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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.

David de Bruyn

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 and 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.

25 Responses to Thanks, But I’ll Keep My Printed Hymnal

  1. Allen,

    How do you do that?

    I enter the tune into Finale, spend a lot of time formatting it to fit the screen, convert it to a graphics file, then import into the presentation software. Is there an easier way?

    Oh yes, EXCELLENT article Pastor de Bruyn. As always! Wish I lived closer to your congregation.

    Jim Lowery

    Richmond, VA

  2. You've made some very good arguments for the inclusion of a hymnal as part of one's devotional literature. I like the concept of the hymnal as a roadmap of Christian worship from years past. However, while the article is an excellent resource on the value of hymnals in general, I don't get the feeling that these arguments address the use of hymnals *in corporate worship.* For example, while it's certainly true that hymnals can be a valuable source of doctrinal commentary (after all, many hymns were written to address doctrinal the doctrinal controversies of their day), there simply isn't enough time to ponder the sum of this commentary between the two measures of introduction and the start of the first stanza.

    When folks at my church are worshipping in song, I want them to concentrate on the message of the text and the act of worshipping with their brothers and sisters in Christ. I don't want them to focus on all the great aspects of the book they're reading from, at least not right then. If we're singing "Amazing Grace," I want them to think about that amazing grace showed to them, rather than perusing through the various responses through history to the concept of God's grace. To be sure, that's a great thing to do…but there is a time for that, and that time is not during participatory congregational worship.

    Still, this is a great article and a great reminder of why a hymnal ought to be next to the Bible on the kitchen table in the morning.

  3. I'll add one:

    Without hymnals, if all the songs are held in a central location by the music czar, how can you have a hymn sing/request night (or as a southern brother calls them, "sangin's")? You know, when the congregation gathers just to sing, and individuals call out "#379" and everyone sings #379, etc.

    Or is that a quaint practice we can all mock now?

  4. David,

    I don't think the proponents of projection would suggest that taking requests is a "quaint practice that we can mock." No one's attacking anyone else.

    I have two suggestions:

    1. When someone requests a hymn, I guarantee an astute AV operator using projection software (such as EasyWorship – I hate the name but love the program!) can have the text on the screen in the same amount of time that it takes for the congregation to flip to it.

    2. Sing from memory. The Moravians had a memorized repertory of some 3000 hymns. Frankly, I think we're much too tied down to the hymnal. Our inability to sing from memory displays our hymn illiteracy (generic "we"!).

    I appreciate the gracious tone of the article. For all the reasons stated, I agree that we should definitely continue to produce hymnals, especially for private devotional and family use. For corporate worship, does it *really* matter whether we sing from print or from projection?



  5. David, thanks for doing this. I think your number 4 point is one of the most important, and addresses the comments here about appreciating hymnals for private worship but not public.

    The fact is that today any schmuck can post a new "hymn" on the web that can be sung the next day in churches. This is not necessarily a good thing.

    As you note, the time, money, and effort spent in compiling a hymnal, not to mention the time, money, and effort spent in CHOOSING a hymnal, provide a guard against novelty in worship and an assurance of continuity with the Church universal.

    But I guess that's where some of the problem lay. A church that is concerned with cultivating the tradition of God's people throughout the ages will appreciate the hymnal as a tool for that to happen.

    Those who care little about what God's people did in the past and more about what is "fresh" and "exciting" won't like the "inflexibility" of a hymnal.

    Finally, I remembered that Bob Bixby had a decent defense of churches owning hymnals a few years back:

  6. Too many Davids!

    Rather than post a follow up article I'll just note some thoughts, some more serious than others.

    I am an easily distracted person. I have indeed been distracted from worship by picking out a particular harmony line (the bass line of "Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light" comes readily to mind). But the removal of food is not the solution for gluttony, rather, godly discipline is. I think the same is likely case with hymn harmony. (Although I will say I've never been distracted by the rustle of hymnal pages).

    And while we're on that subject, I think our God is worthy the refulgence singing hymns with harmony presents. Probably 50% of the congregation sings melody anyway, so that won't get lost. Plus, some people's vocal range does not permit them to sing all melodies; having a written harmony parts accomodates that need in an orderly way.

