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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.
(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG, "IN CHRIST ALONE")
KRISTYN GETTY: (Singing) In Christ alone, my hope is found. He is my light...
FARMER: That's Kristyn Getty singing. Her husband is on the piano in their home near Nashville's Music Row. The couple came to town to pen songs not for individual artists but for what Keith Getty calls the congregation.
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.
FARMER: Kristyn Getty says some of the most popular music doesn't show God the proper reverence.
GETTY: There is an unhelpful, casual sense that comes with some of the more contemporary music. It's not how I would talk to God.
FARMER: This old-school approach has made the Gettys stars with the country's largest protestant denomination.
MIKE HARLAND: Alright, so Getty...
FARMER: Mike Harland is with LifeWay Christian Resources which publishes the Southern Baptist hymnal. He flips through the index, counting how many Getty hymns made the latest edition.
HARLAND: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12 - 12.
FARMER: That's more than just about any other living songwriter. Harland says the Gettys have set a new bar. He's been pushing LifeWay's own staff of songwriters to go deeper.
HARLAND: We would say, you know what, this is pretty and this is nice, but it doesn't really say much.
FARMER: While modern hymns are finding an audience, those songs that may not say a whole lot still remain the most popular.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW GREAT IS OUR GOD")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) How great is our God? How great is our God...
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW GREAT IS OUR GOD")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Then sings my soul my Savior God to Thee. How great Thou art...
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