Keeping Up with the Joneses, Reformed Style

So far, a significant amount of attention at Synod 2012 has been given to the URCNA’s Psalter Hymnal project.  But the Federation of United Reformed Churches isn’t the only denomination on the block with a new hymnbook in the works.  Just as the URC and OPC are considering the joint production of a new Psalter Hymnal, our older cousin the Christian Reformed Church and her sister the Reformed Church in America are also collaborating to publish a new collection of songs.  The difference?  The finished product will hardly resemble the Psalter Hymnal we know.

Why do the CRC and the RCA feel the need to create a new hymnbook?  In a Frequently Asked Questions page on the hymnal’s website, the following explanation is given (emphasis added):

In worship one of the main ways we praise and honor God, give voice to our prayers, and communicate the wonders of God’s works is through song.  Though the underlying gospel message doesn’t change from generation to generation, the concerns, prayers, and social context of each generation does.  Since the publication of Rejoice in the Lord and The Psalter Hymnal we have seen sociological change with a move toward postmodernism and witnessed the exponential growth of technology–our world is very different today than it was twenty years ago.  The words we use for worship need to express these new realities that form the backdrop of our worship–a new hymnal for a new generation.

I’m not clear on how something like “the exponential growth of technology” should relate to our worship of God.  Perhaps we are to sing, “Now thank we all our God, with phones and apps and iPads”?  And while the shift toward postmodernism is real, how should this change the style of our songs?  If any reaction to this trend is needed, should it not be an even greater emphasis on the time-tested psalms and hymns of the faith?

For that matter, has the “worship vocabulary” of the CRC really changed that much since the publication of the gray Psalter Hymnal?  Even in the 1980’s, this collection exhibited an unconventional amount of political correctness, gender neutralization, and other “modernistic” trends.  How much further can this new hymnbook go?

The FAQ page goes on to explain,

This desire for a new hymnal for a new generation fits with the reality that a hymnal has a lifespan of about 20 years. The Psalter Hymnal and Rejoice in the Lord have both surpassed the 20-year mark. A new or revised hymnal about every 20 years has also been the practice of the CRC, with hymnals being released in 1914, 1934, 1959, 1976, and 1987.

Missing from this argument is the fact that all editions of the Psalter Hymnal from 1934 to 1976 are essentially the same (in fact, the 1959 and 1976 editions are identical).  Compared to the 2500-year-old history of many of the psalms, is twenty-five years all we can get out of a hymnbook?  Apparently, the CRC and RCA would answer in the affirmative.

The FAQ page proceeds to answer several related questions: Do enough churches actually want a new songbook?  Will an electronic version be available for projection?  Why is the new songbook bi-denominational?  Why is a CRC/RCA hymnal necessary given the existence of many other new books?  One of the most significant revelations, however, relates to this question: Will this hymnal include a separate section of psalms (a Psalter)?  The answer:

The Psalter Hymnal included all 150 psalms in a Psalter followed by hymns.  Rejoice in the Lord captured most of its psalmody in a discrete Psalter section.  Sing! A New Creation marked a noticeable shift by incorporating the psalms where they would most naturally fit in the order of worship or part of the church year.  It has become clear that this last approach encouraged more consistent use of the psalms in worship.  It is our plan to include the psalms in a variety of musical genres within the hymnal but not to dedicate a separate section to them.

Regarding this position, I’d like to offer the following questions for your consideration.  Maybe the CRC/RCA is correct that mingling psalms with hymns contributes to more regular psalm-singing.  But won’t such a drastic change also demean the psalms to the level of mere hymns?  Are the Biblical psalms still an essential element of worship as the inerrant, infallible Word of God, or have they become simply a collection of old Jewish songs?

My fear is that the revised and reorganized elements in this new hymnal may be indicative of the growing contempt of Scripture implicit in many Christian churches today.  Do such trends truly honor “the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17 ESV)?  May God enable his church, and the URCNA in particular, to remain faithful to his unchanging Word.  In all our worship, let us remember this admonition from the apostle (James 1:27):

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

To him be the glory,

–MRK

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4 Responses to “Keeping Up with the Joneses, Reformed Style”


  1. 1 Joshua June 13, 2012 at 10:14 am

    Have you read the book ‘Psalms in Worship’? It is a collection of convention speeches that reflects that attitude in mind when the 1912 UPS Psalter was put together. In fact, the John McNaugher who put this book together was also the chair of the Psalter committee.

    You will see from the book that they faced the hymns versus psalms question and answered it strongly. You also see the care and love that they had for the psalms and its careful translation.

    It is out on google books: http://books.google.com/books?id=DVUJAQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=psalms+in+worship&hl=en&sa=X&ei=2p7YT7C2Nofg2QXwr-S2Dw&ved=0CEIQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=psalms%20in%20worship&f=false

    Lastly, I agree with your concerns about letting the latest ‘wind of doctrine’ (in this case postmodernism) influence our song material. Ironically though, the very best answer to postmodernism is affirmation of the one truth that we find in the Bible and confessed in our reformed creeds. How sad that some congregations fail to see this simple fact.

  2. 3 Pamela June 14, 2012 at 11:52 pm

    Michael,

    I’m continuing to enjoy your posts!

    One thing you didn’t touch on in this article (but might in another post?!) is the QUALITY of Psalm and hymn texts. There are some really poor Psalm paraphrases out there that shouldn’t be sung, as well as some excellent scriptural hymns (the Jones-Boice ones, for example) that ought to be learned by our Reformed congregations.

    We Psalm-singing fans are prone to categorize any Psalm set to music as good/worthy and any hymn set to music as lesser/secondary. However, we must keep in mind that Psalm paraphrases are indeed paraphrases (tweaked to fit a particular meter and rhyme), and some hymns are actually Scripture verbatim. So in some cases, I’d choose a hymn over a Psalm, for accuracy of Scripture. Anyway….just a reminder to those of us that work in the field of church music that we must examine EVERY text we sing.

    Looking forward to more Synod reports. My husband said he met you!

    Pamela

    • 4 Michael Kearney June 15, 2012 at 9:39 am

      Mrs. Compton,

      Excellent point! Too often we accept psalm settings without thoroughly examining them because–well, because they come from the psalms, so of course they’re good. Discernment is needed with regard to psalm settings as well as with regard to hymns, as you say.

      In March I wrote a series on “Meet the Psalm-Hymn”. There are a lot of related topics in those posts. Hope they’re helpful!

      Yes, I did get to meet your husband. It’s a shame that things are so busy at synod that I can never have a thorough conversation with anyone. One delegate asked me for a CD yesterday; I promised to give him one, and today I’ve forgotten who he is or what he looks like. Oh well…

      –Michael


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