Which Hymns Work Best For Contemporary Worship?

by Don Chapman

At worship conferences I teach a class called “Blending Hymns With Contemporary Worship” to packed, desperate audiences. It seems to be the never ending problem: how to use hymns in contemporary worship.

Just which hymns should you use? I believe there are popular hymns that everyone should know – hymns that have stood the test of time and cross denominational borders. And, some hymns are more conducive to contemporary worship than others.

A few years ago I coined the term “hymn cranks” which stirred up some nasty emails. “Hymn cranks” describe those trouble-making people in your church who are constantly pestering you to use hymns, hymns and more hymns. At one church where I worked a guy in the congregation kept himself busy during the praise set by tallying how many hymns were or were not used. You can imagine the trouble I was in if I dared to NOT do a hymn on an given Sunday.

Then there was the deacon who was fixated on obscure, antiquated hymns written by Isaac Watts. This hymn crank wasn’t satisfied that we did a healthy dose of popular hymns – he constantly pestered me to use his favorite, How Sweet and Awesome is this Place in our praise sets. I have sung hymns my entire life, consider myself to be somewhat of a hymn expert and had never heard this one. Here’s the second verse of this lovely ditty:

Here every bowel of our God
With soft compassion rolls;
Here peace and pardon bought with blood
Is food for dying souls.

I’m sorry, but we’re simply not going to sing a hymn about God’s bowels in a contemporary worshiping church with electric guitars. (And if I had attempted to rewrite the lyrics he would, of course, have been infuriated.)

This deacon finally worked himself up into such a hissy fit that he threatened to leave the church. Over a hymn about God’s bowels.

And people wonder why the average tenure of a music director is two years. (He eventually regained his senses, calmed down, and I never did do that hymn!)

In no particular order, here are the top ten hymns everyone should know, drawn from years of polling here at HymnCharts.com and my personal opinion, that work best with contemporary worship:

All Hail the Power (CORONATION)
Amazing Grace
Be Thou My Vision
Crown Him With Many Crowns
Holy Holy Holy
It Is Well With My Soul
Just As I Am
O For A Thousand Tongues
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

The classical chord structure of these hymns is what makes them usable in contemporary worship as well as lyrics that are, for the most part, singable and modern enough for the average person in your congregation.

Interestingly, the older the hymn, the easier it is to translate to a praise band. Even though songs like At Calvary are in many hymnals, they’re not actually hymns but “Gospel songs.” The sing-songy, lilting quality and chromatic melodies give these late 19th and early 20th century tunes an inherent dated feel, and it’s pretty hard to create convincing contemporary arrangements with them.

Bottom Line: Season your praise sets with the most popular hymns.

15 Comments. Leave new

  • Kenneth W Windle
    August 10, 2016 7:52 pm

    Great article. I am a 71 yr. old “part-time Director of Music Ministries in a 200 yr old dying church. I love your “Hymn cranks” creation. In my 2 year tenure I have heard very similar requests. I even challenged one “dear Saint” to make me a list of hymns. She did! Two pages with listed hymnal where I could find them.

  • Great article. Love the term “hymn cranks.” In my 49 years of ministry as a worship pastor, i have not wavered from a blended service. I agree with your distinction between a hymn and a gospel song and I use both regularly. However, the congregations I have served over the years do not know the difference, or at least, haven’t been vocal about it. If it is in the hymnal, it’s a hymn. Singing “There is Power in the Blood” or “At Calvary” satisfies their desire for a hymn. Then there is the lady who tells me that if the writer of the “hymn” wrote 4 to 5 verses, then they all should be sung. Sometimes you can’t win!!

    • You are correct: to the lay person, if it’s in the hymnal it’s a hymn.

      • Today’s hymns were yesterday’s new and exciting/unworthy (depending on your viewpoint) songs of worship. It seems to me there are two measures of desirability for including the older pieces (call them hymns now) in worship.

        One is the desire of people to sing what’s familiar to them and what they like through years of use. To disregard that is to say there’s a part of Christ’s family that we simply don’t care about. While some of them may not be great, and some may not readily fit in with the music being used today in the congregation, but love calls for an effort to include some of these where it can be done.

        The second is the pieces which have passed the test of time They’ve been used in the church for hundreds of years, surviving because there is something special about them. Disregarding that group of hymns means throwing out gold. The new songs we sing today will go through that winnowing process. New pieces I learned and enjoyed 40 years ago have vanished because they simply were not good enough to keep catching people’s hearts. Some will be in use 300 years from now, if Christ has not returned before that.

        The music planner needs to try for the best, and try for what helps all the people in the congregation to worship. It’s not an easy task, but it’s critical.

  • Our church music team is right in the middle of this “Hymn” discussion as well. We are routinely searching for ways to incorporate more and more hymns into our worship sets but, as a result this search has opened up a discussion of just what does (and what does not) qualify as a hymn. Reading your article I couldn’t help noticing your statement that, “even though songs like “at calvary” are in many hymnals, they are not actually hymns but “Gospel Songs”……

    So maybe my question is exactly on point with your article but I’m just curious….in your opinion, what constitutes a song as being a “Hymn”?

    • I don’t think there’s a definitive definition for “hymn” – but my opinion is that it’s any song a few hundred years old (and out of copyright) that’s classical in music structure and has several verses. I’ll have to research this more 🙂

  • Donald Codling
    May 9, 2017 1:41 pm

    There’s one thing seems to be missing in your mix, one which is very common in my experience of contemporary music. The book of Psalms touches aspects of our heart experience with God that very few song writers dare approach. I know that some of the contemporary worship songs are from the Psalter, but all of them either songs of confession (Psalm 51, mostly) or bouncy cheery praise pieces. I have nothing against these, but I see a great element of worship experience lacking because the Psalms are ignored. God has given us a treasure which we ignore to our own loss. I find that including one or two Psalms in most services enriches our worship.

    Don Codling

  • Good article. I am a Worship Leader with 25 years in ministry. I totally agree with your statement about the way certain hymns are more difficult to blend with modern music. Chromaticism is not used like it used to be. Also, the meter that alot of hymns use (usually in triple) are hard to use with a music style that is primarily common time. Many arrangers have tried to modernize hymns like that but they change so much it is no longer the original feel and singable. Thanks for the insight. Peace.

  • I’ve been music coordinator at our church for 15 years – it is also a dying church that’s been around 160 years. I also loved the “hymn cranks” term. I’ve heard a few cranks who call also tell you exactly what Hymn # some of them are and also were in the older hymnals!!!

  • After 25 years in this area, I have aways believed one thing. We need both. I personally feel that an even mix of hymns and praise songs should be used. The youth are the future of the church and the older generation is the group that is the churches largest financial givers. Both groups are vital to the churches survival.

  • I think one of the reasons people cling to the hymns is the very name itself. “Hymns “…Sounds religious, kinda like they came straight down from heaven! I stopped calling them hymns and started calling them songs a long time ago

  • Loved reading this article and the comments. Yes, blending the styles ministers to more people. As an older musician, I find the old hymns much richer in musicality and lyrics than contemporary music. Of course some of those lyrics won’t work today, but the depth is what I miss in newer music.

  • Gilberto Spilski
    January 1, 2021 6:04 pm

    Pretty sure he’ll have a great read. Thanks for sharing!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed

Top Arrangements

Click title to listen:

Blessed Assurance
Christ Arose
Crown Him With Many Crowns
Jesus Paid It All 2018
Holy Holy Holy

Listen to demos of all hymncharts arrangements.

90 Day Money-Back Guarantee

Learn more.