Retuned Hymns, Songwriting, Worship Theology with Cardiphonia’s Bruce Benedict

by Bobby Gilles

in Interviews,Songwriting/Hymn Workshop,Worship Leading

Logo for Bruce Benedict's Cardiphonia ( and I love introducing you to good music for the universal Church at My Song In The Night, and letting songwriters and worship pastors share their wisdom with you. So today I’m excited to bring you this interview with the founder of Cardiphonia, Bruce Benedict (Worship and community life director at Christ the King, Raleigh). I’ll also share several Cardiphonia songs with you, so if you are reading on RSS, click over the the website to hear these “re:tuned hymns” for the Church.

Cardiphonia is an innovative collaboration of worship artists across the U.S. who work together to produce new arrangements of hymns and songs that proclaim the full, rich gospel of Jesus and the work of our triune God.

Bobby Gilles: How did you get the idea for Cardiphonia, and how has that idea evolved? Did you always intend to have the various kinds of resources you currently have, and the compilation music records with many different artists and worship ministries?

Bruce Benedict: The name for Cardiphonia came from a collection of pastoral letters John Newton (the famous hymn-writer of Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds) published.  I was inspired by John Newton’s holistic approach to worship in his church.  He would often write a hymn to go along with his sermons…and at the time I was really distressed by the fact that I couldn’t find any pastors who would write hymns/lyrics for me.

But more broadly I was coming out of a seminary background with an M.Div and a commitment to feed God’s people not from the pulpit but from all the other elements of worship (the music, liturgy, order of worship, sacraments,) and I needed a home to collect, sift, and curate all of the stuff I was working with from a worship ministry perspective. Cardiphonia has become that not just for me but also for a lot of other folks trying to figure out how to lead worship that is pastorally contextual, evangelical, Reformed, historically informed and artistically compelling.

Bobby Gilles: What do you say to a pastor or worship leader who says “Hymns won’t work in my context. People here want new music”?

Bruce Benedict: I’ve been reading through Jamie Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom getting ready for the Calvin Worship Symposium coming up.  In the book he talks a good deal about how our world does a better job of recognizing and forming our desires than we often realize.  And how the church needs to begin to treat people as more than heads on sticks.  Our worship/music ministries really reveal this.  People want new music in church constantly because that is largely what we are used to being fed by the world.  Even my work-week is typically filled with the latest album and records coming out.

I often ask pastors and worship leaders to think about how they view and use the Bible.  It is both an ancient document and a modern language.  It is an ancient and eternal truth communicated to us through modern means and technology.  We should treat our worship ministries and our people with the same wisdom.  We need to communicate to our people in music that both communicates the unchanging, eternal truth of scripture with a present means.

Certain hymns do have sacred cow status in the church but in the big picture we should feed people with music that has enough staying power to truly feed and support their souls and not just cater to momentary whims.

Bobby Gilles: As a songwriter, how do you keep coming up with melodies for hymn texts (since so many hymns have the same meter(s)?

Bruce Benedict: It truly is amazing how many different tunes have been written to the major hymn meters such as Common Meter ( and variations on  The two main things I do to keep things fresh is to write music to as many different kinds of meter as possible and to research and explore the various ‘countries’ of folk music that have fed into church music.  Each of these worlds has a different body of melodies that feed off of major or minor keys and various time signatures (3/4, 6/8, 4/4) which all produced very different sounding melodies.

Recently I have been into ‘shape-note’ music.  This is an old American body of church music that is connected to the earliest American settlers from the British Isles.  Today you find it in communities off the Appalachian ridge.  These tunes are totally different than most hymn tunes we are used too.  They are almost exclusively in minor keys and often in driving ¾ and 6/8 meters.  We’ve found they work really well in our folk-rock vein.

Like in most art, you tend to produce the richness of what you take in.  If you are serious about writing great congregational song then you have to familiarize yourself with all of the various musical traditions that have produced great congregational music.

Bobby Gilles: What do you think is the relative importance or balance in the relationship between singable tunes and interesting tunes?

Bruce Benedict: Great Question! This is something I’ve been wrestling with a lot lately. Especially as I’ve realized that what will sound great on a recording isn’t always what will work well for corporate singing…and I think we have to be honest about how each approach requires a different mindset when we sit down to song write.

Because so much of what we are writing is also what we are thinking about, in terms of recording, we can get ourselves into trouble. I think this often provides much of the rub, too, between what we like to sing and what we want to write to record.  This is a tension we need to talk and think about a lot more…especially in terms of being intentional about how we write.

