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.


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”.


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.

Relevant Music



Relevant Not Attractional

Attractional isn’t a word. At least not according to my spell check.  It is, however, a real term; one that someone came up with to describe a certain type of church with a certain type of goal.

The Attractional church as you may have guessed has at its core the goal of attracting people to church. What people? All people, but especially the un-churched, usually with the stated goal to reach people in a way that is inviting to them.

Pastors wear causal yet hip clothes, and the worship band seems to be more of a rock show than a worship service.

You know the type. You’re friends may be part of such a church. You may be part of a church like that.

I like the heart behind such a church. I like the desire to reach the lost. I like the willingness to try new things. I like goal of doing things well.

What I don’t like though, is where I feel the attritional church misses the mark:

Jesus is what is attractional. Not a church service. Worship isn’t a concert for people, but a spiritual devotion from people for God. The band isn’t the center. The lights aren’t the center. The Hip Preacher in girl jeans isn’t the center. Jesus is the central focus.

I believe the Relevant church gets closer to that mark.

I know I’m playing in the world of semantics here, but I do believe there is a difference between Attractional and Relevant.

The Relvant church is just that. It lets the gospel do its own talking. It sees Jesus as the attraction. But it recognizes the times its in, the location its is in, the culture its in.

In the Booth’s day at the formation of the Salvation Army, brass bands were equivalent of rock ‘n roll. In the 70’s hippies got saved and the music of the church sounded a lot like Bread, America, and CSN. So in the same way, in our present day, folks pick up electric guitars and synths to praise God.

Technology changes. We went from the printing press to power point. None of these things are an end unto themselves but a method we use to point people and ourselves to Jesus.

I think the church that I’m a part of, Calvary:Arlington, is a relevant church. Especially in the area of worship music.

Consider the current worship set up.

Hymns & Modern. Country & Rock. Folk & Pop. Upbeat & Contemplative. Different leaders, different backgrounds, different styles.

Jesus is the center. Worship isn’t a concert, but the bands do strive to play well and to serve the people by providing live music for song worship in the church. Not only that, but by offering a variety of styles they include just about everyone in the church (metal and screamo kids… sorry 😉 )  A dear seasoned saint will hear the hymns she’s sung her whole life, while her granddaughter connects to the hymns through a driving beat. Then the next week her mom hears the pop music she’s accustom to, or her father hears the country sound he connects with. All for the purpose of freeing people to worship their God in a simple and straightforward way.

The goal is Jesus. To know Him and to make Him known. We aren’t attracting people to Him. We are people attracted by Him and we do church in the way normal people would. We sing songs in the music of our time. We fellowship over coffee and we use our minds as we study the bible together.

It’s not Attractional, it’s relevant and I love being a part of it.