There are a lot of opinions flying around these days about what constitutes a hymn. Because I write, study, and speak about music, I frequently come across questions about what hymns are and whether we can write and sing modern hymns in the church today. I’d like to answer some of those questions in this post.
Question #1: What exactly is a hymn?
Without digging into too much history, a hymn is basically a metrical poem intended to be sung. Traditional hymns are written in common meter, which follows the 188.8.131.52. pattern. That simply means they consist of four lines alternating between 8 and 6 syllables per line, usually without a chorus. For example:
O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing
O for a thousand tongues to sing (8 syllables)
My great Redeemer’s praise, (6 syllables)
The glories of my God and King, (8 syllables)
The triumphs of His grace. (6 syllables)
Question #2: Why do we sing hymns?
There’s one more thing that sets a hymn apart, and that is its subject matter. A hymn is specifically intended to praise and worship God.
Think of it as a vertical text (sung to God) rather than a horizontal text (sung to fellow believers as a means of encouragement).
Question #3: Is there such a thing as a modern hymn? What would that look like?
There is a relatively small group of people in history whom we recognize as hymn writers. This list includes people like Martin Luther (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God), William Cowper (There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood), and Charles Wesley (And Can It Be That I Should Gain).
But can we write hymns today? Could you or I sit down and write a metrical poem intended to worship God and call it a hymn?
Yes and no. It’s probably going a little far to call oneself a hymn writer. Still, we can learn a lot from recognized hymn writers. Their work gives us a pattern to follow, and composers today can use that pattern to create modern hymns that help believers worship God.
So what do we think makes a modern hymn? Modern hymns follow the pattern of directing worship to God through music designed to be sung by a congregation, but I’d like to suggest three differences between modern hymns and classic hymns:
- Modern hymns use modern language. Let’s not forget that classic hymns were the modern hymns of their day. Modern hymns use the vernacular of today to communicate truth. They also tend to emphasize internal rhyme more frequently than classic hymns do.
- They often have choruses. Most classic hymns do not include choruses. Modern hymns, however, often include both stanzas and choruses.
- They draw source material from internals rather than externals. Rather than drawing subject matter from external sources like nature, modern hymns usually focus more on what is happening internally between God and the believer.
Of course, hymns aren’t the only sacred songs we should be singing. When we come together as a body of believers to worship God, we should include a wide repertoire of music, including “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19). Each type of music has a different purpose. The role of the hymn is to teach doctrine and facilitate worship.
The modern hymn is well suited for this purpose. It beckons to all believers, “Come praise the Lord with me!”
– Ben Everson, including thoughts from Lauri Lou Jones