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The Difference Between Praise Songs and Hymns

Sunday, September 14, 2008

I’m a traditionalist when it comes to worship. I prefer hymns, sung from an actual hymnal, to “praise choruses” that (a) no one knows and (b) don’t mean anything anyway. Here’s a story that was shared with me that illustrates my point:


An old farmer went to the city one weekend and attended the big city church. He came home and his wife asked him how it was. “Well,” said the farmer, “it was good. They did something different, however. They sang praise choruses instead of hymns.”

“Praise choruses?” said his wife. “What are those?”

“Oh, they’re OK. They are sort of like hymns, only different,” said the farmer.

“Well, what’s the difference?” asked his wife.

The farmer said, “Well, it’s like this – If I were to say to you “Martha, the cows are in the corn”’ – well, that would be a hymn. If on the other hand, I were to say to you:

Martha, Martha, Martha,
the cows, the big cows, the brown cows, the black cows
the white cows, the black and white cows,
are in the corn,
are in the corn, are in the corn, are in the corn,

Then, if I were to repeat the whole thing two or three times, well, that would be a praise chorus.”

The next weekend, his nephew, a young, new Christian from the city came to visit and attended the local church of the small town. He went home and his wife asked him how it was. “Well,” said the young man, “it was good. They did something different however. They sang hymns instead of regular songs.”

“Hymns?” asked his wife. “What are those?”

“Oh, they’re OK. They are sort of like regular songs, only different,” said the young man.

“Well, what’s the difference?”

The young man said, “Well, it’s like this – If I were to say to you ‘Martha, the cows are in the corn’ – well, that would be a regular song. If on the other hand, I were to say to you:

‘Oh Martha, dear Martha, hear thou my cry
Inclinest thine ear to the words of my mouth
Turn thou thy whole wondrous ear by and by
To the righteous, inimitable, glorious truth.

‘For the way of the animals who can explain
There in their heads is no shadow of sense
Hearkenest they in God’s sun or His rain
Unless from the mild, tempting corn they are fenced.

‘Yea those cows in glad bovine, rebellious delight
Have broke free their shackles, their warm pens eschewed
Then goaded by minions of darkness and night
They all my mild Chilliwack sweet corn have chewed.

‘So look to the bright shining day by and by
Where all foul corruptions of earth are reborn
Where no vicious animals make my soul cry
And I no longer see those foul cows in the corn.’

Then if I were to do only verses one, three and four and do a key change on the last verse, well that would be a hymn.

  1. Sunday, September 14, 2008 5:01 pm

    This is why I don’t sing in church.


  2. Sunday, September 14, 2008 7:09 pm


    I’ve heard this story before, but only the first half. It’s so much better in its entirety.

    Our church has a blended service with hymns and choruses. I like both, but I’m finding not many do. It’s sad that music can be divisive. I like to think the Lord’s happy no matter what from of music we use to worship him. And that’s a good thing because He has to listen to my joyful noise.


  3. Sunday, September 14, 2008 8:26 pm

    I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be laughing, but Bringing in the Bovines is hysterically funny.
    Yeah, I guess I’m a traditionalist too. Can’t get too teary eyed over Kumbayah. Now you got me humming and toe tapping. Milking in the morning, milking for the kindness, milking in the noon time and the dewy eve….


  4. Emilie permalink
    Sunday, September 14, 2008 8:28 pm

    I love that story, especially because I came to Christ in high school and went to contemporary worship services through college, then married the son of a church organist who has sung in traditional choirs since he could talk. He and I have both come to love each other’s prefered worship style, though his mother never misses a chance to condemn anything syncopated:)


  5. Monday, September 15, 2008 12:34 am

    Have you heard this song?


  6. Monday, September 15, 2008 1:01 pm

    I’ve seen that joke before – Its still as funny.

    I like both kinds of songs – and I am picky on both kinds. There are some hymns that don’t mean anything and some praise songs that don’t mean anything.

    My biggest complaint is repeating a song ad infinitum… considering I do believe God said something about not chanting continuosly like the pagans do. I think He said that. I think.


  7. Monday, September 15, 2008 2:25 pm

    Great post, kaye, both the quotes and the story. I agree with Leslie about liking both kinds if they have true meaning and theology behind them, not just chanting of the same words over and over. One of our KY ministers, Wayne B. Smith, calls the choruses 7-11 songs “You sing seven words eleven times!”


  8. Jess permalink
    Monday, September 15, 2008 5:58 pm

    Check out the song “The King’s Way” by Jason Upton. He wrote it within the last five years and everything, but it’s totally a hymn, albeit a simple one.
    But I hate how there’s a new one every week in my church. There’s a difference between keeping current and distracting people from thinking about Jesus because they’re trying to learn the song.


  9. Ann permalink
    Tuesday, September 16, 2008 8:25 am

    We were all ready to go last night and the cows were out — again. I’m glad to know there is a hymn about it!

    I agree with Rose. I do like all kinds of Christian music as long as it is meaningful.


  10. Tuesday, September 16, 2008 9:23 am

    @Jess “He wrote it within the last five years and everything, but it’s totally a hymn”

    A lot of the music being penned today qualifies as modern hymns. Simple and repetitive are two of the last words I’d use to describe them.

