Are Hymns More “Theologically Rich?”

I love all types of worship music (including hymns), and we sing hymns regularly in my church. All songs, regardless of when they were written are like anything else in life. Some are great and some are not.

I keep reading in articles that hymns are supposedly unique in that they are more “theologically rich” than modern worship music. That is just not true! Hymns are not any more “theologically rich” than songs that are written today. Those who say things like this really don’t understand what theological richness is, I suspect.

I grew up in church singing hymns and old choruses and I can tell you that most of them are absolutely terrible, but some are great. Most people who sing hymns today in church don’t realize that there are only about 10-15 hymns that we sing anymore, because the rest are just plain bad. That’s right, flip through a hymnal filled with hundreds of hymns, and you might find 10-20 that you’ve heard if you were born after 1975. 

When people say, “Those hymns are just so theologically rich,” what they really mean is “those hymns are lyrically complex.” A theological doctrine is no more rich because you sing it in poetic King James language.

Do a Google search for “most popular hymns” and read some of the lyrics. Some hymns have great lyrics, and most don’t. For example, one of the most famous hymns listed in searches is This Little Light of Mine, (which says don’t let anyone blow your light out), or maybe What a Friend we Have in Jesus (which basically says ‘You’re sad because you need to pray more.’)

Take the most popular hymns that we all love. Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing or It is Well With My Soul. They boil down to basic messages that God loves us, pursues us, and gives us peace. The lyrics are more poetic and complex to us, because they were written in the language of their day, which is unfamiliar to us. However, they do not state doctrine with any more richness than most of the modern songs we sing.

A song on a new Hillsong worship album is as “theologically rich” as any hymn. Consider Alive from the Hillsong Young and Free album: “I was lost with a broken heart, you picked me up, now I’m set apart.” Just this line alone contains theological doctrines like total depravity, election, redemption, and sanctification.

Just because a song lacks “thee’s, thou’s, and thy’s” makes it no less theological. Of course there’s worship music written today that is poor in quality and content, but the truth is that worship music has never been better in the history of the Church. The quality and creativity expressed in worship by artists today is at a level unforeseen in Christianity. Quality artists and musicians are expressing their love for God using all their God-given talent in amazing ways.

Every once in a while, I’ll hear a young person say, “Man, the hymns were so theologically rich,” which they think makes them sound spiritually mature. Or I’ll hear an older saint say the same thing, which comes from reminiscent memories of past times and is akin to saying, “They don’t build ‘em like they used to anymore….” The truth is that most things are now built better with features like seatbelts, airbags, and Bluetooth.

If you like hymns better, that’s fine. You may prefer vanilla or you may prefer chocolate. Just don’t put one genre of songs on a holy altar as if God finds it more pleasing. What God finds most pleasing is a biblically truthful song of worship that comes from a sincere heart. Most people will be able to sing from a sincere heart more easily when they can sing words that they actually understand.

Let’s continue to sing hymns (at least the good ones), and let’s continue to sing new songs (but only the good ones). As long as we worship for God’s glory, I’m sure He’ll mostly enjoy it.

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