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Hymns vs Contemporary Songs: Lessons from Church History

Updated: Oct 19, 2020


Once in a while, we see articles appear on our social media feed giving us "9 reasons every church needs to sing hymns" or "7 ways contemporary music is starving the church". Rather predictably, these articles would warn against modern Christian contemporary songs as being shallow, entertainment-focused, worldly, or even outright heretical! On the other hand, critiques against using traditional hymns in church service typically revolve around its outdated music and language, and thereby its “relevance” to the musical tastes of new generations of Christians.

Truth be told, I find such articles unhelpful in how it shapes our response, as these articles not only reinforce the unhealthy polarisation effect of social media by presenting readers with an either-hymn-or-contemporary-music position, but it also creates unnecessary divisions within our Christian communities based on the musical preference of our brethren.

In actual fact, music has always been a contentious issue throughout church history. There were conflicts about musical instruments, the manner of singing, and even what were acceptable meters and harmony in church music. Even our “traditional” hymns of today were once considered too innovative and they took a long time to be accepted by church leaders as congregational worship songs when they were first written.

In this article, we shall explore some of these musical conflicts and consider how these developments in church music history can shape our attitudes towards our present-day “worship wars”.

Surely Having Instruments Would Be Acceptable

One of the earliest controversies on church music revolved around the use of instruments. Instrumental music was an essential component of Greco-Roman culture, and such music was often associated with debauched entertainment that were at odds with Christian values. In a bid to combat the infiltration of pagan thought patterns into the Church, early Christian leaders argued forcibly against the use of instruments in worship.

2nd-century Christian writer, Clement of Alexandria (150AD—215AD), wrote: “We have need of only one instrument, the word of peace, and not the psaltery nor the trumpet, the cymbals, the flute beloved of those who go to battle.”

Cyprian, a 3rd-century Bishop, was yet harsher in his condemnation of instrumental music when he wrote: “He (the musician) endeavours to speak with his fingers, ungrateful to the Artificer who gave him a tongue… These things (instruments), even if they were not dedicated to idols, ought not to be approached and gazed upon by faithful Christians; because, even if they were not criminal, they are characterised by a worthlessness which is extreme, and which is little suited to believers.”

A hundred years later, the preacher, John Chrysostom (347AD—407AD), affirmed the benefits of singing for the believer. However, he too perceived musical instruments to be useless for Christian worship, and insisted that: “there is no need for the cithara, or for stretched strings, or for the plectrum and technique, or for any musical instrument” and that: “everything must be banished which recalls the cult of pagan gods and the songs of actors.”

As a matter of fact, the early Church Fathers were unanimous in their disdain of musical instruments! Yet, their sustained and strong condemnation of instruments provides us with telling evidence that there existed a widespread popular pressure to bring instruments into Christian worship. Nevertheless, these early Church leaders were largely successful in fending off the pagan influences to the effect that virtually most vocal music in the church was unaccompanied in the first millennium.

Too Emotional?

Another point of contention in Church music history has to do with the emotions of the worshipper while singing. A 4th-century monastic leader, Pambo, disciplined his monks for singing too melodiously! He believed that such singing was incapable of producing contrition and remorse for one’s sins, and only served to make the church and monastic cells “resound with their voices as if they were a herd of bulls!”

The well-known 4th-century Bishop of Alexandria, Anthanasius, held the same belief that singing ought not to be emotive nor enjoyable. He wrote: “Some of the simple ones among us… think that the psalms are sung melodiously for the sake of good sound and the pleasure of the ear. This is not so.” To Anthanasius, the main purpose of singing was to ensure that people are reciting Scripture and praising God often, and enjoyment and emotions had no place in Christian worship.

Conversely, during this time period, Ambrose, the archbishop of Milan, describes psalm singing as: “the blessing of the people, the praise of God, the commendation of the multitude, the applause of all, the speech of every man, the voice of the Church, the sonorous profession of faith, devotion full of authority, the joy of liberty, the noise of good cheer, and the echo of gladness. It softens anger, it gives release from anxiety, it alleviates sorrow.” Quite clearly, Ambrose had no problems with exuberant singing and a free display of emotions while singing!

With Anthanasius on one side and Ambrose on the other, another famous Bishop, Augustine of Hippo, found himself torn between the positive and negative emotional impact of music. Although Augustine saw that music may be enjoyable so that weaker Christians might be called to greater devotion, he also noticed how easily the emotional power of music could overtake him and leave his mind disengaged. This, he believed was not only unbeneficial, but was in fact, sinful!

Not In Triple Time? That’s Ungodly!

Then, 11th-century Europe found itself in a turning point with the rise of the modern city via a thriving European trade. In Europe’s new universities and with the flourishing of the arts, music, in particular, experienced a momentous change when musicians began to discover the idea of harmonies. Up till this point, the unison chant had been the predominant form of music within the Church, but as composers began experimenting with polyphony (the sounding of two or more different notes simultaneously), it opened the door to infinite musical choices and variations.

