A New Hymnal and Change

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During August, John Wilkinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring where we are as a church through the lens of the new Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God — what are we thinking about? how are we worshiping? what matters to us? where are we headed? Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By James Renfrew

A discussion about a congregation’s hymnal becomes a good case study in openness to change vs. aversion to change.  When I arrived at my church in 2000 the book in the pew racks was Hymns for the Family of God, a very conservative Baptist-centered, and decidedly non-Presbyterian hymnal.  The hymnal was forty years old and had been in use at our church for at least thirty. There were no hymns relating to infant baptism, an unusually poor selection of Easter hymns, and only two Advent hymns.  The liturgical texts were also not very helpful in speaking to Presbyterian perspectives on scripture and faith.  And at least one third of the hymn selections used “washed in the blood” imagery.  While “washed in the blood” is authentic Biblical imagery, it is not an image that I generally choose to lift up Jesus Christ each Sunday in worship. So in choosing hymns for each Sunday I had to eliminate one third of the selections from consideration right off the bat.

Initially serving as a supply pastor at this church, I felt that recommending a hymnal change was probably not the best idea.  But after several years, through the wonders of modern polity, I became the called pastor.  Still, I hesitated to take the lead in suggesting a change.  I had heard many horror stories of pastors going down in flames for trying doing just that.  Yet I did make a decision to share – honestly – what I thought about our hymnal in a variety of one-on-one conversations with church leaders and members.  I did not advocate a new hymnal purchase, but simply pointed out the wide variety of limitations in the book we had.  Rarely did I say anything at a Session meeting about it.

When the new Glory to God hymnal was first publicized, not me but a member of Session brought it up for discussion.  It was very interesting to hear half of the elders raising some of the same points I had been raising about Hymns for the Family of God.  But, as expected, there were plenty of objections, mostly along the lines of “there’s nothing wrong with our hymnal”, “it’s what I’m used to,” and “we can’t afford a new one.”   These, of course, are the kinds of things said at nearly every discussion in a church that involves “change.”  The idea of acquiring a new hymnal raised a key question for us: “should we be looking backward or forward in our ministry?” A “next church” negotiates this kind of question by rephrasing the question to ask if our church is just for ourselves and people like ourselves, or is this Christ’s church for the people we haven’t met yet, like children, grand-children, new residents, or immigrants?  How can we embrace their stories, vocabularies, and needs in the songs that we sing?

Thankfully, elders were drawn to some new features in Glory to God:  lectionary-based hymn suggestions, worship rubrics that actually fit with our order of worship, brief historical notes about each hymn at the bottom of each page, chords for string accompaniment, a huge section of Advent hymns (separate from Christmas hymns), and even some hymns appropriate for infant baptism.  Fortunately, the groundwork had been laid in all of those one-on-one conversations, openness prevailed, and the decision was made to acquire 120 copies of the new hymnal, after making a special appeal to members and friends of the church to “buy a hymnal” at $15 each.  Glory to God!

A committee was formed to take the lead in the appeal (not the pastor!).  It was expected that there would be resistance, so each member of the committee addressed the congregation during worship in advance of the appeal letter.  Mary Ann, a musician, shared some of her excitement for an opportunity to learn new hymns.  Gwen outlined the practical aspects of how the appeal would be conducted.  Audrey began by saying, “I looked in the table of comments of the new hymnal and I didn’t see my favorite hymn.”  Then she said, “But I’m hoping I’ll find a new favorite hymn in the new hymnbook.”  Amen!  With that comment, I felt like our church got unstuck and was ready to move forward.  Sure enough, most of the funds came in.  When we were still about 15 books short, one elder pledged to put us over the top. Isn’t it amazing how one faithful insight can transform an entire congregation?  Glory to God!

When acquiring a new hymnal conciliatory people will often try to split the difference.  For example, in a previous church I served a 1970’s Reformed Church hymnal was acquired by donation from another church to replace the 1930’s Presbyterian Hymnal.  But several elders suggested that we keep the peace by putting the new and old hymnals in the pew racks side-by-side.  It sounded like a great idea because everybody gets to be happy.  However, this served to immediately undermine the new hymnal in that church from the start.  It gave those afraid of change a place to retreat to.  Sort of like trying to cross the Red Sea while keeping one foot firmly planted on shore!   When I left that church a few years later those new hymnals were all removed from the pews within a week and they went back to the 1930’s edition, even as the congregation continued in sharp decline.  That a more modern hymnal might better connect with an increasingly diverse neighborhood was not considered.  So when we purchased the Glory to God hymnals last year we made every effort to get the old hymnals out the door as soon as possible.  It was suggested that we give them as appreciative gifts to the families named in each book’s dedication plate, but it turned out that they were all the gift of only two families, and one had no immediate descendants in the area, so that only took care of six of the books!  Then I stood at the door at the end of each service and handed a copy to each departing worshiper. Finally, on Christmas Eve, I made an even more concerted effort to put one of the old hymnals in the hands of every guest.  No turning back now!  Glory to God!

