The function of hymnals in the life of the church has changed dramatically over the past thirty years. Many congregations rarely use them. Thousands of Christians seldom, if ever, open one. When people hear of the new hymnal publications, it’s natural for some of them to ask, “Why would you ever want to publish another hymnal?”
The most basic response to this is that many congregations do use hymnals every week, in both public worship and in church education and pastoral care. Still others are rediscovering the value of hymnals, reintroducing their selective use alongside other ways of presenting songs.
Hymnals make several valuable contributions to Christian life today, in dynamic interaction with all the other ways we access and project music and information. Further, a hymnal is a valuable resource for all kinds of Christians, as well as congregational leaders, whether or not their congregation uses a hymnal in worship.
Here are ten reasons why:
1. Hymnals are especially well suited to good group singing of many kinds of songs (though not all).
Cyclical songs of exuberant praise are well served by projecting texts. People’s hands are free for clapping, and the text can easily be cycled through a set of slides. Singing from a hymnal can inhibit participation in songs like these.
But the reverse is true for other kinds of songs.
Hymnals are well suited to singing contemplative songs, where it is helpful to sing with bowed head, while seated or kneeling.
Hymnals are especially useful for singing in harmony, unless that harmony can be projected.
Hymnals are ideal for texts that are more linear—texts that unfold an argument or tell a story in several stanzas. When we sing those kinds of texts from a screen, we can’t see the whole thing at once, and it’s very easy to lose track of where the song is going. (The same can be said for reading the Bible while seeing only one verse at time.)
Congregations do not have to settle for only one way of presenting songs, whether in print or via projection.
2. Hymnals are portable.
Hymnals can travel easily into Sunday school rooms, summer camps, hospital rooms, family rooms, and more. Many congregations that no longer use hymnals or songbooks for worship are realizing that they—without intending to—no longer sing together in places that lack projection equipment. Or, they end up singing only a very narrow range of songs that the congregation may know from memory. This means that they sing less (or not at all) in Bible study groups, in council or staff meetings, or at other gatherings.
I am so pleased to know that some churches that do not use hymnals in worship nevertheless have a library cart with thirty hymnals on it that travels throughout their church so any group can use hymnals at any time.
3. Hymnals are splendid for home piano or keyboard devotional playing.
For thousands of believers over the past century or more, including my own grandfather, some of the sweetest hours of prayer have happened at the family piano or keyboard. A devotional tour of the hymnal might begin with a favorite song, but then veer off into uncharted territory—rather like a spiritual off-road vehicle.
True enough, a few people can do this by ear, without a book. True enough, you can print some songs off the Internet, though it costs much more to print 900 songs at home than to buy a hymnal with the same number of selections.
Indeed, one of the best ways to use the Internet for music is to purchase a tablet-formatted hymnal.
4. Hymnals are an efficient one-stop worship planning resource.
With a hymnal, a pastor or worship planner can swiftly thumb through a varied but well edited cluster of at least ten songs for Easter, or morning prayer, or lament, for example. You could find the same ten songs on the Internet, but that would take twenty clicks or more—after you wade through a dizzying variety of other options with no guarantee of their musical or theological integrity. While a hymnal need not be the only worship planning resource, it is one indispensable resource.
5. Hymnals make it relatively easy to stumble on and fall in love with good music you never thought you would like.
One stunning result of the 1987 Psalter Hymnal was the number of Anglo congregations that fell in love with the black gospel hymn “Lead Me, Guide Me,” and the number of history-resisting congregations that found “If You But Trust in God to Guide You” to be a source of blessing in times of tragedy. Now, it is very possible to experience crossover songs on the internet, or through other sources. But, in general, the internet tends to feed us more of what we like. It pulls toward homogenization. Today’s hymnals, with their musical diversity, are designed to help us meet, discover, and come to love a wide variety of music.
6. Well-designed hymnals offer a vision of a balanced thematic diet.
Any hymnal worth its salt needs songs for both praise and lament, for both Christmas and Jesus’ baptism, for both Thanksgiving Day and New Year’s Day, for both morning and evening prayer, and texts for probably a hundred other key themes. One of the main goals for any hymnal is to give people access to a balanced musical diet, full of all the right kinds of proteins and carbohydrates to sustain the life of faith.
