Mike Cosper offers the first in a series of articles introducing the artists leading a renewal movement in church music.
Resetting hymn texts to new music certainly isn’t an original or novel concept. It’s been going on in the church for a long, long time. In fact, a little research will reveal that many of the great hymn writers weren’t musicians; they were theologians who saw the power that song had in shaping the spiritual lives of their congregations. They worked as theological poets, writing hymns in meters that were commonly used amongst the churches, relying on melodies that were written by others.
I grew up as a witness to the “worship wars” of the 1980s and 1990s. I was baptized in a church with a pipe organ the size of a football stadium and cut my teeth playing guitar eight years later in a praise band. I’ll never forget one Sunday morning in particular, when Steven Curtis Chapman’s “The Great Adventure” was played by one band as special music. At the 8:30 a.m. service, you could literally hear crickets when they finished. At the 10:00, the crowd leapt to their feet.
When Sojourn was planted, we had our own little “worship war” during the months of core development. From within the core of 40 to 50 people—almost all single, young, and fans of indie rock—a fierce argument emerged that we should only sing hymns. They had enough of the praise choruses we’d been singing in Bible studies and college ministries. It took some serious efforts on the part of our lead pastor to settle down these agitated core members (some of whom left and never came back).
In the ensuing years, Sojourn went down a meandering path to define what our music should be like and what we should sing. There was a magnetic pull towards the Psalms, for reasons I mentioned a few weeks ago, and from that passion a magnetic draw towards the hymnal. I remember in particular hearing a lecture about the life of Anne Steele, a Baptist hymn writer from the 18th century, and it sent me down a path of rediscovery. G.K. Chesterton describes an explorer who sets out from England to find a new land, gets lost, and discovers England. Thinking he’s in a new land, the familiar sights and sounds are seen from a fresh perspective, and it’s all sort of magical and alive in a new way. So it was for me and the hymns. We’ve explored this world for several years now at Sojourn, releasing a record of Isaac Watts hymns (with another due in April) and various other hymn arrangements sprinkled into our other records (like new settings for Steele’s “My Maker and My King” and Augustus Toplady’s “Rock of Ages”).
As we’ve followed that road, we discovered that there was a whole host of folks on a similar journey. In Nashville, Kevin Twit has developed Indelible Grace, a collection of songwriters like Sandra McCracken, Matthew Perryman Jones, and Matthew Smith who are writing new arrangements for hymns. Kevin seems like the mastermind behind much of this movement, quietly raising up these artists to love the hymnal, and writing brilliant and fresh arrangments as a result. Sandra has launched New Old Hymns, where you can download a sampler of her work and see her links to a number of other great projects.
There are many others. Page CXVI has been writing post-rock hymn arrangements for the last few years, putting out some great stuff. Bob Kauflin and Sovereign Grace Music have written some wonderful arrangements, and my friends at Mars Hill in Seattle put out the Rain City Hymnal—also a great record. One of my favorite projects is from Park Slope Church. Their record Kingsborough Hymns has been a mainstay in my iPod for several years.
Last year, I had the priviledge of meeting Isaac Wardell, one of the founders of Bifrost Arts. Bifrost is focused on putting together resources for local churches related to liturgy and the arts, and their stuff has proven to be top-notch. They’ve released two records of hymns. Isaac described the process as “driving around with a couple of microphones, capturing people singing and playing whenever I could.” The albums are beautiful indie-folk, running the gamut from sounds that seem Appalachian to hints of Motown.
There are simply too many more to mention here. Suffice it to say this seems less like the keen interest of a few folks and more like a grassroots renewal movement in church music, a synthesis of the hunger for creative, contextualized music, and of rich texts and deep connections to our history.