By recommendation of my friend John Gooch, I picked up Robbie Seay Band’s album, Miracle, released this past March. John knew I’d bite hook, line, and sinker when he texts me with descriptive words like “theologically rich” and “hymns.” It is a great album. Miracle is further evidence of what I have tried to explain to traditional worship advocates who continually criticize the theological shallowness of modern worship. I have noticed an evolution in the mainstream artists (e.g. Chris Tomlin, … Read More
If you’ve been checking me out, you know me by now. You know that I’m an odd lover of traditional hymns and modern worship. So I usually pick up anything that says “hymns” on it and looks remotely modern, to see what kind of work is going on in that field. I therefore picked up “iworship hymns” from Integrity music. They’ve been putting out this iworship series for a while now, and they’re latest issue is an album dedicated to hymns. It is a compilation of previously-recorded, previously-released tracks from great Integrity artists like Paul Baloche, Gateway Worship, Hillsong, New Life, etc.
The album is a good one. It’s a great listen and has great production. The texts of the songs are wonderful, and the worship leaders are all great, authentic people, passionate about God’s glory. But I’m discouraged about what’s going on in modern worship with regards to “resetting” hymns, and this is a prime example.*
I’ll begin my analysis with a vignette of a typical conversation I often have with people when I tell them about what I’m trying to accomplish with The Glad Sound. I’m sure my friends at Indelible Grace, Red Mountain Church, and Sojourn Community Church have had similar dialogues.
Person: So what’s your project about?
Zac: We’re taking the texts of old hymns and setting them to new music…new melodies, chord structures, and instrumentation.
Person: Oh, I LOVE that! I love it when we sing “updated” hymns in our church.
Zac: Tell me about that a bit more.
Person: You know, when they take an old hymn and “jazz it up” by adding drums or guitars or something. They just make those outdated hymns contemporary.
Zac: Oh, cool. (sigh…) [the conversation continues as I try to explain how what we’re doing is different, and hopefully better]
I don’t know how many times I have had this conversation. People don’t understand that when we’re “resetting” hymns, we are not keeping the music, at all. We are not “updating” or “jazzing up” the melodies and chord structures. It’s as though we’re taking a written poem and setting music to it for the first time. The old tune and the new tune have nothing to do with each other, except that they can be affixed to the same text. I’m not completely against this type of re-hymn setting. I think in some cases it works and sounds great (for some reason, I’ve felt that songs in 3/4 and 6/8 work better for this). But more often than not, it sounds forced, canned, and a bit artificial. There’s a good reason for this. The music was composed in a different style and genre (often block chord writing) that doesn’t easily and naturally import to modern styles (melodies with fewer chord changes between). Often, I feel that the original composers are rolling over in their graves when their music is bent out of shape. (Again, I’m not totally against it…I plan on at least attempting to jam the plainsong chant melody of “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” into a modern groove on our next album…traditionalites, don’t shoot me, please).
These types of conversations, and these types of “updated hymns” albums like “iworship hymns,” betray a myopia quite pervasive in mainstream evangelical music: the only way to do hymns in modern worship settings is to take the original melodies and affix a new instrumentation, syncopation, and beat to them. Friends, THERE IS ANOTHER WAY! And this other way is something that’s been going on for centuries (see my previous post on this for more detail). For centuries, musicians have sought to re-clothe an old hymn in the current musical vernacular. Almost any time you look in a hymnal and see a text written in one year and the music written much later, that’s usually the case.
Why is it that we only think we have one option here? Why is it that new modern worship “hymns” projects deliver to us the same thing again and again? Please don’t take me as complaining about these projects. I’m more observing and lamenting the fact that there aren’t more who are “updating” hymns in ways which feel more natural to everyone. In conversations where I’m talking to a lover of old hymns who actually gets what I’m doing, they’re appreciative, not only that I’m giving modern worshipers a taste of old hymns, but that I’m not tampering with the musical integrity of the tunes previously used for these hymns.
I just know that there is so much more to be done in re-setting hymns, but every time I pick up a new “hymns” album, it’s just the same old concept, recycled. There are SO many hymns to be brought back to the church, and there are SO many great songwriters out there! Step up! You can have so much more freedom with these hymns than you might realize!
Peace, love, dove.
*One mild exception to my discussion on the iworship hymns album is “When I Survey,” by Kathryn Scott, re-set to the tune to “O Danny Boy.” It’s actually a beautiful setting and brings out some different nuances of the text that I’m interested in exploring.
So I’m sitting here at General Assembly (our denomination’s national meeting…our largest gathering of churches), and I’ve chosen to sing in the ad hoc choir gathered to help lead worship. The thematic focus of GA this year is urban ministry…God’s love for the city, justice, etc. I’ve met a wonderful worship pastor, Russell Thompson, who leads music at City of Refuge Church in Houston, TX. He’s directing our choir, and doing a fabulous job guiding us in God-honoring, modern black gospel style worship (think Israel Houghton). The dude has a fabulous voice and is a humble, more-than-able worship leader. I hope he and I stay connected over the years. I need his gifts and perspective informing me, my calling, and context.