Introducing a new hymnal requires careful planning.  First, we dedicated the new hymnal by praising the bold commitment of our members to the future. Second, I acknowledged that someday in the future this new hymnal, too, will become an old hymnal and be in need of replacement, and that it is good to see a church anticipating the future rather than hiding from it. Third, from the start we selected lots of familiar hymns from the new book to show that it wasn’t the “alien” that many thought it was.  Fourth, Glory to God has lots of familiar tunes with new words, so those became the easiest new songs to introduce.  Fifth, although our choir is only gathered for certain church seasons, we have made an effort to present new hymns through introits, string instrument solos, and anthems until they become more familiar for congregational singing.  Congregations with a more active choir can introduce new songs more easily than we have done.

Here’s one of the new songs we have discovered:  Hymn 292, “As the Wind Song.”  Mary Ann tried it at home on her hammered dulcimer and suggested it to me as a duet with my mandolin for a church service.  As I recall, it was our first deliberate choice of a new hymn from the new hymnal to share with the congregation.  The note at the bottom of the page gives a fascinating description of the song’s Chinese and Maori origin.  “As the wind song through the trees … making worlds that are new, making peace come true, bringing gifts, bringing love to the world, as the rising of the yeast, as the wine at the feast, so it is with the Spirit of God”.  The hymn uses beautiful words and phrases, draws in Biblical images, embodies our desire to be a fresh and new, and invites all who hear it to be that “next church,” not just for ourselves but for many more.  Glory to God!

renfrewJames R. Renfrew, Teaching Elder

Pastor, Byron Presbyterian Church,

Byron NY



Discerning What’s NEXT in a Time of Transition

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Karen Sapio has been curating a conversation around ministry in long established congregations. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

By Mark Davis

changeI currently exist in that happy little bubble called “the honeymoon” of a new call. I know that the joy, my apparent marvelousness, the crowds and the hope all carry the strain of false advertising, reminiscent of the hope that rises when looking at an Easter Sunday crowd. But, I honestly felt that – aside from a few unlovely encounters along the way –my first congregation and I were in something like a honeymoon phase the whole eighteen years I was with them. I tend to be a ‘rose-colored glasses’ sort of person, so maybe there was much more ‘trouble in the land’ than I ever presumed. But, I felt like there were two things I learned in my first call that I hope will help me in my second call: Joining the Team and Instituting Change.

By “joining the team” I am referring to one of my clergy pet peeves, so please bear with me. I despise when clergy speak about ourselves and our congregations as if ‘we’ are the only ones who really get Jesus while ‘they’ are all stuck in their ways and obstacle to what God is really trying to do among us. (It all starts with the dreadful ‘C&E Christians’ jokes.) Perhaps if that is how we comport ourselves vis-a-vis the congregations that we serve, then that is how each of us will act out. If we pretend that we are the voice crying out in the wilderness and our congregations are the brood of vipers gathered along the river; if we imagine that we are in the role of Jesus in this story while our congregations are the errant disciples, if we preach as if we are Paul and our congregations are the infighting Corinthians – then perhaps that is how we will all start to act in order to appear as good, biblical people. But, if we assume that Pentecost really did happen, a healthier perspective emerges: We – the congregation together with those who serve them – are a prophetic community, pointing toward a reign of God that sometimes puts us in direct conflict with the predominant values of our contextual communities. We are, by grace and giftedness, on the same team. Whatever resistance, hope, pettiness, glory, or fear that I see in the congregation I serve are akin to the same qualities that are in me. I see them because I know them. That’s why even my most ardent opinion about ‘them’ becomes a word about ‘us’ when I preach. It’s not faux humility. It’s truth.

