Several weeks ago I conducted a funeral for an elderly grandmother, a life-long Presbyterian. In addition to her life-long commitment to Jesus Christ and her hope in the gospel, this grandmother is to be commended for passing on the faith. Surrounding her hospital bed as she died were her children and grandchildren, each sustained by hope in the resurrection.
As their mother and grandmother died, the children and grandchildren decided to sing together. Out came the iPads, iPhones, and Blackberrys as each family member scrolled through their songs or surfed the web for something that the entire family could sing. Several suggestions were made: a hymn, a praise chorus, a Scripture song, a Gospel tune, a contemporary worship song, but sadly the group soon discovered that they could not find a song that they all knew. This family, bound together by a faith that passed through the generations, couldn’t sing the songs of their faith.
Eventually they did find one song: yes, “Amazing Grace”–the first verse at least seems to be known by almost everyone, everywhere! But what was striking to me as I heard this story relayed was that for each succeeding generation it became increasingly difficult to find a song to sing. The grandmother and her generation probably had hundreds of songs that would have been familiar across denominations, stretching back for hundreds of years. The children (now middle-aged), however, only had perhaps a dozen or so songs that they could sing together. The grandchildren (all in their twenties) couldn’t find one song that they all knew. It wasn’t just that they didn’t know their parents’ praise choruses or their grandparents’ hymns, they didn’t know their own generation’s songs.
Of course, what’s strange about this is that their generation is living in a time of unprecedented production of Christian music. But because the Christian music industry prizes innovation and change, no song ever has the time to become “their” song. When the economic engine is driven by new songs, there is never time for songs to become tried and true songs. Churches compound the problem by constantly updating their “set list” to reflect the songs being churned out by the industry. The result isn’t just a severed connection with the past (as tragic as that may be); this generation is losing its connection to one another. Unless you attend the same congregation (and perhaps the same genre-specific service), you won’t know the songs that your cousins are singing.
This isn’t so much an argument for hymnody (there are better ones than this anecdote), it’s rather a plea for unity: there are very practical consequences to age segregation in the church and a constant reinvention of the mission and marks of the church and a lust for the new and improved. The division of the church along theological lines sometimes can’t be helped, but it’s certainly possible for us to reverse course and find unity across generational lines.
The responsibility to achieve that unity doesn’t just belong to the pastors and church musicians who sometimes determine the cultural situatedness of the congregation, responsibility must also be borne by those who sit and sing and pray and listen. Will they choose to immerse themselves in the history, language, and speech of the faith? Will they reach across generational divides so that when it comes time to sing at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb we won’t all be looking at one another in confusion and dismay?