An important, yet often neglected, reason to update hymn arrangements relates to chord structures and patterns. Updating a song, or becoming more relevant, is not merely a matter of instrumentation. Simply adding guitar and drums does not make a hymn contemporary. In fact, many of the hymns were composed for piano or organ, so we can do them a disservice by simply swapping instrumentation.
Arrangements need to be flexible. In the music world, arrangements are part of the “language,” just as authors vary their sentence structures. We need to be cognizant of this as musicians — not berating people for being born in a different time period, but being sensitive to how culture has changed. We cannot expect someone born in 1998 to speak the musical language of the 1730’s, and if we do, we are being elitist.
Certain chords (e.g., diminished chords) just aren’t as common in popular music these days, and it can sometimes create an extra barrier that prevents people from focusing on the lyrics of our worship songs. For that reason, it’s beneficial to rearrange hymns, so that more people can appreciate them — even if they are slightly updated.
Of course, we should not limit ourselves to I, IV, V chords. While we should slowly experiment and try to teach congregations different styles, we cannot force it upon them. As with any language, it is necessary to start with what people already speak and gradually teach the new language.