Over the last few years in conservative corners of evangelicalism, it’s become increasingly common for us pastoral and/or music guys to say that we’re looking for hymn texts that are rich, doctrinal, or deep. As with any good movement, there are pitfalls to avoid and clarifications to be made. A few thoughts:

1. It’s a good thing for our church music to be rich in biblical quotations, paraphrases, and allusions. There are a lot of songs out there spun from worn-out stock phrases and three-verse variations on a cute devotional theme. Others may doctrinally correct, but they’re vague or worded in a way that encourages just singing over them instead of mentally engaging. I’m grateful to see many churches moving away from those types of songs, stepping up their purposefulness and choosing songs more carefully.

2. That being said, committing to use rich, doctrinal hymns doesn’t preclude the use of simple choruses or Scripture songs. Biblical won’t always translate into complex. The Bible contains sections of extended, dense logic (Romans) as well as other passages that, while clear and substantive, are simple and repetitive (Psalm 136). So we need songs that reflect both types in order to maintain a balanced singing diet.

3. Historic hymnody is good, but confusing grammar can hamper its usefulness. I love both the content and they beauty of old hymnody, but just because we use a lot of old hymns doesn’t mean that people are understanding and being edified (1 Cor. 14). Challenging our people with thought-provoking biblical concepts and challenging them with opaque wording are not the same thing. I agree that education is a legitimate part of the church’s task, and that Christianity is inherently text-related, but perhaps we should assess what types of things are worth taking time to teach. So while we might love the poetry in a certain old hymn, we should be able to recognize potential hurdles and either add words of explanation, update the wording, or just set it aside.

4. Doctrinal hymnody, like anything else, can become an idol. I’ve heard plenty of good men warn against thinking that a great praise band and the newest worship song will “really make people worship,” but it’s a temptation for those of us who love old hymns, too. Our job is to plan wisely and ask God to do what only he can do.

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