Doubtless, some readers have been troubled by other obstacles to wholehearted traditional worship, obstacles more formal than practical in nature, which may be recurring to them even as they read. The apparent successes of Praise and Worship at creating spiritually engaged worshipers may make the consideration of other paradigms, however biblically established, quite unappealing. Although we have seen that these apparent successes, as often the case with appearances, are deceiving, we cannot ignore or dismiss the godly concerns of those who fear that the old musical and poetic language of congregational song is no longer suitable to support heartfelt Christian worship. These concerns had best be addressed here, on the heels of our discussion of the singer’s heart, because most of the arguments for praise-and-worship forms come, as mentioned, from sincere desire for heart-felt worship. What follows is a consideration of the most important of those arguments.


Some would rightly point to Scripture’s mandate that worship be intelligible (1 Cor. 14:10–11) and fear that hymns make congregants, to use Paul’s words, “foreign to the speaker, and the speaker foreign to me.” While the language of hymns is admittedly English, their usage is so dissimilar to our own that they seem foreign. To demand congregations to sing to one another in a language not their own is an abuse not seen broadly in Western Christendom since before Vatican II, and one which would make for uncomfortably common ground between traditional hymn-singing evangelicals and Tridentine Roman Catholics.

This concern rings true because its beginning premise is true. Not even the most poetic of us speaks naturally to one another in rhymed metrical verse where almost every word is essential. The concern is unfounded, however true it may sound, because most of us understand a good deal of language which nevertheless departs from our daily English usage. We do not speak to one another in the idiom of the television anchorman, but we understand him well enough to gather from him our news and weather. We do not speak to one another in the excited dramatics of the daytime soap-opera (unless its influence really is boundless), but we follow well enough the plot of its story. And, while we do not normally speak in the language of hymns, they are nearly as apprehensible—as any thoughtful reading of them will prove.

The confusion arises, perhaps, because of the difference between the way a person reads a hymn text and the way he reads a praise-and-worship text. Consider two lyrics side by side. Look for a legal copy of Matt Redman's popular praise-and-worship song “Blessed Be Your Name." Then compare its first two stanzas with the first stanza only (a handicap out of fairness) of the seventeenth-century hymn “Through All the Changing Scenes of Life,” which is based on the idea we may guess to be behind the praise-and-worship song (one found in Psalm 34 among other places).

Through all the changing scenes of life,
   in trouble and in joy,
the praises of my God shall still
   my heart and tongue employ.

Were they considered as high poetry, neither excerpt would fare very well. Some might even argue that the excerpt above is not even a particularly good hymn stanza. Nevertheless, it does communicate very concrete ideas. Life is given scenes which are changing. Some are troublesome and some are joyous. In either type of scene, the praises of the speaker’s God shall employ his heart and tongue. Though unaltered from its seventeenth-century original, the language is no more difficult than the language of our prayers and sermons today, at least after one slight inversion of word order (“employ” should really begin the last line) is ironed out. Redman's poem, in contrast, is intensely vague. We have no idea who is being blessed (or even what his name is).[1] We must wait until the second stanza to find out who it is who does the blessing, and even then it is still not quite clear from the two personal pronouns whether “I” am doing it. The subject and voice of the verb “blessed be…” are elusive.[2] Where is this plentiful land? Are we to interpret it as a metaphor for spiritual bounty, physical bounty, or not a metaphor at all? The contrast between the first and second stanza is clear (since only two lines change) but we must write in what this contrast means, conjecturing that the point of the two stanzas taken together is that we (which must be inferred) are blessing God (which must also be inferred) when we face spiritual (or physical?) blessing or when we face spiritual (or physical?) hardship. All this the seventeenth-century hymn makes ineluctably clear, along with a great deal more, in four short lines.