By “instituting change” I am joining one of the most popular and one of the most despised of our current buzzwords quite deliberately. What I hope to ‘institutionalize,’ i.e. make a part of our routine expectation, is change itself. Frankly, I think admonitions against “change for the sake of change” are wrong. Even if a particular change ends up seeming contrived and a waste of time, the act of changing itself breeds openness to the creative God who is ever making all things new. Of course there are limits to what can and ought to be changed, of course there is discernment that is necessary, and of course the relationships behind our practices are tantamount. But, those are not typically the areas where conversations about change arise. They arise over the adiaphora, preferences, and conveniences – all of which are best kept when we subject them to change continually and deliberately. I want people coming to worship wondering, “What has the Worship Committee cooked up this time?” I want people whining, “But we did this last year!” And they will, once we’ve worked together to institutionalize change.

Mark Davis is the pastor of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.

Photo credit:Nanagyei via photopin cc

Interim Ministry at the Speed of Change


By Anne Fisher

The interim ministry chose me. It was never my intention to become an interim pastor, but twenty-five years and fourteen interims later, I continue to love the work I have been called to do.

Many people don’t understand interim ministry; inevitably someone will ask why I don’t want a church of my own. Colleagues feel obligated to tell me what a nightmare the interim was before they came to the church they are serving. But as I fell into this work, I discovered an exciting ministry that never becomes routine. Here are some of the reasons interim ministry benefits the Church and why I love my work—and how interim ministry can be a model and inspiration for all kinds of ministry in the “church that is becoming”:

Interim ministry is fast paced and dynamic. The church is not stagnant when we begin the interim period. If ministry was a footrace, then the interim time would be a sprint. There is a finite time for a church to articulate their vision, select a Pastoral Nominating Committee to work and prepare to welcome a new pastor, and clean up some bad habits and rejuvenate some neglected aspects. All the while they carry on with the ministry and mission of Jesus Christ. The interim process means hitting the ground running, and that does not stop until the last person leaves at the good-bye party.

In the interim time, churches are more open to make changes. I feel that the leadership in a church can be at its best during the interim time. The attendance and participation at meetings is very good because the leaders cannot fall back on the pastor to get things done.  Things get put in perspective, because they realize things could get worse. At one church, members complained that the former pastor wore a white robe rather than the black academic robe. No one mentioned it when I innocently showed up wearing a white robe.

The interim time is a time for the church to come of age. Some churches define themselves through their pastors: “Those were the John Brown Years,” or “I was baptized during the Mary Smith time.” For a brief yet vital moment in their history—the interim time—it is not about the pastor. The church leadership and members of the church can set the course. This characteristic has made each of my interims unique. One church started a garden in the front of their beautifully manicured lawn as a combined mission/education/evangelism endeavor. Another church had 1/3 of their members attend a church sponsored Mardi Gras party. They said they had not had this much fun in years! Churches surprise themselves with what new things they try and do successfully during the interim time.

There is a bit of whimsy and reckless abandon that happens in the interim. When a church gets the courage to try something different, they know that they can take a risk because if it doesn’t work, it is not set in stone for the next 50 years.

In most of the churches I served, attendance and giving remained stable or increased during the interim. When I arrive, I assure them that things will most likely not get worse; perhaps they will even get better, and we will enjoy the journey.

As we rethink how we do church, perhaps all pastors need to consider themselves as an interim. Mark Devries wrote in his book Sustainable Youth Ministry that youth ministers should consider themselves as interims: “Think about the role of interims: they proactively prepare the way for the future that does not include them. Interims are midwives, not mothers, Interims help a congregation recognize, celebrate and stand guard over its core, momentum-building traditions.” [1] 

At times I fancy that I am an ecclesiastical Mary Poppins. I come into a setting, produce new ways to look at things, have some fun, and try to leave them a stronger and healthier church. It is a privilege to serve in this ministry that chose me.

Annefisher-231x300The Rev. Dr. Anne E. Fisher has served congregations in Illinois for 25 years. She currently serves as interim pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Barrington, IL.

[1] DeVries, Mark Sustainable Youth Ministry. Intervarsity Press 2008 p.92.

Photo Credit: Multiverse, installed by artist Leo Villareal in a 200-foot-long tunnel connecting the East building of the National Gallery of Art to the West building. Photo by romanlily via photopin cc

Pastors Standing in the Surf of Change

By Steve Lindsley

It’s around 11am, and our family is at the beach. It rained the first few days here, but now the sun is shining bright and the place is packed.  We’ve carved out a few square feet of sand for our two folding chairs.  We won’t need much room, though, because the majority of the Lindsleys will be out in the water, out in the waves. I’ve always loved the body surfing/boogie-boarding thing, and I’m proud to have passed that same love on to my sons.

