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Singing the New Testament: No greater text than scripture for worship songs

Singing Scripture songs and hymns sinks the words of the Bible into your heart, mind, and muscle memory. A feature story on the hymnal, Singing the New Testament.

You probably learned your ABCs by singing the alphabet song. If you’re able to name all the disciples, it’s likely because you can cast back in your memory to the Sunday school song “There Were Twelve Disciples.”

Both examples illustrate something you intuitively know—that words set to music sink in more deeply than plain text does. And that’s why, now that so many churchgoers are biblically illiterate, the new hymnal Singing the New Testament is important.

Many worship songs and hymns are about sweeping themes, such as God’s majesty or human praise. By contrast, Scripture songs are based on specific biblical verses or clusters of verses.

Singing the New Testament will help lodge New Testament verses in worshipers’ hearts and minds. Once inside us, these sung Scriptures can reinforce sermons and provide food for thought worth far more than most mass media. Through the Spirit’s work, this new hymnal can form our worship and lives.

Sung sermons

Maybe you’ve heard St. Augustine’s idea that to sing once is to pray twice. Worship leaders often use songs as prayers of praise or thanksgiving. Sometimes they introduce songs as prayers of petition or lament. Liturgical congregations also use songs as processional hymns, offertory hymns, and recessional hymns.

But few congregations today are familiar with the concept of sermon hymns.

Joyce Borger and John D. Witvliet hope Singing the New Testament (SNT) will revive the tradition of songs used as sermon hymns or musical sermons. Borger, who edited the new hymnal, is worship and music editor at Faith Alive Christian Resources and editor of Reformed Worship. Witvliet wrote the introduction and is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

“J. S. Bach once composed an elaborate musical sermon each week, offering an extended cantata to respond to the sermon texts of the day. But the very same purpose can be accomplished with a brief song or hymn,” Witvliet writes.

Rae E. Whitney’s hymn text “My Elder Son, Go Work Today” (SNT #44) is a three-stanza sermon on the Matthew 21:28-32 parable about two sons whose father asks them to work in a vineyard. The hymn ends with “Our minds can change; love sets us free to serve our Father joyfully.” Whitney set her song to the familiar tune Sussex Carol, which you may know as “On Christmas Night All Christians Sing.”

Witvliet explains how to use song-length versifications or expositions of biblical texts:

  • Put the sermon hymn right before or after the sermon so worshipers experience the song (and sermon) as their response to the biblical sermon text.
  • In your printed bulletin or projected song lyrics, introduce the song as “proclamation in song.”
  • A song or worship leader can introduce the song to “highlight its function, such as ‘All of us now become preachers as we proclaim the message of this text.’ ”
  • Let a soloist, ensemble, or choir introduce a new song before the congregation joins in.

Wrestling with Scripture

Witvliet says that Scripture songs, like good preaching, help us deeply contemplate “the text, to feel its emotions, to see its inner dynamics, to perceive its meaning in fresh ways.” Singing a Scripture song makes the words stick longer in our memories than hearing a sermon or reading a Bible passage do, because singing is multisensory.

Once “installed” in our minds and bodies, these sung Scriptures remain available for us to grow into, to process through life experience and the Holy Spirit’s leading.

“Wrestling with the cross of Jesus led hymn writer Johann Heermann to ask, ‘Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus has undone thee!’ Phillips Brooks wrestled with the centuries of warfare after the Incarnation and still concluded, ‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight,’ ” Witvliet writes.

Learning “In Matthew’s Gospel There Are Five” (SNT #4) will help you ruminate on why God chooses to work through social outcasts. Based on Matthew’s genealogy, the song has verses for Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. Its refrain promises “If God could find a use for them…then surely God can use us too….”

You can check Emily Brink’s Reformed Worship stories for ideas on using this song about five “faith mothers” and other SNT songs during Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter.

Choosing biblical hymns and songs

Singing the New Testament has 260 songs that directly quote or closely paraphrase Bible passages. The first 115 songs trace Christ’s birth, baptism, teaching, miracles, passion, resurrection, and ascension, as told in the four gospels. The remaining songs follow in canonical order from Acts through Revelation.

Each song includes a biblical reference and many include a historical note or usage tip.

