What Is A Hymn? Do You Know?

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What is a hymn? If you ask that to a room full of Christians, no matter what age, you will get a room full of various answers. I’m not sure that most people really know. Everyone seems to have an opinion about what a hymn is, but I’m just not convinced that most people could give a satisfying definition if asked. St. Augustine defines a hymn as “praise to God with song” and most of us would probably agree with his definition, but doesn’t it seem like there is a little bit more to it than that? If a hymn is simply a song of praise to God then isn’t every song that praises God a hymn?

Earlier this year I published a book on the Psalms called Out of the Depths: A Songwriter’s Journey Through The Psalms. I feel like the Psalms are relevant to any conversation about what a hymn is because the book of Psalms is one of the oldest songbooks that we have. In fact, similar to Augustine’s definition of a hymn, the Hebrew title for the Psalms is the word ‘tehillim’, which means, ‘Songs of Praise’. Form Criticism pioneers like Hermann Gunkel have helped us to see that the Psalms are much more related to the corporate worship of Israel and Judah than to the individual meditations of a pious person. Form criticism has also shown us that the best way to understand how a psalm was used in corporate worship is by identifying its literary form.

There are certain Psalms that are categorized as hymns and lucky for us they are the simplest form of Psalm to identify. The hymns in the book of Psalms all follow the same general structure:

  • An initial call to praise God
  • Reasons for giving praise to God
  • A renewed call to praise (conclusion)

While the hymns in our pew racks may not precisely follow that threefold pattern to a tee, we can observe two indisputable facts about hymns from the book of Psalms. Hymns are intended to be sung by the community of believers, and hymns give praise to God. Hymns aren’t truly hymns unless they are sung by the people, for the praise of God. Hymns take the focus away from us and they help the body of believers to understand that they are not the focus of God’s story, rather God is the focus of His story, and He is calling his people to journey with Him, with praise as their banner.

With this in mind, I have started a new endeavor which has to do with hymn, a hymn project if you will. I am a musician, songwriter, independent recording artist, and worship leader by trade and calling. Over the last 15 years I feel like God has been expanding my understanding of worship and I have seen that hymns are essential to the life of authentic worship in the community of believers.

Because of this, I am making hymns the focus of my next album. Every song on this album will conform to the above definition of a hymn. Each song will be focused on the praise of God, and each song is intended to be sung by the people of God together in worship. Each song is written, co-written, or re-written by me and other songwriters (Eddie Kirkland, Andrew Greer, Ted Rastatter, etc.) who are passionate about helping the church recapture its hymnody. Because of the communal focus of this project, I’m also hoping to create a companion documentary film and songbook to be used by local churches across the globe. God has already opened many doors for me to get this project in motion, not the least of which is sending five time Dove Award winning producer Craig Adams my way with an offering to produce this record. However, we still believe that there are more doors to be opened.

This is, without a doubt, the biggest endeavor I have ever taken upon myself. Appropriately enough, like a hymn, it cannot be accomplished by me alone. I simply lack the resources on my own and I need the help of the community. Thankfully God has provided a community called the church. If you are reading this article and are feeling led to help, we are simply asking for $5.00 donations. If God’s people can help us spread the word through social media about the this hymn project, we believe that we can get 6000 people to donate $5.00 each. If this happens then we can create what we believe will be an great resource to help churches sing together and focus on God, through hymns both ancient and modern. We are calling it the $5.00 Hymn Challenge, and we hope that you will accept.

We are also offering some great rewards for donors who go over and above this $5.00 challenge. To find out more simply visit www.GoFundMe.com/Hymns. You can also find many video links to share on social media at www.RickLeeJames.com/Hymns. Thank you for praying about this endeavor and for partnering with us on this hymn project. Together, with God’s help, I believe we can do this.


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This post originally appeared as a guest post on Worship Links Blog


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