The difference between a song and a hymn

I’ve noted before that Christian contemporary music (CCM) is largely unusable for Mass. A lot of that is because the music sucks, frankly; if you can tolerate “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” bully for you, but that song is indisputably awful. But I think there’s a key structural reason that makes it tough for even the good stuff to be usable at Mass.

Basically, a Christian song is not designed for a worship service, and certainly not designed for Mass. Let’s try something like this, Michael W. Smith’s “Secret Ambition”:

For Christian music standards (which ain’t high), this isn’t a bad song. (I heard it for the first time in seventh grade.) But it’s not a hymn, and it’s not usable at Mass. Let’s look at the lyrics:

Nobody knew His secret ambition
Nobody knew His claim to fame
He broke the old rules steeped in tradition
He tore the holy veil away
Questioning those in powerful position
Running to those who called His name
But nobody knew His secret ambition
Was to give His life away

Aside from being factually wrong (what, was Jesus warning people he was going to die for his own non-health?), it’s just not the type of language that translates well into Mass, where we use an elevated form of language.

So what is a hymn, then? I would define a hymn like this: It’s a religious song that  is acceptable and easily usable in a liturgical context. So all hymns are songs, but not vice versa.

But some Christian music songs can be converted to hymns. The aforementioned awful “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” which I’m refusing to do at Mass unless someone puts a gun to my head, is in at least two contemporary Catholic hymnals that I’m aware of. Our bilingual hymnal at my regular parish has Ike Ndolo’s “Awake, O Sleeper,” but not in the five-minute album version. Instead, the bridge is removed, as is a lot of the superfluous filler accompaniment, and it becomes a two-minute, power-packed Advent hymn that I can do on the organ.

Ndolo’s song also has the benefit of having lyrics that can easily be used in formal worship:

In the darkest times of life,
when our lights refuse to shine:
you are there, you are there.

When our hearts become like stone,
when we live without hope:
you are there, you are there.
Don’t let your hearts be troubled;
don’t let your hearts be troubled.

This (and even the words of “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever, much to my chagrin) is much better than songs that talk about standing in the checkout line (!) and look! there’s some person who’s suffering or songs that use way too many contractions or songs that basically remove you from the fact that you’re at Mass. There’s also no guarantee that what has been written is theologically close to right; CCM songwriters are not theologians, for the most part. Those types of songs can’t be converted, because their lyrics are just too far away from the purposes of Mass.

So when you’re trying to determine whether your CCM song can be used at Mass, presume that you can’t. Then set a high bar that the song has to clear. Can the lyrics translate into worship without taking people out of the context of Mass? Can the song be converted into something that doesn’t sprawl all over the place? Is the song relatively easy to sing — no wacky jumps, not too high, not too low? Is it playable on the organ, or that failing, the piano, and it still fills the church?

Chances are, your CCM song will fail these standards. You’re better off looking for contemporary hymns, specifically written for Mass. There are a growing number of those out there; it’s much wiser to go for those and save yourself the aggravation of figuring out whether your CCM song is usable.

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One response to “The difference between a song and a hymn

  1. Pingback: Need a hymn? Lean on me. Just don’t use “Lean on Me.” | Pull Out All the Stops

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