The psalmist commands us, “Sing to the Lord a new song. Then sing several familiar songs.”
Okay, I made that last part up. Lest I be cursed for adding to Scripture, I’ll go ahead and recant. But I do think it’s good (albeit uninspired) advice. Let me explain.
Several months ago a pastor friend asked me (1) how many new songs a congregation can learn in a calendar year, and (2) how often to introduce them. Both are great questions. There’s no chapter and verse on a church’s repertoire (check your concordance, if you’d like), so there will certainly be varied opinions. Some might say, “The more new songs, the better!” Some might say (or shout), “No new songs! Evah!” Here’s my two cents:
First, I think it’s healthy for the church to learn new or new-to-us songs. Both are important. Over the years, I’ve been glad to introduce new songs like “In Christ Alone” and “Jesus, Thank You” to the people I’ve pastored. We’re blessed to live in a time when there are excellent congregational songs being written—honestly, more than we can get to! On the other hand, the churches I’ve served have been equally blessed to learn Isaac Watts’ “How Sweet and Awesome Is the Place.” What I’m looking for is doctrinal clarity, textual artistry, and musical excellence, regardless of the song’s age. That said, I want to sing truths penned over a variety of eras (think centuries, not decades). If everything you’re singing in a given worship service was written in the last 20 years, that’s probably not a good thing. So sing Getty and Kauflin, but don’t displace Watts and Wesley.
Second, I think congregations are justly frustrated when they are force-fed too many unfamiliar songs, especially in a single service. Introduce a “Hymn of the Month” and sing it every Lord’s Day that month so they learn it well. You might introduce it with a soloist the first week, or use some other creative means to teach it. But here’s the key: the rest of the songs in those services had better be extremely familiar. I love new songs. I write them! But I hate being in a church service or conference where I’m mumbling through multiple unfamiliar songs. I’m eager to learn a new song, especially if the text and tune are obviously worth the effort. But then give me a chance to uncork on “And Can It Be” or “Arise My Soul, Arise.” To keep from frustrating people like me, I’d suggest a single new hymn of the month, probably every other month.
Finally, whether songs are old or new, choose well. Choose the absolute cream. You can probably sing five songs in a given worship service. When you say yes to those five, you’re saying no to literally thousands of others. So don’t just look for a recent radio hit, or something peppy, or something from a favorite writer. Do the work to discover truly great songs, old and new. Ask like-minded friends for good suggestions. Plan ahead. Then teach those new (or forgotten) songs intentionally, a little at a time.
And whatever you do, let the people sing!