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Old Hymns, Fresh Grooves

For a half century, congregations across denominations have tried to liven up worship with nontraditional styles of music, sweepingly known as “contemporary.” And for just as long, results have been mixed as worshipers find themselves deeply moved, heartily annoyed and everything in between.

Now a quiet movement among some Episcopal music leaders is gaining traction by offering a third way. Rather than jettison familiar songs in favor of newer praise fare, they’re singing traditional hymns to new arrangements and using instruments that offer more than a pipe organ can deliver on its own.

Congregations from Texas to Virginia are finding that fresh grooves can draw people who wouldn’t otherwise be in church, while still appealing to those of a traditional bent.

“People who grew up hearing those hymns … get to hear those hymns for the first time again,” said Charles Milling, director of contemporary music at St. Joseph’s Church in Boynton Beach, Fla. “It’s a wholly new experience to sing ‘All Creatures of Our God and King’ with a reggae pop band.”

Keith Tan (piano), and other musicians at Christ Church in Richmond, Va. | Christ Church photo

New survey data show average Sunday attendance in Episcopal congregations fell by 4.5 percent last year, nearly doubling the rate of the prior year. Though many factors affect growth, researchers have found correlations between nontraditional music and improved worship attendance. For example, a 2014 report found that 40 percent of growing Episcopal congregations always have drums in worship and 47 percent often do.

Musicians who’ve been retooling old hymns have this year been taking new steps to help other congregations follow suit. Retooling the old was a focus of the Episcopal Musicians Conference, which drew about 40 church music leaders from around the country to the Kanuga Conference Center in North Carolina last April.

“There’s not a resource for this except going and learning from other people,” said Sam Hensley, director of music and mission at Good Shepherd on the Hill in East Austin, Texas, a three-year-old congregation that draws 60 on an average Sunday. “The Hill” draws almost exclusively from The Hymnal 1982, Wonder, Love and Praise, and Lift Every Voice and Sing II to create fresh arrangements for guitar, piano, bass, hand drum and vocals.

Growing interest in making old hymns more upbeat and up-to-date has coalesced into a small-scale movement in North America, according to Marilyn Haskel, president of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada and former program manager for liturgical arts at Trinity Wall Street in New York City. Congregations are finding they can do more than they’d thought possible with just The Hymnal 1982 and other Episcopal hymnbooks.

“You can do pretty much any kind of music if it is well-chosen and suited to the context in which the worship is happening in terms of the culture of the community,” said Haskel, editor of What Would Jesus Sing? and As We Gather To Pray: An Episcopal Guide to Worship. “If you can assess that as a leader successfully, then you’re going to begin to pick music that will speak to people theologically, spiritually, musically and, from a worship standpoint, help people express why it is that they’ve come there on Sunday morning.”

Equipping congregations with resources for retooling hymns is at this point a grassroots affair. Milling does it through publishing. Each time his band, Live Hymnal, churns out a new album, an accompanying lead sheet is sold separately for those who’d like to play what they’re hearing. Kate Eaton of Miami does it through her consultancy, Mishkhah. Having helped establish The Wilderness, a 12-year-old contemporary worship service at St. John’s Cathedral in Denver, she now draws on that experience among others in guiding Episcopal congregations in crafting worship experiences that feel up-to-date and feature hymns refashioned for today.

When these hymn-retooling musicians share insights, one theme looms large: any congregation can give hymns a fresh sound as long as a few parameters are followed. And formats can vary widely. A closer look can shed light on what’s working and how it’s done.

At St. Joseph’s Church in Boynton Beach, remakes of old hymns don’t show up in standard Rite I or Rite II services. They’re concentrated instead in a separate 11:45 a.m. service called St. Joe’s Unplugged. Milling’s Live Hymnal band leads about 80 worshipers on average. They experience what is essentially Rite II with a few tweaks and twists, such as passing the peace after the closing hymn. Musicians support two vocalists, one female and one male. They play guitar, drums, percussion (e.g., bongo or conga), saxophone, bass, and keyboard. More than 100 local musicians have played with Live Hymnal since the Unplugged service began 14 years ago, and many continue to take a turn when they’re needed.

