Hymns and the Lindy Effect

A couple weeks back, I tackled Nassim Taleb’s latest book, Skin in the Game.  I’m not terribly sure that I’d want Taleb for a next-door neighbor (as a writer, at least, he tends toward the obnoxious and profane), but he does have some interesting ideas.

In particular, I was struck by one that he calls “The Lindy Effect”.  It’s named after a delicatessen in New York City where a lot of show-business types would gather to discuss their trade.  While there, they noticed a trend:  the longer a show ran, the longer it was likely to continue running.  A show that had been around for a week was likely to last only for another week, but one that had been going strong for five years most likely had another five years of lifespan.

Taleb generalizes from this to argue that in the realm of ideas, the longer an idea has been around, the longer it will continue to be around.  We can confidently expect that 2000 years from now (assuming the earth continues, of course), The Iliad will still be read and studied, but this year’s bestseller is unlikely to survive.  The best test of an idea’s value is how long it has endured already.

In my experience, the general principle translates well to the world of hymns.  Every year, countless thousands of hymns and praise songs are written.  Most of them are never used in worship.  Of the ones that are used, most of them aren’t going to survive past the year.  From the survivors, only a few will make the jump to prominence (in a hymnal, say, or a PowerPoint collection).

From there, the attrition continues.  Most of the hymns written in a particular era will not outlast the era.  These days, for instance, we’re in the middle of the great Southern-gospel die-off.  As people who were born in the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s die, the quartet hymns they grew up listening to on the radio will die with them.  Only a tiny percentage of those songs, hymns like “This World Is Not My Home” and “Victory in Jesus”, will continue to be used.

This process is not random.  Instead, just as Taleb posits, only the good survives.  My hymns that are not sung are being ignored for a very good reason—they aren’t good enough to be sung.  Southern-gospel hymns that aren’t going to make it past their first century (goodbye, “He Bore It All”!) aren’t as good as the ones that will.

On the other hand, the passage of additional centuries will have little effect on the hymns that have already been sung for centuries.  “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” isn’t going anywhere.  Neither is “A Mighty Fortress”.  They have already received the endorsement of generations of worshipers.  They are timeless and enduring because they say something that is timeless and enduring.

For both writers and worship leaders, the moral of the story is plain.  As per Jeremiah 6:16, we need to look to the ancient pathways.  Hymns from centuries ago have proven their worth; the songs of today haven’t.  Isaac Watts at his best can teach us how to write something that will last (though learning from him well enough to do it is another story!).  What’s more, when we put “When I Survey” before the congregation, we can be sure that worshipers will continue to connect with it as they have since 1708.

Additionally, we should learn from this to consider our own efforts and our own time with humility.  I may think that I’ve written something as good as “O Worship the King”, but only the passage of 200 years can prove me right.  Likewise, if we think that we should throw out the body of established hymns and replace them with songs written in the past 20 years, we have mistaken the faddish for the good.  Today’s trend is unlikely to survive to become tomorrow’s classic.

The point here is not that we should turn our worship repertoire into a museum collection.  Every time has something useful to add to the worship of God’s people.  However, if we presume that we have the only things that are useful to add, we have left the path of wisdom.

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