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Reawakening Hymns

Retuning Traditional Songs for Contemporary Worship

Last week I was asked to lead worship at a small church plant. It was a young church where I, a 31-year-old, would be one of the older attendees. So I looked through my song list and choose three songs that would be fitting for the night before Easter. I wasn’t looking for any particular kind of song; just songs that conveyed the message of the cross and that might be familiar and singable with this group. It wasn’t until after I picked out the songs that I realized all three were hymns. As I did some reflecting I came up with several reasons why I may have been drawn to them, reasons that are as true this season as they were at Easter.

The Reasons

There is no reason that “hymns” and “praise songs” need any distinction in your modern worship service. They are two sides of the same coin. My advice for those trying to use hymns in modern worship is to stop trying. Stop trying to include hymns, and instead try only to use good, meaningful songs. That will inevitably include hymns. When I plan worship, I look for songs that have good theological depth, are singable, and fit the direction of the service I am planning for. It doesn’t matter if they are hymns or contemporary songs, and nowadays I often don’t even notice the difference.

If your worship repertoire is devoid of hymns altogether, then you are missing some powerful tools for leading meaningful worship. There are a lot of good reasons to include hymns in the modern worship repertoire, but there are a lot of bad reasons as well. As with all things in worship, the key is to be intentional and thoughtful.

Many hymns contain great theological depth that can be rare in any form of worship. The song “Before the Throne of God Above” contains one of the greatest summaries of Christ’s atoning work outside the Scriptures themselves. Hymns can also be accessible to many generations. Though most hymns may be familiar to only older generations, some will be able to connect with all ages. There are probably very few people in your congregation of any age who don’t know “I Surrender All” or “How Great Thou Art.” In addition, hymns can fit many styles of worship. “Mighty to Save” would sound awfully strange on a pipe organ, and “How Great Is Our God” might sound a little strange coming from a gospel choir, but “Amazing Grace” can sound natural coming from a gray-haired piano player or a millennial with an acoustic guitar and skinny jeans.

Though hymns can be a natural part of a modern worship service, they can also feel unnatural and insincere if done for the wrong reasons, the most common of which is sentimentality. If rampant emotionalism is the Achilles heel of contemporary worship, then unchecked sentimentality is the same to hymnody.

I often receive requests to include certain hymns in worship. Sometimes the reason for the request is the great theology or musicality of the song, but many times it is simply for the sake of nostalgia. That particular hymn stirs a certain emotion in someone, often connected to childhood memories. That is the same shallowness for which contemporary music is often criticized. Good music will always cause an emotional reaction, but that emotional reaction itself is not to be worshiped. Our worship must pursue Christ first, and let emotions and sentimentality be a secondary effect.

The Music

So you have some powerful, theologically rich hymns you’d like to include in your contemporary worship service, but how do you do so without being inauthentic to the culture of your church? There are many ways to “modernize” hymns, but these efforts fall into two general approaches: preserving the lyrics while changing the melody and musical setting of the hymn, or preserving the lyrics, melody, and basic structure while changing the underlying musical style.

The advantage of keeping the original melody is that it is already familiar to many, which is one of the reasons to include hymns in the first place. The disadvantage is that some melodies sound very dated and can be harder for younger worshipers to pick up on. There are good times to use both approaches, but in this article I will address the latter.

Before talking about the specifics of how to “modernize” hymns, I need to give a disclaimer. Much of modernization is subtle and stylistic; it’s about interpretation. So the best advice I can give is to become familiar with the piece before you play it. Once you are very familiar with the song, it will start to sound less mechanical and more natural to your own setting and style.

The second most important piece of advice is to play it like you mean it; play it with heart. You must believe in and understand what you are singing. If you are playing a hymn only because someone asked you to, but have no investment in the song yourself, that hymn will sound insincere and out of place. How can you sing, “here I raise my Ebenezer” with heart if you don’t know what an Ebenezer is?

