I was talking with a pastor the other day about one of his worship leaders who has a hard time leaving old songs behind (as in “Shine, Jesus, Shine”). Apparently there are a few songs from the 80s that the worship leader still finds quite moving. Unfortunately, the pastor and many young members of the congregation don’t share his enthusiasm.
Our conversation led me to think of a few questions that might be asked in this situation:
Is it wrong to retire old songs?
If they should be retired, how do you know the right time?
Do we even need to be singing new songs?
What makes a song “old?”
Once a song is retired, should we ever bring it back?
Here are a few thoughts on this topic. Hope they’re helpful.
1. Most corporate worship songs won’t pass the “time test.” That’s okay.
Charles Wesley wrote over 6500 hymns in the 1700s. Three hundred years later most churches don’t sing more than 20-30 of them. Percentage-wise, that’s not very impressive. But in terms of effect, few hymn writers have had a more lasting or broad influence than Wesley (Although Isaac Watts, who only wrote about 650 hymns, has a much higher percentage of longevity.) It’s safe to say that in a hundred years we won’t be singing most of the songs we’re singing today on Sundays. Some will last one week, others for a few years, some for decades, and others will still be sung after we’re gone. All have a place in a congregation pursuing both old and new expressions – psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs – of God’s praise. (Col. 3:16)
2. Music can hinder or help the impact of truth on our hearts.
One of the primary purposes of singing as a congregation is to “let the word of Christ dwell in us richly,” (Col. 3:16). But if that word is wedded to poorly performed, unsingable, or distasteful music, people may never hear the word at all. On the other hand when the music is appropriate, enjoyable, singable, and well-played/sung, it can heighten the impact of biblical truth on our hearts. That means we need to give serious thought to whether or not the songs, arrangements, and instruments we use are truly helping people sing biblical truths with passion. Churches can err in one of two ways. Either our music is so “relevant” that people don’t even notice the words, or our music is so foreign that people have a hard time connecting at all.
3. A song should be retired when the musical setting no longer inspires faith to sing the lyrics.
God intended music to affect us emotionally (Mt. 11:17; Job 21:12). When a tune or musical setting no longer does that, or affects us negatively, we can change the arrangement, alter the melody (if it’s public domain), or stop using the song. It’s a fact that we tire of some tunes more quickly than others. That doesn’t necessarily mean they were bad to start with. It just means they aren’t the “100 year” kind of melodies. Wise leaders are on the lookout for fresh musical expressions to complement those that have stood the test of time.
4. A song should be retired when there are better or just different songs you want to introduce.
More than a few times we’ve taught a song that seems like it will be around for a while. But when you teach around 18 new songs a year, as we do, there’s just no way to keep doing all of them consistently. So some of them are retired by default.
5. Music leaders are called to submit their musical preferences to their pastor and congregation.
I said in my first book that my iPod isn’t the best place to start for choosing songs to sing on Sunday. What affects me personally may be vague, ineffective, or even offensive to others. We’re to use our gifts “so that the church may be built up” (1 Cor. 14:26). While there are good reasons to expand the musical palate of a congregation from time to time (to display the glory of God in a variety of ways, enable a broader range of emotional responses, and provide a fresh setting for lyrics), I shouldn’t insist a song still “works” when no one around me agrees.
6. Retired songs should be brought back based on their their lyrical, not sentimental, value.
To sing a song simply because it’s a “old favorite” can subtly emphasize our musical enjoyment more than our passion for Christ. It’s focusing on the “container” more than the “content” (an upcoming post). But there are times when an old, familiar song says exactly what you want to say, and people’s hearts are filled with faith as they sing it (even “Shine, Jesus, Shine”). In the not too distant past I’ve used “In my Life Lord, Be Glorified,””Oh, Lord, You’re Beautiful,” and a few older Sovereign Grace songs that seemed to fit the moment.
More could be said, I’m sure. What about you? How have you handled retiring songs?
(image courtesy of Shutterstock.com)
Tremendously great insight. Thanks Bob!
This is my first time commenting on the worship matters blog, but I’ve been following for a while. As you mentioned, it is important for worship leaders not to retire songs simply because they don’t like them. If it is meeting the spiritual needs of the congregation then it can be continued to be used. Unfortunately, it is easy to forget that we’re servants of the Gospel and therefore servants of our congregations. If we stop playing a song that is enriching the lives of our flock simply because we don’t like the song, there may be a problem.
Can you elaborate on how you’ve thought about this for PDI/Sovereign Grace songs at CLC? Just this week at care group, I led “King of Grace” and “O Wondrous Love,” and my wife and I were the only ones who knew the first, and only one other couple knew the second.
