Learn a New Definition of “Hymn”

This is the first in a series of Friday posts on congregational song. 

When some people hear the word “hymn”, their hearts are warmed. They think of songs that have proven deeply meaningful to them through all the storms and seasons of life, songs of lasting truth passed down from earlier generations. “Hymns” are dear friends and precious treasures.

To others, the word “hymn” suggests a song that is dated and stodgy. “Hymns” seem to plod along stiff-legged, like a horse with no knees.

Whatever your associations with the term “hymn”, see the bigger picture. Expand your vision of what hymns can be.

Many definitions of the word “hymn” have been offered through the years. Here’s mine: a hymn is a Christian congregational song. That’s all there is to it. A hymn is any song that God’s people sing for themselves, as opposed to songs they only listen to or have performed to them. Hymns are all the songs we sing together, regardless of style. They include:

  • praise & worship songs
  • traditional “hymns”
  • gospel songs
  • choruses
  • global music–congregational songs from Africa, Asia, South America, the Caribbean, and elsewhere
  • spirituals
  • …and more.

In some contexts, we use the term “hymn” to refer to more traditional forms of congregational songs, to differentiate them from praise and worship songs, for example. Sometimes I fall into such usage myself. But realize that such distinctions are artificial and short-term.

Hymns are all the congregational songs of the entire Body of Christ. The term isn’t owned by Christians of one particular stylistic preference. Both lovers of traditional “hymns” and those who prefer more contemporary songs need to see themselves as part of a much broader picture. We are all part of the congregational song of Christ’s entire Church. That Church stretches through all cultures and ages, all peoples and times.

Expand your thinking! The Church’s congregational song is about much more than your personal preferences. You are part of something far bigger! Think like it! Sing like it! You are vastly richer in hymns than you thought!

One comment

  1. James Lowery says:

    If a hymn is simply “a Christian congregational song”, “all the songs we sing together,” then why did The Spirit through His apostle, in two separate locations (Eph. 5:19, Col 3:16), list three genres of “Christian congregational song” in the same order: ‘psalms, HYMNS, and spiritual songs”?

    Is there no difference between these genres? What principle is being expressed by listing the same entities, in the same order, in two locations of the inspired Word mean(“In the mouth of two witnesses . . .”)- if anything?

    Would He, over the centuries of persecution, spend His servants’ blood defending “songs and songs and songs”?

    This is NOT in any way a negative comment on this proposed definition, merely a request for clarification as we ‘retain the pattern of sound words’ (2 Tim. 1:13-14), and ‘bring every thought captive into obedience to Christ'(2 Cor. 10:5).

    I have followed your postings over the past year, and have been encouraged, challenged, informed and enriched by your writing: not only the WHAT, but also the HOW. I expect that this series will continue that pattern by God’s grace and for His glory.

    Jim Lowery
    Richmond, VA

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