Posts Tagged 'Reformed'

Sing Gently

Gentle ReformationA few months ago, Christian blogger Tim Challies listed Gentle Reformation, one of the only blogs I can even claim to regularly read, as one of his favorite blogs of 2016. It was a moment in the spotlight for the gracious authors of an ordinary and rather humble website, something they compared to winning the cyber version of an Oscar or an Emmy.

On one hand, I try not to put too much stock in online announcements like this. In the blogosphere, we can easily slip into our own imaginative reality in which a “like” and a “share” are equivalent to a laudatory review in the New York Times. But on the other hand, I think the authors of Gentle Reformation are on to something, and I’m glad a widely-read blogger publicly thanked them for it.

Gentle Reformation’s “About” page expresses three goals: to be persuasive rather than polemical, to be pastoral rather than pejorative, and to consider people in the pews rather than just professors and pastors. In other words, the blog exists because its authors recognize and seek to respond to several pitfalls that are especially prevalent in the Reformed and Presbyterian faith.

The first pitfall is the temptation of pride. Hard as it is to admit, we Reformed folk have the habit of turning the “only comfort in life and in death” of the Heidelberg Catechism into a surly self-confidence that shifts the attention from the finished work of Christ back to ourselves. How ironic that our Calvinistic theology that magnifies the grace of God can be turned to boost our own egos instead! Aware of this pitfall, the authors of Gentle Reformation have revealed a consistently humble and winsome tone in their writing.

Another temptation is to call out the bad without pointing instead to the good. In his recent book The Happy Christian, Free Reformed minister David Murray notes excessive negativity as a besetting problem for Christians as well as for our culture at large. Reading Gentle Reformation is refreshing because its dominant theme is one of encouragement rather than criticism.

Finally, bloggers—including Christian bloggers—often fall into patterns of technical jargon or lofty language that alienate readers. In the case of Reformed sites, the terms may include “neo-Kuyperianism” or Latin phrases from the Apostles’ Creed (and there is a place for such discussions), but the effects on readers are often the same. From what I have seen, Gentle Reformation consciously avoids this kind of jargon, instead creating articles that Christians in all walks of life can enjoy reading.

I feel the implications of these pitfalls pretty strongly with regard to psalm-singing as well. It is easy to lapse into discussions about short meter and formal-equivalence-versus-functional-equivalence that would leave many readers reeling. It is easy to lament the losses church music has suffered in the 21st century without suggesting gracious, practical, and positive ways to generate more enthusiasm for the psalms. And it is especially easy to look down on those who have a supposedly “less developed” understanding of worship.

Gentle Reformation serves as an inspiration for me as a fellow blogger to address these pitfalls more intentionally. More broadly, I think its example ought to challenge all of us in our everyday conversations, particularly with regard to psalm-singing. I’ve heard many arguments for the psalms that take the low road of dogmatism and condescension rather than the high road of gentle persuasion with brotherly love. That’s part of the reason URC Psalmody has never taken a position on exclusive psalmody or a cappella singing. Our point is to encourage readers to sing the psalms more, not to engender strife about hymns and instruments.

The example set by Geneva College also comes to my mind. Geneva holds to the practice of singing psalms exclusively and a cappella in chapel. And as the denominational college of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, Geneva could easily define itself as the pro-psalm-and-anti-hymn-and-praise-chorus Christian college, with some powerful Scriptural and historical arguments to back it up. But that’s not at all the approach I’ve seen. Rather, I’ve seen the college gently disciple its students and professors in the practice of psalm-singing, week after week, year after year. Although many students won’t be won over by the time they graduate, I know many others who affirm that they developed a new and genuine love for the psalms thanks to Geneva. (You’ll hear from one of them later this week.)

I suppose the point of this post is merely to ponder out loud what a “Gentle Reformation” approach to psalm-singing might look like. I’m happy to hear your thoughts. I do know that these examples and many others remind us to emulate the chief example of our Savior, whose every word was full of grace and truth.

–MRK

Our Five-Year Review

1976 Psalter Hymnal

A happy New Year to all! Though it’s hard to believe, this new year also marks URC Psalmody’s fifth anniversary—our first post was on December 30, 2011. And while I don’t want to engage in the obsessive navel-gazing that entraps too many bloggers, I do want to take a moment to thank you all for your continued readership.

From the very beginning, URC Psalmody’s primary purpose has been discussion, and thanks to the lively and regular interaction of our readers, that goal has been accomplished. Although it is difficult to verify just how many site hits are from real human readers, WordPress tells me URC Psalmody received visits from more than 86 countries in 2016, with about 10,000 views coming from the United States and 2,600 coming from Canada. And in the last five years we’ve received more than 750 comments, which—again—are where most of the real action occurs. So thanks to all of you who take time to read and share your thoughts. You’ve kept this blog alive!

