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A New Hymnal for a New Generation

Tim is a great defender of the liturgy, Gord likes his hymn texts straight up, Martin likes to play songs triple speed . . .

Come June 2013, many Christian Reformed (and Reformed Church in America) congregations across the United States and Canada will be welcoming into their worship Lift Up Your Hearts, the successor to the current gray Psalter Hymnal published more than a quarter-century ago. The Banner interviewed Joyce Borger, editor of Lift Up Your Hearts, to learn about the new hymnal. For more about Lift Up Your Hearts, visit

Why a new hymnal? So many churches these days project songs on screens.

The number of choices facing any worship planner can be overwhelming, from which version of a hymn text to use to a tidal wave of newly written songs in a dizzying array of styles. What’s needed is a curator—in this case a group of folks who are qualified to wade through the many choices and present a core selection of songs that are biblical, Reformed, and accessible for congregational singing. That, in essence, was the role of the advisory and editorial committees.

In worship one of the main ways we praise and honor God and give voice to our prayers is through song. From generation to generation, the underlying gospel message doesn’t change, but the concerns and social context of each generation do. Since the publication of Rejoice in the Lord in 1985 and the 1987 Psalter Hymnal we’ve witnessed great sociological change and the exponential growth of technology. Our world is very different today than it was twenty years ago. In many ways what once was considered “the global church” has become “our church.” The words and music we use for worship need to express the diverse realities that shape our worship.

Research shows there still is a need for print, and the realization that much of the work for a collection would be the same regardless of delivery method led us to begin with a print version. Various electronic versions will be released at the same time, making Lift Up Your Hearts a useful collection both for churches that use projection and for those that sing from a book.

What principles did the committee use for choosing or leaving out songs?

Every hymn text was scrutinized for biblical accuracy and agreement with Reformed theology. Nine of the 13 members of the editorial committee, which included faculty from Calvin Theological Seminary and Western Theological Seminary, have theological degrees from a Reformed seminary. Each text also was reviewed by our advisory group of 80 readers.

“Away in a Manger” is still in the hymnal because the group deemed it wise to include even though few people would agree that Jesus never cried. In cases where we thought that a text might be a stumbling block to a portion of either denomination, it was left out.

Tell us about how the hymnal is organized—which songs are placed together and in what order. What difference does that organization make?

No one book of the Bible contains the complete message and teaching of Scripture. And no one song represents a fully developed theology—though some come close! So yes, we paid very close attention to the message of each song. Sometimes two texts are next to each other because together they provide a more complete picture of a single truth. Other times the order is chronological, allowing us to “sing the story” as it happened. Still other sections are in order of Scripture.

The Lord’s Supper section begins with songs directly related to the sacrament and then moves into a teaching section that follows the order of the Apostles’ Creed. Some songs serve as a bridge between sections; those tend to be found at either the beginning or end of a section. Because many songs could appear in multiple places, we’ve included topical, scriptural, and title indexes. While some of that organizational effort may be lost on the person using the hymnal, we believe that more often it will create moments of delight and discovery.

Previous hymnals included all 150 psalms in order. How are the psalms treated in this hymnal?

I wish we knew the psalms as well as previous generations did! But that isn’t the current reality. Most worship planners turn to the Praise and Adoration section if they’re looking for a song of praise; they wouldn’t immediately think to sing Psalm 148 unless they found it in that section. To encourage psalm singing and to make psalms more accessible to churches, we’ve integrated them into the hymnal and included the reference directly below the title so we can’t miss the fact that we are singing a psalm. Every psalm is represented in this hymnal; for an idea of how they are presented, check out Psalms for All Seasons, a byproduct of our work on choosing psalm settings for the hymnal.

What are some “old favorites” from the gray book that are left out of this one, and why? What about beloved contemporary songs?

The thing about favorites is that they are based on personal taste and experiences. As an editorial committee we constantly reminded ourselves that we were not creating a hymnal that reflects our own personal taste but one that serves the church. It’s very possible that in our desire to serve the larger community, we left out some personal favorites.

There are many reasons why a song might be left out. One that comes to mind is “Our God Reigns,” whose author wouldn’t allow us to reprint it as it appears in the Psalter Hymnal. Other songs never caught on widely. Each has its own individual reasons for being included or left out.

Some contemporary songs didn’t make it simply because they took too many pages or were too complicated to work with keyboard leadership alone (that is, without a soloist). Others had language that was problematic in some settings—again, we had to think of the whole church.

On the flip side, we were able to include songs from the old blue Psalter Hymnal that were left out of the gray such as “Nearer, Still Nearer.” “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” appears with the old tune, and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” has both tunes!

Is the image of Jesus as lover out of favor these days? I’d say it is well represented in this hymnal: “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” and “My Jesus, I Love Thee” come quickly to mind. That image was popular during the Great Awakening (1750-1850ish) and also reflects a more contemplative spirituality. Some folks today find the image distracting; for others it gives voice to their faith. The beauty of this hymnal is that we will find songs that stretch us and open up new metaphors and images to help us grow in our relationship with God. With so many choices, we can engage them as much or little as we like.

What did the CRC gain by partnering with the RCA on this hymnal? What did it give up?

I honestly can’t think of a downside to this partnership. It reflects a growing cooperation and expresses the reality that some churches belong to both denominations.

Creating a hymnal for such a diverse body helped us think in fresh ways—we couldn’t include a song or practice simply because we always had. Some see the fact that the catechism, confessions of faith, and forms are not included in the hymnal itself as a loss. But those would likely not have been included even if this hymnal were created for a single denomination. The material in the back of the current Psalter Hymnal does not reflect synodical decisions made since its printing. Updating it without requiring churches to purchase all new hymnals for their pews is next to impossible. The smaller collection of the catechism and confessions, Our Faith, allows for easier updating and replacement. So I see this decision as a gain rather than a loss. Creeds, liturgies for the sacraments, and other resources for events in the life of the church are included in the appropriate section of the hymnal.

Describe a memorable moment in the work of the hymnal committee.

Sometimes when you get tired you get a little slap-happy—but what happens in committee stays in committee! There was a sense of camaraderie and purpose that made working together lots of fun. I loved the times when we got to just sing—and by sing I mean the whole song, without critique! We got to know each other well enough to know that Tim is a great defender of the liturgy, Gord likes his hymn texts straight up, Martin likes to play songs triple speed, C.J. can bring the house down, Claudia has a surpassing sense of style and creativity . . . and, well, if you want to get your song in the hymnal, you ask Joel to play it.

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