In high school, Matthew Smith was a faithful church attendee, active in his youth group, and eager to grow in his faith—but despite all of this he felt like a failed worshiper in his congregation.
“In the church I grew up in, I felt like I had to drum up an emotional experience for myself in worship,” said Smith. “The praise choruses we sang were centered on me: ‘I give you praise God,’ ‘I give you my all,’ ‘I want to worship you.’ But I often didn’t feel those things—or even mean those things—when I sang them, so the whole experience felt dishonest.”
When he began attending college at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., Smith started visiting Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) meetings, and for the first time began hearing old hymns set to new music. “These hymns weren’t about me—they were about Jesus. They didn’t say, ‘I want to worship you.’ They described what Jesus has done, and that is what made me say, ‘I want to worship you.’ Singing these hymns, along with the teaching I was hearing, completely changed my perspective on worship. And ironically, when I stopped focusing on myself and my emotional experience in worship, that’s when my heart began to feel.”
Smith’s journey parallels many in today’s postmodern culture, those who crave authenticity over affectation, mystery over order, community over individualism, and substance over ephemera.
“In a world where everything is over-hyped, slick, and marketable, it’s refreshing to see these texts written without any of that baggage,” said Smith. “What could be more authentic than a folk song written 250 years ago in a tiny English village for a congregation of 30?”
RUF and Indelible Grace—Roots and Wings
Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou, my God, should’st die for me …
(“And Can It Be,” Charles Wesley)
The movement to rewrite music for old hymn texts is not new, or exclusive to RUF, the PCA’s university ministry, but RUF has been a key player in its recent resurgence. Several RUF campus ministries began dabbling in the art of rewriting old hymn texts to new music in the late 1990s, including groups at Vanderbilt University and Belmont University in Nashville, Auburn University in Alabama, and several schools in Mississippi.
The Nashville group, led by RUF campus minister and musician/recording engineer Kevin Twit, spawned Indelible Grace Music, which has released four albums of rewritten hymns over the last decade—all performed by students and alumni affiliated with RUF.
“After Indelible Grace’s second CD, we found out about the Worship Renewal Grant Program from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship,” said Twit. “We were given a grant to transcribe the tunes emerging from RUF groups. This resulted in The RUF Hymnbook and the online version where people can download the sheet music and simple demos of the tunes for free. The grant also provided funds to do a small tour, which included stops at five Reformed seminaries. This became the basis for the Indelible Grace band, which tours regularly today.” [Listen to a sample of the music here.]
Indelible Grace has enjoyed both commercial success and critical praise from a wide range of audiences. And it’s inspired a number of established Christian artists, like Caedmon’s Call and Jars of Clay, to record similar music.
“People have been writing new music to old hymns for years,” said Twit. “And there is a long history of singing hymns to more folk-based tunes.”
Many people have contributed to the current Indelible Grace movement, says Twit. “Chris Miner, the most popular writer and early adopter of the idea; our soulmates at Red Mountain PCA in Birmingham, Ala.; James Ward at New City Fellowship PCA in Chattanooga, Tenn.; Scott Roley at Christ Community PCA in Franklin, Tenn.; and Darwin Jordan at Fort Worth Presbyterian in Texas, to name a few.”
But ultimately it was the students’ reaction to the music that encouraged the project to move forward. “We were really overwhelmed at the response to our first CD. People seemed to buy into this concept at a vision level,” said Twit. “They would buy a CD, love it, and then order 10 more to give to their friends.”
Matthew Smith, who has toured under the Indelible Grace name since his graduation from Belmont in 2001, agrees. “When the first Indelible Grace CD came out, it took off. It seemed to fill a void, a hunger that people had. Both teens and 50-year-olds would come up to me after concerts and say, ‘I’ve never heard this before—this is making me come alive to the gospel.’”
But these hymns aren’t only for new believers. Brian T. Murphy, chief musician at Red Mountain PCA and a former RUF student at Auburn, connects with the hymns on a personal level. “I’m not a very good Christian in a lot of ways, and sometimes I don’t feel like I fit in at church. But late at night I sit at my old, junky piano at home and play hymns for myself, and it brings me hope. I feel like I have more in common with these old hymn writers than I do with Christians today, because of [the hymn writers’] ability to embrace doubt and struggle with belief.”
The Blessings of Hymnody
Could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow, all for sin could not atone, thou must save and thou alone.
(“Rock of Ages,” Augustus Toplady)
Hymns offer some of the richest Christian experience, according to Twit. “The best hymns are great art. They unpack the cross and display Christ, instead of telling us what to feel. They appeal to the mind and the emotions.”
