Entries in hymns (40)


Where Has All the Singing Gone?: The Bifrostian Vision

Isaac Wardell and Bifrost Arts offer a great reflection here.  In true Bifrostian fashion, the video is simple and artistic, with a strong and unique message.  Wardell speaks of Bifrost's own counter-cultural moves of in-home, in-art-gallery, in-church "hymn sings," where the goal is to enjoy the beauty of singing together in worship of God.  The vision cast in this video corroborates the mounting evidence that the tide is turning with younger Christians who are exchanging hype for history, lights for liturgy, passivity for participation, and hits for hymns. 

Choice quotes:

It seems like we're listening to more music than we ever have...but, we're making music together less and less.  We're singing together less and less... 

When I walk into churches, I notice a disturbing trend, that people are singing less and less in congregations.  While our music production values may be getting better, while many of us have churches that spend a lot of time thinking about the quality of the performance of our music, congregational voices seem to be fading into the background... 

More and more it seems like people show up to church and they expect to have a worship experience delivered to them rather than people showing up excited to sing together... 

I think it's important that we urge our congregants not to think of our worship services as a concert hall, as a time that we come to receive something; but to think of our worship services as a banquet hall where we come to participate in something together.

Bifrost Arts represents perhaps the "radical reformation" strand of the hymns movement in modern worship reformation, reforming not only text (through re-engaging old hymns), but music.  The indie, quirky, elegant, pop-orchestral, Sufjan Stevens-esque musical style is different and refreshing.  Folks like myself are on the other end of the spectrum, seeking similar reformation through building bridges by engaging the most widely expressed musical idioms.  Perhaps we're more analogous the "Lutheran reformation," seeking reform through as much continuity as possible.

Wardell's statements rightly question whether the musical idioms of mainstream evangelical worship music are conducive to the goals of musical worship, i.e. the glory of God through strong congregational participation.  Authors like T. David Gordon, author of Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns, obviously feel that the modern music enterprise is so bankrupt and devoid of substance that it cannot be redeemed (some day, Lord-willing, I will muster up the strength to write what I hope will be a fair but critical review of Gordon's book).  I think differently.  While I share some of those concerns articulated by Wardell and brought to their extreme conclusion by Gordon, I am comfortable to live in the tension, because: (1) I've participated in "arena worship" services that are successful in drawing the congregation out (thus proving that it's ultimately about the heart, not the level of production); (2) perhaps what we are doing by retaining culture's dominant musical idiom can be like a "gateway drug" for mainstreamers to begin to explore hymns in different, beautiful musical idioms, like those of Bifrost Arts.

In any regard, I give Isaac Wardell and Bifrost 100% of my support for their music and broader vision for a brighter day in Western church music.


Let the Reformation and All Saints Trump Halloween: FREE ALBUM

(c) Kyle Ragsdale, 2010I had the privilege of being a part of a songwriting project, the sum of which was to set 12 hymns on the Apostles' Creed by Samuel Stone to new music and give it to the church for free.  Read more about the project and download sheet music for it at Cardiphonia.orgListen to the full album and download it for FREE here.

The list of songwriters on this project is outstanding.  Research their names, check out their work, and you'll realize what a stellar group this is.  What talent! 


Bifrost Arts from a Mainstream Worship Perspective

Check out how one blogger described their experience of joining with Bifrost Arts in worship at the David Crowder Fantastical Church Music Conference.  It's reveals how far people like us have to go in the quest to bridge the worlds of historicity and liturgy with mainstream evangelical worship:

Bitfrost Arts, a hymn-sing group from…well, I can’t remember if it was from Virginia or Missouri, but regardless, their sound was at the same time familiar and mysterious.  Instead of relying on the large square projection screens to prompt singing, Bitfrost Arts had printed out hymn-sing sheets, which really served more as an order of worship, complete with responsive readings and liturgical leadings.

I say that the sound was familiar in that most of what we sang were (somewhat) familiar hymns of the historical church.  The 2500 attendees were accompanied by a 15-person choir (comprised of randomly selected Baylor students on the quad), a drummer, guitar and bassist, as well as a full-sized harp.

