Are You a Chronological Snob?

In nearly every culture, for each generation, and in all areas of our lives, there is a temptation to think that whatever is newer, whatever is novel, and whatever is most recent is better than what is old. Sometimes this can be true. But not always.

C.S. Lewis felt this temptation in his time and in his culture. The intellectual community did then what it also does now, which is to embrace the new simply because it’s new. He noticed that he had this attitude and labeled it “chronological snobbery”. Here’s how he described it:

uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate of our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on the count discredited.

In short, a mindless embrace of the new and a discarding of the old. This is chronological snobbery.

We all feel this temptation every day of our lives. And while there are certainly cases where newer is better, most of the time if we stopped to think about it, we wouldn’t discard the old so quickly.

I feel this temptation as a worship leader, and I know that you do too. I feel it in all sorts of areas, but especially in the area of song selection. Sadly, way too many worship leaders unknowingly become chronological snobs and in the name of relevance discard hundreds and hundreds of years of rock solid hymns, not to mention hundreds of songs from the 1950s – 2000s that don’t have that new car smell anymore. This is a shame. And if we think this is just what happens as things “develop”, we’re mistaken.

Check out this quote from G.K. Chesterton:

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

I like that. You can either see yourself as driving down a road, where what’s behind you is not exciting as what’s ahead, or you can see yourself like a tree, drawing life from good roots that run deep.

If you’re a worship leader and you think more in terms of a tree and roots, odds are that you need a different sort of encouragement, and that would be to cut off some dead branches and do some pruning, because sometimes you’re trying to suck life out of something that’s just plain dead.

But if you have the opposite problem, and you never look back (but if you do look back it’s not very far) you might want to rethink how you view hundreds and hundreds and decades and decades of songs. If your repertoire doesn’t have a substantial number of time-tested songs and hymns, with deep truth and sound doctrine, you might be guilty of chronological snobbery.

This a big topic and every church and worship leader has their own view of what the proper approach is to balance new and old. Some only do new, some only do old, some try to do both, and some just haven’t thought about it that much.

Whatever your situation, we could all benefit from thinking about it a bit more. Is newness an idol for us? Should something that’s a bit outdated just be discarded? How deep are our roots?  

Resist the temptation to mindlessly embrace the new and discard the old. (The converse is equally as true and important: resist the temptation to mindless discard the new and embrace the old.) We should be moving forward, we should be growing, and we should be developing as the Holy Spirit is at work in us and in the Church. But always with roots and never as snobs.

4 thoughts on “Are You a Chronological Snob?”

  1. This is a great post and a great reminder. Chronological snobbery flies in the face of being a part of the Church which is at once contemporary and historical. T. David Gordon, in his book Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns coins the phrase “contemporaneity as a value,” arguing for much the same thing. While Gordon, in my opinion, goes much too far without sufficient reasoning in his application (decrying, nearly wholesale, modern music in worship), his chapter on contemporaneity is worth a read.

  2. A very helpful encouragement to prune some branches. As a leader who has struggled for nearly 10 years to provide a nice mix and blend of old and new, I’m learning that the old is not always better. Thank you for the analogy, brother.

  3. Thanks for your post. I’m in a church where the repertoire is very large, and we do need some pruning for the congregations’ (we have two main morning services usually) sake.
    It’s important to remember that many of the new worship songs, like pop songs, will (or should) have only a short shelf – and only a select few will have real longevity. With hymns, many of the collections we have now have done that filtering for us – and we get a good selection of some of the best hymns.
    With more recent songs (e.g. 10 to 50 years old) you need to tread more carefully: that copy of ‘Songs of Fellowship’ or ‘Mission Praise’ is likely to contain 10 worship Kajagoogoos for every U2, if you’ll pardon the analogy.
    I love that some songs from the last 50 years are having a well-deserved resurgence in popularity – such as ‘There Is A Redeemer’ – and many hymns too: ‘All Creatures of our God and King’ is 400+ yrs old, and singing it links us to our Christian forbears in a way I find really profound.
    The key tool for me is a good themed catalogue or database of our church’s hymns and songs, so that I can use it to find the right song for the occasion, rather than relying on my own (dodgy) memory which would normally come up with only the newer songs. I’m trying to use PlanningCenter for this – anyone got any good tips for me?

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