New songs or old songs – a recent controversy?

Look at the following quote and decide what year it was first published:

“For some years it has been apparent that the rage for novelties in singing, especially in our Sunday schools, has been driving out of use the old, precious, standard hymns.  They are not memorized as of old.  They are scarcely sung at all.  They are not even contained in the non-denominational songbooks which in many churches have usurped the place of our hymn books.

We cannot afford to lose these old hymns.  They are full of the Gospel; they breathe the deepest emotions of pious hearts in the noblest strains of poetry; they have been tested and approved by successive generations of those that loved the Lord; they are the surviving fittest ones from thousands of inferior productions; they are hallowed by abundant usefulness and tenderest memories.  But the young people of today are unfamiliar with them, if the present tendency goes unchecked.”

Who made this statement? Basil Manly, one of the founding professors of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY.  These words appeared in the preface of a hymn book edited by Professor Manly in 1892.  Manly, an Old Testament professor at the seminary was concerned about that Gospel songs new on the scene were usurping the old hymns.  It seems that the young people were singing these new songs and not learning the standard hymns of the church.  These newer worship songs majored more on the Christian experience and less on the objective doctrinal truths of the Bible often found in the hymns.  Since we learn so much of our faith through our songs, Manly was concerned the newer Gospel songs were not carrying strong biblical content.

Although this quote is an isolated incident, I think a brief survey of worship music through the ages would reveal that this controversy of what songs should be used in worship is not a new one.  The church has always had an issue over what songs should be selected for corporate worship. 

So how do we make sense of this issue today?

First, it would be great if more theologically trained pastors were writing or selecting song texts for the church today.  Many of the great hymn texts we use today were written by pastors (Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts, John Newton). Manly was a good model for pastors as editor of a worship song book for the church.  We need worship leaders with a strong biblical foundation capable of filtering the good songs from the poor.

Second, all songs were new songs at one point.  We should seek to ‘sing a new song to the Lord,’ but make sure our new songs have strong biblical content.  Why spend time singing worship songs that have vague biblical content?

Thirdly, let’s keep singing the great hymns of the church along with newer expressions of faith.  Our young people need to know that they are not the first generation of Christians to seek to live a Christ-like life in the world.  Our senior adults need to learn songs that speak to a younger generation about the Gospel.

Fourthly, let the focus be on song content and not secondary issues such as whether we will use a piano or guitar to accompany the songs.

Finally, let’s seek to be pastoral in our worship leadership – caring for the Body of Christ, seeking peace and unity in our worship.  Teach deference – “I can sing a favorite song of my brother in Christ rather than my favorite.”

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