I’ve thought about this somewhat, and at least compared to my old SGM church, it seems like CLC doesn’t do as many of the older worship songs (ca. 1995-2000)–maybe for the very reasons you list. Are those songs being retired intentionally, or is it simply a matter of there being too many songs to keep up with the older ones?
Thanks in advance for your thoughts!
Great blog post! Thanks for addressing this subject. This is something we wrestle with a lot at our church. I think a lot of the times folks say “I wish we still did the ‘good old gospel songs’ it’s more out of sentiment, maybe recalling a time when they were walking closer to Him, perhaps a time of revival or awakening. There are some songs that I will forever associate with my first mission trip to Peru. But they’re not necessarily songs that we’re going to use in a service on Sunday morning.
I heartily agree that we as leaders are servants of our church families, and our own personal preferences have little if any bearing on whether a song is used, retired or brought back. There are some songs that are definitely not my personal favorites, but we do them because the Lord is using them consistently in our midst. How long He uses them is up to Him. There are songs I love that are really speaking to us and challenging us, but in a couple of years, they may not be around.
I found it amusing that you mentioned “Shine Jesus Shine.” We recently resurrected that one, for a specific purpose and season, with a somewhat updated style and instrumentation, and it worked well. However, it may only be for a specific season that we use it. Songs from earlier eras that aren’t “through it all” kind of songs have, in some cases, been very effective, but they have to fit lyrically, doctrinally, etc, and be used judiciously and sensitively. We have similar criteria to the ones you listed in deciding a song’s effectiveness and longevity in our body.
Grace and peace!
It is great to see modern churches embracing the ipod.
Thanks for the post, Bob.
I’d guess a lot of contemporary material has a built in obsolescence factor, just by the fact it was written to sound contemporary.
Older hymns were written to express truth in a fresh fashion, but with a more enduring sense of expression. It is the quality of the lyrcis which has seen them endure, not how fresh they sound. Their poetry is often stronger and more expressive. Older hymn words have been matched with different tunes over time. The integrity of their poetry makes this possible.
Contemporary songs lean heavily on their popular music style which will mean they date very quickly, I can’t really imagine anyone writing new tunes for ‘Shine Jesus Shine’ or ‘Shout To The Lord’.
The material that has the best chance of lasting is the material that was created to be timeless.
This is a good post and some real food for thought. My husband and I joke that there are a lot of churches whose idea of a contemporary service is, “As the Deer.” Don’t get me wrong, I love the song and love playing it on the piano (because it’s easy and I’m not good), but it gets old sung every other week. Most songs are not sung that frequently, but it seems like it’s a song that all ages know, so it’s really overdone.
I think doing modern music is great, but sometimes the old music needs to be brought back. Every now and then it’s OK to pull in a good ol’ Amy Grant or M.W. Smith or Rich Mullins.
But one of my favorite things is when writers take the idea of an older song and modernize it. Chris Tomlin is phenomenal with modernizing hymns. Keep the basic melody, keep the lyrics, but update it so people who don’t “do” hymns won’t turn off their ears.
Then again, I’m one who can sing an organ hymn back to back with a rocking contemporary piece with drums. I just like it all. Any song that offers praise to our King and is a good piece of music deserves to be sung.
You wrote that God intended for music to affect us emotionally. I looked up your scripture verses. The first one was of Jesus summarizing the Pharisees’ complaints, and the second one was Job’s description of what the wicked do. I found this wonderfully amusing.
Chessewhiz, thanks for pointing that out. Implied in both passages are the idea that music has an emotional effect on us. But just in case some are wondering, here are a few other passages that connect emotion and music: 1 Sam. 16:14-23 (David playing for Saul); Is. 51:11 (connects singing and joy); Ps. 137 (expresses the difficulty of singing the mirthful songs of Zion while in exile); 2 Chron. 35:25 (connects singing with lament); Prov. 25:20 (cautions against singing songs to a heavy heart). The Song of Solomon is a song of intimate, marital love. Lamentations is a song of grief. The book of Psalms contains a wide variety of emotions set to music. So while it can be used for good or for ill, God made us to respond emotionally to music.
Hey Bob, thanks for the post.
This is something I recently looked at when reviewing songs in our folders. I have a tendency to hoard and found that we had loads of songs in the folders that we either never used, used rarely or in fact were just not that suitable for corporate worship (due to lyrics or difficult melodies).
On the point, ‘do we even need to be singing new songs?’ I think that the answer is yes. Whilst we have some great old songs and some considered ‘classics’, Psalm 33:3 says,
“Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts”. I have found that using new songs can often rekindle a ‘common’ or well known theme and freshen it in our hearts.
