Introducing "Sing! A New Creation": A behind-the-scenes look at shaping a new songbook

Choosing a balanced diet of songs for a collection of worship songs is an exercise that will change anyone! Take a seat around the table of our hymnal committee for a while, and get a taste of what it was like to choose the songs that worship planners may eventually use for their planning. Committee members will testify that they’ll never look at a hymnal the same way again. Making choices wasn’t always easy! Some songs were shoo-ins; some made it only after hard and long discussions; and some didn’t make it after even longer and harder discussions.

Those who are involved in worship planning know that worship is never quite the same when you’ve done the planning. You are blessed by particular phrases in hymns, for example, that lead into or build connections to the Word preached. You hope others make the connections too. And you try (as the previous article encourages) to present a balanced diet for your congregation. The same is true for planning a hymnal.

Why a New Song Collection Now?

Most denominations have published new and improved hymnals within the last twenty years. Almost all of these are larger and include more variety than previous editions. They took several years to prepare, and they followed editions that were published about twenty-five to thirty years earlier. Controversy greeted each new edition as congregations adjusted to changes they both welcomed and feared.

Today most worship planners assume change; their challenge is to manage it. So many worship songs have been composed in the last half of the twentieth century—possibly more than at any other time in history—that one hymnal is not enough for most congregations.

So what’s a denomination to do? Let each congregation go its own way? Individual choices, so much a part of our culture, describe our individual congregations as well. Hymnals take a long time to prepare, all kinds of commercial publications compete for churches’ attention, and—this is particularly important—technology makes new songs almost instantly available.

Most denominations have chosen to go the supplement route. They still want to provide leadership that reflects a heritage, that may help weary worship planning teams as they sort through the thickening shelves of new songs for worship. Two denominations, the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church, along with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, joined forces to publish Sing! A New Creation. They chose a committee of ten—five from both denominations—to launch this challenging project.

At our first meetings (see p. 12 for a list committee members), we got to know each other and our perspectives on the current scene. Here is a brief summary of those discussions.

Determining Size, Structure, and Scope

Because the committee was charged with preparing a supplement of about 250 songs, not a full-fledged hymnal, our first decision was to avoid duplicating anything that was already present in our existing denominational hymnals. The second decision was crucial: we decided to concentrate on the last fifty years of the twentieth century. That decision made good sense: new worship songs were less represented in our hymnals, thousands of new songs were written during those years, and churches were asking for help in sifting through all the new choices. Concentrating on a distinct period rather than opening up all the possibilities from the past was a great help.

So we were going to do a “contemporary” hymnal. But what exactly does that mean? We settled on a structure that organized all the songs into seventeen sections according to liturgical function, beginning with Gathering Songs, and ending with Sending and Parting Songs (p. 13). That decision reflected our desire to be of help to worship planners who often look for songs for particular places in the service.

Committee chair Bert Polman got us going on a very helpful track by suggesting that we organize our search within each of those seventeen sections. To make sure we honored the many different streams of current worship songs, we placed each song in one of three tracks: hymns, global songs, and choruses. We wanted to include some of each of these types of songs in all seventeen sections. (See p. 11 for songs in the Gathering section.)

Hymns

The easiest songs to distinguish are hymns. These songs are in the tradition of classic hymnody—they are constructed in multiple stanzas in a given meter. These are the worship songs most of us grew up with. Many authors continue to write hymn texts in regular meters. And many composers have written powerful new tunes. But the committee was concerned about presenting too much new music. We held the word accessibility in front of us all the time. As a result, many of these new hymn texts were set to familiar or older tunes (“Go to the World” p. 38).

Global Songs

The body of Christ—the holy catholic church—is spread throughout the whole wide earth. One of the great joys of receiving new songs from around the world is the opportunity we have to wrap our tongues around different words and sounds. Singing new melodies and rhythms—especially rhythms—that come from around the world brings us closer to our brothers and sisters as we join our voices to worship our one God. Sing! A New Creation includes songs from Africa, Asia, and Spanish-speaking countries. Also included in this category are African-American songs.

These songs are all part of the great feast of global song. They knock North American Anglos out of their cultural self-absorption and add spice to their worship. Committee member Charsie Sawyer, director of the Gospel Choir at Calvin College, was a good resource for African American sources, and two consultants were particularly helpful on the other global songs: C. Michael Hawn (see his contributions in RW 50-52) and Jorge Lockward (see RW 53). We spent time with both Michael and Jorge, singing, listening, and recording songs so we could get a feel for how they should sound. Those were memorable meetings.

The committee is aware that the proportion of global songs in Sing! A New Creation is going to be higher than that in most congregations’ repertoire. But we are also encouraged that many of the global songs in existing hymnals have quickly become some of the most loved in the collections. We also kept in front of us the changing demographics of the population in the United States and Canada. Hospitality is a growing need as we rub shoulders with people of many languages and cultures and learn to welcome people from all cultures to our worshiping communities. Even in more homogeneous contexts, we can be blessed by receiving gifts of song from around the world.

