What Defines a Hymn?

Throughout church history there have been debates on what is acceptable and permissible to be sung at a church. I’ve read books that argue that we should only sing songs from the book of Psalms. I’ve got churches just down the road from where I live that play top 40 hits as a part of their Sunday morning worship. I’ve also got people in the church I currently serve who talk to me like the only thing we should sing on Sunday morning are hymns (generally meaning older songs). So that leads to the question: how do we define what a hymn is? Augustine, writing in the 4thCentury stated that a hymn is comprised of 3 things: “song, and praise, and that of God.” So it must be sung, it must be praise, and it must be to God. Let’s take a look at these 3, and then 3 more that didn’t make Augustine’s list.

  1. Sung

This one should go without saying, in order to be a hymn, it must be sung. It’s hard to have a hymn without singing! This obviously isn’t including instrumental music, which can also serve a role in a service, but for Augustine, a hymn must be sung.

  1. Praise

According to a quick Google search, to praise is to “express warm approval or admiration of.” In the case of a hymn, we are demonstrating admiration of God, which ties us in to the next point. My question with this, is what do you do when you are not exactly in admiration of God? I’m currently reading through Job and have been reminded how difficult life can be. I also see Psalms where they aren’t praising God, such as the imprecatory Psalms. So maybe this point isn’t as helpful in defining a hymn.

  1. To God

Finally, Augustine says a hymn must be to God. This will come up in one of my 3 points, but what about Paul’s command in Ephesians 5:19 where we’re called to address one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs? Or what about Psalms like 42 and 43, where the Psalmist speaks to his soul, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are in turmoil within me?” Apparently we can have songs that are addressed not just to God!

 

So 3 more things that I would add that Augustine didn’t include in his definition are:

  1. Scripture saturated.

A phrase that I like to use is “be steeped in God’s Word.” Just as tea is made by soaking leaves in water, so should our lives as Christians be steeped in God’s Word. Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christdwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Songs are an amazing way to allow the Word of Christ to soak into our lives. This is why I create Spotify playlists, and give chord charts to anyone who asks, I want our songs to affect our lives.

  1. Addressing One Another AND God

Songs can be addressed to God, but part of the reason we sing is to “address one another.” (see above) But we’re also called to sing praises to God. This is a healthy tension that we walk when choosing the songs we sing, but we are called to do both.

  1. Don’t just sing hymns

Both Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 talk about singing “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” Psalm 98:1 says “Sing to the Lord a new song.” I am so tired of the “contemporary versus hymns” debate and wish people would instead focus on the content of what we’re singing. There are some incredible hymns that are being written today, just as there were some terrible hymns written hundreds of years ago! (and bad songs being written today just as there are good hymns from hundreds of years ago) But the Bible doesn’t tell us what kinds of songs to sing, nor what instruments we’re supposed to use, nor what melodies we’re supposed to sing. So let’s sing a wide variety of Scripture saturated songs that allow us to teach and admonish one another, and encouraging each other all the more as we see the day of the Lord’s return drawing even closer!

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Re-Oriented to God

Why do we gather together every Sunday morning? Wouldn’t it be far nice to go play golf, sleep in, or go eat brunch with your family? I spent some time last week reading Resonant Witness, edited by Jeremy Begbie and Steven R. Guthrie, and was struck by the line, “In worship, we are re-oriented to God.” James K.A. Smith has done a great job with his cultural liturgy series on addressing how all humans are created as worshippers who are shaped and formed by our practices. The events we participate in, the rhythms that we practice in our lives, and even the way we approach our spending of money all shape our worldviews. This means it is vital for us to spend regular time worshipping together to re-orient ourselves to who God is, what he is like, and what he expects from us.

This also gets to the point and purpose of the gathered church. Many churches pick one side or the other saying it’s either for Christians, or it’s for the unchurched. Others will try to balance that out and say it’s both. But the real purpose for the gathered church is for God. With the focus and purpose being on God, we then have to articulate how we go about focusing on God, which gets to our liturgies. Another book I’m currently reading, Reformation Worship, states, “The mission of the church, Christ’s bride, is worship and witness.” Once again, it’s easy to focus on one or the other, it’s much more difficult to encourage a faithful pursuit of both areas. We are commanded to meet together (Hebrews 10:25), and to go and make disciples (Matthew 28:19).

Our worship services, or liturgies, either help or hinder us from seeing God as he truly is (see ‘The Visible Gospel’ for one way for us to structure our services to better understand God). For many people, this is unfortunately the only time they set aside each week to “fix their eyes on Christ” (Hebrews 12:2), so it is vital for us to be faithful with our task as worship leaders to plan our liturgies in such a way that they help us marvel at God’s goodness and grace in our lives.

