Church Music, Old and New

Resource Type: Articles

One of the many debates about what music is suitable and helpful for worship has focused on “old music” and “new music.” The debate is at times divisive: many church segregate congregations by musical preference (think “Traditional Service” and “Contemporary Service”), using both older and newer music but effectively setting them in opposition to each other. Other churches have a single service, but sing either older or newer music almost exclusively.

To be sure, there are abundant examples of both old music and new music which are not suitable for congregational worship. But in principle, older and newer music are not opposed. We need both, and we need to sing both sitting together in the same service.

Surveying the best of older and newer music, we find unique advantages in each. Here are a few.

OldNew
Older song texts are written in historic language, with older word pictures and turns of phrase, reminding us that predates our time of iPhones and interstates. We worship with “so great a cloud of witnesses.”Newer song texts are written in today’s language, reminding us that God is present and active now. God’s work in the world is not simply a story of our highly-connected, fast-paced world of 2019.

Older songs speak in an older musical language. Singing this music, the older generation frequently connects at a heart level with this music, and with the God it declares.
Newer songs speak in a current musical language. Singing this music, the younger generation frequently connects at a heart level with this music, and with the God it declares.

Older songs shape us toward being grounded and stable and remind us that the Christian faith is deeply rooted in centuries of history; we are not free to reinvent the faith into our own modern, up-to-date, relevant image.
Newer songs require us to be learning and growing, keeping us from becoming too complacent with where we are and what we know. They remind us that Christian discipleship requires growing and changing; following Jesus is a process and not a point of arrival.
The vast majority of the songs in our current hymnals were written by Catholics and Protestants. That we sing them is a testament that there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism.
Anabaptists have a distinct, prophetic voice to sound in the broad world of church music. We have an opportunity to sound that note through composing and publishing new church music.

Older music sometimes creates a bit of discomfort for people who prefer new music. This is vital, as it reminds us that this is the music of the church, not simply my favorite, most comfortable style.
New music sometimes creates a bit of discomfort for people who prefer old music. This is vital, as it reminds us that this is the music of the church, not simply my favorite, most comfortable style.

Additionally, let us remember that all the oldest and best hymns of the church were once new; were it not for new music, and congregations willing to learn it, we wouldn’t have any of the old favorites. But let us also remember that of the plethora of new songs being written today, only the best and most enduring will last, and they will inevitably become old music.

These observations do not answer all questions, and this certainly is not intended as blanket approval of all music old and new. Discernment is crucial, and many other questions need to be asked as well in the process of discerning.

Indeed, both old and new music are subject to and constrained by something far greater, which transcends style or personal preference–our God whose is “the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty” (1 Chron. 29:11). May we be those who “with unveiled face, beholding…the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18).

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