Posts Tagged 'Reformed'



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

Behind the Psalter Hymnal (Part 6)

The Big Three (Psalter Hymnals)It’s long past time to wrap up URC Psalmody’s summer series. I head back to Geneva College in a week, and what I imagined as two or three blog posts has grown into a lengthy and multi-faceted series. That’s typical fare for this blog—so today, let me try to provide some concise closing thoughts.

We began by asking this question: Why do we sing out of a Psalter Hymnal? More particularly, why do we sing both psalms and hymns in worship, yet still insist on distinguishing between the two?

To help answer this question historically, I dug up several applicable documents from the early history of the Christian Reformed Church: overtures from different classes in 1928 (here and here) regarding the question of hymn-singing, the “Report on the Hymn Question” from 1930, the Foreword to the first Psalter Hymnal in 1934, and a few other sources. I found plenty of arguments for and against hymn-singing in worship (along with a fair share of weird Dutch expressions). What I didn’t find was a substantial argument on Biblical and historical grounds to justify the introduction of hymns—especially in a denomination that had gotten along fine without them since the Reformation 300 years earlier. I read plenty of reasons why hymns might be permissible in worship, but not much (other than repeated appeals to “New Testament light”) as to why they were needed.

In fact, even the optimistic Psalter Hymnal Committee of 1930 acknowledged some significant dangers with the introduction of hymn-singing. One of them was that the psalms would cease to be sung in worship. Wary of this possibility, the Committee proposed the following principle:

Whereas the Psalms in the Old Testament were purposely given for Public Worship (cf. for instance Ps. 51:1; 52:1; 53:1; etc.) and were used accordingly, and whereas they do not belong to the things set aside by the New Testament, but, to the contrary, their Divine authority and lasting worth is pronouncedly acknowledged in the New Testament (Luke 20:42; 24:44; Acts 1:20; 13:33,35), it must be considered, acknowledged, and maintained by us as a principle founded on the Word of God, that Psalm-singing must always remain an element in our Public Worship.…[A] service without the singing of Psalms would be conflicting with the will of God as revealed in His Word. (pp. 21,22)

Yet after this well-placed word of caution, the committee rushes to add, “Nor does it follow that because of said danger the use of New Testament Church songs must be considered out of the question.” Just because they can be abused doesn’t mean they can’t be used properly, they suggest. Besides, they claim, the “urgent demand” for hymns in Reformed churches cannot be brushed aside as “disloyalty, spiritual weakening, and retrogression.” Once again they call attention to supposed insufficiencies in the psalms: that they speak only “in the Old Testament language of hopefully expectant prophecy, not in the New Testament language of jubilant fulfilment.” And here’s the real whopper: they turn the discussion about hymn-singing on its head by suggesting that an exclusively psalm-singing church is “guilty of neglect in properly caring for Public Worship and for the perfection of the saints, and of slighting a precious gift of the Holy Spirit.” In other words, a psalm-singing church harms its members by not allowing the singing of hymns. That’s a bold claim!

In summary, the committee asked the Synod of 1930 to (1) continue the preparation of a collection of English hymns; and (2) to (attempt to) prevent psalm-singing from fading away by revising the Church Order and setting limits in place on how many hymns could be sung in a worship service. Synod more or less agreed, and the Psalter Hymnal project moved forward. That’s most of the story; for the rest of it, you can refer back to the first Psalter Hymnal’s Foreword.

Got it? Does this synopsis give you an historical glimpse into the reason for the unusual wording in the URCNA’s Church Order—that the psalms “have the principal place,” but hymns “may be sung”? The relationship between psalms and hymns in North American Reformed worship is a long and complicated one. Partly it was a Dutch vs. English and European vs. American issue. Partly it was a Reformed vs. broader evangelical issue. Mostly it was an issue of biblical interpretation. And just because the CRC’s synod officially “settled” the question doesn’t mean it really went away.

Eighty years ago, hymns entered the worship of a denomination that was still deeply divided over the question. That’s the heritage that’s been handed down to us in the URCNA.

I can’t end without noting one additional twist, however. While the 1932 Church Order clearly stated that “the singing of the Psalms in divine worship is a requirement,” the CRC later revised their Church Order to merely state, “The consistory shall see to it that the synodically-approved Bible versions, liturgical forms, and songs are used” (Revised Church Order, 1959, Article 52b). All reference to the primacy of the Psalter was gone! With that revision in mind, it’s important—and encouraging—to note that the URCNA’s Church Order is actually a step back in the direction of principial psalm-singing.

How will the URCNA’s worship change as the years go on? Will our new Psalter Hymnal prove to strengthen our commitment to psalm-singing or dampen it? For the answer to these questions we’ll have to wait on God, pray fervently, and work for the good of the Church. May our worship be pleasing and acceptable in his sight.

–MRK


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