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Thanks, But I’ll Keep My Printed Hymnal

Visitors that attend my church are often introduced to the seemingly obscure practice of fumbling for a hymnal, finding a page, and according to some, mumbling the words into the book they are peering into.

In an era of affordable projectors, Powerpoint and similar software, surely insisting upon hymnals is like insisting on horse-drawn buggies for transport or quills for pens?   What conceivable reason could there be for putting expensive, bulky, hardcover books into the hands of individuals, who will sing into them and not out, instead of a clear, colorful presentation that results in everyone looking up and forward, and probably singing louder? I suggest five reasons.

1) When you hold a hymnal in your hands, you hold something of your Christian heritage. A good hymnal has hymns spanning the ages, from the first centuries into the present.  In a balanced hymnal, there will be hymns from Christians of all stripes – Church Fathers, medieval mystics and monks, Reformers, Puritans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Moravians, and so forth. Importantly, these contributions are found in one place. The physical nature of a hymnal has the effect of communicating a collection of the work of the church triumphant. Since a projection is not a collection (except on the laptop), it cannot convey this sense, or communicate that collective heritage. When you pick up a hymnal, you identify with the church triumphant, and you sing her experience into yours.

2) When you hold a good hymnal in your hands, you are holding the distilled affective responses of hundreds, if not thousands, of believers. A hymnal is more than a songbook; it is a record, a testimony of how Christians collectively have responded to the various truths of the Christian life. Thumb through a hymnal, and it will usually be organised according to themes: God, Christ, the Spirit, the Church, Salvation, Heaven, Submission and Trust, and so forth. A hymnal is not systematic theology, it is doxological theology – the testimony of the church’s affections. With a hymnal in hand, one can peruse how the church has responded to these various truths, and compare it with contemporary responses. Certainly, you could do that by clicking through your collection  on your PC, but most of the parishioners don’t have access to that.  The sense of cohesive, collective Christian sentiment is profoundly weakened when Christians only access a few slides a week, one slide at a time.

3) A good hymnal remains the best devotional literature we have. Hymnals grow, stretch and shape one’s affections beyond what they would be if the choice is simply that of remembering a likable song and Googling it. Devotional literature is formative. Certainly devotional “literature” does not have to be printed, and can make use of the many gadgets available to us, but once again, at least the defined collection contained within a hymnal helps the church, family or individual to not be blown to and fro by every wind of competing Christian songs.  Every Christian should have a hymnal (or several) to have at home for personal and family worship. The Reformers fought and died for the privilege of singing to God in your own language in a hymnal you could read.  Hymns ought to be contemplated, understood, and sung to the Lord outside of church gatherings. At the very least, when hymnals are entirely replaced by projections, this becomes more unlikely.

4) Since hymnals require more time and money to produce, there is at least the possibility that the editors of those hymnals will sift through the chaff to include the very best of Christian hymnody. While every hymnal represents some theological bias, it at least represents a kind of canon, a settled standard of Christian hymnody in the eyes of its editors, from which a congregation can select appropriate hymns. On the other hand, a collection on a PC or laptop can be edited as quickly (and whimsically) as the laptop-owner desires. Copy and paste, or select-delete. Forget about the consensus of the ages; a mouse-click and a song is in or out.

5) And yes, hymnals still contain musical notation, unlike most projections. No, musical education is not the sole goal of corporate worship, and arguments in favor of musical education in church hardly make such a point. The point is simply that the more we understand what we are doing, the more meaningful the worship, and the better we can judge if what we are offering is appropriate. The more we understand the significance of the whole deal – the music as well as the lyrics – the more we are able to offer that sacrifice of praise. (Having spent a bit of time in Taiwan, when I see the bare lyrics on a screen, I can’t shake the association that the music is a backing track for my personal Christian karaoke. That’s probably just me, so pay no heed.) Since we believe the music itself has a message, and is inseparable from the lyrics, it seems to me that only printed music properly communicates this relationship.

No, you don’t need to be literate to understand the Bible, and obey God. But it sure helps when you are. No, you don’t need to be able to read music to sing sincerely and worship God in song. But it sure helps when you can.

I am not saying that churches that use only projections aim to produce musical illiteracy, ignorance of historical Christian sentiment, radical devotional eclecticism, chronological snobbery, or devotional impoverishment. I am saying that given the needs of the hour, I’m keeping my printed hymnal.

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.