When should old worship songs be retired?

I was talking with a pastor the other day about one of his worship leaders who has a hard time leaving old songs behind (as in “Shine, Jesus, Shine”). Apparently there are a few songs from the 80s that the worship leader still finds quite moving. Unfortunately, the pastor and many young members of the congregation don’t share his enthusiasm.

Our conversation led me to think of a few questions that might be asked in this situation:

Is it wrong to retire old songs?
If so, how do you know the right time?
Do we even need to be singing new songs?
What makes a song “old?”
Once a song is retired, should we ever bring it back?

Here are a few thoughts on this topic. Hope they’re helpful.

1. Most corporate worship songs won’t pass the “time test.” That’s okay.
Charles Wesley wrote over 6500 hymns in the 1700s. Three hundred years later most churches don’t sing more than 20-30 of them. Percentage-wise, that’s not very impressive. But in terms of effect, few hymn writers have had a more lasting or broad influence than Wesley (Although Isaac Watts, who only wrote about 650 hymns, has a much higher percentage of longevity.) It’s safe to say that in a hundred years we won’t be singing most of the songs we’re singing today on Sundays. Some will last one week, others for a few years, some for decades, and others will still be sung after we’re gone. All have a place in a congregation pursuing both old and new expressions – psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs – of God’s praise. (Col. 3:16)

2. Music can hinder or help the impact of truth on our hearts.
One of the primary purposes of singing as a congregation is to “let the word of Christ dwell in us richly,” (Col. 3:16). But if that word is wedded to poorly performed, unsingable, or distasteful music, people may never hear the word at all. On the other hand when the music is appropriate, enjoyable, singable, and well-played/sung, it can heighten the impact of biblical truth on our hearts. That means we need to give serious thought to whether or not the songs, arrangements, and musical settings we use are truly helping people sing biblical truths with passion. Churches can err in one of two ways. Either our music is so “relevant” that people don’t even notice the words, or our music is so foreign that people have a hard time connecting at all.

3. A song should be retired when the musical setting no longer inspires faith to sing the lyrics.
God intended music to affect us emotionally (Mt. 11:17; Job 21:12). When a tune or musical setting no longer does that, or affects us negatively, we can change the arrangement, alter the melody (if it’s public domain), or stop using the song. It’s a fact that we tire of some tunes more quickly than others. That doesn’t necessarily mean they were bad to start with. It just means they aren’t the “100 year” kind of melodies. Wise leaders are on the lookout for fresh musical expressions to complement those that have stood the test of time.

4. A song should be retired when there are better or just different songs you want to introduce.
More than a few times we’ve taught a song that seems like it will be around for a while. But when you teach around 18 new songs a year, as we do, there’s just no way to keep doing all of them consistently. So some of them are retired by default.

5. Music leaders are called to submit their musical preferences to their pastor and congregation.
I said in my book that my iPod isn’t the best place to start for choosing songs to sing on Sunday. What affects me personally may be vague, ineffective, or even offensive to others. We’re to use our gifts “so that the church may be built up” (1 Cor. 14:6). While there are good reasons to expand the musical palate of a congregation from time to time (to display the glory of God in a variety of ways, enable a broader range of emotional responses, and provide a fresh setting for lyrics), I shouldn’t insist a song still “works” when no one around me agrees.

6. Retired songs should be brought back based on their their lyrical, not sentimental, value.
To sing a song simply because it’s a “old favorite” can subtly emphasize our musical enjoyment more than our passion for Christ. It’s focusing on the “container” more than the “content” (an upcoming post). But there are times when an old, familiar song says exactly what you want to say, and people’s hearts are filled with faith as they sing it (even “Shine, Jesus, Shine”). In the not too distant past I’ve used “In my Life Lord, Be Glorified,””Oh, Lord, You’re Beautiful,” and a few older Sovereign Grace songs that seemed to fit the moment.

More could be said, I’m sure. What about you? How have you handled retiring songs?

Jacked from Bob Kauflin

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