Mon 21 Sep 2009
In the past decades, there have been few issues which have so split the Church as has that of worship. Traditionalists call for fealty to the historic liturgy, arguing that the form which has served the Church for so long is intrinsically good in and of itself. Its theological strength, and likewise the theological strength of hymns, stands in opposition to the frequent shallowness of contemporary worship songwriting and service patterns. Proponents of contemporary worship counter that their musical genres better meet members of our culture where they are, without alienating people unnecessarily – something traditional worship can undoubtedly do. As a companion who once accompanied me to my home church’s worship service (traditional, of course) afterwards confided to me, “I honestly kept thinking I was in the Church of Thor, what with all the chanting and ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s.” He had been unable to get past the surface appearance of the service to the Gospel message underneath; to him, that particular setting of the divine service had seemed no more relevant than did Norse mythology.
Of course, both sides make important points. Traditionalists rightly point out that our worship should not be shallow. Contemporary worship advocates are equally correct in reminding us that worship must be understandable to its participants. If each group would be willing to just quiet its pride for a moment and listen to the other, perhaps the debate would cease to be so venomous. And perhaps a more constructive approach to the discussion would be taken, where the benefits and drawbacks of each side were honestly weighed and considered… where the positive aspects of both sides would be adopted and the negative aspects diminished.
Some worship songwriters are attempting to do just that. Here, I want to identify two camps and their “new” approaches to worship music writing in particular. The first I shall call ‘rewriters’; the second has already been called by others ‘new hymnody’ or ‘modern hymn writing’.
‘Rewriters’ are distinguished by their practice of “rewriting” hymns. They keep the words but tend to fashion new musical settings for hymns. As Indelible Grace Music puts it, the goal is “not change for change’s sake, but to rekindle a love of hymns and invite many who never associate rich passion with hymns to actually read the words.” If I might state it in linguistic terminology, the songwriters ‘translate’ the songs into musical styles whose emotional connotations are better comprehensible to people today – people for whom traditional music styles represent another ‘language’ with which they are not familiar. The practice is not in actuality new; the church has always rewritten the music of hymns in every era. Every era, that is, except the current one. Rewriters are bringing back this great tradition to the Church. One other praiseworthy note? Rewriters are bringing back incredible hymns that in some cases have completely fallen out of use in the Church. For an example of rewriting, see Matthew Smith’s new musical version of Josiah Conder’s 1836 hymn “My Lord I Did Not Choose You”.
‘New Hymnody’ or ‘Modern Hymn Writing’ has similar sympathies with rewriters – and it’s not surprising therefore to find artists who fit both categories. New hymnody is the approach of songwriters who are attempting to write completely new pieces which reflect the theological richness of traditional hymns while utilizing contemporary literary and musical styles. Perhaps the most famous proponent of this genre is Keith Getty. Maintaining that “what we sing becomes the grammar of our belief,” Getty strives to write contemporary worship music that teaches us about our faith as much as it allows us to express that faith. Consider, for example, the theological depth of “In Christ Alone,” written by Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend. What traditionalist would consider this song ‘shallow’?
In Christ alone my hope is found;
He is my light, my strength, my song;
This cornerstone, this solid ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My comforter, my all in all –
Here in the love of Christ I stand.
In Christ alone, Who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid –
Here in the death of Christ I live.
There in the ground His body lay,
Light of the world by darkness slain;
Then bursting forth in glorious day,
Up from the grave He rose again!
And as He stands in victory,
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me;
For I am His and He is mine –
Bought with the precious blood of Christ.
No guilt in life, no fear in death –
This is the pow’r of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No pow’r of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till he returns or calls me home –
Here in the pow’r of Christ I’ll stand.
As we seek to create worship resources for the current era, perhaps we will consider the sterling examples of rewriters and modern hymn writers. Or, I suppose, we could just continue arguing from both sides of the worship debate – arguing how hymns are intrinsically better or contemporary songs intrinsically more relevant. For surely that will bring about the Church unity Christ desires.
For more information on the songwriters referenced above, please visit the following websites: