Why do we sing? Hymns and contemporary Christian music in the church

There are a number of articles that have been written on hymns and contemporary Christian music in the church. I have read several of them over the years and it is a topic I have been mulling over for some time. There are those who advocate for only hymnal music and those proponents for only contemporary music which is often seen as more “relevant” today. Personally, I think both have a place and should have a place in today’s worship services, but I think incorporating them well requires considering why we sing as part of our church services.

A while back, I read this post from Ponder Anew: 15 Reasons Why We Should Still Be Using Hymnals and posted it on my Facebook wall because it resonated with me. The author, Jonathan, verbalized a number of points I had been thinking about but had been unable to articulate plus a few I had not considered. The post garnered some traction among my friends and led to a good discussion.  I really enjoy a good discussion on worthwhile topics.

The Purpose of Congregational Singing

Cover of a green Broadman Hymnal

The question I posed in the title was “Why do we sing?” I think delving into the reason why we sing in the church can help inform us in the choice of what we sing. I really think it’s an important question. I believe congregational singing is important not only because it draws the congregation together in unity in worship through which we glorify God in community and unison but also because well-chosen songs teach scriptural truths in a form other than reading or preaching and serve to further reinforce those truths.

I don’t know about you, but if it’s set to music I’ll have it memorized in no time flat. In fact, I used to get into trouble as a child because I had every single commercial jingle memorized and would sing every single one as they aired. Oh, and show theme songs? I had them covered as well. :)  I recall a time when I was expressly forbidden by my exhausted parents from singing any commercial aloud…so I just sang them in my head. ;)

The Importance of Accessible Music

If our goal with congregational singing is to involve the people and unite them in communal worship we need to ask ourselves if we are achieving that goal. Are we inviting people to sing with us in a manner they can follow and in a manner in which they can feel somewhat confident? I do think this is where printed music or the simple practice of regularly repeating songs with a consistent arrangement is so important as it reduces the ‘barriers to entry,’, especially for those who may not already know the song. I think this is also a benefit of including hymns, in particular. For one thing, hymns are often theologically rich and they are fairly universal, most especially if they are sung as originally arranged. I’m not opposed to newer arrangements of older songs, but I am advocating for unity and harmonious worship.

The Role of Music Familiarity

I recall instances when I was singing in the congregation and felt immediate relief and comfort when the words of an old ‘standard’ flashed up on the screen… only to become crestfallen moments later when I realize that though I know the words well, the arrangement is a mystery. For transparency’s sake I will say that when that happens, I find it upsetting because, for me, it immediately undermines my sense of unity within the body at that particular time.  Hymns cover a lot of ground and are classics, or standards if you will and there is a good chance that the majority of the congregation will know them or be familiar with them. This familiarity can also prove helpful for congregations that do not have their own buildings or hymnals as they tend to be widely known. If the congregants aren’t familiar with the hymn, the same music is repeated in each verse and likewise in each chorus. I believe this to be an asset to congregational unity. If the congregation sings three or four stanzas chances are pretty good that by that last stanza, anyone can sing with a degree of certainty of the notes as the entire song has been repeated a few times by then. If they are fortunate to also have musical notation, they have the advantage of seeing where the notes are going.

Contemporary vs. Traditional Music

Songs only begin to have meaning, to me, once I get over the hurdle of learning the music and get to the point where I can actually begin to focus on the words instead of struggling with which notes come next. Personally, if a song has too many verses each with varying arrangements you likely won’t find me singing. Sometimes that will change as I become familiar with the music, but frankly, some songs are just plain frustrating and not the least bit enjoyable to try and sing because they vary so much…so I just sit them out rather than play the endless guessing games. I doubt I’m the only one. What about those who walk into our church doors and are not conversant in our Christian culture? Is the music inviting to them as well or is it confusing?

The Joy of Hymns

There are a number of contemporary songs that I really love, and enjoy singing with my congregation.  Generally speaking, they are songs I have known for a bit of time. Sometimes I feel that a secret requirement of being a part of a congregation is to be conversant in the current songs playing on the Christian airwaves. I stopped listening to the Christian music radio with any regularity when a few things happened: 1) I no longer had a radio for the main area of the house where I spend most of my day, 2) I realized I could not identify with many of the songs- mostly dealing only with joy and happiness and ignoring the messiness of life, and 3) I became frustrated by the many songs with truly bad or overly simplistic theology getting stuck in my head simply because they were catchy. They just kept setting off wars in my head.  I think a fair number of contemporary songs are not really written for congregational singing, rather they are written to be sung by a single artist at a time and when they are used in a congregational setting they become awkward and stilted.

Choosing a Blended Approach

There are also contemporary Christian songs that I LOVE  to sing all by my lonesome as part of my personal worship, but they generally do not translate well to large groups such as a congregation.  It’s totally OK for songs to have their niches, but I do think it advantageous to recognize when songs fit more neatly into one category than the other and where they have the ability to separate rather than unify. I will say that I do deeply miss hymns for their musicality. I truly miss the joy and transcendent feeling that I experience when people know the songs and are afforded the opportunity to break out into their respective vocal parts which brings such richness to that experience. The sheer pleasure of being a part of a group whose voices work together so well tingles the spine! Congregational music, to me, is about celebrating our Savior and inviting those around us to join us in the celebration. Are we doing that, or are we erecting barriers to participation and unity instead by always choosing only one type of music over another?

A congregation is made up of so many people with differing abilities and points of view… I think the music ought to reflect that. In churches where we have had a choice, we have always opted for the blended service. My husband mentioned that his ideal would be opening in praise and worship for a time, having a short break, and then at a set time before the sermon, singing a couple of hymns as a way to move towards a deeper, more contemplative state of worship. I really love that idea. Could it be interpreted as a little formulaic? I suppose, but I’d rather look at it as a stepping stone toward unity of worship among the congregation.

