Is it a hymn, a song, or a chorus?

 

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…

 

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Church Music from Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

[vimeo vimeo.com/25994173]

This is a video I recorded on March 4, 2010 while touring Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We were very fortunate to hear the cantor and chorus rehearsing the deggua or “church song” in the cathedral. The video also shows the beautiful stained glass windows and the tomb of Haile Selassie.

The sacred music of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is very old. The hymnary is attributed to Saint Yared, a scholar who lived in Aksum in the 6th century. This is perhaps the most astonishing thing about our journey toward adoption because Deacon’s “finding place” was in front of Saint Yared Music School in Addis Ababa in 2006. I don’t think it was a coincidence that my profession/livelihood/calling happens to be church music and that is where Deacon was found! That news was an epiphany for me. Just as God had used music in my life to bring me into the faith and into a relationship with Him as an adopted son, God used a music school to make me a father and teach me about faith, love, and hope.

Learn more about Trinity Cathedral HERE. Learn more about Ethiopian Orthodox Liturgy HERE.

 

Scared as hell

If you’re a worship/liturgy leader, you probably know the name Stuart Townend.

If you’re not a worship/liturgy leader, let me explain…

From his bio at http://www.stuarttownend.co.uk:

Stuart is known and respected around the world as one of the leading worship songwriters of his generation. The depth of lyrical and theological content in songs such as In Christ alone, How deep the Father’s love, The power of the cross and Beautiful Saviour have caused some to draw comparisons with the greats of previous generations such as Watts and Wesley; while the marriage of great lyrics with wonderfully accessible melodies (largely through his successful writing partnership with Keith Getty) means his songs bridge different musical and cultural genres, and reach into every corner of the globe.

In other words, he’s a worship music stud. Two of those songs mentioned in the bio are in the top 50 songs of CCLI currently. He is obviously blessed with some wonderful gifts, and millions of people sing his songs across the world.

But I had a problem with one line of his, in one song, and I changed it, and I think its a better song now.

Now let me say that song writing is hard. I consider myself an amateur at best. Songs are rarely perfected. They often have to be revised repeatedly, and even the final product sometimes needs more work. I respect Stuart. My songs stink compared to his. I’m not trying to be overly critical. But I do care about the words that churches sing. I think it’s extremely important to give congregation’s the best texts possible (both theologically and artistically). What we sing in church is as important as what is preached in church, if not more important.

The song in question is called Immanuel (or as I call it, “From the Squalor of a Borrowed Stable”). It’s one of my favorite songs. I have put it into regular rotation every Advent for years. The lyric in question comes from stanza 4, the original quoted here:

Now He’s standing in the place of honor,
Crowned with glory on the highest throne,
Interceding for His own beloved
Till His Father calls to bring them home!
Then the skies will part as the trumpet sounds
Hope of heaven or the fear of hell,
But the Bride will run to her Lover’s arms,
Giving glory to Immanuel!

Here is the part I changed:

Then the skies will part as the trumpet sounds.
Heav’n joins earth where God will dwell,
And the Bride will run to her Lover’s arms,
Giving glory to Immanuel!

Here are some reasons why I changed it:

  • Fear is never a good motivating factor. Just ask any person who has lived under a dictatorship throughout history.
  • I don’t feel like God ever intended for a fear of hell to be the driving factor in His relationship to humanity. I vaguely remember Jesus saying some stuff about love.
  • A more biblical picture of the consummation of history is the collision of heaven and earth and the establishment of a New Jerusalem where God is present with us forever.
  • It’s also interesting that this “fear of hell” seems to be contradicted in another lyric from a different song by Stuart – the 4th stanza from “In Christ Alone:”

No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;

Romans 8:1 – “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” and the rest of the chapter is pretty good too.

Why do we sing hymns? (part 3)

Part 1
Part 2

This is the third post in a three-part series on why singing hymns (defined as “sacred poems intended to be sung to God”) in church is valuable.

First, a note about the definition above. Notice that it says nothing about style. It says nothing about how many stanzas it contains, or meter, or how fast, or how slow. Basically, in defending the singing of hymns, we are not saying anything about the style of the hymn or how it gets labeled.

Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.”

Hymns are tools that we can encourage each other with. The hymns we sing should lift the heart of the congregation up toward God. What makes this challenging? Well, different people are encouraged by different hymns. So singing hymns is not only an opportunity to encourage one another in Christian community, but it’s also an opportunity to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. In doing this we show humility, honor God, and allow everyone to receive encouragement.

Hymns are tools that allow the word of Christ to dwell in us richly. The best hymns are the ones with text quoted directly from Scripture, or closely paraphrased. In singing these hymns, we allow God’s unfiltered Word to saturate our thoughts and enter our hearts when coupled with melody and harmony. Singing hymns is the richest way to ponder the Bible.

Hymns are tools that teach us the truths about our faith. When God’s Word sits with us through the singing of a hymn, we are receiving Biblical instruction. Some of the best sermons and messages are sung, not preached. I often point out that when people are at the end of their life and ready to pass forward to the next, it’s not the words of sermons and messages that they are quoting. It’s the hymns of the faith that have served to instruct and teach us that we cling to in the twilight of life.

