Growing up in the modern worship boom of the mid-2000s, where thousands flocked to Passion conferences and CCM mainstays started releasing “worship records’’ that flew off shelves, I became quite fond of the latest and greatest in the genre. But though these contemporary songs stirred my heart for worship leading, they also had the unintentional effect of steering my interest away from what I perceived as the remnant of older generations: hymns.
The summer after my freshman year of college, however, a friend and fellow worship leader revealed his musical interpretation of William Cowper’s hymn “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” The mixture of acoustic guitar and Cowper’s poetic words struck a literal chord in me. Despite the 18th-century lyrics, I could identify with the range of emotions present in the song, from intense sorrow to overwhelming joy.
My friend told me that several college ministries and churches all across the country—including Red Mountain Church in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama—were making music like this: matching obscure texts to modern music. My exploration of these groups led me from Red Mountain Church and Indelible Grace to Sandra McCracken, Matthew Smith, and Bifrost Arts.
Old Texts, New Music
Last year, when my wife and I were looking for a new church, I came across the website of Cahaba Park Church, located in a Birmingham suburb. I knew their chief musician, Adam Wright, from local bluegrass group Act of Congress, and soon learned that the church’s worship ministry, The Corner Room, produced a series of albums in the “old texts with new music” genre.
The project began when Cahaba Park’s lead pastor was planning a summer series on the Psalms. Wright wanted to come up with a composition for each Sunday that took a verbatim delivery of the Scripture and thematically linked the music and the message.
“Psalm 1 was the first sermon, so I decided to sit down and write music to the ESV version of Psalm 1,” Wright explained. “[The psalms] were intended to be songs originally, so they’re bent more that way than some of the Gospel narratives or the Epistles. But there’s not really a set verse or a set chorus like we would think about a song structure now.”
The sermon series covered 16 psalms that summer and continued the following year, eventually yielding more than 20 tunes. Wright received positive feedback from the congregation, who said singing the Scriptures as songs helped the words and truths stick with them. He soon gathered a group of local and regional musicians to record the 10 compositions that would make up Psalm Songs, Volume 1.
“My 2-year-old kid is running around the house singing Psalm 121,” Wright said of the recording’s effect. “I think this is something both our generation and future generations can benefit from. The Scriptures are not going to change. They stay constant. Because of that, hopefully this project will be relevant for a long time.”
A follow-up EP, What Great Mystery, was soon written and recorded. Though three of the songs (including a reinterpretation of the “Doxology”) were centuries old, Wright and The Corner Room incorporated two of their original contributions that focused on a traditional hymn style of lyrical expression.
“I wanted to write in a way that if you kept the text and removed the music completely, it would almost read like it was written 200 years ago,” Wright said.
I wanted to write in a way that if you kept the text and removed the music completely, it would almost read like it was written 200 years ago.
Scoring 1 Corinthians 13
This year, The Corner Room’s Love Never Ends focused on the ever-popular passage of 1 Corinthians 13. The 12-minute suite, presenting the biblical text word for word from the ESV, expands on The Corner Room’s rootsy-yet-ambient style with a three-movement orchestral piece of strings, piano, and brass, scored by Grammy-nominated arranger/composer Don Hart. Wright saw the passage as an opportunity to challenge modern interpretations of the word “love.”
“Culturally, love is often regarded as a general kindness and respect for our fellow man, but I think this passage speaks to something far greater—a description of Christ himself and the sacrificial love he perfectly demonstrated to redeem his people,” Wright said of 1 Corinthians 13.
The Corner Room is currently working on a second volume of Psalm songs, due out in the spring of 2018. Wright hopes the project reaches beyond Cahaba Park’s vicinity and into more churches across the country. He also urges other songwriters and worship leaders to responsibly use their gifts to create musically pleasing and doctrinally sound songs for their congregations.
The songs that we sing corporately can either help us trust in Jesus or trust in ourselves.
“The songs that we sing corporately can either help us trust in Jesus or trust in ourselves,” Wright said. “We who lead God’s people in singing must take great care to create a culture of the former. Both ancient and modern hymns, written with the intent to sing the truths of Scripture, are great tools to help us accomplish this.”