If you’re anything like me, you’ll have lyrics and melodies to hundreds of worship songs stored away in your brain from approximately two thousand weeks spent in church. I’m thirty seven now and have been in church all my life so the maths might be slightly different for you. The point is, if you have any history in church life at all you will have sung and heard a lot of worship songs. Some of them will have been great, some of them will have been not so great; some you will lovingly hold dear to your heart and others may make you feel physically sick!
But if church is a new place for you, you may not be familiar with that many worship songs at all and it might not always be that obvious or even important to you whether a song was written in the 19th, 20th or 21st Century.
Does it matter whether we worship Jesus via songs that are new or old?
Because I have a long history in church life from which to recall hundreds if not thousands of worship songs, I know well that there are some songs that are completely timeless. An obvious example of this is John Newton’s iconic hymn Amazing Grace that is well-known even by people who don’t go to church.
Another more recent song that falls into this category is How Great Thou Art written roughly a hundred years after Amazing Grace in the late nineteenth Century. Both of these songs, spanning one hundred years, are still regularly used in churches all over the world today because they’re anointed, timeless gifts for the world-wide church.
(On a side point, some of these timeless/older songs of worship have been revamped to provide modern-day versions for the church to sing. These also work extremely well. See an version here of How Great Thou Art featuring a piano riff and different chord progression).
There are other worship songs that seem to come to great prominence in the life of the global Church but that then fade away with the changing seasons of style. A couple of songs come to mind that are like this:
Firstly, Shout to the Lord by Darlene Zschech was (and is) a relatively modern worship song that ended up traveling across the whole world. Sung in hundreds of thousands of churches, it became a staple, global church anthem from Hillsong throughout the 1990s and 2000s. However, while some churches may still sing the song today, it will generally be regarded as an older-fashioned song and therefore one that’s used infrequently. Another example of this would be Light of the World by Tim Hughes – another fantastic song that was and is used all across the world but is less popular today because of changing style.
What I’m saying is that the majority of worship songs written over the centuries are subject to the changing styles within the evangelical, charismatic church whereas a smaller minority are not.
The short answer to the questions posed in this blog title is “both/and” but I don’t want this to be a cop out. Let me qualify what I think:
The hymns that I mentioned at the beginning will always have a place in global church life and, perhaps, so will the songs by Zschech and Hughes, but we also need better songs today. If there is an unlimited, unending, continually-glorious eternal realm called the heavenlies, (and there is), that inspires, provokes and joins in with our worship, then we should always be writing new songs, including timeless ones!
Occasionally songs will take the church by storm because they have a particularly beautiful melody or powerful confession, but, more often than not, the church gives way too much energy (and finance) to ‘album fillers’ – i.e. the completely unmemorable soft padding around the rarer hard-core gems on most Christian worship albums. (There are of course exceptions – we’re keen to hear below what you think on what/who these are).
In short, we certainly need more writing today, more crafting and chiseling away at songs that are current but also timeless.
A closing word about this issue on old/new songs:
Although I definitely advocate and heartily encourage our writing-pursuit of new songs for the church today, it must be by those who are gifted to do so. Yes, gifting grows with character and practice, through trial and exposure, but not everyone is gifted to write worship songs that will bless the whole church!
My concern about this is that too many churches and ministries feel a need to write killer songs, those “snow leopard” rarities of riff and melody and lyric that no-one else has found or seen; that they’re somehow obliged and expected to publish albums or EPs in order to remain current. Let me tell you, you really don’t! If there is genuine gifting for that within an individual church, via leaders creating an encouraging and empowering song-writing culture, then praise God! But leaders also need to be released from any felt sense of pressure that there is an expectation that their church writes songs.
In my humble opinion, any older, proven song is always better than a mediocre new one. As ever, we need balance and we need to talk about these things much more.
Above all, “Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth.” Psalm 96:1
Nick Franks is a freelance digital leader living in resplendent Edinburgh, Scotland. Learning to love as he should, Nick is engrossed in living a contagious lifestyle of worship and prayer. He sweats under his eyes when he eats too much cheese, adores Liverpool FC and has a strong preference for Earl Grey leaf tea. Nick is married to the beautiful Mairi. Consider contacting Nick at www.nicholasfranks.com for any of your media-related projects in photography, writing and film.
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