In Defense of Old(er) Songs

by Nathan Beltran on

Articles 5 min read
Colossians 3:16 Psalm 145:4–7

When it comes to Sunday morning expressions of worship, one of the most-scrutinized aspects tends to be the music. Opinions on what worship “ought” to be are as varied as they are sincere and each week dedicated worship ministers around the country aim to thread the needle of making everyone happy. Spoiler alert: we fail. There are many conversations to be had surrounding how we do music (organ or electric guitar, choir or fog machine, stained glass or professional lighting), but I’d like to take a minute to address one of the most basic questions: which songs should we sing?

In my experience in worship ministry, both as a dedicated volunteer and now vocationally, there often seems to be an unspoken rule: stay fresh. This is hardly a new outlook. The Jesus People movement of the 70’s turned Christian music on its head, much to the chagrin of hymn-only purists, and ever since a pattern seems to have emerged. Each generation eschews their parents’ Christianity in an attempt to find their own voice and music is often a central part of it. From Keith Green, to Stryper, to DC Talk, to Lecrae, Christians are constantly adding to the already enormous catalogue of Christian music. Along with individual Christian artists, there have grown multiple churches known almost exclusively for their worship music. Hillsong, Passion, Bethel, and Elevation are some of the heaviest hitters on the scene and each church regularly releases new songs each year. There are conferences and shows around the country where thousands of believers can gather to sing praises in unison to our God in one accord. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but it does seem to accidentally breed the idea that “newer is always better.” The sad casualty is that plenty of great songs end up shelved because they’ve reached their expiration date after a mere 18 months.

If you’d permit me, I’d like to humbly argue that maybe we should reconsider what we deem an “old” song. Here’s why:

  1. Learning new songs is intimidating.

Anyone who’s ever visited a new church has likely had the experience of weakly mumbling along with a whole new set of songs that they’ve never heard. It stinks. If you stick around long enough you’ll eventually start to catch on, though that’s predicated on the assumption that you plan to return. Otherwise you’ve just visited an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar music and probably left a little frustrated. According to Barna, weekly church attendance in the US is around 40% among Millennials; Gen X and Boomers aren’t far behind at 31% and 25%, respectively. That means that on any given Sunday, a church may have a healthy base of regulars along with those who are visiting for the first time and those who maybe come once a month. Ensuring that at least one song in a church service is more widely known is a great way to cast a wider net and make the less-churched feel more comfortable.

  1. We don’t hold other media to the same standard.

One of the parts of the philosophy of always having new music that doesn’t make sense to me is that it only seems to apply to music we sing in church. The Office went off the air ten years ago and is still being quoted by millennials daily. Guys like Elton John and Paul McCartney have been touring for decades and fans still want to hear what they heard fifty years ago. We all have songs and movies that have left indelible marks on us and that we make a point to watch or listen to with regularity. There are worship songs that have ministered to me in a deep way at difficult times in my life that I still listen to; I would bet the same is true for many of our congregants. Constantly purging “old” songs simply in the name of being on the cutting edge can’t help but lead to pulling a song from rotation for no other reason than “there’s a new Brandon Lake song I want to do.”

  1. Sometimes older songs are a better fit.

Like most worship ministers, I make a strong effort to choose songs that will complement the sermon and text each week. This is obviously easier some weeks than others since people tend to write more songs about mercy than they do about tithing. Part of what makes the task easier is having a larger selection of songs to choose from. If the pastor is speaking about God’s affection towards his people, then dusting off “How He Loves” feels like an obvious choice. Are there other songs that would work equally well? Probably. But by choosing an older song that’s well established, it allows more members of the congregation join in with ease and it allows them to focus on the meaning of what they’re singing. They don’t have to spend energy trying to learn new lyrics and melodies and so we help pave the way for them to just worship.way for them to just worship. This is especially true with regards to well-established hymns. Not only is there a greater chance of most of your congregation knowing the words, and thus making it easier to join in, but it also creates a worship space that welcomes all generations.

At the end of the day, each church will choose songs that represent their congregation best. That’s fine. I don’t believe that this should be prescriptive or that my philosophy should be the standard. What matters, really, is that each week the Church gathers in unified worship of the living God. But to the extent that I can help create as welcoming and unintimidating Sunday morning experience as possible, that’s what I’m going to do. And if it means that we’re singing a mix of songs from last year to last decade, so be it. I’m okay with not leading the charge in contemporary Christian music; I’d just like to lead my church well.

About the Author

Nathan Beltran is the Worship Director at Central Bible Church.