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"THE "RE-MUSICING" OF HYMNS (Thoughts from a "Worship Leader")
I know. That’s not a real word. But for the sake of this article, I will treat it as one. Thanks for your indulgence.
I began my time as a “Worship Leader” (a term I am not a fan of anymore) at the age of 19 in my Youth Group in Virginia in 1989. Back then, I had an old guitar, a girl I had a crush on playing keys, and a cassette tape soundtrack of an Integrity Worship album that I used to try and lead worship songs for a bunch of students that really wanted more of God. I had weeks of success and weeks where I tripped and fell all over myself.
Through Bible college, my first church position, and beyond, I learned the most by watching others and by doing. I had a “life and guitar mentor”, Jeff, a man who I wish I could be like more than any man on this planet, whom I learned so much from, mainly regarding my demeanor and attitude towards ministry. I could write an entire book on that experience alone.
In the early 2000s, a term became popular regarding Worship Songs, a term that both intrigued and angered me. This term was: “Worship Wars”. Basically, this was the title given to describe the difference in opinion, debate, discussion, and sometimes outright fighting between those that wanted to (in church services) sing nothing but modern choruses and those that wanted to sing hymns. There was, quite frankly, obnoxious attitudes from both sides, with many in the the “new” crowd mocking hymns and those that loved them, and many in the “old” crowd mocking modern choruses and acting like the Hymnal was actually the “Bible in disguise”. Some people dug their feet in and sang out loud, “I shall not be, I shall not be moved…” and others didn’t want the fight at all, so they “solved” the problem by declaring that every church should do a mix of old and new each week… they called it “balanced worship”. The extremists and the centrists all made me want to punch the wall. None of them wanted to listen, learn, or change. And EVERY ONE OF THEM could find Scriptural support for their position on the matter. But… I discovered something through all of this…
A religious and critical spirit and attitude has very little, if not, then NOTHING to do with the style and age of what is being criticized. A teachable and respectful spirit is the SAME. See, I hated that term, “Worship Wars” because it put us as church people into 2 groups, and screamed out a mentality of “Us vs. Them”. Did anyone ever think this is what God wanted? How easily we fell into the trap of self-advancement and self-centeredness, feeling personally insulted when someone did not like “our” style. Pretty arrogant, I’d say. I once, in casual conversation, stated out loud that I was not a real big fan of Southern Gospel music. Well, the woman I said that too gasped and leaned back in her chair as if I told her I didn’t like the Bible anymore.
But allow me to move on to the real point of this. Today, there is discussion that is going on, stronger even than 10 years ago, that involves Hymns. Over the last 15 years or so, several, if not, many worship leaders have taken hymns and made some changes to them. Sometimes it’s the addition of a new bridge or chorus, sometimes it’s a change in the melody line, or even creating a “jazzed up” version of the original, and sometimes, it’s a total re-write. We have seen this in Chris Tomlin’s 2006 Version of “Amazing Grace” (you can also “blame” John Newton and Louie Giglio for that), as well as Jonas Myrin’s 2011 release of “Cornerstone” (along with many other writers).
I did this myself back in 2002 with “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” – my Pastor at the time wanted that hymn each and every week to open the service (yes, every week). So, I made it “funky” – changed the tempo from the majestic anthem sound to more of a gospel/rock sound with a cool tag between each verse. It was loud, and it was driving. I liked it, but it went over like a lead balloon. I quote Marty McFly here… “Guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet…”
So, what about now? Is it acceptable to change up a hymn? And how many changes do you actually make before you say, “Umm, just write a new song, dude.” Is it necessary to “maintain the musical integrity and history” of a hymn that is “Public Domain”, or should you just leave the thing alone? Do we, as Music Leaders, HAVE TO lead hymns? And if we do, do we HAVE TO change things? These are the questions.
(SIDE NOTE: Most people I have met that demand hymns be sung and are upset when they are NOT, really do not want the whole hymn book. They want the 10-15 of their favorites from that book of 500. Most people who demand new songs really don’t want the thousands and thousands that have been recorded over the past 5 years, they want the “cool ones” from their favorite artist, the ones that the youth camps and radio stations beat to death. Yeah, that was harsh. Sorry.)
Like it or not, Hymns represent history. For decades and more, those are the songs that were sung in church services. Whole families sitting on hard wooden pews, opening the books and singing together. Yes, culture changes, even church culture. Technology changes over time (there was a time that an overhead transparency projector was CUTTING EDGE), and as we get new seats, furniture, carpet and paint, we should utilize the new technology that is out there. And we should not be threatened by change. There is a HUGE difference between getting rid of the hymn BOOKS and getting rid of worship songs. There is a HUGE difference between getting rid of a communion table and getting rid of communion. We should not react as though one is the same as the other.
But, over the years, as new songs began to be written, choruses that were easier to understand, memorize, and sing (you can thank BILL GAITHER for breaking that ground), local churches began to develop their own looks, personalities, target demographics, and service styles. Yes… many sacrificed Scriptural integrity and preaching of the truth to do so. But many did not. Over the last 40 years, as Worship Music has developed into an actual industry (SOMETIMES at the expense of it being a ministry), it has become easier and easier for our focus to change – for it to be taken OFF of what the purpose of music should BE in our local churches to it actually BEING what our local churches are about. For many of us (church attenders and worship song leaders), we have embraced the world’s mentality of performance – “I am on the stage and I have to make you happy or else you won’t come here anymore”, or “YOU are on the stage, so make me like you – make ME enjoy your music – PERFORM FOR ME, or else I will complain to the management or leave.” What a shame if that is where we are.
So, what does this have to do with the “re-musicing” of hymns? Well, MAYBE… those that make the changes do so because they feel pressure from these two sides of the “Worship Wars” that still exist (except that maybe now it’s more of a “Cold War”, where the battles are fought in back room meetings, group chats, and e-mails). So, I HAVE TO lead a hymn. BUT, I can’t just lead it, I HAVE TO jazz it up or make changes to appeal to those that are not a fan of the music style. MAYBE… we need to calm down, leave the worship leaders alone, and stop telling them what they HAVE TO do (except make sure what they lead is centered around the exaltation of God, and ROOTED IN SCRIPTURE, not just a nice “idea”). A few weeks ago, I was leading a song called, “I Surrender” (Matt Crocker – 2011). I decided to add, towards the end, the chorus of the old Hymn, “I Surrender All”. It musically fit, and, in my opinion, was a good idea. But I did not do that because I HAVE TO HAVE A HYMN! The next time I lead that song, I might not do that again. Just an example of what I mean.
“Those old hymns are outdated, musically hokey and cheesy, and have weird language!” Yeah – MANY OF THEM sure are. I mean… what were some of those writers thinking? But many of them are not. Many of them are Theologically deep, and punch a Scriptural truth right in your face. If, and I mean, IF, you’re going to lead a hymn, FIND ONE OF THOSE.
“Those new songs and choruses are so thin, they say NOTHING, they’re too repetitive, way too long, and Scripturally childish, or even INACCURATE!” Yeah – MANY OF THEM sure are. I mean… what were some of those writers thinking? But many of them are not. Many of them are Theologically deep, and punch a Scriptural truth right in your face. If, and I mean, IF, you’re going to lead a new song, FIND ONE OF THOSE.
“Changing a hymn’s tune and/or lyrics and format destroys the integrity of the song and ruins the impact that it has on our worship experience!” YEAH – it sure can. I think we all may have heard it happen. So here’s where I land this plane: IF, and I mean, IF, you are going to make changes to a hymn, don’t make the changes the focus. The changes should enhance the song, not replace it. When you begin to make musical or lyrical changes (side note: it’s more dangerous to make lyrical changes than musical ones), if those changes begin to “take over” the song… if they become what your presentation of the song is about, then just go back to your starting point and WRITE A NEW ONE. But if you can honestly say that what you add is an enhancement and a support to the message of that hymn and its musical sound, then by all means, GO FOR IT. And us worship leaders need to stop being threatened by leading songs that are not our favorites. IT’S NOT ABOUT US ANYWAY.
Earlier I made a statement about how during the “Worship Wars”, people were being personally insulted when someone didn’t like “our” style of music. Well, we can very easily do this when it comes to hymns and modern songs. Someone doesn’t like hymns, and we get offended… someone doesn’t like ________ (name your favorite modern worship artist/church), we get offended, I mean, HOW COULD YOU NOT LIKE THAT? Maybe we should stop calling worship music “ours” in the first place. Hymns don’t belong to me. Modern worship songs don’t belong to me. While I have my favorites (it is why I listen to what I want in my car, on Spotify, and my 9 year old MP3 player), I should seek out truth and effectiveness for my local church, not “what makes people feel happy”. Who are we worshipping anyway?
Just my thoughts.