When a hymn retune is needed

wow three posts in one week Adam! Good job kid!
A print from the Common Service Book of the Lutheran Church (1917), p. 406  Courtesy of hymnary.org

I’m all for the current resurgence of setting old texts to new music. It’s fantastic for us young evangelicals who seek and crave lyrical depth and historical grounding. It’s great for churches that have ‘worn out’ the top 40 CCLI songs and looking for new songs by reaching backward. A bit of ‘retrovation’ if I may implement my new favorite neologism.

Many times these hymn re-tunes are successful, and bring back an otherwise forgotten text to 21st century congregations. Other times they miss the mark. Lackluster texts with unimaginative melodies simply add to an overwhelming corpus of contemporary hymnody that confuses and alienates worshippers. It’s great for the hymn (re)writers, to gain experience composing new tunes, trying out new arrangements, and sometimes failing, but is it really effective? With new CCM songs written every day, and 90% of them won’t last more than a year.  The last thing we need is to revive an extant mediocre text.

What are the things needed for a hymn re-tune to succeed? I’ll explain them using an excellent example, Greg Thompson of High Street Hymns’ 2004 setting of “Jesus Lord of life and glory” by James Cummins (1839).  Incidentally, we’re singing it this Sunday at TCC.  Here is my litmus test

1) The text must be good. Like, real good.

I can’t emphasize this one enough. The text has to be SO GOOD, that we can’t not sing it. It has to make you look at the gospel with a new pair of glasses. Though the perspective and cultural context of hymn writers of centuries past is different from our own 21st century hermeneutic, people are always people, sin is always sin, and God is always God.

Besides the aim for gospel centric lyrics, they must also be valuable poetically, both sense and sound. The words must not only pack a theological punch, but must be pleasant to say and pleasing to the ear.

Take our example, “Jesus Lord of Life and Glory.” The alliteration of phrases such as “Lord of life,” “while our waiting souls,” and “when the world around …” roll off the tongue with ease; they’re a joy to say and sing!

Consider also the structure of the text, which lends itself nicely to our contemporary verse/chorus idiom. Each verse concludes with this final line: “By thy mercy, O Deliver us, Good Lord,” rendering all the preceding text as submission to God.  It’s especially poignant in his fourth verse:

When the world around is smiling,
in the time of wealth and ease,
earthly joys our hearts beguiling,
in the day of health and peace
By thy mercy, O deliver us, good Lord.

2) The original genesis of tune use must be fragmented

(see pie chart)

Exhibit B – Who’s ever sung ST. RAFAEL anyway?

The OLD hymn must use a tune (or tunes) that are relatively unfamiliar to the typical worshipper. If a tune is too readily recalled it will be near impossible to remove the conventional wisdom of the past. Especially if the old hymn exists in the existing pew hymnals. “Why can’t we just sing it the old way! I knew that one!”

Check out this pie chart – Exhibit B.  “Jesus Lord of life and glory” shows itself to be a promising candidate for a hymn retune. Not only are the most commonly used tunes unknown (ST RAFAEL and ST AUSTIN…wut?), the “other” category is just as big as the other two. This essentially indicates this text is not tethered to a certain tune, and can be freely re-set to new music.

3) Original tune (or tunes) must be unfamiliar

(see bar graph)

HymnUse graph
the hymnal stock market…

This is perhaps more like #2a, as it is similar to point #2. Not only must the current usage be fragmented, the usage must be low. The graph on the right shows a very low occurrence in hymnals from the hymns original publication, no large spikes or even any increase in use. It also hasn’t died away, but seems to be hanging on in one or two hymnals. Today it is listed in the Trinity Hymnal, #569, and no others. Perfect.

When these three factors align, the new setting might just ave a shot at succeeding. We haven’t begun to discuss the compositional decisions that need to be made – we’ll save that for another blog post.

All this to say, I’m loving the re-tune by High Street Hymns.  Check it out online here:

Buy the track here:

Or come to TCC this Sunday and sing it with us!

Music in Worship roundtable [acda]

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) national convention in Chicago, IL.  Among the many interest sessions, round table discussions, and concerts, were a few events that focused on music in worship.  On Thursday at noon I attended the music and worship roundtable discussion, which to my surprise was not so much a round table, but a hall full of professional church musicians from all over the country ready to discuss and debate the hot topic issues of leading church music.

