What Make a Hymn a Hymn?

This conversation was sparked in a former post by trying to figure out the difference between a hymn and a modern hymn. And I’ve been having this conversation with people around me ever since. What defines a hymn? What is it that makes us use the term hymn for some songs and worship song for others? Instrumentation? Meter or style? Year written? Chord progressions? Melody?

Here is what the dictionary says.

hymn |him|
a religious song or poem, typically of praise to God or a god : a Hellenistic hymn to Apollo.
• a formal song sung during Christian worship, typically by the whole congregation.
• a song, text, or other composition praising or celebrating someone or something : a most unusual passage like a hymn to the great outdoors.

With that definition, what’s the difference between a hymn and anything modern worship song we sing? One of the major discussions in a lot of church settings is the use or non-use of hymns in worship? Is there something other than the year a song was written that defines it as a hymn?

What do you think? Is there a difference between hymns and other songs used in worship?

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  1. Jason   •  

    I don’t think there’s anything different other than what we call them. A hymn is a song of praise. A worship song is a song of praise. A modern hymn is a song of praise. What’s the common denominator? A SONG OF PRAISE! Maybe that’s what we should call all of them

  2. Kevin riner   •  

    Nathan, my take on it is not really what is a hymn. It’s more along the lines of looking at what Paul says in scripture; to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Those are the ones that need defining. My understanding is psalms are duh, the psalms in the bible, hymns which are written after the psalms and are prepared for performance, and spiritual songs which are momentary songs, songs sang from the spirit at that moment such as spirit led unwritten songs.

    • Nathan Sutliff   •     Author

      Good thoughts, biblical foundations are always a good place to base our ideas ha ha. Given your definition, if a church used a “secular” (another debate on what determines a secular versus christian song could take place but let’s stick to the old school premise of separate styles and labels) song in a worship setting how would you view it?

  3. Kevin Riner   •  

    Looky what I found doing a search on Google. I didn’t realize you had asked me question because there’s no way to subscribe to added comments.

    But to answer your 10 month old question, Lol, I find that it’s ok if used correctly, which in my mind correctly using a “secular” song would have to teach or minister or even support the message. Those are the criteria for any song I use in worship. Preferably using the song starting the service, or after the worship set to set up the message.

  4. Lou   •  

    This helps with my school project. Thanks!

  5. Kyle   •  

    If you open up a hymnal, there is a metrical index in the back. This refers to the syllabic structure of the poetry. For instance, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross is labeled L.M., which stands for Long Meter, which is That means that each phrase has that many syllables “When I sur-vey the won-drous cross (8) etc. Most songs that we call “Modern Hymns” follow some sort of syllabic meter. Look at any song by the Gettys or Stuart Townend and most of them can be analyzed based on the syllabic meter. “In Christ a-lone who put on flesh (8) He is my light, my strength, my song (8)” etc.

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