In the text of Scripture, we see unequivocal commands to sing a new song to the Lord. Psalms 96, 98, and 149 all begin with such a command, and likewise, we see reference to a new song in Psalm 33:33 and Isaiah 42:10. As a worship leader, I must navigate the treacherous waters of calamity between old and new music. Personally, as I have grown older, my approach to worship has become more formal in nature. Understand clearly, however, that this approach has little to do with musical style and more to do with the way I approach the entirety of the worship experience. With such specific commands to sing a new song given in the Bible though, we must grapple with this idea and faithfully employ it in the worship of the church. With that stated, there are four thoughts I have on new music in worship.
Compatibility between New and Old
First, the command to sing a new song does not negate the importance of an old one, i.e. new and old music are both compatible and useful in worship. In fact, we see both in Scripture, e.g. those who conquered the beast sing the song of Moses (Rev 15:3). I submit then that we should not choose between old and new, but rather we should retain both. The two are not mutually exclusive but are, in fact, mutually compatible. In singing both old and new music, the church also draws a connection with saints of the past, who are surely part of the same family of God as Christians today. Both new and old music then should be utilized in the church's worship practices.
Content, Not Age
Second, the substance of music in worship should be the content, not the age of the music. I am mostly referring to text, but certainly musical elements should be involved in this discussion as well. Contrary to popular belief, old hymns do not exclusively contain deep theological truth, and modern music does not exclusively contain shallow theology. It does not take much searching to find hymns with incredibly shallow theology and modern songs with incredibly rich theology, often much richer than most hymns. Furthermore, we should consider what constitutes old music. Relatively speaking, even most hymns we sing are not that old. Many young people might think that a song written five years ago is old. It can be subjective. From personal experience, I have often led hymns in worship services which are hundreds of years old (both text and melody) and then heard complaints that I needed to lead older hymns. I think it is because people often do not know some of these old hymns, thus proving that the age of the music has little to do with one's comfort or discomfort. Likewise, I have led modern songs with rich theology and heard people complain that the text is shallow; when reasoned against most hymns, however, some of these songs will far outweigh many hymns in depth of theology. What matters here is the content. It certainly helps to sing a familiar melody and worship leaders need to be careful in crafting services which contain enough of that element, but the age of the music does not matter; it is instead the content of what is being sung.
Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs
The Apostle Paul tells us to admonish one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph 5:19). It is evident, from this scripture, that there should be differences in the music we sing. Often, people associate hymns here with the hymns we sing from our hymnals, although that is an incorrect connection because these are vastly different hymns. In fact, I dare say that our churches do not use the hymns Paul is referring to. The specific meaning of each of these categories is much debated. I would like to share what I think they mean.
I believe psalms to refer to what is given in the book of Psalms. The book of Psalms is often referred to as the hymnal of Israel. These texts and tunes were so widely used in Jewish culture that Paul surely would have been familiar with them as a part of public worship. Hymns would likely refer to songs of praise to God or about him for specific use in Christian worship. That is certainly applicable to what is in our hymnals, but the texts and tunes used in Paul's day would have been different. It should also be pointed out that it is proper to not only sing songs to God but also about him. Corporate worship is the unified body of Christ offering worship to their covenant God; there is not only a vertical aspect to worship but also a horizontal aspect where the body is unified and communes with their God in Christ. For this reason then, I have no problem with singing songs both to God and about him. Paul finally mentions spiritual songs. Spiritual songs likely have a broader meaning that psalms and hymns. Today we could perhaps consider these to be Christian songs we might hear on the radio that have a gospel message but might not be conducive to corporate worship. These categories of song, whether new or old, are told to be used to admonish one another, i.e. they are all useful in the kingdom of God.
Now the Issue: Why a New Song?
The issue here is new music. Why does Scripture give an explicit command to sing a new song? Both new and old music are okay, but our comfort level is often violated if we are not familiar with a text or tune. I have found that even setting a new text to a familiar tune is difficult for some people. If we have such a problem with change and newness then, why is the command given in the Bible? I have three reasons I would like to suggest.
First, we are told that the mercies of the Lord are new each morning (Lam 3:23). With new mercies, we should be ever thankful as God's people, and new responses should be inspired. Secondly, the work of the Holy Spirit is continuous and, therefore, always fresh. The Holy Spirit's work should also inspire new songs of praise. Thirdly, our human minds respond better and more to newness than oldness. Have you ever had the experience of singing a familiar text to a new tune or in a different style than you had in the past? Often, the response, in our minds, is a freshness to what we are singing and a renewed realization of the textual meaning. The newness usually causes us to respond actively rather than passively and eliminates the dullness of routine. Routine is not bad; it is our own fault for allowing routine to cause complacency, but a fresh approach to music often livens our senses to worship. I believe these are all reasons to sing a new song to the Lord.
Conclusion: We Must Sing a New Song
In any case, the Bible overtly commands us to sing a new song to the Lord. In the name of obedience then, we should embrace that call and respond accordingly with joy. We are the redeemed people of God. Let us, therefore, sing a new song to our creator in response to his great and abounding love and mercy and who he is.