Striking balance between old and new can end worship wars

I stood at the front of the church and watched as the congregation was led in a full slate of old hymns and familiar gospel songs. Nothing that ascended from us that morning had been composed since the 1950s. My grandparents would have been right at home there. It was the menu we are told grey-haired people (like myself) say they want from a worship leader. That was one boring service.
I grew up on those hymns, and like most veteran church-goers in that church, knew them “by heart.” I sang as lustily as I could manage while endeavoring to save voice enough to preach. But in no way did I find that song service meaningful, worshipful, or enjoyable. The problem was the familiarity of it all. I could sing those hymns in my sleep (and probably have). My mind went on vacation while my mouth sang them. And that is precisely why singing them regularly is a bad idea.
“O, sing unto the Lord a new song!” Anyone who has read his Bible much has run across that line before. To make sure we could not miss it, the Lord sprinkled throughout His Word. It can be found in Psalms 33:3, 96:1, 98:1, 144:9, 149:1, and in Isaiah 42:10. In Psalm 40:3, David testifies that after the Lord lifted him from the miry clay and gave him firm footing, “He put a new song in my mouth.” We’re told in the last book of the Bible, that in Heaven “they sang a new song” (Revelation 5:9 and 14:3).
Anyone see a pattern here? I stand before you today with a bit of news that worship leaders across the land should take to heart: not every senior member of your church is addicted to “The Old Rugged Cross.” Some of us like “O, the Wonderful Cross.” We like it because it’s fresh, it forces us to think about what we are singing, and the tune is a good one. It’s singable, worshipful, thought-provoking. And the second bit of news is that the rest of the congregation can learn to love well-written recent hymns, gospel songs, and choruses.
But give us a steady diet of anything and within a few weeks, we’ll be begging for mercy. I once heard Rick Warren say that at Saddleback, they had found that after the 17th time a song was used, it ceased to be meaningful to those singing it (pretty sure 17 was his number; I’m going by memory here).
New songs are good, but the old hymns are not bad. The ancient hymns should be taught to the youngsters (hey, they’re new to them!) and used sparingly with the old-timers. And all of us should be introduced to new hymns, gospel songs, and choruses our worship leaders have discovered and like. There should be no more worship wars. We’re all friends here. The problem is finding the balance between the old and the new, a constant tension in any entity involving more than two people. I tease pastors about the suicidal tendencies of some that will cause them to “make changes for change’ sake.” “How long have you had this death wish?” I’ll ask to their laughter. When I say that, I’m remembering how as a fresh-from-seminary preacher, I did that very thing. “Let’s put a little variety in this” was my refrain. I also tell the pastors, “There are only three Baptists in the world who enjoy change and none of them are in your church.”
Someone needs to remind our leaders to take care in introducing new methodologies, unfamiliar features, and radical alterations in any part of church. Change is not always good. Change is going on around us all the time. Many churches must change drastically and soon or they’re going to die. All of the above statements are true.
Striking the balance between what’s old and what’s fresh has always produced tension within congregations. Paul walked into Athens, the most cosmopolitan center of his day (with the possible exception of Rome), and looked around. Luke tells us, “He was greatly distressed to see the city was full of idols.” (Acts 17:16)Walking up to Mars Hill (“Areopagus”), the Hyde Park of its day--where orators of all stripes were given a soap box and allowed to speak on anything of their choosing--Paul noticed something else disturbing about his audience.  
“All the Athenians and foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.” (17:21, NIV)
Here is how Eugene Peterson puts that: “Downtown Athens was a great place for gossip. There were always people hanging around, natives and tourists alike, waiting for the latest tidbit on most anything.” They loved new ideas. It’s unstated, but we may assume this means they rejected anything they had heard before. Pastors who are always searching for new messages to challenge their people must not fall into that trap. There is a balance to be sought between the old and the new. The prophet Jeremiah watched as God’s people went after every theological fad coming over the wall. Generally, these spiritual doodads had their origins in paganism. It burdened the man of God that the children of the One True God should be so rootless as to attach themselves to these foolish notions.
Jeremiah preached, “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths; ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Jer. 6:16) Seeing God’s people as lost travelers trying to find the road home, later Jeremiah says, “Yet my people have forgotten me; they burn incense to worthless idols, which made them stumble in their ways and in the ancient paths.” Their pagan practices have pulled these pilgrims off the thoroughfares and onto “bypaths and roads not built up.” (Jer. 18:15)
Every motorist driving in an unfamiliar city has had the experience of finding he has taken a wrong turn and has ended up on some dead end street in a bad neighborhood. That’s what Jeremiah sees happening to the Lord’s people. They need to get back to the main road. There is a lot to be said--there is everything to be said!--for the old message, the ancient revelation from God, the very Word of the Lord. The people of God must beware of anyone bringing a revelation that does not conform to the one we already have. It’s what God’s word calls “adding to the Word of God,” a practice forbidden in numerous places in Scripture. Some things old we love; some we don’t care for.
It’s human nature to be more comfortable with the familiar. Jesus said, “No one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘The old is better.’“ (Luke 5:39) Nostalgia has always been with us. We speak fondly of drive-in theaters, of the first car we owned, and of the cottage we lived in as newlyweds. We enjoy perusing the old albums to see our grandparents and the old home place. But I don’t know anyone who wants to go back and live in the 1950s. It’s a good place to visit, but not to live. We want to live today and make the most of this day. Spiritual leaders can help us do this. Even the most set-in-their-ways old-timers who are giving the worship leader fits actually love a lot of new things. Check the church parking lot and you will notice they are not still driving their 1948 Packard. The clothes on their backs are not from the 1930s. Many will have computers, microwave ovens, and the latest televisions.
The most headstrong defender of the old ways will still like new things, in some ways, to some extent. A mature leader will never give in to their resistance to a new song or chorus, but will be patient in introducing these wonderful gifts. I do not know of any more significant truth to lay before God’s people--and to keep it in front of their eyes--than this: Jesus Christ came doing new things. On every page of the gospels, He is surprising his audiences. Almost nothing the Lord did was what they expected.
Those who know the Word are not blindsided by this. God said, “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:19) His people are a new creation and are given a new name. His gospel is new wine poured into new skins. We are promised a new heaven and new earth. We have received a new commandment, made to become part of a new and living way.
Your pastor and I will be preaching Sunday. And even though we will aim for freshness in our perspective and approach, don’t expect anything you haven’t heard before unless you are new in the family. We’ll be opening the old Book, reading a familiar text, and leading you down a familiar path. We will then ask you to do the same old thing we’ve been calling for through the years: commit your ways to Jesus Christ and follow Him.
If you come and participate, if you hear the Lord speaking within your heart and get up and give your life to Him, what happens next will be the newest thing on the planet. You will become a new person and God will do a new original thing in your life, something like what He has done in millions of others but something completely unique to you. I don’t know what that is. It’s new. It’s up to Him. It will conform to the plans He has had for you from the beginning. Oh, don’t miss this. And don’t let the enemy dull your mind and pull you onto a side road with his enticements of fads and foolishness.
God has big plans for you. He will do something in you and through you unlike what He has done in anyone else since the world began. You are a new creation. Something new under the sun. That is why we keep preaching the old message. It gives hope for a new mankind.

“Tell me the story of Jesus,
Write on my heart every word;
Tell me the story most precious,
Sweetest that ever was heard.
Love in that story so tender
Clearer than ever I see.
Stay, let me weep while you whisper
Love paid the ransom for me.”

Thank you, Fannie Crosby. You wrote that in 1880. Good job.
(Dr. Joe McKeever is a Preacher, Cartoonist, and the Director of Missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. Visit him at