Tag Archives: Aiming to Please

Prioritizing the Psalms — How?

Over the last while, a couple of classes (plural of ‘classis’) in the Canadian Reformed Churches have adopted overtures seeking to make a change to the CanRC Church Order.  They want to add a new line to article 55: “The 150 Psalms shall have the principal place in the singing of the churches.”  That wording is exactly the same as what the United Reformed Churches have in article 39 of their Church Order.

In principle I agree completely with this proposed change.  In Aiming to Please, I have an entire chapter dedicated to the topic of Psalm-singing.  In the final chapter, I mention “Prioritized Psalm-Singing” as one of the distinctives of Reformed worship. 

However, there’s one question I didn’t answer in that regard.  It’s a question I’ve been pondering lately in relation to the proposed changes to the CanRC Church Order:  what does it look like to have the Psalms in “the principal place in the singing of the churches”? 

One could take a simplistic approach to this question.  If, in a given worship service, there are more hymns than psalms in the order of worship, then the Psalms are not being prioritized.  Take this example of a recent order of worship:

  • Hymn 79
  • Psalm 75:1-3 (after the law)
  • Psalm 47
  • Hymn 69
  • Hymn 81

So, there are three hymns, but only two psalms.  According to this reasoning, the Psalms are not being prioritized.  It’s simple math:  three is greater than two.  But what about this order of worship?

  • Psalm 100:1,2
  • Psalm 51:1 (after the law)
  • Psalm 85:3
  • Hymn 67
  • Psalm 146:1,2

That would seem to be better.  After all, now we have four psalms and one hymn.  Four is much greater than one.  But is it really that simple?

Two factors are being neglected with that kind of an approach.  One is that it shouldn’t just be about the number of individual psalms that appear in the order of worship.  We also have to account for how much of the psalm is being sung.  In the second order of worship above, we don’t sing any psalm in its entirety.  Instead, the pastor has just selected a few stanzas, even when with Psalm 100 it’s no burden to sing the entire piece.  This is a common practice in our churches.  So you could have a scenario where you have four psalms and one hymn in the order of worship, but you actually end up doing more hymn-singing than psalm-singing because only small portions of the psalms are being used.         

The other factor being neglected is the relation of the order of worship to the sermon.  A well-crafted order of worship is going to reflect the theme of the passage being exposited.  In some instances, it then makes more liturgical sense to have certain hymns than the psalms.  To use the first order of worship mentioned above, the text of the sermon was John 12:1-8 and the theme was: The Lamb is worthy to receive all our honour.  Where do you find a psalm which explicitly speaks in those terms?  “Lamb/lambs” is mentioned twice in the Psalms, both times in Psalm 114, and both times used poetically for hills skipping.  But there’s no explicit reference in the Psalter to the Messiah as the Lamb of God.  However, in our Book of Praise, we do have Hymn 69, which is based on Revelation 7:13-15 and 5:9-10.  That hymn explicitly says, “Worthy the Lamb, for sinners slain…”  There are some worship services where, in relation to the sermon and the passage it’s based upon, a greater number of hymns can better serve the glory of God.

As another example of that, think about “Days of Commemoration.”  When we celebrate Christ’s incarnation, it is liturgically odd to sing a preponderance of Psalms, particularly since there aren’t any explicitly related to this event.  Christ’s incarnation is one of the greatest events in history – and yet we’re just barely permitted to mention it in song?  On this occasion, it’s more suitable to sing a selection of the appropriate hymns – and perhaps one or two psalms.  To do otherwise gives the impression of slavish and simplistic adherence to a rule for the sake of a rule.

So what does it look like to have prioritized Psalm-singing?  We have to think big-picture.  We ought to think beyond the number of psalms and hymns in a given order of worship.  A better metric would be to look not only at the number of psalms sung over a longer period (like a year), but also how much of these psalms are being sung.  Another important metric might be the number of different psalms being sung – in its worship is the congregation singing the full range of God’s revelation in the Psalter?  Furthermore, when comparing psalms and hymns, we also have to remember that not all hymns are the same.  Some hymns are based on the Psalms – in the CanRC/FRCA Books of Praise, for example, Hymn 54 is based on Psalm 90 and Hymn 46 is based on Psalm 72:8-19.  More than a few hymns are directly based on other specific passages of Scripture – as just one example, Hymn 36 is based on 1 Peter 1:3-5.  Surely more weight has to be given to these hymns based on the Psalms and other passages of Scripture.

