This is post number 28 in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry. These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance. I welcome discussion on any of them.
Reflection #28: Contemporary worship songwriters who add bridges and alternative melodies to well-known hymns don’t add much to the experience, but here’s a case where I think the end justifies the means.
Having just come through Easter, many of us attending churches pursuing contemporary worship probably sang modernized familiar hymns that added a bridge. My memory’s ear tells me that Chris Tomlin’s “The Wonderful Cross,” released in 2001, was the first song in the most recent era of contemporary worship music to do this at a level that gained national exposure and acceptance. Countless others have followed (our family experienced a variation on “Crown Him with Many Crowns” Easter Sunday), and we get a similar experience at Christmas each year, with one of my favorite worship leaders, Paul Baloche, doing numerous honors here.
On the one hand, purists note correctly that the bridges added by contemporary songwriters generally don’t elevate the lyrics of the original song, and “The Wonderful Cross” can serve as the poster child. Take Tomlin’s bridge: “Oh, the wonderful Cross, oh the wonderful Cross / Bids me come and die and find that I might truly live. / Oh the wonderful Cross, oh the wonderful Cross: / All who gather here by grace draw near and bless Your name.” Give credit where credit is due: The invitation to die-to-live is a nice bit of resurrection theology, and the internal rhyme of here and near in the last line is pleasant. But Isaac Watts’ original, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” slays you with verses like this: “When I survey the wondrous cross / On which the Prince of Glory died, /My richest gain I count but loss / And pour contempt on all my pride.” Or like this: “Were the whole realm of nature mine, / That were a present [or sometimes offering] far too small. / Love so amazing, so divine / Demands my soul, my life, my all.” Need more reason to harrumph besides the less-satisfying lyrics of the add-on bridges? Often the add-on bridges render the songs less congregational–at least by those who know the original–which defeats the purpose of congregational singing.
On the other hand, it’s fair to ask whether these great hymns, often so rich in theology, would get a hearing at all in contemporary worship without these bridges. Indeed, bridges is an ironically appropriate term here, for the sections added on to the hymns–inferior lyrically and musically or not–do bridge the gap for younger folks and seekers who didn’t grow up singing hymns week after week for years, as many of us Boomers and early Xers did. If the price for putting “Crown Him with Many Crowns” on the lips of our our congregants is to add a few lines in the middle that, in the minds of some, don’t add a whole lot to the experience, that’s a small price to pay.
Curmudgeons, take the big-picture view here, please. And Chris Tomlin, Paul Baloche, and anyone else who would add to what has served the Church well for hundreds of years, thanks for breathing new into so many of these great statements of faith–and thanks for making them as lyrically beautiful, theologically rich, and melodically accessible whenever you can. The Lord be with you!
Coming next week (Lord willing): What do we do with songs like “Reckless Love”?