The Congregation at Duke University Chapel

Similarities and Differences in Evangelical Song: Old and New

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Similarities and Differences in Evangelical Song: Old and New

Reflections on Popular Worship Music in the Last 200 Years
Perhaps Contemporary is not that Contemporary

presentation at Adult Forum by
Lester Ruth
Research Professor of Christian Worship, Duke Divinity School
October 6, 2013

Today’s Questions

  • How different are hymns and choruses really?
  • How contemporary is contemporary worship music?

In Significant Ways the 2 Bodies of Song are Similar

  • The constancy of Evangelical piety
  • A key example: a lingering irrelevance of the Father and the Holy Spirit in worship song content; corresponding focus upon Jesus Christ
  • Another example: the propensity of the songs, old and new, to talk about human activity more often and with a wider range of verbs than God’s activity

But they are different, too.

  • Some teaser words that show key differences: heaven, above, death, thee, thou, ye, you

Method: What Songs are Being Considered?

  • 70 hymns that appeared in at least 1/3 of the evangelical hymnals in America from 1737-1860
  • 100 contemporary worship songs that have appeared in the twice-a-year top-25 CCLI lists from 1989 through February 2013

Here are the lists of songs

Early Evangelical Hymnody

10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)
Alas and did my savior bleed
All hail the power
All let this feeble body fail
Am I a soldier of the cross
Amazing grace how sweet
And must this body die
As on the cross the savior hung
Awake and sing the song
Awake my soul in joyful lays
Before Jehovah’s awful throne
Blest be the tie
Blow ye the trumpet blow
Broad is the road
Children of the heavenly king
Come Holy Spirit heavenly dove
Come humble sinner
Come let us join our cheerful
Come thou fount of every blessing
Come we that love the Lord
Come ye sinners poor and wretch
The day is past and gone
Dismiss us with thy blessing
Father of mercies
From all that dwell below the skies
From Greenland’s icy mountain
Glorious things of thee are
Glory to God on high
Glory to thee my God this night
God moves in a mysterious way
Grace ‘tis a charming sound
Guide me o thou great Jehovah
Hark from the tombs
Hark the glad sound
Hark the herald angels sing
He dies the friend of sinners


How beauteous are their feet
How firm a foundation
How sweet the name of Jesus
How tedious and tasteless
I’m not ashamed to own my lord
Jerusalem my happy home
Jesus and shall it ever be
Jesus lover of my soul
Jesus my all to heaven is gone
Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Let every mortal ear attend
Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending
Lord dismiss us with thy blessing
Lord in the morning thou shalt hear
Lord we come before thee
Love divine all loves excelling
Mortals awake with angels join
My God my life my love
My God the spring of all my joys
Now begin the heavenly theme
O for a closer walk with God
O for a thousand tongues
O when shall I see Jesus
On Jordan’s stormy banks
Rejoice the Lord is king
Rise my soul and stretch thy
Salvation o the joyful sound
Show pity lord o Lord forgive
Sweet is the work my God my king
There is a land of pure delight
Thus far the Lord has led me on
Ye wretched hungry starving poor
Welcome sweet day of rest
When I can read my title clear
Why do we mourn departing



Contemporary Christian Songs

Above All
Ah Lord God
All Hail King Jesus
Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone)
Arise and Sing
As the Deer
Awesome God
Beautiful One
Because He Lives
Better Is One Day
Bind Us Together
Bless His Holy Name
Blessed Be Your Name
Celebrate Jesus, Celebrate
Change My Heart, Oh God
Come, Now Is the Time to Worship
Days of Elijah
Draw Me Close
Everlasting God
Father I Adore You
Forever Reign
Friend of God
From the Inside Out
Give Thanks
Glorify Thy Name
Glory to God Forever
God of Wonders
Great Is the Lord
Happy Day
He Has Made Me Glad
He Is Exalted
The Heart of Worship
Here I Am to Worship
His Name Is Wonderful
Holy Ground
Holy Is The Lord
Hosanna (Praise is Rising)
How Can We Name a Love
How Great Is Our God
How Great Thou Art
How He Loves
How Majestic Is Your Name
I Could Sing Of Your Love Forever
I Exalt Thee
I Give You My Heart


I Love You, Lord
I Stand in Awe
I Will Call Upon the Lord
I Worship You Almighty God
In Christ Alone
In Moments Like These
Jesus, Name Above All Names
Jesus Messiah
Joy to the World
Let There Be Glory and Honor and Praises
Lord Be Glorified
Lord I Lift Your Name on High
Lord Reign In Me
Mighty to Save
More Precious Than Silver
My Life Is In You, Lord
O How He Loves You
Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord
Open Our Eyes Lord
Our God
Our God Reigns
Praise the Name of Jesus
Revelation Song
Seek Ye First
Shine, Jesus, Shine
Shout to the Lord
The Stand
Surely the Presence of the Lord
There’s Something About That Name
This Is the Day
Thou Art Worthy
Thy Lovingkindness
Trading My Sorrows
Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus
We Bring the Sacrifice of Praise
We Fall Down
We Have Come Into His House
We Will Glorify
What a Mighty God We Serve
When I Look Into Your Holiness
The Wonderful Cross
You Are My All In All
You Are My King
You’re Worthy of My Praise
Your Grace Is Enough
Your Name



What You Shouldn’t Pull from My Study

  • A condemnation of either body of song
  • Absolute characterizations about every song in both types of song
  • Absolute decisions about any one songwriter or any one congregation or any one service
  • The idea that the meaning of a song is only in its lyrics

A Key Theological Similarity

  • A weak Trinitarian quality out of sync with either classic Christian worship materials or apostolic naming practices for God found in the New Testament

The Specifics

  • Relatively little referencing of God as being Triune
  • Virtually no worshiping of God for being Triune
  • Only infrequently is there a naming of more than one divine Person at a time
  • Many uses of more general names for deity: God, Lord, King
  • When there is explicit naming of a divine Person, it is much more likely to be Jesus Christ.

