The RUF / Indelible Grace tune and arrangement of this 18th century hymn is inferior to the the 17th century tune and should never be preferred for use in formal, corporate worship. The hymn itself is well written and should definitely be used in corporate worship with the original tune.
“Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder” is a hymn written by John Newton in 1774 and it is usually set, as in the Trinity Hymnal, to the tune “All Saints Old” from 1698. The traditional arrangement may be heard here, although the microphone in that recording suffers from a lag as sound travels from the organist (close to the mic) to the congregation (further away).
The Indelible Grace / RUF version of this hymn, composed by Laura Taylor, may be heard here. The youtube video linked has the version that I have experienced in corporate worship in a college town with a vibrant RUF chapter. The college students seem familiar with this arrangement, and so I’ll assume this is the way the hymn is sung at RUF chapters throughout the country.
The hymn itself is well written. Newton apparently wrote six verses, but the Trinity Hymnal has five. The RUF/Indelible Grace version has six verses, but their last verse is credited to Michael Lyman and it is completely different than Newton’s last verse, though both are fine lyrically and theologically. The text points us to the fact that the whole point of the sacrificial system is to be brought near to God. While the temple existed, this was through the sacrifice of animals who were cut up, barbecued, and then consumed by God (through smoke) and by the worshippers who came to be at peace with him. We are the animals. The first verse emphasizes how all this has changed and that we are, in Christ, washed like the animals were (baptized), and brought near to God by Christ’s death, resurrection, and session. The second verse points to the justification that is ours – the verdict of righteousness that Jesus has and we, in him, have. It also deals with the new life and the new eyes we have by the Spirit of Christ. The third verse is about perseverance, the fourth about justification again, and the fifth about the communion of the saints. The sixth, in the RUF version is a kind of confession of sins. Newton’s sixth is a confession of our weakness in praise. This makes the hymn itself a natural fit between the confession of sins and the sermon. After a confession of sins, we can respond by praising God’s mighty arm of salvation and then even there, our gratitude falls short and we are taught to return to him for instruction. It is probably cleaner, thematically, to drop the last verse altogether, however, and just use the remaining five verses as a response to the confession of sins. As in the Christian life, in worship we move from praise to confession to absolution to thankfulness to rest (instruction), to communion, and then calling out into the world. For a worship service, hymns serve as responses (and can serve as calls), and so the more relevant a response is to its stimulus the better the service flows logically.
The RUF tune is informal. It repeats the first clause of the last verse in each stanza three times and builds tension up to the resolution in the second clause of the verse. This gives it a chorus of sorts and puts it more into the idiom of popular music. Often a percussion instrument moves from a syncopated beat in the verses to hitting quarter notes to the beat on the chorus. The tune, like many RUF tunes, encourages the guitarist to play very rapidly but results in a much slower tempo for the song (and the singers). The traditional hymn played at a good fast tempo takes about three minutes to sing. The RUF version clocks in at about 5 minutes. Partly this is because, as in a lot of pop music, there is a necessary musical fill after each chorus. Often, I think the RUF tunes are this way because they were written by guitarists and the lack of energy in the singing is not obvious when you are strumming rapidly.
The original tune, from the late 17th century, is easy to remember and congregations can sing it very energetically. The last verse of each stanza has a wonderful lift and repetition of the note for “he has washed.” Having experienced both tunes in a congregational setting of similar size and age range, the 17th century tune results in much louder, more energetic singing. The RUF version drags a bit and its irregular phrasing is more challenging to sing with one voice.
The basic choice facing a pastor who is planning a worship service is to ensure that each hymn properly responds to God’s call in that part of the service, that the tune fits the lyrics, that the tune fits the mood of the response (praises should not drone). A further consideration is, when there is more than one tune for the hymn available, to use the best one. In the context of corporate worship, a more formal tune is better, a tune that is easier to sing with one voice is better, and a tune that moves/doesn’t drag is better. “All Saints Old” is simply a better tune for corporate worship than the Indelible Grace tune.
It would always be a missed opportunity to sing the “All Saints Old” tune if a church opts for the Indelible Grace version of this hymn. The verdict is clear: use the RUF version for informal settings, like an RUF large group meeting, when you don’t have a pianist or well-trained guitarist to accompany the group. In a worship setting, however, that occurs at a much higher level of formality and for which there is usually a well trained musical staff, the 17th century tune should be preferred. It will result in louder singing, more energy, and greater participation. It will also save a few minutes of liturgical time.