Treasures, both old and new: Transitions in worship music

by Royce Eckhardt

I was recently asked to create a survey of the music used in Covenant camps in the Pacific Northwest Conference based on my years as music director at First Covenant Church, Seattle (1961-69). In leading hymn festivals with Seattle-area Covenant churches and being a musician at Covenant Beach Bible Camp, I had a fairly good overview of the music of that era. The present essay is based on that survey and expanded on the assumption that these perspectives may largely apply to the Covenant denomination as a whole.

The denominational hymnal of the mid-twentieth century was The Hymnal (1950), popularly known as the green hymnal. At that time a hymnal in the pew was a given. It was an unofficial book of worship for the denomination, containing eighty-six translations from the Swedish heritage and seven hymns in Swedish. That is an important factor to consider in assessing the church music of the time: the influence of the Covenant’s Scandinavian origins was still foundational and cherished, even as the denomination became more Americanized. The 1950 hymnal contained a good balance of traditional hymnody and American gospel songs, in addition to the Swedish songs. It was reflective of transitions within the church, bridging the Pietistic influence and Scandinavian culture and traditions to a mainstream evangelical church with an ecumenical hymnody.

In 1954 the Covenant published Sing It Again, a collection of gospel hymns and choruses drawn from the green hymnal and from the popular brown hymnal of 1931. (Covenant hymnals are identified by color, not title.) Sing It Again was a songbook heavily weighted toward American gospel songs.

Well in advance of the contemporary praise movement of the seventies, Sing It Again became the musical fare for the Bible camps, along with a good dose of Sunday school choruses. The 1950 hymnal had a diminished role only as a resource for traditional hymns, while gospel choruses flourished. The brown hymnal was still the primary hymnal of choice for some Covenanters. In that most informal camp setting, a song leader was essential in the gatherings. This role was a combination of master of ceremonies, energetic song leader, and program announcer. The popular term of the day for this was “platform leader.” Liturgy in any formal sense was eschewed; the singing was of a popular, informal variety with not a green hymnal in sight.

In the early sixties there was some commonality between Sunday morning worship music and the music of the campground, with the camp music emphasizing the American gospel songs (e.g., “Blessed Assurance,” “Wonderful Grace of Jesus”). Praise choruses as a genre largely did not exist. With the emergence of the contemporary praise movement in the late sixties and into the seventies, the split widened between what the older generation sang on Sunday mornings and what the youth sang at Hi-League, youth rallies, and at camps, creating a generational dichotomy.

But alongside that somewhat stable status of music in churches and camps in the 1960s, enormous cultural changes were brewing. Protests were sweeping the land that would eventually produce seismic changes, both in the general culture and in the church and its music. The hymns of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries seemed hardly relevant to this new age.

In 1967 the Covenant authorized the production of a new hymnal to meet the changing appetites and need for more diversity in worship music. The Covenant Hymnal (red this time), introduced in 1973, was certainly more ecumenical, incorporating classic hymnody previously omitted. It was widely accepted throughout the denomination but included very little to satisfy contemporary praise song advocates. So again, as with previous Covenant hymnals, this new hymn book had only tangential influence on music in the summer camps, perhaps even less influence in the face of the emerging contemporary music movement. My sense is that the distance became significantly greater between what local churches were singing with hymnal in hand on Sunday mornings and what music styles flourished among youth in the Bible camps.

By the 1980s, guitars and praise bands were becoming part of the Sunday worship services in many churches, replacing the use of the organ. Although hymnals were still present and used, this new form of worship introduced a new way of singing — screens that displayed words only, one song at a time. This was an unsettled time in worship life with tensions developing in some churches into what became widely known as “worship wars.”

Into this changing and somewhat troubled climate the Covenant authorized the creation of a supplementary songbook that would add new materials from the contemporary movement, newer strophic hymns not included in the 1973 hymnal, and some new translations of Swedish heritage music. This was considered a “bridge” publication, not meant to replace the current hymnal, but to expand the repertoire on a trial basis. The Song Goes On (silver, if you’re keeping track) was published in 1990 and was well received, serving a useful ameliorating purpose.

When the newest denominational hymnal, The Covenant Hymnal—A Worshipbook, was published and distributed in 1996, the worship culture in the denomination had shifted significantly. It was no longer a “given” that all or most Covenant churches would purchase the new hymnal. In addition to the significant changes in worship music styles that would affect hymnal usage, there were other options available in the form of commercial (non-denominational) hymnals and contemporary praise collections. Some worshiping communities opted not to use books or song collections of any kind, but rather to only project songs on a screen. In spite of this changing and diverse view of worship in Covenant churches, the new hymnal reached sales of over 100,000 copies, a pleasant surprise to the commission members who compiled the hymnal.

As more and more Covenant churches have embraced the contemporary music and the praise band approach to worship leadership, many churches developed two completely different worship services with little in common, creating, in effect, two congregations. These changes are profound, both in theological and ecclesiological ways. In some places the hymnal is set aside in the storage closet. Occasionally pipe organs have been dismantled and sold (giving new meaning to “organ transplant”). Or, if not sold, certainly not used.

The current scene appears to be fluid. Some congregations are seeking to blend the new with the old — the historic hymns of faith with the newer expressions just written, striving to do so with liturgical integrity. Others incorporate the familiar hymns but in a contemporary style with praise band instrumentation.

It is ironic that “traditional” Christian worship has always included new songs. Now it has been identified with the past, and “contemporary worship” with current pop culture. We should all be singing, speaking, and praying new things, in addition to the best of previous generations. Those who are rooted in the traditional hymns need an openness to embrace what is new and those who embrace contemporary worship styles would do well to include the historic music and texts from which we came.

The Apostle Paul asks, “What do you have that you did not receive?” Or as Eugene Peterson paraphrases it, “Everything you have are the sheer gifts of God…so what is the point of all this competing and comparing? You already have all you need” (1 Corinthians 4:7). The parable of the householder in Matthew 13 is instructive: he brings out of his storehouse treasures both old and new. The storehouse of Christian worship music is vast, rich and diverse — inspiration for all peoples of every time and place. Embrace it all and be enriched.