Friday, September 17, 2010

Matthew Smith, Indelible Grace, and My Hymn Seminar Notes

Yesterday I attended a seminar on Hymns with Matthew Smith from Indelible Grace Music. If you are unfamiliar with Indelible Grace I would encourage you to check them out immediately. Indelible Grace is a group that Matthew Smith has participated in for about 10 years and they are rooted in the college ministry of the PCA called Reformed University Fellowship (RUF). They are doing something the church has done for a long time, which is putting hymn texts to modern music. It sounds simple enough but the practice, for the most part, has fallen by the wayside in our day and age of modern, cutting edge, happy-clappy worship songs. They are a driving force in the resurgence of hymnody today.

At the seminar Matthew Smith gave a brief history of his life as a worshipper and how he got involved with Indelible Grace. I was struck by how similar our stories are. He grew up in a Christian home, led worship for the youth group, and felt like a failed worshipper. Much of his guilt and feelings of failure were a direct result of the songs they sang and what he falsely thought worship should be. Matthew said he had a hard time explaining this feeling but I knew exactly what he was talking about. In some ways he felt as if worship meant that he had to ‘disconnect’ in some since and ‘attain’ a certain ‘level’ of worship for worship to actually occur. The songs they sung (as did I) were songs that said, “I want to” and “I will do” and he felt the weight of failure on his shoulders. Then he discovered RUF in college and was intrigued by two things; the acoustic guitar folk rock music caught his eye first, but what really kept him and drew him in were the hymns they were singing. The hymns placed all the emphasis on Jesus rather than on himself. Matthew had found that which released him of his feelings of guilt and failure in worship; instead of the world becoming a fuzzy disconnect that he always thought it should be, the world actually became more real, it became clearer and sharper in focus. I don’t know if this resonates with you but I completely understand where he is coming from, and so I found much encouragement and confirmation in my own story after hearing his.

After this Matthew gave a brief, but loaded presentation about why we need hymns and why he and Indelible Grace love the hymns so much. Before he began he made clear that when he talks about Hymns he uses the word ‘hymn’ as being distinguished from what many people consider as hymns, such as the Gospel Songs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Gather Music, etc.

I’ve listed the notes I took below. I summarized a bit but all of it is derived from what Matthew said.

Hymns engage our:

Imagination – Hymns paint a picture and they can be both personal and universal at the same time

Intellect – Hymns make you think about what you are singing – they help people engage or participate in worship more fully – the over all theme of a hymn should be understood after singing it once, but it needs to be sung over and over to better understand it.

Will – Hymns make you want to live differently rather than telling you to live differently – they have a shaping quality that assists the singer to change certain beliefs – Hymns say things you don’t want to say

Emotions – Hymns effect our emotions without being emotionalism and without manipulation – When you cry to a country song, it’s because the songwriter wanted/intended for you to cry. When you cry to a hymn it is because the hymn writer is crying with you. We share the emotion with the writer. (Matthew used the country song example because he knows of artists in Nashville that do it.)

Hymns are:

True – Hymns tell the truth about who we are and who God is

Good Theology – Hymns contain good (sound) theology – Kevin Twit says “Hymns are theology on fire” which means that hymns convey theology not in a stoic or stagnant kind of way, but it gives theology life and it spreads and is efficacious

Beautiful – Hymns are not just a tool to be used for practical purposes, ie. Just to teach, or for evangelism, etc (I tend to be guilty of this) – Art that is only practical is propaganda – ‘beauty’ does not equal ‘pretty’, beauty can be ugly – bad art lies and at it’s worst lies about the human condition

(As a side note I would add on my own that Hymns are also authentic. In that they were written most often for the hymn writer’s local congregation to aid in worship rather than written to be sold as a product to consume. I wish I would have thought of this during the discussion time to hear Matthew’s thoughts…anyway, back to the notes.)

Good Writing and Bad Writing

CS Lewis – he referred us to what Lewis had to say about the difference between good and bad writing. Although he didn't quote it, this is the quote he was referring to:
'In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing is “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please, will you do my job for me.”'
Bad Writing tells you how to feel (ie. That woman is beautiful)

Good Writing describes and displays the woman in such a way that the reader can only come away with the conclusion that the woman is a knockout.

According to this criterion, hymns would be considered “Good Writing” whereas most modern day praise songs would likely be considered “Bad Writing”. Where a modern praise song might say, “Jesus is amazing” a hymn would take three or four lines (or maybe the whole song!) describing and displaying Jesus in such a way that the singer can only come away with the conclusion that Jesus is amazing.

Then we moved into a Q&A/Discussion time that produced some great food for thought:

When asked what makes a hymn a hymn (as in distinction to modern songs) Smith said it has much to do with the form of the hymn. The secret weapon/advantage of the hymn is that it is Verse, Verse, Verse, Verse and develops a thought without interruption (the interruption typically being a chorus). But he was quick to point out that the chorus in many songs are not bad, but the verses of these songs tend to point only to the chorus so the development of thought isn’t always as strong as a hymn.

When discussing archaic language Matthew was not against changing language so that modern readers might understand, but he also felt it was perfectly fine to leave archaic language as it was written just the same. In doing so the singer will have to think and learn. He said he doesn’t have a rule about it because a hard and fast rule such as this destroys art.