With such significant developments in music, there was inevitably an impact on church music. However, as polyphony got more complex, it soon became an inaccessible form of singing for untrained worshippers. Singing in church was now in danger of being reserved for only the professionals! Furthermore, as the music became more elaborate, concerns arose that the words would soon become subservient to the music.

12th-century Bishop of Chartes, John of Salisbury, was among those who raised strong objections against polyphonic singing. This was his harsh critique: “One sings low, another higher, a third higher still, while a fourth puts in every now and then some supplemental notes… when they see the lascivious (lewd) gesticulations of the singers, and hear the meretricious (flashy) alternations and shakings of the voices, the people cannot restrain their laughter, and you would think they had come not to prayer, but to a spectacle, not to an oratory (chapel), but to a theatre.”

Despite the protests, church music continued its development within this era of great innovation and another controversy ensued in the year 1321. Until then, church music was written in beats of threes—3/4 or 6/8 time signature, also known as “perfect time”. This preference for triple time was unsurprisingly due to its associations with the Trinity. However, in 1321, Jehan des Murs, a French music theorist, introduced a new meter system known as the “Ars nova notation” and enabled pieces to be written in duple meter (2/4)—otherwise known as “imperfect time”. Quite expectedly, there was a push-back against the Ars nova notation system, as it appeared to undermine the church’s theology of music. Yet, in hindsight, Jehan des Murs certainly won the day, given the large number of church music, even today, written in Ars nova notation.

Singing Scripture Or Themes

But surely our beloved traditional hymns would not have faced any controversy when they were first introduced?

It is really unfortunate that our present-day church music conflict has been framed as a “traditional hymn” versus “Contemporary Christian Music” battle. This is misleading, especially for those unfamiliar with church music history, as the main arguments tend to focus on the “newness” or “agedness” of a song. Yet, the traditional hymns of today were at one point the contemporary songs of their time period in history. In fact, the criticisms levelled at our modern Christian choruses were not all that dissimilar to those said of these traditional hymns when they were first introduced.

When pastor and prolific hymn-writer, Isaac Watts (When I Survey The Wondrous Cross, Joy To The World), first published his hymns in the 1700s, he had hoped that the hymns would invoke deep spiritual responses within worshippers. He believed that in order to invoke these spiritual responses, the hymns ought to reflect the spiritual insights of the songwriter, and that congregational songs should not be confined to the biblical psalms, but should include freely composed hymns on biblical themes. Naturally, Watt’s hymns invited much criticism from fellow Christians, who had up till that point been used to singing words directly from Scripture. They accused Watts of playing fast and loose with divinely inspired psalms and labelled his hymns “Watt’s flights of fancy” or “Watt’s whims”.

While Isaac Watt had to endure the criticisms, he did eventually pave the way for future hymn writers such as the Wesley brothers (O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing) and John Newton (Amazing Grace), as England experienced a “hymn explosion” in the 1800s. As one historian noted, it was “hymn books galore” in those days. Even then, church leaders were generally opposed to the use of hymns and preferred the old tradition of singing directly from Scripture. In fact, it was not until 1820, more than a hundred years after Isaac Watts’ landmark “Hymn and Spiritual Songs” was published in 1707, that the Church of England formally approved the singing of hymns in the church service.

A Better Perspective

In our brief survey of conflicts in church music history, it may have amused our modern sensibilities to think of instruments, harmonies, and even our emotional responses during singing as conflicts that garnered harsh criticisms from respected church leaders.

Yet, we gain new perspectives when we appreciate that these were no frivolous squabbles back in their time. Various groups of Christians throughout history have had strong views about what church music ought to be and they argued strongly for what they believed to be right—just as we do now. In all these, perhaps the most important realisation is that conflicts in church music have always existed and will continue to exist with changing ideas about music and how music is expressed.

In COR, we are blessed to have multi-generational congregations worshipping together. As each new generation of Christians expresses the Christian faith in their own cultural milieu, there will inevitably be differing musical preferences and convictions about music choices for our personal and corporate worship service. When such differences arise, we would do well to embrace the breadth of view that history affords us, and resist making hasty, sweeping and harsh criticisms about the music preferences of the different members in our church. After all, the slow acceptance by the church of hymns in the 18th and 19th-century should perhaps cause those who favour traditional hymns among us to pause for a moment before writing off all contemporary songs as being too reflective of current music to be “church music”. For that matter, those who insist that we need to model after the early church’s worship songs would need to consider if we’re prepared to return to using unaccompanied unison chants in our worship services.

And as we look forward to raising up a new generation of worshippers in COR amongst the MSS and SPS Yashab youths, we may need to be prepared to embrace the music of their generation—electronic music, rap, or even hip hop!

Yet, this doesn’t mean that there is no room for correction or dialogue about how current music forms can be used appropriately in our worship service, but rather, we need wisdom to listen and guide all our differing generations in kindness, humility, and a collaborative spirit, so that we can all seek to advance the gospel ministry through the generations.

Kelvin has been a pastoral staff since 2009. His favourite food is Bak Chor Mee and wishes he can play soccer again soon!


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