No one accustomed to reading English could dispute that the hymn stanza says more than do the praise-and-worship stanzas. The reason why some make the case for its unintelligibility is precisely because it says more. If one is accustomed to reading meaning into texts, rather than reading them, then the hymn stanza fails. Nothing can be read into it because it leaves no room. It specifies all its images and does not give the reader any opportunity to make up a meaning. It turns out that what is unintelligible in the hymn stanza is our own selves. We can look at the praise-and-worship stanzas and make them mean at least six different things (and more still if we call into question whose “name” is receiving the blessing), but all of these come from ourselves and may or may not be the meanings intended by our fellow worshipers. The text alone certainly does not mean any of them. The intelligibility of Redman's text lies precisely in its ability to leave us free to communicate to ourselves our own manufactured meanings, which are quite apart from the words we utter. It is very easy to understand a text whose meaning is wholly our own addition to it. We can’t help but understand what we ourselves create. So there is real legitimacy to the concern that hymns are unintelligible. It turns out, however, that this is the kind of unintelligibility that Paul is actually championing in 1 Corinthians 14. He does not want us to babble away to ourselves in words which only mean something in our own minds. He wants us to speak in a language apprehensible to everyone, even if such speech disallows our own privately-created (or even Spirit-inspired) meaning. Vague poetry may allow us to mean something in our worship, but it cannot, by definition, allow us to mean what we say.

The charge that the music of hymns is unintelligible is harder to answer because it is harder to understand. If those who bring the charge mean simply that the musical form of hymns is unfamiliar, we may only answer (as we have done in section 4) that we would expect as much. We do not find it a familiar practice when we prayerfully ingest a stamp-sized wafer and a single sip of wine, and call them a meal. However unfamiliar, we do these things because they seem best suited for obedience to our Lord. Things suited to different purposes will naturally be different. Church is the only place in our modern lives where we encounter the congregational singing of God’s word, so it is naturally the only place we would encounter a musical language made for that purpose. But this hardly seems the substance of the actual charge.

If, on the other hand, those who bring the charge mean that the music actually is unintelligible, in the same way that a sacrifice song from China’s Ming dynasty is unintelligible to a Western ear, then the charge is patently false. Hymns use the same basic musical grammar that has dominated most of the West since the seventeenth century. Praise-and-worship choruses do not adopt a different grammar, they simply say different (one may argue, fewer) things with that same grammar. If a man can sing a scale, he can sing almost every hymn in the book and probably most praise-and-worship choruses. This, too, seems far from the heart of the charge, and yet what remains of the original charge is hard to see.

One could be forgiven the assumption that those who bring the charge simply do so because they do not like the musical language of hymns. And just as that assumption can be forgiven, so can their tastes. Sit and listen to a recording of simple unarranged hymns without indulging in sentimentalism (like thinking of a relative who loved a particular hymn) and without singing along. If, after the second hymn, you have not walked away from your stereo to tidy the cupboard or thumb through a magazine (and thereby relegated the music to the background), you will be driven away by boredom. Hymns are not meant to be listened to but sung and, if one cannot imagine another purpose for music but that it be listened to, then one cannot imagine why some like hymns. Nevertheless, just as we must imagine a holy purpose for bread and wine which is different from their normal use, so we must imagine a purpose for music which is different, at least today, from its normal purpose. This is easier if we have some recollection of how music worked in ages when it had an interpersonally communicative purpose even outside the church.

The Unchurched

Nevertheless, the peculiarities of our own age bring with them challenges which do more than merely inhibit Christians from imagining a different function for music. They infect the outsider as well. In the face of an increasingly unchurched culture, we can understand why some argue that hymns will at best offer scant reward for, and at worst alienate, the unchurched visitor. Paul tells us that he has become “all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22). We see him appeal to the culture of his pagan surroundings, even up to the border of syncretism (Acts 17:23). Should we not follow his example that we might by all means save some? Hymns alienate the outsider because their texts are the meat of the spiritually mature, not the milk of infants. The musical form of hymns may be acceptable, in spite of its unfamiliarity, for a believer who submits to God’s word and sees that musical form as the best way to sing it congregationally. But a nonbeliever has no such scruples and will simply be put off by a musical form so unfamiliar.

