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What Is the Purpose of Singing Hymns?




Robert Hampshire


In the Shakespearean play, Romeo and Juliet, the famous question was asked: “what’s in a name?” While Juliet was correct that a rose certainly would smell the same no matter what it was called, her and Romeo’s names did actually make a difference (and tragically at that).


While the person or concept we are talking about matters more than the title we give it, the words we use do matter, and often a lot.


This is where the inconsistencies, fluctuations, or at least nuances of the English language can make good communication difficult.


Because while two people may use the same word, they might mean something totally different. Sometimes this issue results in humor (such as “dad jokes”) or other times it can be very frustrating.


One example of this kind of miscommunication resulting from word nuances and inconsistencies is in Christian or Church music conversations involving the word “hymn.”


Because of the different meanings (even at times emotionally charged meanings) that have been given to this word, we need to come up with a clear, consistent definition to make sure we are all referring to the same idea when we use it.


What Does the Word Hymn Mean?

So, what does “hymn” mean? Does it refer to a style of music, an era of music, or something else? Let’s explore the history and definition of the word.


The word “hymn” has centuries-old European roots that mean generally a song of praise or “ode” to or about a hero or god.


It is not necessarily a religious or sacred word, but it is often used that way. Long before it found its way into the English language, though, the Greeks used it (although pronounced “hymnos”) to mean a similar kind of musical “tithe” of praise for someone.



This background and definition help us understand what the word means when we see it in Scripture. For example, in Matthew 26 we read that Jesus sang a hymn with his disciples after their Lord’s Supper before going out into the Mount of Olives.


While we can only speculate what that song was, we can be certain that it was a praise song to God (especially considering the fact that Jesus just prayed and gave thanks for the bread and the wine).


We also read in Acts 16, Paul and Silas sang a hymn while in prison, which resulted in them getting miraculously busted out, meaning they were praising God even before he answered their prayers! Similar to the Hebrew psalms they had been singing for generations, Jesus, Paul, Silas, and later the First Church sang songs of praise, celebration, adulation, or worship to God.


Eventually, though, many people in the organized Church stopped singing these expressive hymns and focused more on the pre-written “psalms” from Scripture.


What Is the Significance of the Psalms?

Psalms were (and are) beautiful, meaningful, and important (we have a whole book of them in the Bible), but after many years of repeating them, pioneering, musical theologians such as the Methodist Charles Wesley and the non-conformist (or non-denominational) Isaac Watts began writing new hymns for the church again around the 1700s.


However, history tells us that these new hymns were not initially widely accepted, and Watts, Wesley, and others were not everyone’s favorite worship leaders at the time.


Nevertheless, we today are so thankful for their boldness in writing new songs like “Old Rugged Cross” and “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” as well as some beloved Christmas carols such as “Joy to the World” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”



God’s people in Christian churches eventually followed suit by writing and singing more new hymns across the world.


The lyrics of these songs and poems were written down and categorized in songbooks that were understandably titled “hymnals.” Later on, sheet music with vocal melody lines was added to the hymnals, and then even more recently notes for piano and organ or vocal harmonies were added.


Somewhere along the way, these once modern and edgy hymns became the only worship language that many American, evangelical churches knew, and the ancient psalms were all but forgotten. This was probably at least partially due to the rise of denominational structures and mass-printing capabilities.


I’m not sure how publishers decided which songs to print in these new hymnals, but it is a good thing they were picky because Watts and Wesley wrote nearly 10,000 songs together (and that does not include countless other songwriters). Imagine carrying that book around!


At that point in Church music history, believers had an incredible wealth of songs to choose from in their sleek, hard-back hymnals that varied greatly depending on the publishing company, printing date, denomination, and color of their cover (red, green, blue, tan, white, to name a few).


Also at this point, most people began to call every song in a hymnal or hymnbook a “hymn,” even if it was not actually a praise song to or about God (and some were clearly not, such as the 1920s Albert Brumley song about leaving earth titled “I’ll Fly Away” that had a deliverance theme borrowed from a secular ballad).



This misnomer would eventually be a big part of the “worship wars” around the turn of the century (and that still exist in many churches).


Then as if history was repeating itself, around the mid-1900s many churches began moving away from just singing common songs from their hymnals and they started adding newer, different “praise” or “worship” songs into their worship services.


This was due to many factors such as a renewed interest in scriptural psalms (especially from the Jesus Movement), the popularity of other musical genres (like Southern Gospel, Black Gospel, Christian Rock, etc.), the rise of vogue Christian music (thanks to touring musicians like Bill Gaither, Keith Green, and Elvis Presley).


The energetic music sung at revivals and crusades that fueled church growth (like with Billy Graham and George Beverley Shea), and eventually the re-introduction of staff musicians and worship leaders that were regularly writing and finding new music for their congregations (similar to what Isaac Watts or even the Levitical priests did).


What Is the Purpose of Singing Hymns?

Today, the tapestry of church music is more diverse than ever in history as worship leaders and pastors get to choose from a database at their fingertips of almost limitless songs that span thousands of years. We have a variety of styles, feels, instrumentations, volume, focuses, wordage, and doctrinal leanings… sometimes all in the same service!


While this is wonderful for congregations with a diversity of sub-cultures and preferences, it has sometimes resulted in arguments and even walk-outs based on differences in opinion as well as (as already mentioned) a misunderstanding of the word “hymn.”



So may we not get shipwrecked on the sea of preference, but instead choose to sing songs with the singular, profoundly simple purpose that Paul gives us in Colossians 3 (and again in Ephesians 5).


Let’s sing scriptural Psalms, expressive hymns, and any other kind of “spiritual song” (as Paul calls them) with “thankfulness in our hearts to the Lord.”


Why? Because as the Psalmist tells us in Psalm 98: “for he has done marvelous things.”

Matthias David
Matthias David
Working in His vine, as He does even more at mine.


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