Good Sources for "Third Way" Church Music

It still seems, in many churches, that worship exists on a binary - either "traditional" or "contemporary." These groups tend to be holistic in their ideologies. Traditional music involves the organ, a familiar melody (although often not the original melody of the hymn but rather one that became popular in the late 19th or early 20th century), and nothing written in the last 100 years. Contemporary music, meanwhile, almost exactly mimics current pop or country trends with little thought to how the needs of worship might require us to learn different approaches.

Both camps have significant weaknesses. Contemporary praise music, while it has improved in the last 10 years in this regard, still often has weaker lyrics both in terms of poetry and content. It is also often hard to sing until the song is known well, but the cult of newness encourages constant changes. Traditional music, meanwhile, is often equally hard to sing, especially when it moves beyond the most familiar of its tunes. More than that, tradition often trumps content - while the best hymns are incredibly lyrically rich, some of the most popular are really not more lyrically robust than CCM offerings (i.e. I Come to the Garden Alone). Perhaps most egregiously, the traditional approach usually rests on a single idealized point in history (say, the 19th century camp revivals or 18th century four-part revolution in hymnody), making it just as narrow in terms of style and failing to appreciate the "now-ness" of our call to worship.

My great frustration in these debates is how few people are willing to consider that there is a third way - lyrically robust, singable music that one struggles to define as either contemporary or traditional. While not as well known, many of these artists are producing incredible content that can both bridge the divide within churches and provide an alternative to the worship wars. What I want to do below is recommend a number of these artists and give a few samplings of their music in the hopes of giving you both something to listen to and, perhaps, some resources for your church to grow in its musical repertoire. Below are five recommendations and some honorable mentions, along with a few songs by each.

Matt Boswell (& Matt Papa) - The Matts (as I tend to think of them) have written a number of what I would describe as contemporary hymns. Lyrically rich, what I most appreciate about them is their willingness to incorporate real poetic devices (something lacking from much contemporary music) while nonetheless having solid theological depth.

Indelible Grace - They've been around for a while, but Kevin Twit & company were one of the first movers in looking for a "third way," which they found through retuning old (and sometimes obscure) hymns with modern melodies. While the tunes are a bit of a mixed bag, at their best these songs have an enormous power to drill powerful texts into the heart.

CityAlight - Coming out of Australian Anglicanism, CityAlight writes biblically rich songs with a special focus on congregational singability. Their music is prayerful and almost meditative, speaking to the heart without compromising lyrical substance or resorting to emotionalism.

Sovereign Grace Music - Another long-time mover in these circles, Sovereign Grace Music has put out a number of influential songs that are hard to categorize as simplistically "contemporary." In particular, they are extremely strong in theological content of their lyrics.

The Gettys - Keith & Kristyn Getty are much better known than the others on this list, as they wrote the insanely popular "In Christ Alone." However, the rest of their catalog is much less well-known and has a number of other modern classics.

Honorable Mentions:
Andrew Peterson - Andrew is really a storyteller and singer-songwriter, but along the way he has written some incredibly good worship music. While he's been getting a bit more recognition for it recently, much of his catalog has gems for gathered singing, not to mention some of the best explicitly Christian songwriting around.

Sandra McCracken - While she has a strongly folk-influenced approach and is primarily a singer-songwriter, Sandra has also written some deeply powerful and personal worship music.

Audrey Assad - A bit of an anomaly as a Catholic influencer in the modern CCM scene, Assad has written a great deal of beautiful and deeply contemplative, liturgically-influenced music. Especially good at modern renditions of otherwise-traditional hymns, she also has some great original music.

Dustin Kensrue - While best known as a part of the band Thrice, Kensrue also served as a worship leader, fronted The Modern Post, and has written some great songs in other settings. The most famous of these was "All Glory Be to Christ," but as part of TMP he also wrote some incredibly strong rock-worship music.

Bifrost Arts - A collective of musicians, a great deal of simple but powerful music has come out of this collaboration. Particularly strong for the way it strikes themes of lament and other biblical postures often neglected in modern church music.