As several leading advocates of contemporary music have recently pointed out, the contemporary worship industry is not well organized to promote this balanced worship diet. The top two hundred songs in the CCLI list are simply the two hundred most-sung songs. There is no mechanism built into such a list to ensure thematic balance (though we need not blame the CCLI list for not doing what it can’t possibly do!)
Every congregation, whether it uses hymnals or not, needs a tool for imagining a balanced diet. The best hymnals turn out to be very useful resources. For this reason, I am grateful for a number of contemporary songwriters I know who regularly look at hymnals to remind them of the kinds of songs that they need to be writing to fill in the gaps of the church’s repertoire—songs that may never become greatest hits, but that may be used, like powerful yeast, to transform the imagination of large segments of the church.
I realize that congregations who use hymnals may not themselves have a balanced diet. They may choose only a narrow range of what appears in the book. But just as a good reference book in nearly any field (medicine, for example) opens up our eyes to full range of learning, so too a hymnal offers a vision of the breadth of the church’s song.
7. Hymnals help connect songs with elements of worship.
Like many recent hymnals includes several selections that integrate music with a variety of prayers, liturgies, and other acts of worship. Indeed, some of the best music in worship doesn’t stand on its own; it helps a congregation sing its way through the telling of a biblical story or pray through the prayers of the people.
8. Hymnals give people access to a “cultural memory bank” that many desperately want.
I have been struck, of late, by the number of emerging churches that want to meet in old cathedrals (“Give me a building with a memory,” one pastor said). While some are fleeing from oppressive histories, many spiritual nomads are longing for a sense of history. It’s hard to think of a more poignant and accessible way of engaging history than by singing the songs used by Christians across the centuries.
9. Hymnals can be appealing to seekers.
To be sure, for some seekers, a hymnal could well be a barrier to the faith—too foreign and incomprehensible on first reading. To other seekers, a hymnal could be appealing as a proof that the community takes its faith seriously, invests in enduring art forms, and is willing to encounter difficult texts and themes. Hymnal lovers need to honestly realize how hymnals can be a barrier for some people, and hymnal detractors need to realize that they can be gift and attraction for others.
10. A hymnal can be a surprisingly effective catechism for both brand-new and lifelong Christians.
Hymnals offer pithy, memorable, poetic answers to a host of questions that people have about the Christian faith. They summarize vast, sweeping biblical themes in the space of a single page, often with remarkable nuance. Even if a congregation doesn’t sing “In Christ Alone,” that text is a fine way to introduce people to the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Further, a good hymnal will contain curricula for Christianity 101, 201, and 301 side by side. It is a powerful tool for learning about the faith for people at every stage of their faith journey.
In summary, hymnals are a good resource, not the only good resource. And they may not be even the best single resource for every one of these functions. But for overall value, it’s pretty hard to beat a single book that does so many things at once:
- provides a comprehensive reference resource for finding songs and one technological mode of presenting songs;
- functions as a musical collection and a worship book, with prayers and liturgies for congregational use;
- presents a single-volume snap-shot of the diversity of the church throughout time and space; and
- acts as a single source for strengthening devotional, pastoral care, educational, and liturgical ministries, making it possible to integrate these dimensions of the Christian life.
John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of worship, theology, & congregational and ministry studies at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary with degrees in theology from Calvin Theological Seminary, in music from the University of Illinois, and the Ph.D. in liturgical studies and theology from the University of Notre Dame. His areas of interest include the history of Christian worship, worship practices in various denominations, biblical and systematic theology of worship, the role of music and the arts in worship, choral music and consulting with churches on worship renewal. He is the author of The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship: A Brief Introduction and Guide to Resources (Eerdmans, 2007), Worship Seeking Understanding: Windows into Christian Practice (Baker Academic, 2003), co-author of Proclaiming the Christmas Gospel: Ancient Sermons and Hymns for Contemporary Christian Inspiration (Baker, 2004), and co-editor of The Worship Sourcebook (Faith Alive Christian Resources, Baker Books, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, 2004), and Worship in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Change and Continuity in Religious Practice (University of Notre Dame Press, 2004), Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Christian Worship (2011), and the children’s book At Your Baptism (Eerdmans, 2011).
John is available on a limited basis for workshops and training sessions on the history, theology, and practice of worship.