I’m an analytical person, so even as I participate and dive in head first to rousing gospel singing, American Idol-style vocal licks, and pop-style, straight toned, belty singing, I’m sifting all of this through my worship philosophy grid.
My findings (and I’m broad-brushing gospel-style worship based on this and a few other similar experiences…so there will be some holes):
- the music of the modern black gospel genre is more sophisticated than typical mainstream modern evangelical pop/rock worship–melodic and harmonic structures are more complex (more chord inversions, more quick passing chords, more added tones to chords, expansion beyond major and minor into half-diminished and diminished chords, trills and grace notes built into the main melody)
- the rhythm of the genre requires a greater skill level than typical mainstream evangelical pop/rock worship–I’ve played with enough pianists to know that to do what the pianist did today requires a totally different skill-set from typical pop or classical training
- the expression is unabashed…”worship with abandon”
Constructive Criticism (through my grid)
- you complain about 7-11 songs…these are more like 70-111 songs
- many classically oriented singers will find these songs not just temporarily unsingable (until they learn them), but permanently unsingable (the syncopation is too perpetual, too demanding; the vocal style is too free, not dictated enough)
- the theology is very simple (I prefer to use “simple” rather than “shallow,” though I know some of my cohorts would call it that)–it’s gospel-based, experience-based, immediate, not terribly profound
- strong committal, triumphalistic texts (“I can do this, I will do [such and such a righteous act], I’m going to live [in such and such a pious way]”; this is the very notion I criticized in verse two of “Mighty to Save” [read about it])
So here’s the issue. Why is it that I am strangely ambivalent about my constructive criticisms in this instance? Why is it that I feel my worship grid doesn’t (and shouldn’t) apply here? Why is my philosophy going out the window?
All I can think is that there’s a liberality of God’s Spirit based on context. I have to think that if I came into City of Refuge Church in Houston and led a worship service transplanted directly from my suburban Denver church, the people would not engage with God but feel quite hindered in their worship of Him. I may be leading out of my philosophical ideals (and some would applaud me for such “integrity”), but I’m losing the people. Now (the voice of the idealist pops up), should we be people-driven? Of course not. Worship is God-centered and God-directed (that’s the center of my Philosophy Statement). But I also spent a good portion of my previous position in a church leading worship almost totally out of my ideals, and the result was a decaying of the general spirit of worship (an observable “hardening” among some) and a pharisaical attitude about worship among our worshiping community (this wasn’t total, but I witnessed it as a growing force). The lesson I learned there was that a good worship leader stands in that gray area between ideals and reality. I’m sure that has something to do with a little thing called original sin and its effects on both the world/society globally and the person individually.
I don’t think everyone’s going to agree with me on this. But if you’re going to be totally on the ideals-driven side, I wonder if you’ve had a consistent worship-leading position in a church. If so, I wonder how long. I also wonder what the overall aura, “vibe,” or spirit is of your worshiping community.
But my reflection here is really unfinished, because it seems odd to me (it itches) that I’m comfortable throwing out (really, ignoring) some of my ideals so readily when worship happens in the urban context. However, though I’m relatively young, I’ve been around the block and talked to enough wise people to have realized that unresolved tension is that place where truth abides. Hmm….
Our church is a hybrid of “high church” and “low church” practices. Our services have both a liturgical feel and a “free church” feel. For these reasons, we tend to have a hodgepodge of people with a diversity of backgrounds in and out of the Christian church. We get asked by some who aren’t from high church traditions why we pastors wear robes. Here are 5 brief reasons:
1) It highlights the office of the pastor while de-emphasizing the person. A simple robe covers much of the person, helping to conceal that which distinguishes his or her personality. It reminds us that we lovingly submit ourselves, not so much to the person and their personality, but to the role they have been called to by God—pastor.
2) It fights against us viewing the pastor as a “CEO” figure. In American culture, a suit and tie are the “uniform” of business professionals, lawyers, etc. A robe de-emphasizes any cultural “uniform” and reminds us that the pastoral office described in the Bible is in many ways different from our society’s concept of a business leader.
3) It reminds us that, when they preach, they bring to us the very Word of God, as opposed to the thoughts and opinions of one person. Scripture is God’s unique, unparalleled revelation of Himself to us. It is like no other book.
4) It reminds us that we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness. The pastor, wearing a piece of clothing that both covers over and is distinct from their own clothing, offers to us a symbol of how we approach God in worship, “clothed with Christ” (Galatians 3:27)—it is His righteousness that makes us acceptable to God.
5) Wearing robes is part of our heritage. As Christians, it is part of our ancient Israelite heritage. The priests wore robes to distinguish their office (Exodus 28). It is also a part of my Reformed/Presbyterian heritage (robe-wearing is also a part of other Christian traditions as well). From the time of John Calvin, Reformed pastors would don the garb of a Renaissance scholar (a black robe called the “Genevan robe”) to legitimize their credentials as someone who was studied and learned in the Scriptures. This was important during a time when the Catholic church would have accused the churches of the Reformation of being unbiblical in their Christian expression.