The blessing of the demise of the hymnal

January 31, 2012 - By 
Amazing Grace

I’m a big fan of hymnals. In fact, you could say that I casually collect them. If you were to walk into my office and glance at my bookshelves, you would notice what could probably be described as a fairly large collection of them.

Amazing Grace

I grew up singing from hymnals in church. For every song. Without exception. When I went away to Christian college, we nearly exclusively used a hymnal. In my first ministry, the hymnal was the primary source of our congregational worship. Currently, I am serving in a ministry in which the congregation does not use a hymnal. It’s been a breath of fresh air. Here’s why:

It offers greater flexibility. As someone who has been involved with planning the weekly worship services, I’m always looking for new (and old) songs that communicate the truths needed for the hour. I have about three “go-to” hymnals which I prefer, but if I can’t find it in any of those, I have liberty to go to other sources. By displaying the lyrics on the overhead screens, we can build medleys and theme-based sets that provide continuity and seamless transitions. I am not limited to the selections of one hymnal.

Our congregation does sing out better. Loud singing is awesome! There’s something about not looking down, but rather looking up, and not being distracted with singing a part, that aids in vibrant congregational singing.

I know, I know… you feel bad that your congregation won’t be able to sing parts without the music in front of them. Even more egregiously, you feel like you’re contributing to the lack of music education in today’s society. Let’s be honest: when has music education ever been a purpose of congregational singing, or corporate worship, for that matter. Here’s the point: it shouldn’t be. (Dan Kreider has written an excellent article about this point.)

It keeps the main thing the main thing. Frankly, having to flip through the pages of a hymnal can be a distraction for the worshiper. Further, to varying degrees, part-reading can be a distraction as well. Focusing on the words (lyrics) can help us focus on the truths being communicated. And that’s a good thing.

In conclusion, let me back-pedal a little, before I get ostracized by the three of you who haven’t already ostracized me. I like hymnals. I hope they don’t go away. I enjoy occasionally using them for devotional purposes. We have just discovered the value of not using them in corporate worship. Every church is different, and each one gets to make its own call on the issue. I’m just sharing my perspective. I hope it gives you something to think about.

  • James, I have to agree. Our church was thrust into the non-hymnal world abruptly and accidentally. Our brand new church building had a burst sprinkler line in the attic that soaked most of our old hymnals. We haven’t felt compelled enough to replace them because we have three large projections to sing from. I think everyone does sound better by watching the worship leader and choir more. Plus, we stay together better.

    I love singing a part, but I don’t usually need to see the music in order to do this either. I will say that not using written music is frustrating for two reasons: visitors and new songs.

    Last week, my Dad visited church with us and our entire morning service consisted of modern hymns that he had never heard. He had a hard time participating because of that. Also when we try to learn a new hymn, it can be really tough to get that new unexpected ingrained in our heads without seeing the notes.

    Other than that, it’s nice to not have to hold a book while singing!

  • Thanks, Paul. Regarding your two frustrations: (1) When planning our services, I focus on “our people.” While I don’t exclude the fact that visitors will be in attendance (I hope they will), the reality is I’m choosing songs for our congregation. Visitors will never feel 100% comfortable with everything in our service. I’m not trying to say we should make it hard for them–for indeed, we want them to come–but really we want them (especially unbelievers) to see what “we” do (Psalm 40:3). As a visitor becomes a regular attender, they will begin to learn the church’s songs. Another thing: we choose many (majority) familiar songs, and only do a few unfamiliar ones each week.

    (2) There are many ways to effectively teach a song without including the sheet music. Any congregation will “struggle through” the first run-through. That’s okay. Over time they will get it.

  • James, I couldn’t agree with you more. Our church to does sing out alot better and it is just so easy to combine songs and make melodies.

    With regards to Paul’s comment on singing parts to a new tune. When I was in the states last year, the church that I was visiting that Sunday was teaching Chris Andersons’ His Robes For Mine, as a new hymn. The scanned the whole song, score and all, and put that on the overhead! So their is a way to still sing parts if need be.

  • I believe we are missing a huge part of church history by not using the Hymnals. Most of the attendees in a non hymnal using church don’t sing the old hymns or know them, in fact many do not sing at all. Looking up does sound better when singing and as long as you can legally post the music on the walls that would solve many of the problems with harmony. You must admit that the praise songs would sound a lot better if there was a harmony present. Of course the songs would be better if the writers could find more than seven words to sing to a song! A blend of new and old would most always be the best way to approach congregational singing. Why is it usually just new and no old?

