Observations on the New Hymns Movement, part 3

This is part three of a series of posts looking at the resurgence of hymns in the past 10 years through the “re:tuned” movement that has coalesced around Indelible Grace, Red Mountain Music, BiFrost Music, Sojourn Music, and many more.  These reflections are part of preparing for a seminar at the Calvin Worship Symposium.

part one | part two

I discovered this movement of retuning hymns as I was entering seminary and at the time it was a revelation.  There was both the solid theology of the hymns that embraced what I felt was a richer reflection of humanity and music that I (and others) could accomplish in smaller (less technology oriented) settings that was interested in being singable and congregational.

In many ways (in the parlance of gospel speech) it was a ‘third way’ between traditional and contemporary worship. This has been called ‘blended’ or ‘convergence’ worship…but in general it means a concerted effort to plan worship that draws from a wider variety of sources.

But its certainly not the last word on trying to re:capture a biblically informed, congregationally attuned worship.  There are still a lot of issues that this new movement doesn’t address.  Here are a few of them that I offer as thinking/conversation points.

1. Hymns express worship at only certain points along the continuum of sung expression.

The Psalms (and canticles) present us with a wide spectrum of ‘song’ that exists along the emotional / content continuum.  There are some Psalms that present one emotion with few words, and others that engage complex emotional movements with many words. I think that in order for our worship to be truly biblical in its scope then we must strive to have worship that exists at every point along this continuum. [Scotty Smith has a wonderful talk on the continuum’s of worship i remember – link anyone?]  This chart forces some generalizations but also, i think, makes the point.

Complex Content<———————————————————–>Simple Content
Complex Emotion<———————————————————->Simple Emotion
Complex Form<—————————————————————> Simple Form

  Hymns—Gospel Hymns—-Modern/Praise —-Spirituals—-Service Music

If you look at your worship service and only see week after week of 4 verse hymn after 4 verse hymn then you are probably not engaging your people in a very complex or nuanced way.  The Psalms and the rest of scripture tell us that we need 150 different kinds/lengths/moods/measures of songs.  Sometimes we need a Psalm 136 that liturgically retells the grand scope of redemptive history.  Sometimes we need a short praise-chorus exclamation of praise like Psalm 117.  Sometimes we need the soft lullabye of Psalm 131 and other times the loud creational call of Psalm 150.  With every shade of praise to lament, encouragement to imperative.  Now obviously music isn’t the only thing in a service providing content and emotional conduits….so even with hymnody you can provide a full diet of prayer and praise (but i don’t think that many people think this way when planning worship)

2. Most of our hymn texts come from a specific time, and place, with cultural and theological baggage. 

Most of our hymns (with some notable exceptions) come from the british Isles during the romance of hymnody (17th and 18th centuries). They reflect certain theological and cultural underpinnings, and while for the most part they translate well into american protestant worship they should not be expected to speak into every culture.  It should be the case that every culture and people have a unique musical and theological voice to contribute to the whole.  Each culture has a unique gift to bring and we should celebrate that, as much as it can be done intelligibly, in our worship. Here are two critical case studies.

1. Gospel Music and the African American Music Tradition

European Hymns would have been the sole diet of song for most american slaves, yet over time they developed their own culture of music, the ‘spiritual’ that reflected different cultural and theological concerns (freedom and deliverance from slavery, Exodus, etc) and has impacted american (and sacred) music in every way.   The new hymns movement actually incorporates many of the roots of rock music that originated in this tradition.

2. Hymns and Missional/Global Worship

During the height of the British Empire the english hymn was carried to the far reaches of the globe.  In many places the hymn (metered prose with western melodic principles) was taught as the only accepted means of musical worship…nothing to say of the instrumentation required!  It was even the case I’ve heard that people learned to sing the hymns IN English.  This caused lots of damage and short-circuited the work of the Spirit in those places. Thankfully in the past 30-40 years the nations have begun to create their own indigenous worship music. This is even studied today as ‘ethnodoxology.’  A lot of churches would love to include some sort of global music expression in their worship but run up against the strangeness factor.  I would encourage you to make this happen…even if its only as part of a ‘mission’s weekend’ or retreat.  When we explore and embrace the songs of the nations we get to experience a true eschatalogical foretaste of heavenly worship.

Our hymnody was the result of over a 1000 years of western intellectual, spiritual, and cultural history.  Each culture should have a sacred music that stems from their own vast well of experience.

?: What should we think about the pervasiveness of CW in East Asia?  Look up some Pop praise from Taiwan if you want an awesome example!

3. Singing just hymns distracts us from the rich song of Scripture itself!

Scripture is full of song…and I am always shocked at how little we sing of it.  Certainly it would not be too difficult to put to verse the many snippets of song we see in the Old and New Testament and work harder to create versions of the psalms that appeal to our cultural and musical tastes!  In terms of a psalter I’m pretty excited that THIS has just come out.  In terms of singing scripture besides the psalms I have had to look outside of the protestant tradition largely.  Surprisingly it is the Catholics that often do a better job of singing the full breadth of scripture. In church music parlance this is usually called ‘service’ music.  It refers to many of the ancient-praise songs like the kyrie (Ps51) (Bifrost) or the gloria (Luke 2:14) (HighStreet Hymns) or the Sanctus (Is 6:3; Rev 4:8) (Red Mountain Music).  Taize Music and the Iona Community are also interesting sources of both service and global infused worship music.

