The Song Remains the Same

My first experience with Church was forty years ago at St John’s Methodist in Sunderland (pictured). For most of the time I was in Sunday School, but we also went into ‘big’ services from time to time. Our songs all came from the red-bound Methodist Hymnal. Despite the fact that we only sang out of the same book, we seemed to have a huge number of songs to sing and rarely repeated anything. But despite the fact that we had a huge variety of songs, no one ever needed to teach us new songs – there was something about the hymn tunes that made them easy to pick up.

My experience today is more or less exactly the opposite. We are living in an age where good (and it has to be said not-so-good) Christian songs are being written in unparalleled numbers. We no longer have a fixed canon of songs, defined by a hymn book, but we dip into the bottomless treasure trove that is songs-on-PowerPoint. Why then, do we seem to sing far fewer songs now than we used to in my youth? The same old new-songs keep coming round again and again (and singing some songs three or four times over makes it feel like they come round even more often). Not only that, but when a new song is introduced, someone has to teach it to us, it seems that Christian songs these days are so complex that a congregation can no longer just pick them up as they go along.

Now, I grew up in the Seventies; my musical influences are Led Zeppelin, Free and Pink Floyd – organ music and old hymn tunes are not my music of choice. But, the variety, profundity and simplicity of the Christian hymns I grew up does make a lot of current Christian songs seem shallow by comparison.

A thought as I close this post: is modern music (so much of which is designed to be sung by one person, not a choir or individual) actually not a good vehicle for corporate worship? Is there anyone better qualified in these areas than me who might care to comment?

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6 thoughts on “The Song Remains the Same

  1. Eddie

    I’ve been pondering a response to this for the last few days. I’m not 100% convinced by my thoughts, but I’ll stick my two size 10’s in the water and see if there’s any comeback.

    I think my experience matches yours to a certain extent. You grew up to the Methodist Hymnal, I got Hymns of Praise. At a guess, if you stuck the two books next to each other you’d probably find that 80% of the content is exactly the same. The really exciting bit was trying to find the five or six hymns that didn’t have a death date for the author, or to find someone who had died in the same century as the current year.

    The language tended to be ‘old’ and the tunes only went at the speed that the ageing organist could play at (got to be careful with that statement as my mum is currently the ageing organist).

    You’re right though, we seemed to know every hymn in the book. There, I think, are a couple of reasons for this.
    1. While there were a number of hymns, there were only a few tunes. Every so often we would get a new(ish) or rarely sung him and the tune would be changed to one that we all knew.
    2. It’s not that difficult to learn a song when all the verses (4, 5, 6, 7) have the same tune. The modern songs usually throw in a bridge just to mix it up a bit.
    3. People would sing, even if they weren’t sure where the tune was going.

    Today.

    We need teaching because people won’t sing unless everyone else is singing. Even if 10% of the congregation knows the song, they won’t belt it out for everyone to join in until they are sure they won’t be the only ones.

    In our context we only sing a few songs because those who choose them don’t have the knowledge of songs to choose anything different. You need to lead services regularly to broaden your knowledge of songs/hymns and occasionally make the effort to hear some new stuff outside of church.

    There also used to be a time when the minister would choose the songs. This had the advantage that while he (she?) was preparing the service they would also be able to think about what people would sing. Today the songs are usually chosen before the sermon has been written.

    People aren’t trained to lead services. I only know that they do this for Methodist churches, but it doesn’t happen for Independent Evangelical churches like the ones we know.

    My question about corporate worship
    Does corporate worship, in our context, mean that everyone has to take part in the singing? Can a band play… singers sing… and by listening we (the congregation) be part of it?

  2. Eddie – everything changes fast these days. Would you expect the life expectancy of a song to be longer than your mobile phone? Is this good? Not sure, but it is certainly the case so might as well get the best out of the situation I’d have thought.

    Phil – I’d have thought so. Probably depends on what you are trying to achieve. Your comments on training and why more songs aren’t used are spot on. One of those things that you would have thought would be relatively easy to sort out, but never seem to be sorted out. I assume its simply too far down the priority list of those responsible.

  3. You’ve missed my point Chris – or I made it badly. It isn’t that we have lots of change now, in fact it’s the opposite. In my experience (around the country, not just in one church) the variety of songs sung is actually much smaller than it used to be. Yes, new stuff is introduced, but that still doesn’t stop us falling back on the same few favourites. Whereas in my youth (all those years ago) we never sung any new (as in written in the last fifty years) songs, but we didn’t sing the same songs very often either – we had much more variety without innovation than we seem to have today despite all the new stuff being written. I just find it rather strange.

  4. I think perhaps another reason is that there tends to be a different service leader/team planning each service and therefore they are not necessarily aware of what was chosen at a different service that same day let alone the week before or the week before that. This doesn’t explain why songs tend to be chosen from a relatively small selection though, just why with separate music teams and leaders for each service it’s possible to sing a song in a morning service and the same one again in the evening.

  5. The thing is Sue, I’m not just thinking about the one church – the same few songs seem to come round wherever I go (including in other languages!).

  6. I think to a certain extent we’ve dismissed what’s gone before too quickly. The tunes aren’t funky enough, or the words too old so we’ve ditched the songs. Unfortunately, some of those songs had some pretty decent lyrics. Too often now songs are chosen because they are popular, rather than because of what they have to say. Again, comes down to encouraging and training leaders of services – investing in people.

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