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What We Gained When We Lost Our Hymnals?

A few weeks ago I linked to a blog post by Tim Challies in which he listed things we lost when “we” gave up the hymnal, but then basically said, “But I don’t think we should go back.”

Yesterday he followed up on that with a new post, “What we Gained When We Lost Our Hymnals.” Let’s run through what he lists as “gains”:

  1. We gained immediacy. Challies complains that hymnals “made us wait years or even decades before we could add [new hymns] to our services.” Two problems with this: first, our church uses hymnals, and we often sing “new hymns” by printing them and including them as inserts in the bulletin. Second, having to wait to make new songs a regular part of the repertory is actually a strength–it helps to weed out the poor songs.
  2. We gained posture. Challies complains about having to hold a book while looking down at the words. Can you imagine the same complaint applied to the Bible? “We had to hold the [Bible] in one hand (or even in both hands) and look down at the words. This [Bible] posture was stiff and fixed.” Again, I actually see this as a strength that helps to discipline us as we sing, and “having to look down” at the words and musical notation is far superior to having no notation at all. Further, Challies claims that an “open and free” posture is a “superior posture for worship, and especially for worship that is physically expressively.” It’s difficult to raise or clap  your hands when you’re holding a hymnal, Challies observes. Mark that down as one more in favor of hymnals!
  3. We gained variety. I actually think Challies is absolutely wrong on this point. Most of those (not all) who sing off the wall typically have very little variety. They sing a much lower number of songs from a much narrower range of sources than those with hymnals do. Just in the hymnal we’re producing, we have an amazing variety of songs from every era in church history and from multiple forms and languages.
  4. We gained portability. This is the one point with which I agree with Challies. I do appreciate this challenge. This is one of the reasons we’re making all of our hymns free to download; churches can download and print full hymns as they are needed if their situation can’t afford or facilitate hymnals.
  5. We gained spontaneity. Challies notes a time when he quoted a song in a sermon, and the worship leader was able to pull the song on the screen. I actually think this point is a wash. Sure, a guy might be able to pull up a song with a couple clicks, but I can also use the index in my hymnal to find something as well.
  6. We gained service. Challies claims that singing through bad songs helps filter the good from the bad. But why do we have to use corporate worship to do this? This is what gifted, qualified, dedicated hymnal editors do.

Challies states that “the reality is that neither hymnals nor PowerPoint are entirely good or entirely bad.” True. It is also true that we didn’t always have hymnals. And I will concede that there are a couple positives with singing off the wall.

But as a friend said on facebook regarding getting rid of hymnals, “the cons outweigh the pros by a mile.”

Source: What We Gained When We Lost Our Hymnals – Tim Challies

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

9 Responses to What We Gained When We Lost Our Hymnals?

  1. Scott said:

    “We gained service. Challies claims that singing through bad songs helps filter the good from the bad. But why do we have to use corporate worship to do this? This is what gifted, qualified, dedicated hymnal editors do.”

    Let me push back a little here (please?). How is this expressed sentiment different than the arguments for keeping the text of Scripture in the hands of a trained priesthood rather than the language of the plowman?

    I understand Scripture is different than a hymnal. But there is some measure of subjectivity in hymnals. A church that has a particular hymnal usually doesn’t sing every hymn in it. And every church that I’ve ever been in has songs they wish were in their hymnal (whether old or new).

    I don’t see why a properly led and trained congregation shouldn’t be part of the filtering process.

    I also see a strength in immediacy you don’t raise. You said: “…having to wait to make new songs a regular part of the repertory is actually a strength–it helps to weed out the poor songs.” On the other hand, waiting could discourage production of good new music. I understand there will be chaff or things that won’t stand the test of time. But that was true even of Watts, Wesley, Newton… all who produced far more than has endured the test of time.

    In short, I understand the downsides, but I’m not sure that they’re worth doing much more than lamenting. Too much active resistance seems counterproductive. Modeling good practice, producing superior resources, and encouraging and aiding in drawing more attention to better efforts seems to me the best approach.

