The great hymns of the church are on the way out. They are not gone entirely, but they are going and in their place have come trite jingles that have more in common with contemporary advertising ditties than the psalms. The problem here is not so much the style of the music, though trite words fit best with trite tunes and harmonies. Rather it is with the content of the songs. The old hymns expressed the theology of the Bible in profound and perceptive ways and with winsome memorable language. Today’s songs are focused on ourselves. They reflect our shallow or nonexistent theology and do almost nothing to elevate our thoughts about God. Worst of all are songs that merely repeat a trite idea, word, or phrase over and over again. Songs like this are not worship, though they may give the church-goer a religious feeling. They are mantras, which belong more in a gathering of New Agers than among the worshiping people of God.
These are the hallmarks of good worship songs, whether they’re hymns or choruses: biblical accuracy, God-centeredness, theological and/or historical progression, absence of first-person singular pronouns, and music that complements the tone of the lyrics (Mark Dever and Paul Alexander).
Worship should lead to greater understanding of theological truth. If we contrast the theological depth of the prose hymn in Colossians 1:15-20 with examples from modern praise choruses, we can see more clearly how trivial and insubstantial some of what we sing in our worship is.
A good hymn book is a wonderful companion to the Bible.
Our songs are not the cause of our loss of the sense of God’s greatness, though songs are surprisingly influential. No, our songs reflect this loss. Singing God-centered hymns is desirable, but more than that is needed. We sing what we feel, what we believe. When once we rediscover the greatness of God, we will sing it. Our song will echo our conviction.