From a technical standpoint, the process of “modernizing” a hymn is primarily simplifying chords, adding greater dynamics, and relaxing the melodic rhythm. Many hymns are written in homorhythm—a chord on every beat with a melody that follows that rhythm exactly. Since most of modern music has fewer chord changes and rhythmically looser melodies, the older homorhythmic style can sound sterile and unemotional to the modern ear. (Not to mention that playing a chord on every beat sounds much better on an organ than a guitar.) So keep only the chords that must stay to support the melody.

Another attribute common in hymnody is a lack of varied dynamics. Modern worship music relies much more on dynamics, or getting “bigger” and “smaller.” Barreling through the whole hymn as loud as possible can make it sound dated and tiring. Add some dynamics; a quiet verse followed by a bigger verse, or a big verse followed by a soft chorus.

As for the rhythm of the melody, since you’ve put some space in between chord changes, the melodic rhythm will have some room to relax just a bit as well. While I don’t recommend hitting the notes whenever you want and leaving the congregation in the dust, your melody can be less staccato and more legato. But always remember you are doing this to help worshipers who are used to modern melodies, not hinder them. If your melody is so rhythmically loose that it is hard to follow, then you have not modernized the song, you’ve just made it into a performance.

The Band

If you are playing hymns with a full worship band that is only used to playing contemporary worship songs, you will need to be very intentional about how you want each member to convey the hymn. While all bands are different, here are a few general tips for band members:

Drums: Many hymns lie outside the comfortable 4/4 time signature. Veteran drummers will probably love the change of pace, but less experienced drummers may have a hard time with the unfamiliar time signatures. I recommend they spend time listening and playing along to recordings in different time signatures until they feel very comfortable with them. Until that time, consider using hand percussion instead of a full drum set. Nothing can derail a song faster than a drummer falling out of rhythm. It will be much easier to play a shaker in 3/4 than a whole drum set, and you’d be amazed by how much a well-placed shaker can add to a song.

Piano: Worship team piano players usually fall into one of two categories: the tech-savvy keyboardist and the sheet-music-loving traditionalist. For the former I’d recommend some simple synth pads or a Rhodes-style keyboard. Long droning synth pads can add depth to simple meditative hymns, and Rhodes style keyboards are great at blurring the line between modern and traditional with a very rootsy yet modern sound. For the sheet music traditionalist, don’t be afraid to add some melodic piano lines to the song, just keep them light and flowing. Nothing will bring on pipe organ flashbacks faster than a dominating, homorhythmic piano melody.

Bass: The bass guitar can make or break a song without anyone realizing it. For most bassists, keep the notes simple and focus on the rhythm. Stick to the roots and occasional fifths and put most of your effort in driving the dynamics of the song. A more advanced bassist with great instincts and good knowledge of theory can be the one to bring more complexity to the hymn. The bass can add in some of the chord changes you have taken out for the guitar and piano, even using the hymnal to pick out a harmony line that fits the style in which you are playing. Be very careful when doing this or you could have a muddy, dissonant mess. Only a very skilled bassist can play these parts with a subtlety that won’t make the song feel dated or messy.

The Goal

Hymns can and should be a part of the modern church. But they should be so because they are good, theologically rich songs, not because they are hymns. They aren’t valuable because they appeal to certain people, or because they are better than certain other music, or even because they are part of a certain tradition. They are valuable because they, along with many other forms of worship, glorify God.

In a church I used to attend there was an elderly woman who worshiped in the “contemporary” service. She didn’t know most of the songs, and could only sing along to a few. When someone asked her why she would go to a service like that, she told them, “I just love seeing all of these different people worshiping, and it makes me want to worship too.”

Play songs that glorify God and help others do the same. For those leading modern worship services, take the hymns and make them a part of what you already do. Make them more than just hymns, offer them as worship.

To learn more, watch Nathan Drake’s teaching video. Visit reawakenhymns.com and click on “tutorials.”