Reflections: What is a Hymn? (Ephesians 5:19)

It’s been a while since I’ve done an entry in the Reflections category but a recent discussion at the Getty’s Sing! conference got me thinking I should try one of these again. During Matt Boswell’s breakout session on crafting better lyrics, one of the attendees asked “what is your definition of a hymn?” and his answer was something along the lines of “I’m still working on it, but it includes the combination of poetry and music that is meant to be sung”.

I’m also still working on my definition of a hymn and wanted to record some of my thoughts in this reflection.

First, I think part of the difficulty of defining the word “hymn” is that we use that word to mean different things in different contexts. Like the Hebrew word רוּחַ (ru.ach) means wind, breath, or spirit our English word “hymn” can be translated many different ways.

When a historian says “the earliest composer known to us by name is Enheduanna, an Akkadian high priestess at Ur, who composed hymns to the moon god Nanna and moon goddess Inanna…” (Burkholder, “A History of Western Music: 8th Edition”, paraphrased) they mean that “Enheduanna wrote songs to a god and even though we don’t have the music we still have the text and that’s enough to call it a hymn”. So in one sense a hymn is just the text of a song that is dedicated to any god. Nice definition but its not really helpful in a Christian church context… to be honest I’m not going to be playing any hymns dedicated to Nanna or Inanna any time soon.

Let’s bring our definition a little closer to home. What about when that guy oh so helpfully and lovingly scratches “WE NEED GODLY MUSIC! PLAY MORE HYMNS!” on the back of a prayer request card. Well, antidotally this means “use the hymnal that’s been collecting dust ever since we got a SongSelect membership and/or projected lyrics”. This is also a veiled way of saying “play the songs that I grew up with and loved”.

In this we find the problem with using a hymnal to define the word “hymn”; not every song in a hymnal is a hymn, even in the most secular, historical sense of the word. I have “The Hymnal for Worship & Celebration” sitting on my desk and “hymn” number 576 is “The Star-Spangled Banner”. Although verse two references God, the song is not written to Him or for Him. Instead it is a patriotic song. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone sing verse two! But moving on… how about “hymn” number 37, which is the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s “Messiah”, an English oratorio. Or the ye olde ancient number 30, “How Majestic Is Your Name” by Michael W. Smith that was written in 1981. Wait… when was this hymnal published? MCMLXXXVI? 1986? Wow… that’s an incredibly up-to-date-for-the-time inclusion of a popular song. It’s almost as if a modern church played “Our God” by Chris Tomlin… hold on, you’re saying that “Our God” was released in 2010 and its 2022 now? Its 12 years old already?

But I’m getting off the path. The point is that we can’t use a hymnal to define what a hymn is because a hymnal is a curated collection of songs to be used in church life. Whoever puts the hymnal together can include as many genres as they want. Patriotic songs, Gospel songs, ancient hymns, modern hymns, praise choruses, Psalm settings, Christmas carols, and children’s songs, are all wrapped up in one book. What goes into a hymnal is more dependent on the editor rather than the quality of the individual song.

If we can’t use the hymnal to define what a hymn is then maybe we can use the Bible… Spoiler: it won’t help, it will just make things more confusing. In Ephesians 5:19 Paul gives us three genres of music to be used in church life, “Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”. What are these genres? Unfortunately Paul does not elaborate and the Bible scholars shrug and say “could be this… could be that…”. My favorite explanation, but by no means is this the final, inerrant interpretation, is that Psalms are those Psalms recorded in the book of Psalms. Hymns are the other songs in recorded in other places in scripture, like Miriam’s song in Exodus 15. Spiritual songs are everything else. Which means, according to these definitions, almost everything in our hymnals would be considered “spiritual songs”. Okay, that’s about as helpful as the guy saying “play more hymns”.

So where are we now? Back where we started.

The meaning of the word “hymn” changes with its context. Whenever we use the word “hymn” we need to look to the context to understand what is being said. Are these song texts that are dedicated to a god? Are these songs found in the Bible outside of the book of Psalms? Are these the songs that this person grew up with that just so happen to be in a collection called a hymnal? Depending on your context, any of these could be the right answer.

Now this should bring us to ask “what is our context?”. From what I’ve seen in non-denominational churches, the music is going in two directions. On one side there are songs that are more focused on the worshiper’s emotional experience. These are generally called “contemporary” songs and tend to have more casual lyrics with melodies that blend congregational accessibility and performance elements. On the other side there is the modern hymn movement where the lyrics feature vivid poetry and melodies more suited for congregational singing.

Don’t take this short definition as an endorsement or condemnation of either side. Although I favor modern hymns, I still use “contemporary” songs in my services. Instead I want you to think of these definitions as a sliding scale, or if you’re into math, a graph.

On the X-axis we have lyrics. Are they more casual or poetic? On the Y-axis we have the music. Is it more oriented for performance or congregational accessibility? When people talk about hymns and contemporary I think they mean something like this…

The hymns are generally more poetic than casual but still not as veiled as pure poetry. The contemporary songs have more casual lyrics but still keep poetic images like fire, water, desert, eagle’s wings, and other things we don’t say in normal conversation but make sense in a worship song.

In regards to music, The hymns go strongly towards congregational accessibility, sometimes at the danger of being uninteresting. The contemporary leans more towards performance but stays just accessible enough that its possible for a congregation to sing along with enough repetitions.

This means that our working definition of a “hymn” is “poetic lyrics, written to/for/about God, combined with congregationally accessible music”.

When I shared this definition with my wife she took it a step further and pointed out that the lyrics are generally more theological in nature rather than worshiper focused… which means I need a new graph just for lyrics…

Once again we have casual and poetic on the X but this time we have “worshiper focused” and “God focused” on the Y. We tend to think of hymns as being more focused on the attributes of God rather than how we feel about God.

Now if you’re a songwriter remember that you’re looking for balance. If your song reads like a systematic theology textbook then no one is going to feel the truths that they are singing. If your song is all about how God makes you feel then you might not say anything true about Him.

If I were to chart my own songs out it might look like this…

(If you want to hear these songs click here)

I tend to be more poetic in my lyrics but I hope that this shows that these aren’t scales of good and bad. The quality of a song is not determined by its genre. Instead, each song, or hymn, needs to be evaluated based on its own content and merit.

So what is a hymn?

Well, depends on the context.

It could be a poetic, theological, God focused text that is meant to be sung by a congregation or it could be a song like “In The Garden” that just happens to be in a hymnal.

Is that helpful? I don’t know. But I think there is something hidden beneath the surface.

If I’m hearing “we need to sing more hymns” or “could we sing more contemporary songs?” then that could be a warning sign. Now it could be that I’ve met the unpleasable critic. I can’t make everyone happy. But maybe, just maybe its a sign that I’m losing balance.

If I keep hearing “more hymns” maybe I’ve been giving the congregation too many songs about their own experience with God and they need something more solid to chew on. They need a real, present, and powerful God that stays the same from age to age no matter how they feel about Him.

Or if I’m hearing “contemporary please!” perhaps I’ve drifted into the land of heartless knowledge where trivia about God has replaced an intimate, personal, relationship with God.

However you define a hymn, pick songs that glorify God, that lead others to sing truth, and that minister to the people you are serving.

What do you think a hymn is? How would you chart your favorite worship songs? Let me know in the comments!

If you’re looking for new songs I would be happy to help. We have lead sheets and chord charts for our latest release “The Home That He Has Promised”. Links below.

Grace Every Day

My King Has Heard My Cry

He Leadeth Me

God of Heaven

The Home That He Has Promised

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