“The oldest texts are straight Scripture and date back to the early church, particularly those thought to be quotes of early church hymns, such as Philippians 2 and Colossians 1. It’s amazing how many texts come from the late 20th or early 21st centuries,” Joyce Borger says.

SNT tunes range from 7th century and medieval melodies to folksongs from Germany, India, Korea, Mexico, Newfoundland, Papua New Guinea, and the U.S. The hymnal’s musical styles include traditional hymns, spirituals, gospel, jazz, and contemporary songs by Keith GettyMarty Haugen, and Greg Scheer.

How to Use Singing the New Testament

What would it be like to consciously choose to sing the Scripture used in worship?

Are there enough resources available to make that a viable option?

Asking herself those questions led Joyce Borger to gather a team of theologians, musicians, and hymn writers for a several-year process. The result was a new Scripture song collection, Singing the New Testament.

“Like a tiny seed that grows into a tree, this collection of songs grew from a couple of questions and small beginnings,” Borger says. She is worship and music editor at Faith Alive Christian Resources and editor of Reformed Worship.

Singing the New Testament will help pastors and worship leaders make the case for worship as dialogue. Its songs are easy to teach and forge a path for hymn writers and composers to follow.

Worship as dialogue

If your worship and music committee meetings devolve into arguments about worship mechanics or styles, then Singing the New Testament(SNT) can help your congregation refocus on the meaning and purpose of worship.

“Instead of thinking of singing as something that occurs in between worship elements, we can think of songs as serving a purpose integral to the worship element. We don't just sing songs, we pray songs, we lament in song, we praise God in song, we confess in song, we proclaim in song, and we tell our story in song.

“As worship planners, we can use songs as part of our dialogue with God. Sometimes the songs take on the words of God to us, and sometimes we use the text to speak to God or each other. This overall approach can form people to understand worship and life as a response to God’s grace. Understanding the songs’ function opens up all kinds of possibilities for using sung Scripture within worship,” Borger says.

In her Calvin Symposium on Worship sessions and other events, Borger gives examples of how various SNT songs fit within the liturgy or Christian calendar. “Come Boldly” (SNT #218, Hebrews 4:14-16) is a call to worship Christ in his humanity and divinity. “Grace and Peace to You” (SNT #131, Romans 1:1-7) is a song of greeting or parting.

“ ’Abba, Abba, Hear Us,’ We Cry” (SNT #137, Romans 8:15-27) works well for profession of faith or in the confession and assurance portion of worship. Set to a Korean folk tune, it gives voice to how hard it is to wait for God to complete the cosmic restoration.

The soaring harmonies and descant in “Here from All Nations” (SNT #255, Revelation 7:9-17) express the joy of communion.

Easy songs to teach

Borger says her team chose most SNT tunes “because they are known or easily learned. Then worship planners can choose a particular song that fits with a sermon text and put the words in a bulletin (or project them) without spending time learning a tune that would be only used once.”

Several songs, especially those based on New Testament narratives, are set to folk tunes. “We wanted songs true to the Scripture story in content and emotion. Many folk tunes can carry the weight of a story and express a narrative musically,” Borger explains.

Long before SNT came out, Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, was singing many of the songs chosen for the hymnal. “It’s our commitment to read the Bible, sing the Bible, pray the Bible, preach the Bible, and see the Bible (through baptism and the Lord’s Supper),” says Chip Stam, Clifton’s minister of music. He adds that many SNT songs “would go great for Scripture memory for the children's ministry.”

At West End Christian Reformed Church in Edmonton, Alberta, music director Rika van den Heever ordered 30 copies for the congregation. “Our pastors and music staff already have a copy each, and we distributed one copy to a leader of each of our music teams. We’re very excited about the wealth of biblical texts in this collection, paired with very singable melodies.

“I recently used SNT #185, ‘O God, We Kneel Before Your Throne,’ during the distribution of the wine for Lord’s Supper celebration. I used soloists and choir to lead the verses, with the congregation joining on the refrain. Those words of the refrain, ‘How wide, how long, how high, how deep is the love of Christ’ are very fitting for celebrating Christ’s gift to us,” van den Heever says.

