A crop of modern hymn writers is pulling Sunday morning singing back to a more traditional style.
Over the last few decades, worship music has trended away from the classic hymns backed by organs or even unaccompanied. Churches have moved to rocking praise songs made popular by Christian radio.
“I think its to the church’s poverty that the average worship song now has so few words, so little truth, is so focused on several commercial aspects of God, like the fact that he loves our praises,” says Keith Getty, considered a pioneer of the modern hymn.
There was a time when hymns were really like a sermon in song, used to drive home the message that came from the pulpit. Then came the praise songs.
Matt Redman’s rocking worship anthem “Our God” is the most popular piece of music in Christian churches today. That’s according to the CCLI charts that track congregational singing.
But creeping into the top 10 is a retro hymn co-written by Getty titled “In Christ Alone.” It’s a tune not written for a single performer, he says.
“Our goal is to write songs that teach the faith, where the congregation is the main thing, and everybody accompanies that,” he says.
Shooting For Theological Complexity
There’s no definition for what makes it a hymn instead of a praise song. But Getty says it needs to be possible to sing without a big band, easy enough that anyone sitting in the pews could pick it up. And it should say something bold, he says.
Getty performs and writes with his wife, Kristyn, who says one of her tests is to ask whether a song could be used at a baptism and decades later at the same person’s funeral. She says she can’t imagine many of today’s popular church music filling that role.
“There is an unhelpful, casual sense that comes with some of the more contemporary music that I just can’t relate to,” she says. “That’s not how I would talk to God.”
This theological complexity the Gettys shoot for has made them stars with the country’s largest protestant denomination. The latest edition of the Baptist Hymnal has a dozen Getty tunes, more than almost any other living songwriter.
Mike Harland of LifeWay Christian Resources says the Gettys have set a new bar. He’s been pushing his own staff of songwriters to go deeper.
“We say, ‘you know what? This is pretty, and this is nice, but it doesn’t really say much.”
While modern hymns are finding an audience, still the most popular songs with choruses that may have just a few words.
“How Great Is Our God” by Chris Tomlin is a refrain sung in mega churches worldwide. Nashville producer Ed Cash collaborated on the writing and says he laughed out loud the first time he heard a rough draft.
Sticking With Simple
“I remember thinking, you know that’s exactly the simple kind of brainless praise chorus things that drive me crazy,” he recalls.
But Cash has had a conversion to the praise chorus. He now believes the gospel message shouldn’t be complicated.
“You know, for some people, singing a simple, seven-word, simple chorus, draws them into the presence of God,” Cash says. “To me, ultimately what is the goal of worship music? It’s to exalt God.”
In the last few decades, some Christian church leaders have gone as far as to call this tension between contemporary and traditional styles a “worship war.” It hasn’t exactly let up.
But the hymn is getting more love, even from modern worship leaders. For instance, Chris Tomlin will often tag “How Great Is Our God” with a chorus of “How Great Though Art” – a hymn written in 1885.