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Reformed Praise


by Jason Smathers on October 6, 2009

I recently went on a hunt for reformed music and found my way to Reformed Praise. Reformed Praise is a music ministry dedicated to providing songs for corporate worship which are rich in theology, diverse in musical style, and centered on the gospel of grace, that our praise might be informed by Biblical truth.

Reformed Praise was founded by David Ward, whom is the Director of Worship Ministries for Redeemer Bible Church in Minnetonka, MN. David has released a CD of reformed hymns called Cross Centered Worship. David’s music has a modern sound while remaining faithful to scripture. I’ve loaded Cross Centered Worship up on my mp3 player right along side of my other favorite modernized worship music: Page CXVI and Rain City Hymnal. David was kind enough to give up his time for an interview to give us a closer look at his ministry.
1) I smell a little Jazz mixed in your music. Does the music world have a name for your musical style?
Musical styles are notoriously hard to define. The most influential genres on me have probably been classic jazz, classical music, and some classic rock when I was a teenager. Once I became a Christian at age 12, I became heavily influenced by the praise songs of the 70s and 80s, which itself flowed out of the folk song tradition of the 60s. Nowadays I listen to a variety of music intentionally to broaden my tastes, but still favor classic jazz or “worship” (songs for congregational singing) for pleasure and leisure. In addition to my weekly worship playing/leading, I play in a big band and occasional small jazz combos, so jazz is still a big part of my life.
When it comes to songwriting, one of the most helpful courses I’ve taken has been jazz theory. In college I was a music major and our school, Rutgers University, had a jazz studies major. Because of this program, I was able to take things like jazz theory and improvisation in addition to the standard harmony and counterpoint classes. Jazz theory explored the rhythms and harmonies that make up this complex genre and the ear training and chord training I learned in the class were invaluable. We had to dictate 6 note polyphonic chords and identify what they called bi-tonals – these have helped me in dictation and transcription to this day. During this time I learned all about substitutions and upper extensions of chords, the so-called “color” tones that feel tense.
What drew me to jazz (and still does) is the intense contrast of tension to resolution. There’s something about a seventh chord with a flat 9th and 13th resolving to a major 7th chord that still gets me every time! These sounds and approaches to resolution work their way into my songs occasionally, but for the most part I’m writing folk, pop, or more classical music that is suitable for congregational singing. In the folk/pop genres, the chords and harmonies are very simple – that’s a defining mark of the genres.
2) How is your Hymns on God’s Attributes going? Have you recorded The Lord is Holy yet? Will each Hymn one be to the same tune?
Your question about this project is timely as Eric and I will be working on finishing draft versions of the hymns on Monday, October 5th. We have 8 attributes to go. Our desire for the project is to turn it into a small book that is devotional in nature. Each attribute will have a short introduction and we hope to include sheet music, a recording to sing with, and possibly application questions. The book would be great for private/family worship and the hymns could be useful for public worship as well.
We are currently trying to get a good, published author to join us and write the introductions, but so far have been unable to find one. If we cannot find another author Eric and I will write them ourselves. Once the work is finished we’ll contact publishers with our proposal, and if it is turned down we’ll simply self-publish it. Depending on how the publisher wants to protect the hymn texts, we may or may not be able to publish it freely on Reformed Praise; but I hope we can! We will probably not record someone singing each hymn since the tune and music are so widely known and yes, each hymn will be set to the same tune of A Mighty Fortress.
3) I see you play piano, saxophone, guitar, and you sing. Can you do all that while tapping your head and rubbing your belly too? Seriourly, that is a lot of talent. How do you wear so many hats at once?
There are several ways to look at this question. First, I know plenty of people who are far more talented than me – people who are professional multi-instrumentalists who write, arrange, produce, speak, and even homeschool. These are the people I tend to envy. One such person who I was able to meet when he put on a concert at our church is Michael Card. His musicianship just blew me away. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who have record albums and lead worship who have far less talent than me. These are the people I tend to look down on. Nothing good comes from looking at my talents through the lens of the talents of other people; only envy or pride.
