I often get asked about fitting traditional hymns into a modern context - something we do very often at Trinity. Here are four ways I believe it can be accomplished. A word of caution: Be open to criticism when you do this, as hymns can oftentimes be sacrosanct in church culture. People don’t like you messing around with their hymns so be humble and open to feedback from your parishioners as these can often turn into great teaching moments.
Re-tuning takes the original lyrics of the hymn and re-writes the melody and sometimes even the time signature. There are a host of modern worship teams that re-tune hymns this way and it is perfect for bringing new life to a theologically rich hymn. However, I do see two challenges with this method that come into play when one tries to re-tune a fairly well known hymn.
1.The first is that we tend to not write such compelling melody structures in modern worship songs. Hymn writers knew how to write melodies that were sometimes complicated, but always memorable. Modern writers tend to write vague melodies that are not very memorable.
2. The second is that this method has the potential to marginalize people who might struggle to forget the original melody thus making it difficult for them to learn the new one. No one wants to be that guy in church who belts out the old melody by mistake.
2. Add A Chorus
Simply adding a chorus to the song can bring it to the modern era. Hymns tend to not have choruses the way we understand them in today's songwriting structure. However, before you go and throw a few Hallelujahs into the mix allow me to offer two suggestions:
1. The lyrical theme and theology of the hymn should remain in tact with the newly added chorus. If the focus of the hymn is addressing the Trinity then putting in a chorus that only sings about one person of the Trinity will dilute the focus and fullness of the hymn’s theology (which is probably the dominant quality of the hymn that originally drew you to it to begin with).
2. The melody of the newly added chorus should remain integrated with the verse melody. Of course, make it great and epic or whatever you wish, just don't make it so different from the verse melody that it feels like you simply bolted it on to the hymn. Write in a way that honors and compliments the hymn.
3. Simplify Chords
The third way is by maintaining the original format of the hymn, but simplifying its chord structure. Hymns tend to have a lot of movement and all of those chord movements are great, but they can be difficult to pull off on a guitar, for example. When doing this method please be mindful of the melody so you play the essential triads that support the melody i.e. don’t play a 7th chord when the melody is hanging on the 1.
4. Simplify Words
Whether you choose to leave the hymn alone, re-tune it, add a chorus, or simplify the chords, or some combination of those I encourage you to seriously consider simplifying the lyrics where they are outdated. *This will require theological work on you part*
The easiest example that comes to mind is Come Thou Fount. The line "here I raise my Ebenezer" makes no sense in our context unless you explain it and even then most people can't stop thinking about Charles Dickens' character in A Christmas Carol. I am not sure where I first heard it, but in our church we sing, "here I find my greatest treasure". Now I admit that those lines convey two different meanings. Raising your Ebenezer refers to the Old Testament command of the LORD for Israel to build memorials to remind them of God's saving deeds. So, with that lyric "simplification" loses some of the memorial imagery. Yet I am OK with it because the Ebenezer language is more distracting than helpful in my context and referring to finding God, as the greatest treasure does not diminish the songs theme or theological integrity. There is always some give and take when changing hymn lyrics.
I hope these thoughts and ideas are helpful to you.