Well, it has happened: In the so-called “worship wars,” the advocates of contemporary worship have won. I can see it in your young people who now know none of the songs written more than twenty years ago. I see it when I lead a song in my college classes; they simply don’t know the old songs. Their faces fall, and they remain silent, motionless.
It’s not their fault.
And before you cease reading this, no, I am not in opposition to singing modern, contemporary hymns. Many of them are quite good, very biblical, and will nourish the hearts of a generation.
Nor am I advocating that we sing “There’s Not a Friend Like the Lowly Jesus” at the most ponderous pace we can muster. There are many hymns in our hymnbooks that frankly, are not very good. (I’ll talk later about how we might arrive at some criteria for what makes a song a good song).
Is it really so that there are only two types of songs, those written in the last five years, and those written in the last 2,000 years? Then what happens in the next five years? Do we abandon even the good songs we are singing right now? By its very nature, the pool of the last five years will be shallow, and the pool of the last 2,000 is, as the woman at Sychar put it, “the well is deep” (John 4:11).
You may say that I am angry. I am not. I am heartbroken. Not just because we are losing a legacy as rich as a Mozart harmony, but because our ability to “teach and admonish” our churches is hampered (Colossians 3:16). Singing the same 20 songs over and over again is akin to a preacher who delivers sermons on only five or six topics. The result would be spiritual malnutrition.
I care too much about the feeding and nourishment of our churches to remain silent on this. For far too long this conversation has taken on an either-or nature, a winner-take-all attitude. We either sing exclusively “contemporary” or exclusively “traditional” songs.
A number of years ago I sat with some college students singing a variety of songs. They sang a particular song and a student whispered to me: Do you like that new song?” I did. But I told him, “It’s actually a very old song. It comes from the 125th Psalm. In other words, it’s at least 3,000 years old.”
I suspect my grandchildren will be singing “In Christ Alone” when they are adults. They will also be singing whatever hymn is contemporary to them. Some of the contemporary songs we sing now they will not know (sorry, it’s true). Will they also sing “Amazing Grace”? Or “Be Thou My Vision”? Or “Then Sings My Soul”? If we lose these (and a rich, rich treasure of others), the loss to our people will be incalculable.
Thumb through a hymnbook some time. Read the lyrics of songs you don’t know. Ask yourself whether the words echo some Bible passage or theme. Look for a particularly apt phrase, something that expresses a spiritual sermon, but in a sentence. We should revel in our rich heritage of songs, new and old. I believe this is God’s gracious gift to us.