Two Churches: Two Tunes

The Mara ADA Church deep in the valley needed new hymnals. The old ones were battered and worn. Pages were missing. Everyone knew the need. One Sunday new hymnals were in the pews. No one had talked about them or planned for them or expected them. But there they were. Rev. Notsing had selected three new hymns from the new book for the morning service, and the people stumbled through them. By the time they were half way through the second hymn some of the congregation were muttering about how much better the old hymnbooks were. And by the end of that morning service most of the members of the Mara congregation were bitter. They didn't hesitate to let Rev. Notsing know how they felt. And he didn't hesitate to communicate their feelings to the person responsible for ordering the new hymnals. Within one month the old books were back in their racks; a group of volunteers had photocopied missing pages and taped them in place. The new books were pulled from pews and offered for sale in the denominational newsletter.

The Naomi ADA Church up on the hill knew for several years that their denomination was in the process of creating a new tool of praise. They read about it and talked about it. A few members of the congregation attended an introductory workshop and hymn festival, featuring music from the new hymnal. Others bought recordings to familiarize themselves with some of the new hyms. The more they heard of and about the new book, the more eagerly they anticipated its publication. Finally the new book arrived, and the people gathered to dedicate it to the praise of God. For a few Sundays the Rev. Lot-taSense chose only familiar hymns, then gradually began introducing some of the new music. The people were pleased.*

Few of our congregations are as predictable as the Mara or Naomi Churches. Yet most of us share some common characteristics with one or both of these groups. For one thing, many of us have just introduced new hymnals, or plan to do so in the near future. Rejoice in the Lord (Reformed Church in America) and the Hymnal 1982 (Episcopal Church) have already been released, and in the next few years others will join them: the Psalter Hymnal (1987, the Christian Reformed Church), the Trinity Hymnal (1988, Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America), a new Methodist hymnal (1990), and a new hymnal for the Presbyterian Church (USA).

The following questions and answers address the ups and downs, the sharps and flats, of selecting and introducing a new hymnal to a congregation. How this process is conducted may well determine whether a church is a Naomi or a Mara.

Part I: Selecting Hymnals

What difference does a hymnal make in a church? What is its importance?

A hymnal is a collection of confessional statements set to music and sung by people gathered in worship, a declaration of who we are and what we believe. Reformed congregations, among all others, should regard their hymnals as a confession of faith to each other and to the world. Equally important (probably more important to most church members) is that the hymnal is the major vehicle of worship and praise, the vehicle of our emotions of faith.

People choose hymnals for a lot of reasons, many of them having more to do with emotions than with content. Some people will vote for a hymnal that contains many of the numbers they remember singing as they grew up, while others are attracted to selections that reflect what is currently popular. Even congregations who are part of a denomination that has an official hymnal spend time debating over the selection of supplemental song-books. Obviously, then, the choice of a hymnal will not please everyone—at least if people select on the basis of what they like, want, or nostalgically remember. A selection will be nearly impossible unless other standards are used tojudge the hymnal's worth.

So powerful is the influence of music and lyrics on us that a wise person once said, "I care not who writes the laws of the land. Let me write the music." One could paraphrase the quote to better fit our discussion about church music: "I care not who writes the theology of the church. Let me write the hymns." Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are that important to our faith.

Texts. Reformed churches contribute a careful and important theology to the ecumenical church, a theology that is more complete than one would expect from a group of our numerical size. Our hymn collections should be in harmony with that theology. Both the literary quality and the theological content of our psalms and songs should affirm and bring life to what is spoken from our pulpits.

Music. The music should support the content. Here, admittedly, decisions are more difficult. Since music is nonverbal, finding words to describe such things as quality is not easy. People often discover they must rely on experience to evaluate the worth of music. And that process is often more complex than it sounds.

The recognized classics like NICAEA, OLD HUNDREDTH, and PSALM 42 are always with us. But what about the new tunes? Will they be short-lived? Or long-lived? Are they popular only for the moment? Or will they last the life of a hymnbook and longer? Will they be among the "disposable" items? Or will they become classics that future generations will sing?

In the preface to Rejoice in the Lord, Erik Routley wrote, "A good hymn tune is one that can be sung by ear after two or three hearings; it is one in which, without too much musical sophistication, the singer can hear the next note coming." In those words he provided a noble goal, a goal that recognizes the healthy tension between "musical sophistication" and not "too much" of it. As a guideline to debate the worth of hymn tunes this goal is as helpful as any.