The Visible Gospel

It seems that one of the trendy things for Christians today is to leave the church. For many, church is seen as the biggest problem with Christianity, a place full of hypocrites and those pursuing wealth. Yet individual Christianity is not an option. We are called to “not neglect meeting together, as is the habit of some,” and are called to encourage each other on a daily basis. One of the primary reasons we are commanded to meet together is because we so often neglect or marginalize the gospel in our daily lives. I stumbled across a video today in which Jerry Bridges explains why you never outgrow the gospel. In the video, he states, “The gospel is for sinners, and if we do not acknowledge ourselves as sinners, then we tend not to put much value in the gospel.” Tim Keller has similarly said, “The gospel is not just the ABC of the Christian life but the A to Z of the Christian life.” So how do we remember the gospel on a regular basis? One way is through our church services, which are meant to be the gospel made visible.

In order to demonstrate the gospel, we first need to understand what the gospel is. 9Marks has a helpful definition that is broken down into 4 parts: God, man, Christ, response. God has created the world and everything in it, including man. Man sinned, separating himself from God and other men. The only way to be reconciled back to God is through Christ’s atoning sacrifice for sin. That sacrifice leads to a call for everyone to respond by repenting of sin and trusting in God to be saved. These 4 parts should affect the way we plan and structure our worship services, with thought given to how each of these parts can become a regular part of our worship. So what does that look like? Here are some ways I’ve tried to work this in to each of our services.

1.God

Each service begins with a call to worship, where we are reminded who God is. That he is completely separate from us, completely holy, and is thus worthy of our worship. I also try to begin our services singing about who God is, so last week we began by singing “All the Earth,” and this week we sang “Blessed Be Your Name.” These songs remind us who God is, that he has created everything in the world and orchestrates everything according to his perfect plan.

2.Man

This element seems to run contrary to the previous one (how can there be an emphasis on man when our focus needs to be on God?) But we need to remember that we are all sinners and apart from God’s grace are destined for an eternity in hell, separated from God. We need to remember that we have no hope apart from God’s work, which will be demonstrated in the next point. So to demonstrate our sin, we will sing something like “Lamb of God,” or this past week we read question number 16 from the New City Catechism: “What is sin? Sin is rejecting or ignoring God in the world he created, rebelling against him by living without reference to him, not being or doing what he requires in his law—resulting in our death and the disintegration of all creation.” This is also a great time to read a public confession of sin, or create a time of silence for people to confess their sins privately to God.

3. Christ

Then we see that we are not left without hope, because Christ has defeated sin and death and has thus reconciled us to himself through his death on the cross. Some of my personal favorite songs to use to remind us of this message are “O Praise the Name,” “At the Cross (Love Ran Red),” and “Man of Sorrows.” These songs do an incredible job of pointing to our need for a Savior and remind us to respond to God in awe and worship – with our whole lives.

4. Response

Finally, we are called to respond. This can be done through singing, Scripture reading, the sermon, or the benediction. I am not a big fan of alter calls, because they tend to be emotional manipulation, but there needs to be times for people to respond to the gospel message, which can be as easy as inviting people to talk with you after the service. A couple that we’ve ended with recently are “His Mercy Is More,” and “The Stand.” These call us to respond to who God is and what he has done in and through us – even in the past hour we’ve spent together, gathering around His Word! We also include a benediction, which is a Scripture reading encouraging us to allow the sermon to influence our lives. The Bible has many benedictions throughout it that can be helpful conclusions to our time together, such as Hebrews 12:1-2, Hebrews 13:20-21, Jude 24-25, and 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24.

While these elements do not need to be a part of every service, and sometimes it’s more helpful to focus on just one part of the gospel to better allow it to permeate into our thinking, these should serve as the regular structure of our services to allow us to better steep in the goodness of God through the gospel message. It’s vital that we think through the elements of our services to allow our congregations to see the gospel throughout everything we do! As John Calvin said, “Without the gospel everything is useless and vain.”

The Need to Ask Questions

I have read a couple articles a while back about Rob Bell and the fallout from his book Love Wins that came out 5 years ago. Bell was most popular for asking really good questions about things many Christians assumed to be true, but either didn’t have the confidence or desire to question what they’d been told their whole lives. There seemed to be a resurgence in asking questions when I was growing up. Rob Bell was hitting his stride, Donald Miller was Blue Like Jazz, and youth group was where we’d go to have fun. I agree that it’s an incredibly important aspect of our faith to ask questions, God will NEVER be fully understood, but there are some things that are true, and will remain true, and we need to remember to proclaim.

