Old Hymns for Our Day

Over the last few years, hymns have made a comeback in many churches. At Sojourn Community Church, in Louisville, Kentucky, we rediscovered hymns, and it revitalized our corporate worship. From Mars Hill Church to Sovereign Grace, to campus ministries and worship bands, many Christians have discovered the same richness and depth of the hymnal. Great music is being written and recorded for “retuned” hymns—traditional lyrics with new melodies.

I had the privilege of sitting down with Isaac Wardell and Kevin Twit to talk a bit about the effect of hymns on the life of our congregations. Wardell is the director for worship arts at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, and one of the founders of Bifrost Arts, through which he’s recorded a number of traditional and retuned hymns. Twit is a pastor with Reformed University Fellowship at Bellmont University in Nashville, and the founder of Indelible Grace, a collection of musicians who have been writing retuned hymns for many years.

In this conversation, we talk about why we’ve returned to hymns and some of the reasons for retuning hymns with new melodies.

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  • keith Duhart

    We are doing the same in our church,I’ve been working with hymns by Wesley.our church is small but but we’ve found a sense of revival in returning the hymns and mixing them with modern worship tunes that Lift up the name of Jesus. I’ve listen to the music on all these sites and have been inspired to do the same.thanks

  • Church Chair Guy

    I see this same direction and even hunger surfacing in many churches including my own.

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  • Paul

    If you haven’t heard “not what my hands have done” as redone by Aaron Keyes….it’s a great example of a redo of an old horatius bonar hymn.

  • Mark S

    Not to pick nits, but Wardell’s title is “Director for Worship Arts” not “Worship Director.” I went to the church’s Web site, concerned that what ought to be a solid, Reformed church would adopt a misnomer title like “Worship Director” for the guy who leads the church in one part or aspect of corporate worship, from the broader world of Evanglicalism.

    On another note, I am thankful to be in a church that uses the Trinity Hymnal and Psalter, with familiar, majestic old hymn tunes, and doesn’t sing hymns to sound-alike 90s and 2000s pop tunes. But maybe I’m just an old fuddy duddy before my time. Thankful that hymns are coming back. More thankful that there are some churches that never left them.

    • Mike Cosper

      Hi Mark. It’s probably worth mentioning that those familiar tunes were often “married” to the hymn texts generations after they were written. They were surely scandalous, overly contemporary, and unfamiliar to others at various points in time.

  • josh waltman

    Hey guys, this is so encouraging to hear. If anyone wants, I’m involved with a group attempting to remake hymns as well. The album is a free download at Another great album that is out is “Hymns” by Ascend the Hill.

  • David

    Doug Wilson and John Piper contributed to the discussion at the recent DG conference. That portion happens at minute 33.

  • Lois

    ….Why? Because so much of ‘contemporary worship’ today trivilizes worship. The hymns have a depth that few contempory stuff does. I love the old hymns I grew up with them and for the post twenty years have sung the obligatory “Great is Thy Faithfullness” and “How Great Thou Art” and “Blessed Assurance” on a few occasion as an addendum to a full set of ‘worship songs’. I’ve played on more worship teams than I can count and given the choice give me a hymn any day. Yup I’m getting old and i readily admit it. Hymns bring a maturity to a young movement. We long for growth and the hymns remind us we are putting away childish things.

    • mel

      I’m getting old and I appreciate music that I can understand what it is that I am singing. That may be a hymn and it may be something written by someone that is still alive. There was a time when the authors of hymns were alive and their music was considered contemporary. If a song sounds like someone’s date could be the subject then I don’t like it. If the hymn sounds like Yoda came up with the wording then I’m sorry I don’t care how great it is to every one else. It sounds silly to me.

  • Ben

    While I enjoy many hymns, especially those that are being retuned, I think it is a bit of an indictment on us that some feel the need to ONLY revisit old texts. I hear the whole, “we should be connected to a rich history of the church” thing, but I think that God wants to hear us sing the faith of our churches today. Have we really lost all Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley’s? Do we have to abandon the writing of all new lyrics and only stick to new melodies because the old lyrics will always be “more rich?” Were the glories of the gospel really exhausted by all earlier hymn writers? Does theological “thickness” even need to be a criteria for every single worship song? I believe all these questions must be explored more so that we don’t just settle to sing the faith of our fathers, but sing of our faith as well. I am not saying that we should depart from their faith or even forget their faith, but I recognize that God wants to hear the new song of the hearts of our generation as much as he wants us to realize those who went before us.

    Of course there are “modern hymn writers” like Getty and Townsend that are serving us well in this way, but I feel like even they are stylistically bound to 3 or 4 verses that follow the same melody. Is this always necessary? Can we express firm theological truth in a different format with varied verses and choruses and/or movements? Let’s not only be tied to the past but also explore how we can further write for the future.

  • bruce

    You can see a list with a lot more churches and communities contributing to this new strain of church song at Zac Hicks excellent blog.

  • paul

    I’d also like to point out that while we’re talking about “returning to” and “coming back to” and “rediscovering the Psalms and hymns of our rich heritage”…let’s not forget that a handful of times in the actual Psalms the Psalmist writes: Sing a NEW SONG unto the Lord.
    I think the re-doing and rediscovering of Hymns is great, but I would caution that bashing current contemporary music as a reason for this isn’t a completely valid reason. If you haven’t listened to Matt Maher, Jeremy Riddle, Matt Redman, Phil Wickham and a host of others…you’re missing out on deep lyrical content with relatable music. And as a worship leader, I agree…the shallow “me centered” repetitive song makes me cringe too…alas they are just as common as the “bad hymn” with bad theology and a dirge-like melody. And for heaven sakes…is it wrong to have a song that’s FUN to sing that still completely glorifies the Lord?

  • Brian Watson

    Good discussion, guys. But please, let’s all stop referring to worship music as worship. For the Christian, all of life is worship. Our worship isn’t limited to our singing. I know that sounds nit-picky, but it’s important when we’re teaching new Christians. They need to know that worship is far more than singing. It includes everything we do when we gather for corporate worship (prayer, giving, the sermon, Scripture reading, sacraments) and it includes everything we do in all of our lives, since all should be done for the glory of God.

    (Please don’t read the above comment in a negative tone. It’s just a pet peeve of mine, probably because I’ve seen a lot of people think that worship is only what we do when we’re “in church.” And to then narrow that focus down to music, well, that makes it worse. A lot of people compartmentalize their faith, and this is not the way it should be.)

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  • Lyrical Down Grade

    We use scripture to critically review “Christian” music lyrics.

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  • Mary Rose Jensen

    This was interesting. I am often doing exactly the opposite, however, and using old tunes for my new lyrics. I am in awe of today’s hymnal committees, astonished that they can ever come up with a set of hymns that fit in a book that is small enough to be held. Then they have to worry about all the matching of which text to which tune. Some texts have multiple tunes, and sometimes the hymnals have to include more than one to keep everyone happy. Some tunes are so great that they get used with many different texts. One new hymnal put together a popular text from the 1950’s with new arrangement that I did of an old English folksong. And then there’s the issue of how many precious pages should be used for any one hymn – newer compositions often take up more than the traditional single page.

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