Hymnals are important, then, because their content is an expression of faith to be offered in worship to God. From a hymnbook we sing, heartfelt, what we believe.

When does a congregation need a new hymnal?

A congregation's attitude toward a new hymnal is frequently characterized by two questions and a statement: "Why do we need a new hymnal?" "Why should we spend the money?" "The old ones are good enough; we won't know the new hymns." So much for openness and enthusiasm.

The pastor recognizes that some new and timely themes are missing in the old hymnal. And the musicians feel the need for new tunes and harmonies. Sad to say, the rest of the people often do not recognize these needs. The congregation frequently thinks of purchasing new hymnals only when the old books are torn and tattered, creating a negative impression (especially on visitors). No wonder that some church leaders make the mistake that the Mara leaders did by simply putting the new hymnals in the pew some Sunday!

When church leaders sense the need for hymnals, they should begin by discussing that need with the congregation. It may be wise at that time to point out that hymnbooks have a spiritual as well as a physical life.

The physical life has to do with the paper, ink, and binding that we hold in our hands. No hymnbook in active use lasts forever. Twenty years is probably the outside limit for the life of a well-bound book of excellent paper and cover stock. When these physical features wear out, it's both necessary and easy for a congregation to switch to a new hymnal.

The spiritual life of the book has to do with what's inside, with the contents of the hymnal. In this context themes become important: in today's hymnals, for example, ecology and world peace should take their place alongside the familiar themes of personal salvation and forgiveness. Since most of us now live in the city, agrarian metaphors need to be accompanied by urban allusions. Scientific allusions should be added to the pre-scientific thought of Scripture. And the issue of inclusive language should not be set aside lightly.

When a congregation is sensitive to the daily life that challenges the Christian community at worship, it may be open to a new collection of hymns—even when the body of the book is not worn. Here leadership, combined with patience and instruction, is essential.

Who makes the decision?

Denominational rules influence the process of hymnal selection. Some denominations (such as the Christian Reformed and Episcopal churches) have an official hymnal that is found in every pew across the denomination. Other denominations {such as the Reformed Church in America) suggest an approved book that congregations may, but are not obligated to, use.

The Christian Reformed Church has a binding tradition that every congregation shall use the Psalter Hymnal. Each consistory is charged with making sure that their congregation uses the hymnal, Bible versions, and liturgical forms approved by synod (Church Order Article 52). So in Christian Reformed congregations the question is not what to buy but rather when to buy into the new collection that is one of the denomination's identifying features. In contrast, the Reformed Church in America (and churches served by Great Commission Publications, publisher of the Trinity Hymnal) says only that the hymns used in public worship should be in harmony with the standards of the denomination (Book of Church Order l.I.2.6.d) and does not specify that one hymnal should be used by all congregations.

Many congregations, then, are faced with an assortment of new hymnals and an important decision: the selection of the church hymnal or, as is often the case, a supplementary songbook. Who makes the decision?

While the course taken by the Mara Church simplifies the selection process (one person makes the decision for the others), a congregation will seldom stand behind a hymnal that is thrust upon them. So typically the consistory (session) of a church appoints a committee to evaluate hymnals on the market and to bring a recommendation to the congregation.

Four viewpoints should be represented on such a committee. First, some members of the committee should reflect the views of the majority of the congregation. Second, care should be taken to include people with literary sensitivity who are able to make a judgment about hymn texts. Third, musicians should be present to speak to the quality of the music. Fourth, the minister or ministers should be included and given a strong voice. It is the minister who takes the hymnal and uses it to guide the worship and learning of the congregation; if the lyrics in the hymnals are not in harmony with the preaching and teaching, the unity of the liturgy will be marred and the impact of the preaching will be muted.

We have a donor. Should the donor make the selection?

Often a church feels manipulated by a donor. He or she offers the congregation an ultimatum: "I will donate the hymnals if you purchase such and such." And the congregation, not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, simply says, "Thank you"—and feels stuck.

The offer is fine. And no one would deny that the donor is generous and well-meaning. But anyone making such an offer should be prepared to have it gently but firmly refused. It's the church's duty to evaluate the gift offered and to refuse it if it is inappropriate.

