Church Music Categorization

Terms Overview

As part of a handout for church to accompany sermons on music, my pastor and I have worked on term definitions … it’s difficult for the common modern terminology, since it’s not like there is really a correct definition.  Basically, we’ve come up with two main definitions which encompass a lot of music, but not all:

Hymn: a sacred text with multiple verses that is meant to be sung as a group and has some amount of theological depth, profundity, progression of thought, or something to think about.

Chorus: a sacred text that is relatively short (i.e., one might say it is “one verse”) that is meant to be sung as a group.

Mostly, this is based on how the terms are typically used when used in a consistent way (e.g., not referring accompanying music style or age of the text).

Categorization

However, these are both categorizations.  A certain amount of danger exists in categorizing them – though it is definitely helpful in communication – because we like to base value, worth, or “worshipfulness” on our categories.  For example, I have definitely thought of hymns (though I didn’t have a very good definition of what exactly that meant) as being, in some way, better than choruses.  I would typically rationalize this by simply saying that they contain more theology, more depth, more to think about, etc.

But can I really say that, in terms of worship, choruses are not as good (and thus, “not as worshipful”) than hymns?

No!

Like the heading? 😉  No, I can not say that a chorus is, by nature of song form or some measure of “depth” or amount of words, less worshipful or “less good” than a hymn.  I think there is a certain amount of wisdom that should be employed in determining when certain song forms are more appropriate and more effective … for example, at certain times, we tend to want something to think about to spur us on to think better of God.  Other times, we may have enough to think about and it would be more effective to have a relatively simple song to respond with.

But here’s the real clincher for me, so to speak.  If I am tempted to think that, because a given chorus is short, repetitive, and “shallow,” that it is therefore less worshipful than a deep, profound, and rich hymn … what about the Psalms and the songs in Revelation?

For example, Psalm 136.  Extremely repetitive; every other phrase is for his steadfast love endures forever.  That means that, in the space of 26 verses, you sing that line 26 times and some other line 26 times.  50% of the song is made up of six words.  And some of the preceding phrases are pretty short; like listing a couple kings:

Sihon, king of the Amorites
for his steadfast love endures forever

and Og, king of Bashan
for his steadfast love endures forever

Another example would be Psalm 117.  Very short.  Two verses consisting of a command to do one thing, and one reason why.  Here’s it in its entirety, ESV version:

Praise the Lord, all nations!
Extol him, all peoples!
For great is his steadfast love toward us,
and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.
Praise the Lord!

I would call this a chorus, if I were to categorize it according to modern terminology.  Now, I think I would be in grave error if I were to say that this Psalm exemplifies minimal worth as worship because of it’s brevity and lack of depth.  If I think that, I should take that up with David and the Holy Spirit 😉 And I have a distinct feeling I’d most likely lose that argument.

Here’s another example, New Testament this time.  Now, as my pastor pointed out, Revelation has a lot of background to it … all of redemptive history supports these songs.  We also have a lot of knowledge about redemption, though, so I think the point is still there.  Here is one of the songs that John heard (Revelation 4):

[the four living creatures: ] Day and night they never cease to say,
“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”

I kinda doubt this somehow means they literally say those words over and over and over for all eternity, I assume this is in some way sort of representative of what they are saying.  But, regardless … this is not particularly deep nor is it long at all.  This is definitely a “chorus.”  Yet the four living creatures are, er, clearly doing some pretty good worship here.  I would be very wrong to say “well, Mr. Living Creature, your chorus is okay, but I really think you ought to add some depth to it.”

Later on in Revelation 4, the twenty-four elders use this chorus:

Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.”

Short, brief, to the point, and … well, fairly shallow as we use term to refer to the depth of songs.  Definitely worshipful.

There Are Longer Songs

Clearly, there are also longer and much more in-depth songs… in the Psalms and in Revelation both.  This is not to raise up choruses or simple songs as what we need to be singing, nor is thinking wrong, nor is the didactic side of music unuseful, etc.  This is only to point out, to myself first, that simple, short, or “shallow” does not mean it’s less worshipful.  Does it need to be predicated on the truth?  Yes, of course it does.  All of the above short songs refer to some sort of truth, and they certainly came from hearts that know the truth.  But does the lack of depth or breadth in any given song mean that that song should be considered less worshipful for us to sing?  I really don’t think so.  And this is a change in my thinking :)

Appropriateness and Effectiveness

So, with the idea that hymns and choruses are not more or less worshipful, as a category, than the other … what about what is appropriate or effective?  I think this is where our confusion lies.  Sometimes, a thoughtful depth in a song is very effective and appropriate; other times, a simple song that we can use to respond from what we already know is effective and appropriate.  It requires wisdom to know which will likely be best.  In general, I’d probably error on the more-thought side, since we don’t tend to think enough as it is 😉 But this is not based on the worshipfulness of the categories.

This is not to say, by the way, that “I love you, I love you, I love you” sorts of songs or something like that are automatically supposed to be the diet of the church 😉 It’s instructive to note that even these short songs or highly repetitive Psalms did have truth in them; just not as much as we might be used to in our hymns…

Interesting stuff to think about.  Well, for me anyways. :)

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