Some churches sing only old songs—they rely on the great hymns of the faith and add newer selections on only the rarest of occasions. Some churches only sing new songs—they rely on their own songwriters or the Christian top-40 and sing older selections on only the rarest of occasions. I am convinced there is value in deliberately singing both the oldest and the most recent songs (though gladly extend an exception to those brothers and sisters with the conviction that the Bible permits us to sing only the psalms in our worship services).
Charles Wesley is probably the most prolific hymnwriter in history. We don’t know exactly how many he composed over the course of his lifetime, but when combined with his poems, the total likely approaches 10,000. That is an incredible body of work and it seems unlikely it will ever be matched. We still love to sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sings,” “And Can It Be?”, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” and many more.
If anyone ever did approach or even match Wesley’s total, it would be Fanny Crosby. Again, we aren’t sure exactly how many hymns she composed, especially since some were written under pseudonyms (up to 250 of them!), but the common estimate is 9,000—again a stupendous total that includes wonderful ones such as “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Saviour,” “Blessed Assurance,” “All the Way My Savior Leads Me,” and “To God Be the Glory.”
We look up to both of these musicians as our most preeminent hymnwriters. We honor them for their massive contribution to Christian worship. We continue to sing their words. Yet it’s worth considering this: How many Wesley and Crosby hymns do we actually still sing today? Even in churches still focused on hymns, could the total be more than 10 or 12 from each of them? What happened to Wesley’s other 9,990 hymns and Crosby’s other 8,988?
What happened is time. Time has a way of serving as a filter that separates good from bad and excellent from average. I presume that at one time or another Wesley debuted most of his 10,000 hymns. Somewhere and sometime a congregation sang them. My guess is that many of them were only sung once before someone kindly said, “Chuck, that one just isn’t going to cut it.” Though Wesley was brilliant, even he must have written the occasional dud. I suppose that many more were sung a few times before people realized that even though they weren’t objectively bad, they also weren’t all that good. Surely others were sung for a year or a decade or even a century before they were displaced by other hymns that dealt better with the same subject matter. Almost 250 years later, we have only the best of the best of Wesley’s hymns still in circulation. God’s people sang Wesley’s bad and mediocre songs so they could pass along the excellent ones. The same, of course, is true of Crosby and Watts and Hart and so many others.
And this shows exactly why today’s songwriters need to continue to write new songs and why today’s churches need to sing them. We are the stewards of English hymnody. We have been handed an incredible legacy and it’s our job to not only preserve it, but to also increase and refine it. We need to do for future generations what past generations did for us. To be faithful stewards we must keep singing the old songs, but also the new songs, for it’s only by singing them that we can properly assess them. We will inevitably sing some duds. We will also sing some that are just okay. But I’m sure we will also sing some generational hymns that will get better and more precious every time we sing them. And these are the ones we will then pass on to the generations that follow.
I began by saying that some churches sing only old songs and some sing only new ones. Both are faulty. To fall to the first side is to fail to take advantage of the legacy of great Christian songwriting. To fall to the other side is to fail to add to the legacy of great Christian songwriting. We faithfully steward our music when we sing the best of the old and find the best of the new. And we can do that only if we will sing!