The “speaker” was more a discussion facilitator who posed various polls and open ended questions to the audience.  One thing I noticed right away from the comments was that I was definitely among the denominational minority.  As this was a conference of professional choral directors, it makes sense that the majority of church musicians would be from “traditional” worship settings with choirs and organs, but I was surprised to be one of only a handful of “evangelicals” in the crowd of over 200 people.

After these polls of self-identification, we were asked to share about our own worship experiences.  What are some points of celebration in the liturgy of your congregation?  What are some points of tension or conflict?  I was surprised to see the atmosphere of the room turn negative after the latter question was asked.  It became obvious that many present at this conference were bitter or disenchanted with worship, likely due to the demographic of the american choral directors association and the changing face of christian worship.

But fortunately these negative comments turned around, and after the nay-sayers had their turn to share their opinions, the majority of the audience began to share stories of overcoming conflict through patience, perseverance, and flexibility.  Many stories involved people who were hired at churches as worship leaders that were not their “home” denomination.  Though they were uncomfortable and out of their element at first, these church musicians largely expressed positive experiences where through worshipping in a new way, they gained a greater understanding of what it means to truly worship, and a greater understanding of who God is.

Though – as my sociology teacher says – ‘the plural of anecdote is not data’, these stories nevertheless warmed my heart and made me realize that there is a lot of good that can come from differences in worship styles.  I realize that we should rejoice these differences and count them as blessings.




Yes thats a word.

This semester I’m taking a fascinating course on the sociology of American Evangelicalisms.  Yep you heard me right.  I’m taking a sociology class.  In discussions, I’m finding it really hard not to use theology or scriptural evidence to support and argue my point, but am beginning to understand how to interpret religion and (more importantly) religious vitality from the social science perspective.  At first, I thought that explaining religion as a reaction to social, cultural, or economic factors subversive to the the power of God or the workings of the Holy Spirit.  I still think that sometimes, but Jesus did interact with the Jewish and Roman culture of the first century.  We are called to be fishers of men.  The Church today exists in the 21st century of modernity, mass media, and pluralism.  So lets face the facts.

One of the main themes of the class is how various denomanations react to what one sociologist calls “the quandary of modernity.”  Some retreat into fundamentalist, puritainist, or monastic cultures that isolate themselves in attempt to keep ‘orthodox’ faith alive.  Others (like 21st century American Evangelicalism) dive into the marketplace of religion, and compete amidst a slew of other voices by offering meaning and substance for the man on the street.  While some theories apply better to contemporary evangelicalism, here’s something i’ve noticed regarding the cyclical and evolutionary nature of church growth and decline:

Orthodoxy –> Relevance –> Accommodation –> Decline –> Crisis –> Revival

That is to say, as churches move to become relevant, they must sacrifice some original orthodox beliefs and practices (for shocking and slightly nauseating instances, see the museum of idolatry).  This in turn allows greater flexibility among a churches membership, which, if left un attended to, can result in vague luke-warmness and spiritual “feelings.”  If this does happen, not all hope is lost.  Many church movements have been born out of a reaction to declining theology, and revivals can reinvigorate a church body to newfound sacramentality and orthodoxy.  I strongly agree with the concept that the reformation was not a one time event, but a process that must always be happening within churches to stay orthodox without loosing relevance (or stay relevant without loosing orthodoxy).  I want to read Roger Olsen’s book about that.  One sociologist calls for an engaged orthodoxy.  Perhaps this is what Jesus is talking about in John 17 when he speaks of being in the world but not of the world?

The language of space

A few months ago, I saw yet another interesting ted talk, this one on the way that architecture has influenced music.  The spaces in which we fill sound directly affect the kind of sounds produced there.  David Byrne chronicles the history of music in relation to the history of archetecture.  Reverberant gothic cathedrals allow for polyphonic music, concert halls request loud symphonic music, arenas require slower tempos and clear vocal lines to be understood.  Check out the video:

This term at BU’s School of Theology (my new stomping ground!), I’m taking a course titled “Introduction to Christian Worship.”  For this course we are reading James White’s book of the same title.  I’ve just finished the chapter on the Language of Space, which discusses how the spaces we use for liturgical worship affect and reveal our beliefs.  His main point seems to be this:  Whatever the space, it must function to allow for “speaking and touching in God’s name.”  I like this stripping down of the definition of worship.  Too often I think of worship as what we do on Sunday mornings.

