As a professional musician and a Christian with at least a small amount of formal theological training, I am more than a little interested in the musical practices of the church, both within and beyond corporate worship. In a previous church I was asked to teach a short Sunday School series on music in worship, which was originally slated to last four weeks but wound up being expanded to six. (I later turned that material into a series of posts on this blog, see here, here, and here.) In my present church my direct musical involvement is, by my own choice, fairly limited, though I have assisted with formatting music for printing in the bulletin and have sometimes had a small amount of input with regard to selecting songs for corporate worship. As is the case in many churches, those discussions frequently involve choosing between those songs labeled “traditional” and “contemporary,” though both of those categories include multiple genres and are so generalized as to be almost unhelpful.
Happily, our congregation has eschewed both the rock concert atmosphere of some modern worship and the high church approach built around the organ and classical repertoire. Instead, the instrumentation and style are better described as folksy, an approach that facilitates congregational singing in multiple styles without the accompaniment becoming overwhelming or mind-numbingly commercial in tone. Except for a desire for more percussion from some quarters (we infrequently use a djembe or similar instrument but never drumset), the instrumentation used in corporate worship is rarely a point of controversy in the congregation. However, the choice of music is sometimes mildly so, with a decided preference for more contemporary melodies among younger congregants (and some not so young), and a similar love for traditional melodies among older folks. In both cases the texts selected are almost always doctrinally sound; even the contemporary tunes we use are usually resettings of older texts. Thus whatever the choice of tunes the most important aspect of congregational song, the communication of sound doctrine, is maintained. For that I am most thankful.
I share all of this not to air our church’s dirty laundry but to establish some context for my remarks. Besides, I am certain that the scenario I have described is very common, replicated in many conservative evangelical and Protestant churches in North America. While as a classical musician I have particular love for older music, I can understand the desire for contextualization which is often the motivation for a push for newer tunes. In the century and more since the development of commercial recordings our society has become one that almost entirely lacks communal song. Beyond the walls of the church we don’t sing together; we listen to “canned” music almost constantly, the presence of live performers being a rare treat. Whereas families once sang together for entertainment and fellowship, now they watch the television. Taverns that would once have been filled with the songs of joyful men at the end of the workday now play recorded music or the commentary from athletic events showing on the television. Professions where singing together while working was once common have been replaced with automation or, where still present, have the constant drone of the radio or television present. This loss of communal song is to our cultural impoverishment, but it is the situation in which we find ourselves.
In a society, then, where the act of singing together is already strange and uncomfortable, to sing the songs of past generations seems positively foreign, and the use of melodies which are somewhat similar to those heard (but rarely sung) in other contexts provides some familiarity and comfort. As T. David Gordon wrote in his 2010 book Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal, “We are surrounded by nearly ubiquitous pop music—so much so that nothing else really registers in our consciousness as music. If it is not accompanied by a guitar, if it is not accompanied by the predictable melodies and rhythms of pop culture, it just doesn’t seem like music.” (p.14) Gordon wrote these words in introducing his argument for restoring the place of traditional worship music, but the same words in a different context could be used to support a case for using contemporary tunes.
Though I have more than a little sympathy for Gordon’s point of view, I find myself unable to dismiss the desire—even the need—for contemporary musical expressions of the faith. To my trained ears even the traditional hymns that I love so much do not belong to some sort of timeless “church music” style, but each is easily placed in a particular historical context, and occasionally even in particular national, social, and ecclesiastical contexts. It is appropriate that modern writers find ways to express eternal truths in the musical styles of our own time and that we use the best of their works in corporate worship.
At the same time, though, we must avoid the conceit—which is bound up in the warp and woof of modern Western culture but foreign to Scripture—that everything new is by virtue of its newness better than everything old. There are some great new hymns, and some downright terrible ones. There were terrible old hymns, but the old songs that have remained in our hymnals have survived the intense vetting that only the passing of decades and centuries can provide. As I am so fond of reminding folks, Charles Wesley (1707-1788) wrote over 6,000 hymns, yet far fewer than 100 of them appear in modern hymnals. Why? Because only a small portion of them turned out to be enduringly great. Likewise, a precious few of our contemporary songs will endure through the generations, but most will fade into history. We should keep this in mind before we jettison several centuries’ worth of collected musical expressions of faith in favor of that which will soon pass away.
Even more importantly, let us learn to take joy in singing the same songs that Christians of decades and centuries past sang. When we sing the old songs we not only praise our God and instruct one another in the truths of our faith, but we also affirm our connection with those who came before us, those who are with us members of the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” spoken of in the Nicene Creed, those with whom we will one day join in singing around the throne of God forever. Singing older melodies that are unfamiliar to us can sometimes be challenging, but the challenge is worthwhile.
Christians, ours is an old faith, and we are bound together with both our forebears and, God willing, our descendants in the service of our common Lord. Let us not orphan ourselves—let us not cut ourselves off from our forefathers by dismissing their songs and their texts as dated. Rather, let us use that which is best of both the past and present to praise His name and edify His church.