I love and treasure the Psalms.  I’m thankful to be in a Reformed church that fosters that positive attitude towards these songs.  Nevertheless, it’s important to be mindful of the tendency for churches to drift away from God’s covenant song-book.  That’s why I’m thankful for these proposals in the CanRC and why I’d support a similar move here in the Free Reformed Churches of Australia.


What About Advent and Lent? Excerpt from Aiming to Please

The following is an excerpt from chapter 17 of Aiming to Please: A Guide to Reformed Worship (available from Amazon and other retailers). The chapter begins with a consideration of the so-called Days of Commemoration (Christmas, Easter, etc.). I argue that there is liberty for Reformed churches to worship on these days.

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What About Advent and Lent?

Some churches follow not only the practice of commemorating occasions like Christmas and Easter, but also the special seasons of Advent and Lent.  Advent is the four weeks leading up to December 25.  Lent consists of the forty days leading up to Easter – it includes Palm Sunday, Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday.  This liturgical calendar (which includes far more dates and seasons) is observed in Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism, but has also made some inroads into Reformed churches as well. 

We noted above that John Calvin did not practice Advent or Lent.  There were services every day in Geneva and, in the week leading up to Easter, Calvin did preach on the suffering of Christ.[1]  However, that is not at all the same as forty days of Lent observance or four weeks of Advent. 

By the time of Abraham Kuyper, there was a diversity of practice in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands.  Kuyper noted that quite a few ministers in his time did follow the liturgical calendar, including Advent and Lent.[2]  He was opposed to prescribing anything on this score, and himself expressed some reservations about it.       

There are a few objections one could bring to following the liturgical calendar more broadly.  To start, I appreciate what Hughes Oliphant Old wrote about this:

The recent effort to bring back the celebration of the old liturgical calendar has suspicious similarities to a revival of the nature religions, natural theology, a cyclical interpretation of life, and the resurgence of the religions of fortune and fertility.  One does penance in Advent, when winter sets in, and then one rejoices at Easter, when the flowers reappear in the spring.  It is all quite natural, but this fascination with liturgical seasons sometimes seems not much more than a revival of Canaanitism.  The primary emphasis of any Reformed liturgical calendar should be the weekly observance of the Lord’s Day.[3]

 Moreover, the observance of these seasons gives the impression that we are somehow reliving all these events in redemptive history.  It is as if we are spending four weeks waiting for Jesus to be born – when he was already born 2000 years ago.  Or, with Lent, it seems that we are spending forty days preparing ourselves for the crucifixion on Good Friday.  These events have happened and it is one thing to commemorate them, it is quite another to spend several weeks almost pretending we are waiting for them.

Related to this are the practices which usually accompany these seasons and especially Lent.  I am thinking especially of the practice of fasting for Lent.  This is done not only by Roman Catholics, but also by Lutherans and growing numbers of evangelical Christians.  Now there is definitely much to commend fasting from a biblical perspective.[4]  The problem is not with fasting as such.  The problem is connecting fasting to a man-made liturgical season.  Biblical fasting is voluntary and secret.  Lenten fasting is sometimes mandated (as with the Roman Catholic Church) and sometimes merely encouraged.  But it is always with the idea that this fasting is a preparation for observing Christ’s suffering – something he has already endured in our place.  By adopting the practice of observing Lent in our churches, we could be giving the impression that the practices associated with Lent are commended for our use as well.   

