Last night I pulled out a modern hymn from those guys at www.reformedpraise.org to use for our evening worship service, that I lead at my church. I stumbled through leading our small group in singing it but it is a beautiful song nonetheless. (on that note, why can’t leading worship from standing behind a microphone be as easy as just sitting at home playing guitar and singing like I do throughout the week?)

Anyway, if the term “Modern Hymn” seems like a contradiction of terms, or an oxymoron then I would ask you to consider what Bob Kauflin (Soveriegn Grace Ministries) says:

“The uniting of unchanging truth with contemporary expression is an idea as old as the Word of God itself. What a joy it is to see more songwriters bringing new life to hymns rich in theology and biblical doctrine.”

So why is this such a radical concept since we don’t find it often in our churches? That is, old hymn texts meeting contemporary music? Long ago it was customary in the Church to try hymn texts to different tunes, either by using the metrical index found at the back of a hymnal, or by musicians within the church bringing a fresh or regonizable tune to the lyrics. Sometimes the results can be abysmal, as I knew of one church that liked to sing John Newton’s beloved “Amazing Grace” to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme song. But for the most part, if something didn’t work it would be cast aside, and if it did work then it would “stick”. This tradition has been long forgotten though.

A force that has proven to be powerful in our churches is the desire to modernize our musical worship. A desire to sing music that more closely resembles our tastes than our grandparent’s taste. From my experience, many churches have felt that they could not ignore Contemporary Christian Music, (or CCM as I’ll refer to it from here) but still have some sense of loyalty to the hymns. Maybe it is out of sincere appreciation for the richness and poeticism of the lyrics, or continuing the tradition of worship the church had been accustomed to, or maybe even simply to appease the older members of the congregation, but nevertheless these churches held on to tradiational hymns while simultaneously exploring the new worship styles and songs that we just lump together generically under the term CCM. This creates conflicts,  because inevitably some type of balance has to found. Maybe seperate services were created; “Traditional” and “Comtemporary” giving church members a choice, but ultimately segregating the congregation by their musical preference, and consequently usually their age and maturity as well. Not the greatest solution really.

Many churches have adopted what they call “blended worship”, whereby they try to “blend” multiple styles. It sounds nice, but what is actually achieved is hardly a model for the rest of us in the Church to follow.

You see, it seems that churches that practice “blended worship” do not really “blend” anything at all. From my experience, I have stood in church and sang (and maybe clapped to) a contemporary song with faily repetetive and simplistic lyrics accompanied by a full band of drums, keys, and electric guitars at a rousing tempo, only next in the order of worship to sing a traditional hymn at a dirge-like tempo accompanied only by the piano/organ. Meanwhile, the full band that brought us to our feet just moments before now simply stands there with their guitars and handheld microphones or sitting there with their drumsticks, awkwardly unaware of what to do other than just stand there. The difference between lyrical content, and the disparity of musical style and tempo is felt like the force of a game of tug-of-war. In other words, putting two incredibly dissimilar things side-by-side in worship is not “blended” at all.

I applaud people like Red Mountain Church for their modernizing of hymns, and other churches that strive for the same flow in their worship. No matter how new or old the song, no matter the tempo, no matter the subject matter, a certain “flow” to the worship is achieved by not having such abrupt differences present. In, other words, they really “own” their worship and make it personally their own as they offer it to the Lord, not simply borrowing a pre-conceived way of doing it from Christian radio, or even their hymnals.

I know from experience in leading worship that translating older songs and the way we’re accustomed to singing them to modern instruments can be difficult, though not impossible. For example, there is a reason that, as a guitarist I simply would not choose many older hymns to sing if using modern instruments is the goal. “Depth of Mercy” by Charles Wesley is a perfect example of a wonderful old hymn that because of its rhythm and awkward chord changes would make many acoustic guitarists like myself run screaming. But Red Mountain Church has done a lovely job of putting “Depth of Mercy” to new music that in the hands of quality musicians is both modern sounding and incredibly powerful. I believe Charles Wesley, if alive today and familiar with modern day music, would be delighted. Likewise, I believe many forgotten hymnwriters, if alive today, would be delighted to be remembered and their beloved lyrics re-used, re-imagined, re-worked for a new generation by groups such as Reformedpraise.org 

Corum Deo!

 

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