    Finally, when a rogue state detonates an EMP device over our continent, all the power point folks will be left out in the cold.

  7. One might argue that sharing a hymnal with the person next to you in the pew is more of a "community-builder" than everybody singing melody.

  8. Dan,

    It doesn't matter if we sing from print or projector. That's not my point. And I'm all for singing from memory. My kids can pick up a hymnal and name any hymn, and there's a good chance i can recite back at least one verse, if not all. I believe I can do that because I was raised with hymnals, and had access to them outside the worship service.

    But that still doesn't serve a hymn sing/request night because, even assuming we all have all the hymns memorized, we won't have them all catalogued for quick reference in our memories. In short, only a few will be requested, because we just won't think of more than a few. Flipping through the hymnal jogs our memories.

  9. We used to use bulletin inserts at our church when we would sing songs not in the hymnal. In order to reduce the amount of "stuff" in the bulletin, we've moved to projecting the hymntexts when we have a song not in the hymnal, unless we are introducing a new song to the congregation. So I've spent some time pondering the difference between "screen songs" and songs the people are holding in their hands. (I'd probably have a better perspective if I were singing in the congregation instead of leading the songs behind the pulpit with the music in front of me!) And to clarify, we still use a hymnal, although we've experimented with putting the hymnal songs on the screen in addition to announcing the hymn number in the hymnal for those who wish to use the hymnal.

    In addition to the comments already made, it strikes me (somewhat along the lines of David's first point) that the physicality of the printed page says something, at least subconsciously, and at least to me, not having grown up in a digital age. Electronic media tends, I think, to connote a non-permanence (up on the screen one second, gone the next) and easy "changeability" that print media doesn't. Particularly in matters related to eternal truth, I wonder if more permanent sorts of media (like the printed page) might undergird our work more satisfactorily. "The medium affects the message."

    I wonder if using electronic media for texts communicating eternal truth is (biiiiiiiig-picture) helping or hindering the message (or perhaps some of each in different ways). Time will tell, I suppose.

  10. A few follow-up points.

    1) Tom and Dan have both pointed out that the article doesn't make the case that hymnals are better suited for use in corporate worship. They are right, as far as it goes. Hymnals and projections both achieve the goal of giving parishioners the words to sing.

    My point is that since both achieve that goal, what do we lose when projections begin to trounce hymnals altogether? And let's face it, there's every indication they will. They're cheaper, more 'user-friendly', and generally easier to use. I cannot imagine publishers going to the trouble of printing expensive hardcover hymnals with SATB notation purely for private or family use. When churches stop using them, the commercial viability of publishing them will wane, and hymnals will be replaced by some iHymn app for home use. At that point, the five things I pointed out will be increasingly lost to the church, and there is good evidence that it is already happening. In other words, if hymnals and projections do the same thing in corporate worship, but we lose more if we go exclusively to projections, why not stick to hymnals?

    2)Second, as Chuck perceptively pointed out, the post is also about the medium being the message. The very form of hymnals shapes part of the meaning of corporate singing differently to that of projections. My point was to suggest some ways that the meaning of the event is affected. As Tom made clear, it is not that we pastors want our members pondering over the history of worship while they sing. Nevertheless, I do want the worshipers considering that they are not the first to sing this, and that their voices now unite with the church triumphant.I do want them aware that music was particularly crafted (for four voices) for us to sing this hymn together. All of this becomes part of the decision we pastors must make.

    By the way, we do use projections in our church for certain things, but we have self-consciously stuck to hymnals and printed songbooks (with musical notation) for singing.

  11. Congregations that desire to use printed hymnals will probably have to compile their own hymnals at some point. Not a bad exercise, plus you never have to look at some kooky Jack Hayford song across the page from Isaac Watts. Unless you put kooky Jack Hayford songs in your hymnal, I guess.

