Letter 10: Where Have All the Worship Songs Gone?

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He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”

Matthew 13:52 (NIV)

This past Sunday, due to a shortage of musicians, we sang mostly older worship songs in the praise and worship service at church. Many were songs we had not sung in two years. People quickly joined in the singing. There was a sweet spirit in the air, and it set me to asking, “Where have all the worship songs gone?”

I can guess, literally, what has happened to many of them. They lie in a box in a storage closet somewhere moldering. Just a pile of old overheads that will eventually be thrown out whenever the church goes through a spring cleaning.

I did find it very strange though, that we are unlikely to sing older worship songs. I asked my wife, who was one of the musicians that day, about it. She explained that many songs have a dated feel to them that simply don’t fit with the rest of the worship set. It may also be that certain songs require a certain set of instruments to perform, and as time passes, the church may not have the requisite musicians to perform that piece.

But I countered, we do just that with the hymn service, which she also plays for. We play old songs. We play nothing but old songs, really, and we will mix various hymns of different styles: old Reformation chorales, Wesley hymns, Victorian sentimentalities, and turn of the century revival songs. Somehow that works. Why not with worship songs?

Every hymnal is the result of a centuries long editing process. Each hymnal is a bit like amber, freezing in time the thoughts and sentiments of whatever body produced them. But across the spectrum of hymnals at least a third of the songs would be the same songs. Roughly another third represent the particular tradition of the publisher: Psalms in a Presbyterian hymnal, the works of Charles Wesley in a Methodist hymnal, a sampling of house writers and composers in a hymnal produced by a publishing company, etc.

The remaining third represents newer songs, perhaps carried over from a prior edition because somebody liked it, and hopes enough people like it going forward to move it to one of the other two categories going forward, or brand new inclusions. Most of these aim to be “contemporary” expressions, focusing on particular issues of the age. For that very reason, they tend to be the most dated. But there are a handful of these that live to future editions, and may yet join the ranks of the perennials.

My concern is that the practice of worship music does not allow that process to continue. The perennial hymns remain because they struck a chord with the congregations that originally sang them, and they saw fit to pass them down to succeeding generations that found similar value in them. But they achieved this status only by virtue of repetition. We do not repeat worship tunes long enough for them to pass on to posterity.

In this, our practice seems to follow the world. A song enters the stream of music for play. It catches on, and gets played more frequently. If its popularity grows further still it will be played still more frequently. Should it enter the blessed ranks of the top 10, it will become inescapable over the airwaves. Make it to the top two, and you may well hear it twice within the hour. But then a funny thing happens. Having ascended the greasy pole of popular tastes, a song’s decline will be rapid indeed. Within weeks, it is hardly, if ever, heard. It may make a brief reappearance at year’s end or on an awards show. Then it is heard no more.

Why? In the case of Top 40, the need for novelty, and the ever changing tastes of the teenaged ear explain much. But why are we so fickle when it comes to worship? We are supposedly worshipping an eternal God (“Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today and forever.” Heb. 13:8). Why wouldn’t we try to convey something of that eternity in our worship?

A worship service can fill many functions. In it, we teach about God, and what He expects of us. We explain something of the Christian life. We are encouraged, chastised, and renewed. We direct our worship toward God, and remember the elemental truths of our faith.

In the Apostle’s Creed, we state that we believe in “the communion of saints.” We speak of it as if it were a present reality. But what is that communion? This side of heaven, I believe this works out to a sort of conversation across time, as we commingle the old words and songs with the new. To do that, we occasionally need to sing some songs we haven’t sung in some time.

So, if I may from this remote vantage, suggest to worship leaders that they dig out those old boxes of overheads and troll them for selections for the coming week’s service. You will be doing the Church Universal a favor, and in a small way, be fulfilling the will of God in helping to leave generations yet unborn some new timeless masterpiece.

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