Did you know that many of the four-part hymns sung in many conservative Anabaptist meetings today were written between 1725 and 1925? We typically really like them. “Blessed Assurance,” “Come, Thou Almighty King,” and “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” are familiar and comforting, significant to the faith formation of those who have sung these songs since childhood. But what about hymns from the rest of Christian history? “Sing a new song” (or a close equivalent) is found eight times in the scriptures, with “new” translated from the Hebrew châdâsh (fresh, new thing) or the Greek kainos (recently made, fresh, unused, unprecedented). While one can argue that “Amazing Grace” can be sung in “fresh, new” ways (music arrangers rely on this), it is unconvincing to interpret “sing a new song” as “sing an old song in a fresh, new way.” Questions emerge. Should we sing new songs in church? If so, why? Is there a balance to be sought with old music? What is old music, anyway?
“Old” is a relative term. When I hear “Just As I Am” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” described as “old” songs (or, even better, “good old” songs), I wonder how “Shepherd of Tender Youth” (ca. 200) and “Be Thou My Vision” (ca. 600) would feel—ancient, I suppose. We should sing ancient hymns in greater number and frequency; among other things, they help connect us in spirit to the church of long ago, while reminding us of the insignificance of our lifetime compared to the life of the church for two millennia.
Neglecting old (and ancient) hymns will impoverish our worship on various fronts, but is it important to sing new songs? I offer a qualified, yet resounding “yes”—qualified, because new songs introduced without adequate attention to local context, culture, and musical aptitude can distract, alienate and frustrate worshipers. But our world is constantly changing, and we need poets who pen hymns addressing contemporary matters, giving each new generation a voice. Furthermore, musical styles have developed over the flow of Christian history. Time and utility work to filter out the mediocre in every musical era, leaving the best for posterity. New music is how composers add value to this musical stream.
Several hundred years ago, many of our “good old” favorites did not exist. Like every baby and every song, they entered the world brand new. The singing church becomes richer when poets and composers birth new works. With thoughtfulness and care and skill, in the right proportion, as good stewards of a rich and vibrant singing heritage, let us welcome and shepherd the newly-born, and may some of them grow to a ripe old age!