The question that I hope will be more helpful to your readers for me to answer is “how does your abundance of talents affect your relationship with God?” You’ve already seen a hint at this answer by my admissions above. Because I have so many areas of giftedness and have a tendency to find my identity in how I use those gifts (especially when it comes to being creative and working on projects) I often pursue using my talents before pursuing knowing and loving God and before knowing and loving people. Rather than being an outflow of devotion to the Lord for His grace shown to me at the cross, I fall into believing that He’ll be pleased with me only if I write another “hit” or prove that I’m a hard worker by showing off all of the ways I’ve been “busy.” I know this about what motivates me before the Lord because that’s how I often feel before other people. When I’m in a bad mood, or just generally low, chances are that the idol of my productivity or achievements is not being served enough or is being threatened.
One of my favorite stories in the life of Jesus is the encounter with Mary and Martha in Luke 10. I’m a lot like Martha and need to remember Jesus’ instruction to turn from her distractions and remember the “one thing that is necessary,” seeking Jesus first. When this begins to happen, I work on songs or projects with a completely different motive. I remember once writing a song and feeling dejected that I had no one to show it (off) to. I was feeling hesitant to show it to those close to me because I’d appear to be showing off (which is inverted pride – I needed to remain humble in appearance). The Lord reminded me of how my own young children show me their works of creativity and how we put it up on the refrigerator, even though they are artistically terrible. It’s not their quality that drives me to put them up – it’s the fact that they made it for me and showed me because they love me. It dawned on me that God, my daddy, wants me to “show” him my songs – He wants me to write for Him first. It’s easy to say that but far harder to actually do it. And even though my songs and the motives behind them are tainted with sin and in the light of God’s creativity frankly suck, He rejoices in them because He accepts me on the basis of Jesus’ righteousness, not the quality of my works. So this long-winded answer is intended to simply say that I do indeed struggle with having many talents and ideas.
A more circumstantial answer to your question is that I’m not the best singer (my CD featured the amazing invention of vocal tuning) but am adequate for leading people in worship songs (I sing well enough to not distract). When I first started playing in public worship I didn’t sing since I didn’t have the skills to play and sing at the same time. I was almost singularly devoted to the saxophone for many years and only worked at the guitar and piano much later. Even now, I have to memorize most of the music so that I’m not distracted by reading notes, chords, AND lyrics at the same time. Memorizing has the added benefit of allowing me to look at the lyrics in paragraph form, which greatly helps me to think more deeply about them and be affected by them.
4) I understand you are quite fond of “Our Own Hymn-Book” published by Charles Spurgeon. What Hymnal would I find in the pews of your church? Are you happy with the pew hymnal at your church?
Our Own Hymn-Book is probably my favorite hymnal and the one I use most for songwriting fodder. You didn’t ask, but one of the main reasons I love it so much is because of the volume of hymns about the gospel and about intimacy with Jesus. It has sections like gospel invitations, gospel expostulations, gospel stated, gospel received, contrite cries, and even includes an entire section called “the Golden Book of Communion with Jesus.” When you look at modern hymnals you typically don’t find so many cross-centered songs.
We use the Trinity Hymnal, from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, although we rarely “use” them physically. Sometimes we’ll do a favorite hymn evening where we take requests, and sometimes we’ll do an a capella service (but the words are still on a screen). Each time we sing a song in the hymnal, the hymnal number is on the screen so that people can follow the music (if they know how). Nowadays I find that the vast majority of people can’t read music and many that say they do only follow the “up and downs” of the notes to help guide them and can’t read harmony. But, as hymnals go, I’m very pleased with this one. The arrangements are musically excellent and the text choices are doctrinally sound and much more full of content than many other hymnals today. In fact, many of the best hymns of Our Own Hymn-Book are in there but usually to a tune that we don’t know or, in my opinion, does not match the text.
5) What does your worship team look like? How many lead worship and what instruments do you use?
We have about 15 people who rotate according to their availability, so on a given Sunday we’ll have between 4 and 8 people. We have drums, a keyboardist, usually one vocalist (in addition to the leader singing the melody), a violinist, a mandolin player (who also plays banjo and Irish whistles), piano, and acoustic guitar. We haven’t had a regular bass player or electric guitarist in quite some time. We also have one other worship leader in addition to myself who leads occasionally and fills in for me when I’m away. You didn’t ask, but with this lineup of instruments we play everything from hymns in an orchestral style, hymn tunes with creative back-beat arrangements including jazz styles, modern worship songs, praise songs, black gospel styles (admittedly poorly especially since we don’t have a bass player!), and a fair amount of country/bluegrass strummin’. I lead from the piano (my favorite instrument to lead from) about two thirds of the time, and from the guitar the other third.

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