Sing a New Song

Anyone who’s been reading Reformed Worship for the last three years could hardly miss the fact that a new contemporary hymnal is in the making. We solicited new worship songs in RW 48 (June 1998), and in every issue since, we’ve introduced new songs from the hymnal in the column “Songs for the Season.” Now Sing! A New Creation is almost ready, and we look forward to launching it at COLAM 2001, the worship conference to be held in Wheaton, Illinois, on July 7-10. (You should have received a brochure; for more details, visit our website: www.reformedworship.org.)

Sing! A New Creation is the focus for this theme issue on contemporary worship music. In this editorial I am wearing two hats: the first as editor of RW; the second as editor of the hymnal, a project that has consumed most of my energy for many months. So what’s it been like to wear these two hats? How has the process gone?

A Day at a Board Meeting

Of all the many days I’ve spent on the hymnal, I’d like to focus on one: the unforgettable day our committee—a group of ten people representing the Reformed Church in America, the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, and the Christian Reformed Church—presented a preliminary draft of Sing! A New Creation to the board of CRC Publications. That board, a group of about fifty delegates from as many geographical districts across the United States and Canada, oversees all publications produced by the Christian Reformed Church (including Reformed Worship).

Generally, board members don’t review drafts of the books published by CRC Publications. But hymnals are different! Everyone wants to know whether they’ll find some of their own choices in the collection. The songs we sing seem to generate more emotional investment than any other part of our worship. One editorial approach to creating a hymnal is to keep the process private—in fact, most books are published that way. But the hymnal committee for Sing! chose to adopt a more public approach, similar to the one followed in preparing the Psalter Hymnal. Although it’s a more complicated way to go, we’ve found that the more people are involved, the broader the ownership of the project will be. The power of ownership became very real at that board meeting. For everyone present, it became an on-the-spot experience of the diversity of the church.

Following the typical pattern of such meetings, board members had to vote on three motions. The first two passed easily: to consider the songs section by section, and to refer suggestions back to the committee. We knew our work was not complete, and we were eager for feedback. Indeed, committee members had already started hosting informal feedback singing sessions in both Christian Reformed and Reformed churches and seminaries.

To get us into the material, I invited board members to sing four songs representing the different types of songs included (for more on the song types, see p. 11). Committee member Annetta Vander Lugt sat at the piano, ready to play additional songs they might want to try. But after those first four songs, they weren’t ready to work by sections. For the next hour, the questions and comments flew, thick and heavy:

  • Who are you aiming this book at?
  • Who is going to buy it? A lot of churches have already bought other supplements.
  • How much will it cost?
  • Some churches don’t use hymnals, just overheads. If you just sell this on overheads, we won’t sell copies.
  • I know only about 6 percent of these songs, and I know lots of songs. How do you expect to sell something people cannot connect with?
  • Why include so many familiar and accessible praise choruses? We already have them. Just give us new stuff.
  • I know about 40 percent of these.
  • Please include more familiar things.
  • Niche marketing is where things are at in publishing nowadays. This is too broad.
  • Why not just have a small collection of praise choruses? That’s what I think people are looking for.

The longer they talked, the more obvious it became to everyone just how diverse the church is and how different the experiences and repertoire of different congregations are. They talked about geographical differences and worried about a too narrowly appointed committee (“You’ve got to include California in the mix!”). The whole mood was turning apprehensive. I mostly listened. Annetta sat at the silent keyboard.

After Lunch

During the lunch break, Gary Mulder, executive director of CRC Publications, and Annetta and I each had several good conversations in smaller groups. Before the afternoon session began, we reconnoitered and decided to change strategy a bit. Rather than talk more, we said, let’s sing. And we did, with gusto, for about half an hour. Annetta and I had planned a number of songs in case board members didn’t suggest any, but they were soon off and running, selecting from a wide range. One would choose a favorite he or she wanted others to know. Most often, one person’s favorite was brand-new to others. One cheered the inclusion of Spanish-language songs (even asking to sing one of them again), quieting another who wondered why we included some songs in more than one language.

The whole mood changed. Rather than speaking up for their individual ideas of what the hymnal should include—the tone that had dominated the morning discussion—singing together helped everyone become very aware that the body of Christ has many different members. Singing diverse songs chosen by different people and listening to their testimonies as to why they wanted us all to sing this or that song changed the dynamics.

Sitting at the same table with people from very different backgrounds helped everyone face the questions the committee had discussed from the beginning: Is a “niche” hymnal the route to take? Or should this be a book for the whole community of faith, for old and young, for those who have been singing primarily newer choruses as well as those who sing primarily older hymns? Is that broader approach realistic in this age of niche marketing? That became the conviction of the committee. Would it become the conviction of the board as well?

A Show of Hands

Near the end of our discussion with the board, I asked for a show of hands on who wanted more or less of each of the three basic types of songs: “Who thinks we need a lot more modern hymns (in the traditional sense of what a hymn is)?” “A lot less?” I asked the same questions with regard to global songs and to the category of choruses that included Praise & Worship choruses as well as Taizé refrains.

Hands went up for every question! Some wanted more modern hymns, others wanted less; some wanted fewer global songs, others wanted more. Most wanted more praise choruses; some wanted less.

Gary asked, “What happened between the morning and now?” What happened was singing together! Not singing alone, but singing in a group that itself reflected the diversity of the church— geographically, culturally, and ethnically.

The Final Vote

Before taking the final vote on the third motion, I responded to the morning concerns in more detail. I spoke about blended worship, about needing to honor the different parts of the body, about the success of the children’s hymnal Songs for LiFE, which also included a great deal of new songs in varied styles. We are all part of one body, I explained. Rather than aiming this hymnal at a particular niche, we wanted to aim it at the whole body. Not just the eye or the ear, not just young people or the elderly, not just the overhead folks or the hymnal folks. This hymnal has something for everyone, because everyone belongs to the body.

At the end, the motion changed. Instead of asking the board to give final approval of our work at this stage, the committee offered to come back with another report at the next board meeting. Clearly, everyone would benefit from having more time to reflect together on how the contents of a hymnal reveal a great deal about our understanding of the relationship between local congregations and the larger body of Christ. Singing old and new songs together, we discovered, is a powerful way to deepen that relationship.

Now that the hymnal is almost done, the meetings will shift to the local worship planning groups who decide each week which songs to include in their worship. May each planning group continue to grow in their understanding of how to bless their congregation with a rich and varied diet of songs for worship (see pp. 4-9).

As for me, I’ll be happy to take off one of my hats!

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