‘Extremely blessed’: Waco church records album with rare 1700s hymns to provide hope in a difficult season

Grace Church in Waco recorded Olney Hymns to provide hope to those struggling through a difficult season that included navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. SUBMITTED PHOTO

WACO—A season of isolation, loss, and mourning during the COVID-19 pandemic led a Waco church to focus on the Scripture-inspired words of two well-known hymnists who long ago found hope amidst trials.

Grace Church in Waco last year recorded an album with hymns written in the late 18th century by John Newton and William Cowper for the English parish of Olney, where Newton resided. Newton and Cowper wrote more than 340 hymns, but Grace Church chose nine unique ones that reflected the somber mood of the pandemic season. Although most of those nine hymns are obscure to the modern ear, they’re no less theologically rich than their more popular cousin, Amazing Grace, which Newton also penned.

Drake Osborn, pastor of teaching and liturgy at Grace Church, said the idea began with a simple question: How can we encourage our members during the lockdown?

“We wanted to spend some time writing music that would be specifically for them and the season that we were in,” Osborn said. “We looked through the [hymns by Newton and Cowper] and … focused our attention on the ones related to our own kind of darkness and suffering and the response to the light of the cross of Christ.”

The album was recorded in front of a live audience at the church and was named The Olney Hymns: Suffering and Living In the Shadow of the Cross. It can be accessed and purchased through the church’s website, on Spotify, or on Apple Music. Proceeds support foster care and adoption services in Waco.

Incredibly, the church’s band and musicians—all volunteers—composed the arrangements for nine of the songs.

Luke Garst, a volunteer who plays guitar on the album, said it took nearly a full year to choose the songs, compose arrangements, and then to record the album.

The talent of the volunteers was a surprise—and a blessing.

“It turned out that some of our band leaders who lead the congregation on Sunday [also] dabble in songwriting, so a couple of them came up with super-creative melodies and chord progressions,” Garst said. “We have some really creative volunteers in our church.”

The lyrics, Garst said, are “beautiful” and “theologically rich,” covering “the entire spectrum of the Christian life.”

One such hymn, “Looking to the Cross,” takes the singer on a gospel-centered journey, beginning with man’s depravity (“in evil long I took delight”) before it turns to Christ’s sacrifice (“I saw my sins His blood had spilt, and helped to nail Him there”) and concludes with gratitude (“while His death fully displays, the depths of all my shame; such is the mystery of grace, the cross replaced my blame!”).

A second hymn, “Hebrews 13,” spotlights the power Christ provides in the midst of trials (“We trust all God’s ways are peace, and his promises are sure; He works through us in Christ, in his life we live secure”). Cowper was known to suffer from depression.

The experience of recording the album, Garst said, is still impacting the congregation, with a handful of the hymns being regularly sung during worship services.

“It was such a pleasure to be a part of,” Garst said. “We’re a very small church—a little blip on the map. It was really special to record songs for a congregation to sing. I think it’s special for them, too. … It’s really just to bless our church and hopefully bless other churches.”

The arrangements, Osborn said, are available for other churches to use. (Osborn suggested e-mailing or phoning the church office for more information.)

“More churches should consider doing work like this, whether it’s writing their own original music or reworking music that’s been passed down. It was just a really helpful exercise,” Osborn said. “The congregation was extremely blessed that our musicians had an outlet for their artistry. If that’s something that exists in your church, then that is something I would recommend for sure.”

 

TEXAN Correspondent
Michael Foust
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