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Why arrange hymns in contemporary styles?


Easy – it’s the only way hymns will survive. The notion that my children will know the same songs that their great-great grandparents sang appeals...


…appeals to me. Polarized traditionalists and contemporaries both have it wrong on the hymns. Some contemporaries have abandoned them all together – a boldly arrogant act. Many of these tunes and lyrics have been in use for centuries because they have inspired people of widely divergent cultures and times. Many are common to almost every denomination. They are universal.

Along comes a “new” generation proclaiming, “Hymns are irrelevant, we don’t need ‘em.” Uh-huh. The Bible is old and often presented in an archaic literary style. Is it irrelevant, too? Contemporaries sometimes act like they discovered God or invented Christianity. Their spiritual life might be a little richer if they made an effort to understand, respect, and use their heritage. They are right on one point, however: the traditional presentation of hymns (all six, plodding, organ-led stanzas) is becoming irrelevant to a growing number of worshippers. But that’s a style issue, not a matter of content.

And that brings us to the traditionalists. It’s ironic: The most ardent preservationists in the Christian population don’t seem to know or understand their own history. Or have conveniently forgotten it.

One of the first examples in the music appreciation text I use is a plainchant from the 13th century by Thomas Aquinas. Then, a “contemporary” arrangement of his tune by Josquin Desprez from the 15th century is presented. The idea of updating the church’s music has been accepted practice for at least 600 years. Do the traditionalists think Bach wrote in a style that was 275 years old? No, he was a contemporary church musician and some of his most renowned works were updates (for style!) of traditional church music.

The worship wars might deescalate if the traditionalists would take their snooty noses out of the air and quit crying, “Hymns must be done the way they were intended to be done.” Accept that contemporizing the church’s music is actually a vital part of the church’s tradition. And please recognize that if you insist on indulging your own comfort or ego by boxing everything into “the way it’s always been done” you will surely kill what you are trying to preserve.

Answer: These hymns have been arranged in contemporary styles to make them accessible to all churches and worship styles. They are intended as a “common ground.” Traditionalists will recognize the tunes and lyrics; they are largely unchanged from hymnal versions. Contemporaries will find music that stylistically leans to what praise and worship teams regularly do.