So much of our life is spent listening to music and we are often hard wired to think about what kind of music sounds interesting to us.  Thinking about what is singable is a lot harder.  I often chart out songs I’m working on in a notation software as part of helping me to think through ‘singability’.  I also preview a lot of new songs in monthly potlucks with my musicians where we talk through new songs.

Bobby Gilles: How do you produce cohesive-sounding projects, when the songs come from so many different sources?

Bruce Benedict: You think they’ve been cohesive?  That’s really encouraging!  Most of the groups that we’ve been working with so far come out of a folky mix and I haven’t done too much to curate the ‘sound’ of the projects.  I have tried to give them a pretty tight thematic focus that I think helps to compensate when you have so many different groups contributing.  All of these songs have been recorded in their own contexts, often in basic home studies.

Bobby Gilles: What kind of engineering/production standards do you enforce?

Bruce Benedict: None. I simply ask people to send me the best recording they can in WAV or AIF.   After I get the majority of the songs in I will ask some people to tweak their recordings or I’ll do some minor EQ and mastering.  The budget for these albums has only been $500 each!

Bobby Gilles: Tell me about the Songwriting & Theology class you took at Duke Divinity School. Has that been helpful?

Bruce Benedict: The class was tremendous in forcing me to intentionally think through how I write songs.  There was a major theological topic that we addressed each week through the work of a particular hymn writer (Watts, Wesley, etc).  Then we had to write 1-2 verses reflecting on the topic and the class would spend time reflecting and critiquing everyone’s verses.  It was a little unfair for me because most of the class were students and I was the only one working in the church but we had a really good time.

The class was great because it was like having an intense co-writing session with some of the church’s most talented and brilliant theologians and lyricists.

One of the things the professor Lester Ruth hopes to do is host summer conferences where church songwriters can spend a week hanging out with various theologians with the purpose of writing songs on under-developed theological themes (The Trinity, Atonement, Ascension, etc).

Bobby Gilles: How does theology shape and inform songwriting technique? For example, what would you say to a talented lyricist who comes up with a line that is incredible, from a songwriting standpoint, but is murky in terms of theology?

Bruce Benedict: Professor Ruth loved to constantly remind our class that poetry is important because it is often a better vehicle for expressing complex and difficult theological ideas than prose.  And because that is true we should expect a lot more moments of ‘murky’ theology in songwriting.   This doesn’t excuse us from working really hard to write theologically true songs but it should free us from having to say ‘everything’ in every song.

Sometimes theologians love to pick on particular songs…but it’s better to look at the big picture of a songwriter’s work, or a church’s whole repertoire. Certainly the Psalms are a great model for us in this.  They speak the language of God’s heart and often say things that are difficult to put into rigorous theological prose.

Album cover for Shorter Catechism vol 1 by Bruce BenedictBobby Gilles: Your “Shorter Catechism” project is interesting. I’d suspect that most evangelicals today aren’t familiar with the word “Catechism,” or they have a vague notion that it’s some sort of Catholic thing. What’s the value in Catechism, and why put Catechism Q&A’s to music?

Bruce Benedict: The shorter catechism project started as a dare while I was in seminary.  At Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando we had to memorize portions of the shorter catechism for graduation.  Since I was one of the ‘worship guys’ a friend said I should write music to them to help with memorization.  I thought it was a great idea and took a shot at it.  It’s turned into an awesome songwriting exercise and has become a huge hit in the ordination and home school markets.  The 2nd CD covering questions on the sacraments and the Lord’s Prayer will be out in February.

Bobby Gilles: In 2011 you released two major compilations for free, or “Name your price”: Pentecost Songs and Songs for the Supper, a record of communion hymns. What do you have planned for 2012 and beyond?

Calvin Symposium on Worship 2012 bannerBruce Benedict: The long-term goal is to release two collections a year.  While the list is ever-evolving the plan for 2012 is to produce a ‘short songs’ collection (doxologies, kyrie’s, etc) what I like to call ancient-contemporary worship songs and then a collection for Advent/Christmas in 2012.  Other projects in the bucket list include songs for the Book of Revelation, The Psalms, Call to Worship songs, Songs for the Atonement, and a collection of retuned children’s hymns.

Eventually we will have this massive cloud-sourced digital hymnal.  The trick for us going forward is learning how to become the best curators we can be.  I’m amazed at the number of new hymnish projects coming out right now and we are working hard to network with these folk to contribute to future collaborations.   We’re also hoping that various regions produce their own collections (see HERE for a great example of what I hope happens more often).

I’m also excited to be joining up with Kevin Twit, founder of Indelible Grace, Sandra McCracken, Isaac Wardel of Bifrost Arts, and Sojourn’s own Mike Cosper in January at the 2012 Calvin Symposium on Worship to discuss the future of this theologically-fueled songwriting movement.

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