When I was a Boarding Chaplain (and teacher) in a Lutheran school in Australia where students had daily chapel and the boarders also had Sunday evening chapel, there was one song that was often chosen by them and sung year in and year out – even though I might occasionally comment that it was best suited for Transfiguration Sunday – ‘Shine Jesus shine!’. Then it was around 10 years old but it had already become part of the church scene. When the ELCE produced the 758+ Songbook in 1994, the song was included. It has become part of the church musical landscape.
I don’t how many Christians songs are written each year and my guess would be thousands but it is obvious that the treasury of Christian music and songs is ever expanding. Each generation can be frustrated with the songs they sing and want ‘something new’. The story is told of a young man frustrated by the heartless psalm singing in the church of his time and was vocally critical to which his father responded, “Well then, young man, why don’t you give us something better to sing?”. The young man went did just that and wrote his first hymn – ‘Behold the Glories of the Lamb’. The year was 1696! The young man was Isaac Watts who has come to be known as the Father of English Hymnody.
The Lutheran Church was known as the singing church because of its innovation of congregational singing. We all know the value and power to remember and retain things when tune and words are combined well. Martin Luther is popularly thought to have taken the ‘tavern tunes’ and the ‘love songs’ of his day as the musical basis for his hymns. This wasn’t really the case because Luther was very serious and precious about the Word of God and how the words of the songs and how the tune that carries them allows the Word of God to be heard – to become part of the singer – to be part of us.
Over the centuries the Church wants to retain songs that have stood the test of time and keep singing them. Not even every song in a hymnal is remembered. But at the same time the Church needs to encourage Christian composers and song writers of each generation to produce new songs that also speak today. Most of the Christian songs ever written will be forgotten in time. Only those songs that people cherish – they probably like the tune – they definitely like the words – will last the test of time and become part of the Church’s common memory – sung by generation after generation through centuries.
I would suggest that the songs that focus on us and our feelings and what we do for God will quickly fade but the songs that draw us to God and who he is and what he has done in Jesus Christ and how he defines life and us are the ones that last the test of time.
‘Shine, Jesus, shine’ is less than 40 years old. Will the Church be singing it still in 400 years? Whatever happens, I hope the Church’s ‘traditional’ song list is ever expanding as we sing songs from the past and dip into songs of the present so that we are reminded who we are before God and that God is always worth our praise! So let’s keep singing!