In with the old, in with the new

I became aware about a decade ago that our young people no longer know the old songs. They generally sing “contemporary” songs with vigor, but sit silent when many older, “traditional” songs are offered.

Let’s be clear: I am not arguing that traditional songs are better. There are many older songs that lack sufficient biblical content or whose music is not well suited to the words. If a song does not live up to spiritual expectations, new or old, it should probably fade into disuse.

All old songs were new once; all new songs will be old one day.

Yet if we accept the unwritten rule that only songs written in the last five years should be sung, then what will we do in five years time? Eradicate the songs we’re singing right now?

Does it matter?

I believe it does. I believe a great part of our congregations’ spiritual nutrition derives from the songs we sing. Our songs teach. They allow Christ’s words to “dwell in us richly” (Colossians 3:16). In song we “teach and admonish each other” (Ephesians 5:19).

In other words, the song leader bears a responsibility similar to that of the preacher, and one just as heavy. What does this congregation need to know about Deity, our responsibilities to God, and to each other? A good song leader will be able to select from a broad selection of hymns that do this job. He might ask himself, do I know a good selection of hymns on the cross, or the church? On our love for each other? Or God’s love for us? To limit himself to one genre of songs would be to limit his ability to “teach and admonish” the brethren he serves.

Such songs therefore must be rooted in biblical thought. We need to ask better questions of a song than whether it is new or old.

There have been two thousand years of hymns sung since the arrival of Christ. Three thousand years if we count the Psalms. A good song leader will spend some time thinking about the songs before him, asking whether they are biblical, elegantly expressed, whether the music lifts the words to greater heights.

We hurt senior saints when we snatch from them the songs that have fed and nourished their hearts; we hurt younger saints when we demand that “only” traditional songs be sung.

Sometimes I lead a song that is so old … it seems new to modern singers.
Christians have a rich heritage of hymns from which to draw; let’s not succumb to chronological amnesia. Every generation provides new songs that enrich what we already have; neither should we succumb to an aversion to the new just because it is new.

Song leaders, we have another, more important agenda; let’s feed our congregations by our thoughtful selection of songs. Let’s do what Paul suggested: Do “everything” for the purpose of “edification” (1 Corinthians 14:26).

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Stan Mitchell

Stan has preached since 1976, in Zimbabwe, California, Texas and Tennessee. He serves as preacher for the Red Walnut Church of Christ in Bath Springs, TN. He is currently Professor of Bible at Freed-Hardeman University. He is married to the former Marjorie McCarthy, and has one daughter, Tracy Watts. He is the author of four books: The Wise Get Wiser, the Foolish More Foolish: The Book of Proverbs, Give the Winds a Mighty Voice: Our Worship in Song, and Equipping the Saints for Ministry. He has recently published another book, "Will Our Faith Have Children: Developing Leadership in the Church for the Next Generation.

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