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An Old Song, A New Sound

Like so many of her peers, 20-year-old Lori Gerlach grew up singing praise choruses. From elementary school to high school, she sang songs that she now describes as repetitive, with “basic surface lyrics that focused on how (she) felt about God.” But there was only one problem: “I never really felt that I meant the words I was singing,” she explained. “I wanted to, but because I couldn’t change my heart or change the things that I really thought. I ended up just feeling really frustrated all the time in worship.”

When she left for college at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., she checked out Belmont’s RUF (Reformed University Fellowship) group. During her first visit, she was handed a notebook of hymns and was immediately skeptical. “I didn’t understand a lot of the poetic and imagery-driven lyrics,” she said. “I wasn’t used to thinking in such a deep, literary language, especially a language to God. The word hymn automatically meant boring music. And I didn’t like the idea of having to memorize something”

But in a few weeks, Gerlach was sold. She had fallen in love with this way of worship. Suddenly, she didn’t feel pressured to “feel” a certain way as she approached God, but instead was encouraged to sing about the Gospel and God’s love for her.

“Before, I was on a mission to find something beautiful, and (my worship) depended on whether I found it or not,” she said. “Not the way it is now, how God brings you to that place of beauty and brokenness. I’ve realized reality is most of the time our natural hatred for God as sinners comes through in our daily lives. And to sing about that and about how God, despite all of that, is pursuing us as His children, that’s where I find myself in worship. That is something I feel like I can respond to and feel emotion about.”

Gerlach finds these hymns a more realistic way of worship. “When I go (to church) tomorrow and sing a hymn, I’m singing about that very fact that I have hated God this past week in my actions,” she said. “If I were to sing ‘I love you, Lord, and you’re all that I want,’ how can I say that? I think that’s what we’re made for and should want, but we’re not going to want only God until we’re glorified. In the hymns it’s like, ‘Don’t worry, because God still loves you and has given you everything you need.’”

Belmont RUF had eased Gerlach’s transition to hymns by putting many of them to new music. The group operates a ministry called Indelible Grace Music, which seeks to be a resource to the church by writing original hymns as well as new melodies for traditional hymns (usually simple folk or bluegrass tunes). Indelible Grace has put out three CDs that feature over 30 people involved with the college group, including Derek Webb, Sandra McCracken, Dan Haseltine and Andrew Osenga (formerly of The Normals). The third CD is new, but the first two CDs have sold over 25,000 copies by word of mouth alone, and many other RUF groups have incorporated the hymns into their own worship.

Belmont RUF pastor, Kevin Twit, one of the key players both musically and creatively in the Indelible Grace movement, said young people have latched onto hymns because of the link they have with history. “I think it is a reaction to the baby boomers throwing out anything rooted in traditional for the faddish and fly-by-night,” he said. “Many students today are sick of that and want something that is more connected to the church’s tradition.”

“I find that putting old hymns to new music allows us to connect with the hymns and yet still be relevant and authentic to our own culture,” he said. “And by putting familiar hymns to new music often people slow down and think about what they are actually singing … the meaning takes on fresh life for them.”

More than anything, Indelible Grace wants to encourage the saints to use both their hearts and their minds in worship. “We want to be a voice calling our generation back to something rich and solid and beyond the fluff and the trendy,” Twit said. “We want to remind God’s people that thinking and worship are not mutually exclusive and that not everything worth knowing happened in the last 3 years.”

So far, it looks like that goal is being realized. Twit knows at least 10 churches who are doing CDs of their own, and many who are using Indelible Grace’s music for 50 to 75 percent of their worship.

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Matthew Smith, leader of the Indelible Grace band (Smith and three other rotating members who tour to expose others to the hymns), said he also fell in love with hymns through his experience at the Belmont RUF. “Along with the teaching, the hymns seemed to open up a whole new world of freedom and joy in the Gospel that I had never known before,” he said. “After getting into hymnody I’ve had to take a step back and wonder what I was singing about all those years before. So much of what I led worship with in high school was about me—the lyrics centered on me telling God what I wanted to do, or what I wanted Him to do. When I discovered these hymns, all of a sudden I was singing about Christ instead of about my feelings. And when that happened, I started to experience emotionally what I had longed to feel for years.”

Smith said the Indelible Grace band plays 20 to 30 dates a year, and that the response has been overwhelming from all age groups. He points to the stark honesty of many hymn writers for why these songs resonate with a “generation (that) longs for authenticity.”

He also suggests that these songs have stood the test of time because many of the authors were pastors, who held both Scripture and the struggles of their congregations in mind. Smith said that unlike today, these pastors didn’t have to think, “Will this song be a hit?”

“Many Christian radio stations pride themselves on being ‘safe,’ but there is nothing more dangerous, yet rewarding than a life lived for the Lord,” he said. “A lyric like Go, then, earthly fame and treasure / Come, disaster, scorn and pain / In thy service, pain is pleasure / With thy favor, loss is gain (from Henry Lyte’s “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken”) would never make it onto Christian radio. But a generation that has seen their parents sacrifice everything at the altar of safety is ready for something bold, radical and real. And that something just happens to be 200-year-old hymns.”

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