One of the things I like to do is respond to questions about worship or liturgy. I don’t claim to know everything, but I can share my two cents. During a recent conversation this question came up: what do we call the songs we sing in our services? Are they hymns, or songs, or choruses, or what?
It’s a tricky question. If you want to get technical, there are dozens of categories within the broader sacred music genre. There are chorales, gospel hymns, scripture songs, contemporary worship songs, spirituals, and doxologies, just to name a few. Even our own Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW) hymnal can be perplexing. Pages 92-93 in ELW map out the pattern for worship in our context, but say that a “Gathering Song” can be either a “Hymn” or a “Psalm.” The ELW pattern also calls music during communion a “Communion Song” and music during the sending a “Sending Song.” However, the section of the hymnal that contains the music is titled “Hymns” (beginning at #239). And to add to the confusion, the “Hymns” section in ELW contains several songs that are staples in many contemporary worship services (like #857 “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” and #821 “Shout to the Lord”)!?!
Maybe the best solution is to take it back to basics and what the Bible says about music in worship. We know in two separate occasions the Apostle Paul mentions songs in his letters. In Ephesians 5:18-20 and in Colossians 3:16 Paul says that we are to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” So we know for sure that there were at least three categories of songs that the earliest Christians used in their communal worship. Psalms are biblical songs from the Old Testament book by the same name, but likely included other songs (like the Song of Moses in Exodus 15 and Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2). Hymns are songs addressed to God and to Jesus as the Son of God. Possible examples of the first hymns of the Christian era are included in the New Testament (like Philippians 2:6-11 and Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55). Spiritual Songs were most likely short, extemporaneous songs that arose within individual Christian communities. These songs were probably songs of testimony, fellowship, witness, and were very reflective of the community from which they came. The songs are called “Spiritual” because of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
One thing is certain – God’s people are encouraged in Scripture to sing a variety of songs in worship. No matter what we call them, the church has been given the gift of music for the purposes of singing God’s praises.
Got a question? Leave me a comment…
This is my favorite definition of a hymn. I think its clear to what we, in a solely traditional worship context, consider a hymn.
“A Christian Hymn is a lyric poem, reverently and devotionally conceived, which is designed to be sung and which expresses the worshipper’s attitude toward God or God’s purposes in human life. It should be simple and metrical in form, genuinely emotional, poetic and literary in style, spiritual in quality, and in its ideas so direct and so immediately apparent as to unify a congregation while singing it.”
I think that is a great definition of a hymn. The def. I use is: “A hymn is a sacred poem addressed to God, intended to be sung.” Yours expands on that idea and fills it out. Mine is easy to memorize!