It's far better for a committee to choose a book, have it approved by the congregation, and then look for the necessary funds. If the annual budget is unable to handle the substantial cost of new hymnals, a donor or donors can be recruited. The purchase probably should not occur until the dollar affirmative votes equal the cost.

How should a new hymnal be dedicated?

Some churches choose to dedicate the new hymnal at a regularly scheduled service, others at a special service. The special service allows time for more singing; the regularly scheduled service introduces the book to a greater number of members.

A dedicatory service of this kind might include some or all of the suggestions on page 7.

Part II: Using the Hymnal

What do we do with our new book?

At first the congregation will be excited about the hymnal because it's something new. But before long they'll probably experience a letdown. "We don't know those new hymns. What's more, we don't like them!" "They changed [or omitted] my favorite." "The harmony is different, and I can't sing from memory." "They shouldn't have [or should have] changed the sexist language." "The old one was better." "What was good enough for my grandmother will be good enough for my grandchildren." In short, "My Linus blanket is in shreds!"

This reaction should be expected, for it occurs whenever valued things are changed. Our sung confessions are of the heart, and we don't want others to "tamper" with them.

How should church leaders introduce a hymnal? What strategies work?

In introducing a new hymnal,it's important for the hymn selector to be sensitive to four categories of hymns: (1) familiar words, familiar tune; (2) new words, familiar tune; (3) new words, new tune; and (4) familiar words, new tune. Selection during the first eighteen months should follow this ranked sequence.

Tune names recognized from the former book that now appear in the new book will help identify hymns in categories 1 and 2. The Tune Name Index in each hymnal will quickly tell the worship leaders which hymns fall in this group.

The idea of tune names may be new ground to many of us who know hymns by their first lines and have always thought that the tunes were always and only thus and so! Often pastors will have to rely on the help of musicians to help them sort through tune names and make appropriate selections. John Page, pastor of the First Reformed Church of Scotia, New York, asked the organist to tape record and digitally index all the music of Rejoice in the Lord for this purpose!

The first category of hymns, familiar words and familiar tune, really needs no introduction. Because the people know and often love these songs, it's with them that the worship leader should start. Erik Routley (editor of Rejoice in the Lord) emphatically stated that these songs alone should be sung for the first four to six months that the new hymnals are in the pews. However, part singers might find some surprises even in these old favorites; in some cases, music editors have reharmonized old standards in an attempt to give them new life.

The second category of hymns, new (ancient or modern) words set to familiar tunes, are the easiest of the new material to introduce. The tune carries the congregation happily along with some new thought. "Child in the Manger," original to BUNES-SAN (well-known as "Morning Has Broken") or "Comfort, Comfort Ye, My People" to the Genevan Psalter PSALM 42 are examples.

The third category, new words and new tunes, marks a turning point. In this category it gets harder for everyone concerned. The congregation has to work at words and music—two things, neither of which they know from memory or by feel. (Pity the poor organist who must read treble and bass staves, create a pedal part, and keep an eye on the words so that he doesn't try to lead a stanza after the last one is sung.) So worship leaders should put planning and effort into introducing new songs. The more difficult the melody, the better for gradual introduction. The organist can play the new tune as part of a prelude or offertory one week. The choir or a soloist can sing it the next week. The following week, when the congregation is invited to join in, the song may even sound a bit familiar to them.

The fourth category of hymns, familiar words set to new tunes, is usually the most difficult for a congregation. The "sacred" has been desecrated! It makes no difference that WINCHESTER OLD is a more pastoral setting for "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks" than is the rather bouncy CHRISTMAS, with its dotted eighths and sixteenths that would have sent the sheep on a frightened run. The familiar has been changed, and that is hard to take. If the truth be known (and it helps to make the truth known to the congregation), most hymns have been matched with a variety of tunes. Seldom do we sing words to the tune that was originally composed for them (as is evident from the dates of text and tune). However, if a congregation tries a new tune from the new hymnal and doesn't like it, the worship leader shouldn't press the matter. Have the organist play the familiar tune as the people sing the words from the book. No copyright or performance law says that the page thus printed must be thus presented.

Who should introduce hymns to the congregation?

The organist, choir, and the key singers are those who should bear most responsibility for introducing hymns to the congregation.

