In Defense of Hymns (And Praise Songs)

Musical instrument vintage fragment isolated on a white background.It’s maybe a little foolish to seek to intervene between warring parties. Especially when you are trying to mediate the conflict by arguing that both sides are a little bit right but mostly wrong. But if we all shied away from quixotic endeavors, there would be no Quixote.

In the last couple posts, we’ve considered the tragic reality facing many thousands of congregations in our cultural context: worship wars. We’ve outlined how painful (and dumb, and evil) this is. We’ve also seen that the Bible has lots of important things to say to this.

In this post I’d like to look a little more closely at some specifics about what exactly we’re fighting about. Each side of the worship wars loves to hone their weapons to take on the enemy – and the enemy is defined as a certain style of music. Hymns vs. praise songs. Let’s offer the arguments laid at the feet of each; then let’s take up the mantle of defense. For, in fact, many of the charges are more than a little unfair.


Hymns are often attacked because they are perceived by the contemporaries as being:

  • Old – Look, hymns have been around a long time. We sing songs that date back many centuries. Martin Luther penned A Mighty Fortress is Our God in the 16th century.  Francis of Assisi gave us All Creatures of Our God and King…and died in 1226! I mean, a lot of these things are public domain. No one can even collect residuals on these. They’re old. And old is bad. New is good. Would you rather drink old milk or new milk? Would you rather have an old TV or a new one? So why sing these old songs?
  • Slow/boring/dry/dead – Hymns are also viewed as being slow, boring, monotonous things. I mean…how many verses does this dirge have? How am I supposed to worship God when I’m practically falling asleep? These things are just empty rituals – just like so many other elements of worship in many churches – written prayers, tired liturgical responses and so on. We need jazzier stuff than this! There is no real life in hymns. Praise songs are way, way better. They are more personal, more spiritual. They touch the heart, the emotions, the soul.
  • Overly theological and cognitively oriented. There are just too many words in hymns. Antiquated language. Theological jargon. To sing All Hail the Power of Jesus Name requires a bit of mental taxation: “angels prostrate fall” (note: not prostate!), “royal diadem,” “on this terrestrial ball,” “with yonder sacred throng.” These phrases require a bit more mental energy than is required by Shine Jesus Shine. And who wants that? Who wants to think too hard? Who wants to bring a dictionary to worship? It’s so unspiritual to be so cognitive!

In defense of hymns:

  • Old – OK, this happens to be true. Most hymns are old (though there are some wonderful examples of some really terrific modern hymns – mad props to Keith and Kristyn Getty for In Christ Alone, for instance). But…perhaps there is no more annoying aspect of modern society than what C.S. Lewis famously described as chronological snobbery. Where did we get the (very odd) notion that new is better? While this is clearly true in some areas (medicines, vaccines, computer technology), this is clearly not true in a great many other areas of human endeavor. In fact, we humans are just as likely to demonstrate regression as progress. Old doesn’t equal inferior. Does anyone really seriously believe that today’s painters are superior to Michelangelo? Van Gogh? Rembrandt? Are we to suppose that we have more talented authors than Shakespeare? Better theologians than Augustine? Are we really supposed to believe that all of a sudden, just because it is now the 21st century, we’ve reached the pinnacle of human development in musicology? That today’s praise song writers are superior to Charles Wesley? Fannie Crosby? Frances Havergal? Isaac Watts? Seriously?
  • Slow/boring/dry/dead – I will readily admit that I have heard hymns sung and played in such a way that these adjectives would perhaps be accurate (of course I’ve heard poorly performed praise songs as well!). Sometimes this means you have an organist who needs to step on the proverbial gas pedal a bit (along with the other pedals). Poor performance should not lead to the rejection of the church’s worship heritage. What we need instead is…better performance. Another aspect of this (see my last post for a discussion of this) is that some songs should be slow. Meditative worship is at times proper, fit, right, and appropriate. Not all worship should be frantic. Whither the laments? Not all vocal worship should be the hundred yard dash.
  • Overly theological and cognitively oriented. I find it ridiculous to need to defend hymns on these grounds. Have evangelicals really become so anti-intellectual, so mentally lazy, that we can’t bring ourselves to engage actual theological content in our worship? Have we fallen so far from the life of the mind? Have our vocabularies become so impoverished? Entertain me! I don’t want to think! What a departure from the incredible richness we see in the psalms of scripture: a dizzying array of metaphors, a theologically dense vocal rehearsal of God’s nature and attributes. This may be among the most pathetic of complaints related to hymnody. “Me no like think. Hymn make head hurt.” And yet scripture calls us to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind”; this is our “spiritual act of worship.”

