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The Right Kind of Music: Can Hymns Be Prayers?

The Right Kind of Music: Can Hymns Be Prayers?

This is the first post in a series about my research on fundamentalist Christian music. Read the others here: Why May Women Sing If They May Not Preach?, Musical Form in Piano Hymn Arrangements, and Should Church Services Include Classical Music?

Things have been quiet on Music and the Church for a while—since May, I’ve given birth, moved from Maryland to Ohio, and continued working on my dissertation about music in fundamental Christian churches.

As I’ve worked, I’ve found a number of puzzles—sticky things that don’t quite fit into the step-by-step line from how fundamentalist Christians think about music to how they do music. Most of the time, I’m writing about fairly clear beliefs and practices—you believe it’s important to sing hymns for XYZ reasons, and lo and behold, you sing hymns. But these curiosities crop up every so often and are one of the most interesting things about my research to me.

I’d like to see what other people think about these puzzles, so over the the next four weeks, I’m posting each Monday to open some of them up to discussion.


Starting off today is this question: why aren’t hymns addressed to God considered prayers in the context of congregational singing?

Certainly some fundamentalists would say these kinds of hymns are prayers, but many do not. For example, in The Glory Due His Name: What God Says About Worship, Gary Reimers argues that fundamental church services don't usually include enough prayer, even though he notes that many hymns "address God directly." He suggests that hymns don't count as prayers because "we typically sing [hymns] rather than pray them."

So is it that hymns are sung, but prayers are spoken?

Or maybe it's that hymns are sung by a group while prayer is only for individual voices? 

Fundamentalists almost never use spoken collective prayers (e.g. the Lord’s Prayer), though during services, people are encouraged to pray silently while one person extemporizes a prayer aloud. 

Is it that prayers must be extemporaneous, but hymns are rote?

This last question is what sets this puzzle outside of the straight line from belief to practice. Most fundamentalists teach that written prayers easily become “vain repetition” and instead practice spontaneous, improvised spoken prayer. But even though hymns are always repetitious, they are still accepted. 

So why are hymns addressed to God okay to sing over and over, while the spoken equivalent is almost universally discouraged or forbidden?

What do you think?

Curious about fundamentalism and music? Check out this introduction and FAQs.

The Right Kind of Music: Why May Women Sing If They May Not Preach?

The Right Kind of Music: Why May Women Sing If They May Not Preach?

The Right Kind of Music: Good Music Is (Probably) Not What You Prefer

The Right Kind of Music: Good Music Is (Probably) Not What You Prefer