My first experience with RUF was the summer conference at Panama City Beach in 1994. I have very fond memories of that trip. That conference was also my first exposure to RUF music. I had been in youth groups, sung on praise teams, and listened to countless hours of contemporary Christian music, but RUF music was distinctly different. The melodies were easy to sing and beautiful to listen to, but the words were absolutely wonderful. The first two RUF hymns that I learned were Psalm 130 and Give to the Wind Thy Fears. Here is the first stanza of Psalm 130:
From the depths of woe I raise to Thee
The voice of lamentation;
Lord, turn a gracious ear to me
And hear my supplication;
If Thou iniquities dost mark,
Our secret sins and misdeeds dark,
O who shall stand before Thee?
And Give to the Wind Thy Fears:
Give to the winds thy fears,
Hope and be undismayed.
God hears thy sighs and counts thy tears,
God will lift up,
God will lift up
God will lift up thy head
These hymns were so moving. I was so impressed by the rich vocabulary. These were not typical praise songs. I couldn’t wait to learn more. What I discovered was that there was a move within RUF to bring old hymns, many almost forgotten, back into use, some with new music. Men such as Chris Miner, Darwin Jordan, and Brian Habig were instrumental in this new venture. Kevin Twit helped take the RUF hymns to a much wider audience.
When Kevin Twit came to Belmont University to be the RUF campus minister, Brian Habig gave him an old hymnal and told him to start there. The idea was to think pastorally about the music being sung at RUF. Brian Habig wrote an article, “Thoughts on RUF’s Philosophy of Singing, Song Choice, and Leading,” in which he said:
Worship at its core is the proclamation of the glories of the One to whom such activity is due. Note the language of the worship of Jesus Christ presently occurring in heaven: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (Rev.5: 12). We are proclaiming and rejoicing in His “worth-ship” (from which our word “worship” is derived).
Accordingly, this has implications for the sorts of songs that we make use of as a ministry. It is not enough that a song merely mentions God or Jesus Christ, or that it picks up on biblical themes about Christian living. We strive to use those songs that are lyrically God-centered rather than man-centered. In addition, we strive to use God-centered songs that are theologically strong and substantial in their content (the more God-centered they are, the more this should hold true!). This accounts for why R.U.F. tends to make use of hymns more than gospel songs, psalms more than choruses. We welcome gospel songs and choruses that are God-centered and substantial in content, but we also strive not to compromise our standards in the interest of what is easier.
Part of bringing old hymns back into use has been setting them to new music. Kevin Twit explains:
We desire to teach our students about the songs of the church and to value the wonderful heritage we have in the hymns. But we also want to encourage our students to build on the tradition. We have been thrilled to see a movement gaining momentum – a movement to help the church recover the tradition of putting old hymns to new music for each generation, and to enrich our worship with a huge view of God and His indelible grace. We have found through years of ministering to college students that there is a real hunger to connect with something real and solid, something that is ancient, yet full of passion. Putting old hymns to new music allows us to hear afresh the rich theology and emotion that fill these hymns.
In addition to a love for music and reformed hymns, Kevin Twit brought with him a background in recording. This, in addition to Belmont’s location in Nashville, TN, allowed Kevin to bring together a unique group of people. In 2000, Belmont University’s RUF produced the first Indelible Grace album. The first album included many of the favorite hymns: Come Ye Sinners; Arise, My Soul, Arise; O Love that Will Not Let Me Go; and Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul. It introduced the world to the talents of Derek Webb and Sandra McCracken, among others. Indelible Grace, named for a line from Toplady’s hymn, “A Debtor to Mercy Alone,” has gone on to produce five more albums.
The influence of Indelible Grace and the RUF hymns is hard to deny. Many churches have begun to sing RUF versions of hymns as part of their worship services. This is no doubt in part due to the numbers of RUF graduates who have gone on to become members in PCA churches around the country.
The RUF hymns have also had a considerable influence on the contemporary Christian music scene as well. Derek Webb is a founding member of Caedmon’s Call. Along with his wife, Sandra McCracken, Derek has helped to bring a love of hymns and Reformed doctrine to the forefront of Christian music. Recently Jars of Clay released an album of hymns, Redemption Songs, which draws on the RUF hymnal for inspiration.
I had the honor of speaking with Kevin Twit while I was preparing this article. He told me that one of his proudest moments was the RUF hymn sing at last year’s General Assembly. Kevin Twit, Sandra McCracken, Derek Webb, Michael Smith, and many others led the singing of RUF hymns at the sold-out Ryman Auditorium. On his blog, Kevin Twit wrote about the meaning of that night:
It is hard for me to describe what the night meant for me as a campus minister with RUF. I love RUF and love my job (except for support-raising, but that’s a topic for another day.) I have been working with RUF at Belmont since I graduated seminary in 1995 and I still think it one of the most vital ministries going. Rod Mays, the current national coordinator for RUF wrote me a couple days after the hymn sing: “Kevin: This has to be the greatest thing in the history of RUF. On Thursday after the hymn sing, I couldn’t walk 10 feet without someone stopping me and commenting on the evening. Many were saying that it was the best thing that has ever happened at a General Assembly. It was not only a “cool” event, in a “cool” place, it was a deeply spiritual event. Thanks to all of you for the best event that I can ever remember in my 34 General Assemblies. We will be talking about this for years!!!!! Rod” I was so thrilled to be able to give such a gift to RUF – the single most important influence on my growth as a minister of the gospel. Mark Lowry, the founder of RUF, was so moved afterwards that he couldn’t even speak—though those of you that know Mark know it doesn’t take much to make him cry But the next day I chatted with him and he (in his typical fashion) had deeply analyzed the event and the “take-away” for people that were there that came from the music, the videos we played, and even just the way people saw the artists enjoying each other. He said what people will take away from this is that RUF builds a community of people on a campus that carries on for years—and it builds a deep desire for gospel substance. Yes! And I think people got to see that in a powerful way that night. And it was a deeply unifying event for our denomination. As many of you probably know, we had the hymn sing in the middle of the PCA General Assembly that was in Nashville. It was a God-ordained blessing because the Ryman is literally across the street from where the assembly was being held and it was available the only night that would have worked with the assembly schedule. People from all the various camps in the PCA were able to join in praise for a little taste of heaven that night. There was a row of older folks sitting in the balcony waving their canes to the music high above their heads, and there were two of my kids, Isaac and Amelia singing their little hearts out too.
The RUF hymns have become such an important part of my life, and that of my family. We sang RUF hymns at our wedding, at our daughter’s funeral, and our oldest son’s baptism. The Indelible Grace albums are the ones I reach for most often in the car. I hope this article will encourage others to find out more about these hymns and awaken a love for music that instructs and nourishes.
The RUF Hymnbook is available online with lead sheets and piano music. All of the Indelible Grace albums are available here. A documentary that includes scenes from the Ryman hymn sing is also available.