The best part of the discussion was when the topic became sadness or darkness (in a sad since) in hymns as opposed to happy, peppy, chipper songs. Before I attended this it was a strong conviction of mine that the church must sing songs that prepare people for suffering, and sing them every week, and after listening to this discussion I am even more encouraged and fully strengthened that my conviction is valid. Here are four quotes that I wrote down during that discussion:

- When planning a service or when selecting songs: “Never aim for happy—always aim for joy.”

- “Mournfulness in songs doesn’t equal Mopey-ness.”

- “Jesus was a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. If your songs don’t reflect that you’re picking the wrong songs.”

- In discussing how people at an A.A. meeting can often times be more honest than at church and how the church is a place for broken people: “The church should be a place where if you boast in yourself you should look stupid. Go play golf stupid.”

Following the seminar was a concert with Matthew and the Indelible Grace band. These guys not only love hymns and make a great case for them, they make excellent music for us to sing them to. I praise God for Indelible Grace and others who continue to put great music to great hymn texts.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Crowder's Fantastical Church Music Conference

At the end of September, my wife and I (and baby Arwen) will be travelling to Waco, Texas to attend David Crowder’s Fantastical Church Music Conference. This is a conference that seems a little outside of the box, which I really like. But ultimately there are 3 things that really drew me to the conference. 1) It is a conference on church music 2) The amazing line-up of speakers and artists 3) It looks to contain a sizeable Reformed Voice.

A Conference about Church Music

I like that they say that this is a ‘church music’ conference. This is a great umbrella word that covers both music produced by the church for worship and music produced by the church for art. The reason I’m psyched about this is because it’s the first ‘popular’ conference I’ve seen that doesn’t confuse the two from the outset. There are a million ‘Worship Conferences’ that have nothing to do with worship (or worship music for that matter…). Here are a few (subject to change) workshops they list:

Songwriting - Speaking The Collaborative Language of Music During Worship vs. Learning Worship Tunes Verbatim from the Latest and Greatest CDs - The Functional Limits of Creativity - A Short History of Church Music - Worship and Justice - From Sunday to Sunday: A New Old Vision for Worship; Liturgical Spirituality for Post-Modern-Semi-Reformed-Hipsters - Tech and Production
If they survive the cut I’m really looking forward to attending Songwriting, The Collaborative Language vs Learning Worship Tunes Verbatim, and A New Old Vision for Worship.

Speakers and Artists

I am really excited for the speakers and artists that they have lined up. In one panel discussion alone are three of my biggest modern influences on worship, worship music, and songwriting; Bob Kauflin, Matt Redman, and Derek Webb. Just these three guys together would be enough to get me down to Texas. But alongside the big names like David Crowder Band and Hillsong are some lesser known groups like Bifrost Arts and The Civil Wars. For guys like me, I’d rather listen to Bifrost Arts over Hillsong any day. I’m really looking forward to hearing some of the other artists I’m not familiar with.

But there will be more than just opposing styles of music, there will be some clashing theologies as well. One of the big name speakers is Rob Bell. Now one thing Rob Bell has going for him is that he’s really cool and hip. But Rob Bell is pretty far out there theologically. I think it will be interesting to see the contrast between Bell and let’s say, Bob Kauflin or Francis Chan. So the divide theologically and stylistically in the artists and speakers who will be there will be interesting to witness firsthand.

Sizeable Reformed Voice

I would first say that this in no way appears to be a “Reformed” conference. The presence of Rob Bell and a few others puts to death that idea. It appears that the conference is aiming at (what one of the workshops calls) Post-Modern-Semi-Reformed-Hipsters. But you really can’t deny the influence of Reformed theology on many of the speakers and artists. And it’s not only that many of them adhere to Reformed theology, but they all seem to come from different streams of Reformed theology, most of whom I’ve already mentioned. You have the Passion guys Louis Giglio and Matt Redman, Sovereign Grace Pastor Bob Kauflin, Francis Chan, and Derek Webb. Crowder is a reformed guy in the Passion stream as well. I’m excited to see and hear from these guys in the midst of a conference that seems to reach out to, not only the reformed, but to the ‘emerging’ and what I’d call the ‘Pop-American Christianity’ crowds. So I wouldn’t call this event a ‘Reformed Conference’—it would be more accurate to describe it as a conference that includes a sizeable and influential Reformed voice. And to be honest, the fact that this is not a ‘reformed conference’ makes it that much more attractive. I’ve been to those and you know exactly what you’re going to get (both positively and negatively…).

In Summation

So my overall impression of this conference is that it is going to be fun and interesting. I’m looking forward to the info coming from the guys who’ve inspired me, ready to hear some music I’m not familiar with, and ready to connect and network with some like minded folks down in Texas.

If you are a reader of Sound Doxology and you are attending this conference I would love to hook up with you! Just drop me a line in the comments below or shoot me an email at sounddoxology AT gmail DOT com and let’s set something up.

(And if you happen to be speaking at the conference or performing I’d love to hook up with you as well. I promise to say something nice about you on my blog... Perhaps an interview?…I don’t know, have your people call my people, let’s do lunch...)