To answer this concern, we would do well first to consider Paul as he is “all things to all people.” In the verses which precede that oft-quoted line, he says that to the Jews he became a Jew. Might we consider this passage from Galatians 5:

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything but only faith working through love.

or this which follows:

I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves.

as examples of his becoming a Jew? As to those “under the law,” in the same letter to the Galatians, he mocks them (4:21), compares them with the children of Hagar—children of slavery (4:23), and he says that those who rely on the law are cursed (3:10). “To those outside the law,” he rebukes libertinism (1 Cor. 5) and says that the unrighteous—as he defines them, the lawbreakers—will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6). As for being “weak among the weak,” he writes:

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? (1 Cor. 3:1–3)

Whatever Paul means by becoming all things to all people, it did not involve softening what God had charged him to do and say, however hard it might be for “all people” to hear it happily. Whatever our duty toward the unchurched, it is not to avoid the whole counsel of God, either in our preaching or in our singing. But this is to focus on what Paul did not do. He did change his behavior around certain groups of Christians, abstaining from activities which would likely compromise his ministry, however lawful those activities were. Might hymn singing be such an activity? It is perhaps on this point that those who oppose hymn-singing bring their charge and we would do well to take it seriously.

Is the musical and poetic form of hymns, however useful for congregational singing of the word of God, a form which the church should avoid so as to become weak for the sake of the weak? Do the unchurched hear our songs and, because of their musical or poetic form, discount our message? Some may do so, for all we know, but the unchurched visitor is not very much like the first century Judaizer nor is he like the tender pagan convert who shuddered to eat meat offered to idols. He is not likely, unless his life experience has been very unusual, to stop up his ears to our hymn-singing because its form has some negative association. Where would he have heard it before, that such an association could be formed? The spots and blemishes on the bride of Christ may be as repugnant to the world as they are painful to her, but most of the trappings of church worship are merely strange, not offensive, to the outsider. As proof, consider someone who has never before entered a cathedral and his reactions as he walks through the west portal of one. That which is utterly foreign to us can be tolerated, and even loved, if by doing so we find great truth.

We do well to concern ourselves with the outsider. It would be foolish to include things in our worship that exclude him needlessly. But are hymns such things? Christian worship must and will always seem strange to an outsider in the same way that the narrow streets of a European village seem strange to American tourists. No tourist with any common sense would wish them otherwise. He has traveled thus far because he wanted to see that kind of strangeness. Offer him broad streets littered with billboards and he will leave, confirmed that no part of the world is less garish than his own home. Granted, a congregation who sings hymns insincerely will repel an outsider, but in that case the problem lies not in the hymns but in the singers.

If this outsider is not a Christian, it matters very little whether he pretends to join in with the praise and worship chorus or the traditional hymn. He cannot, because of his spiritual condition, mean what he says. If he is a Christian, he is obliged to find the best way to sing the word of God congregationally and then, in that form, mean what he says whether he likes it or not. And if God is miraculously working the act of redemption in outsiders, he will likely do it through the ordinary means of his preached word. Whether that word is proclaimed more clearly in hymns or in praise-and-worship songs we must leave the reader to observe, with the “Hymn Studies” part of this website as an incomplete guide. The more clearly the word is proclaimed, the more likely it is to be of use in the conversion of the soul.

