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Boiling Down Some Thoughts on Hymnals, Hymns, and Hymnody

Teaching children can be immensely helpful in clarifying one’s thoughts. This is probably true of any teaching project, but in dealing with children, the necessity of reducing principles and truths to their simplest comprehendable form without omitting or diminishing any of their central components is paramount.

I was recently asked to teach a segment in our Children’s Church on hymnody. Actually, I was asked to teach them some hymns, but, taking some cues from this article by Scott, I broadened the scope of my segment to include hymnal usage and some principles on what hymns are and why we sing them.

As the first Sunday approached, though I had chosen the incarnation hymn “What Child Is This?” to sing and was prepared for to do some training on the use of the hymnal, I was having a hard time paring 1) what hymnody is and 2) why we use it down to an essential notion that could be communicated to the kids.

The “why” was easier. Using passages such as Psalms 100 and 107, which were familiar to the children, I was fairly confident they would grasp that the singing of praise is the proper response to who God is and what he has done.

But why these songs? I got some help in answering this question from I Chronicles 16:7 which says “Then on that day David delivered first this psalm to thank the Lord into the hand of Asaph and his brethren.” (NKJV) The thing that struck me here was that the singers got their song (which ended up being collected in the book of Psalms as number 96) from someone else.

While there is nothing unusual about that at all–it is, in fact, the norm in all music–it gave me a point of departure in talking with the children. Why don’t we just make up songs as we go through the service. Why don’t we all sing different songs? Why do we get our songs from other people, some of whom lived over a thousand years ago?

Although I didn’t share this with the kids, that passage actually reminded me of conversation I had with someone back at the height of the Napster controversy. He thought it was fine to share music by a means that disregared copyright laws and failed to compensate the muscians, arguing something along the lines of, “These are just songs they made up; anyone can do that. They shouldn’t get rich off it.” I countered that he should just make up his own songs, record them, and listen to those. “Oh, I’m looking for something a little better than what that would be,” he replied.

The point is, we all look for elevated expressions of how we feel. Just any old song will not do. The ones we latch onto express something we believe to be true about the subject, and does so in a way that gives us pleasure as we express it.

These notions are nothing new to the readers of this site, but perhaps help us crystallize some thoughts about our hymnody and why we need it. Put as simply as possible then, hymnody is a source of good words–true and beautiful words–to sing together about God.

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About David Oestreich

David Oestreich lives in northwest Ohio with his wife and three children. He is a maker of poems, photographs, fishing flies, and Saturday afternoon semi-haute cuisine. His poetry has appeared in various venues, both print and online.

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