Hymns are tools that allow our hearts to connect to God. The point of a hymn is not the hymn. The point of a hymn is the God it’s directed towards. If we sing hymns and fail to connect with God through them, we miss the point. I believe the same way about grace. Grace is a wonderful gift, but if we fail to connect with God through grace, we miss the point, and God. We sing hymns to enter into the Garden again, where God dwells with his people and walks with them in the cool of the day.

Why do we sing hymns? (part 2)

Part 1 of why we sing hymns HERE.

God’s people have been singing hymns for a long time. It’s not a new thing.

The hymn to God has been around even longer than the oldest hymns we typically sing during a corporate worship service.

EXODUS 14:30 – 15:1:

Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great power that the LORD used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses. Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the LORD, saying, “I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.”

The exodus, the redemption of Israel, was one of the greatest, most powerful acts of God in the history of the world. What was the response of Israel, having just experienced this miracle? A song of worship. The most fitting response to their freedom from bondage was to sing a hymn to God, who triumphed gloriously.

Jesus Christ, being greater than Moses (Hebrews 3-4), leads us through a second exodus. The waters of death are separated for us that we might walk in the reality of the resurrection-life. For us who have experienced God’s redemption through Jesus, the most fitting response is a hymn of worship!

Why do we sing hymns?

First we should settle on a definition of what a “hymn” is. For some it’s already a loaded term. But I’d like to boil it down to what actually makes a hymn different than any ole song.

A hymn is a sacred poem addressed to God, intended to be sung.

So to break it down:

  • Hymns are sacred – they are set aside for holy purposes, doesn’t mean they’re perfect, they’re just employed for a higher purpose.
  • Hymns are poems – they have a poetical structure, they use poetical devices, they are beautiful language.
  • Hymns are addressed to God – they can be about God, or they can be to God, God can be the subject, or God can be the recipient of the hymn.
  • Hymns are meant to be sung – this is what makes it different than a poem, a musical element or melodic delivery is intended

So now that we know what a hymn is, why do we sing them? Because singing hymns is a Biblical directive.

EPHESIANS 5:18-21 (ESV)

Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Singing hymns is how we are to be filled with the Spirit! Singing hymns is a way to give thanks to God for every blessing we have in Jesus.

Singing hymns is also supposed to be a heart response. The physical act of singing doesn’t create worship. It needs to be sung from the heart.

Is it possible to worship and glorify God without singing hymns? You bet. Otherwise the mute person wouldn’t be able to worship. But God has a special role for music in worship. Music and worship have been uniquely joined together by God’s design.

Jesus, Lover of My Soul, stanza 4

Plenteous grace with Thee is found, grace to cover all my sin;
Let the healing streams abound; make and keep me pure within.
Thou of life the fountain art, freely let me take of Thee;
Spring Thou up within my heart; rise to all eternity.

A few notes about the author of the text:
-Charles Wesley, hymn was published in 1740
-Charles wrote over 6,000 songs over the course of his life; including “O for a thousand tongues to sing” and “Hark the Herald angels sing.”
-Songs were all personal expressions of his faith.
-Charles and brother John founded the Methodist church in England, and were missionaries to colonial Georgia.

There is a story about how the song was written: Charles was preaching at a revival, apparently sharing some controversial thoughts. Some of the people did not agree with his doctrine. A riot broke out, and a mob chased after him. It is said that the words of this hymn came to him while hiding under a bush.

My paraphrase of last 2 lines: Jesus is the fountain of life, where life finds it’s source. He freely lets us experience true life through being born again in our hearts, causing holiness and purity to happen, leading to eternal life.

Jesus, Lover of My Soul, stanza 3

Thou, O Christ, art all I want, more than all in Thee I find;
Raise the fallen, cheer the faint, heal the sick, and lead the blind.
Just and holy is Thy Name, I am all unrighteousness;
False and full of sin I am; Thou art full of truth and grace.

This stanza is a prayer…with 2 main parts:

1. A confession that Jesus is all we want/need.

2. A petition to God to lift those who have fallen, bring joy to the weary, and impart healing and vision. Not just physical healing, but spiritual.

God is just/holy. There is no corruption in God. God is full of truth [He is THE truth] and grace. On the opposite hand, we are false/sinful/unrighteous.

This is one of the most unexplainable concepts. How can God want to have a relationship w/someone completely opposite of Him?

Jesus, Lover of My Soul, stanza 2

Stanza 2

Other refuge have I none, hangs my helpless soul on Thee;
Leave, ah! leave me not alone, still support and comfort me.
All my trust on Thee is stayed, all my help from Thee I bring;
Cover my defenseless head with the shadow of Thy wing.

Thoughts:
-We are lost, hopeless, depraved apart from Christ. He is: our only help…the only Rock on which we can stand…our only source of eternal support and comfort…the only One in Whom trust can be placed…the only source of true strength…our only Defender.

Psalm 63:7-8Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.