Si Se Puede: Contextualizing Lyrics for New Generations
Recently the question “Should We Update Old Hymns to Address Modern Themes?” was asked in Christianity Today. I appreciated the article and that friends that work together can all have different takes given their context, denominational background, ethnicity and worship philosophy. Check out the article.
For this expert weighing in, I’d be up on the top of the list with Pastah J (Jonathan Brooks). Si se puede! Contextualizing for the different generations and cultures is a helpful common practice. Latinos like Salvador have changed the style of music with old coritos like “Con Poder”. African American worship leaders have taken away words in hymns such as “I need Thee” to revise the form of worship. The Getty’s and others decision to change the words or content is yet another helpful way of helping a new community enter into the legacy songs as can be seen in this powerful moment at the Urbana Missions Conference which gathers thousands of young adults. The additional chorus fits the “anthemic” nature of modern CCM music, so the song becomes a bridge from the old to the new. While modifying the historical songs in each of our traditions is a helpful practice in creating unity in believers from generation to generation, there is also a need to write new songs that are relevant in style, form and content in the context of faith.
There have been times I’ve been asked to change lyrics for theological reasons. “How Deep The Fathers Love for Us” has the problematic line “bring many sons to glory”, as if daughters are not welcomed into glory. So we went with “bring many ones to glory”. Gender inclusivity was needed as well for Be though my vision replacing “I thine true son” with “thine own may I be”. In another case with “In Christ Alone” I was asked by a conference to change the line of “the wrath of God was satisfied” to their desired ““the love of God was magnified” because it made them “uncomfortable”. While both lines are true, I did not think it warranted a change. I am not sure if the issue for this leadership was the “wrath” debate or the “ satisfied” debate, but the song was carefully crafted and biblically true in my eyes, and changing it would have lost the movement of the message. In cases where the lyric upholds an important theological position which may make us feel uncomfortable, I think we keep it and allow it to draw us into deeper dialogue into differences. After all, worship practices are the central practice that develop the theology of our congregation (since many do not remember our sermons and less and less study scripture as much as they listen on their smartphones). In the case of the Presbyterian Church (USA) they dropped it from their Hymnal
For more on song section and planning on this check out The Next Worship Chapter Six: Components of Diverse Worship and Appendix.