Why such naming practices?

  • The influence of the Psalms on evangelical songwriting
  • Evangelicals really (and I mean really) emphasizing an ancient practice to direct worship to Christ and not just through Christ
  • Evangelical affections/emotions are stimulated by salvation and thus are drawn to the Savior
    • Reinforced by portrayals of Jesus Christ as the main (solitary?) actor in the dynamics of salvation
    • Reinforced by Jesus’ Incarnation giving him an “advantage” over God the Father and the Holy Spirit in affect-driven worship

A 2nd Key Similarity: Who Acts?

  • Humans get more actions and a wider range of actions than does God

Related Points on Action

  • When a divine Person is mentioned as acting, who is it likely to be? Jesus Christ
  • Do the Triune Persons work together? Generally, no. It’s one at a time with little sense of the Three working through, in, on, and with each other. (The songs need many fewer prepositions than does the New Testament.)
  • A balance in how the death of Jesus is portrayed as accomplishing salvation
  • Little historical sensibility in God’s activity, especially from the Old Testament and from the life and ministry of Jesus (with 2 exceptions)

Where are the Differences?

Significant Difference:
Direct Address of Deity

  • In CWS (Contemporary Worship Songs): great frequency and manner of directness
  • CWS comes through the front door of worship, boldly, aggressively, repeatedly without knocking, whereas EH tends to slip in through the back door by praising in indirect ways

Indirect vs. Direct Praise

Indirect Hymn Example

All hail the power of Jesu’s name!
Let Angels prostrate fall:
Bring forth the royal diadem,
To crown Him Lord of All.

Direct CWS Example

I exalt Thee, I exalt Thee
I exalt Thee, O Lord.
I exalt Thee, I exalt Thee
I exalt Thee, O Lord.

Verse 1
For Thou, O Lord, art high above all the earth.
Thou art exalted far above all gods.
For Thou, O Lord, art high above all the earth.
Thou art exalted far above all.


Significant Difference:
The Loss of Multiple Forms of “You”

  • EH (Evangelical Hymnody): Thee/Thou = human and God interaction;
    Ye/you = human to human interaction

Significant Difference:
Direct worship and exhortation

  • EH: greater likelihood of human to human exhortation, invitation, etc., for which ye/you is a handy marker of greater consciousness of other people
  • CWS: tends to emphasize the activity of human worship more, i.e., verbs like “worship” and “praise” much more likely

Significant Difference:
Verbs of journeying and failure

  • Much more likely in EH
  • Very different underlying doctrines of ultimate or last things
    • Fulfillment delayed: EH
    • Fulfillment achieved: CWS
    • Reinforced by the typical structures of the song
    • Seen in how the words “heaven” and “above” are used

Heaven Later and Heaven Now

EH: Heaven Later Example

On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand,
And cast a wishful eye
To Canaan’s fair and happy land,
Where my possessions lie.

CWS: Heaven Now Example

From “Revelation Song”:
Holy holy holy
Is the Lord God Almighty
Who was and is
And is to come.
With all creation I sing
Praise to the King of kings.
You are my ev'rything
And I will adore You.


Nothing But Sin...

  • From “Jesus, My All, to Heaven is Gone” by John Cennick
    7. Lo glad I come, and thou blest Lamb,
    Shalt take me to thee, as I am;
    Nothing but sin I thee can give;
    Nothing but love would I receive.

The Prospect of Death

  • ... by Isaac Watts
    Hark! from the tombs a doleful sound,
    My ears, attend the cry,
    “Ye living men come view the ground
    Where you must shortly lie.”

Accounting for the Differences

  • Context shapes piety
    • Rise of modern medicine has undercut the sense of human mortality, the constant fear of human frailty, and thus a dread for the coming wrath of God.
    • Rise of consumerist culture reinforces sense of possibility of immediate fulfillment: We don’t sojourn, we arrive. We now flee from meaningless, not an impending judgment. CPR and superstores have changed everything.
    • Many of the early contemporary songs were written by new Christians in the Jesus People movement. That movement had a strong expectation of the immediate return of Christ. Thus there was no need for long-term patience.

Accounting for the Differences

  • The loss of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as the organizing, go-to book to shape evangelical piety

Accounting for the Differences

  • The evolution of the English language
  • The loss of a common version of the Bible for all English-speaking Protestants (the KJV)

And so?

  • A pastoral perspective: respect the inner grammar and vocabulary of each body of song if one is trying to get worshipers to become “bilingual” in worship music.
  • Song composition: we need a songwriter’s study New Testament to point out apostolic practices of naming the Triune Persons and of relating the Three by means of key verbs and prepositions
  • Theological: unless the worshiper’s heart is captured by the love of God as Triune — unless we love God for being Triune and know the love of God in Trinitarian ways, not much will change.