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Easter sings anew
Easter Sunday for some people is all about candy, colored eggs and the universal celebration of spring.

But for many whose holiday is all about Jesus, crucified and resurrected, suffering and triumphant, Easter has a voice.

It comes to life in songs that resonate in body and soul as believers join in the essential story of Christian redemption.

And this spring, Easter's sound is new — and old — all at once as three major trends in Christian music hit a seasonal high note:

• Several leading Christian bands and singers are reaching back generations to give traditional hymns a modern styling or spirited new arrangements.

• A growing number of churches are skipping the extravagant Easter passion plays or pageants that turn worshipers into observers in favor of mini-pageants with a singalong approach.

• The same urge to raise your own voice, however humble, on Sunday mornings that has led to a boom in the praise-and-worship song movement now has some of the most Christian songwriters writing uplifting Easter lyrics.

Hymns are the vocal equivalent of stained glass. They have served across centuries to glorify God, teach and celebrate the faith and shed light on every life. They might be songs arising from ancient ceremonies and liturgies or lyrics born of the experiences, struggles and hopes of believers.

Now at least 15 albums are in the works or in stores, featuring updated hymns, many by "seasoned Christian artists with some credibility and some leeway to dust off old songs that may not signal commercial success," says arts writer Gregory Rumburg. He examines hymn revival in a story in the March issue of CCM Magazine, which covers contemporary Christian music.

"These artists are well schooled in the history of the church, and they have the standing now to try something that has always been done in the church: Tap the older stuff and bring it forward for relevancy today," Rumburg says. Even the hippest "emerging church" congregations seek the authenticity of traditions, "but they want them reimagined and refreshed."

Most of these albums appeal to an evangelical audience.

Members of roots-rocking Jars of Clay zero in on Jesus' sacrificial death washing away their sins in a thunderous rendition of Nothing but the Blood with gospel quintet Blind Boys of Alabama. It's on Jars' newest album, Redemption Songs, released Tuesday, and it features theologically rich hymns and spirituals with Jars' arrangements.

Dan Hazeltine, lead singer for the Grammy- and Dove Award-winning quartet, wanted this Easter season to draw on the proven power of lyrics the band found in stacks of hymnals, rather than writing upbeat "commercials for God."

"We want lyrics that remind us, 'Why am I going to church? Why am I drawn to worship?' The great hymns talk about man's depravity and God's greatness and how God bridges that gap," he says.

"You read the stories of hymn writers who were always grappling with how the gospel meets suffering, pain, frustration and doubt. Hymns are their response. There's a richness in their works because they are wrestling with it all. They are not people — we are not people — who have figured it all out."

The challenge of living as Jesus taught has inspired the group to do something different with this album, Hazeltine says. Jars of Clay is donating a dollar from every ticket sold for its Redemption Songs concert tour to a project to build and repair 1,000 wells in urban and rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa. The project is called Blood:Water Mission to echo Easter's message.

"This is music where we go to God, admit we don't have simple answers and give ourselves up," Hazeltine says.

The music of memory

The musical trend isn't exclusively evangelical. On her newest album, Hymns, country pop songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman focuses on the classic spiritual music of her Catholic childhood. The author of hits such as This Kiss for Faith Hill sings in Latin such familiar music as Salve Regina.

The urge to update traditional hymns may be catching on because it starts with the sounds of a childhood in church and brings in "a new musical bridge and contemporary arrangements with an acoustic rock base," says David Guthrie of Word Music, which creates and publishes church music resources.

"There's nothing weird or wild about it. This isn't ska or heavy metal or screaming."

Among Word's products is choir music for churches presenting passion plays and pageants with vast casts of actors and choristers.

'Pageants in a box'

But there are more choices than ever for the churchgoer who wants a participatory Easter service rather than a staged event. A growing number of small and start-up churches without the time or resources for a major musical theater event are staging "pageant-in-a-box" singalong services that require just a handful of volunteers and minimal technology.

Word produces kits such as last year's mini-pageant Eyes of Faith, and this year's kit with new songs, Believe, both finalists in the upcoming Dove Awards. The productions use Hollywood actors playing Bible characters in modern dress, who speak of their roles in the pivotal Easter story in ways that relate to a modern listener.

"The whole production runs off a DVD with a live choir and narrator tied in. Throughout, there are songs with lyrics on the screen for everyone to join in," Guthrie says.

One kit buyer is the Rev. Robert Worsham, music director for Henry Baptist Church in McDonough, Ga., which will present Eyes of Faith on Easter. He liked the use of actors in modern dress because it "makes you realize that the people around Christ were normal people with fears and concerns who didn't always understand what we look back upon and understand now."

But what counts most to him is "audience participation, which you don't have in pageants."

"I stopped doing Easter pageants a long time ago. A lot of larger churches put on an incredible pageant, and I didn't want to be competing with that for an audience for one morning a year. When you sing it yourself, it causes you to look at Easter differently."

'You blow the doors off'

Pageant or not, Easter is the most carefully programmed service of the church year, Guthrie says. "There's an arcto the Easter story that ends with 'Hallelujah! He has risen!' and you blow the doors off at this point."

Many churches will choose the enduring songs of generations, such as the Charles Wesley classic Christ the Lord Is Risen Today or Alfred Ackley's 1930s He Lives with its familiar refrain: "He walks with me, and talks with me, along life's narrow way."

But others will take on the ancient holiday with a modern song, such as the calypso-tinged anthem Crown You With Praise, sung by Natalie Grant. It's written to fit on the projection screens so popular in many contemporary churches that no longer use hymnals but rely on newer praise and worship songs.

The bulk of this category of Christian music, led by contemporary artists such as Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman and Paul Baloche, is intended for weekly worship. Baloche says he designs every song with the idea that "anyone could grab a guitar, play three chords and sing. You don't sit on the sidelines and watch the professionals do it."

That's why Baloche says he's taken on the challenge of Easter music in songs such as Above All and All the Earth Will Sing Your Praises. "We can't have too many songs that describe in fresh ways the death and resurrection of Jesus."

All the Earth packs the Gospel into scant monosyllabic lines: "You lived, you died. You said in three days you would rise. You did, you're alive. You rule, you reign. You said you're coming back again. I know you will."

He avoids doctrine in an effort to be both "insightful and accessible," says Baloche, who grew up Catholic and now worships at a non-denominational church in Lindale, Texas, where services center on Bible study and singing.

"I've heard it said we will probably only remember a handful of sermons in our lifetime, but the average person will remember hundreds and hundreds of songs. Many of us base our theology on the songs we sing, so it's important we sing the truth over and over and that we sing collectively," he says.

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