Saturday, April 21, 2007


Today, I went to Seaford, DE to be a part of a workshop on worship. I was not scheduled to arrive until the first third of the event was over. When I arrived, I asked the host pastor how the first part of the day had gone; it had been their contemporary worship service. He said it had been good, with the exception of one difficult person who had asked a question about contemporary praise music lacking the good theology of hymns.

Hind sight being what it is, I have found myself wishing I had been there for that part of the discussion. I agree with the person asking the question: our hymns have much better theology than most (though not all) praise music. As one of my friends said later, there is a reason it is called "7-11" music: it is 7 words repeated 11 times. But he and I both still love it.

I come out of a contemporary church and I have come to deeply love traditional music too. But when it comes to sheer emotion, experiencing the joy of singing my heart out to God, praise music is what makes my heart sing most often.

I don't think this has anything to do with the inherent nature of praise music in a rock style, or classical music of many hymns. It is simply about the style I have listened to most. Because for me that happens to be praise/rock style, I am more likely to experience soaring joy while singing the style of music with which I am most familiar. (I also experience it singing many hymns.)

I am thinking about a boy I dated in High School. He loved Led Zepplin. I was less than enthused. He shared with me his theory that any human being could come to love any style of music, if they listened to it frequently enough. I think he is right! Led Zepplin grew on me and to this day I like it. Had I not dated him and listened to it just about every moment we were together, I don't think that would be the case. A similar thing has happened for me with hymns- many of them I adore because they help me feel God's presence.

Worship music is about connecting with God on an experiential level. It does also accomplish theological teaching, but that is not why people love to sing. People love to sing because it is a window into the Divine. I don't think that aspect of music should be under valued for the sake of theology because there are other ways to teach theology.

That said, couldn't we have our cake and eat it too? I am United Methodist, so Charles Wesley is the premier hymn writer of my tradition. His hymns, both the ones in the hymnal and the hundreds more not published there but otherwise available, were often set to the contemporary music of his day: bar tunes. This was done to accomplish the same goal of contemporary worship- to help people experience God by speaking in the language of the people. And the theology is truly outstanding.

Couldn't we find a gifted musician to set Charles Wesley hymn texts, perhaps somewhat adapted, to modern rock music? I think it could be awesome.


  1. It is totally worth a try. I do knwo that you can sign Amazing Grace to the tune from Gilligan's Island (and vice-versa). My elemenatry Sunday school class was amazed over that one!
    You can also sing most Emily Dickinson poems to either oen as welll...same meter.
    Dont knwo about hte wesley oens though

  2. Michael W Smith ahs done this with a few hymns, although I don't know if they're Wesley's. Rich Mullins did a few as well.

  3. I think the problem with many of the classics is not as much the theology as the "high" language. To use a Christmas carol as an example, I adore "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," a profoundly theological hymn.
    Christ, by highest Heav’n adored;
    Christ the everlasting Lord;
    Late in time, behold Him come,
    Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
    Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
    Hail th’incarnate Deity,
    Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
    Jesus our Emmanuel.

    Now it may be that this isn't a good example of a tune you want to lose (after all, they sing it in the Charlie Brown Christmas special, which made it familiar to a lot of people), but how do you make those words comprehensible to the average person?

  4. There are some great adaptations and reinterpretations of hymns out there... A couple of CDs to listen to: Redemption Songs (Jars of Clay), Hymns Ancient & Modern (Passion), any of the City on a Hill projects, Chris Tomlin just reset Amazing Grace with a new chorus, too.

    The best blending of old & new I've found - Keith and Kristyn Getty. They are contemporary hymn writers, using an interesting blend of hymn-style meter and simple melodies. The words are as rich as the old hymns, but they feel like something we'd say today!

  5. I do a complementary thing with a similar goal: writing simple, prayerful new words based in scripture and great mystics and setting them to familiar hymn tunes. These can be made more lively by playing them with a piano and/or guitar ensemble rather than organ. E.g. one that uses all the major scriptural images for God as mother to the lullaby/evening hymn tune "All Through the Night", and one with images from Catherine of Siena to the eucharistic chant "Adoro te devote."

  6. The Indelible Grace project sound like exactly what you're describing. We had Matthew Smith in concert at my church last night, and he apologized to us that one of the hymn texts he used was "only" 120 years old.

    The music was actually a bit too rock-and-roll for me -- I'm more of an old-hymns-old-music kind of girl -- although maybe our volunteer sound dude just had the volume up too high for the space.

    For a more subtle updating of classical hymns, also try the works of Fernando Ortega.

    And I definitely second the recommendation of the Gettys. Seems like these days whenever I learn a new hymn that I fall in love with, it turns out to be by them.

  7. Thanks for all of the suggestions and insights. Much appreciated.

  8. Our Praise Band has done just what you suggested. We've rocked out to "Christ the Lord is Risen Today," "Up From the Grave He Arose" and "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" just to name a few.