What are hymns? What is the value of hymns in worship?

A hymn is a type of song used in Christian worship that is normally sung by the entire congregation. The word comes from the Greek word hymnos that simply means "song of praise," so any song that extols the attributes of any person, place, or thing could be considered a hymn. However, in popular vernacular, a hymn normally is metrical, has multiple stanzas, and communicates deep doctrine whereas a praise and worship song may be more repetitive and might focus more on expressing our own love or gratitude toward God than on communicating truths about who He is or how He has provided salvation. Both types of songs can be useful for churches. The book of Psalms in our Bibles is a collection of songs and poems, some that express human emotion and some that focus more on God's divine attributes. These Psalms have been used in corporate worship since biblical times and can point to the value of including hymns during worship.

Music, particularly corporate singing, has multiple benefits. Music itself can be soothing, often focusing our minds away from worrisome distractions. David used music to soothe King Saul when he was tormented. "Whenever the harmful spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand. So Saul was refreshed and was well, and the harmful spirit departed from him" (1 Samuel 16:23). Music not only soothes our souls, but corporate singing actually aligns our minds and bodies too. Singers' breathing rhythms and heart rates match when a choir sings together and their thoughts are focused in the same direction. Psalm 135 calls for everyone present to praise the LORD together. "Praise the LORD! Praise the name of the LORD, give praise, O servants of the LORD, who stand in the house of the LORD, in the courts of the house of our God! Praise the LORD, for the LORD is good; sing to his name, for it is pleasant!" (Psalm 135:1–3). Corporate worship is pleasant indeed.

More important than music's soothing effects or corporate singing's ability to create belonging within a group, are actually the truths that the songs declare. Psalm 145 says, "One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts. … All your works shall give thanks to you, O LORD, and all your saints shall bless you! They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom and tell of your power, to make known to the children of man your mighty deeds, and the glorious splendor of your kingdom" (Psalm 145:4, 10–12). The purpose of these songs is to make known who God is and what He has done. Interestingly, our minds often remember things more easily and for longer when set to music, so what better idea than to set deep doctrinal truths to singable and memorable songs!

Good quality hymns will stand the test of time if they communicate deep truth in a poetic but understandable way, if they use harmony, melody, and rhythm in a way that everyone can sing along, and if they avoid passing fads in linguistic or musical trends. Some hymns have been sung for thousands of years like the Psalms (see Matthew 26:30) or "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" (around AD 275). Other hymns are hundreds of years old like "Joy to the World" (Watts, 1719) and "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" (Wesley, 1739). And still today new hymns are being composed like "In Christ Alone" (Getty, 2003) and "King of Kings" (Hillsong, 2019).

No matter what type of hymn a church decides to use, whether ancient or contemporary, it should be used for the purpose of bringing glory to God by declaring the truth of who He is and what He has done in a way that builds up the congregation into a more mature faith. In this way, churches can follow the long and biblical tradition of incorporating hymns during worship.

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