Let's get the praise for this story about praise music and hymnody out of the way first. NPR's All Things Considered did something very rare and they did it nicely. The show featured a full four minutes on Christian worship music. The show managed to do this without sneering and without any politics. The show featured actual Christian voices talking about their views on worship. This is a wonderful thing and kudos to them.
If that's all you're looking for from NPR, you will love listening to this piece, "Modern Hymn Writers Aim To Take Back Sunday."
As it happens, not everyone was as pleased with this piece. We heard about it from more than a few readers. I'm with them in having some criticism. Perhaps it's because I had too-high expectations. I'm Lutheran. We take our hymnody very seriously. This week's hymn in our house is "We Praise You And Acknowledge You," by Stephen Starke, a modern hymn writer. (It's the one playing in the video embedded above.) Last week's was "To God The Holy Spirit Let Us Pray," by Martin Luther, who hasn't been writing new hymns for 500 years or so. I've had the pleasure of writing about hymns and choral music and the greater pleasure of a worship life built around hymns.
If you bill your story as "Modern Hymn Writers Aim To Take Back Sunday," I want the story to be about that. I want to see if the prolific Stephen Starke is in it. But this story was really not about modern hymn writers so much as a very narrow subset of Christianity and just a couple of modern hymn writers. The story would have been improved by making that clear. Instead, the lede was this:
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST: In recent decades, worship music has trended away from the church organ and classic hymns in favor of more rocking songs made popular by Christian radio. Now a crop of modern hymn writers is pulling Sunday morning singing back to a more traditional style. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports from Nashville.
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: There was a time when hymns were used primarily to drive home the message that came from the pulpit. Then came the praise songs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUR GOD")
MATT REDMAN: (Singing) Our God is greater, our God is stronger...
FARMER: Matt Redman's song "Our God" is the most popular piece of music in Christian churches today. That's according to charts that track congregational singing - yes, there is such a thing. But approaching the top 10 is a retro hymn co-written by Keith Getty.
Such broad strokes, eh? If I tell you that later in the story we're told that we're more or less talking about Southern Baptists in this piece, would that help? It helped me. I mean, the Southern Baptists are a large group and a story about their worship practices and trends is great. But it was weird to read about these "charts" that track congregational singing. I know that my large Lutheran denomination doesn't track these things and I wasn't terribly familiar with either the praise song or the hymn mentioned in the lede. So I spent the next few minutes trying to figure out how narrow the story would end up being.
It's quite narrow. And nicely so. Bob Smietana's piece on the same topic from April of this year helped the reader much more by laying the focus all on the line right there at the top:
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) Most songwriters in Nashville want to get their songs on the radio. Keith and Kristyn Getty hope their songs end up in dusty old hymnbooks.
Both stories are interesting and both stories are about the Gettys but I appreciate Smietana's approach.
Back to this NPR piece, I did think it managed to get some helpful doctrinal points in. Here's one perspective:
KEITH GETTY: Our goal is to write songs that teach the faith, where the congregation is the main thing and everybody accompanies that.
FARMER: There's no definition for what's a hymn and not a praise song, but Getty says it should be singable without a band, easy for anyone sitting in the pews to pick up. And it should say something bold.
GETTY: And I think it's to the church's poverty that the average worship song now has so few words, so little truth, is so focused on several commercial aspects of God, like the fact that he loves our praises.
Later we're told that the Gettys have 12 hymns in the latest Southern Baptist hymnal. (This caused me to look something up in my hymnal, where I saw that Starke has 32(!) listings, more than Paul Gerhardt or Martin Luther.) And we learn that the substance of the Getty's work is helping encourage other songwriters to follow suit. We hear some of the repetitive sections of praise music but also a defense of them:
FARMER: "How Great Is Our God" by Chris Tomlin is a refrain sung in mega churches worldwide. Nashville producer Ed Cash collaborated on the song and says he laughed out loud the first time he heard a rough draft.
ED CASH: I remember thinking, you know, that's exactly the simple kind of brainless praise chorus things that drive me crazy.
FARMER: But Cash has had a conversion to the praise chorus. He now believes you shouldn't complicate the message.
CASH: You know, for some people singing a seven-word, simple chorus draws them into the presence of God. And to me, ultimately, what is the goal of worship music? It's to exalt God.
FARMER: In the last few decades, some church leaders have called the tension between contemporary and traditional styles a worship war. It hasn't exactly let up. But the hymn is getting more love from modern worship leaders, even if it's just tagging a new praise song with a classic chorus. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.
That's actually nicely handled. There is a big difference between hymns and praise music and, given the briefness of this story, that difference was well articulated. But, again, the story about these debates in Southern Baptist or other evangelical megachurches is going to be different from how that debate plays out in Lutheran or Episcopal congregations. The lede really didn't explain that we were going to be looking at just one modern hymnwriting couple and their influence in one part of Christianity.