I say the sound was mysterious in that the act of singing the old hymns with 2500 voices created a passionate sound which echoed off the walls with the same effect as if we had been standing in St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Archaic yet relevant, to sing these songs was to take a fully engaged step back into the historical church.  And the harp just added the appropriate eerie/surreal layer to blanket it all.

Words or phrases that intrigue me are:

  • how they spell "Bifrost" :)
  • "a hymn-sing group" (?)
  • "archaic yet relevant" (I know what they mean...not sure "archaic" is the right word, though)
  • "a fully engaged step back into the historical church" (true...there are many instances of disengaged steps back into the historical church)

Kauflin Shares Insights on Crowder's Church Music Conference

Bob Kauflin, Sovereign Grace pastor and worship leader, author of Worship Matters, and blogger at worshipmatters.com, reflects on his time participating in Crowder's Fantastical Church Music Conference last weekend.  As the time was drawing near for this event, I posted about why this conference was significant, especially from the perspective of the hymns movement.

See Kauflin's whole post, but here are some of my takeaways:

  • Isaac Wardell and Bifrost Arts "led us in a low-key but engaging time of singing that was built on a more formal liturgy than most of us were probably used to. I thought they did an effective job showing how a liturgy made up of more historic elements, when well led and properly explained, can really serve to focus our eyes on the person and work of Christ."
  • According to Kauflin, it sounds like Rob Bell was a little gray on the doctrine of the atonement.  Hmm...
  • Four quotables from the "Why Do We Sing" panel discussion:
    --“Singing is a way we give ourselves away.”
    --“We sing to remember and re-member.”
    --“We are separate from the world and singing helps us remember that.”
    --“Singing involves relationship, faithfulness, and trusting in the work of Christ.

Hymns Movement News: The Release of "Merciful to Me," by Reformed Praise

I’m always excited and pleased when the cause of the hymns movement is furthered…when good musicians continue to take old hymn texts and set them to accessible contemporary music.  David Ward and the crew at Reformed Praise have been doing this for quite a while.  Over the years, they have faithfully provided the online community with free mp3s and sheet music of their great material.  Similar to Sovereign Grace’s recent albums, Merciful to Me contains works inspired by hymns and prayers (e.g. “O God the Holy Spirit,” inspired by a prayer in Valley of Vision) as well as re-tunings of full hymn texts (e.g. “Jesus, Lover of My Soul”).  The songs on this album are singable and suitable for a variety of contemporary worship contexts.  Some will have to “listen through” the arrangements to hear how the tunes and chord structures will differently but effectively fit their own worship context.

Theological Comments

Impeccable.  Biblical.  Wonderful.  Gospel-centered.  God-exalting.  I have nothing but the highest praise for the lyrical content of the album.  The texts are 100% edifying and theologically right-on.  This is theologically worry-free worship music.

Stylistic Comments

The album has been said by other reviewers to house a wide variety of styles (pop-orchestral, bluegrass, rock, etc.), and while this is true, I would add that that it is all produced with an “adult contemporary” sound: vocals are high in the mix, strongly enunciated, pop-inflected, even and not terribly nuanced; drumming and percussion are often subtle in the mix and very straight; overall dynamics are steady; frequent presence of wind instruments.  I would consider this more of a piano-driven sound rather than guitar-driven (notable exceptions are obviously apparent).  “O Jesus” is a good example of a modern pop-rock style, and “The River” (which begins sounding reminiscent of a Michael Card arrangement) eventually arrives at a heavier rock vibe.  However, even those songs are all still sifted through the crisp, adult contemporary production grid…you won’t find anything with a sound that is raw or edgy.   The album, on the whole, then, has a sound similar to what you’d hear on a Keith and Kristyn Getty recording, though with a wider variety of stylistic expression.  “O Weary Saint” is a beautiful setting of the John Ireland tune—very musical, very creative.  “Majestic Sweetness” has a beautiful smooth jazz sound, with some surprising chordal moments.  As a whole, the album is melodic, beautiful, and well-structured. 

