Bringing Music Styles From the Past Into Our Present Worship
By Chris Hoisington
About two years ago, I started a search for new inspiration. You know, the sort of quest that any good songwriter will when you’re feeling dry and you’re seeking fresh musical inspiration. I wanted to find God in other forms of music besides the current modern worship music I’d become accustomed to.
I started by thumbing through my vinyl collection. It was in these beloved crates of aged musicology that I happened upon some old records that my parents had recorded in the mid 70s. The McClurg Family Singers.
I hadn’t listened to these records in over ten years, at least. But what I remembered of them sounded hoaky. The ultimate in cheesy, twangy southern gospel.
But I decided to give them a new listen. When I dropped the pin on their grooves this time around, the music hit my ears differently. I heard something in the sound that was fresh. It was old, but familiar. It was exciting.
I caught the scent of my inspiration, like a grandfather’s pipe smoke wafting in from the front porch.
From there, I began purchasing gospel records from the 60’s and 70’s, soaking in the sounds of Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light,” Elvis Presley’s “How Great Thou Art,” and the Louvin Brothers’ “Satan is Real.” They reminded me of those old songs I grew up hearing in church like “He Set Me Free,” “There’s Power in the Blood,” and The Gaithers’ “Because He Lives.”
I thought to myself, where has that music gone to? That good ‘ole sound?
Sure, we hear them every now and again, done at church during a special music time or in passing a road-side tent revival. And they’re alive and well at southern gospel festivals. But what about the church as a whole?
Soon after this fresh rediscovery of music, I decided to play the song “I’ve Got a River of Life Flowing Out of Me” during a Sunday worship service at my church. The results made me smile. I found that the older folks perked up and remembered how to clap, and the younger folks turned their heads, wondering what this “new” sound was. It was a glorious moment.
I think there are times when certain songs, even certain styles of music feel tired and need a break. This can be true of any art form, but especially of music. But everything comes full circle, and eventually we find a way to make old songs and old styles feel fresh again.
When I think of gospel music from the past, I think of our heritage, of a deep faith to draw from and pull into the present. These thoughts, combined with what happened that Sunday morning, made me think, what would new writing sound like if we brought that older style back again?
A few years back, Glenn Packiam, of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, called worship leaders to take a fresh look at liturgy in our churches—the structured, intentional progression of a Sunday service. He challenged us to try and bring it back again as an element in our services. To some churches, this was a totally new idea, while for others it had been one they have continued to do. It was in this challenged that I felt renewed passion toward these old gospel songs and music styles from Christian music’s past.
I started to realize that many of the vintage gospel records I was listening to were telling Bible stories, and some of the stories in scripture that you don’t always hear sung about in church. In a lot of ways, I think worship leading is like being a pastor. We are called to shepherd people into a real, honest and heartfelt experience with God. That’s why telling the Bible stories through song helps us reflect on the stories in new ways. It breathes life into the story. To help us understand the stories and what they can teach us.
Like a pastor takes a scripture and expounds upon it, we are taking stories from the Bible and expounding upon them through song. Bringing the story into the worship experience. Singing the stories of Jesus and what He did and how He interacted with people can help us understand Him in a deeper way. It can also help us see our life in light of the stories, which is exactly what a sermon does. Sermons and songs need to intermingle more. Often, our praise and the preaching of a sermon completely isolated, treated as two separate disciplines, when really, they have far more in common than we realize. Music can teach theology in fresh and new ways. Old Bible story songs teach people about their heritage, about the rich legacy of faith that we’re still benefitting form today.
Keep in mind, I don’t think this will work in every church or with every worship leader. Each of us has a unique voice and style, and the Lord speaks to each of us on how we should lead our congregations. I just wonder if we added more of those old gospel tunes and a return to that style of music, we may pull the older generations together along with us. As worship leaders, we’re called to serve our congregations as a whole, not just with the newest worship songs but also giving a fresh feel to some of the older songs as well.
We’ve tried to write with that old gospel feel in mind and bring it into the present.
And we’ve found that it’s giving fresh voice, not just just to our own congregations, but to the congregations we visit around the country.
These old gospel songs may be something you might want to try implementing into your own set. I would talk to your pastor about it and try adding a song or two into your set to see if it’s something your people might enjoy.
We certainly need praise songs that are straight forward and simple, that don’t focus on us but look to God, and I’m not saying you should stray from that. What I’m suggesting, however, is adding journey songs that talk about the road of life we’re on and help people see that we are real and honest people who go through the highs and lows of life. Music is a powerful tool that can connect people to Jesus like nothing else.
To start, I would recommend playing one gospel/journey song as people walk into church, then lead them in three songs of praise. Or at the tail end of your worship set, have them sit and share an older song while the offering is being taken. You might even end your service with one so that you’re not taking away from your praise songs, but rounding out the entire service. These practices are things that are inspiring us, and it may inspire you as well. Below is a gospel playlist of songs, old and new, to consider for your church.
Have you had an experience with this type of musical style in your church recently? What’s the response been like? We would love to hear how God is shaping your set list in different ways to help each person in your congregation connect with God.
Here is a playlist of new and old gospel songs to check out and enjoy.