Consideration for Sensory Issues

I think another very valid point in support of a time of quiet worship is the inclusion of those with sensory issues related to loud music. I have such a child. There have been visits to churches where we sat in the foyer during the music because it caused my child great auditory discomfort and headaches. As the parent sitting outside the sanctuary, it would have been really neat to know that while there may be a few loud songs, there would come a point when we could go back in and I’d be able to participate a little in the music portion of the service. Singing as part of a congregation is a definite highlight in my Sunday experience.

Final Thoughts and Reflections

This post is not to be interpreted as me saying  I have it all figured out, but rather as me saying that I do think that why we sing and how we sing as congregations are important questions to ask and as with all things involving faith, I think they bear consideration and wrestling with. There will never be a perfect answer, but I don’t think that should keep us from exploring different methods. And I will admit… I just don’t like feeling lost on Sundays. :)

(A little of my background: My first church experience began at about age eight and was at a church that strictly used hymnals. Given the fact I’m now 48, I’m guessing it’s a general commonality for those of my generation. Two other churches that I have attended since my childhood church have used strictly hymnals. One church used a mixture of hymnals and a screen, and all the other churches we’ve gone to have all used large screens… it seems any hymnal use is now a rarity, at least from my vantage point, which I might also add is a rather short vantage point often making screens very difficult to see! I’ve been in a number of choirs, large and small and aside from congregational singing, choral singing has provided me with the bulk of my musical knowledge and education.  I did enjoy rotating onto a previous church’s worship team a couple of times a month as a vocalist but I do not view myself as a bonafide musician. In fact, I’m happily surprised they let me sing at all considering my lack of official training.)


This essay is from our Anastasis Series where we resurrect articles from the past that are either still relevant today or can be easily updated. This piece was first published on July 28, 2014, and has been lightly edited and updated.

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  • Pamela – I can’t tell you how helpful this post was to me as a church music leader. The entire time I was reading the post I found myself shaking my head in agreement and feeling quite validated that someone else feels about church music the same way I do! Thank you for putting this into writing and sharing it with the world.

    • Marci,
      Thank you for taking the time to let me know that my post resonated with you. I will admit that I struggled in the writing of it as I have no desire to come across as a know-it-all, but I certainly do have opinions, both as a lover of music and a member of congregations for years. I covered a bit in the post and worried about rambling. I am glad you made it through! ;)

  • This is a much needed discussion in the contemporary churches of today. Too many worship leaders lead what “they” feel is worshipful which in many churches only mean praise songs. While I love a good praise song as well as the next person, they are missing an important link to true worship songs that are apart of the church’s history. Too many elderly are being left behind in the church because the worship leader does not deem old traditional hymns worthy. I believe Jesus sums it up ln 1 Corinthians 9:22-23 ” I have become ALL things to ALL people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”
    English Standard Version (ESV)

  • Thank you and I found that you had read some articles. Could you recommend some published and unpublished to me?I am writing a thesis on this problem. By the way, I don’t know if I should call it hymn or traditional hymn or traditional christian hymn, and I should call it contemporary christian music or contemporary worship music or contemporary christian songs or modern christian music or modern hymns? Do you have any good advice which is more proper? Thanks

    • Hello Faith :)

      I’m sorry, but this post was more along the lines of personal opinion formed over time through personal experiences and reading various articles and posts, so I don’t have resources to recommend, sorry.

      So far as descriptors, it’s largely a matter of opinion, but I might lean towards “traditional church hymn” and “contemporary worship music”. You might try typing each term into the Google search bar and see which results most closely line up with what you are after. Hope that helps! ~Pamela :)

  • Interesting article, I have been asking for several years now to many preachers/ministers – should christians use – “in worship services” modern hymns at all, and not solely use as referred to in scripture the biblical psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, I would appreciate your views from a biblical viewpoint not merely how we feel.

    Currently my view is God inspired Psalms should only be used in the service as nothing else man made is worthy of His praise. I think that once you get into what I call modern hymns, man then choses what they feel is right and appropriate as worship and depart from God Inspired Biblical Principal

    I am not saying no to modern hymns in everyday life, just not in the worship service, and would appreciate any Biblical reasoning to show me an alternate to this.

  • Excellent post! I loved the insight focusing on unity.

    As a worship leader myself, I believe my approach to blending hymns and contemporary worship songs goes along with your ideal. I use a standard arrangement most of the time, and keep things pretty much the same verse to verse. I don’t always separate hymns and contemporary songs into their own segments, however. Sometimes they flow together nicely. When I am preparing music for church, I make a list of all the possible choices for that week and then sing them to myself to see which ones flow together and make “sense.”

    The only point I will challenge in your post is this: that hymns are somehow more “musical.” They are, as a whole, no more musical than contemporary worship songs (the ones appropriate for worship, anyway.) There are a FEW outstanding hymns…but most of the good ones still only score a “B” in my estimation. Many hymns also have terrible theology. 3/5 of most hymns in the *average* hymnal are unusable. I have been on the hunt for a really good hymnal. I think I found one, but I am waiting for my order to arrive.

    As a composer, I find it troubling that anyone would say that new songs for worship are inappropriate. How are our modern songs, written from our hearts and minds (yes, human and fallible) less appropriate than a sermon or a prayer, also coming from a fallible human heart and mind? I know the people who hold these views about music have a high view of Scripture, but they still listen to sermons and read books of prayers.

  • Just discovered this wonderful and astute article. For me, hymns tie together spiritual moments from the past- -weddings, funerals, movie soundtracks, musical jams, etc. as well as the church experience.

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