Choruses and Other Songs

For the sake of simplicity, almost every other flavor of church music falls into this category. The first generation of Praise & Worship music belongs here: simple choruses and heartfelt expressions of praise and adoration (“O Lord, Our Lord,” p. 35). This category also includes the next generation of alternative praise music coming from the “revival” movement (“Shout to the Lord,” p. 36). Also included in this group is liturgical folk music from sources as diverse as the Taizé Community in France, the Iona Community in Scotland, and many songs published by those influenced by Roman Catholic reforms, for example, songs by Marty Haugen (see RW 58).

Of course, there are no hard and fast rules for determining which category a song belongs in. Musicians and musical styles are constantly interacting with each other. There is so much stylistic variety available today that it is difficult to pigeonhole songs. Contemporary hymns are influenced by folk music, which is in turn influenced by world music, and so on, in an infinite and Spirit-driven synergy. Should “Shine, Jesus, Shine” and “Here I Am, Lord” be listed as hymns because they have several stanzas? (That’s where we put them.) Where does African-American Gospel fit? (We put it in Global.) What about the very Western style music that comes from the international and ecumenical community at Taizé, France? (We counted those as choruses.) What about a Latin Samba written by a Swedish composer? (Wait till you sing “You Are Holy”! We counted that as global.)

As you might expect, this category was the most challenging for the committee. Some songs have become symbols. For example, we knew that if “Majesty” were included, some people would unfortunately dismiss this collection without another glance. But the same would be true if we didn’t include it! Some members of the committee really stretched beyond their own comfort zones.

Psalms

What about psalms? The Reformed tradition is steeped in psalmody; the Psalter Hymnal has a complete metrical psalter, and most other recent hymnals include a large section of psalms in numerical order.

Psalms

Hymn (metrical) style = 18%
Choruses = 16%
Responsorial (spoken texts with sung refrains) = 66%
Refrains derived from classis hymns = 21%
Refrains from global sources = 11%
Refrains from P&W choruses = 11%
Refrains from Taizé = 5%
Original Refrains = 21%

But in reviewing current practice among churches, the committee recognized that the long and strong heritage of psalm singing was not at all healthy, and that the inclusion of new psalm settings in denominational hymnals had not resulted in restoring a healthy balance of psalm singing. Almost all the psalm settings in traditional Protestant hymnals were metrical, that is, composed like hymns. Other styles were helping many churches to restore psalm singing. Most important has been the recovery of responsorial psalmody, where the congregation can sing refrains with the responsive reading of the psalm (see p. 34). So we added another column to our chart.

Twenty percent of the songs in Sing! A New Creation are psalm based. But of all the psalm settings, only 18 percent are metrical, or what would fall into the “hymn” category.

This shift is a major one, expanding what had once been an exclusive diet of metrical psalmody.

Spoken Prayers and Liturgical Resources

In addition to the many psalms that are presented for responsive reading, the collection includes several other spoken worship resources that are models for including the congregation as active worshipers. These worship resources are corporate rather than individual; participatory rather than passive. Where words are provided for the worship leader they are meant primarily as a means of inviting all the people into prayer, usually with an economy of words and with more time for silence. Sometimes it is the responsibility of the worship leader to “get out of the way” and let the people pray.

There are many ways to pray. Sing! A New Creation includes examples for praying the psalms, bidding prayer, unison prayer, responsive prayer, litanies, sung prayer, and suggestions for extemporaneous prayer. We include these models to help worship leaders invite all of God’s people “into the pattern of these good things.” Also included are forms for baptism and the Lord’s Supper that incorporate music as well as spoken parts for the congregation. Some of the prayers are for worship leaders and are included only in the Leader’s Edition.

The Leader’s Edition

A variety of different sources and styles of music requires a variety of different musical skills. Many church musicians were trained as organists in the classical hymn tradition and have little experience with global songs and choruses as diverse as Praise & Worship and songs from Taizé. Sometimes the music suggests using piano and/or a guitar, sometimes an arrangement with many more notes than a traditional chordal harmony are essential for presenting a song the way it was intended. But including those arrangements, we knew, would take up far too much room.

The committee soon became convinced that a Leader’s Edition would be crucial. Then we could also provide articles and background notes on all the songs. But our budget simply didn’t allow for that expansion—until we received a very generous and significant grant from the ICN Foundation. We are very grateful that their gift made it possible to publish two editions; without that financial support only one printed edition would have been possible—with fewer songs and without the expanded accompaniments and resources provided in the Leader’s Edition. (The diagrams on pages 14-15 show what the song pages will look like in the two editions.)

