“Turn in your hymnals to page 410. As the congregation stands, let’s sing together, ’When peace like a river attendeth my way. . . .'” (Cue piano/organ interlude.)
This type of rubric was a part of my life from as early as I can remember. I grew up singing from a hymnal. Before overhead projectors, or PowerPoint, or ProPresenter; before fifty-thousand-dollar HD projectors, we sang from hymnals. They sat in groups of twos, huddled around a Bible on the back of church pews. Hymnals served the church well, providing textual and musical help for those gathered to worship in song. I learned much from musical notation, and from the richness of certain texts.
After the Word of God, the hymnal is my favorite book. Hymnals have always been a part of my life, and over the last decade they’ve played a significant role in my spiritual formation. Multiple times a day I read hymns. I keep hymnals in my church office, in my home library, on my nightstand, and on our family piano. From Gadbsy to Rippon, Watts to the Baptist Hymnal 1975, hymnals articulate doctrinal truths and lend vocabulary to stammering tongues. The words cause our hearts to burn, and the melodies cause them to soar. To paraphrase Luther, hymnals are the handmaiden of theology.
As technology has marched on, however, it has chased the hymnal into obscurity. The hymnal didn’t possess the strength of overhead projectors, or the flexibility of the computer. It was no match for the rapid-fire songbook of the local church. In defeat, the hymnal retreated to dusty boxes and hidden bookshelves in dark rooms of church buildings. What once served Christ’s bride so faithfully was dismissed in a charge of iconoclasm.
In a way, I’m saddened the hymnal has mostly disappeared. Hymnals hold devotional and portable aid that the overhead projector cannot contain. This valuable resource was recently the subject of a blog post by Kevin DeYoung. Here, DeYoung presents a summary of Harold Best’s assessment of the benefit of the hymnal. It would be worth a quick read.
Now don’t get me wrong: I’m thankful for the steady stream of new songs the church is singing. We’re commanded to sing a new song (Ps. 96:1). Our song choices, then, must not be based on history or sentimentality, but on biblical faithfulness and edification. Yesterday’s songs aren’t necessarily better than today’s; they’re simply older. Nor are they always “richer;” they’re just written in antiquated English.
But while I tip my hat to new songs, and even throw a few of my own into the church’s expanding “hymnal,” I wonder how hymnals (printed collection of meaningful hymns) might still serve local congregations today. I’m considering ways churches might even bind their hymnals for church members to have a personal collection of the songs they sing in gathered worship. For the foreseeable future, however, finding a hymnal in the back of a pew seems as likely as finding a pew, period. Thankfully, the overhead projector is not coming back either.
What I am confident of is that the church will always have a song to sing. She will continue to gather regularly and ascribe glory to her God, and will do so with new songs. As we continue to shape the hymnal of the future church, may we be mindful of the hymnal of the past. We have much to sing of and proclaim to the coming generations, and we’ve been given a great wealth of hymns from those who have gone before.