Why Hymns Aren’t “Popular”

Zac HicksUncategorized7 Comments

In preparing for the release of my album, being an independent artist plopped into the vast ocean of worship music, I tried to keep my expectations level-headed when it came to the spread and popularity of our project.  I knew promotion would be slow and hard, and I knew the concept of setting old hymns to new music wouldn’t win any Dove Awards or KLOVE Top 100 spots.  Still, there were a few inroads into the mainstream that I was optimistic about making.  One of those was Worship Leader magazine’s program called SongDISCovery.  Last week, I received my rejection letter.

SongDISCovery is a monthly release of new worship music from artists across the board…anywhere from signed and professional to unsigned and independent.  The idea is that they keep listeners abreast of the latest stuff out there, from inside and outside the establishment.  They have a set of criteria for submission, and, believe it or not, I was actually thinking through those criteria as I was producing the album.  In my opinion, I fit those criteria to a T.  As opposed to the great music of my other better-known hymn-setting counterparts (i.e., Indelible Grace, Red Mountain Church, and Sojourn Community Church), I decided to go for a more commercial sound on the album, even at the expense of potentially being viewed as a sell-out by the brilliant new hymns movement community.  My goal was to smuggle hymns into a typical pop-rock sound and structure.  So, to receive an impersonal, prefabricated rejection letter was disappointing to say the least, and it leads me to rehash reflections about why hymns aren’t “popular.”  And I ask the reader’s forgiveness if I get a little cutting in what follows.  I try to temper my prophetic edge when I am blogging, but today is not a day for temperance.

#1.  Hymns aren’t “popular” because they have too many words.

Compare any normal hymn to any normal modern worship song.  Type it into Microsoft Word and do a word-count.  In almost every instance, the hymn has quite a few more words.   I offer one example.  CCLI’s top worship song is Chris Tomlin’s “How Great is Our God” (a great song).  It has 101 words (this includes V1, C, V2, B…which repeats several phrases…but I still left them in the count).  Charles Wesley’s great hymn “And Can it Be That I Should Gain” has 264 words.  The simple reality is that modern worship songs are often written with a subconscious threshold of word-count that is much lower than that of the previous 500 years (at least) of church history.  This threshold may not be obvious to the average person, but when the word-count is much higher than normal, it is “felt” that there is something wrong with or odd about the song. 

I guess for SongDISCovery, that was strike 1 against The Glad Sound.    

#2.  Hymns aren’t “popular” because they usually require more than four minutes to get through the song.

During production of The Glad Sound, I wrestled with what I knew was a rule of radio-friendly material: it has to be under 4 minutes.  The sad truth (sad for the industry, anyway) is that, especially when you set hymns into a modern structure and sound, they are longer than 4 minutes almost every time!  These hymn-writers poured a lot of thought and biblical reflection into their texts, and you can’t run through them like a freight train.  Furthermore, it’s not easy to cut out a verse or two to shorten their length without completely butchering the progression of thought in the hymn (even though I admittedly did that a few times…because I was willing to give up a lot of ground to get these hymns heard by the mainstream).  To summarize, envision this brief dialogue between Isaac Watts and the CEO of some large Christian label:

Watts
Would you consider my song to be on one of your artist’s upcoming album?

CEO
Can you tell me the approximate length of that song?

Watts
Depending on the arrangement, it could take anywhere from five to seven minutes.

CEO
Oh, I’m sorry Dr. Watts, I’m afraid that’s much too long. 

Watts
Well, what length is required?

CEO
It’s pretty much an industry standard that a song is no longer than four minutes.

Watts
What’s the reasoning for the rule?

CEO
You know, people get bored, they skip to the next track, it takes too much time on the airwaves…ultimately it just doesn’t sell.

Watts
Do you have any biblical rationale to support your rule?

CEO
(silence)

Watts
Well it seems to me that a rule is quite idiotic if it is based on pandering to people’s attention spans and pocketbooks!

Strike 2 against The Glad Sound.

#3.  Hymns aren’t “popular” because they take more than a cursory glance to digest.

There are some great modern worship songs out there.  I love singing Tomlin’s “How Great is Our God,” Redman’s “Blessed Be Your Name,” or Hughes’ “Here I Am to Worship.”  But the reality is that even the best of modern worship songs are still quite overt and immediate.  It really does not take more than one or two sing-throughs to fully understand the meaning of the content.  However, take a section from the forgotten hymn “Hark, the Glad Sound!”:

He comes from thickest films of vice to clear the mental ray
And on the eyes oppressed with night to pour celestial day
He comes the broken heart to bind, the bleeding soul to cure
And with the treasures of His grace to bless the humble poor

I have sung this probably over 100 times now, and I am still mining the depths of this one verse!  I remember two years ago debating with my worship band what that first line meant…it was hard to understand.  In fact, I’m just now realizing as I type this that the final line is a subtle allusion to a passage in Luke 4 when Jesus began His ministry.  So here’s the deal. It’s obviously not “popular” to have to take something home from church that you have to study in depth to fully understand it and engage with it in a corporate worship setting.  But are we really that stupid, that we have to be spoon-fed only that which is instantaneously apprehended?!?  If we only ate “instant” food, we would eventually find ourselves in a health crisis.  Likewise, if we only imbibe “instant” worship songs, what does that say about the condition of our minds and souls?