It’s different being out there as a father, though.  It’s a bit of a juggling act between satisfying your own desires to enjoy the waves while owning up to your parental obligations.  I have to shelve my desire to plunge headfirst into the oncoming wave to make sure my kids are safe.  And “safe” in the ocean is always a tricky thing – that huge wave that doesn’t materialize until its right on you, undercurrents and rip currents, and all the unforeseen marine life that – as I’ve had personal experience with – can cause, ahem, severe complications.

What makes it even more of a challenge is the difference between my two boys.  My oldest shares my tendency to throw himself into something with reckless abandon.  I want to go out to the big waves, he tells me.   We can’t, the lifeguard says there are rip currents out there, I answer.  What does he know, he’s way back there in the lifeguard chair!  And so it goes.  My younger son, though, is much more tentative.  Or “smart,” as his mother would say.  He may want to follow his Dad and older brother, but for him, the threat overrides the potential thrill.  But he’s not going to sit up in the beach chair, either.  So in his mind he’s determined the parameters of how far he’ll go into the surf, and he’s not about to exceed it.

It’s a lot to manage.  In fact, it actually feels a lot like being a pastor.

The waves of change are swirling around the church in a big way these days, and in many ways it’s been going on for years.  Much of this change – all of it, perhaps – has come from the outside: civil rights movement, women’s liberation, postmodernism, gay marriage and stances on homosexuality, the equalizing of the human experience via mass technology and social media.  I could go on and on.

The point is, the church is facing change whether we like it or not. And we differ greatly on how we respond to and cultivate that change, even within a single congregation.

Some folks are like my older son, feeling the urge to plunge head-first into the waves of change.  Why delay the inevitable?  Things like the emergent church, contemporary worship, congregations that look more like coffee houses and even NEXT Church in my denomination are signs of those who recognize that the wave is coming – so why not go and meet it?  We know we can’t “change the change” any more than my son or I can alter the direction of the wave that’s heading straight for us – as my friend and fellow songster David Lamotte sings, “The water’s gonna win.”  As does change.  Why fight something that is going to happen with you or without you?

Hold on, say people like my younger son.  For these, change – like the waves – are not just a sign of something different, but the essence of the difference itself.  And the very fact that “it” can’t be stopped elicits fear – or, as writer Diana Butler Bass suggests in her recent book, grief over the loss of what was familiar and comfortable.  There are degrees to this category of folks.  Some remain stubbornly on the shore, plopped down in the beach chair and observing the change from a safe distance.  Others, like my younger son, may wade in the surf, but only up to a point.  They engage change in the church with conditions and qualifiers: contemporary music… but only at the early service.  Women in positions of leadership… but not the lead pastor.  Acceptance of gays and lesbians for church membership… but not for ordination.

And there’s the pastor in the middle of it all.  They’re standing in the surf, calling out to one group of folks to come back, not so fast, wait up for everyone else.  And they’re calling out to others: come on in, it’s not so bad, you’ll be alright.  They’re well aware of the threats that can be seen – all those undercurrents and rip currents swirling around them – as well as the threats no one can see yet.   They’re trying to care for people and help them meet their needs, while also caring for the church and meeting God’s needs.

Like I said, a lot to manage.

I got to thinking about this while scanning my Facebook feed this morning and coming upon this from The 70 Sent Project:

The church is a paradoxical mixture between the desire to transform a world that clings to old forms and prejudices, and the desire to find stability and peace in a world that is changing too rapidly. Often this paradox is found within the same person.  The role of the church leader is to stand in the middle of this paradox, facilitating the flow of the Holy Spirit between the transforming and stabilizing impulses. (emphasis mine)

That’s the huge task facing pastors and all church leaders in today’s church: not trying to be everything to everyone, a common misconception (and the cause of clergy burnout for anyone who tries it).  No, the task of those in ministry in the 21st century is trying to bring everyone together into some sense of cohesion and mission when people are different (thanks be to God for that, by the way) and when people respond to change differently.  That along with facing the fact that the change, like that big wave, is coming.  In fact, in a sense it’s already here.

It’s a challenge, to be sure. But it’s also a wonderful opportunity and privilege, to stand there.  Change means that God is in the midst of doing some pretty amazing stuff. Here’s hoping that, wherever we are standing in the surf – right at the breaking point or a little further up shore – that we all eventually get swept up in the wave of God’s change together.

In other words, time to get our sea legs under us.

 LindsleySteve Lindsley is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Mount Airy, NC. He blogs regularly at