Why We Sing Old (Vintage) Songs in WorshipBy Tony Caffey
June 16, 2020
Ephesians 5:19-20, “Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
When I was a kid, I had a hard time singing hymns at church. At age 12-15, I thought it was cool to just stand there and refuse to sing. It was an act of defiance. I thought singing publically was effeminate and boring. But something changed in my heart around the time I started to drive a car. Maybe it’s because my life was constantly being threatened by my dangerous driving skills. I started to sing! And you know what? Shockingly, I enjoyed it! I felt a kinship with other people at church as I sang side by side with them, even though the lyrics of the hymns were sometimes confusing and antiquated (e.g. “Thou art,” “Satan should buffet,” “raise my Ebenezer,” “roll is called up yonder”). Some songs were even touching my heart and helping me to express my emotions in ways I hadn’t done before. Fanny Crosby’s “Blessed Assurance” was a particular favorite of mine. I still get choked up singing, “This is my story, this is my song” to this day.
Moving on from Hymns
By the time I left my childhood church at age 17, I had just about memorized that hymnal we used. Singing those 300 or so songs every Sunday morning and Sunday night had made a lasting impression on me. But I also knew that I didn’t want to be part of a church in the next stage of life that only used those old hymns. To me it was like an American history class that only taught the 16th-18th Century. Weren’t there other “developments”?
Plus, I was a child of the 1980s and 1990s (what my son calls the late 1900s). That golden epoch of contemporary Christian music had influenced me. Rich Mullins had made a lasting impact on my life. So did, if I’m honest, Michael W. Smith. Some of those “contemporary Christian” songs resonated in my heart more than the hymns did. The hymns reminded me too much of my stuffy and restrictive childhood church. And I wanted to see people come to Christ and follow Christ. Nobody who came to Christ later in life would possibly be interested in singing hymns, would they? That was part of my past, not theirs. Hymns were an impediment to the gospel, weren’t they?
Surprised by Hymns
One of the things that shocked me as I grew older is that people who had grown up unchurched or in “contemporary” churches unlike my own childhood church craved the theological and intellectual depth of those hymns. They loved the link to history. I thought it was just a fad. I dismissed it mockingly saying, “If they grew up in the church I grew up in, they wouldn’t romanticize hymns so much.” But I noticed that they longed for something that I had taken for granted in my childhood: theologically sophisticated, artistically pleasing, and historically anchored music. I was shocked. And then I was shocked by my own slow gravitation back to hymns of old that I learned to love again. I had dismissed it as misplaced nostalgia. It wasn’t. I was longing for theologically sophisticated, artistically pleasing, and historically anchored music too. Not exclusively. And not as a substitute for new songs. But as a complement.
When the Old becomes New
Now I don’t want to create a false dichotomy here. New songs can and should be theologically sophisticated. New songs can also be artistically pleasing. The thing that sets older songs apart is their historical anchorage.
When I sing “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” I’m singing a song that has been sung for hundreds of years in multiple languages throughout the church universal. And it was written by Martin Luther for goodness sake! What a marvel! When we gather as a church and sing, “I Stand Amazed in the Presence” or “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” or “All Hail the Power of Jesus Name” or “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” we are singing songs that have theological and historical heft. We are joining with the saints of old and singing their songs (perhaps a bit differently than they did, of course). It’s invigorating to think about that and celebrate as you sing. I get the same sensation when we read through The Apostles Creed at our church. Churches benefit from doing this from time to time.
A Better Way Forward
Churches should embrace more diversity. I’m not just talking about ethnic diversity. I’m talking also about socioeconomic diversity. I’m talking also about generational diversity. I’m talking also about diversity in song choices. Churches can and should choose songs from different eras and from different genres of music. But let me offer a quick caveat to that. It’s important, however, to not be so eclectic with your musical choices that you alienate your congregation. Every church has its baseline and its go-to songs and musical style. That will be different in Detroit or Douala or Düsseldorf.
In our context (Decatur, Illinois), we use a mixture of songs that are both old and new, and we try to vary the styles of our new songs to incorporate different genres (rock, folk, country, soul, etc.). We have our bread and butter style, what you might call contemporary Christian music. But even that “genre” is pretty diverse these days. And we try not to choose songs that sound the same or that are from the same artists. My worship pastor has repeatedly heard me say, “Let’s cast a wide net” when we talk about songs. And a significant part of our catalogue of songs is old songs that we do regularly. We try to average about 1 or 2 hymns per week at our church. We’ve even had weeks where we do only hymns or predominately hymns. Our Good Friday services are heavy on hymns, and our Christmas services are almost exclusively Christmas carols. Those are seasonal times when Christians seem especially keen on linking their faith to their heritage.
Not Old but Vintage
Maybe we should call these old songs “vintage songs” or “heritage songs.” Honestly the Maranatha songs of the 70s and 80s (“Praise the Name of Jesus,” “I Love you, Lord”) could be categorized more accurately as vintage songs than new songs. That’s okay. We use them too in our worship sets. These vintage songs and the other vintage hymns can be a spiritual boon to those in our congregation…maybe even to some, like me, who grew up with nothing but vintage songs. I would encourage congregations to use them and sing them periodically, not exclusively, to worship the LORD as the church gathers.