There is also another objection – one to which I have alluded several times already.  We have agreed to go each year through the 52 Lord’s Days of the Heidelberg Catechism.  As we do that, we are already covering the important events of redemptive history.  If we follow the season of Advent, we spend one Sunday on Lord’s Day 14, one Christmas sermon, plus four more Advent sermons.  Each year, believers in such a church would hear six sermons on Christ’s incarnation.  The situation is similar with Christ’s suffering:  two Lord’s Days (15 and 16) on his suffering, plus a Good Friday sermon, and then six Sundays of Lenten preaching.  Is it necessary or helpful to dedicate this much of the preaching schedule to these topics?  Moreover, if a preacher wishes to follow the model of serial expository preaching, these seasons of Lent and Advent are not going to allow him to make much progress through a book.  After all, 10 of 52 Sundays are dealing with Christ’s incarnation and suffering.

All things considered, a good case can be made for observing the days of commemoration.  But seasons of Lent and Advent are better left to the side.  I will certainly respect the liberty of the church or the colleague who follows this, but it should also work the other way around.  If a minister is not comfortable with the practice, no church ought to force him.  When it comes to Lent and Advent, Kuyper was right:  there should be no prescription.  As the Belgic Confession puts it in article 32, let us be careful about having “laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the consciences in any way.”            


[1] Elsie Anne McKee, “Reformed Worship in the Sixteenth Century,” 17-18.

[2] Kuyper, Our Worship, 180.

[3] Old, Worship Reformed According to Scripture, 164.

[4] See my article “The Value of Fasting,” in Clarion 45.13 (June 28, 1996), 300.


Aiming to Please — Now on Kindle

Aiming to Please: A Guide to Reformed Worship is now available from Amazon on Kindle.

$9.99 at Amazon.ca

$11.99 at Amazon.com

$15.65 at Amazon.com.au


The Accompanist as Prophet? — Excerpt from Aiming to Please

Jan Zwart

The following is an excerpt from Aiming to Please, chapter 16.  Aiming to Please:  A Guide to Reformed Worship can be purchased from Amazon and many other online retailers around the world.

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The Accompanist as Prophet?

If we have accompaniment, the accompanist has an important role in our worship service.  As just intimated, poor accompaniment is worse than no accompaniment.  We want our accompanists to aim to please the LORD along with the entire congregation.  There has to be a pursuit of excellence in the craft of accompaniment.  When this is done, we should be thankful and encourage our accompanists.

Regrettably, in our tradition there has sometimes been inordinate language when it comes to accompanists, and especially organists.  Sometimes the organist has been described as a “prophet” and his playing as “prophesying from the organ bench.”  It seems that this rhetoric traces back to the famous Dutch organist Jan Zwart.  According to Deddens, Zwart spoke of “prophesying during the worship service, before and after the sermon, in a language the people can understand.”  Reformed theologian Klaas Schilder took over this language in describing Zwart posthumously:  “His life’s work was to prophesy from the organ bench, and when we say that we give true expression to what motivated this man.”  Deddens appreciated this rhetoric and took it over as well.

The major problem with this description of the accompanist is that it does not stand up to biblical scrutiny.  In the Bible, prophecy is almost always about words.  A prophet without words is unheard of.  There are instances where prophets performed prophetic acts, but these were exceptional, and even these acts never occurred in isolation from their words.  Both in the Old Testament and the New Testament, prophecy is verbal.  When Lord’s Day 12 of the Catechism says we are anointed to be prophets who confess the name of Christ, it is referring to a verbal activity.  During and after the Reformation, preaching was sometimes called “prophesying” – because it had to do with words.  The idea of a musical instrument being a means of prophecy is unheard of, biblically and historically.

While certainly appreciating the work of accompanists (more on that in a moment), let us also be modest about what they are doing.  If one wants to employ the language of the three-fold office of all believers to describe accompanists, then it would be better to refer to them in priestly terms.  With their accompaniment, they are offering a sacrifice of thanksgiving with the rest of the congregation.  That is something which can be done both with and without words.

Proper Honour for Accompanists

If an accompanist takes his or her work seriously, there can be quite a bit of preparation involved with each service.  Moreover, a serious accompanist might even be a professional musician with years of training.  A lot of time and money may have been invested in honing their musical craft.  This ought to be honoured and recognized.