Organist. The organist is the absolute key to the successful introduction of a hymn. And the organist's secret is preparation and practice. To have one's fingers "caught in the cracks" renders a death verdict to a new hymn and maybe to the new book. A song leader with arms flailing like a windmill (perish the thought!) is of little help to the congregation; the organist sets the tempo and the mood. Choirs are led by conductors; congregations are conducted by organists.

When introducing a new hymn, the organist will often play the whole hymn as an introduction. A strong multi-octave unison throughout the introduction and first stanza will fix the melody in the mind of the rote singer and will even help the note reader. Generally this will pave the way for the four parts and possibly a final stanza variation for excitement and enthusism. (A bibliography/index of organ music based on hymn tunes for Rejoice in the Lord and the Psalter Hymnal will be released in the near future.)

Choir. The choir is another channel for introducing a new hymnal. Hymns may be introduced as simple anthems or in more complicated anthem arrangments. Interesting is the concertato that uses choir and congregation in some prearranged pattern. (The hymn concertato was described in RW1.)

However, often the choir doesn't have much time to think and plan how they will introduce a new hymn. In a typical scenario the hymn is selected midweek by the pastor and introduced early Sunday morning at the choir warm-up. Choirs pride themselves on part-singing to under-gird congregational hymnody and do so to maintain and develop a skill of reading the harmonic parts. Good! But on this occasion and until the new hymn tune is familiar to the congregation, let them sing the melody with strength to carry the unison singers of the congregation.

Soloists. The third source of help in introducing a hymnal is the soloist or cantor. Dutch churches used to have a voorzinger who, with strong voice, would "line" the psalm. After each line, the people would repeat what the voorzinger had just sung. At other times the voorzinger served as the strong voice who set the pitch and tempo as the group sang. It may be helpful to adapt this ancient office of cantor for use in our churches today. Some Christian churches already have. For example, in some smaller Roman Catholic churches the organist sings into a mike boom positioned over the instrument so that the organist carries the congregation by singing as well as playing. The setup looks a bit like the supper-club entertainer or a pop concert. But it harks back to the Dutch voorzinger and may well be modified for use in our churches.

Another way of using the individual singer is a bit more subtle. Identify one or more strong male or female voices who will prepare the hymn (or who read music exceptionally well) and place them strategically throughout the congregation. Four to six could be helpful, depending on the size of the nave. Such placement is a trick that choir conductors have employed for years in volunteer groups whose members have differing singing skills. It's a trick that can help a congregation as well.

Put all these ideas together and introducing a new hymnal can become an exciting process. Given a careful selection of hymns, a prepared organist, a unison choir, and several well-placed voorzingers, a congregation will be carried into new music on eagles' wings.

What else helps?

Hymn of the Month. Standard among the methods of introducing new material is the hymn-of-the-month program. A given hymn is selected and sung each Sunday for a month. In a few short weeks the new becomes familiar.

In learning new hymns, congregations appreciate some background information. RW, it appears, will continue a work well begun with the Hymn of the Month feature. It might be helpful if, in this section, the contributor would also stimulate our attention to the music by giving some recognition to the tune name.

A variation on the hymn of the month might be hymn of the season. RW 1 discussed the beauty of the church year with its seasons of Advent, Epiphany, Lent, and Pentecost. The first three seasons listed are of excellent length (four to seven weeks) for introducing a single thematic hymn that focuses on the season (and possibly influences the preaching). Such a program would help our congregations claim our historic Christian calendar and be less dominated by the secular calendar.

Recordings. Recordings of the hymn setting in simple straight forward form or in the embellished concertato form are another exciting way to foster new hymn singing. Recordings made by well-trained college choirs or by professional groups can set in motion the desire to sing something new. (That's the way most popular music is introduced!)

Records and tapes by choirs from Calvin and Dordt colleges (available from CRC Publications for $8.95 each) already prepare the way for the new Psalter Hymnal. Look for songs in the hymnal you select both on these recordings and on other well-done hymn recordings available on the general market.