  • James,
    Good article. I agree wholeheartedly with your rational. I would give most of your reasons the heading of “advantages of using the screen” instead of “advantages of not using a hymnal.” I know that sounds the same, but we actually use both–simultaneously. Those that wish to use the hymnal may, but everything is on the screen as well. We feel this is kind of a “best of both worlds” approach. Those that benefit from the written music have it available–most just use the screen.

    Since we are a church plant, the songs in our hymnal are new to a lot of people, so we only have to use songs outside our hymnal occasionally to keep things fresh. I’m sure that will change over time.

    One other advantage to the screen–the kids sing better (our elementary age are in the service)! It’s much easier for a 1st grader to read one stanza on the screen than trying to navigate the layout of multiple stanzas in the hymnal.

    Keep up the good work, my friend.

  • Great points, Jeremy. (I have to admit: the title was a little over the top.) At our church, we use both too. We still have some folks who enjoy reading from the hymnal, and we encourage that. It’s also our primary hymnal for orchestrations.

  • Tonight I found reason to appreciate having a hymnal to use – with a stiff neck I could not tilt my head up/back to see the screen without my neck hurting – so I reached for the hymnal … one of those little things you take for granted.

  • Hymnals are an excellent way of teaching people new (or old) hymns they are not familiar with. But your reasons above give good credence to abandoning the week-to-week use of them.

    At Heritage Bible Church (Greer, SC), we use printed orders of worship 98% of the time. When Dr. Cook selects a new song, he introduces it with the text and notes printed in the order of worship, and also has the organist/choir/soloist sing it through first so that the congregation can get to know it before diving in.

    I’m of the persuasion that an undue emphasis has been placed on harmony. (See Kreider’s article.) Love is what is supposed to harmonize us (Colossians 3), not musical notes.

    That being said, I wish more hymnals would go back to the format of having one stanza with notes above, and the other stanzas below. This, I believe, helps a meditator or congregational worshiper to best focus on the text and the truth rather than the notes.

  • Good thoughts, Dustin. I particularly like your thoughts about introducing a song. (I feel another blog post brimming.) Good point about hymnal going back to the older format, although I think the “fault” of people not focused on meditating has little to do with the hymnal format, and more to do with the person.

  • Hello, James. This is the first time I’ve commented, so I first want to express that I appreciate what you do and that I have benefited from your ministry and your blog! I’m not qualified to address the historic/cultural significance of the hymnal trend, but I can speak regarding what’s practical for a church member like me. I don’t consider myself a “music person,” but I have been a willing fill-in pianist at a small church for a long time.

    I’ve struggled with my eyesight for much of my life, so I naturally prefer words up close. I am also very much a visual learner, so I naturally pay more attention to what I see. These are two reasons a hymnal, or at least something with the words printed on it and in my hand, would best aid participation in worship for someone like me.

    I’ve had the great privilege (past and present) to be led in congregational singing by leaders who do all they can to direct worshipers’ corporate attention to God. Maybe I’m just weird, but I believe my most heart-felt corporate worship participation occurs when I have my hymnal or program hugged close and my nose buried in it. When I’m paying careful attention to the words I’m singing—even words I memorized years ago—and not paying much attention to the leader, I think I am a more thoughtful worshiper. I’m actually less distracted from worship. But, there are many other church members not like me.

    I’m certainly not trying to say that I don’t appreciate worship leaders. 🙂 God has used these leaders to teach my husband and me so very much before, during, and after our participation in musical worship. Practically, I know a congregation needs a leader to keep the voices and the instruments together. I sometimes wonder if worship leaders use words on a screen to “minimize distraction” because they think it’s a shortcut to more focused attention in worship. For many worshipers it just might be, but if you look over the congregation and see a near-sighted, visually- (rather than auditory-) inclined church member, with nose buried in hymnal, don’t think I’m not participating. 🙂

  • Great thoughts, Rebecca. And very valid. And you’re right: I don’t think those using hymnals in our primarily screen-driven service are not participating, or that they are being otherwise contradictory. It’s just another option, and for some, a better option.

  • Great article. We have worked through this in my church where I am the lay Music Director. We no longer use a hymnal for the reasons you mentioned. We love the flexibility it provides our church in music selection. We did have some that wanted music so we use a worship guide for our service that contains the weeks announcements, Scripture and the hymn style version of each songs (done in Finale) as well as a section for seom notes. This enables those that want to sing parts that capability without the hymnal expense since we dont have a permanent buidling yet. Additionally, it allows our members to take the service with them and loom back over it throughout the week. I’ve also talked with several of our members that love having the music as they will play them on their pianos at home during the week. Finally for new songs we introduce 1 new (to our congregation, not necessarily new in age) song per month on the first 2 Sunday nights, then add it to the 3rd and 4th Sunday morning services so we work through it for several weeks and learn it really well before it gets into the regular rotation. Thanks again for your article!