What emerges at St. Joe’s Unplugged is a eucharistic service with a world music vibe. Hymns reflect the players’ backgrounds, which might be Brazilian, Jamaican, or quintessentially New Orleans, depending on the day.

Though rhythms wander widely from a hymn’s original construction, melodies and lyrics stay true to their original casting. That formula is by design. Before launching St. Joe’s Unplugged, Milling noticed that the growing evangelical congregations in South Florida were using a lot of new, celebratory praise music with a heavy motif of sin-atonement-salvation displayed on giant electronic screens. He chose to give the old hymns a new groove instead. In his estimation, the theological depth in the old hymns’ lyrics was a better fit with Episcopal architecture and church culture. With an updated sound, the hymns could be an evangelistic tool.

“It’s making room at the table for more walks of life because the Episcopal Church, on a social level, is the church for people who really want to put Jesus’ love at the top of their theology,” Milling said. “They need a church to be welcome at — one where they don’t need to change in order to be welcome.” The fact that they don’t need to change their musical tastes on Sunday morning helps witness to an immanent God who loves them as they are, he said.

Meanwhile at Christ Church in Richmond, Va., the project of recasting well-known hymns comes in a very different package. It can be part of a contemporary service on Saturday evenings, when much of the other music sounds like catchy praise music that one might hear on Christian radio. Or the retooled old hymns might show up on Sunday mornings in the traditional Rite II service.

“Sometimes we would take a hymn and groove it up — maybe put a drumbeat to it, maybe I’ll throw a line of chorus to it, and it sounds like a contemporary praise song,” said Music Minister Keith Tan.

Other times, Christ Church will do the opposite: play a new praise song such as, “Lord, I lift your name on high,” but with a traditional spin, such as having the youth choir sing a classic descant over it. Tan will sometimes even tell the keyboardist on the last verse, “hey, throw the pipe organ in!”

“Immediately you get the sense of timeless tradition that’s mixed together with what’s current and modern,” Tan said.

By doing as Christ Church does on Sundays and blending contemporary sounds with more traditional ones in the same service, a congregation avoids “separating the family” along the lines of musical taste, according to William Roberts, professor of church music and director of chapel music at Virginia Theological Seminary. Worship leaders just need to plan carefully, making sure all elements flow together well and don’t give rise to what Roberts calls a “hash.”

Even the best intentions for livening up services don’t get far when congregants resist the change. But even congregations that put a premium on traditional sounds can often accept new ones, the Rev. Roberts said, when they’re given advance notice as a courtesy. Another tip: let changes be on a trial basis at first.

“People will endure almost anything for a season,” Roberts said. “So if you say, ‘for the next number of weeks or for the upcoming liturgical season we’re going to try something and then we’re going to stop it after that’… people will tolerate change if they think there’s going to be an end to it and you’re going to take a look at it again.”

Wherever a church decides to integrate its freshened-up hymns, success is apt to depend in large measure upon having a few key pieces in place, practitioners say. Some essentials:

Respect organists as partners. A highly trained organist or music director can often feel unappreciated or threatened by new musicians with a different style, Hensley said. Communicate respect for an organist’s training and craft, he suggests. Frame the new style as part of an expanded partnership, not a competition.

Focus on essential instruments. A multipiece band isn’t always necessary, Milling said, and too large a group can be overwhelming for a small congregation. With as little as one guitar and box drum, a congregation can begin singing to new arrangements and bring a whole new sound to its worship.

Look for gig musicians, not just church-trained music professionals. “We feel like they can bring another element of surprise,” Eaton said.

However the process unfolds, the introduction of reimagined hymns into a congregation’s life can get people singing them with fresh verve and intentionality, Henley said. That stirring of impassioned participation can be a barometer of success.

“Singing in our church is not something that needs to be done with perfection. It needs to be done with joy because that’s what the psalms say,” Hensley said. “The idea that it’s more relaxed, I think, gets people feeling better about the singing. And they’re willing to try it.”


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