I am all for using old songs as well. Some hymns are just brilliant. Maybe keeping tabs on how often we use the same songs on a weekly basis may be a good way of ensuring that songs don’t become stale. Having said that, there is a definite time to shelve some songs (can you imagine singing the psalms as they were sung in David’s time? I’m not sure the congregation I’m in would appreciate a harp or lyre!).
Aside from the musical reasons for retiring a song, I think we should maybe ask some questions like;
Will the songs we use bring people to a greater understanding of Christ and who He is and what He has done.
Will the songs express an appropriate response to God for?what He has done?
Are the lyrics of the song clear in what they are saying?
Are the lyrics biblically sound?
Just my thoughts!
One thing I do know, is that despite how often we use a cross centred song, the message of the cross will never grow stale.
Great thoughts, Matt.
The music director in question should have found a way to medley into the chorus — and just the chorus — of Shine Jesus Shine from a similar song of mission or proclamation in the same key. It would give the piece fresh context.
This methodology can be used to keep old songs fresh; there’s a neat back-and-forth thing you can do with Shout to the Lord and Jack Hayford’s Majesty; both of which were most-used worship songs in their day.
I like the idea that Chuck Fromm advanced years ago on “the theology of New Song” from Isaiah 42:10; but there are also songs from the ’70s and ’80s that are worth re-introducing after many years’ absence.
Right now, a lot of congregations are feeling lost being asked to stand and sing unfamiliar music. Back in the day when worship leaders were known as “song leaders” Bernie Smith (of the IVCF Urbana conferences) encouraged the use of a familiar song to start the set.
Such advice is still worth considering. That’s where I find the CCLI list useful. The same could be said about the song which closes the worship set, though there are no hard and fast rules.
But also, the worship leader in question may simply not be doing enough to keep up with the repertoire of worship pieces available.
I did not know songs of God could be retired…. if birthed from the holy spirit..even secular songs are not retired, you just might not play them as often…
but once in a while an old song just pops into your head and does a great work…just lifts your day..
It’s like saying scripture/God’s word can be retired.
Never heard of this before.
nothing is wron with a new song but God’s word can neer be retired unless written from flesh for fun.
Consider this.. a song that you retire is suddenly played to an ear that has never heard that song before,,,they love it, they are blessed by it…for that person it’s a new song
Thank you! These are great insights. I’ve found all the same dynamics at play as we pick, sing, and retire songs. Much to my chagrin, I’ve found this statement true:
“More than a few times we’ve taught a song that seems like it will be around for a while. But when you teach around 18 new songs a year, as we do, there’s just no way to keep doing all of them consistently.”
Every song we introduce comes with a desire that it have fruitful longevity in our community. But some songs never take off, for whatever reason, and it’s often very obvious.
Thank you for your wisdom.
Also, as time goes by, the Spirit leads the mix of people (and therefore the skill mix) on the team to change. This will naturally result in the repertoire changing with time.
Interesting stuff! Here at a church in Cape Town we’ve just started 12 weeks of Praise & Worship on Sunday evenings, to teach our congregation some stuff about worship that they haven’t yet ‘got’ – we kicked off with an evening of looking back over the last 35 yrs or so, doing short medleys of a lot of the good old stuff & working up to the present – everyone, young & old seem to love it & there was a lot of dancing, clapping & raising hands. I promised them I had never done this before, and that I wouldn’t do it again!! Now onto newer things……..
Really good post! Thank you! For me, I especially agree with that last point you made. Songs should be used based on their lyrics, not solely because I like that song, and definitely not because of the “that song makes me sound good” syndrome.
In my experience, the only time we “retire” a song is when we see that the lyrics are either heretical or too man-centered.
On a side note, what a sweet gift music is from the Lord!
It was funny because a worship leader mentor of mine and I were discussing this very topic probably right around the time you were writing it last week. When committed to singing new songs, it becomes impossible and even unwise to try to keep every song around. I’ve even found myself retiring some “old faithful hymns” because people like Sovereign Grace are writing songs that express the same rich truth much better in a contemporary context.
Just to respond to Audrey briefly, I’m super glad that some of the older songs pop into your head and lead you into worship at random times. I wish that happened to everyone with the songs I have led in the past. But at the same time, songs are not the same as scripture. They are man-made expressions. You are absolutely right that you can’t retire scripture. But you can stop singing a certain song and still be faithful to God’s Word. I sort of think that’s why people get so hung up when we don’t sing songs like “Shine Jesus Shine” or older hymns anymore. They raised the songs to an equal plane with scripture and put them at a level they could never live up to.