I also want to thank the contributors who have stepped up at various times to offer articles, devotionals, and other materials on the psalms. Rev. Jim Oord (Community URC, Schererville, IN) contributed more than thirty posts while studying at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, many of which are still among our most viewed articles. Thanks, Jim! More recently, Rev. Nick Smith of the United Reformed Church of Nampa, ID, and Rev. Peter Holtvlüwer of the Spring Creek Canadian Reformed Church in Tintern, Ontario, have also offered some thoughts for publication here, and I hope to invite more contributors in the future as well.

Personally, I can say I’ve learned a lot from blogging on the psalms. I’ve gained a broader perspective on the landscape of Reformed worship and established stronger connections to the church through the conversations here. My own opinions have been shaped, refined, and sometimes outright changed as well, to the point where I’m embarrassed to return to some of URC Psalmody’s early posts. But this means that your comments have sharpened and deepened my faith and my love for the psalms—so thank you!

More broadly, the past five years have witnessed a rise in enthusiasm for psalm-singing across many Reformed and Presbyterian churches. We’ve seen the recent release of great books on psalmody like Beeke and Selvaggio’s Sing a New Song and LeFebvre’s Singing the Songs of Jesus, in addition to books that integrate the study of psalms into other worthy topics, like David Murray’s Jesus on Every Page. It also seems that more churches are hosting conferences on Reformed worship; I’ve enjoyed opportunities to lead classes on psalm-singing for URC, OPC, and RPCNA audiences, and I know that others far more qualified than myself are participating in similar seminars. And the news about the forthcoming Trinity Psalter Hymnal is fueling renewed interest in why our churches sing the psalms to begin with. I don’t think URC Psalmody spawned the wave of fresh enthusiasm for psalm-singing, but we are more than happy to ride it!

And, as I write this on the eve of my final semester at Geneva College, I can’t help but express my deepest appreciation for that institution and its surrounding community, which for so many years has encouraged students to integrate the psalms into their walk with Christ individually and together. Because of Geneva’s weekly chapel services, there are psalms whose texts and melodies will probably be implanted in my mind for the rest of my life.

URC Psalmody has never had a stated mission other than to foster discussion, but if we did it would be summarized in these three words: Sing more psalms! We realize that worship is a topic about which Christians care deeply, yet also a topic about which sinful people like us are very, very unqualified to speak. As a result, our goal is to point above the flaws and foibles of earthly worship to the ultimate goal: that of drawing near to God and becoming more like his Son. I hope this blog will continue to be a place where we can humbly converse, courteously argue, curiously investigate, and earnestly pursue that vision.

–MRK

Unity in Indiana

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Keynote speaker Rev. Barry York

Well, since last month I can now cross a significant item off my bucket list. Unexpectedly, I got to attend the 2016 Reformed Presbyterian International Conference (RPIC) in Marion, IN!

Held every four years, the RP International Conference is a longstanding favorite event within the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) and beyond. It’s when about 2,000 members of the RPCNA and its sister denominations around the world converge for a week on the campus of Indiana Wesleyan University for preaching, singing, recreation, and fellowship. It’s a fantastic experience—and not just because I got to listen to thousands of people singing the psalms in harmony all week!

I say “unexpectedly” because I had no plans to attend RPIC, until the director of my college choir, Dr. David K. Smith, asked if I would be interested in accompanying him to the conference. As the choir’s PR director I could help him with recruiting and networking. Since Geneva College is the denominational school of the RPCNA and The Genevans choir plays an active part in keeping the tradition of a cappella psalmody alive, this seemed to be the perfect venue.

Initially we just planned to travel to Indiana for part of the week and run a table in the conference’s exhibition hall. After our initial plans were made, however, we were invited to present a workshop to the high schoolers at the conference on psalm-singing! Why the conference planners chose two non-RP’s to speak to Reformed Presbyterian youth about their own denominational distinctive is beyond me. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the opportunity to come in as observers and encourage a group of 30 or 40 youth toward a deeper appreciation of the musical tradition they grew up with. (I’ll post a summary of the workshop soon, Lord willing.)

In addition to serving in this “official” capacity, I had a lot of opportunities just to mingle with these Scottish brothers and sisters. I benefited greatly from Rev. Barry York’s keynote addresses on “The Sacrificing Church: Ministering Faithfully as Priests in the Local Congregation.” I got to sit in on several fascinating workshops, including sessions led by Rev. Michael LeFebvre and our own Rev. Danny Hyde! Above all, I enjoyed getting to meet hundreds of Reformed Presbyterians who loved to converse about the labors, joys and sacrifices of living in the body of Christ. I felt warmly welcomed into a different branch of the family of God of which we are all a part.

