Psalm 96 is the biblical ground zero for songwriters. It is the validation and motivation of our vocation: “Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth” (NIV). I’ve been lately in dialogue with several leaders and presenters at the upcoming series of National Worship Leader Conferences across the US (you should really consider going)–D.C. next week, San Jose in June, and Kansas in July. I’ve been impressed by the content that will be presented, and one of the things that’s captivated my attention is the series of teachings from N.T. Wright on the Psalms that will be presented.
One of the fresh insights he provides is reflection on Psalm 96 and what “newness” means. He argues for this understanding of “new song”:
“Newness” is not mere novelty; “newness” is that we are constantly to be surprised at the extraordinary new creation that began at Easter and will be completed in the new heavens and the new earth.
If I might translate this through some of my own grids, we could say that God inspires new songs for the Church that the timeless message of the Gospel would be ever fresh and surprising. The “gospel-centered” movement that is still freshly blowing through the Church is rightly pointing out that, in the words of Tim Keller, the Gospel is not the A-B-C’s of the Christian faith; it is the A-to-Z. We do not grow as Christians by first believing the Gospel and then moving beyond it but by going deeper into it. We can rightly say, then, that the whole Christian life is one perpetual excavation of the riches of the good news of Christ’s finished work for us.
New songs help us feel and know more deeply HOW the Gospel does its work. The Gospel should be something that perpetually amazes and surprises us. After all, people like us who sin every day have reason to be freshly ministered to by the Gospel every day. But, if we’re honest, the Gospel can appear stale to us during certain seasons. We go in and out of phase with its rhythms of life. New songs–particularly new songs that re-preach the Gospel to our forgetful hearts–embody, by virtue of their newness, what it feels like to freshly encounter the Ancient Message. It stands to reason that if local churches are not singing new songs (amidst the old ones), that they may be under-formed as people who are to be marked by perpetual re-formation by the Gospel.
Wright’s point is admittedly less about that and more about where the Gospel takes us…where it ends. His point is that “new songs” shape us into people who long for new heavens and a new earth. In theological speak, new songs make us an eschatologically-oriented people. That idea, ironically, is novel especially in our day and age where now is everything.
To bring my reflections and Wright’s together, new songs help mold Christians into the kinds of people who are marked by an incompletion that aims at the rest promised when the Gospel has done its full renewing work in us. New songs help us feel (and therefore more deeply know) that truth about us. New songs give the people of God a more biblical, eschatological identity.
Churches that only sing old songs in old ways should take note.