Avoiding “Chronological Snobbery” in Your Worship

Avoiding

I recently read an article that quoted a megachurch pastor describing why his church hardly ever sings one of their most famous songs anymore, which was written all the way back in the medieval ages of 2012. That’s right: It’s four years old, and it’s already out of the rotation.

This is one sad example of what C.S. Lewis described as “chronological snobbery.” It’s an “uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate of our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on the count discredited.” 

Of course, chronological snobbery can work both ways. In many cases, it leads to an uncritical rejection of anything new, leading to an assumption that whatever has gone before is to be preferred.

I like this quote from G.K. Chesterton, describing a different way to view this whole idea of old-versus-new:

Real development is not leaving things behind, as on a road, but drawing life from them, as a root.

As it pertains to what we sing in church, it’s very important for worship leaders to resist “chronological snobbery,” and instead view the songs that have come before more like roots, from which we can (and should) draw.

Yesterday at my church I shared the following article in our weekly newsletter:

Did you know that on any given Sunday here at Truro, the songs we sing aren’t just spanning recent years or decades, but are also spanning several centuries? Not only are different musical styles and liturgical prayers converging, but songs that were written just months ago or hundreds of years ago are converging too. How exciting, and what a beautiful reflection of a God whose greatness is unsearchable (Psalm 145:3). In today’s worship guide, you’ll notice that we’ve included the year that each song was written, to help us be more mindful that our congregational worship is an intentional and prayerful blend of old and new, ancient and modern, all for the glory of Jesus Christ.

We sang some modern worship songs, we sang old hymns and we even sang “I Exalt Thee.” And the choir knocked the offertory out of the park, singing a gospel anthem, “How Excellent,” that was written in 1990 but re-arranged by David Scott and Bradley Knight in 2012. Some songs were band-led, the opening and closing hymn were led by organ/piano/timpani, and the first song of communion was the choir alone with hand percussion. The organ postlude was “Marche Royale,” composed by J.B. Lully in 1667.

Not only is it important that our repertoire span the centuries (though every church will have its own sweet spot, and I wrote on finding the right balance before when I described “thinking in thirds“) but it’s important that our people are aware of this too. Most people have no idea whether the song they’re singing was written two months ago or 200 years ago. So, once and a while, maybe you can point that out to them.

Whatever your church setting, denomination or “worship style,” make sure you’re not falling into a trap of discrediting either the old, or the new. Instead, focus on what Harold Best describes as the “ancient path” of worship, which is Jesus himself. And let the “decorations” on the path, (i.e., styles, form, copyright dates, etc.) all exist as a means to exalt Jesus himself, and never as ends unto themselves.

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Jamie Brown
Jamie Brown is the Director of Worship and Arts at Truro Anglican Church in Fairfax, VA. Born into a ministry family and leading worship since the age of twelve, Jamie is devoted to helping worship leaders lead well and seeing congregations engaged in Spirit-filled, Jesus-centered worship. He’s currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Religion through Reformed Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Catherine, have three little girls. Jamie regularly blogs at WorthilyMagnify.com and has released three worship albums: “A Thousand Amens,” “We Will Proclaim,” and “For Our Salvation.”