My Favorite Track

Personally, I most enjoy “O God the Holy Spirit.”  I love the self-effacing, God-glorifying nature of the text.  It ministers the gospel to my heart.  Its melody is beautiful, and its progressions are familiar, moving, and satisfying.


Evidently the Devil Hates "A Mighty Fortress is Our God"

I'm relaying this story from my colleague, Douglas, who is the organist and choirmaster at our church.  I'm not necessarily sure what precipitated the conversation, but I found it fascinating.  I'm interested in the thoughts of others...speculations as to "why."  My up-front disclosure: I believe that the spiritual realm is real and quite active (Ephesians 6:12), and I believe that demon possession still happens today (though perhaps, as my friend Sharon Beekman reminds me, not always the way that we think).

Douglas told me that, on one occasion years ago, it was believed that a woman associated with their church was demon-possessed.  Douglas and his wife were asked to go over to her place and minister to her through music.  Unsure of what would or could be accomplished by this, they still went over, and they sat down at a piano and began to play and sing.  The woman sat and listened, and for a long time she remained basically passive.  She did not react much.  Douglas and his wife worked through, especially, a lot of praise choruses that were considered by many at the time to be "moving" and "spiritually powerful."  No change in the woman's countenance.  They went on like this for a long time.  No effect.

Douglas and his wife switched gears.  They opened up a hymnal and began to play and sing Luther's "A Mighty Fortress is Our God."  Almost immediately, the woman became visibly agitated, and as the song progressed she began writhing all the more.  The demon in her was obviously not happy.  Douglas said that as they sang, the woman's behavior frightened them, but they kept on...and she kept on.  (Douglas did not share what eventually became of the woman.)

To me, what most obviously would elicit a negative reaction from the prince of darkness is the fact that the hymn thumbs its nose at him.  Here are the offending lyrics (though, really, the whole hymn is offensive to him):

For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate...

And though this world, with devils filled should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth.

What is surprising about Douglas's encounter was that the praise choruses they sang did not elicit the negative protest of "the devils."  Critics of praise choruses would be quick to point out that this is confirmation of the spiritual impotency of modern worship music...and perhaps this is true, especially as a generalization and especially of early "praise and worship" music.  (I do want to remind readers that times have changed and that we're seeing a positive shift in modern worship toward more substance, rich theology, and historical connectedness, such that the broad-brush generalizations of yesteryear are fading in their applicability.) 

This all does raise an eyebrow to the lack of overt spiritual warfare themes in modern worship music.  Perhaps Redman's "We Shall Not Be Shaken" and the bridge of Tomlin's "Our God" are movements toward awakening about the need to "do" warfare in our worship music, but I don't know that I've ever seen anything as overt as "A Mighty Fortress" in a worship song.  For that matter, I don't know of many old hymns that come close to rivaling Luther's battle-hymn, either (perhaps some of you do). 

For some reason, the theme of "worship as warfare" just keeps coming up.  It's a fascinating and under-appreciated aspect of worship-thought.  One thing's for certain.  Whenever I sing "A Mighty Fortress," this story is at the forefront of my mind, and I end up singing a lot more forcefully in hopes that some of the shrapnel from my praise-bombs fly far enough to reach enemy camp.


The Best Hymn Story Book Ever

Petersen, William J., and Ardyth Petersen. The Complete Book of Hymns: Inspiring Stories about 600 Hymns and Praise Songs.  Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2006.

Thank God.  I’ve finally come across a hymn story book that I feel good about using as a resource and recommending to others for both background and edification.  I’ve been using this book for several months, often quoting it in our printed order of worship’s “worship notes”—our side column in our liturgy which explains what we’re doing in worship and why it’s significant.

I’m surprised I haven’t heard of this book before. I happened upon it in a Cokesbury Bookstore and was impressed after thumbing through it…Why hadn’t anyone told me about this?  I picked it up for $14.97, which, in my opinion, was a steal (it's even less expensive on Amazon).