Singing a New Song

The concern to reach the unchurched by using forms familiar to them is related to but different from another popular concern—the concern for contemporaneous song. While the former concern is leveled against hymns because they do not sound like the popular music which appeals so much to the outsider, the latter is leveled against hymns merely because they are old. Some may be inclined to dismiss such a concern out of hand, but they had better re-read the Psalms before they do. At least five times (33:3, 96:1, 98:1, 144:9, & 149:1) we meet the psalmist singing a new song or else he is calling us to do so. Isaiah calls for a new song after he tells of the coming Christ (42:10). And of course, the song in the fourteenth chapter of Revelation is also new. Before we dismiss those who call for contemporaneous musical forms simply because they are novel, we should consider that novelty is often (though not always) a term of approval in Scripture. The grain offerings are new (Lev. 2:14), the wine to which Christ likens himself is new (Matt. 9:17), the covenant is new (Luke 22:20), and we are a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). Should we not then reject hymns, based on the biblical call to sing new songs? Is our stubborn retention of this old musical and poetic form itself a rebellion against God’s word?

Not likely, at least not on this point. Though the psalms call for a new song, they were themselves quite old by the time the early church sang them (Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26; 1 Cor. 14:26; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). Likewise, the song of Moses (Deut. 32) was to be an example to the people of God for generations to come (31:19).

Those who reject hymns because they are not new seem to fall prey to a very obvious logical fault. The logician would say that they assume the converse. “We are commanded to sing new songs, therefore,” they say, “we are commanded not to sing old ones.” This kind of bad logic convinces because it seems to work with some passages of Scripture. We are commanded not to steal and from that we can infer that we are to give alms. But when we hear, as in Psalm 46, that God will help Zion when the morning dawns, we cannot assume that he will fail to help her at the close of day. Other passages of Scripture secure the converse of the first example, while they reject the converse of the second.

When the opponent of hymns rejects them because they are not a “new song,” he is not really basing this rejection on the hymn’s actual date of composition. The relatively new hymns by Christopher Idle (b. 1938) or James Montgomery Boice (1938–2000) would not satisfy him any better than those by Watts (1674–1748) or Wesley (1707–1788). When he calls for a new song, he means a new musical form. It is not at all clear, however, that this is what the Psalmist means by “new.” The “new” psalms which the psalmist sings (Psalm 144 might be an example) are no different in form from the old ones. They follow the basic mode of Hebrew poetry and only the Hebrew scholar would be able to arrange the Psalms chronologically from mere formal differences, in the same way that only a hymnologist could arrange hymns in chronological order if he were admitted only poetic or musical form as his criteria.

Of course, no one with any sense of biblical authority would argue against singing new songs. We, at least, would heartily encourage the people of God to write new hymns and toss them, along with those of Watts and Wesley, into the sieves of theological scrutiny and time. But to make the case that we need not a new song, but a new form of song, one must appeal to practice, not Scripture, for Scripture will not grant such a case. And when we make this appeal honestly, we find that we do not need a new form of song after all.


But perhaps the practice of the Western church is not as useful when applied in other cultures. What seems to have worked well to produce congregational singing of God’s word here may not work in places where the actual musical language differs from ours. Moreover, in our current global culture with Western and non-Western ethnicities mixing freely, perhaps hymn-singing, which might rightly be rejected as foreign to a congregation abroad, should prudently be rejected at home, too, if congregations at home have become foreign to it. The charge of ethnocentricity must be answered in two parts, which we might describe as “abroad” and “at home.”

In what was once a mission field (and what is now the “Next Christendom”[3]) pastors must face some of the same concerns that the Reformers faced in the sixteenth century. Many of these pastors face cultures in which people either do not sing anymore, or sing only in contexts antithetical to a Christian service of worship. In such cultures, pastors must lead a congregation to sing to one another the word of God in a way that engages their hearts. Some have, with great sensitivity, employed music scholars to study the culture’s own musical language and forms and then developed a Christian hymnody in them. Others have simply imported Western popular culture in the form of praise-and-worship music, hoping that what is so universally successful at gathering a crowd in the West will succeed elsewhere. Others still have, much to the displeasure of some Western Christians, simply imported the forms of traditional Protestant hymnody with words in the native language.