  • Hey, James. You’ve stirred up quite a hornet’s nest, evidently. I received several emails over the past couple days asking me to respond to this post. One of our authors has posted something today. A little counterpoint never hurt anyone, right? 🙂

  • Scott: My spirit was not to stir up a hornet’s nest, but I recognized I have done that. Perhaps in hindsight I should have used a different title. Regardless, it’s a perspective. That’s all.

  • Thank you for the different perspectives. There are pros and cons to each view–without writing an even longer note :)Hymnals can be helpful, but they are not the ultimate. I think there are ways to incorporate both. There are great resources for hymnals (people continuing to develop new hymnals) and songs that aren’t contained in them. Just because a song is not contained in a hymnal doesn’t mean that it’s not “good”. There are songs in the hymnal (as well as “new” hymn) that shouldn’t be classified as hymns based on what the Bible describes in Col. 3:16. In our church, we do use powerpoint as well as have hymnals. We use worship guides with the songs from that Sunday for the people to take home with them to use in their devotional times/family worship. The focus should be on what is contained in the songs, not just where they come from. I think congregations can sing out just as much whether they use powerpoint or hymnals. I think Christians (as a whole) need much teaching on what it means to sing from the heart and the purpose of why we sing–the ultimate desire/result should be to glorify God!!

  • James-

    I am not trying to add to the “hornet’s nest” that Scott Aniol mentioned, but I believe your article completely misses the purpose of congregational singing.

    Michael Raiter nailed this down in his article called “The Slow Death of Congregational Singing.” He tells of visiting a church and commenting to the friend who invited him there that “No one is singing.” His friend replied, “Of course they’re not singing; We haven’t really sung here in years.” Putting the words of the songs on a screen has contributed to this pathetic state of affairs that is so common today. We have substituted “worship leaders” with microphones and loud artificial volume that covers up the basic problem that the people are not really singing.

    Congregational singing should be the center of any church music program since it reveals the spiritual temperature of a church and its vision of who God is and what He demands of His people. Part of our responsibility as music ministers is to educate our congregation concerning what it means to worship the Lord together. God is our audience and we, both the music leaders and the people, are accountable to Him for the quality of our singing as a congregation.

    Your question: “when has music education ever been the purpose of congregational singing?” demonstrates your own lack of knowledge of the history of Bible-believing churches. A study of that history shows that teaching congregations to sing has been done for more than 450 years. Martin Luther (1483-1546) wrote hymns for congregations to sing and taught them to the people, not to choirs and “worship leaders.” In fact, Luther’s critics said “the PEOPLE were singing themselves into the Lutheran doctrine.” They did this by teaching the people how to sing hymns with the music, not Gregorian Chant, which was not sung by the congregation.

    J. S. Bach, (1685-1750) probably “the greatest musician of all time” included chorales for the congregation to sing in all of his works, including the St. John Passion and The St. Matthew Passion. Any study of Bach’s life reveals the fact that a great deal of his time was spent in teaching as well as composing. A casual perusal of his chorales reveals that Bach must have believed that good congregational singing requires a proficient congregation that can answer the action of the moment in the Biblical drama by singing such chorales as “O Sacred Head Now wounded.” Chorales such as these are too difficult for the average congregation to sing today.

    The American Great Awakening from 1726 to 1741 was called both a spiritual and congregational singing awakening. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), who was considered to be “America’s Greatest Theologian” encouraged the singing of congregational hymns so that “sinners were brought out of darkness with a new song of praise to God in their mouths.” He, along with George Whitfield (1714-1770) and Timothy Dwight (1752-1817) the president of Yale, were the ones who by their teaching and writing “the singing of congregational hymns became widespread in America.”

    Recent history also reveals many men, both preachers and musicians, who have emphasized educating congregations to sing praise to the Lord. These would include Henry Halley who wrote his Bible Handbook in which he said: “WHY NOT TURN THE WHOLE CONGREGATION INTO A CHOIR?” (capitalization Halley’s). This Bible scholar also said: “I would rather be able to teach people to sing, and to lead congregations in singing the dear old hymns of the church, than to do anything else in the world; and if I were young again, I would go the limit in preparing myself for that profession.” Musicians like Ira Sankey (Dwight L. Moody), Charles Alexander (R.A. Torrey and Wilbur Chapman), Homer Rodeheaver (Billy Sunday), have followed in the footsteps of Lowell Mason and William Bradbury in compiling hymnbooks and holding “music schools” to teach people how to read music for the purpose of developing great congregational singing.