Yet another edition will provide all the song texts and indexes on a floppy disk for churches that wish to present texts for bulletin or overhead projection systems. And finally, we’re thrilled that someone volunteered to begin work to make this collection available in Braille.

Recordings on the Web

Recordings of music in our new hymnal will be available on the Internet. These recordings will be live (not studio!) recordings of congregations and choirs singing several selections from the hymnal. The purpose of the recordings is not so much to produce a polished and pristine sound. Instead, these recordings are designed to be instructive for worship leaders. Directors and leaders of the recorded music will comment on both the strengths and weaknesses of the recording. This website will be accessible from links at the websites of Reformed Worship (www.reformedworship.org) and the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (www.calvin.edu/worship). This site will be updated to eventually include as many selections as we can receive copyright permission to make available.

We All Grew

As the the committee continued selecting, some sections were too large, some too small. Mostly they were too large, and so we began the hard work of cutting. “We’ve got too many of this composer,” someone would say. Or, “We don’t have enough to represent this important group of songs.” Our final meetings took place in smaller groups and in conference calls. At our last phone meeting, the group entrusted with the final cuts agreed to decide on five more songs they could live without. Those were tough decisions, and we still ended up with more than 250 songs. We hope that every church finds at least a hundred songs they already know or will soon come to enjoy. We’re very aware that different churches will select a different hundred songs to sing! But we hope this collection, taken all together, faithfully reflects both the wonderful variety of worship songs and the variety of people that come together every Sunday to bring honor and glory to God.

Pew Edition
  1. Category
  2. Many songs include descants.
  3. Guitar chords are provided on most of the songs; capo chords are also included when a more accessible key is needed for most guitarists.
  4. When the song is for unison singing, only the melody is provided; when harmony singing is possible, all the parts are provided. The leader’s edition includes incorporates the pew
  5. Authors and composers are listed with birth (and death) dates if known
  6. When tunes have names they are provided; when the meter is regular, the meter is also provided
  7. Clear copyright information is provided on the first page of each song; complete information for contacting copyright holders is included in the first index
Leader's Edition
  1. Category
  2. When more than one language is provided, both languages are included in the title
  3. The non-English language is provided first and identified. Languages include, Dutch, French, Greek, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Shona, Swahili, Xhosa, and Zulu
  4. Teh pew edition music is included, set over the expanded accompianment. Often, additional harmonizations and instrumental descants (in C and often B flat as well) are provided for particular stanzas
  5. Song notes providing background on text and music are included for every song
  6. Tempo suggestions are given for every song, along with suggestions for musical use
  7. Biblical references are given here as well as in an index
  8. Ideas for liturgical use sometimes include additional texts for worship leaders
  9. Since many expanded accompaniments will require more than two pages, the Leader's Edition (spiral bound) is 9 x 12 to allow four pages across, requiring fewer page turns

Excerpt

The Committee

Barbara Boertje, director of music at First Reformed Church, Grandville, Michigan.
Emily R. Brink, worship and music editor for CRC Publications (editor).
James Hart Brumm, pastor of Blooming Grove Reformed Church, Defreestville, New York (text subcommittee chair).
Alfred V. Fedak, minister of music and the arts at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Albany, New York.
John Paarlberg, Minister for Worship and Social Witness for the Reformed Church in America.
Bert Polman, professor of music at Redeemer College, Ancaster, Ontario (committee chair).
Charsie Sawyer, professor of voice at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Annetta Vander Lugt, music coordinator at Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan (music subcommittee chair).
John D. Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship
Amy Van Gunst, a social worker and pastor in the Reformed Church in America who also served on the RCA Worship Commission.

The Organization of Sing! A New Creation

Gathering
Praise and Adoration
Confession and Assurance
Illumination and Guidance
Advent
Christmas
Epiphany
Lent
Easter and Ascension
Pentecost
Faith
Intercessory Prayers
Thanksgiving and Offering
Baptism
Lord’s Supper

The Organization of the Gathering Section    
   
Modern Hymns Global Songs  Choruses: P&W/Taizé / etc.
From Varied Hills Come, All You People [African] Be Still for the Presence of the Lord [PW]
God, You Call Us to This Place [traditional tune]  Come and Let Us Worship God  [African] Come into God’s Presence [anon. Round]
Here in This Place Jesus, We Are Here [African] I Love You, Lord  [PW]
Lord God Almighty    I Will Enter His Gates [PW]
  Sing a New Song unto the Lord [Schutte]
  We Bring the Sacrifice of Praise [PW]
Ps. 24: spoken-sung w/ hymn refrain & w/ Jewish refrain    Ps 122: responsorial: Talbot setting

Emily R. Brink (embrink@calvin.edu) is Senior Research Fellow for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and former editor of Reformed Worship.