The first option may seem like the most culturally sensitive one, but it comes with an unforeseen danger. To learn a culture’s own musical language is an admirable thing, but to apply it directly to congregational singing is problematic for the same reason that praise-and-worship is problematic. It may not be suited at all to the purpose at hand. Indian classical music, with its highly-controlled improvisation and long-breathed rhythmic structures, offers rich rewards to the attentive listener. Try to turn it into a congregational idiom and you will frustrate Indian Christians as much as Western ones. One musical form simply cannot do everything. It cannot be a contemplative form and a medium for congregational communication with equal degrees of success.

The second option is common, but brings with it, in addition to all the pitfalls of praise-and-worship music already discussed, the added problem that it sounds Western in all the wrong ways. Does the international church serve new Christians well by exposing them to more Western popular culture? The non-Westerner may thank you for importing modern medicine and water filters, but if he thanks you for importing rock music it will be the same kind of thanks that the Native American gave to the white man for his fire water.

The third option, despite its appearance of ethnocentrism, might be the safest. There may be wholly different musical forms, written in the musical language of a non-Western culture, which could function as well or better than hymns at knitting the congregation together in song. But, since the purpose of our congregational song is now foreign to nearly all secular cultures, it should not surprise us if there are no such alternative forms to be found, and there would seem to be some advantage in using a language already known to succeed. Its foreignness will be perhaps no greater than whatever else we might design for the same purpose out of the general soil of a foreign culture’s own music.

If this option may be the safest abroad, it is most certainly the safest at home. Even in the most culturally diverse of churches, the vestiges of Western musical culture still lay hold on congregants. Even if they did not, we would still need to devise a musical form that was especially suited to the rules God gives us about congregational singing. The practice of adopting forms made to do other things, however culturally familiar, will not easily accomplish our purposes. Again, it will do no good to point out that the forms of traditional hymn singing are culturally unfamiliar in today’s urban multiculturalism. Of course they are unfamiliar. The church’s culture is naturally different from the world’s, wherever that world may be. Some will be quick to point out that God draws to himself people from all cultures, but it does not follow from this that all cultural forms are equally fit for corporate worship.


Some may, however, dispute this last point. It has been said quite often among evangelicals in recent years that God is actually unconcerned about form, cultural or otherwise. Content alone matters to Him. Was it not Christ who quoted Isaiah in Matthew 15?

This people honors me with their lips,
   but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
   teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.

Even to suggest that obedience is linked to some aspect of form seems to them to run exactly against the tenor of Christ’s ministry. He taught us, after all, that it is the heart of men that matters.

Of course, neither Christ nor Isaiah were, in these words, commanding men not to honor God with their lips. The point is that we should honor God with both our lips and our hearts. Other examples come to mind. We tend to remember Christ when he says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.” But we forget the second half of the verse: “These you ought to have done without neglecting the others.” (Matt. 23:23) We have so often heard Christ preach against empty formalism that we think he is preaching against form altogether. Merely observing his own keeping of the religious forms of first-century Judaism would teach us otherwise.

The God who dictated that the cups of the lampstand in the tabernacle be made like almond blossoms “each with calyx and flower” (Ex. 37:19) is not a God who is careless about form. The forms of the tabernacle have passed away, but not to be replaced by formlessness. The same God who says to the Israelites “you shall not worship the Lord your God in that way” (Deut. 12:4) is “the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). So we may assume that God is very much interested in the ways by which we worship him. Where he instructs, we should listen and apply as best we can. This is not at all to suggest that we are perfect in our application of his instructions, in congregational song or elsewhere. But to hear God’s plain instruction about the purpose of congregational song and, upon hearing, to adopt a form which frustrates that purpose is a kind of rebellion. If such an assertion is formalism, it is a formalism quite common among the commands of Scripture.