In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This is a statement we can be sure about. It’s so easy in churches to get bogged down in the confusion of eschatology or blow small comments out of proportion instead of keeping our focus on Christ. One of the most impactful verses for me in my biblical interpretation over the past few years has been Luke 24:27, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” The point and purpose of the Bible is to point us to Jesus. It’s a book for him and about him, and he should be the focus of all of our lives. This also needs to be the focus of our corporate times of worship. If Jesus is the focus, it shouldn’t matter what kind of music we sing, how long the services are, how long you stand or sit, or how many people you’re forced to interact with. The point and purpose needs to be Jesus.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t ask questions at all! Some of my biggest times of growth have come from asking questions, or someone asking me a question I didn’t know the answer to. But, as Augustine said, “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:20 says, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.” We can trust in the God that has chosen to continually reveal himself to us through his Word and his people. This is why it’s so important for us to gather as the body. The church doesn’t exist as a single component of the body (you can’t have church by yourself in the mountains), but when we gather, we are to remind each other of the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We will never completely understand everything, but we serve and worship the God who does.

Worship in Adversity

We began a new series this week at Grace on the life of Elijah titled ‘Adversity.’ As I confessed during the beginning of the corporate singing, it was pretty tough to find songs that we know that deal with this important issue. This week I found a blog by a pastor at New Life Downtown in Colorado Springs who asked the question: how many minor keys are we singing at church? Looking at the 104 top CCLI songs from the past 25 years, there were 7.

Paul in Romans 12:15 tells believers, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” In my experience, we tend to do a great job rejoicing with those who rejoice (at least outwardly, even if inwardly we’re jealous) while a poor job at mourning with those who are mourning. It seems that we want people to mourn for a short time and then move on to being happy. Instead of actually mourning we offer poor platitudes, while not actually relating to any seen or felt needs.

This is also true of some songs that deal with our response to difficult situations. In trying to find songs that related to this theme, one of the first that came to mind was Matt Redman’s ‘Blessed Be Your Name.’ He wrote that right after 9/11 when he realized that many of the songs the church sings don’t have any aspect to dealing with difficulties. Yet that song is still in a major key and resolves in a hopeful statement.

I introduced a new song to the church this week, ‘Give Me Faith’ by Elevation Worship that hopefully helps put words to how we as believers can deal with difficult situations that arise: through faith. Hebrews 11 talks about the faith that many people have demonstrated throughout history. My hope and prayer as we go through this sermon series is that we can  pray for the faith to trust God even when our lives feel like a mess.

Can We Swear in Church?

I’ve been a big fan of Hillsong United since 2007 when I was introduced to “Mighty to Save” at a youth missions trip. My influence from them grew even more when I went to college and it seemed like EVERYONE loved them and sang their songs. They’ve put out many songs I’ll sing at church often (Hosanna, Lead Me to the Cross, Search My Heart, the whole Zion album) and they recently came out with a new album called ‘Empires.’ I was once again looking forward to having many new songs to introduce at church at some point, but after listening to the album a couple times I’m a little disappointed with this album. Nothing stuck out right away as a song we should sing at church (as I quickly thought of “Oceans”). From following many of the members of the band, I understand that this album was born out of a period of immense suffering because one of the members’ baby sons had many complications and was in the hospital for an extended period of time. That suffering is most acutely felt on the song “Even When It Hurts (Praise Song)” Thematically it’s very similar to something like “Blessed Be Your Name,” and I musically really enjoy it (as most previous albums have done, Hillsong United is able to blend modern music with worship in a beautiful way). The chorus says

Even when my strength is lost
I’ll praise You
Even when I have no song
I’ll praise You
Even when it’s hard to find the words
Louder then I’ll sing Your praise

I would gladly sing that part of the song at church and fully embrace it. Paul in 2 Corinthians 12 says, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” It’s the second chorus that I have a problem with.

