How Green Is Your Hymnal? Becoming intentional about learning new songs

A few weeks ago, Bruce Klanderman, organist at the Rochester (N.Y.) Christian Reformed Church, sent me a chart of the number of Psalter Hymnal songs that have moved in his congregation from "red" to "green."

Now for the translation: Two other organists in western Michigan prepared a color-coded chart of the entire 1987 Psalter Hymnal when it first came out.

They marked every song either

  • green (though new, very accessible)
  • yellow (may take some introduction)
  • red (needs careful introduction)

When organists Norma deWaal Malefyt and Marcia Smits (sisters, by the way) came up with the idea, it caught on very quickly. Many pastors and organists now have colorful hymnals with every page marked. (The list is still available from CRC Publications as part of a packet of resources called "Introducing the Psalter Hymnal." 1-800-333-8300 U.S. [$5.35]; 1-800-263-5242 CAN. [$7.20])

Bruce's chart reveals how often each song has been sung since the congregation began using the hymnal, and the current "color" for each. He reports that by now the congregation has sung 453 songs (71 percent) at least once, and "almost 60 percent of the songs can be used with comfort and assurance that they will 'sing well.'" (To keep such records, any spreadsheet with graphics capability can be used; he uses PSS:WindowWorks.) Here is a congregation where the leadership knows and guides its repertoire of songs.

Choosing the Palette

Of course, the purpose is not to see how many songs a congregation can sing, but how rich is the palette of praise that the congregation can offer to the Lord in worship. The palette needs the bright colors of praise as well as the darker or more complex shades of confession, intercession, even of lament. And the palette needs the strength of colors that won't fade too quickly. Some of the pictures need large canvasses, because more words and ideas take more space and need more colors. Others are miniatures.

I was struck by the approach of another congregation who sang completely from overheads. Their pastor's goal also was to increase the number of songs the congregation "knew." But what he meant by that was how many songs the congregation could sing from memory. A laudable goal. Most of the songs in that congregation's repertoire, though, were contemporary and very short— miniatures, many of which contained the same bright colors. Some songs introduced last year, which were sung often enough to have been memorized by the congregation, were placed in storage to make room for new songs. Some of their colors had already faded.

In that congregation, a whole generation of worshipers is growing up never learning what used to be taken for granted in North American life: a common heritage of worship songs. Only a few hymns still function in the collective memory of our society: "Amazing Grace," the doxology "Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow," and the spoken King James text for Psalm 23. Churches that offer services with only contemporary music encourage the loss of our collective memory and shrink our already small understanding of the communion of the saints.

Perhaps the time is already here when some congregations who have been singing only new "miniatures" for the past several years will discover again some of the older treasures of hymnody. Willow Creek Community Church, for example, has recently started to sing some old hymns, not just newly composed songs.

On the other hand, perhaps some of the congregations who have kept their heads in a book will start reaping the benefits of singing from memory. But they will have to be challenged. Andrew Mbuvi, a student from Kenya in my seminary choir, always inspires me, because as soon as he starts to sing anything we've worked on, he closes his eyes, with no need for the words or the notes. He grew up in an aural culture. Most of the other students have grown up tied to the book, and even after months of working on a song, have to be challenged to learn the words by heart.

A Challenge for the New Church Year

In Reformed Worship the word "balance" comes up time and again. We need both the large canvas and the miniature. We need many colors. And in this individualistic age, we need to treasure songs from the larger Christian church.

So, pastors and musicians and worship committees, as the new calendar of church activities begins, start coloring your hymnal. Commit to goals for your congregation. Make a list. Look at some new collections beyond your pew hymnal. Mix the new with the old. Challenge yourselves to include a psalm in every service. Sing songs from around the world. Paint large canvasses and miniatures. Commit some songs to memory. Above all, keep singing.

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


Reformed Worship 41 © September 1996, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.