    Even Donald Hustad in his book Jubilate says that “We are a people of two books, the Bible and the hymnal.” A reading of Chapter 14 of Dr. Hustad’s book will give great insight into the importance of educating the people of God concerning the relationship of teaching congregations how to sing for the Lord and the spirit of a church.

    I was the minister of music in one church for 27 years where we even had “congregational rehearsals” and did special arrangements that I wrote for the congregation that numbered 2500 people. I periodically held music-reading classes that always improved the singing of both our congregation and choir, and we memorized hymns so that no one even needed to open a hymnal to be able to sing at least 35 to 40 hymns in parts. Anyone who attended our church during those years would testify of the blessing they received from being a part of exciting, vibrant, congregational singing that exalted the Lord we love. “The demise of the hymnal” would have made that kind of congregational singing impossible.

  • I can appreciate both sides of this argument. Though I side with James, I appreciate Scott’s article because it presents opinions but does not try to elevate those opinions unreasonably or judge others by those standards.

    I can’t say the same for Frank Garlock’s post. Over-the top rhetoric like “demonstrates your own lack of knowledge of the history of Bible-believing churches” is a sure way to slam doors on meaningful discussion.

  • Dear Frank Garlock,

    Thank you for writing. I have a lot of respect for you. Your contributions to church music have been numerous, and you have influenced countless ministries. I have to admit: that you would even nod at my website is either humbling or horrifying, I can’t really decide which. No doubt, you have a “dog in the race” (being a hymnal publisher yourself), so I certainly understand your intensity and thoroughness (and length!). I resonate with much of what you said, but since this is a public forum, I’ll go ahead and address some of your points.

    Regarding missing “the purpose of congregational singing,” I would agree with you. My goal was not to outline the purpose of congregational singing. My purpose was to provide the benefits of using screens compared to using a hymnal in corporate worship. (To be fair, you did little in your comment to identify the purpose of congregational singing.)

    Regarding the comment about Michael Raiter, I’m sorry he has a friend who’s church doesn’t sing out. To be sure, that is sad. But the same can be said about some churches that use hymnals. I don’t see how you can pin the blame on lyrics on screens. My experience is different than Raiter’s. We use screens, and our congregational singing is vibrant, lively, and heart-felt. If anything, I would argue that screens have helped with our singing. (Doesn’t it all come down to the hearts of the worshipers, anyway? I believe our corporate worship is just an outflow of our individual walks with God. A church that doesn’t sing has heart problems, not hymnal problems.)

    Regarding demonstrating my “own lack of knowledge regarding the history of Bible-believing churches,” you got me, there. I’m no expert on that! After even a casual reading of this blog, you would know that I don’t claim to be an expert at all. I’m just a man “in the trenches,” seeking to be used of God, and learning along the way. When it comes to reaching souls and teaching truth (the business of the church), admittedly, church history and tradition are not among my top considerations.

    I can identify with the nostalgia you put forth in your last paragraph. During college I attended a church that had vibrant congregational singing. They used the hymnal, and they (the congregation) sang in beautiful four part harmony. I had never heard anything like it before, and it was truly godly worship. To them I say: Keep it up. Don’t change it if it ain’t broke. But I know of pastors and church music leaders who are thinking through these things. I offered this post to provide a perspective. I don’t think it’s a right or wrong issue; I’m sure we disagree on this point.

    PS: Thanks for including one of my songs in your latest hymnal.

  • Thank you for your reply to my comment. I agree that the basic problem is one of the heart and not the hymnal and I love to hear your church sing. I just believe that the limitations that are imposed by not using hymnals far outweigh any problems that come from using them.

    By the way, I am sorry that i inappropriately used the word “ignorance” in my comment to you. I should have been positive and mentioned the blessings that come from studying what church musicians have done in the past.

    In another area, I am currently reading a fascinating book that I think you would find interesting. It is called “The Power of Music” by Elena Mannes, and it cites a lot of the current research about how our brains process music.

    May the Lord bless you in the important ministry of music to which the Lord has called us.

    Singing His Praises,

    Frank Garlock

  • This is a topic I’m torn on. Out here in the PNW, the screen seems to be the preferred method of interaction, and contrary to many of the comments, the churches we’ve visited actually have MUCH more singing when the screen is used than with the traditional hymnals. On the flip side, having the music background my wife and I do, we prefer to have the music in front of us so that we can actually follow along and sing parts when desired.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the comment that this is neither a right nor wrong thing, but it is two completely acceptable presentations of worship participation that need to be geared toward the congregation appropriately, too!

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