Hey worship community,
Some of us tend to tire of songs more quickly than our people. Why?
1) We listen to a lot more music than they do. So, before the WL even taught that song to them, he had it on repeat for three months in his car.
2) We spent a couple of weeks with the song preparing it. The WL made charts and spent a lot of time with his drummer to ensure that he could play the correct part at the correct speed. That did not happen the first time.
3) (If a mulitiple service church) We attend every service the church offers. The WL sang it at the Saturday night service, and the two Sundays, and the special building dedication, and the Sunday night service.
Bottom line, we often tire of our songs just when our people are getting a hold of them. Let’s serve our people well by deferring to them in this.
Great points, Matt. Thanks for sharing them.
Thanks so much for not over-spiritualizing this matter – that, in my opinion, is extremely refreshing.
And you are so right about the emotional connection. If that wasn’t the point, we should just read the lyrics out loud together.
Thanks for writing such a smart article. I’m gonna start reading this blog…!
Very interesting read. A few thoughts.
1. I don’t feel like I ‘retire’ a song permanently but I have what I call a red-list which are songs we’ve tried several times that simply failed to connect with the congregation or the worship team. This includes some old hymns and contemporary songs.
2. I am very sensitive to what I call ‘going through the motions’ songs. Once I see the congregation blankly staring and singing and no longer ‘feeling’ the song, I give it a LONG hiatus.
3. This is a personal feeling, but I am not a fan of wordy and complicated songs. Thus, as you could probably guess, I am not a fan of 95% of old hymns. Sure, for their time they worked, but nowadays, they show their age very poorly. Who cares if you’re reciting scripture if the song is so complicated that people spend their time guessing what the next note is and how the words will fit the often goofy cadence of the song? If you want people to recite and listen to scripture have scripture readings or go to a church that is expository.
All this said, I can say that the balance of new and old songs is one the hardest parts about being a worship leader. I want the congregation to be challenged but I also want them to know the song well enough to be able to worship. I think churches aren’t aggressive enough in booting old songs and I think they’re not doing so because they let those afraid of change make the decisions. People love a good song, so it is up to the church to decide how to get people familiar with it before they sing it.
Great thought Bob,
A little painful to think that there are probably a handful of songs I really need to let go of. Just wondering if you could give us an example of a song that you may have had a hard time letting go of. For me its Cannons by Phil Wickham.
Great post and very well articulated. I have found that Senior Pastors can be the guilty ones in regards to this thought. Most of them don’t keep up with new and fresh worship songs and can sometimes tend to rely on “what is comfortable for them”. This is not an easy issue to deal with but the WL needs to challenge the SP to stay relevant and current in their worship tastes as much as they try to in their message delivery and content.
great post! some thoughts from my point of view
We don’t really retire songs – if an older song fits the sermon topic that week or the church’s theme for the year, I will pull it out again to be sung. Usually our congregation really connects with it and it brings back memories and also helps connect the generations :)
However, the point that a song should be brought back because of lyrics and not anything else is a great one. That and “singability” are usually what I go by.
As for hymns, I actually find them on the whole more predictable and easy to sing than some more contemporary songs and they are great to use whenever you need a “gospel in a nutshell” song because the congregation picks them up fairly easily (at least, the ones that have stood the test of time).
I love the chorus “Shine, Jesus, Shine”!!
Thanks for the article. I agree with much of what it says; however, I disagree about not singing music for “sentimental value.” Why not sing worship songs for sentimental value? Isn’t sentiment a valid emotion that can connect a believer to important, memorable spiritual experiences?
My answer is a resounding “Yes.”
Also, great hymns are a valuable facet of the Church-its history with its congregants- the people- as well as the ordinances, holidays, and events of the Church. It is the people’s responsibility to educate its members about Church history including its music. The great hymns are not simply Top 40 hits; they are songs for life’s journey.
I like “Didn’t He Shine,” “Pass It On,” “Bring Back the Springtime,” and “The Savior is Waiting.” I like “Power in the Blood,” “I Am Satisfied with Jesus,” “At the Cross,” and “What Wondrous Love.” What can I say?
Pam, thanks for the comment. When I use the word “sentimental” I’m referring to a pleasant feeling we might get when a song is sung. It might even connect us to a memorable spiritual experience, but that’s not the same thing as exercising faith in a living Savior. I’m sure the Israelites had many pleasant memories of how God had met them in the past, but unless their faith was present and active, those memories only served to hide the fact that they were drifting from God. Is that helpful?
