Worship leaders Keith and Kristyn Getty recently updated a famous missions hymn—“Facing a Task Unfinished”—in order to inspire evangelism. Meanwhile, the Hymn Society released 55 old melodies with new lyrics about terrorism, dementia, climate change, and other modern topics.
Should we update old hymns to address modern themes? Here's how experts weighed in. Answers are arranged on a spectrum from “yes” answers at the top to “no” answers at the bottom.
“As someone who is a product of hip-hop culture, I have a high level of respect for the ‘remix.’ In my majority African American church, we add verses, change words, rewrite songs, and tweak rhythms all the time in order to speak to the specific moment and needs of the congregation.”
~Jonathan Brooks, senior pastor, Canaan Community Church, Chicago, Illinois
“It is invaluable to draw on the best historical texts in ways that correct our own cultural near-sightedness. Frequently, older texts need to be edited, with care taken to strengthen theological and poetic integrity. I am deeply thankful for prophetic and pastoral songwriters who address contemporary concerns in a Trinitarian, gospel-centered way.”
~John D. Witvliet, director, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship
“It is very appropriate to renew or update hymn texts, as long as the central tenets of truth are preserved. Creativity is one of the traits of our Creator that we uniquely share with him. Would Beethoven be happy about every version of ‘Joyful, Joyful’? Probably not. But I’m convinced he would be thrilled that his work lives on generation to generation.”
~Mike Harland, director, LifeWay Worship
“It can be appropriate to make changes when the original words have lost their meaning. But we need to be careful. Too often, these updates show a lack of respect and understanding of the original hymn. It is unlikely we are going to improve Wesley, Beethoven, or Vaughan Williams. So we must proceed with caution.”
~Greg Scheer, author, The Art of Worship
“Don’t take an old melody and put new lyrics to it if the old text was about something completely different. Old hymn lyrics should change [only] if the words carry new associations that are too difficult to work around. It does not minimize the power of a hymn to say it has served well, and its season is finished.”
~Josh Davis, coauthor, Worship Together in Your Church as in Heaven
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