You may have seen a YouTube video titled “Evolution of Worship Music.” In this video, David Wesley, with five duplicate versions of himself, covers almost 1500 years of Christian music in beautiful A Cappella form.
Listening to his beautiful medley, I was reminded of a conversation I had after a sermon. As a sermon illustration, I used the amazing story of Horatio Spafford and the words of his powerful hymn “When Peace Like a River (It is Well).” And after the sermon, I had someone come up to me and say something along the lines that, “the story is great, but wouldn’t it be better for us to now just keep singing the modern version [by Kristene DiMarco and Bethel]?”
I wish I had David Wesley’s video at that point to express the value of singing old songs. Now, let me lay my cards on the table and say I thoroughly love modern renditions of older hymns, and I love the wealth of original worship and praise music we have today. As a 30-something, it’s what I grew up with and all I knew about church music growing up. I grew up on likes of Vineyard, Delirious? and Sonicflood. And my personal playlist has Jesus Culture, Hillsong Young & Free, Elevation, and all the rest on regular rotation.
But recently, I have come to appreciate the older songs. Not just because hearing an ancient hymn from an old pipe organ just feels holy. But because old songs have stood the test of time and they are our connection to the (lower case) catholic Church.
C.S. Lewis in his essay “On The Reading of Old Books” encourages his readers and students to read at least as many old books as new books. Not because crusty old books are necessarily better, but because, “A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages.” Simply put, old songs have stood the test of time. We know they are powerful and valuable because the Church is still singing them hundreds of years later.
I didn’t realize until David Wesley’s video that one of the hymns which most powerfully speaks into my life, “Be Thou My Vision,” is from 560! It should be no surprise that it moves so powerfully, we wouldn’t be singing it almost 1500 years later if it weren’t powerful.
But even more that being good books, Lewis says old books are valuable because they show us that the Church is bigger and more unified than we see around us. Lewis continues with, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.” Our worship music is no different, it is a product of our age and cannot escape our contemporary outlook. But singing old songs brings us into the outlook of the Church in ages past, into the hearts and minds of our seasoned older siblings in Christ.
And not only does it help us see the bigger historical Church, it also helps us see the bigger Church today. Lewis writes that when we read old books we can see beyond the divisions in contemporary debate and see what unites across the ages. “Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity.” Though it shouldn’t, what often serves as the marker of our Church divisions is the type of worship music we sing on Sunday morning—even among churches that only sing contemporary worship music. But when we look at hymnals and see songs written by Baptists, Wesleyans, Presbyterians, Lutherans or even Luther himself, we do not see the individual debates that created these divisions but the unifying love of God which makes them all a part of our tradition today. In short, we realize that what unifies us is bigger than what divides us.
So should we do away with contemporary worship music? No, I don’t want to be a part of a church that’s stuck in the past. But just as we study the books of past theologians and pastors, so too should we sing some old songs from time to time.
Benjamin J. Lee is a pastor in the New York City area. He's served churches and ministries in South Africa and the US. Ben loves to surf and hike. He once hike 500 miles across Spain with a group of youth from his church, and the hike was the easy part.