In June, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) will release a new book of hymns—its first comprehensive hymnal in more than 20 years.
Produced by the CRC’s publishing agency, Faith Alive Christian Resources, as a joint effort of the CRC and the Reformed Church in America (RCA), Lift Up Your Hearts is also the first hymnal to be endorsed for use by congregations of both denominations.
In an era of diverse musical tastes and increasing use of technology in worship services, is a new hymnbook even necessary? Will enough congregations use it to justify the time that nearly 100 people spent over several years putting it together?
Rev. Joyce Borger, Faith Alive’s worship and music editor and one of the editorial committee members for the new hymnal, believes the answer to both questions is a resounding yes.
The number of choices facing any worship planner can be overwhelming, Borger says—“from which hymnal to use, to which version of a hymn text to use, to the tidal wave of newly written songs in a dizzying array of styles.”
“What is needed,” Borger says, “is someone or a group to serve as a curator—folks who can wade through so many choices and present a core selection that is biblical, Reformed, and accessible to the church.”
That’s what Lift Up Your Hearts offers. The new hymnbook contains some 850 songs and helps worship leaders move beyond the older hymnals and repertoires of contemporary praise songs with a uniquely Reformed blend of songs that are applicable to congregations across North America.
Why a New Hymnal?
The hymnbook project started back in 2003 with research followed up in 2010. Researchers noted the critical importance of hymn singing as part of worship in Reformed churches. Through focus groups of RCA and CRC church leaders, worship leaders, and congregation members of all ages, researchers discovered a passion for hymn singing.
But researchers also heard the need for a wider variety of songs, especially because of the changing nature of congregations.
“We are not the same church we were 25 or so years ago when the hymnals most of us are using came out,” explains Borger.
North America has become increasingly diverse, and people from various cultures have started attending CRC and RCA churches. As this has happened, congregations have needed to find ways to welcome and make room for the range of new people.
“One way to do that is to learn each other’s songs, to give voice to each other’s prayers and praises, to join together in harmony,” says Borger.
The focus groups also showed that churches are seeking songs that place more focus on social justice issues, creation care, authenticity and global awareness than churches did 25 years ago.
“While the message of the gospel doesn’t change, the context in which we worship does,” says Borger. “As we hold on to the traditional repertoire, we also need hymns that give voice to the prayers, praises, and laments particular to this generation.”
To meet the growing worship needs of a changing denomination, songs had to be added to the existing collection being used by churches. But it was also important to retain the classics people have come to know and love. People wanted a broader expression of the gospel message.
Moving Forward Together
With this in mind, Faith Alive decided to undertake the intricate and expensive process of creating a new hymnal. Right away they decided to consider collaboration with the RCA.
With growing opportunities for the CRC and RCA to worship and work cooperatively in recent years, the two denominations decided to produce the joint hymnal as a way to reflect their common faith.
Faith Alive put together a 13-member editorial committee to consider what could and should be included in the new resource.
The committee included five RCA members, five CRC members, and three staff from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and from Faith Alive. Committee members were chosen because of their musical knowledge and experience but also because of their love and commitment to their denominations and their understanding of and appreciation for the growing diversity within congregations.
The committee was supported by an advisory council of people from each denomination. These individuals included pastors, professors, musicians, editors, and worship leaders.
Throughout the process, the editorial committee came to the council for advice and decisions on particular songs and texts.
“Unlike most publishing endeavors that typically involve just one author and editor, the Lift Up Your Hearts hymnal was an undertaking that began with a group of 80 people from the RCA and CRC who are passionate about the church and worship,” says Jamie Lyn Hinojosa, Faith Alive’s assistant marketing manager.
Making Hard Decisions
Determining what to include and what to leave out was challenging. It also required extensive research.
“We scoured and read texts, looked at music, and had multiple discussions,” Borger explains.
“We learned from each other. We listened to the conversation and asked if a certain song was needed in the congregations today, if it was expressing a prayer we needed to say. It’s not about likes; it’s about singing the prayers of the people and responding to the grace God has given us.”
Carol Bechtel, member of the editorial committee and professor of Old Testament at the RCA’s Western Theological Seminary, agrees.
“Because we as a committee worked together over a period of years, we became friends. I think this affected not only the tone of our meetings, but the choices we made,” she says.
“Instead of asking ‘How can I get all my favorites in?’, the question became ‘What songs are important to your faith community, and will you share them with the rest of us?’”
With this in mind, the committee also consulted congregations for their input and asked churches to identify their “heart songs.” These are the songs that get chosen the most often for special occasions—the ones sung at weddings and funerals, the ones that get requested during hymn sings, and especially the ones people know by heart.
Once a song was flagged as a “heart song,” it became harder to exclude from the new hymnal.
“We wanted to include as many of those as possible in the collection,” Borger says. “Our hope is that any congregation can open the hymnal and find 150 songs they know.”
Yet of the 3,000 or more songs that they reviewed, only 850 made the cut to be included in the final version.