If there was one disappointing facet of the week, it was the blank stares I so often received when I mentioned the United Reformed Churches in North America. Most attendees, it seemed, had never even heard of our very like-minded denomination. One conventioneer even took pains to warn me about the increasing liberal trends in my federation, not realizing he had confused the United Reformed Churches with the United Church of Christ!

For denominations that share “Phase 2” ecumenical relations, I can’t help but find this a little embarrassing for both of us. Maybe sending a contingent of 500 URCNA members to the next international conference wouldn’t be helpful, but certainly there are plenty of ways on a local and regional level to affirm our unity. Have we pursued the option of a yearly NAPARC joint worship service, as is done in places like Pittsburgh? Do we invite each other’s congregations to fellowship events like game days or (in West Sayville’s case) lobster fests? Do we take advantage of the conservative, well-grounded Reformed liberal arts education a college like Geneva has to offer? (Yes, that was a shameless plug.) If not, perhaps these opportunities can help us map out a reasonable plan of action.

As Rev. York’s messages reminded me throughout the week, the world is pressing in on the church from all sides. In times like these, what a blessing and help it is to be united in the truth by building lasting relationships with fellow believers across denominational lines.

–MRK

Check out Bryan Schneider’s video montage of the 2016 Reformed Presbyterian International Convention here.

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How Every Delegate Should Vote Next Week

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It’s an unwritten rule of church relations: If you want to get into an argument as fast as possible, question a brother or sister’s favorite song. The rule applies to every church tradition from a cappella psalm-singing to contemporary worship music, including the URCNA.

Synod 2016 meets in Grand Rapids next week, and I think it’s reasonable to say that it’s going to be a difficult meeting. Decisions related to the Psalter Hymnal are by no means the only issues of importance on the agenda, but they will be painful nevertheless. A new book means some of our most beloved psalm settings and hymns may end up on the chopping block—and let’s admit it now: that hurts.

Our federation-wide sensitivity to the topic of church music has been revealed to me in several communications I’ve received from URC pastors, elders and members in recent weeks. I’ve heard opinions ranging from the overwhelmingly positive to the astonishingly critical, and I’m glad to listen to and learn from all of them.

Yet I can’t help but wonder if we’ve adopted a double standard in evaluating the new book. Although we may examine its lyrics and music with a magnifying glass, we often fail to consider the new book as a whole. By contrast, we have a very positive overall view of the blue Psalter Hymnal, yet we may have lost sight of some of its specifics. And I’m afraid that many songs from the blue book would fail under the careful scrutiny so quickly applied to the proposal.

To give an example, I’ve heard allegations that the new songbook contains hidden strains of universalism and Roman Catholicism—a shocking claim which, if true, would give us great cause for concern. Supporting evidence is drawn from hymns that include lines like “died to save us all,” or from a communion hymn translated by a priest, John Mason Neale, exhorting us to “take by faith the body of the Lord.” Now, in context these lyrics can easily be explained Scripturally: the “us all” refers to the church, and the “body of the Lord” merely echoes Jesus’ own words in Matthew 26. I don’t think heresy is implied in either case.

More concerning, however, is the tendency to elevate the blue Psalter Hymnal as the gold standard to which other songbooks must attain. In this case, no mention is made of some of its own hymns that could be interpreted in the very same light. “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” contains the line “Light and life to all He brings,” while “Faith of Our Fathers” was written by a Roman Catholic priest to commemorate Catholic martyrs. I’m not judging the merit of either of these hymns. I merely want to point out that by this line of reasoning, we would have to conclude that the blue Psalter Hymnal too is a corrupted seedbed for unreformed heresy.

Most of all, though, I’m surprised that this conversation is coming to a head at such a late date. We’ve had 19 years to think about this project, to recommend our favorite songs, to share our concerns, to overture our consistories and classes and synods as to what shape the new book should take. We might have even appealed the very decision to pursue a new book. We’ve had access to a complete psalm proposal and two complete hymn proposals. We’ve had every opportunity to participate in the project with a spirit of mutual edification and constructive criticism.

Yet 19 years later—and one week before what may be the last vote on the book—we are still asking and answering questions about why the “old blue” won’t remain in print forever, why working together with another denomination is to our advantage, and “why we need a new Psalter Hymnal anyway.” Rather than acknowledging this as a monumental task that requires the active involvement of every concerned member, we apparently prefer to sit on the sidelines and criticize. We criticize the distant and unknown—the motives of the Songbook Committee, the traditions of the OPC—in contrast to the familiar, the good, the safe.