Even when the fight seems lost
I’ll praise You
Even when it hurts like hell
I’ll praise You
Even when it makes no sense to sing
Louder then I’ll sing Your praise

Can we use a phrase “hurts like hell” in church? Is it ok to swear to God? Most often it depends on who you ask. Part of the reason Mark Driscoll got as popular as he did was because he was known as “the swearing pastor.” I remember one time when I was younger reading about John Piper swearing during a sermon (I looked it up and couldn’t find anything at this time). Piper said he could point to instances in the Bible where the writers used stronger language, but he still shouldn’t have done it in a sermon. This is one of those issues that Millennials have seemed to more often embrace. Swearing is fine because it’s funny! Or done to make a point. Anyone who says swearing is bad is a legalist! Ephesians 4:29 says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” I think it is important to separate our corporate times of worship with our personal times of worship in this issue. During a church service, I would not be comfortable singing something like that. Ever. Even when it’s done to make a point I think there are better words that can be used that are more conducive to building the body up toward Christ. At the same time, for my personal time of worship, if I was really struggling, I wouldn’t hesitate to use some strong language in my prayers. Jesus on the cross said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Thankfully I will never have to deal with the same kind of separation he experienced, but I don’t know what my future holds. I have two friends who have held their still-born children and have wrestled through intense periods of grief, and still came to the conclusion that God is still good and he cares for me. Even when my life hurts like hell I know it isn’t the end. Christ has defeated sin and death and will use everything in my life for good and his glory.

Using Music From People With Wack Theology

There have been a few articles I’ve read recently about why people will not sing songs at church from specific groups, the most often quoted are Hillsong, Elevation Worship, and Jesus Culture. They do not want to endorse any kind of theology that may be questionable or lead people to study more about specific churches. But what if the words of many of the songs they write are biblically true, or a resurrection of an old hymn? Personally, I have chosen to do songs from almost all these churches. They have written many songs that are very catchy, easy to sing (sometimes! if you lower it a lot!), memorable, and theologically rich. I’m grateful for these people who have been gifted with combining biblical truths with good music that won’t put me to sleep! The main reason I use music from these churches is because if we were going to ban music from anyone or any group with a questionable past or questionable theological bent, we wouldn’t sing any songs. Moses was a murderer, David was a murderer and an adulterer, Paul was a murderer (there was a lot of death in the Bible) and Jesus saved all of them, and used them for his good. The disciples even wanted Jesus to lead a revolt against the Romans, I think their theology was completely off at that point! I also know that at times my theology has been completely off. If I think I have it all figured out I’m still off! Thankfully God is still God and can and will work despite me and my completely wack theology. Yet in the midst of that, we will still do our best to worship God and equip the saints to better understand God through the gift of music.

Singing to Teach

Whenever I’m asked why we spend so much time singing during a church service, there are two passages I cite. The first is Ephesians 5:18-21 where Paul says,

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but 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.

The second is also by Paul in Colossians 3:15-17 where he says,

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

In the first passage, Paul writes about one of the purposes of singing “addressing one another.” He words it similarly in Colossians when he says, “teaching and admonishing one another.” That means that we need to spend time singing to each other, and also means that the congregation needs to be able to hear each other! Mike Cosper, a worship pastor in Louisville, KY says, “we sing so that we can teach and admonish one another.” (Rhythms of Grace, 156)  Harold Best, a music professor at Wheaton college, words this even more strongly in his book Music Through the Eyes of Faith where he writes, “a congregation is just as responsible to sing the gospel as the preachers are to preach it.” (192)

The common thought among many Christians today is that the church is run by the pastors and leaders, which leads to a passive approach to church. People come to church to be fed instead of coming to serve those around them. This also is manifested when people refuse to sing during our corporate times of worship. Earlier in Ephesians, Paul writes that the job of the teachers is “to equip the saints for the work of the ministry.” (4:12) This also applies to music as it is done to equip those in the church to carry out the mission and ministry of Jesus. Therefore, singing plays an essential part to the ministry of the church. We must not neglect singing together, as some are in the habit of doing, instead let us continue to sing to build one another up and help teach each other the richness of the gospel message through the power of God to the ends of the earth.

Holy Week Services

This past week was the celebration of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. This is one of those holidays that both Protestants and Romans Catholics celebrate together. I always look forward to this week and enjoy the opportunity to try some new things throughout the week. Last year we did our first ever Maundy Thursday service and continued that tradition this year. This year’s service was focused on the communal nature of our faith. I set up 12 tables in our sanctuary and had people gather sit around those tables. The service itself was divided up as following:

Greeting

What is Maundy Thursday? (John 15:12-17, Luke 22)

SING: Jesus Paid It All

Celebrate

The Passover (Exodus 12)

SING: In Christ Alone

Remember

SING: Mercy

The Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

At each table was: Matzah, bitter herbs, hoaroset, and grape juice.

This was the longest time of the service, and each table had instructions to guide them through the various elements, as well as Scripture readings and explanations of what each element stood for.

Go

Love One Another (John 14:15-31, 1 John 4:7-21)

SING: Give Us Clean Hands

Each of the 4 parts also had a responsive reading and all 3 of the pastors on staff shared speaking responsibilities. Our time together was helpful in thinking through how the Passover applies to today, as well as being able to slow down and reflect more deeply about the Lord’s Supper.