Dear friend, having had my soul inspired, fed and nutured through the lyrics of your songs for over 20 years, there is no song that I have sung in worship which hasn’t been used by the Holy Spirit to bring illumination, conviction or pure truth. As a result, these songs have become much more than memories or friends. Because they have been used by God and inspired by the Holy Spirit, they have a life of their own as they have been based on sacred scripture. How can one, or should one “shelf” such an eternal means of grace? My soul resonates when I sing songs which were used by God in the past, because they remind me of his timeless attributes and ageless Gospel. What elder saint would not drop a tear to hear the songs which first brought an awakening to their soul? If my kids can find pleasure in the worldly music I listened to as a child, how much more can they be inspired by the worship songs used by God in my youth? :) Keep ’em coming!
Sorry for being so late on this one.
This is a great issue to raise. I lead worship in a new start-up church pastored by an young pastor who has very different musical tastes to me. He always wants new songs that to me seem to be more like radio music which are nice songs, but I personally do not consider them as corporate worship songs. This causes an interesting dynamic between us.
As a worship leader, if I am not captured by a song, or if I cannot make it part of me, I cannot in good conscience before God lead it in corporate public worship. I also feel that I have a responsibility to teach our worship music heritage to pass it onto the new generations of believers. A song that blessed the body of Christ twenty or thirty years ago will still bless the body today. Someone recently baptized into the Body of Christ neither knows nor cares if a great worship song is old or new: what matters is the condition of the heart to worship the Lord in spirit and in truth. Is that heart bowed to the Lord in submission to Him to please Him? If old or new is a consideration, it manifests motives that are not purely to please the Lord.
It also seems like much of the new popular worship songs are produced by folks eating out of their music and ministry. It appears to me to be an industry, (the 4th, the 5th, the minor chord, the Major lift). I’ve even heard multiple times the topic of ‘How To Write Worship Songs’ taught as a class in different worship seminars which have been filled with multitudes hoping to write the next smash hit worship song. Maybe I’m skewed in my understanding, but if the Lord has not given the song, it sounds more like perspiration rather than inspiration.
I guess the main point I’m trying to make is that corporate worship should not be limited by the age of songs, and likewise we should not try to force (A.K.A. fake) worship with manufactured songs. If our heart is right, the songs which flow out of our hearts will glorify the Lord and bring pleasure to His heart regardless of the age of the song – especially when the songs are the word of God set to music.
There are many great new worship songs and corporate worship time is limited, so it is inevitable that some songs will fall by the wayside as new songs are incorporated into the repertoire. That is a natural attrition. However, if we are led by the Spirit, He will give us the right song for the right occasion to touch and stir the hearts of worshipers to resonate with the heart of our Father.
Just got this address as Bob is due to lead worship at New Word Alive, North Wales (UK) this year, which I sometimes attend.
Most of the posts here come from a different world than I do and I find it hard to relate to so much of what is said. However, as a tutor in theology who spent most of his life as a pro musician (mainly in the pop/recording world) I disagree about bringing songs back based only on lyrics and not anything else. There is good music and bad music. This is not just down to personal taste! And we should be offering God not only the best lyrics, but the best music we are capable of, played as well as we are capable of. Music can speak to the very soul. I find it extremely sad that so much modern worship music is (technically and emotionally) so awful.
One theme I see running throughout these comments is that of how hymns and other older worship songs bring back memories of God’s faithfulness, and they certainly have a wider range of theological teaching then newer songs that are geared toward sitting on one truth rather than reciting long passages of truth.
But, I think one aspect of this theme that’s been forgotten is, “what if the hymn brings up bad memories, despite the brilliant truth of the words?”
In my case, I grew up singing hymns and one church I attended was very stiffing for my spiritual development. I love the lyrics of the old hymns, but when I hear them sung I honestly feel my spirit stiffed by memories of that time.
So, I think one reason for retiring songs is simply to prevent them from accumulating baggage. It could be good baggage (remembering times of God’s faithfulness) or it could be negative, but either way, the song should not bring those up. I should remember the faithfulness when I’m not singing, and if a visitor left church due to bad baggage, we don’t want to bring that up the moment they come back to give church a try.
That’s one reason I’m in favor of retiring songs. It keeps the emphasis on the words and prevents any reaction to memories but rather all reactions are to what we’re saying about God.
You mention in your first paragraph that “young people” don’t like the music.
Hah – that’s the give away. All over the world church leaders are giving way to the foibles of youth, scared that they won’t otherwise attend church and that there will be no future congregations. (We don’t talk about sin much either or challenge their sexual mores for the same reason). The answers that you should not be discarding old songs and hymns but use a judicious mix from all ages so that no group in your church is disenfranchised. If the young complain give them some teaching about giving way to others (the over 50’s have had to give way to the pop culture in church for years)