    I grew up with traditional Baptist hymns. I still love them. I love modern hymns and even some “praise choruses” too. What’s important is not the sophistication of the song, so much as the sincerity of the heart singing it. If Kum Ba Ya sends you right into the throne room–as it does for me when I listen to my slave spirituals CD–don’t be ashamed of it. *s*


  11. Tuesday, September 16, 2008 3:45 pm

    Well said, Lori!


  12. Monday, September 22, 2008 12:15 pm

    It grieves me to hear any one style of music elevated, because even sacred music is not on the level of scripture. Some may be better musically or lyrically, but enjoyment truly comes down to personal taste and (honestly) simple familiarity.

    I think the purpose of church music may distilled to a means of worshiping God and/or catechizing the church.

    If this is done by repetition or hymns that are “third-rate poems set to fourth-rate music” (a phrase C.S. Lewis applied to his church experience shortly after his conversion) and there are others who can still worship and learn despite the imperfection of the environment…

    Perhaps we should do a little “soul searching” to see what needs correction in us that we are so easily kept from our purpose as God’s people.


  13. Denise permalink
    Tuesday, December 9, 2008 2:43 pm

    I prefer hymns, but if praise songs appeal to some people, fine. The problem I am confronting is that hymn-singing is being replaced by the praise songs. My church says “it brings in the young people.” Fine, but don’t eliminate what we traditionalists love. And that’s what my church is doing.

    At my daughter’s graduation from a Christian high school, there were four praise songs lovingly sung by the audience (including all the parents but me; I didn’t know them). When the soloist incorporated TWO LINES of “How Great Thou Art” into her medley, no one around me could understand why I was in tears of joy.

    I am willing to learn the praise songs, if only the young people would be introduced to the hymns also.


  14. Len Sullivan permalink
    Thursday, January 8, 2009 8:11 am

    Once again this reading brings louder rollicking laughs line by line.

    But hold on. Let’s talk about the real musical difference between Hymns and Songs (not necessarily ‘PRAISE’ type, but the Michael Joncas, John Foley, Dan Schutte type).

    In fact, let me address the dissimilarities and then their similarities.

    The obviousness of ‘Praise’ songs originates in their WORDS. (or TEXTS -as in a hymn). Their use (or implied use) of the “Praise-Worship-Adoration” concept is primary not only to the genre itself but in its application. Hymns are never sung with repetitive refrains (called ‘CHORUSES’ in Praise Songs).

    Neither do Praise Songs step far from their role in being ‘quick to learn’ and ‘easy to remember’.

    The role of the Praise-Adoration-Worship song directly points to the singular flow of thoughts and words in one direction and ultimately personal.

    SONGS, from ‘Art’ to ‘Worship’ share likeness in their flow of words and particularly their music; but unlike HYMNS, their execution, or how they are interpreted by the singer(s) under a music or song leader’s diredction -and often changeable.

    Frequently, particular HYMN texts and tunes will have an almost mutually exclusive partnership with each other. It’s unlikely that a PRAISE SONG will have this relationship or even use interchangeable words-to-tunes, or
    yet other instances a tune may partner several texts, such as Dix for “As with gladness, men of old” and “For the beauty of the earth”.

    SONGS employ VERSES whereas with HYMNS, the formal term is ‘STANZA’ and within each Stanza are lines (never less than two (as opposed to a PRAISE CHORUS which will use one line in repetition. (these terms are used interchangeably today for hymns but never for SONGS.

    A HYMN most often speaks collectively, rarely using the “I’

    Structurally, a simple definition can be applied to differentiate within the complexities of hymn structure.

    The Meter (syllabic seperation of each LINE of the verse) is one of a HYMN’S properties. This is the way tunes are matched with other texts – by counting the syllables in each line (a four line Hymn could have a meter of 8,8,4,4,…)

    AL-LE-LU-IA (4)
    AL-LE-LU-IA (4)

    And finally, Hymns can be directed with a formal conducting pattern. Not so with Songs

    A SONG by its very nature has a freedom which the HYMN does not -except for tempo (the speed or pace of a given piece. It is an extremely crucial element of composition, as it can affect the mood and difficulty of a piece). The TEMPO is set by the instruments or if unaccompanied, by the song leader.

    In churches which use a music director to lead the singing, the primary beats and flow are indicated by the conducting.

    In Catholic Churches, the Cantor (singer of the Psalm) serves to announce the song or hymn and together, with the organ, piano or other instrument(s) serve as a catalyst to begin singing. From that point on, the direction is given by the Organ or Piano and the Cantor initiates the response or Acclamation following each verse. A single guitarist for example could serve as Cantor and instrumentalist, but the applied proceedure as descibed earlier remains the same.


  15. HikingStick permalink
    Sunday, April 19, 2009 8:41 am

    While I agree that there have been many so-called “praise songs” that have little substance, it is neither fair nor just to classify them all in that category. I am a worship leader with a small evangelical congregation in rural Minnesota. Starting in late 2007, the Lord blessed me to be able to write new music. Most of this music, by style and tempo, might be dismissed by one such as yourself, but I am dilligent to use the language skills the Lord has given me to create songs that have depth and, more importantly, a scriptural basis.

    Yes, it’s true that many new songs are not familiar to the congregation, but neither were traditional hyms when they were first written. Familiarity with any music comes only with repeated exposure.

    If you have criticisms of specific songs, please direct your criticisms to those songs, and be willing to examine each piece on its own merits.


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