Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Using Older Songs In Worship

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to lead worship for numerous events outside of my regular church role. Most of these settings involve a gathering of people from different churches, traditions, and generations. Whether it’s a weekend conference or a week-long camp, I am always acutely aware of the challenge of quickly drawing together a diverse group of Christ followers who may not know the same songs or share exactly the same sensibilities when it comes to worship.
In my preparation for such a responsibility, I am always thinking at how I can establish a sense of familiarly, while simultaneously offering something different – the perfect synergy between the known and the new.
And, as a worship leader, I have found that familiarity often means a little “time travel” – reaching back for established songs that the family of our faith (notice the correlation between the words family and familiarity) has been singing for a while. This could be anything from a sure, contemporary bet like “Shout to the Lord”, to a widely accepted hymn like “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”
Anchoring a worship plan in these types of songs helps draw a diverse group together to realize very quickly that they, indeed, are family. We share in a tradition.
We sing the same song.
And therein lies the power. Because the truth is that the bonds of the family connection of our faith do not simply reach widely across various denominations and traditions, but also lengthwise across a great span of generations and time.
Speaking of generations, there is great value in reimagining older songs to give them fresh energy and relevance. From the modified tones and textures of “All Creatures of Our God and King” a la David Crowder, to the complete reimagining of Robbie Seay’s “Come Ye Sinners”, we should let the creative juices flow for new generations.
And yet, when I am in a camp or other setting, I will inevitably come to a moment where I lead into a great old hymn like “Holy, Holy, Holy”, and we will embrace this song and sing it just as it has been sung for generations. And I will say something along the lines of this:
We’re singing this great hymn of our faith just like my grandfather sang it when he was on this earth. If he were here right now, he could sing it right along with us, and he would.
That’s powerful.
This is the high calling of true Christian worship that listens for the voice of God, embraces His redemptive movement throughout history, and believes in the communion of saints.
We need new songs for new generations and the timeless songs of a thousand generations.
So each generation should set its hope anew on God, not forgetting his glorious miracles and obeying his commands.” – Psalm 78:7
It’s good ecclesiology and it’s good theology.
There is an equally great tragedy in both the overly traditional church that refuses to make a way for new expressions, and the overly contemporary church that would ignore and even scorn our legacy.
To completely ignore new expressions in favor of older ones is to suggest that God spoke, but He is no longer speaking.
To ignore the expressions of previous generations is to suggest that He only recently began to speak.
And, of course, this is true in your own church just as well as at a conference or camp.
People often ask me how to choose and use “older songs” – whether they be hymns or older “contemporary” songs or choruses. And my answer is always the same, “It doesn’t matter nearly as much how you do them as why you do them.”
We’ve all done it. We pick an older song we don’t care much for, and to which we don’t bring much creative energy, to please a certain segment of your congregation, or a particular band member, or board member, etc…
Those aren’t good reasons.
Reach for older songs, regularly, for deeper reasons that relate to the story and power of the Church (ecclesiology), and the miracle of God’s faithfulness (theology), and the question of how to do them will take care of itself. You’ll be excited to do them! You’ll bring your full creativity to the approach, experimenting with how to relate the older songs to the newer songs, etc…
And in doing so, you will be part of proclaiming the faithfulness of God to each (and your) generation. (Psalm 100:5)
Remember that God is outside of time. To Him, all the songs are new, all the time, and all at once. Older songs may take us “back in time”. But He is already there. And, He always will be.
So let’s go!
But you, O Lord, will sit on your throne forever. Your fame will endure to every generation.  – Psalm 102:12

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