Worship Song Categories

A year later…

I apparently started this post in July of 2013, ha.

Worship Song Categories: What should your church sing?

This may sound like it’s going to be a discussion about hymns vs. some other song form.  But it’s actually more of an anti-discussion.  I’ll give away my end point: we shouldn’t live or die on categories, we shouldn’t judge songs based on categories that are themselves actually based on preferences and [western] poetic forms, and we shouldn’t look down on Christians who like different lyrical forms than we do. To get to that point, though, a somewhat look at the commonly used categories/terms should prove useful.  Please excuse any rabbit trails, which are likely (I have attempted to avoid them and edit them down/out! … but likely unsuccessfully to some degree 😉 ).  :)

What is a ….

… chorus

A chorus tends to be a bit better defined (though common usage is all over the place, again).  A chorus is a single “verse” song that doesn’t have a repeated music section with different words (i.e., it’s not like a multi-verse hymn).  While that’s a simple enough definition, it is often used based on music style (i.e., a modern-sounding song is sometimes referred to as a “chorus” even if it has three verses and no chorus). This term tends to be applied more or less consistently, though it is still used as a catch-all-term for anything with modern/contemporary music.

… praise song

This seemed to actually have a better definition when the term started to be commonly used (songs like We Bow Down by Twila Paris or Great Is the Lord by Michael W. Smith), and was more or less synonymous with “Praise and Worship.”  It ended up being used to refer simply to a song with contemporary music accompanying it, though… probably because contemporary music did accompany the original “praise songs.”  Unfortunately, this term seems to primarily be unhelpful, as words themselves aren’t even always true of the song it is applied to (e.g., a prayer like Create in Me a Clean Heart isn’t exactly a song of praise but Holy, Holy, Holy certainly is).  Like chorus, it seems to be more of a catch-all term for songs done in a contemporary style.

… hymn

This was the hardest because it has the most variance.  I’ve searched the internet, books, dictionaries, and online forums for definitions of hymns.  I’ve basically run into three categories (ha! see what I did there… 😉 ) of definitions.

First, the dictionary definition, which is remarkably open.  It’s a song of praise to a god, hero, etc.  That’s it.  Interestingly, the grammar of this definition is a bit confusing… is the song directed to the god/hero or is it just the the praise that is directed to the god/hero?  It seems that either one would satisfy this definition.

Second, the dictionary-inspired Christian church definition: it’s a song used in worship.  Still pretty open.

Third, the tradition-inspired (in my opinion) Christian church definition: it’s a song used in worship that, depending on who you ask, has a variety of other requirements tacked on (these seem to primarily be based on experience/”growing up”).  Basically everyone would agree that it’s a song used in worship, but it’s these additional requirements that make the definition so hard to pin down.  Some of these requirements (or non-requirements), loosely in order of the most common to least common as I ran across them online:

  • Strophic (i.e., multiple verses where each verse is sung to the same music)
  • Consistent meter
  • Rhymes
  • Didactic (i.e., it teaches)
  • Is meant to be sung (i.e., it needs music to be a hymn; it’s a song)
  • Can stand alone as a poem (i.e., it doesn’t need music; it’s a poem)
  • “Objective” lyrics
  • Unrepetitive lyrics
  • Lyrics that have a progression of thought
  • Has four-part harmony
  • Has profound/deep lyrics
  • Cannot have a refrain
  • (and, conversely, many “allow” a refrain)
  • Directed to God
  • Must have traditional/”church” (Western…) music

You can likely tell that I don’t like this third category of definitions as far as clarity goes.  Because it varies so much, it’s almost meaningless to talk about “hymns” because everyone starts to think about something different.  Some would not consider What a Friend We Have in Jesus to be a hymn because of the “shallowness” of the lyrics.  Others wouldn’t consider This Is the Day a hymn because it is just one “verse.”  Still others wouldn’t consider How Great Thou Art as a hymn because it has a refrain.

So what?