A few definitions of worship:

The Vatican defines worship as “the glorification of God and the sanctification of humanity”

The Anglican Church calls it “setting forth of God’s honor or glory, and to the reducing of the people to a most perfect and godly living.”

Russian Orthodoxy says “the response of men to the Divine call, to the ‘mighty deeds’ of God, culminating in the redemptive act of Christ.”

And White, as quoted before, likens the phrase “speaking and touching in God’s name”.

My professor, Don Saliers, has his own definition that is more focused on Christ: “The ongoing word, prayer, and action of Jesus Christ in and through his body in the world made alive by the holy spirit.”

I digress…

Whatever your definition of worship, you need to have a space in which to worship.  I could go into discussion of why a community of worshippers is important, but that is for another blog post.  White outlines 5 different criteria which are required for proper worship spaces: Utility, simplicity, flexibility, intimacy, and beauty.   After all, “Churches are built to be used, not to be monuments for tourists to admire or art historians to chronicle.”

And it is for good reasons churches debate over the planning of new spaces for worship.  During high school, my church demolished and built an entirely new building, providing new spaces for classes and many different ministries to meet.  During college, for many years my church was creating drafts and proposals for a new building.  After many discussions and an eventual decision made by the congregation the project was cancelled.

White’s five criteria are important to think about when making decisions about church buildings and worship space planning, but I would imagine it very difficult to think about all of them at once.  Gothic cathedrals are beautiful but not flexible.  My home church (no offense!) is quite simple but not always beautiful (just don’t look up).  That new building they made?  Very flexible (cascading partition walls, multiple classroom configurations), but not very intimate.  To me it seems that more and more reformed churches are going for utility and simplicity over beauty and intimacy.  I attended on church that met in an elementary school multi-purpose room!

But what effect does that have on the music, if I may transition to the main topic of this blog?  What does David Byrnes talk say about the direction of christian worship through music?  Buildings are much more permanent than the latest christian rock song.  White says “After it is built, it will continue to shape worship in its image for generations.  Although it is not completely true that the building will always win, we must at least recognize in it a powerful ally and a formidable foe. Its witness will outlast its builders.

And this is true.  I formed a choir for christmas and good friday services at my church in Santa Barbara, which I really enjoyed doing and was pleased with the music.  In the end, however, the space was not correct for that style of music (my church did praise music), so as good as they sounded, the style did not fit the space.

My new church has a fantastic history of hymnody and a marvelous organ, which fits the space really well and envelops the congregational voice.  This church is one that does morning “traditional” and evening “contemporary” services.  I try as often as I can to attend the morning services, because I like the senior pastor a lot and am partial to “traditional” worship music…whatever that means.  I also attend the early services because I hope more young people would discover the beauty of hymnody.  [Anecdote: Saliers told us a heartwarming story of a kids choir that was learning hymns and kids worship songs.  When one kid was asked which song was his favorite, he told him the hymn was his favorite.  This puzzled Saliers because the language was much too complex for a 8 year old boy.  When asked why, the kid replied “The words taste so good!”] Anyway…lead by example right?

On some Sundays, however, I’m lucky to have a church job playing piano for a morning service.  This leads me to attend the evening services at Park Street.  In the same physical space where choir and organ sing, drum set, electric guitars, bass, synthesizers, and powerpoint.  I’ve since gotten used to it, but the first time I walked into the evening “contemporary” service, it sounded like mush (again…no offense!).  The whitewashed walls, high ceiling, and wooden pews made the music echo and sound generally boomy (though not as bad as that church in the M-P room).  It’s not that the music wasn’t worship-full, but it seemed out of place in such that space.  Should churches have services for “traditional” folks, and services for “contemporary” kids?  Should we have two different spaces for two different styles of music?  My inclination is no, but more on that later.

Utility, simplicity, flexibility, intimacy, and beauty.  Let’s strive for these in our worship spaces.