Thus the model promoted on this website escapes, we may hope, from the charges of formalism (or what is meant by formalism) issued by those who are really best described as aesthetic relativists. They have learned from the teachers of our age that truth may be couched in any form whatever, though their own experience should show them otherwise. But there is a related charge which still remains—one of legalism. “Let us admit,” they might say, “that hymns are the best form for obeying the commands of Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19. This still does not give license to add to the law and say that it is a sin not to adopt this form of congregational song.” With those who say this, we agree wholeheartedly. We must not burden (and we, the authors, hope we have not burdened) the consciences of our brethren unnecessarily. All we can say is that the form of congregational song has an impact on a congregation’s ability to obey the scriptural mandate to sing. If a session adopts forms which impede the congregation, they may do so out of ignorance or out of a sincere conviction that the forms they have chosen are not, in fact, an impediment. This website has hopefully helped to eliminate the former, and the latter must at least reckon with its arguments. If some find the arguments convincing, but still fail to adopt the forms which best allow for congregational singing, then their decisions may be sinful. Whether or not they actually are is not for us to say.

Intellect and Emotion

Throughout this website, we have been making the case that congregational song communicates the word of God. Those nurtured in modern evangelicalism will likely find ours an overly rationalistic approach to a part of worship which has been, for them, much more about emotion than about communicated ideas. Nevertheless, these readers may be willing to grant to us that congregational song is communicative. “But why,” they might say, “can it not communicate emotions. Must it communicate propositional truth only?” Certainly the point seems legitimate. While we are to be “teaching and admonishing each other” in our song, and “the word of Christ” is to “dwell in us richly,” this does not necessarily make it clear that we are to teach through propositional truth. Could it not be, as the emotional worship of many evangelicals might suggest, that we are to communicate emotions to one another—the great emotions of the Christian experience—and by doing so make appealing the truths of the word which are later preached?

The difficulty of this position begins at its beginning. How, exactly, does music of a congregational sort communicate emotion? When people expect music to communicate emotions they generally mean either, in the better music, that it communicates truths which prompt emotional responses or, in the poorer music, that it gives them a backdrop for working up emotions in themselves ex nihilo. The best composers of contemplative music may, sometimes, have attempted (and even more rarely succeeded) to actually communicate emotions pure and simple. This is not usually their goal, and even if it were, it would not be a goal we could accomplish within the limited musical means of congregational song. A simple melody strung over a (relatively) predictable harmony will not communicate much beyond its own formal meaning. This is not to hold it in contempt, any more than one holds in contempt a sunset. Neither can, in themselves, communicate emotion. We would have hearts of stone if we did not react emotionally to them, but that is a different matter. And of course, nothing would be less appropriate in congregational worship than a poem which was actually about our emotions. A poem might declare our emotional response or solicit one from us. It might even leave us to whip up emotions in ourselves. But a poem about emotions, such as a Shakespearian sonnet or Emerson’s “Threnody,” is hardly what anyone is asking for.

When people say that they want congregational song to communicate emotion, what they really must mean is that they want to be emotional while they sing. And this is a very legitimate desire. It is a substantial part of what Paul means when he tells us to make melody with our hearts. The question is, what form best enables us to do so. The difference, on this point, between hymns and praise-and-worship music is the same as it was when we considered their respective intelligibility. A text with concrete ideas, vivid images, and unambiguous language is an impediment to someone subjectively seeking emotion for its own sake, because the emotions inflamed by such a text are not the emotions he seeks. They are a response, or reaction, to something outside himself—to those very ideas, images, and language. On the other hand, if a text is intentionally vague, the reader can fill in its holes with whatever emotion he can most readily generate from his own personal situation. His may be a very good emotion, but it is not one prompted by the truth of the words he sings for, by very definition, those words do not say enough in and of themselves to prompt any emotion at all.

