Here’s a funny little set of facts that you’ll only hear from someone like me. In 1991, The Baptist Hymnal was revised for the first time since 1975. During the revision process some 8000 songs were evaluated for inclusion. The potential entries were pared down by multiple committees (the Baptist way) to 800 songs. Of the 650 hymns included in the final work, 200 were “classics” and the other 450 were all new material.
The hymnal was revised again in 2008, and of the 650 hymns included in that hymnal, only 300 of them were new. In the 17 years between revisions, the amount of music written for corporate worship increased exponentially along with a massive surge in global availability with a new era of digital distribution. During such unprecedented increase of new music available to the church, the “official” Baptist adoption of new music actually decreased.
So, are representatives of the Southern Baptist denomination just increasingly reluctant to adopt new music? Or is it that, after 17 years of welcoming new music into the church, we have become disillusioned with contemporaneity, believing that it’s positive impact has been oversold? Or is it simply that new media has made paper hymnals increasingly obsolete? Is it that the only people left who are still interested in a paper hymnal are only interested in the old stuff anyway? Perhaps the answers aren’t so simple.
Increase in quantity does not equal increase in quality. Great musicians know this. Until you can make a melody with 5 notes, using 500 notes doesn’t help. Or, for the non-musician: Have you ever endured a story told using 500 words when 50 would suffice? Just because there is more Christian music available to us, doesn’t mean any of it is any good.
Nevertheless, a decrease in quantity is no guarantee of an increase in quality. In a trumpet solo, sometimes less notes are just less notes. Google’s famously simple homepage is beautiful, but not merely because it is simple. It’s beautiful because it’s both simple and awesome. Google is the “portal gun” of the entire internet. Hymnals are increasingly less representative of the rising cream of Christian music because printed hymnals are necessarily exclusive. Once they are printed, they are printed. To expect Baptist printed media to keep up with the rising tide of music is asking an awful lot of the SBC. And adopting a new hymnal is asking a lot of churches. Asking a church to part with an old hymnal is an emotional experience overlaid with enormous financial implications. And hymnals are no portal gun.
That’s where I come in. I’m a worship pastor in a local church. I sift through thousands of songs on a regular basis evaluating them for theological accuracy and usefulness in edifying my congregation. I’m searching for the best of the best. Sometimes that’s in a hymnal, sometimes it’s elsewhere. I don’t care where I get it, or when it was written, as long as it helps my congregation engage with God through Christ and encourage each other with the gospel. Because what we sing really matters! As Wesley Forbis wrote in the introduction to the 1991 Baptist Hymnal,
“Congregations not only influence what they will sing, but they are also shaped by what they sing.”
It would be foolish and irresponsible for me to select substandard music for the edification of those whom God has entrusted to my care, simply because it’s in the 1991 Baptist Hymnal (the hymnal we currently have in our pews). And it would be equally foolish for me to reject awesome music because it’s not in the hymnal. The songs we sing wield power in our lives, so they must be selected with care.
New material for the 1991 Baptist Hymnal was reviewed by (you guessed it) the New Materials Committee which was charged with the responsibility of securing and recommending songs from a wide variety of sources. My friend and personal hero, Danny Martinez, served on this committee. Over 4000 potential entries were reviewed. That’s a lot of music, but frankly, it’s a fraction of the number I can filter through in the average year using modern resources. And it’s not that I don’t trust Danny’s Martinez’ judgement, he’s certainly a wiser man than I, filled with the Holy Spirit. It’s just that I trust the same Holy Spirit to guide me as well.
Moreover, Danny served faithfully for decades at Immanuel Baptist Church in Highland, CA. After considering the outcome of his way of life, I want to imitate his faith (Hebrews 13:7). One of the hallmarks of his ministry at IBC was to share with people his love for new and excellent music, slowly and patiently. He always selected music that exalted Christ and encouraged his particular church with the gospel, and that’s what I want to emulate. God hasn’t called me to Immanuel, but He has called me to my church, and I’m thankful for Danny’s example to follow.
As a worship pastor, I want to guide those under my care to adopt music into their spiritual memory-banks that is not less than awesome. If that means repeating the same old song over and over until we finally understand and apply the message of the gospel contained in the lyrics, so be it. If that means digging through old hymnals for several hours, or digging into the far reaches of the internet for several nanoseconds (thank you Google) to find and teach them exceptional new music, so be it.
In the appendix of Spiritual Melody, Containing Near Three Hundred Sacred Hymns, a hymnal published in 1691, Benjamin Keach, pastor of the Horsley-Down Baptist Church in London, accurately observed:
“‘Tis no easie thing to break people of a mistaken notion,”
In the same way that the “worship wars” divide churches over musical genre, Horsley-Down Baptist Church was plagued by a divisive battle over the inclusion of congregational singing in worship services. Keach and other pastors during that time were faithful to patiently and clearly provide biblical teaching for their congregations. Slowly, and by God’s grace, the church was drawn out of their spirit of disunity into God-honoring obedience to the biblical commands to teach each other the gospel using passionate corporate singing.
We must never be held captive by the mistaken notion that new music is bad because it is new, or that old music is bad because it is old. And it is an equally grievous error to assume that new music is good because it is new, or that old music is good because it is old. It is my prayer that the generation of worship leaders that comes behind me will have found me faithful to the scriptures, which repeatedly instruct believers to corporately sing both new and old songs with passion, repetition, and exuberance.