Sonja Kalverda, worship coordinator at Rehoboth Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Etobicoke, Ontario, first heard about the new hymnal at a Calvin Symposium on Worship. The next Sunday she taught her congregation the rollicking gospel-style refrain “Neither Death nor Life” (SNT #136, Romans 8:11-39).

After receiving her new hymnal, Kalverda ordered more for worship committee members, church musicians, and “interested congregation members. I like the easy language and biblical context. We’ve used the songs several times already as supplement and response songs,” she says.

Kalverda has at times sung a song and then asked the congregation to sing with her. She’s also chosen songs with familiar melodies, such as “How Can We Thank Our God” (SNT #205, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-12) set to the tune Terra Beata, which is also used for “This Is My Father’s World.”

Your own grace notes

Singing the New Testament started a process that its compilers hope will continue—putting even more of the New Testament into congregational songs.

In that spirit, Sonya Kalverda wrote another verse for the doxology “Trinity” (SNT #172, 2 Corinthians 13:14). Her verse is:
As we go out in the world__,
In our work and in our play,
Help us, Lord, to be your image.
Give us strength and love, we pray.

You can use the SNT indexes to search songs by Scripture reference, meter, tune, title and first line. If you find a song that fits a Sunday’s text, but the tune is unfamiliar, then experiment.

“We encourage people to test these text-tune marriages and consider alternate tunes from within this book or another hymnal. Simply identify the meter listed on the bottom of the page, locate that meter in a metrical index found here or in another book, and try other tunes listed. Be sure that the tune doesn’t create any awkward textual accents, and that its overall emotion fits the text,” Borger says.

She also hopes songwriters will use SNT to note Scripture texts without corresponding songs. For example, the hymnal includes “To Peter, Lost in Earnest Prayer (SNT #127, Acts 10:9-48) and “We Sing of Loyal Lydia” (SNT #128, Acts 16:14-15) but there’s nothing about Peter’s miraculous escape from prison (Acts 12:1-18).

Learn More

•Check out sample songs and quantity pricing before you buy Singing the New Testament. Joyce Borger, who edited Singing the New Testament, also adapts and arranges hymn texts and tunes.

•Intrigued by the idea of sermon hymns? Learn how Johann Sebastian Bach composed cantatas as musical sermons for Lutheran worship. You can adapt the Lutheran “hymn of the day” tradition to introduce sermon hymns in your church. Download a free audio presentation of Paul Westermeyer, a Luther Seminary professor of church music, on the hymn of the day.

•With so many good biblical songs to choose from, how do you decide which to use or introduce? Here’s help from John D. Witvliet for creating a balanced musical diet of congregational song. Don’t miss these tools and insights for using music in worship.

•You can’t always go right from loving a song to using it in worship, because many songs are copyrighted and require you to get permission or pay a fee to use them. Read Emily Cooper’s Reformed Worship article “Thou Shalt Not Steal: A Primer for Music Copyright.” Be informed about copyright issues in using global music. Learn how to request permission to use a song in worship.

•Consult the Scripture Song Database on The Hymnary to find hymns and Scripture songs that correspond to specific Bible verses. The 4,310 hymns and songs here include 280 Scripture sources, and you can find most of them in modern hymnals and songbooks.

•You can also find songs, hymns, and worship service outlines matched to specific Bible passages at Calvin Institute of Christian WorshipCyberHymnal, and The Text This Week.

•Feel free to use or adapt this worship service that uses sung Scripture for many elements of the liturgy.

•Browse related stories on congregational singingEugene Peterson, Keith Getty on hymn writing, public Scripture reading, and worship words.

Start a Discussion

  • Who’s in charge of choosing songs for your children’s and youth ministry? How much biblical content do the songs have? What are youth learning about God and faith from these songs?
  • Which songs or hymns can you sing from memory? Do you know which Bible passages they correspond to? How much Scripture can you recite from memory?
  • How important is it for songs used in worship to relate to each other, the day’s Bible readings, the sermon, or a worship service theme? W

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to use song to help people dwell with Scripture?

  • If you have reviewed the songs sung in worship, Sunday school, or youth group, how did you categorize and assess them? If you made any changes in how you choose songs, will you share that process with us?
  • Where do you find the best sources for new songs (or songs new to your congregation) for worship use? What copyright or licensing challenges do you face, and how have you overcome those challenges?