Sing a New Song to the Lord

Why singing new hymns is as important as singing old ones

Sing a New Song to the Lord

During 2016 I’m going to write a devotional article each month on a new hymn that is in the supplementary hymn book that the choir now has, called Sing Praise. It’s a book designed to complement what you might call a ‘traditional hymn book’, in our case the New English Hymnal. I’m going to try and help us to learn a new hymn every month this year (only one, I promise!) and to write a short article about the hymn each month.

But before I do, I’d like to write an article about why singing new hymns is as
important as singing old ones. I do that not to be controversial but to offer a way into what prompts people today to continue to write hymns and songs for worship.

There is a false dichotomy of worship that fractures and divides our churches into “traditional” and “contemporary” worshiping bodies. This has pitted the old against new. This is detrimental in a multitude of ways, not the least of which is our congregational singing. It’s obviously important to sing the ‘old’ songs, the traditional ones if you like. But here are a few reasons why we should be singing new songs, as well.

1. History marches on. Much of the church’s song repertoire was borne out of
perseverance in trial, resolve in defeat, and thanksgiving in victory. Time marches on. So should our sacred storytelling.

2. Gathered worship is not a “These You Have Loved” 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 endeavour that targets a specific generation.
“Traditional” worship is for older people, “contemporary” is for everyone else.
This mind-set is killing the church. A worship service that only features old
favourites (or current hits) is simply doing it wrong. Call it a sing-along. Call it fellowship. Just don’t call it corporate worship.

3. We shouldn’t deprive those who come behind us of a rich musical inheritance. We are better for having the words of Isaac Watts and Charles 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 be tragic to cease our own creativity. There is much good poetry and melody still to be crafted.

5. Our country is diverse. Our churches are as well. 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. We all have different tastes: a church that is all Radio 3 or Radio 2 is poorer for it. We should sing to include everyone, whatever their taste may be.

6. As vast as our collection is, there are topical gaps to fill. Many 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. Songs like this help accomplish that task.

7. Worship is essentially and radically eschatological (a theological word which means the way God continues to break in to time to show us signs of the coming Kingdom of God). By singing new songs, we continue to anticipate the death of death, the coming kingdom, and the ultimate resurrection. By refusing to sing new songs, we could 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 extinguished.

9. Sift through the crap. We need to resist the urge to become a slave to the cool, the current, and the contemporary. We need to choose well. A lot of the words and music coming out the contemporary worship scene isn’t worth our time, money, and energy. It tends to be derivative, self-indulgent, and flimsy. But we need to sing some of it to discover if it is any good, then adopt only its very best, and move on. We only sing about 2% of Charles Wesley’s hymns today: some of them were really bad. Hymn-writing is not a dead art. There are rich, beautiful, theologically dense texts still being written by pastors, theologians, and lay people.

10. Sing a healthy ratio of new to old. If we sing only new songs we can easily
become narcissistic, aimless, or self-referential in worship. It commits the sin of chronological snobbery. It refuses to symbolically join in the unending hymn. And, of course, it either requires singing poor new music, or singing the best new music far too often. It’s good to choose songs from different times and to sing only a limited amount of new songs.

11. Be a singing church. It’s great to have a choir, but it’s more important that the people of God sing the Lord’s song. A good choir and a fine organ in an acoustically fine space like our own support, stretch and expand our
congregation’s ability to sing out clear and strong. We need to teach our children to sing as Asi has been doing. Congregational singing is a holy task, one that is worthy of our time and resources. In our society of gluttonous, indiscriminate music consumption, it’s wonderful be a church of music-makers.

So sing.
Sing together.
Sing often.
Sing heartily.
Sing clearly.
Sing well.
Sing new, as well as old.
Sing on.

Simon Butler