Now: Praise Songs

Praise songs are often attacked by the traditionalists because they are perceived to be:

  • Repetitive – Praise songs tend to say the same thing over and over again. Praise songs tend to say the same thing over and over again. Praise songs tend to say the same thing over and over again. “There is no god like Jehovah! There is no god like Jehovah! There is no god like Jehovah!” Let’s be honest: Praise songs tend to say the same thing over and over again. This can get somewhat tedious, redundant, repetitive, monotonous. Repetitious.
  • Too egoistic – One of the chief criticisms of praise songs is that they are far too focused on the “I” to the neglect of the “we.” That is, they are radically individualistic and are far too divorced from the communal aspect of the faith. It is all about me and Jesus, whereas the focus of scripture is on the community of faith as whole, the people of God coming before the Lord in worship. David Wells (in great books like No Place For Truth) and many others have not only noted this, but have extensively studied and demonstrated this.
  • Overly emotive – If hymns are often criticized for being too much about the head, praise songs are often critiqued for being too much about the heart. They are overly sappy, gooey, mushy. Jesus is my friend; more than this, he’s my lover. I want to be near him, touch him, hold him, etc. This language of intimacy can be a real turn off for some people and (it has been argued by John Eldredge and Mark Driscoll, who make some good points even if you don’t care for those fellows) to men in particular.

In defense of praise songs:

  • Repetitive – OK. This is true. Many praise songs are repetitive. Of course, all music is repetitive. Hymns are repetitive. We keep singing that same chorus after every verse (pretty much like you do with a praise song). “Yeah…but sometimes in a praise song we just repeat the same word or phrase over and over again!” Sure. And hymns don’t do that? Consider this chorus of a classic hymn: “O praise Him, O praise Him, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!” Perhaps I’m missing something, but isn’t that really repetitive? Is the biblical model really so different? Consider Psalm 136 – “His love endures forever!” I’m sure there were more than a few Israelites saying, “How many times do we have to say that?” Or the ubiquitous “Hallelujah!” Count ‘em. Lots. And don’t all the songs we listen to (secular as well as sacred) repeat themselves? Sorry, but this is a dumb reason to dis praise songs.
  • Too egoistic – Some praise songs really are pretty egoistic. Of course, so are many psalms. Psalm 23 for instance. Psalm 103 for another. Psalm 91. Many of the psalms were “me” psalms. Not all, of course. As I pointed out before, there is a great variety in the psalms – some are individual; some are corporate. And so are praise songs. And so are hymns! Can we really claim that a hymn like My Jesus, I Love Thee is somehow corporately oriented? Many hymns are intensely personal. That’s OK for hymnody, but not for praise songs? That seems like a bit of a double standard. In my opinion, the arguments in this direction are generally pretty selective and tend to find what they are looking for.
  • Overly emotive – Some praise songs are very emotive. Sometimes that emotive language can even make us feel a bit uncomfortable. Of course, it is silly to pretend that the psalms of scripture are not also (almost painfully) emotive. Can anyone read Psalm 42 and pretend that this is not a song of deep emotional pathos? And are not hymns also emotive? Anyone who can sing It is Well With My Soul without welling tears is made of stronger stuff than am I (particularly if one understands the circumstances underlying its writing).

In conclusion: Hymns and praise songs each have many critics for many reasons. Most of these challenges, though, really don’t stand up to much scrutiny. Frankly, people in the heat of the worship wars are allowing their personal preferences to drive their assessment. They then seek to couch those personal preferences in some sort of moral terms to justify the view that their preferred style is somehow better. This is simply personal preference posing as moral superiority. That’s idolatry, and we should stop it posthaste.