A couple of weeks ago my junior high choir sang a Kyrie by 16th-century composer Leonhard Lechner for the Divine Service. They sang it AS the Kyrie, so the assembly stood for prayer as the choir sang this. It was sung as originally composed, in beautiful 3-part a cappella counterpoint, and so we experienced the music as it was intended and conceived by the composer. Judging from comments I received afterwards - including from a young mother who exclaimed how much her baby enjoyed the piece - I dare say it worked as well for us in 2011 Chicagoland as it did in 1560s Germany. My young choir enjoys singing it as well.
And yet many in the church today believe that both congregations and singers, especially young ones, can only connect with the most recent of musical constructs. If something historic is done, then it at least needs to be done in a "contemporary" way. Now I am all in favor of new interpretations of existing melodies. It is a time-honored church tradition after all, and one of the strongest arguments for using traditional hymn melodies is their objective strength, i.e. they are sturdy enough to "hold up" various styles and musical treatments.
But it struck me after the service that all this emphasis on "new", "fresh", and "contemporary" assumes that somehow singers and congregations today are different than those of previous generations. Somehow what has served the Gospel well for dozens of years and even dozens of generations can no longer "work" today. No reason is really ever given for this, it is just assumed that "that was then, this is now." But do we really have different chromosomes, brain cells, and hearts today? Has our technology or our culture really changed us that much? Or are we in 21st-century America just full of ourselves. I think it is the latter. The church suffers because of it. The proclamation of the Gospel suffers because of it.
I say this as a composer, an improvisor, and as a church musician who embraces the musical developments of our age: let us constantly learn from the great musicians who have gone before us, and have the humility to let their voices speak. They usually have much better things to say than we do.