Honoring Beliefs and Diversity
The committee wanted to find songs that reflected the biblical and theological principles of the CRC and RCA’s shared heritage, but they also wanted to include songs that honored the diversity within congregations.
“Our churches resound with a broad spectrum of music, from majestic hymns to rhythmic gospel songs to rock tempo praise songs,” says Borger.
That means the hymnal needed to make room for such favorites as “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” and “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise”; for “Here I Am to Worship” and “Amid the Thronging Worshipers”; and for “Jesus Loves Me” and “Pérdon, Señor.”
The result is a hymnal that includes songs people already know and more that will stretch them in new directions. Many are songs from the global church that help worshipers connect with their brothers and sisters around the world.
The first half of the book walks worshipers through the story of creation and redemption including Old Testament life and witness, Christ’s life, Christ’s passion and exaltation, joining in the Spirit’s work, trusting the triune God, and hope for things to come.
The second half is based on the traditional order of worship, including calls to worship, confession, receiving the sacraments, listening to God’s Word, and being sent out into the world.
There are also litanies, prayers, and readings sprinkled throughout the book to deepen the user’s worship experience.
“Lift Up Your Hearts has the potential to enrich our worship in so many ways. It’s not just an invitation to sing; it’s a call to worship in a way that prayerfully and faithfully responds to God’s invitation to ‘lift up your hearts,’” says Bechtel.
How to Use the Hymnal
Lift Up Your Hearts offers music from the whole Bible, including all 150 psalms. It has songs representing the spectrum of human emotions as well as many cultures.
But how can a church get beyond singing its classics to adding new songs to their repertoire? The trick is to try.
Claudia Godoy Cortés, a worship leader at Bridgeway Community Church in Haledon, N.J., and a teacher at the local Christian high school, says she was impressed by the number and variety of songs from cultures all over the world.
“If you explore the hymnal’s organization, you will find classic, contemporary, and global songs that were traditionally classified in other categories but are now connected with a broader range of uses,” Cortés says.
“The great new songs and arrangements will resound with youth in church and at school.”
Worship leaders can use the book’s index to select songs that represent the cultural backgrounds of their congregation. If the church has a group going on a mission trip, congregations can also use songs to connect with the brothers and sisters in faith that they will meet there.
Similarly, the hymnal includes a topical index to help worship leaders select songs for deepening the worship experience whether their congregation is going through a time of joy or grief. There are songs of lament and confession, songs about death and dying, and songs of praise.
There also are songs to connect to Scripture from both testaments. Singing songs about the whole scope of the Bible’s story helps people fit its pieces together and understand it in a deeper way.
“People hear Bible stories but don’t always know how the stories fit together,” explains John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and a member of the hymnal’s editorial committee.
“Singing the true story of the whole world is absolutely crucial in this missional moment.”
What’s more, the hymnal’s creators have made the songs available in several formats to fit the worship style of a variety of congregations. Traditional printed versions can be purchased, but projection music, “cut and paste” versions for bulletins, and electronic versions for tablets and iPads will also be available.
“This is a hymnal of the church for the church,” Borger says. “Our ultimate desire is that this collection be deep enough to give voice to our praises and laments, be both sung prayer and proclamation, and play a significant role in the faith formation of Reformed Christians, old and young alike.”
Faith Alive Update
Although Faith Alive is facing significant financial difficulties, the Board of Trustees of the Christian Reformed Church expressed its commitment to maintaining the Faith Alive brand and to the continued need for solid Reformed faith formation resources. Congregations and individuals should not hesitate to order materials (books, hymnals, curricula) from Faith Alive.
At their February meetings, both the Faith Alive board and the Board of Trustees endorsed an organizational realignment framework for a phased convergence of ministry functions within the CRC. One such convergence is supporting the critical faith formation ministries of congregations.
Director Mark Rice explained, “Faith formation is a broad term that encompasses all the ways in which congregations build an active and sustained faith commitment to Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God among their members. It includes such diverse functions as education, worship, leadership development, congregational revitalization and others.”
The denominational administration and the BOT envision that the expertise of Faith Alive in producing educational and worship resources, as well as its general publication expertise, will continue within this planned convergence of functions focused on congregational faith formation. In turn, Faith Alive will be in a position to produce even more effective resources by being more closely tied to the congregations they serve within a congregationally-focused team.
Supporting Faith Alive With Your Prayers
- Pray that its worship resources, Sunday school curriculum, and other materials will continue to be used both within and beyond the CRC and that its Reformed message will be well received.
- Give praise that the new Lift Up Your Hearts hymnal will soon be available after several years of work. Pray that it will enrich worship and help people of all ages, ethnicities, and worship styles to experience and praise God in new ways.
- Pray for the men and women who write, edit, design, and promote Faith Alive resources. Pray that they will feel supported and encouraged as they use their gifts for this kingdom work.
About the Author
Kristen deRoo VanderBerg was part of the World Renew Communications team from 1999-2016. She now serves as director of Communications & Marketing for the Christian Reformed Church.