Sing a new song: Making space for new music

There are few things that stir the hearts and minds of people like music.

The great theologian and hymn writer Martin Luther once said, “…next to the word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts and spirits… A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; He should be permitted to hear nothing but braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.”

This mildly offensive, if not somewhat humorous, quote by Luther demonstrates both the benefit of music and the visceral response it elicits. Few mediums are more effective at communicating a message and helping people commit it to memory. This is beyond debate.

I know how to “Walk Like an Egyptian” today because of the classic song by the band The Bangles. The song was released in 1986 when I was but a wee lad of 6, and I can still sing every word and do every motion when the song plays in my hearing. It might actually be better to say I am incapable of not singing along and doing the motions when the song comes on.

But I also understand the “Amazing Grace” of the “Awesome God” whose son “Jesus Loves Me” because of songs I learned when I was a kid.

Music also has an unmatched ability to stir responses in our hearts and even to inspire allegiance to particular artists or styles. This is not only beyond debate but confirmed by debate. This can be seen in culture at large, but nowhere is it more clearly seen than within the church.

The “worship wars” of recent years have been well documented, but the battle between contemporary and traditional music has been raging for generations. Our emotional and intellectual attachment to the music that speaks to and moves us inspires us to devalue and attack that which we see as other.

As far as message and music in the church is concerned, very few are more respected than Isaac Watts. He is considered by many “the father of English hymnody.” His hymns include “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past” and the classic Christmas carol “Joy to the World.”

In many circles, he is the standard bearer for traditional church music. As a young man, Isaac Watts continually complained about the “deplorable state” of congregational singing. He and many others couldn’t connect with the slower pace and style of the traditional songs of their day.

In response, his pastor/father challenged him, “Why don’t you give us something better, young man?” That very day, Isaac wrote his first hymn, and it was debuted at the evening service which was “well received” by the people.

Not everybody loved the new music Watts was producing, though. Many contemporaries referred to his songs as “Watts’ whims.” One man lamented, “Christian congregations have shut out divinely inspired psalms and taken in Watts’ flights of fancy.”

I shudder to think of what would have been lost had Isaac Watts’ father joined with the traditionalists in disparaging the “contemporary” music Isaac was creating, muting his gifted voice. The great truths of the faith would have still, no doubt, been communicated, but would they have been shared in such inspirational and lasting ways?

It’s ironic. That which we now consider the very definition of traditional music was once considered contemporary worship. And many of the same critiques levied against modern worship songs were used against the great Isaac Watts. Watts simply did what should be done in every age. He took music that spoke to people’s souls and paired it with a message that could save them.

As is often said, the message doesn’t change, but the method must. We may love certain styles of music and dislike others, but we must always remember music is a temporal tool used to communicate timeless truths.

Numerous times in the Psalms, we are encouraged to “sing a new song to the Lord.” While it is vital we make sure the message is clear and understandable, it is equally important to use styles that will enable effective transmission.

Styles of music will continue to change and develop over time. With God’s help, the church will continue to adopt and adapt those styles to communicate the truth of God’s word to emerging generations in culturally relevant ways.

My hope is that we would join with the psalmist and the father of Isaac Watts and encourage young musicians to “give us something better” in order that we might consistently “sing a new song to the Lord.”

The Rev. Jeremy Myers is the lead pastor of First Baptist Church in Seymour. Read his blog at Send comments to [email protected].