5 Suggestions for Pouring Old Wine in New Wineskins: Singing Old Hymns in Contemporary Worship
The scripture warns against pouring new wine from old wineskins, but what about pouring old wine from new ones? It seems more and more churches are finding rich value in singing traditional hymns with modern arrangements and instrumentation. I love the quote from my good friend Randy Vader of PraiseGathering Music Group: “We don’t sing the old hymns because they are old; we sing them because they are great.” I could not agree more.
But as with most things, there is a right way and a wrong way to incorporate older hymns into current worship practices. It is more involved than just adding a rhythm section or changing a few chords or rhythms. It certainly is more involved than just writing a new refrain and tagging it on to the standard hymn.
There are many great reasons for bringing familiar hymns back into our worship. Deep and rich texts and time-tested melodies abound in the genre. They connect with multiple generations and engage a broader audience in worship. The hymns connect us with our heritage – important in any community of faith. They have a legacy aspect to them, much like the great stories of faith and testimonies of our past.
Here are few suggestions for anyone who wants to pour old wine out from a new wineskin:
1) Avoid curveballs.
Significant changes to the melody or rhythm, unless you are doing an entirely different music setting to the text, will throw a congregation off every time. And once the congregation loses confidence in knowing how it is going to go, they will shut down and listen. The worst fear of the average congregant is that their limited ability will be exposed. If you mess too much with the familiar, it will actually shut them down.
2) Plan “the win” for the congregation.
Whenever you plan a modern setting of a hymn for a congregation, put it in a widely accessible key and resist the temptation to over-accompany the hymn. Let it be what it is for the congregation, even as you add contemporary elements to the arrangement. Vary the accompaniment stanza to stanza – even incorporating a cappella sections to allow the congregation to “find” their voice. Let the folks in the pew “win.”
3) Make the changes consistent.
If you change a rhythm to fit a new accompaniment approach – a cool way to modernize a hymn – make sure the change is consistent throughout the hymn. Or, if there is a chord structure change, do it every time. The congregation will pick up on minor tweaks fairly quickly and sing with gusto if you are consistent.
4) Let the choir lead.
Teach your choir the new version just as you would a featured anthem. When the time comes to sing it in the worship time, the choir can really help the congregation find their way by singing it with total confidence – something the congregation can rest in as they sing as well.
5) Be smart about how often you introduce new things.
This goes for all of the songs we sing in church, but too often, worship leaders consistently throw way too much new material at their congregation. About the time worship leaders get bored with a new setting of a hymn or even a new song, the congregation is finally getting familiar with it. Many worship planners put so much new material in front of the church, they never own any of it. And, if you are considering adding a new refrain or chorus to an old hymn, ask yourself, “Why?” There should be a very compelling reason to do so – and doing so just to change it up is not reason enough. The new section must be adding something to the hymn that is needful.
Part of the Hippocratic oath in the medical profession is “Do no harm.” That is, don’t allow the administration of the cure add to the illness. The same can be said of hymn singing. You can do far worse than just singing the hymn the way it has always been sung. But, if you want to bring an old hymn to the modern day with current approaches to music, do so deliberately and thoughtfully. The people you lead will be blessed if you do.