Some churches will want to do their own exploration and discovery. They will find the following sources helpful: James Rawlings Sydnor has written two average-sized, modestly priced paperbacks, Hymns and Their Uses and Hymns: A Congregational Study (see page 41). For those who wish to explore individual hymns and tunes, extensive works of Erik Routley are helpful. His companion set is entitled A Panorama of Christian Hymnody (lyrics) and The Music of Christian Hymns (see page 40). Presently the Reformed Church in America is awaiting the doctoral work of Mark Bauman who is preparing a hymn companion to Rejoice in the Lord, giving the hymn and tune history and accompaniment suggestions for each of the 624 selections. A handbook of articles and entries on each of the songs in the new Psalter Hymnal is in progress and is scheduled for release in 1990. Pam Ruiter-Feenstra, a doctoral student at the University of Iowa, is primarily involved in the research for this immense project.

To God's glory

Having done all, begin the singing and wait for the comments. They will come. Some will express dislike, others praise and enjoyment. In the choir loft of Christ Community Reformed Church, Clifton Park, New York, I placed a Latin motto: Vox humanorum ad Gloriam Dei. Be it choral or congregational, our singing is "the voice of humans to the glory of God."

*The Naomi and Mara churches were discovered, after a long search of church records, to be the only two churches in Protestantism named after the same Old Testament woman (see Ruth 1:20). The denominational acronymn, ADA, stands for Any ttenmniuatuni in. America. The annus of the clergy are fictiimiil/zed to protect the innocent—or the guilty.

Suggestions for a Hymnal Dedication Service
  1. The Opening Hymn. "O/Our God, Our Help in Ages Past," ST. ANNE. In Festival of Praise Erik Routley provides a delightful alternate harmonization and descant for this song.
  2. The Psalter. Read (in unison or responsively) a psalm and sing the corresponding psalm-hymn, demonstrating the biblical source of so much of our hymnody.
  3. The Memorial Announcement (if applicable). It is best to keep this announcement simple and dignified; avoid elaborate details about the donor and a ceremony of presentation.
  4. The Liturgy of Dedication. The liturgy on this page is suggested (and may be appropriately adjusted for your congregation).

    Leader: Shout for joy to the Lord, all the lands.
    All: Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him withjoyful songs.
    Leader: For the Lord is good and his love endures forever.
    All: His faithfulness continues through all generations.
    All sing: All people that on earth do dwell,
    Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice;
    Him serve with mirth, His praise forth tell,
    Come ye before him and rejoice.
    Leader: Rejoice in the Lord always.
    All: And again I say, Rejoice.
    Leader: O Lord, you have given hearts to love you and lips to praise you. Receive this book which we now dedicate to be an instrument by which your people may offer unto you glad hymns of joyful thanksgiving. Grant that our voices may be joined with those of that great heavenly host that never ceases praising you as it sings…

    All sing:
    Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore thee,
    casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea,
    cherubim and seraphim falling down before thee.
    Who was, and is, and evermore shall be.

    Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
    All thy works shall praise thy name, in earth and sky and sea:
    Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty,
    God in three persons, blessed Trinity.
  5. Concertato. I suggest "New Songs of Celebration, " an arrangement of Rendez A Dieu from the Genevan Psalter, for congregation, choir, organ, two trumpets, and two trombones. (Arranged by Dale Grotenhuis. Available from CRC Publications.)
  6. Prayer. Howard Hageman composed this prayer for "A Festival of Hymns," Pella, Iowa, 1983:
    "O Thou Eternal Master and Maker of music and loveliness, to thee be praise, power, dominion for ever. We bless thee for the power which thou hast given us to sing thy praises and for the gift which thou hast bestowed on many of thy servants to create verses and make music with which thy people may sing to thy glory. But, most of all, we thank thee for that great gift of thy love which excites our praises and compels our thanksgiving, the gift of thy Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lived among us, died for us and now lives forever in the brightness of thy presence. Be with us now as we join our hearts and voices in this service of praise and thanksgiving. Grant that all that is said and sung may be offered to thy glory, that as worshipers of thy great and holy name we may be living sacrifices, holy and acceptable in thy sight. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen."
  7. Scripture and Sermon (or Meditation). The sermon or meditation should be short enough so that it enhances rather than detracts from the occasion.
  8. The Final Hymn. "Holy God, We Praise Your Name" (GROSSER GOTT), will be a glorious finale (with descant in Rejoice in the Lord) that joins the living congregation to the church victorious, singing the praises of our great God.

Robert DeYoung is the pastor of Christ Community Reformed Church of Clifton Park, New York.


Reformed Worship 4 © June 1987, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.