That can be done in different ways, of course.  One way would be for the pastor regularly to pray for the accompanist(s) in his congregation.  Another would be for there to be occasional acknowledgement of the accompanist in the church bulletin or perhaps at a congregational meeting.  Still another way would be to ask the accompanist to help the congregation in understanding music in worship.  Accompanists have the musical understanding and skills that many of us do not, and asking them to share their insights also shows respect for them and their craft.  Let them teach us.

It is also appropriate to show our gratitude to our accompanists with an honorarium.  This recognizes the time, energy, and financial commitment they have made to pursue excellence in accompanying our singing.  Churches that do not offer an honorarium to their accompanists can sometimes struggle to find accompaniment, especially if there are other churches nearby which do offer honorariums.

Now someone might object and say, “A lot of us do volunteer work in the church and we don’t get paid for it.  So why should the accompanist get paid?”  There are two things to say in response.  First, the accompanist is not being “paid” for their labours.  He or she is not an employee of the church, at least not typically.  The accompanist is a volunteer, offering his or her services for the glory of God.  Second, unlike most other volunteer work in the church, the accompanist has spent a lot of his or her time, energy, and money on learning to play well.  Continuing to play well also requires investments, including the purchase of sheet music.  Accompaniment is different than the other volunteer work done in the church.  A modest honorarium recognizes this.


What’s in Aiming to Please?

Before I wrote Aiming to Please, I asked my Facebook friends what sorts of questions they’d like to see addressed in a book on Reformed worship.  Many responded.  I noted all the questions and tried to work them in.  Here’s a list of almost all the questions you’ll find answered:

  • What difference does covenant theology make for Reformed worship?
  • Do we hold to the Regulative Principle of Worship?
  • What do our confessions say about worship?
  • Do our children belong in the worship service?
  • When and how does the worship service begin?
  • Can someone other than a minister say “you” with the salutation and benediction?
  • Why do we read the Ten Commandments every Sunday?
  • Is there a biblical warrant for singing hymns?
  • Can we sing all the psalms?
  • Should we sing whole psalms or just selected stanzas?
  • Should we pray with uplifted hands?
  • Should the congregation say the votum?
  • Does the pastor lift one hand or two for the salutation?
  • Should the congregation say the “Amen”?
  • Does a sermon need to use words?
  • Can a woman lead in the reading of Scripture in the worship service?
  • Why do we have collection bags?
  • How can we do the offertory in an increasingly cash-less society?
  • Do we need to read the liturgical forms exactly as written?
  • If my neighbour becomes a Christian, can I baptize him in my swimming pool?
  • With baptism, should the sprinkling be done once or three times?
  • Should baptism be done before or after the sermon?
  • How often ought we to celebrate the Lord’s Supper?
  • Should we celebrate the Lord’s Supper at tables or in the pew?
  • Why do we have a supervised Lord’s Supper?
  • Do you need an attestation from a sister church to attend the Lord’s Supper as a guest?
  • Can we use non-alcoholic wine or grape juice for the Lord’s Supper?
  • Can we administer the Lord’s Supper to shut-ins?
  • Why do we worship twice on the Lord’s Day?
  • Is catechism preaching biblical?
  • What is the best way to do catechism preaching?
  • Does church architecture matter?
  • Should the elders sit at the front?
  • Can we use a projector in worship?
  • Doesn’t the Regulative Principle of Worship forbid instruments in worship?
  • Is the organist “a prophet on the organ bench”?
  • Should accompanists receive an honorarium?
  • What about drums in our musical accompaniment?
  • Doesn’t the Regulative Principle of Worship forbid holy days like Christmas?
  • Can we celebrate Christ’s birth on a day other than December 25?
  • Should we have liturgical seasons of Advent or Lent?
  • Does it make sense to have offerings in a church plant or other mission setting?

If you’re in Canada, you can buy Aiming to Please direct from the publisher here.  If you’re elsewhere in the world, it’s available via Amazon and other online retailers.