The difference in musical form between praise-and-worship songs and hymns relates to this difference in emotional response. A hymn tune is supposed to weld a text to the mind of the believer. The good ones are melodically interesting, distinctive, and singable so that the congregant can take (and will wish to take) them along after the service and recall the words to which they are wed. In contrast, the tunes of praise-and-worship songs, insofar as they are tunes, are nearly monotonic or fragmentary, quite similar to one another, and are not singable without the accompaniment of the praise band. In one sense, at least, we say this without a hint of contempt for them. Their difference from hymns is a difference of purpose. What good would it do to have a tune which welded the text to the mind of the congregant when the text is merely a scaffold on which the congregant is to hang truths of his own private recollection? There is no real need to memorize the texts of praise-and-worship songs, since their meaning is largely dependent on the singer’s own additives. This explains the success of a music which is more repetitive even than the popular music on which its forms are based. The repetition is necessary for the worshiper who needs time to reflect on “what the words mean,” which is really a polite way of saying “what he wants to read into the words.” The more often the chorus is repeated, the more ideas that will come to the singer’s mind—which can then generate emotional responses.

The distinction is clear for any who have witnessed a young person in the throes of praise and worship. While chanting a single line of text, let us say “great is our God,” he becomes more and more tearful. The words he sings are not changing, but his emotional state is. He is becoming more emotional, but not exactly because of what he says. He is becoming emotional because of whatever it is he is thinking about, while singing the same words over and over. And what he is thinking about may or may not relate to the text. It may be true or false, good or ill, or it may be a mix. It is not likely to be exactly what his fellow congregants are thinking about (though it may be similar) and it is certainly not what he is saying with his lips. He will no doubt tell you that his emotional response is the result of the song. “Who would not be moved,” he will say, “by the greatness of our God.” But of course, the attributes of that God which might move him are ones he must himself recall. His song does not list them, or if it does, it does not do so in conjunction with his emotional response. He does not teach or admonish his fellow congregants, even by discussing his emotional experience with them through his song; he merely has his experience in proximity to them.

In contrast, consider the emotional experience (perhaps less familiar to some readers) of those who sing traditional hymns with their hearts. The pastor merely introduces the hymn’s name and explains how it may connect to that part of the service. The pianist or organist (if there is one) plays a brief introduction to remind the congregation of the tune and then the congregation takes over the song. As the worshiper hears truth after truth, uttered from the lips of his mentors in the faith as well as the little children, he is moved by these very truths. His emotional state only changes as the text itself changes. When he hears that

There is a fountain filled with blood,
   drawn from Emanuel’s veins,
and sinners plunged beneath that flood
   loose all their guilty stains.

he is encouraged by the instruction of his fellow parishioners, by William Cowper (the hymn-writer), and by the many scriptural passages of which these words are a summary. When he confesses that

The dying thief rejoiced to see
   that fountain in his day,
and there have I, as vile as he,
   washed all my sins away.

he can do so with a tear in his eye, rejoicing in his salvation alongside the others in his congregation who do the same. The tear will be there, no less than in the eye of the praise-and-worshiper, but his will be prompted by exactly the same truth he hears from his fellow saints in the congregation and from the hymn itself. After the service is over, he will have the truths of that hymn to remind him of God’s redemption all week long—truths not already present in his mind before the song began, but ones planted there by the song itself. Both the hymn-singer and the praise-and-worshiper have enjoyed an emotional experience, but one has done so because he has been taught and admonished, while the other does so because he has recalled some teaching from the past (we may hope it is on this, and not some folly, that his emotional experience is based). It should be plain enough which worship experience better conforms to Paul’s “teaching and admonishing.”

Attracting Young People

All along the way, we have been presenting the praise-and-worshiper as young. This was not by design but natural. While many older Christians have found themselves pulled away from traditional hymnody to praise and worship, they have usually begun this transition at first out of concession to the youth of their church, who, it is assumed, prefer it to the older form. Many a senior has first patiently endured praise and worship only to find himself swept away in the movement. There is admittedly something beautiful in his initial selflessness. Some readers may worry that, if we continue to sing hymns exclusively, the church might push away all the young people. Even if hymn singing provides the best form by which to obey Scripture’s lesson on congregational song, would it not be worth adopting a different form, or at least adopting it in some measure, in order to retain that vital and impressionable section of the church?

