Old hymns, new tunes

Old hymns, new tunes

For years I’ve bemoaned the lack of serious, thoughtful, theologically rich lyrics in the praise songs and worship choruses I’m subjected to at church. Some of the recent praise and worship music remedies that, but I’m still occasionally struck silent by vacuous, empty lyrics using clichés to resonate with worshipers and the time-tested trick of singing a single chorus line over and over until we all fall into a trance-like worship state.

:: sigh ::

I miss scripture in my worship. I miss theology in my worship. I miss the hymns.

But what I don’t necessarily miss are the hymn’s melodies and forms. As my wife and I have discussed this, I’ve often wondered aloud why church worship directors don’t apply their musical talents to translate older hymns into contemporary sounds. Okay, maybe most church worship and music directors really aren’t that good at creating new melodies, but surely a denominational juggernaut could afford to hire somebody to update some good, solid hymns into a contemporary structure. Surely?

So, we’re left with borrowing our hymnody from the twenty-something songwriters out there who have a catchy, engaging sound, but have little depth in either their life-experiences or scriptural knowledge, and thus the worship music they give to the church have little power to teach, to train our thinking, to engage our minds, and provide transformation.

Recently, Christianity Today interviewed Jars of Clay about a new release I haven’t heard yet, but hope to. It’s worth the read:

Old Words, Vibrant Faith
Christian pop/rock band Jars of Clay explains why the church needs more Redemption Songs.
Interview by Collin Hansen | posted 10/21/2005 09:00 a.m.

Redemption Songs
Jars of Clay
Redemption Songs
Price: $13.99
Availability: Usually ships in 2 to 3 days
Format: Audio CD

This sounds like a project that deserves to be on my shelf. I guess, that is, if I were still buying CDs. Most of my listening now is podcasts and sermons, but if I were to buy a CD, I think I’d give this one a serious shot. The interview reveals that JoC has been playing with updated versions of “Be Thou My Vision,” “And Can It Be,” and “This Is My Father’s World,” three of my favorite hymns.

This quote really lays out what I wish more churches were doing:

“There has been a worship resurgence over the last five years or so. And Jars hasn’t really had much of a place in that conversation. We just had a different encounter with worship. And we really credit it to our church. After we moved down [to Nashville], we all ended up at this place called Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee. They place a real value on the hymns. They sing modern songs and praise choruses, but they’re always mixing in hymns. They change the melody or just give it a little more modern folk treatment or some other spin on it. So we got used to that over the years, and a few songs in particular worked their way under our skin. The richness of the words and the theological grounding really became something pretty special to us. …

“Most of us grew up with hymns. It wasn’t a new thing. But it was the way [Christ Community Church] used hymns with more of the context that gave them richness. It was like we need these songs. These were the songs that I could go to on a really tough dark day when I’m not really sure what I believe or nothing quite makes sense. And these songs will reset my heart and remind me of what’s true again, in a way that a modern worship song or praise chorus can’t or won’t do.”

And here is JoC’s indictment of the current state of worship music contrasted with the older hymns:

“I think a lot is the theology behind it—[hymns are] based on Jesus’ work on the Cross. It doesn’t depend on what I do, what I bring, what I want. It’s not based on my feelings or on my senses. It’s solely on who God is and what Jesus has done. And it’s such a blunt reminder in the mix of my selfishness and the things day in and day out that will tweak with my beliefs and compete for my attention. It’s a reorienting to what’s true.”


Update: I like Robbymac’s take on the current state of hymnodic affairs as well:

“What we need are more songwriters who will take spiritual formation into account when they write their songs, and make a point of bringing Scripture into their writing. Stained glass windows were once a teaching tool for a non-literate society — good songwriting will fulfill the same need for our culture today.”

[tags]BlogRodent, music, worship, worship-music, hymns, hymnody, praise-and-worship, Christian-music, Jars-of-Clay, Christianity-Today, contemporary-christian-music, spiritual, spirituality, religion, church[/tags]

7 thoughts on “Old hymns, new tunes

  1. Steve

    I agree completely. The new songs do seem to be just a weeee bit on the shallower side — though I was at a Delerious? concert Friday night and was impressed with them (hadn’t heard of them before — that happens when you are in your 40’s). Anyway — JoC have it right when they say that they old songs are about the cross. And they are about heaven alot too. Both are subjects that seem to have fallen out of favor — especially in some of the “seeker friendly” churches.

    I love the JoC CD and would like to suggest another one….. Hymned No. 1, by Bart Millard. WONDERFUL new twist on OLD songs.

  2. Marc V

    Hubristic: exaggerated pride or self-confidence.
    Sounds like the opposite of what praise and worship should be about.

    I get very frustrated with my church’s selection of the same simple songs with easy lyrics, week after week. I understand the need for keeping it simple, it’s just that there are so many good P&W songs, as well as hymns, that are left on the side. Ah well, it’s not about my personal preferences but worshiping the Lord.

    If you have not gotten “into” the Darrell Evans library, you should since he does a very good job of setting scripture to song and keeping it focused on Jesus. The “Consuming Fire” CD is outstanding. (too lazy to link!)

  3. mike

    please tell me where i can buy hymns preferably with a more modern tune but not essentially. the ESSENTIAL is that i want to hear ALL the verses not just two or three. someone recommend something. thanks mike

  4. JC

    Hey, another good hymns CD is out. Tonya Betz has made the departure from Christian rock and modern praise & worship to hymns done acoustically. You might want to check it out. Here’s some of the songs: “Be Thou My Vision,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” and “It Is Well With My Soul”

    I linked to the website in my name, but if that doesn’t work, it’s tonyabetz.com

  5. Jane Cook

    I am an organist in a church that does contemporary praise and worship, and I am getting a lot of “attitude” from our youth director because ? go figure. I am really good at this and I’ve had people from outside come into our church and compliment me on my playing. I give the glory to God because He is in full control. I am 58 years old (look young for my age) but I still feel that there is a prejudicial attitude towards me because of my age. That stinks and I have had poor feedback via our Pastor’s wife because of complaints from the church about the overall volume of the new music. We tried everything including lowering our overall sound but there is a real legitimate problem in the church today that they can’t lay aside these weights. Church is a very cultural organization that isi really based on “grass roots” (we’re in Texas) and Texans and other southern folks are just “not reached” by the new stuff. If you have an answer to this please e-mail me! Thanx “Calamity Jane”.

  6. Matthew F. Raymond

    For the record – I have just written 20 new tunes to old hymn words, and these will be available in a music book titled HERITAGE later this year, with an album to come. In the meantime, we are presenting these with singers and musicians in Auckland, New Zealand over the next few months. Do contact me if you are interested: PaMwamba@xtra.co.nz

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