  2. It is true that Watts, Wesley, et al wrote many hymns that didn’t stand the test of time, but that’s exactly the point. The ones we do sing exist because they made it into hymnals.

    And again, I’m all for singing new things and adding them to our repertory. I’m even OK with the principle of the congregation being involved in the process. This all is just no good reason to get rid of hymnals.

    Again, the cons of getting rid of hymnal far outweigh any benefits. And it appears more and more people are recognizing this with the fact that new hymnals are still being produced, even by those with a contemporary bent.

  3. Agreed… but I’m not sure they’re doing it because of the criticism as much as the quality of what is being produced.

    By the way: what would you think about eHymnals? In the tradition of our Karen brethren, they supply their own hymnals, usually carry them along with their Bibles. I have noticed more people using this on their phone or bring in tablets…

    Part of what we’re lamenting and criticizing is the general process of innovation, which does result in some things catching on while others are discarded. Rather than (always) criticizing, perhaps there is benefit to harnessing and re-directing new delivery methods, too?

    By the Way: I, for one, have been glad to be able to introduce older songs (as well as new ones) not in Majesty Hymns without having to justify the expense of purchasing a replacement of something that hasn’t worn out. And I do project four-part notation, using the services of

  4. I am not sure “variety” is something to be prized. If a congregation is constantly singing projected songs, very few of them become staples, thus few will be memorized, whereas a well-used hymnal will get the tunes and words of hundreds into your memory banks. The edification value of hymns is not a momentary thing in a worship service, it is the ability to commit to memory and recall at needed times in the course of daily living, especially in times of trouble.

  5. Greg, yes, I think your way of projecting four part notation is certainly the best way to do it. I still think there’s value in having a book you can carry around with you and have in your homes. That really why we’re publishing a hymnal. Even if no church uses it (several have already indicated they will, but hypothetically), we’d still publish it because it’s just a good thing to do.

    I’m also certainly not opposed to a digital version. We plan to make our hymnal available as a PDF for free download, and maybe I’ll look into the app idea, too, although I have no idea how to do that. :)

    Don, good points.

  6. Don, the way we do “variety” in Marshall is introduce a new song and sing it every Sunday for a month. Sometimes it catches on and becomes part of our repertoire, and other times it fades into obscurity. Sometimes they are newly written songs, other times they have been older but unfamiliar songs to the congregation. The repetition also helps with our non-native English population.

    Just because you project songs doesn’t mean that’s the only way to deliver them to your congregation. There’s no reason you can’t supply paper copies to them in addition, or send pdfs of the lyrics or four parts for singing via email.

    The reality I have found after almost a decade here is I have octogenarians who have grown to love some of the new as much or more than some of the old. I have actively worked to get some of the old discarded, by the way (something that neither Challies article highlights, but is something that does need to happen at least occassionally as much as learning and encouraging new music). If I have been successful in helping someone to love Matt Merker’s new setting of “Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul” more than “in The Garden,” well, it’s been worth it. :D

  7. The church’s charge is for their singing to be “teaching and admonishing one another” through these songs/hymns (Colossians 3:16). It’s seems to me preferable to obey this “one another” command with our heads up (as much as possible), focused on the message of the truth (lyrics) and mindful of the members of the body around us, than with our heads down. I’m not anti-hymnal by any means, but I see more gain than losses with the projection screen. And every time we teach a new hymn, we pass out sheet music to the congregation. It’s easy and cheap to do.

    While you raise a contrasting ideological preference, I don’t as much see a strong theological basis for this preference.

  8. Thanks, Chad. I hear the head up argument all the time, but it doesn’t really match with my experience. I make contact with others in my congregation all the time even though they have a book in front of them. Plus, there is something quite communal about having to share hymnals as well with others in my family and congregation. Plus, how can I point to the words with my finger to help my young children follow along if they’re up on the wall? :)

  9. Fair enough. I can’t dispute your personal experience, and I wouldn’t try to dispute your last objection. Although, I do tend to think that loss is minimized by the fact that slides usually transition frequently enough to have some equivalency to “pointing to the words.”

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