This is not the place to rehearse the oft-proven maxim that our current culture is a youth culture. The reader will doubtless be familiar, from experience if not from his reading, with the ways by which our culture idolizes adolescence and tries vainly to sustain it. The old hippy and the cosmetic surgeon are a pitiable proof. But even if we, contrary to the world, admit that no single age-group is more important in the church than another, we certainly would not want to run any of them off entirely. Youth on the whole are more attracted to praise-and-worship. We would do well, however, to consider why this is the case.

To do this we must return, for a third time, to the distinction between the concrete and the vague. Adolescence is the age of introspection and self-absorption. It is not merely for the sake of good looks that the mythic character Narcissus is always an adolescent. A musical and poetic form which invites the participant to import his own meaning will have a natural appeal to the young. In such a form, they can indulge their tendency to read into the world around them instead of attending to it. The pubescent boy takes the smile of the girl across the cafeteria to mean on one day an overture for an amorous relationship and on the other a mocking jest, while all along it was never anything more than good manners. He is much more ready than an adult would be to make something out of nothing (or nearly nothing) and enjoy, with what enjoyment can be had from it, his own creation. This behavior happily wanes in adulthood. We may, if sentimentalism and bad memory are at work, look back on this aspect of our own adolescence with fondness, but we should not really wish to return to it. And if not, we also must not wish to keep our children in it for any longer than is necessary. By giving them vague songs which leave the singer to add most of the meaning in, we encourage their adolescent self-absorption instead of expecting them to listen to their fellow congregants, to learn real truths from the real word of God and, in short, to grow up. That they cry out for praise-and-worship, as the young amorist would “awaken love” before it “pleases,” is all the more reason to keep them from it.

But is the danger as grave as that? Were we to include, even on a bi-weekly basis, a praise-and-worship song instead of a hymn, would this not be a passable concession? Granted that it encourages, in one sense, an unpleasant part of adolescence. Would this infrequent danger not be worth taking, in order to have youth in a service dominated by wholesome congregational song—not to mention good prayer and preaching?

The argument for blended worship seems compelling. But while eggs and flour or sugar and cream can be blended, hymns and praise-and-worship cannot. Instead, the one sits amidst the other like bits of eggshell suspended in batter, and the results are similarly unpalatable. They serve different purposes and yet go confusingly under the same name—congregational song. Some of the congregation will try to read meaning into hymns and work up an unrelated emotional response instead of enjoying the emotional response their content solicits. If the musical accompaniment is loud enough and a single stanza is repeated often enough, their efforts might not wholly be in vain, but what they then sing will no longer be a hymn in the sense that we have been using. Conversely, some of the congregation will actually try to make sense of the praise-and-worship song as if it were not meant to be read into, puzzle at its enigmatic meaning, and leave frustrated. More importantly, if it ever be established that one repertoire effectively fulfills the scriptural mandate to sing God’s word congregationally to one another with didactic and mnemonic components—and that the other repertoire doesn’t—we must accept the effective repertoire exclusively. What congregation would invite a bad preacher to give even one sermon a month on the grounds that some people in the congregation like his sermons because they do not effectively communicate the word of God? He may be invited once out of ignorance, and a second time out of a fondness for his person, but if it is preaching you want, he cannot be invited again.

Continue to section 6, “Common Pitfalls.”


[1] One could even point out that the song-writer is adopting an archaic (perhaps even “foreign”) pronunciation in making “blessed” into a two-syllable word, as the music compels him to do.

[2] Is it passive imperative, as in “[God] be blessed!”? Is it merely an affected or parochial present tense, in the same way that Jamaicans say “we be jammin”? The idiom is lifted directly out of the Authorized Version, so we may assume passive imperative, but this is still an assumption.

[3] As coined by Philip Jenkins in his book of the same title, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).