Strike 3 against The Glad Sound.

#4.  Hymns aren’t “popular” because they often require biblical and theological literacy to appreciate, understand, and engage with them.

Along with what was said in #3, many hymns can fly over your head unless you read or know your Bible.  Take, for instance, John Newton’s “Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder”:

He has hushed the law’s loud thunder
He has quenched Mount Sinai’s flame

You only know what the first line really means if you’re abreast of the ongoing theological dialogue surrounding law and gospel.  You only know what the second line means if you read (and remember) the Pentateuch and the book of Hebrews.  In our day and age of shallow, biblically illiterate American Christianity, it is no surprise that words like these aren’t popular.  They bounce off our hollow heads like a football on a helmet.  The labels cry, “Hey, if the people don’t get it, we ain’t sellin’ it.”  But if the people aren’t ever challenged to get it…God help us.

Strike 4 against The Glad Sound. 

#5.  Hymns aren’t “popular” because they can bring themes to worship that are uncomfortable.

Discomfort never sells…especially in America.  No one wants to sing about the wrath of God and the impending doom of those who do not submit to Jesus’ lordship.  A quote from “Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending”:

Every eye shall now behold Him
Robed in dreadful majesty
Those who set at naught and sold Him
Pierced and nailed Him to a tree
Deeply wailing, shall the true Messiah see.

I would probably, in sheer shock, get into an accident if I were driving in my car listening to KLOVE and heard those words aired.  It’s entirely uncomfortable singing about God’s judgment upon unbelievers.  I get uncomfortable every time I read the book of Revelation or read Jesus’ Olivet Discourse.  Does that mean I shouldn’t read them?!?  At the heart of our religion sits a man on a torturous, bloody cross.  Discomfort is in the DNA of Christianity this side of heaven.  In fact, discomfort is the fabric of our broken world.  You can’t convince a guy like me, a twenty-something whose wife was diagnosed with cancer four years ago and whose son was diagnosed with autism three years ago, that this is not so.  Nonetheless, abrasive themes such as mourning, pain, grief, loss, judgment, and sin struggle to find a biblically proportionate place in modern worship. 

Strike 5 against The Glad Sound.  And, for that matter, strike 1 against the Psalms of lament.  Evidently many of God’s worship songs would be considered throwaways, not hits.

Now, the reader may have been asking, why am I throwing scare-quotes around “popular”?  It is because I believe that, in this instance, popularity is more perceived than real.  I am witnessing an ever-growing number of mainstream evangelicals who are growing weary of the shallowness of modern worship.  They are types like me who are falling in love with history, liturgy, and hymns for the first time.  They are discovering that just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant.  They are being convinced that the axiom “new is better” is not true in all times and in all ways.  So, while the Christian music establishment (the labels and the corporations driving the marketing and the concepts albums take) continues to think it knows what’s popular, it is becoming increasingly out of touch.  And I thank God for this shift.  And that’s why “popular” needs quotes.

At this point I come off my soap box and make a few final comments to level out these rough edges.  I’ve been painting with a broad brush.  Of course there are a host of exceptions in both cases.  There are bad old hymns just like there are great worship songs.  Furthermore, most who know me understand that I’m not going to be one of those who pits modern worship against the traditional.  I love both and I believe in the merit of both.  In this article, I’m more interested in taking a stand against the “industry” which does sit behind and control a fair amount of what you and I receive as modern worshipers.  I sensed in my rejection letter from SongDISCovery that some of the industry’s values were at play.  And it is against those values that I will continue to aim my prophetic cannons.  SDG.

7 Comments on “Why Hymns Aren’t “Popular””

  1. Hello brother, I stumbled upon your website while doing a search for hymns set to new music. I must say that you have impressed me with your knowledge and I pray that the Lord blesses your endeavors. Is your CD available digitally in mp3 format? I am eager to listen to it as I already listen to others who do what you are doing such as Indelible Grace Music, Sovereign Grace Music et al.

    I don’t know if it’s your style or not but you might want to give some reformed rap music a try from artists such as shai linne, Timothy Brindle, Lecrae, Sho Baraka, the 116 Clique, Stephen the Levite, and Hazakim. Talk about songs packed with theology! Those brothers have it.

  2. Hey Carlos,

    Reformed rap sounds like my cup of tea! Thanks for those leads. I’m definitely checking that stuff out. Glad you enjoyed the site. You can buy our music in mp3 format on our site (music tab up top)…you can also get it on iTunes. Pick your poison!

    Zac

  3. great post zac. point 4 really resonated with me. i lead worship at a church and sometimes i will be checking out lyrics of the new worship bands…and just not be terribly thrilled. the whole concept of worship music becoming commercialized definitely has negative consequences (but that is another conversation really). i plan on grabbing your cd soon my friend. keep leading and loving.

    i would also second the reformed rap suggestions as seen above.

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