  12. Yes, yes, yes, to the printed hymnal providing continuity with the church triumphant. I'm also thinking about what the printed page says qua printed page vs. what a projected electronic text says qua projected electronic text. Anyone familiar with a good treatment of this question of media comparison? I wouldn't be surprised if Postman treats it somewhere, I'm just not sure if or where.

  13. One more thought on all this that keeps coming to my mind. This is completely anecdotal, and I'm sure there are exceptions, but I've had occasion to be in many different situations with churches who primarily use screens, and it seems to me that such churches typically have a much smaller repertory of songs they sing than churches that use hymnals. One of the "benefits" cited for screens is that you have far more songs from which to choose, but that doesn't seem to be what happens, at least in my experience.

  14. Thank you so much for your article, David. I'm so thankful that our church is continually teaching us "new to me" hymns. We put an insert in the bulletin or actually print the text and notation right in the bulletin. I'm also thankful for our hymnal. Our hymnal is not perfect, but it is a great blessing to see my children excited about turning and finding the pages so they can participate and join along with the congregation. I have 5 children and one of the joys of parenting has been (with each of my children – my youngest is now six)to take my finger and follow along word by word as we sing the songs congregationally. I'm not sure how I could do that on the screen. I'm not opposed to using the words on the screen, but if you do . . . please keep the hymnal.

    Also, there has been the accusation that using a hymnal distracts from the focused worship that we are seeking. My 13 year old daughter brings a study Bible to church and takes notes on an outline printed in the bulletin during the sermon. Is that distracting her? I guess it could, but hopefully those tools are ehancing her ability to fully understand and appreciate the message. I would argue the same for the hymnal. Could the hymnal be a distraction? I guess, but I think the hymnal greatly enhances the congregations ability to fully understand the texts and sing in the best possible way.

    One more point (sorry for the length of this post). . . the argument about the singing being better when you don't use hymnals is just not valid. It is completely anecdotal. The small church I attend has some of the best singing I have ever heard from any church and (gasp) we use hymnals. :)

  15. Dave,

    That may not necessarily turn out to be the case. After all, in this digital age when one can buy just two or three songs on iTunes à la carte, you'd expect that record companies would eventually stop taking the time to manufacture physical CDs, since there's a substantial cost in stamping the CDs, printing the inserts, and shipping them to stores. And yet CD sales are still going strong. In fact, vinyl records are still being produced for new albums! Class, raise your hand if you have a functional record player hooked up to your sound system…anyone? Certainly the digital age has not put a stop to the physical release of recordings. I suspect the digital age won't ever put a stop to the release of the printed word (including hymnals) either.

  16. Tom,

    Fair enough. I'm no prophet, and it may turn out exactly as you suggest. Nevertheless, if as a church leader, I run the risk of contributing to the possible demise of what hymnals bring to private and corporate worship, I'm going to err on the side of conserving what has worked towards piety, rather than promoting something that could possibly have the opposite effect. That is to say, the losses I endure by staying with hymnals seem to me to be much smaller than the potential losses of projections carrying the day, and the possible benefits of projections do not seem enough for me to add to the momentum of the movement.

  17. Good points, all. That's why our projections still show the number of the song in the hymnal that remains in our pews. Folks can choose to turn to the page to sing with the notations, or they can use the hymnals to choose their favorites during "request night", which we have monthly and during which our projector technician does indeed display his mouse and keyboard skills to project the lyrics in a timely manner.

  18. Hi Scott,
    I am wondering if the last two paragraphs might just say more than one could say? Is is it true to say that a "concerned" church "will…?" And an eschewment of the hymnal reveals a lack of interest in what our forebears have done? It does seem you might want to state this more carefully? (Written by someone who would love to have the wonders of the hymnal available on a screen because we have to set up and tear down every week–which wreaks havoc on our already old hymnals. And one who values the hymnal and the lesser known hymns in it.) So, I'm not hatin on hymnals, just suspect logic.

  19. I think the statements are true, Sam. All I said is that a church that really desires to cultivate the tradition of God's people will appreciate hymnals, and those who don't won't. Certainly there are other factors involved that influence whether or not such churches will use a hymnal, but appreciation and recognition of the worth of a hymnal was the focus of my comments.

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