The false dichotomy of worship that fractures our churches into “traditional” and “contemporary” worshiping bodies has pitted old against new. This is detrimental in a multitude of ways, not the least of which is our congregational singing. I’ve written before about why we should be singing old songs. Here are a few reasons why we should be singing new songs, as well.
1. Time marches on. So does our story. Much of the church’s song repertoire was borne out of perseverance in trial, resolve in defeat, and thanksgiving in victory. There is always impetus for fresh creation in response to what’s happening in our lives and the world around us.
2. Gathered worship shouldn’t be a “current music only” hour, but it also shouldn’t be a “get-all-your-blue-haired-friends-together-and-sing-the-old-favorites-hour.” Traditional worship, back before it needed to be called “traditional,” always featured new songs. One of the lies of the contemporary worship movement is that worship is a homogeneous, exclusive endeavor that targets a specific generation. “Traditional” worship is for older people, “contemporary” is for everyone else. This mindset kills the church, even if the congregation is unaware. A church that prides itself on only featuring old favorites (or current hits) has chosen a toxic path. Call it a sing-along. Call it fellowship. Just don’t call it worship. We all must sing, and we all must sing hymns and songs that are unfamiliar.
3. We shouldn’t deprive those who come behind us of a rich musical inheritance. We are better for having the words of Watts and Wesley. Those who come after will be better for having our faith witness to connect, encourage, and inspire them.
4. The great Creator is still creating, still inspiring, still revealing. As divine image-bearers, it would therefore be tragic to cease our own creativity. There is much good poetry and melody still to be crafted.
5. Our churches are becoming more diverse. Our worship and faith are enriched by adopting the musical contributions of different cultures as our own. These may be chronologically new songs, or they may be newly introduced to us. Either way, opening our minds and mouths to different faith expressions can open our hearts to a fresh understanding of our faith.
6. As vast as our collection is, there are topical gaps to fill. Most hymnals have far too many songs of personal testimony, while sections like Holy Spirit, The Church, and Justice and Reconciliation are rather sparse. It is exceedingly important that we have good texts to proclaim for every theological category.
7. Worship is essentially and radically eschatological. By singing new songs, we continue to anticipate the death of death, the coming kingdom, and the ultimate resurrection. By refusing to sing anything new, we symbolically forget about the forward trajectory of Christ’s salvation.
8. We have yet to begin to grasp the great mystery of faith. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. The reality of God’s love and grace is greater than tongue or pen could ever tell. But we continue through the ages to try our best until the curse is finally broken.
As you search for newer material, here are some things to keep in mind.
Be willing to sift through the crap. Resist the urge to become a slave to the cool, the current, and the contemporary. Choose well. Most of the commercial worship music coming out of Nashville or Atlanta or Australia isn’t worth our time, money, and energy. Adopt only its very best, and move on. Hymn-writing is not a dead art. There are rich, beautiful, theologically dense texts still being written by pastors, theologians, and lay people. “New” doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s performed by a band and commercially marketed. Here are some examples:
Sing a healthy ratio of new to old. Using only new material makes for narcissistic, aimless, and self-referential worship. It commits the sin of chronological snobbery. It refuses to symbolically join in the unending hymn. And, of course, it either requires singing crappy new music, or singing the best new music far too often. If you sing three songs in a service, pick them from different centuries. Limit new material to a relatively small percentage.
Be a singing church. Sing often. Do the things that foster good, healthy singing. Replace the soloist with a choir. Build acoustically rich sanctuaries. Use as little amplification as possible. Bring the organ back into worship. These things will support, stretch and expand your congregation’s ability to sing our clear and strong. Teach your children to sing. While at first glance this might not seem to be as important a ministry program as Bible studies and small groups, it is. Make no mistake, congregational singing is a holy task, one that is worthy of our time and resources. In our society of gluttonous, indiscriminate music consumption, be a church of music-makers.
Sing new, as well as old.
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