On Friday night I divided the night into 5 parts and focused on the individualistic part of our faith. We are called into a community, but we are still still individually members of that community. Since February, we had been going through a series titled “Christ in the Psalms” so I carried that idea into our Good Friday service. It was divided into 5 sections with a Gospel passage being read aloud, followed by a Psalm displayed on the screen for people to pray through, and a station for people to participate in. As people were walking in there was a half sheet of paper with instructions, a nail and a pen to grab and take in to the service. It was divided as follows:

Remember

Luke 22:14-23

Psalm  105:1-11

Think back to when the cross and the Gospel message first began making sense to you. Write out that story in the space below, if there is not enough room, use the back of your paper.

SING: The Wonderful Cross

Betrayal

John 18:1-32

Psalm 55

IMG_2814

On each side of the front of the sanctuary is a cross painted on a canvas, when you’ve had enough time to reflect, walk down the middle aisles to paint the canvas red. There are wipes for your fingers once you’re done. Please walk back to your seat on the farthest outside aisles.

Suffered

John 19:1-16a

Psalm 73

In the front middle of the sanctuary is a bucket for you to drop the nails you picked up when you entered. Whenever you have had enough time to reflect, please walk down the middle aisles and then return to your seat on the outside aisles.

SING: Were You There

Crucified

John 19:16b-30

Psalm 22

At the bottom of this paper is a space for you to write out why Jesus had to die for YOU. Write out as few or as many sins in that space as God lays on your heart.

It Is Finished

John 19:38-42

SING: Once Again

Psalm 25

On your way out the door, tear off the paper below where you wrote your sins and place them at the foot of the cross at the back of the sanctuary.

If you would like to “borrow” any of these ideas for your services, please do! They were enjoyable to plan and hopefully encouraging to the congregation.

Songs Are Like Sermons

One of the most common phrases I hear about contemporary worship songs is that they lack the depth and richness of hymns. While I would strongly disagree with that statement, I don’t hear the same argument being made for the sermons that are preached or (for most people) the Bible translations we use. When David penned the words, “Sing to the Lord a new song” did he actually mean it, or was it just a cute phrase he penned to mean something else?

One of the things I’ve been reminded about God recently is that we will never fully understand him. His ways are so much superior to ours that we need an eternity with him to be able to adequately understand him (Isaiah 55:8-9). That means that while the Bible is the inerrant and infallible Word of God, it isn’t complete. If God can never be fully grasped, then all the ink and paper in the world could never adequately describe him (John 21:25). Every book about God will fall short in some area. This is one of the many reasons we continue to meet together on a weekly basis in the church: each week we’re reminded of who God is and what he’s about: redemption. The focal point of our time together on Sundays is generally the preaching of the Word which is, hopefully, an explanation of what the Bible is saying and how that applies to our lives today. While the preacher should preach Christ alone, he will still preach through the lens of his own life experiences and understandings, and no two preachers will sound the same. If they don’t preach exactly the same way through the texts of Scripture, can both still be right and faithful to the words of the Bible? I think, and really hope, so! Until Christ returns or we are called home our ideas of God will be skewed and will need to continually be honed and sharpened. We need the church and our family in Christ to continually point us back to God and to the glorious riches offered to us through Christ. We need a new word preached in a new way every week so our hearts of stone can be turned into hearts of flesh. Yet I don’t see the same logic applied to music.

Because God is completely superior to us, all the songs in the world would never be able to adequately describe him. That means we need new songs to be written that can help us to be reminded of who God is and what he is like. As we continue to be made more like Christ through the songs we sing, new understandings of God’s character will emerge and we’ll be able to relate to him in new ways that require new words. I would hope that our faith is an ever growing faith that moves us on to depth and maturity in faith. Yes, we cling to the words of Scripture as the primary source of truth, the norma normans (the rule that rules) while the songs we sing are the norma normata (the rule that is ruled).

So why don’t we hear people say, “These new sermons aren’t like they used to be,” or “These new sermons are so lacking in depth,” or “If only he would preach more like John Calvin”? Yet so many people will say these things about the songs we sing. No-I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater and never sing hymns – there is a legacy there and helps to keep us grounded in the tradition of our faith (just as a side note, that’s why I think reciting creeds as a church is helpful). But that doesn’t mean we need to demonize new songs or new styles within music. God is a God of innovation as he calls each new day into being. Instead of harkening back to a “golden age” of music or church (which I don’t think existed), be grateful for new ways to worship the God who can never be grasped. And in all that we do, whether in word or deed, may we do it all to the glory of God.