Let me up front address a few questions possibly provoked by the title. I am not against new songs. Every old song was once new. If newness was inherently evil, there would be no songs at all. Furthermore, I believe there are songs that have been written in the last 30 years which are doctrinally sound, honoring to God and edifying to the people of God. I am also not a Psalms only advocate. I love the Psalms. I like singing them and have no quarrel with those who sing them. I am simply not convinced by arguments that we should ONLY sing the Psalms. Finally, I should say that I believe there are some really bad hymns in some of our hymnals. My advocacy for hymn singing is not a universal recommendation of all hymns. So, having said all that, it should be clear that I am not advocating the singing of hymns simply because I just like them better and need to ensconce my preferences in the authority of Law, or because I think old things are automatically better than new things. Every old thing was once new. So, why am I advocating hymn singing? Because of the consequences of ignoring hymns in favor of contemporary music – consequences I will now discuss.
1) Before long there will be no common repertoire of songs to unite the body of Christ.
One of the downsides of abandoning hymnody in favor of contemporary music is the loss of a commonly shared body of worship songs that can be invoked when different churches gather together at conferences and other functions. If you have ever attended a conference where contemporary music was employed, you know what I’m talking about. If you didn’t know the songs, you didn’t sing along. You couldn’t sing. You wanted to join the singing and wanted to lift up your voice in praise to God, but your energies were spent in trying to learn a syncopated song of which you were not familiar and which you probably will never sing again. If you were (and are) a music reader, you could have participated better with a music book, but that wasn’t offered. So, you watched the screen and listened. When a familiar hymn was sung in the worship time, however, you and everyone else heartily participated. Christians want to sing. They want to lift up their voices in praise, and it is frustrating to be prevented from doing so by unfamiliarity with the music. This is a problem created when lots of churches devote themselves exclusively to contemporary music or even when they sing but a few hymns. The music leaders at conferences choose songs they are familiar with, but there is no guarantee that everyone else is familiar with those songs. Conferences are not times to sing new songs. They are times to sing old familiar songs. It seems that the nature of contemporary music is to be constantly churning out new songs. The artists and musicians earn their living off of producing new albums and are thereby motivated to keep producing new songs. Music leaders are continually getting the latest music and incorporating that music into their church services. Consequently, the churches are forever learning new music and rarely have time to maintain those learned just three years ago. Sooner or later, the consequences of this are that there is no established body of music known to different churches and different generations of Christians. We have not arrived at this point yet – we can still all sing “Amazing Grace” together, and some others -- but if the drift toward contemporary music continues, we will eventually arrive at that point.
I once went through the hymnal and picked every hymn that I personally considered doctrinally sound and musically tolerable. Most of these hymns have “stood the test of time.” After many decades and even centuries, these hymns continue to speak to Christians today and express the language of their hearts. I came up with such a long list of songs that I calculated we could not sing all of them in one year’s time, based on our custom of singing four hymns each Sunday morning service. That means we would sing “A Might Fortress,” “The Church’s One Foundation” and “Come Thou Fount,” et al, only once a year if we tried to work in all the other good ones that have stood the test of time. Even if we upped the number of hymns sung each Sunday, it would still be a challenge to repeat our favorites with any kind of tolerable frequency. Think of a hymn you really love. Do you really want to sing it only once a year? If we sang contemporary music alone, all of these classic hymns that have survived centuries would eventually die out of our memory. If we sang but a few hymns amidst our predominantly contemporary song list, we would eventually have but a few retained in our memory. And what would replace it? Not a list of “classic” contemporary songs. No, those are constantly changing. Contemporary songs sung in the 1980s and 1990s are rarely sung at all now. There is no list of classics in the constantly changing contemporary music scene.
2) What will you sing in prison?
If you have no worship songs burned into your memory, because the songs keep changing from year to year and you cannot retain them, then what will you sing in prison? Paul and Silas sang hymns in prison in Acts 16:25. This comforted them and probably amazed the prisoners who were listening to them. They obviously had these hymns memorized. We need to have hymns memorized for our coming sufferings. What songs will you sing if all you ever sing is a constantly rotating turntable of contemporary music? The songs may be good songs, but in a few years they probably won’t be repeated much in your church. Will you remember them? Do what Paul and Silas did. Learn some hymns and memorize them during your family worship times. They will serve you well when you are in prison for your faith.
3) Singing only contemporary music is oftentimes disrespectful to older people.
Generally speaking, older people cannot sing highly syncopated songs that are beamed up on overhead screens without the benefit of notes. And if they cannot handle this, then why are we doing it? We younger people want to sing in church. We want to participate. We would not like it if someone deliberately chose music we couldn’t follow. So, why are we so disrespectful and unsympathetic to our older brothers and sisters? Why do we rob them of their cherished music and force upon them music they cannot follow? Why do we render them non-participants in the music of the church, forcing them to stand for uncomfortably long periods of time in order to see a screen they might not be able to see very well anyway just to attempt to sing songs they can’t get the hang of before we replace it in a few months with yet another new song? Why do we assume that they are simply being crusty and obstinate and resistant to inevitable change? Why not think better of them? Why not love our older neighbor as ourselves? Why not consider their interests more important than our own? The Bible has much to say about regarding our elders and we ought to take heed.
“'You shall rise up before the grayheaded and honor the aged, and you shall revere your God; I am the LORD.” (Lev. 19:32)
“Now Elihu had waited to speak to Job because they were years older than he.” (Job 32:4)
“So Bathsheba went to King Solomon to speak to him for Adonijah. And the king arose to meet her, bowed before her, and sat on his throne; then he had a throne set for the king's mother, and she sat on his right.” (1Ki 2:19)
“You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for GOD IS OPPOSED TO THE PROUD, BUT GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE.” – 1 Pet. 5:5
“Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers, the older women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters, in all purity.” (1 Tim. 5:1-2)
4) Singing only contemporary music often divides the church
I grew up singing both hymns and contemporary music praise songs. Though contemporary music was “all the rage” in the 1980s, equal time was devoted in my home church to both hymns and praise music. As time passed, it became apparent in the 1990s throughout the evangelical world that older people did not care too much for the new songs, and younger people didn’t care much for the older ones. Many churches came up with the “bright idea” of instituting two services so that everyone could be happy – a traditional service and a contemporary service. This may have made everyone happy to some degree, but it was a tragedy. Young people were cut off from the wisdom of older people and the church was divided along age lines, each group having little to do with the other. Even if the younger people did not seem to miss the wisdom of older people, they were losers for it, nonetheless.
If churches did not divide into two services, one for the young and one for the old, the older people usually resigned themselves to inevitability. They reasoned that their time was short and the future was with the young people. They accepted the argument that perhaps they were just being “old-fashioned” and objecting to “new-fangled” music the same as their parents did to the music they liked when they were young.
The Bible assumes young and old will be together in the church and imposes obligations upon us one to the other (see verses above) – obligations that are hard to fulfill when we separate from one another over music preferences. Have you ever considered that the idea of two separate services and the separating of young from old is a new idea in the history of the church and one that didn’t surface until we started our practice of singing predominantly new songs?
New songs are not evil, but we need to consider the consequences of devoting 90 percent of our singing time to the continual learning of new songs. Is it worth it?