In recent decades, hymns have been seen as old-fashioned, and many in the Baby Boomer generation have eschewed them in favor of seeker-sensitive praise choruses. But postmoderns seem to resonate with the rich tradition of hymnody. “A sign I found once in an antique store captures what many young people feel about hymns: ‘My grandmother saved it, my mother threw it away, and now I’m buying it back,’” said Twit. “Modern praise and worship music hasn’t satisfied. Today’s postmoderns are interested in mystery and paradox.”
He quotes Rosalind Moss in describing the way some in the church view the young. “They think that if we make it easy on young adults, we’ll draw them in,” said Moss, “[but reality] is the very opposite. Youth are looking for a cause, a reason to live. They need something to give their lives to.”
Hymns can serve as a doorway into an authentic experience with God—being able to grasp truth at a heart level rather than just knowing it intellectually, says Twit. “Charles Wesley’s ‘Arise My Soul, Arise’ is an example of crying out to God to sense what we confess: Arise my soul, arise, Shake off your guilty fears, The bleeding sacrifice, On my behalf appears. This communion hymn is a pleading with the soul to feel what we see displayed in the sacraments.”
The ancient/future orientation of setting old hymns to new music seems to fill a need with today’s worshipers. “The challenge is to provide roots and wings,” said Twit, quoting Gerard Kelly, “to bring young people into a sense of connectedness with the past that doesn’t rob them of their vision of the future.”
Reaching Beyond the PCA
The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord, She is His new creation by water and the Word …
(“The Church’s One Foundation,” Samuel Stone)
One of RUF’s goals is to help students transition from college to the church, and to love the church, according to Rod Mays, national coordinator of RUF. “Indelible Grace has helped us do just that. It’s helped expose old hymns to our churches, and it’s exposed RUF and the PCA to people we wouldn’t normally reach.”
Additionally, The RUF Hymnbook has circulated through and beyond PCA churches. (Churches may download sheet music from the Hymnbook for free at www.igracemusic.com.) “It’s been a huge contribution to the evangelical world to recover these great old hymns that are so rich and deep theologically,” said Mays. Roughly half the Hymnbook’s 143 songs are set to traditional tunes, and the other half to updated music.
The Indelible Grace movement seems to be widening the PCA’s profile. “People identify Indelible Grace with RUF, and have sought out RUF and PCA churches for that reason,” said Mays. “That gives us more opportunity to do the work of RUF: reaching students for Christ and equipping them to serve.”
Twit has been asked to perform and speak to a wide variety of audiences and denominations within the Christian faith about hymnody. “Our work with hymns has given me many opportunities to speak to people from other denominations. I think the PCA has more influence in this arena than our numbers should justify, but it has to do with the Reformed understanding of engaging with the culture.
“At RUF, we want people to learn about the why behind the way we do things instead of simply handing off what we’ve done,” said Twit, “and that is why I enjoy being able to speak about hymns in addition to writing music and making CDs.”
In his role as an RUF minister, Twit has encouraged many students to take on the challenge of writing new music to old texts. “Sharing hymn texts often helps people grapple with various issues they’re struggling with. And in order to rewrite a tune to a text, you really have to meditate on it and get inside of it.”
In Matthew Smith’s junior year at Belmont University, Twit gave him a sheet with the text to the hymn “Come Ye Sinners” and encouraged him to try writing music to it. “I went to my dorm room that night, wrote the music, and we started singing it in RUF,” said Smith. That song, widely used in RUF and PCA circles today, became the opening track on the first Indelible Grace CD.
Smith has continued to pen new music to old hymns, and now tours the country performing both his adapted hymns and others to people eager to tap into the revival of hymnody. He plays more than 50 concerts a year, to both PCA and non-PCA audiences.
“I think that people respond to hymns because they don’t pull any punches about who we are, and the human condition,” said Smith. “My hope is that this generation that is looking for something authentic would discover hymns and experience them as a gateway to discovering the gospel.”
Melissa Morgan is an editor for byFaith magazine.
Introducing Hymns into Your Church (by Kevin Twit)
▪ Sing more hymns—and tell the stories of the hymns. Do this not just in church services but in special times of singing and prayer as well. Talk about why you sing the songs you do.
▪ Use the hymns and the stories of the hymns in your pastoral counseling and preaching. I know of Christian counselors who recommend that their clients listen to Indelible Grace CDs to soak in the gospel. I sometimes copy the words of hymns to hand out to people I meet with, to help them work through different subjects and experiences.
▪ Make some of the reprinted hymnals available to your congregants. A.W. Tozer said that next to the Bible, the best devotional book one can have is a good hymnal. If you have a church bookstore, stock things like Spurgeon’s Our Own Hymnbook, Philip Schaff’s Christ In Song, and Gadsby’s Hymns.
▪ Encourage your musicians to serve the church by writing hymns and hymn tunes. Give them hymnals to use. And if they write a new tune, listen to it and try to use it if you can. Offer 10 words of encouragement for every word of critique.