Consider these statements:

  • I love singing the great praise songs of the faith.
  • Choruses are just so stuffy!
  • Hymns are so shallow and repetitive.

Ever heard any of those?  Probably not… how about these?

  • We need to pass on the great hymns of the faith.
  • Nobody will be singing praise choruses 50 years from now.  They won’t stand the test of time.
  • Hymns are so old and stuffy and have such archaic language.

These statements are, at best, confusing if we don’t actually know what each other is talking about. If we only ever talk about “great hymns” yet hymns have to be consistent in meter, rhyme, and have SATB harmony, what are we actually saying is important to pass on?  What makes “great hymns” great is the fact that they have such great meter, rhyme, and music parts?

If we complain that hymns are old and stuffy but someone thinks that a hymn is just a strophic form of poetry, what are we actually communicating (to them) is the problem?

If all modern songs, regardless of the quality or even form of the text, are “praise choruses,” then what are we saying when we also say that praise choruses will be more or less worthless to the church a couple decades in the future?  (the “test of time,” but that’s another [large] post…)

Basically, because of our confusion of terminology (and, granted, likely also the way we think about songs), we begin to malign and divide over really silly things.  Like whether or not a song text rhymes… as though what makes a hymn great is the rhyming scheme.  As though what makes a given song-text worth little is the fact that it has contemporary or traditional (depending on what you prefer) music.  As though what makes a worship song enduring to many generations is the fact that it has multiple verses.

Of course, we likely all disagree with those statements when put so bluntly… but when we have such unbiblical requirements for certain categories while at the same time praising those categories above others, it seems that this is exactly what we are arguing.  In order for a worship song to be really good for corporate/church worship, it has to be categorized as some term; but in order for me to call it that, it has to have these certain extra-biblical requirements.

Lyrical form ultimately matters little

This is my basic point: the form of the lyrics/song doesn’t really matter that much; it’s the content that matters.  Unless we take the actual biblical (i.e., the definitions that Paul was thinking of) meanings of the terms “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” there is no directly biblical basis for arguing that the church should do specifically one kind of poetic form vs. another kind (or not even using a distinct “poetic form”)Western poetry’s rhyme or meter, refrains, traditional music, contemporary music, or harmony or monody are not biblically mandated forms for New Testament churches.

Categorizing is fine (though it seems like it would only be helpful when we all agree on a definition), but we need to be careful that our cultural or preferential categories don’t become dogma that we presume are based on the Bible.  We shouldn’t ultimately care that much about whether a church does what we define as a “hymn” or what we define as a “praise song,” nor should I assume that people worship better with with a given lyrical form.  The church needs songs that teach, admonish, and encourage each other; songs that praise, glorify, adore, extol, exalt, and magnify Christ.

Perhaps certain topics are covered more frequently or with better clarity in certain eras of church history (now, 10 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago, 500 years ago, etc.), but that’s not really because of a particular lyrical form of writing.

It may be that, in your or my “church culture,” people do tend to think about the words of a song in a given lyrical form better than another form, and that’s fine.  People, language, and cultures are different.  But we should not assume that another church that uses a different form aren’t thinking or that the words are necessarily weak or worthless.

Furthermore, with whatever form or combination of forms works best, we should encourage writing new songs.  New expressions of our (and their) faith.

So, how do you answer someone asking what kind of songs does your church do?

I could answer “oh, we do hymns and praise songs” or “oh, we do a mix of old and new hymns” or “we do primarily hymns with some choruses occasionally” or “we use blended music.”

Those all may be technically the right answer to what the person was asking … but I think it might be better to actually redirect the question by answering a slightly different question with something like this:

At our church, we do Christ-exalting, gospel-retelling, God-glorifying songs that we can use to worship God and encourage each other.

That’s the real point, isn’t it?  The point of church isn’t to sing hymns, “praise choruses,” or listen to electric guitars.  The point is to sing those types of songs that worship/glorify God (citation: the whole Bible 😉 ) and that teach, admonish, and encourage/teach/admonish each other (Colossians, Ephesians).

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