunshine, no suffering), Prom Songs to Jesus (if they mention Jesus at all) etc, have some truth to them. Another criticism of modern songs is that many are not in fact modern. What I mean is that if a bunch of musicians with little to no church background became Christians, they wouldn’t write the music that many christians call “contemporary”.

Hymns

Full Discolsure: I consider myself a modern hymns guy, whatever that means. I like the hymns because they have had the benefit of time letting the cream rise to the top. Musically, I find that Hymns often lend themselves better to Modern musical expressions than the “modern songs” of the church do. I can play Amazing Grace in 10 different arrangements but I can’t figure out more than one way to play “How Great is Our God” by Chris Tomlin. Hymns also have suffering. Suffering is a constant in life and a constant in our churches. 1 in 3 women in your church has been the victim of sexual abuse. People have lost loved ones, they’ve suffered unemployment or disability on the job. Many of the great hymns were written by people who had suffered, they knew what they were singing about. Hymns are also a great musical bridge. I’ve found that, generally speaking, older saints are often more open to a new style or expression in worship if they know the songs, and that as a worship leader, hymns have honestly allowed me to get away with more with the 65 and up crowd.

Spiritual Songs

What does this mean? Aren’t Psalms and Hymns both “Spiritual Songs” by default? I’m not sure what Paul meant when he wrote it but I’ll tell you how I apply it.

“True Love” by Phil Wickham. ‘The Pearl” by Emmylou Harris. “Come to Jesus” by Mindy Smith. “Tears of the Saints” by Leeland. They are not really worship songs. But they are songs that the church can sing together. I see these songs as useful and helpful to the church, but I do them at a ratio: Out of a 6 or 7 song set, I will probably only do 1 spiritual song, if any. I see songs like the ones I mentioned as being very good, but only in the right proportions.

Many churches would see these songs as “specials”. Which is music done more as a performance to the church than music sung by the church. There is nothing wrong with this form of liturgy, but I wouldn’t limit the work that God can do through these songs either. I remember being at a church singing “Yahweh” by U2, when the song started I thought “this isn’t a worship song,” and then in the last verse God spoke powerfully to my heart. There is nothing wrong with doing Spiritual Songs as “specials” but there is also no biblical mandate for it either.

The Real World

I said earlier that the idea of Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual songs had shaped how I lead worship. It’s kept me from embracing just one style or expression of worship. I’m a modern hymns guy but I’ll still lead a Chris Tomlin song. It’s shown me the place for “spiritual songs” in the worship life of the church. It’s lead me to my current attempt to have a wide expression of music and style at Calvary:Arlington. Hymns are not just “the old songs of the church”, and contemporary worship isn’t as contemporary as people say it is.

Whatever songs I pick I try to follow my friend Chad’s rules:

-Well written -Glorifying to God -Somewhat predictable -Poetic and imaginative integrity without obscurity -Sung to God directly, or of His attributes secondarily -Theologically correct -NOT LAME… all to the glory of Jesus.

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One thought on “Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

  1. Pingback: Q&A | Real World Worship Leading

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