I can honestly say that for most of my adult life I’ve hated the Hymn book. I was a child of the Passion movement that was mostly interested in passionate modern worship. I loved the drums, the guitars, and the synths! And still do! I didn’t need a book to worship and wasn’t interested in singing “old songs”. The perceived rigidness and formality of a hymnbook really turned me off.
Another turn off was the fact that in many churches, the hymnal sits in the back of the pew right next to the Bible. And this proximity has led many to place it on a shelf “right below” God’s Word. No one would say it was the Bible, but in many churches it’s as close as you can get. This “exalted” status is not only unbiblical, but some have even called it idol worship. This close “affiliation” with the Bible has led to much conflict in churches that still hold it in too high esteem.
Recently though, I’ve been ministering as an interim worship pastor at a more traditional church with a good ministry friend of mine. At the request of the congregation, I needed to sing at least 2 songs out of the hymnal each service. At first, I wasn’t sure I could even do this, and sometimes I’m still not sure I do it well. Six months later, I’ve managed to grow into it, but I’ve also found that in doing so I’ve come to appreciate the hymnal once again for what it was truly designed to be, which is a “Guide for Worship.” I would like to share 5 things I love and 3 I still don’t like about the hymnal and why…
5 Things I’ve learned to love about the hymnbook:
- The Keys
- You know that cool new worship song where they sing in a low octave and then an octave higher? Yea, most people can’t sing that. In fact, most people don’t even think they can sing period, much less sing well. Picking the right key to a worship song can help put people at ease and makes songs easier for “normal” people to sing. Looking for a good congregational key, look in a hymnal. There’s also some great harmonies in there too.
- The Groupings
- Imagine how much work it would be to tag all the songs in your worship planning software? Sounds like a fun day in the office, right? Yea, most hymnals have this already done. Hymnals usually group songs by topic, so whether it’s Christmas songs, songs about the Holy Spirit, songs about family, missions, or almost anything else, a hymnal can help you find those.
- The Readings
- Remember that time when the pastor asked you to read a passage before that one song? And remember how you flipped and flipped trying to find the right verse? Well most hymnals have a scripture that applies right at the top under the title. Plus there is usually a heading page with a topical scripture reading on it too.
- The Indexes
- Take a second to flip to the back of almost any hymnal and you’ll find the indexes. These indexes are the result of serious time and effort and are often overlooked. People spent a lot of time creating them, so whether you’re looking for a song by subject, tempo, rhythm, author, or pretty much anything else, someone’s already done the hard work for you. Now imagine a fun month or more doing that for all the songs in your worship planning software. 🙁
- The Extras
- If you might find yourself at a more reformed or liturgical church that enjoys doing responsive readings or benedictions, most hymnals have you covered. Of course you could try Googling “responsive readings” and sort through pages and pages of not useful stuff, or spend about an hour or two trying to come up with one yourself. Did I mention they are indexed in the back too?
Now comes the other side of the coin, it’s not all roses over there in hymnal land. I still have my beefs. So let’s talk about those too…
3 Things I still don’t appreciate about the hymnbook:
- The Rigidity
- As with any sheet music, it can dampen your ability to “go with the spirit”. And if you use it as your only source for worship music, it also keeps you from exploring other arrangements/versions of classic songs. The constant meter can and does make me miss a more open style of worship.
- The Formality
- The picture of holding hymn book during worship carries a more formal “old-fashioned” connotation. It will paint a picture to a visitor that comes to your church. For some it might even cause them to run away in terror, like I would have done some years ago. But I can tell you that a singing congregation does make a positive impression.
- The Inherent Limitations
- If all you use is the hymnal, then it is extremely limiting. Tying yourself down to one version/publication of a hymnal greatly limits your song selection and excludes any modern music, which I couldn’t live without. Also, It’s not geared for guitar led worship. I was a music minor in college, specifically in piano performance. But now I only play acoustic guitar during worship, and If you don’t have a pianist in your band there are just some hymns you can’t pull off, or at least pull off well. The fact is that the hymnal wasn’t written for guitar, it was written for piano and vocals. Where as most modern music is written to be led by guitar.
As more and more churches take a pause from the continuous Nashville hit music machine, hymns are making a comeback. New styles and arrangements have breathed new life into these classic songs. It’s hard to deny the strong connection with Christian heritage that these songs can evoke. I’m a firm believer that the reality forward is both/and and not either/or, and that a good more well rounded worship repertoire of hymns, modern, and others, can lead to a more diverse and inclusive church body.
I hope some of this has given you a little pause about completely dismissing the hymnal all together. There are still some great timeless songs in there that still ring true in the hearts of all believers, and some things in there that make it a very useful tool for worship. Sometimes it’s all about perspective. You could just think about it like that “New” SNES Classic you may have been gifted for Christmas. Sure it’s a little “old-fashioned”, but sometimes a good throwback can be a lot of fun!
Wesley Lewis is the Creative Director of One Eighty Digital. He also has years of experience as a pastor, worship leader, and is just an all-around great guy.