Brothers and sisters, let’s remember one thing: the new book is corrupted. It’s corrupted because we are. And the blue Psalter Hymnal is corrupted too—because we were corrupted back then as well. “We do not know what to pray for as we ought,” said Paul, and much less do we know how to sing as we ought. Even the most staunchly Reformed songbook would still bear the marks of our sin and imperfection before God.

And that’s why we’re commanded to sing: because we’ve been promised redemption from this corruption, and because the experience of congregational singing builds us up together as the body of Christ. As we fill our hearts and mouths with the words God has given us in the psalms, as well as the words of godly men and women of old—slowly, imperfectly, through thee’s and you’s, Jehovah’s and Lord’s, archaic verbs and clumsy rhyming schemes—still, we learn to speak like Jesus. That heavenly accent we pick up is one not of arrogance and confusion, but of humility and peace.

If you’re preparing for next week’s synod, I trust that you won’t base your decision on the new book merely on my words or the words of others, but that you are even now prayerfully considering the question of our songbook for yourself. I humbly urge you to meditate on Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 as refreshing reminders of the context in which our redeemed singing must occur.

Above all, take comfort in this: it is in the very experience of disagreeing over the Psalter Hymnal project that we are being taught what brotherly love and self-sacrifice look like—if our eyes and ears are open.

–MRK

Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns (Review)

Why Johnny Can't Sing HymnsT. David Gordon’s recent book Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal (190 pp., P&R, 2010) has created a bit of a stir within the Presbyterian and Reformed family of churches. While Gordon does not directly address the topic of psalm-singing, I think it is worthwhile to devote at least a little space here to a book by a respected author on an important subject.

Gordon’s areas of expertise include theology and media ecology. Music is not one of them, as he quickly admits (he can read music, but does not play an instrument). This both limits the extent to which he can discuss the music theory behind hymnody and allows him to approach the topic from a unique perspective.

To sum up the field of media ecology in one borrowed sentence, “we make tools, and tools make us” (10). From this angle Gordon digs behind the contemporary worship movement to expose the cultural assumptions of contemporaneity. Drawing from cultural analysts like Neil Postman and Ken Myers, Gordon characterizes the dominant ideology of the 21st century as one that disregards the past and trivializes the present. If this is so, he concludes, “the meta-message that contemporary music sends is this: Nothing is important; everything is just amusing or entertaining. This is hardly a Christian message” (72).

Throughout Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns Gordon employs a clear, readable style, comparable at points to Postman’s own renowned prose. After reading this book I felt as though the author were one of my own college professors. Unfortunately, Gordon also possesses the classic professor’s tendency to wander off into minimally relevant tangents (the low point, I think, is a footnote about the cost of his preferred razor blades). Between the occasional digressions and some significant overlap of material between chapters, I tend to think this volume could have been just as useful at two-thirds or even half as long.

While I found this book to be informative and enjoyable, I must also confess to some objections to Gordon’s line of reasoning. Where his cultural analysis is keen, his musical analysis is a little shaky—his final definition for “contemporary music” seems to be “music accompanied by a guitar”—and he often left me wondering how to make the final connection between the two subjects. Gordon also seems to directly correlate “triviality” and “contemporaneity” (a term he is reluctant to define), as though intelligent, articulate advocates of “contemporary Christian music” (CCM) either do not exist or are not to be taken seriously.

As you may have already guessed from the title of this blog, my biggest beef with Gordon’s case lies in his appeals to “traditional hymnody” (which, like the term “contemporary music,” he does not pause to explain). Gordon laments the fact that his students categorize the 1885 song “How Great Thou Art” as a “traditional” hymn—but his favorite example of hymnody, “Abide With Me,” is only a few decades older. He faults CCM proponents for knowing “nothing of Christian hymnody prior to the nineteenth or twentieth century” (41), but what other centuries are responsbile for the overwhelming proportion of the contents of any “traditional” hymnal?

It is clear that Gordon views the contemporary Christian music movement as a strange new blip on the church’s 2000-year-old radar. I would suggest that his “traditional” hymns are actually not that traditional either. Rather, I believe CCM is merely a small part of a much larger blip on the radar screen: the emergence of Western hymnody—a phenomenon that has crowded out the church’s (much more traditional) practice of psalm-singing, in some Reformed and Presbyterian denominations less than 100 years ago. I would love to read Gordon’s cultural analysis of how this worship shift occurred. Sadly, he barely mentions it.

In conclusion, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns will certainly appeal to readers who already favor hymns over CCM. Gordon hits all the high points of the contemporary Christian music debate (guitars, repetition, amplification, triviality), and he does so far more articulately than the average church member. The book nobly champions the cause of hymns, though it is probably unlikely to win converts from the contemporary camp. All in all, I appreciate Gordon’s fresh perspective on a divisive topic. But if pastors and musicians merely follow his advice without probing deeper, I am not sure the church will be that much better off.

–MRK


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