Here are my gripes with “hymn story” books I’ve encountered over the years:

  • Their research and historicity are questionable.
  • Their stories are glamorized and overly sentimental.
  • Their historical scope is too narrow (e.g. only Gospel-era hymns, or only 20th century hymns).
  • They’re coverage is minimal.
  • They’re not indexed well.


Here’s what I find remarkable about The Complete Book of Hymns:

  • The research is thorough (their bibliography highlights all the heavy hitters in hymnology that I’d want to know they’ve read [e.g. Bailey, Benson]).
  • The writing is both brief and clear, simultaneously historical and devotional.
  • Sound theological analysis where pertinent.
  • The historical reach spans everything from 4th century Ambrosian hymns (e.g. “O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright”) to 20th century praise songs (e.g. “Shout to the Lord”).
  • Each hymn/hymn-story is accompanied by several Scripture references to which the hymn ties.
  • It is well indexed (indices include: [a] hymn titles; [b] authors/translators/arrangers/sources; [c] themes)
  • It is an inexpensive paperback with 600+ pages.


Crowder and the Hymns Movement Converge

The David Crowder Band is hosting a Church Music Conference at Baylor University in Waco, TX, September 30-October 2.  This is exciting on many levels.  I’m pumped to see the name of a Friday breakout workshop: “A New Old Vision for Worship – Liturgical Spirituality for Post-Modern-Semi-Reformed-Hipsters.”

Here's what is truely exciting: more signs of the subversive growth of influence of the hymns movement are on the horizon.  The David Crowder Band (for those who didn’t know) is THE name in modern worship.  Of course, they’re a performance band.  Of course, their most recent records really haven’t been “worship albums.”  Still, Crowder emerged out of the flagship modern worship movement—Passion—and is still tethered to it.  Therefore, this event with Crowder is significant.  Who’s on the roster?  You’d never know from the up-front promotion, but tucked in more detailed advertising, we hear of two names:

The Welcome Wagon

BiFrost Arts

Check out their music some time.  The first thing you notice is that, in the rock genre, they are the polar opposite of Crowder—under-produced, anti-digital, pitchy, lo-fi, quirky, indie, pop-orchestral…Sufjan Stephens-esque.  The second thing you notice is that the text-material for their songs are either old church hymns or songs which are bathed in the thought and life of historic hymnody.

But actually…this isn’t such a far leap from Crowder.  Much of Crowder’s material beyond the radio-friendly hits leans in a direction that shows that the treasure-troll-haired singer appreciates music akin to what BiFrost and the Wagon are doing.

But more is going on here than mere musical appreciation.  People often think that all modern worship has sold out to novelty with no sense of connection to the historic songs of the church.  It’s just not true.  The Passion movement put out Hymns: Ancient and Modern, and littering all of Crowder’s material are hymns as old as the Greek “Phos Hilaron” and as new as “Heaven Came Down.”  Make no mistake.  Crowder loves him some hymns.   And Crowder is obviously appreciating artists like BiFrost Arts and The Welcome Wagon, not only for their musical innovations, but for their textual focus.

Still, this goes even deeper.  The Welcome Wagon and BiFrost Arts are not only intermingled with one another, but they are wedded with the heavy-hitters in the hymns movement—Indelible Grace.  Derek Webb and Sandra McCracken’s connection and collaboration with these two groups are case in point.  They’ve got denominational ties, too: Welcome Wagon’s leader is Vito Aiuto, an ordained PCA minister; Kevin Twit of Indelible Grace is ordained in that denomination, as well.  Many of the artists associated with both groups are PCA die-hards.

All this to say: We have the hymns movement, perhaps for the first time, being welcomed in to a bona fide mainstream evangelical worship event.  Just like Indelible Grace’s Ryman Hymnsing, this is a moment to plant a flag in the sand as a marker of the growing influence of the grass roots hymns movement.  Thank God.

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