Monday, October 18, 2010

Giving New Life to Old Hymns: Part I

I am so grateful for the abundance of hymnody that has been passed down to us throughout the ages. I am also grateful for the resurgence of these hymns through groups and ministries like Indelible Grace and Red Mountain Music. I really feel that one of the reasons this resurgence has some real oomph behind it is that reviving hymns accomplishes two important things at once: On one hand it establishes a real connection with our Christian forefathers and on the other it is immensely authentic.

The connection to the past is obvious, but I say that this reviving of hymns is authentic because it gives our congregation a real voice. We are able to say the same thing that Isaac Watts said but in our own context. The ability to take the texts of these old hymns and give them new life in the midst of our congregations is an amazing gift to the modern church. And again, while I am grateful that there are groups and churches out there doing this, I want to encourage the local church worship leader to begin doing this as well. As talented as Matthew Smith is, he ultimately doesn’t know your congregation like you do. You have your finger on the pulse of your congregation; you know their needs and what they need.

Beyond Re-Tuning
Much of the focus of this resurgence of hymns has been writing brand new tunes to old hymn texts. Though it is hardly a new concept, I’ve heard this idea cleverly called a Re-tune. This is the most obvious way hymns are being used in this resurgence, however the idea of giving life to old hymns doesn’t always have to end with a new tune. For local worship leaders the goal shouldn’t be writing a new tune, the goal should be serving your congregation with this ancient treasury of hymns. There are a variety of ways we can use hymns to serve our congregation aside from writing a brand new tune. I want to offer a few other suggestions beyond Re-tuning that will allow you to tailor hymns to serve your people.

Tailoring and Tweaking our Treasured Hymns
Inspired by the phrase Re-tune I have categorized a few ways we can tweak, tinker with, and tailor this massive treasure of hymnody we have at our disposal. Aside from a complete Re-tune I have come up with four ways in which we can do this: Rearrange, Rewrite, Replace, and Redeem. Some will overlap, but I believe we can utilize each one for the glory of God and the edification of our churches. We’ll look at two of these today and two in a later post.

One very easy way to give a hymn new life is by rearranging it. I find that this has worked best for me with some of the old familiar gospel songs that often have a refrain after each verse. A simple way to rearrange this type of song is to not sing the refrain after every verse. For example, for the song “The Solid Rock” you might begin with the refrain:

On Christ the solid rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand
All other ground is sinking sand

Then sing Verse 1 followed by Verse 2. Only after Verse 2 would you sing the refrain once more. This is only a slight change but it will be breath of fresh air to a congregation who has sung it the same way for most of their life. Compare the arrangements side by side:

Normal      Rearranged
Verse 1       Refrain
Refrain        Verse 1
Verse 2       Verse 2
Refrain        Refrain
Verse 3       Verse 3
Refrain        Verse 4
Verse 4       Refrain

The trick however in rearranging is to not mess up the logic of the original text, so you likely wouldn’t sing “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” in reverse or in a mixed order. But you can still rearrange a hymn by repeating a verse or portion of a verse at the end of a song. Use it as a tag to reinforce the theme of the hymn or to expose a particular truth that you want to drive home. In this case, at the end of “Come Thou Fount” you might repeat the middle of the last verse:

Prone to wander, Lord I feel it
Prone to leave the God I love
Here’s my heart, oh take and seal it
Seal it from Thy courts above

Rewriting is the opposite of Re-tuning. This is taking a familiar tune and writing brand new words to it. Perhaps a tragedy has taken place in the church and you cannot find the words to say in any particularly familiar hymn, nor does the congregation have the time to learn a new song during their heartbreak. Penning new lyrics to an old tune can be a powerful tool to serve your congregation well. If you are able to give your congregation new words to sing in a familiar way that meets them where they are, there is likely no better way a worship leader can serve people in a time of grief. This can be done for many different seasons in the life of a local church.

Rewriting can also be used to reinforce a certain theme or a particular truth that the pastor might be preaching on. This is a good way for you and your pastor to team up for the cause of the gospel. Again, familiarity with the context of your local congregation is key.

Rewriting can also be a good starting place for you and for those interested from your congregation to begin re-tuning your own hymns. Instead of worrying about an original tune, begin with a familiar tune. This instantly gives you a way to see if the words you write are singable and at the same time automatically provides a particular mood for your song. Perhaps you will be content to simply sing your new song with the old tune, but don’t be afraid to branch out every now and then and try a new tune. This is a great first step in hymn writing.

Below is an example of a Rewrite I did earlier this year with “Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior”. I must admit it is only a partial rewrite because I only rewrote the refrain based on the verses. The reason for this rewrite is because I felt like this song had become a one trick pony. The only time we broke it out was after the sermon, and then we only sang the first verse and refrain. I had always felt that the remaining three verses were more powerful than the first, but the refrain always pulled us away from the truths explored in those verses. So I ditched the first verse and rewrote the refrain section based on its preceding verse. Instead of a constant refrain pleading to Jesus “Do not pass me by” there is now a logical progression that runs through the song from unbelief and sorrow, to salvation and grace, to eternal joy through Jesus. The tune remained the same, but now the song has been set free and we’re able to use this song in a more meaningful and purposeful way in our service. The verses are original and the italicized refrains are my additional rewrites.

Let Me at Thy Throne of Mercy
(to the tune of “Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior”)

Let me at thy throne of mercy
Find a sweet relief
Kneeling there in deep contrition;
Help my unbelief
Jesus, Jesus help my unbelief!
Glorify the Father through my
sorrow, loss and grief

Trusting only in thy merit
Would I seek thy face
Heal my wounded, broken spirit
Save me by thy grace
Jesus, Jesus, save me by thy grace!
Through the cross have mercy on all
sinners in this place

Thou the spring of all my comfort
More than life to me
Whom have I on earth beside Thee?
Whom in heav’n but thee?
Jesus, Jesus; More than life to me!
Endless pleasure! Joy abounding!
All are found in Thee

In my next post I’ll discuss two more ways in which we can use the treasury of hymns to serve our congregation. In the meantime I hope that this post has encouraged you to begin not only selecting hymns, but utilizing them in skillful ways to serve your church.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, Rich! I'm a long-time "Re-tuner" myself (though the term is actually new to me!) for reasons I will have to blog about soon.

    When my wife and I were in Ireland this summer, we met a pastor whose hobby was pairing hymn texts with Irish folk tunes. It was amazing not only how much more contextualized they became but how much new life and freshness the familiar texts received. (Of course I'm a sucker for Irish folk tunes anyway.)

    I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on my just-released album of "re-tuned" hymns which can be found here, if you'll pardon some shameless self-promotion.