When I was a kid, my parents had to drag me to church every week. I do mean every week; I'm pretty sure that, between the ages of 8 and 14, I begged my parents every single sunday to let us stay home. Aside from some generational issues, the reason was simple: I am a musician. And I hated the music.
As traditional churches often do, they had hired an organist to accompany the hymns. However, to me it was clear that nobody had interviewed with much vigor (the Eastman school of music is 25 minutes away, so this should have been easy), because the organist was bad. Very bad. Don't get me wrong, he could put his fingers on the right keys and all that (most of the time), but the man would turn any hymn into a funeral march. It was so depressing.
And so I hated hymns. And I refused to sing.
Fast forward to seminary. I had overcome any issues with singing when I was introduced to modern music ("contemporary" at the time), and found a heart language in which to sing. I played on worship teams on my sax, and even sang a backup part to "Flood" one Sunday as a teenager, to the surprise of my parents. My loathing of the hymn remained. In my mind, they were too wordy, the melody too complicated for congregational singing, the language too clumsy. They had become, as it were, irrelevant for the culture, and if I had had my way, they would have been banned from churches.
As it turns out, Asbury Seminary didn't feel the same way. In fact, they too had hired an organist, a man in his late 80's (I think) who I could grudgingly appreciate for his remarkable musicianship. The man could seriously play, and while chapel was not a mandatory experience at Asbury, Liz and I began to attend together. The speakers were excellent (mostly professors), but I had to put up with traditional hymns and the occasional acoustic tribute to contemporary music in order to hear them.
I remember it vividly. I was in chapel, standing amongst my peers and rolling my eyes like I usually did after the first hymn, when the organist began the introduction to a traditional Wesleyan hymn called "And Can it Be." And I remember noticing a change in the room. It was a feeling, something intuitive, not something I could measure. But something was definitely different, and as everyone started to sing, the words caught my attention in a way they never had before. I looked around me, and watched as men and women younger than me and much older than me sang with a passion I'd only ever witnessed in large contemporary congregations. They closed their eyes and clenched their fists, they raised their hands and smiled as they sang,
My chains fell off, my heart was free
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee
Amazing love, how can it be
That Thou my God should'st die for me?
And it suddenly hit me: I didn't hate the music. In fact, I had never bothered to actually listen to the music, all I had ever done was lament the poor delivery. For years, I had ranted and raved against something made to worship God simply because my first impressions had done the music a disservice. I had been so preoccupied with my own prejudice, I'd never bothered to accept the music on its own terms. But now, God had opened my ears, and my heart - and eventually my lips - began to sing with my peers,
No condemnation now I dread
Jesus and all in Him is mine
Alive in Him my living head
And clothed in righteousness divine
Bold I approach the eternal throne
And claim new life through Christ my own
When I'm asked about my ministry among both modern and traditional congregations, the question often comes up, "what's your favorite kind of music?" While my iPhone has a pretty eclectic assortment of styles and artists, people really want to know, am I traditional or modern? Which is better? And the answer is simply this:
I am both. The two cultures have much to teach one another. God says to sing a new song, and God says to remember. The two must go hand in hand with the many other forms of musical worship if we are to be the Church. I first sang songs of worship in a contemporary gathering, but I have regularly encountered the living God in both of these styles and more.
I tell this story today because I've finally finished a new recording, one of my own original arrangement of the hymn. I've modernized the language a bit, and written a chorus based on Charles' refrain. Oh, and it's a modern sound; the traditional and the modern, hand in hand.
May your heart sing with mine as you listen.