The Test of Time
We’ve all heard it, I’m sure; such and such work of something has withstood the test of time… whether it’s referring to classical music, literature, church music, art, or what have you, it seems it’s a common idea.
So, my question is; just what does this test of time actually gain for us? Please note that I am primarily speaking of lyrics, not music.
Cannot Trust Time
My first point is: we cannot trust this idea of a test of time. With church music specifically in mind, a number of different theologies from what I believe were quite common in the past; for example, the church = Israel. The test of time isn’t going to get rid of that.
How about the Roman Catholic Church music? There’s a lot of “maryology” as it’s termed, that Protestants would not agree with at all. But many of those songs have been around for quite a while.
Short version: regardless of how old a song/hymn is, it needs to be read just as critically as a new song. Age does not mean it’s good nor bad.
Time Misses Songs
Bach’s music was basically lost after he died, for about 100 years, until Mendelssohn found it and started performing it. I guess Bach’s music hadn’t withstood the test of time until then… and when Mendelssohn found it, it was new to people! But, we all agree now that it’s great.
Short version: there are many old songs that are unknown but are really good. Hymnals and publications can only make so many songs common/well known. The Wesleys wrote a ton of songs; we only know a small subset, and often just a subset of verses, from them. Are all Wesley hymns great? No. But there are a lot of good ones that we don’t know, too, perhaps even on topics that we don’t often sing about. Same with many other past hymn writers.
Good Songs Written Now
Songs are being written now that are good, too… both in contemporary and traditional styles. Just because it’s not old doesn’t mean it’s bad (or good, for that matter!). Since we already need to read songs critically, regardless of how old they are, then why should we wait for this test of time? We’re supposed to determine whether or not a song is good for our congregations based on biblical criteria and our own Spirit-guided wisdom. The primary advantage I see to using old songs (aside from the fact that there have been many talented hymn writers in the past!) is that it can bring to mind the idea that there have been many Christians devoted to Christ who have lived and died before us. However, what got kept around due to what publishers decided to publish does not seem to really be that good of an indicator as to the song’s applicability to my current congregation.
Bottom Line: Pick Songs Critically Regardless of Age
People change, languages change, cultures change, songs change, modes of expression change. I need to pick songs with a biblical criteria first and foremost; time is not one of them. I have found some old songs that express things very well, and I have not come across one that expresses it better. I have also found some new songs that express things better than any old song I’ve come across on the same topic. Is that somewhat subjective? Yes, once the clear biblical things are taken care of (primarily theology), a lot of it is somewhat subjective … and I need to make sure it’s not just me that I have in mind, but the entire congregation.