Evaluating a hymn

The first surprise might be that we should evaluate a hymn at all. Yet why should we not? If our hymns are to be sung not only with spirit but with our minds (1 Corinthians 14:15), then we should think about the songs we sing. If our hymns are to allow “the word of Christ [to] dwell in [us] richly as [we] teach and admonish” each other (Colossians 3:16), then we should think about what our hymns teach.

So how ought we to evaluate a song? What questions might we ask of it?

  • What category is this song? Can you categorize the song? Is it a prayer set to music, an anthem of praise, one where we “speak to one another,” or encourage one another.
  • Are the words God-centered? We could ask whether the words are God-centered, mention Christ or the Holy Spirit. It would be hard to call it a spiritual song if it does not mention one of these three.
  • Is it drawn from Scripture? As you read the words of the song, are you reminded of a passage or passages of Scripture by these words? Identify the passage, and if the hymnbook is yours, write it in the margin of the song. If it does not remind you of a Bible passage, that might be a sign it is not spiritual writing.
  • Does the music serve the words? Does the music serve the words well? How does the music help the words? Some songs are contemplative, such as Isaac Watts’ When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. Others are victorious, such as Fanny Crosby’s Praise Him! Praise Him! Some songs have both elements, such as Robert Lowey’s Low in the Grave He Lay. In this song, the verses’ solemn words (Low in the grave he lay, Jesus my savior”) are followed by a triumphant chorus (“Up from the grave he arose, with a mighty triumph o’er his foes”). As you recall, the solemn music of the verse fits those words, while the music of the chorus soars higher and higher as the thoughts rise.
  • What is the song’s key phrase? Is there a phrase that really stands out in this song? Sometimes there is a line that makes a particular song sublime. I think of the Norwegian hymn Then Sings My Soul when the author notes: “And when I think/ That God his son not sparing/ Sent him to die/ I scarce can take it in” or Brumley’s classic line: “And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”

If we simply asked these questions, we will have done something people rarely do; we will have thought about the songs we sing. Don’t you think the spiritual well-being of our congregation deserves at least that much effort?

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Stan Mitchell

Stan has preached since 1976, in Zimbabwe, California, Texas and Tennessee. He serves as preacher for the Red Walnut Church of Christ in Bath Springs, TN. He is currently Professor of Bible at Freed-Hardeman University. He is married to the former Marjorie McCarthy, and has one daughter, Tracy Watts. He is the author of four books: The Wise Get Wiser, the Foolish More Foolish: The Book of Proverbs, Give the Winds a Mighty Voice: Our Worship in Song, and Equipping the Saints for Ministry. He has recently published another book, "Will Our Faith Have Children: Developing Leadership in the Church for the Next Generation.

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