Church music should always feel similar to hearing a really convicting or pertinent sermon. Its mission is not merely to declare (very poetically) the wonder of God’s goodness—a task, in the abstract, I absolutely do not dismiss—but its mission should also be to fight the relevant battles of today. Think of the way a prophet didn’t simply wax metaphysical on God and pearly gates and Jesus’ tears, but he offered the king tactical advice on present concerns. Church music must be relevant. There, I said it. Church music must be relevant to what we’re facing today. But there are two ways to be relevant, or so I’ve noticed.
Think of a battle. There are many ways to lose a battle, but I can think of two that are perhaps the worst. First, you can lay down your arms and embrace your enemy. That’s pretty bad. Or, you can leave the battlefield and go pretend to fight in the battle of Agincourt against imaginary French chevaliers. That’s maybe even worse. And there, in a nutshell, you have the two camps of Church music: the contemporary camp, for whom the word “relevant” is holiness-code for “worldly”, and the traditional camp, which can’t think of anything so dangerous as actually fighting the battles of today.
I mean “relevant” in the sense of anti-worldly. We need to be relevant to the world in the sense that we can attack it, not in the sense that we imitate it. So when David Erb or Mark Reagan writes something contemporary that sounds absolutely nothing like anything anybody else is writing, everyone says, “Well, that’s not really contemporary.” What they mean is that, in order to be contemporary, you have to mold yourself exactly to what the world is doing. Otherwise, you’re just a paltry imitation of the past. But the strange option of actually being contemporary and doing something different from the zeitgeist, well, is not to be borne, Miss Bennet.
Church music needs to be like the sermon. It must ride between the twin ditches of the contemporary camp and the traditionalist camp. It cannot plaster over zits, it must pop them. But it needs to pop the zits on my congregation’s face, not on the face of a congregation from 200 years ago. Toby Sumpter doesn’t lecture his congregation on the evils of alcoholism, urging temperance to all the indolent fathers, so why should his congregation sing hymns written by Sanky? (Thankfully, they don’t.) Douglas Wilson doesn’t urge his congregation to withdraw from public schools. They already are. Nor do either of them, though, compromise on homosexuality just to appeal to a broader crowd. No, pastors are supposed to prophetically fight the battles they’re faced with. Petty sins of individuals, and broad cultural battles.
So, that’s why, even though it’s 100 years old, “O God of Earth and Altar” is not, for now, a traditional hymn that can receive censure as such. It’s terribly relevant. “From all the easy speeches That comfort cruel men; From sleep and from damnation, Deliver us, good Lord!” Fuguing tunes have a fighting, impertinent independence about them, as attractive to us as is the 18th c. New England politics they grew out of . This church music is pragmatic. These weapons are particularly deadly to the enemy.
But, I feel bound to stress, that is the best and, perhaps, the only reason for using older music, music of a different era. Because older music is traditional? Because it connects us with past saints? Because it indicates we have a healthy respect for the past? Show me these principles in the Bible. If such principles exist, they poorly justify the wanton traditionalism that infects much of the conservative Church. The principle, on the other hand, that falls everywhere out of the Bible is to sing a new song. Every time a prophet comes along, he sings a new song. He does it by reminding us of older things, like Jeremiah reminding Israel to find the old paths. But he never just parrots David’s psalms, he retells David’s stories. He never quotes lengthy passages of Deuteronomy, he glorifies Deuteronomy in the retelling with new melodies and poetry. So we should write contemporary music.
But Jeremiah never thought that being a prophet meant encouraging allying Israel with Pharaoh. He never thought that imitation of the world was a prophet’s message. That is absurd. Just as absurd as thinking that being relevant means inviting a metal band on stage so you can say on FB for all your pagan friends to hear, “Worship really rocked this morning.” So we should write better contemporary music.