Here are a few other notable song and poetic texts in scripture that need your work.

  • Canticle One — The (First) Song of Moses (Exodus 15:1-19)
  • Canticle Two — The (Second) Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32:1-43)[2]
  • Canticle Three — The Prayer of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10)
  • Canticle Four — The Prayer of Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3:1-19)
  • Canticle Five — The Prayer of Isaiah (Isaiah 26:9-20)
  • Canticle Six — The Prayer of Jonah (Jonah 2:2-9)
  • Canticle Seven — The Prayer of the Three Holy Children (Daniel 3:26-56)[3]
  • Canticle Eight — The Song of the Three Holy Children (Daniel 3:57-88)[3]
  • Canticle Nine — The Magnificat: Luke 1:46-55); the Song of Zacherias (the Benedictus Luke 1:68-79); The Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32)

Other Questions:

  • Many of the worship movements in the past 3o-40 years have surrounded age and generational boundaries.  One question I have is how the re:tuned movement is doing as an approach that is inter-generational? Or will it become another style-ghetto that follows RUF students into the broader church?
  • Groups like Sojourn Music have begun to explore using existing hymn texts as a theological framework for a song but often deconstructing the text itself.  What benefits and drawbacks does this approach present?
  • Does retuned hymnody encourage a more embodied approach to worship (that is often a critique of hymn based worship settings)?

6 thoughts on “Observations on the New Hymns Movement, part 3

Add yours

  1. I’m supposed to be preparing tomorrow’s re:tuned seminar, but instead I’m taking notes from your insightful post. Here are two things that come to mind:

    1. When you say “Now obviously music isn’t the only thing in a service providing content and emotional conduits” it makes me think, “Right–we’ve already got a sermon and lots of other word-heavy elements in a service; maybe the songs should be providing relief to all that verbiage rather than adding to it.” I’m going to be thinking about this…

    2. Your chart shows everything on a continuum of complex to simple. But it seems to me that there are some things that fall in two ranges simultaneously. For example, lots of Black Gospel could be considered simple in terms of its form and content, but it is complex and multi-layered emotionally. Lots of Western hymns take a simple idea and turn it into four stanzas of unnecessary complexity. The antidote, as you point out, is incorporating a range of repertoires to give a fuller intellectual, emotional, and physical worship experience.

    We’ll pick up some of these themes tomorrow morning!

  2. I think that refrains and simple choruses are one way to provide for short, emotive responses to the complex truths often found in hymns. I’m not calling for us to tack on modern choruses to every four-verse hymn, but it works well on occasion.

    I love how you brought in the example of the psalms and the canticles.

  3. These have been excellent articles and I’ve enjoyed reading them. I do have a few questions if you have the time, or perhaps others have an opinion. I really like what you said about addressing a wide, and complex range of thoughts/emotions/spiritual truths. As a pastor I’ve found that far too often our praise and worship songs are one-sided, usually celebratory. The problem is that that doesn’t address the reality of either Scripture, or life. Scripture is deep and therefore requires deep music. Life is complex and requires, at times, complexity. One of the things I don’t hear from the re-tuned hymn community though, is the missional side of worship. In other words, our people have to be able to interact with the music of the worship service, and based on what they listen to privately, they simply are not equipped to interact with the kind of music that the re-tuned hymn community is making. I don’t say this as an insult. I am currently listening to “Songs for Lent” and loving it. However, I’m trying to imagine the stone-mason on my front row, or the soccer mom in the back, genuinely understanding and interacting in a meaningful way with it. You talked in one of your articles about missionaries taking music overseas and forcing people to sing it in English. As much as I love what this particular community is doing, I can’t help but see a parallel in singing songs that are, at least for many in my ministry context, simply outside their range of experience and understanding. Again, please don’t take this as criticism. I love what you’re doing and would love to work more of it into my own ministry, but I wonder if the difficulty of that task don’t outweigh the benefits. I welcome your reply and encourage you to continue thinking deeply and working hard for our Lord.

    1. Hey Jason,
      I think one important caveat to note here is that most churches that are exploring these re:tuned hymns don’t use them as their exclusive musical diet. I know that my Blog certainly gives that impression…for that I am sorry! Part of my blogs mission to provide a place to catalog and sift through re:tuned hymns that are being produced. and it sounds like it has served you in that way. fantastic!

      It’s also interesting to point out that many of our hymns texts were written specifically for the working class in their time! The texts in the “Songs for Lent” project for example are all takin from the Sacred Harp which is still used in mainly agricultural communities along the Appalachian. Now of course…i think you are right in terms of how they are musically garbed. The Lent project was put together more for listening and thinking about the texts then for congregational singing. I definitely agree that they would ‘sound’ really foreign to your stone-mason! thanks for the really thoughtful comments. I deeply appreciate it.

  4. Cardiphonia,

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply. Again, I really hope what I said wasn’t viewed as criticism. I love what you’re doing and pray you have continued success. If I could ask one more question, you mentioned in one of your articles that you were “training” your people to hear and understand poetry. How are you going about that process, and how would you go about that process from a musical standpoint, getting people to move past the vapid sounds/styles of pop music, or the massive, U2-esque styles of modern CCM? And a corollary question, would it be more missional to arrange our music in such a way as to appeal to the “common ear” of our congregation, who listen to more Taylor Swift and Foo Fighters than Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver? Thanks again for all that you do. It’s a huge blessing to me as I consider what worship should look like for the church I’m planting/pastoring.

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