hymns, musicians

Re-Tuned Hymns? What is that?

[Written by Jeff Koonce]

If you’re new to Cross Creek Church (CCC), you may have noticed that some of the songs we sing during worship on Sundays are a little bit different from what you might sing in other churches or hear on Christian radio. The songs we sing at CCC may have 4 or 5 verses containing a lot of words, some of which you may have no idea what they mean. The words and phrases seem to come from a different era, but the music is being played by what looks like a modern worship band. What’s going on?! Well, you have just experienced some “re-tuned” hymns.

What’s a re-tuned hymn, you say?

A re-tuned hymn is simply an old hymn text that is set to a new tune or melody. In our context at CCC, we arrange the music of these hymns to fit the instruments and musicians we have available. With our set up of acoustic guitar, mandolin, and keyboard, we lean heavily on American folk and bluegrass styles.

Over the life of the historic Church, thousands of texts have been written for the purpose of being sung during worship. Some of those texts were paired with great music and become some of the most famous and best loved hymns of the Church; hymns like “Amazing Grace”, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, “Be Thou My Vision”. Some of these texts were less fortunate and either paired with a tune that did not stand the test of time or no tune ever really stuck with the text.

“Re-tuning” hymns is hardly a modern invention. People have been re-tuning hymns for as long as there have been hymns. It’s not uncommon to flip through a hymnal and find the same text paired with 2 or 3 tunes. It’s rare that a hymn text and tune were written together by the same person. More often, they were written separately with a musician writing music for a pre-existing text. Most hymn texts are written in a poetical meter, and it was common to apply a standard tune of compatible meter to many different texts. The hymnals of the 18th and early 19th centuries were only compilations of texts; there was no music included.

The modern re-tuned hymn movement began about 20 years ago centered around some Reformed University Fellowships (college ministries of the PCA). A few RUF pastors and musicians began taking these all-but-forgotten hymn texts and writing new music for them in an effort to expose college students to deep Gospel truth delivered in a relevant musical language.

The most prominent early adopter of re-tuned hymns was Kevin Twit, RUF pastor at Belmont University in Nashville. When Kevin, also a musician, song writer, and audio engineer, found himself pastoring to an exceptional group of young musicians, they recorded the first “Indelible Grace” album. 17 years and 9 albums later, hymns by Indelible Grace are some of the most popular and reliable re-tuned hymns being used in the Church today. Some of their hymns we sing at CCC are “And Can It Be”, “Psalm 130 (From the Depths of Woe)”, and “Jesus, I Come”

Here in Birmingham, a group of musicians from Red Mountain Church (myself included) began re-tuning hymns and released 7 albums as Red Mountain Music. Their work fostered hot bed of creativity inspiring several other hymn re-tuning projects from musicians in the area. Hymn Collective, The Corner Room, Community Presbyterian, Thy Love Inspires, Grace and Peace Music, all have some connection through Red Mountain.

So what is it about re-tuned hymns? What’s the point? Why sing them?

Fundamentally, the hymn texts used in these hymns are rich poetry, full of deep theological themes that can stir, not just our hearts, but our imaginations, our intellects, and our wills. These texts are works of art, thoughtfully constructed by masters of their craft and reflecting the creativity of our creator God. Through artful depictions and narrative structures, we sing about God’s Word and His promises while encountering a full range of emotions; from joy to sorrow, guilt to relief. We sing the beautiful, complete story of the Gospel: the glory of God, the helplessness of man, the sacrifice of the Son, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the redemption of the Church.

These texts also connect us to the larger, historic Church. They remind us that we are not alone in our struggles as Christians, our experience is not unique. For centuries, these hymns have laid bare the issues and themes of the Christian life and remind us of the faithfulness of God and his steadfast love to all generations.

By using new, modern music we connect the ancient with the authentic; historic Christianity in our own musical language. Re-tuned hymns serve as a middle path between “traditional” hymns and “contemporary” praise and worship; bridging the gap between generations and style preference. Old text, new music; richness and depth, modern musical sensibility. A heritage of beautiful poetry, demonstrating a robust theology, set in our own musical language.