Jonathan L. Cruse
How do we know what songs are worth singing in corporate worship? Do we sing only the ones we know? Do we sing only the pastor’s favorites? Are we only supposed to sing songs written before 1890—or is it only those after 1980? As the phrase “worship wars” clearly connotes, this area of church life is a touchy subject for many people. Indeed, too many churches have split over issues pertaining to worship music. But are the songs we sing in church only a matter of taste and subjectivity?
Created in God’s image, we are required to reflect the perfect character of our Creator by offering our very best to him. To that end, our worship is not subjective, and it is my belief that there are certain principles to which our worship songs must adhere.
Our discussion will focus on only one aspect of hymns: the texts. We will not discuss tunes—my experience is in authoring hymn texts, not composing music. If you would like to learn more about what musical elements are required for good hymnody, I recommend the excellent New Horizons article by Timothy and Lou Ann Shafer, “What Makes a Good Hymn?” (March 2009).
But as we now attempt to determine which hymn texts belong in our worship, I have found it helpful to ask two baseline questions:
These questions should serve as helpful guidelines in determining which “worship words” are worthwhile and worthy, as well as which ones are not.
Simply put, great hymnody must be saturated with Scripture. This does not mean that every line has to be directly lifted from a specific passage, but one should be able to defend every line of poetry with a Bible verse or at least a biblical concept. This should guarantee that our hymns are doctrinally orthodox. Furthermore, when we learn and sing biblically robust hymns, it is an opportunity to ensure that God’s Word abides in us. This is what the apostle Paul is getting at in Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly … singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”
Take, as a great example, “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” written by Matthew Bridges in 1851. This song is drenched in Scripture (the KJV, at that date), specifically the book of Revelation. Note these references in the first stanza alone:
When hymn texts are grounded in the Bible, they naturally tend to be God-centered and Christ-focused. While Bible-based hymns safeguard us from unorthodox texts, God-centered and Christ-focused hymns will spare us from me-centered texts. When we sing to God, our primary concern should not be our feelings or emotional experiences, but rather God—who he is and what he has done for us. Good hymns will therefore focus primarily on God’s works of creation and redemption through Jesus Christ, as well as his attributes: love, power, wrath, wisdom, etc.
Michael Horton writes that “the Biblical text never gives us the subjective (my experience or my offering of praise or obedience) apart from the objective (God’s saving work in Christ).… It never concentrates on what we are to do before establishing what God has already done.” Herein lies the difference between a hymn like “I Come to the Garden” and “Come, Thou Almighty King”—one is a reflection on a secret, Gnostic-like spiritual encounter; the other is a corporate cry for the presence of the triune God in our worship.
Does this mean that hymns cannot be personal or experiential? By no means! In fact, the arguably most famous hymn of all time is about a man’s personal testimony: “Amazing Grace.” But what makes that hymn so well-loved is that John Newton’s experience is applicable to the general body of believers: “Amazing Grace!—how sweet the sound—that saved a wretch like me.” Everyone who has known firsthand the transforming power of the gospel can say “Yea and amen!” to those beautiful words.
Lastly we want to consider the important quality of “biblical and theological maturity.” Good hymnody has the challenge of expressing profound doctrine without being overly cerebral to the average congregant, while at the same time not sounding trite. One can find truthful words that do not reflect an appropriate level of spiritual maturity. While it is true that “the B-I-B-L-E” is “the book for me,” and that “I stand alone on the Word of God,” perhaps a better expression for congregational worship is found in more substantial poetry: “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in his excellent Word!”
Paul S. Jones, church musician and hymn composer, writes that “hymn singing is a forum in which a broad public encounters Christian doctrine; therefore, the poetry should permit the least educated to comprehend (although not necessarily at first reading), yet give the discerning mind something to ponder.”
Undoubtedly, some of our older hymn texts use words that we do not use in everyday conversation. What do “panoply,” “harbinger,” and “hoary” mean, anyway? And why did some hymn writers a few hundred years ago decide to include them in their compositions? Should we consider these hymns outdated and avoid them? Maybe. Should we replace a word or two by something more modern and recognizable? Possibly.
But I believe that a better option is to take the time and energy needed to learn the meaning of those older words which at first seem foreign to us. The minister could easily help to orient the congregation’s understanding by offering a brief word of clarification on an unfamiliar phrase.
For example, it would only take about thirty seconds before singing “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” for a minister to explain the meaning of “Ebenezer,” and, in so doing, he is also able to give the congregation an exhortation on God’s faithfulness. Besides deepening our understanding of the Bible, this is an exercise that reminds us that we are not the first people to worship with these words. It teaches us that in corporate worship we join with the voices from ages past, just as we will join with them again in ages to come.
When considering what makes a hymn easily accessible to a congregation, we are primarily dealing with the artistic qualities of the text. What will make it beautiful, singable, and memorable? While much could be noted, let me mention only a few points here that I believe will draw a distinction between good hymn texts and great ones.
Rhyming is a hallmark of English poetry, although it is not an essential aspect of it. Rhymes do not exist to control what the text has to say or to disrupt the flow of poetic thought. In fact, when poorly employed, rhyming can hurt a hymn more than it can help. In a sense, the singer should not even notice the rhymes when they are well written. However, when a rhyme scheme has been established and is then feebly executed, the singer will (if even for a moment) focus on the oddity rather than the worship (“Does ‘lives’ really rhyme with ‘Christ?’ ”). This will not do.
A wonderful example of rhyming is the seventeenth-century poem by Samuel Crossman, “My Song Is Love Unknown.” Here is the third stanza:
Sometimes they crowd his way,
And his sweet praises sing,
Resounding all the day
Hosannas to their King.
Is all their breath,
And for his death
They thirst and cry.
With seven total stanzas, and with four rhyming pairs in each, Crossman executes all twenty-eight rhymes perfectly. You may have noticed the unique rhyme scheme: ABABCDDC. This demonstrates that rhyming, especially in conjunction with the metrical setting of a text (i.e., the number of syllables per line), can be utilized in creative ways to influence the affect of a text.
For instance, “Praise the Savior, Ye Who Know Him!” by Thomas Kelly, has a rhyme scheme of AAAB and a meter of 184.108.40.206. This gives the text a natural momentum, even apart from music, and also draws attention to the climactic last line of each stanza, where the anticipated rhyme and meter is abandoned. Conversely, a hymn like “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” has only one set of rhymes in each stanza, and that over an elongated meter, which gives the poem a calm, meditative character.
Next, I would suggest that content structure is vital in making a hymn accessible. By this I mean that the hymn should have a unifying theme—it should not be a random collection of thoughts, even if they are true and orthodox. All the stanzas should serve to promote one main idea.
One way to do this is for a hymn to tell a story, so to speak, where each stanza leads into the next, so that if you were to remove any stanza, the hymn would not make sense. Singers are conceptually aided if they can sense a direction and progression in the text. “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is an example of this—how lamentable it would be to sing only the first stanza of that hymn—the devil would be left seemingly victorious! Incidentally, this is why all the stanzas of a hymn should be sung, as the author intended.
Finally, parallelism is important in making hymns memorable for a congregation. Parallelism is the art of repeating motifs throughout the stanzas. This helps the singer to quickly grasp the hymn’s theme or meaning.
There are different ways to employ parallelism. “Rock of Ages” opens its first stanza and closes its last with that phrase, like bookends. Each stanza of “Abide with Me” ends with those words. “Take My Life and Let It Be,” by Frances Havergal, is another example, where each subsequent stanza introduces another aspect of ourselves that we must give over to the Lord: moments, hands, feet, voice, etc. Pick up a hymnal and flip through it—you will find parallelism all over its pages.
All the examples given so far have been hymns written over one hundred years ago. Does this mean that great hymn texts are only a thing of the past? Of course not! The characteristics we have pointed out in these quality hymn texts can be (and are) still followed today. In fact, it is our duty to “sing a new song.” We should continue to compose texts to be sung in our worship that are both acceptable to God and accessible to us.
Below are two hymn texts of mine that hopefully achieve these goals, with suggested tunes from the revised Trinity Hymnal. The first is inspired by Ephesians 2, while the second explores the role of Christ as our advocate (1 John 2:1). Notice the parallelism employed in the first hymn and the progressive, storylike structure in the second.
My passion for hymnody stems from a passion I hope all Christians share: worshipping God in reverence and awe. Let us never lose sight of this. As we consider which hymns to include in our church services, family worship, and private devotions, may our aim always be to glorify God and to please him with the words we sing.
Tune: ST. MICHAEL
(as in “Grace! ’Tis a Charming Sound”)
“A sinner saved by grace”
My daily theme must be.
Arise, my soul, and now embrace
This all-sufficient plea.
A sinner to my core
In Adam’s fallen race,
But in Christ Jesus something more—
“A sinner saved by grace!”
When Satan, sin, and shame
Accuse me to my face,
I shield myself behind this claim—
“A sinner saved by grace!”
No harm can now befall,
No evil can displace
My ransomed soul when this my call—
“A sinner saved by grace!”
And when before the throne,
The Judge reviews my case,
My peace will be He loves to own
A sinner saved by grace.
(as in “My God, My God, O Why Have You Forsaken Me?”)
Before the dreadful Judgment Throne
Of holiness and pow’r
A terrifying scene is shown
Of sinners’ fateful hour.
For there the Law reveals their guilt
And all will fall in shame,
Arrayed in only rags of filth
With nothing good to claim.
But hope remains, for near the Throne
An Advocate now stands.
He lives the precious ones to own
Whose names are on His hands.
Before the sentence comes to bear
He stays the Judge Divine,
And makes His strong petition there,
And calls the guilty “Mine.”
The penalty reserved for them
By Him is fully paid.
No longer can their debt condemn—
Atonement has been made.
He takes their filthy, tattered clothes
And gives them His own dress,
And with this spotless robe bestows
His perfect righteousness.
No longer bound by guilt and fear,
Nor dreading punishment,
The ransomed raise their heads to hear
The verdict: “Innocent!”
To those He has defended well
Assurance now is giv’n
That since He knew their horrid Hell,
They all will know His Heav’n.
 Michael Scott Horton, In the Face of God (Dallas: Word, 1996), 214.
 D. G. Hart and John R. Muether, With Reverence and Awe (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 2002), 172.
 Paul S. Jones, Singing and Making Music (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 2006), 96.
The author, a student at Westminster Seminary California, is under care of the Presbytery of Central Pennsylvania. For a free resource of new Reformed hymns, visit www.hymnsofdevotion.com. New Horizons, December 2015.