A couple days ago I read a blog post from Tim Challies called, “What We Lost When We Lost Our Hymnals.” Mr. Challies is quick to point out that he is not advocating a return to hymnals, but wants us to consider what happens when we switch media in the church. With no malice or animosity, I wanted to take a brief moment to respond to his article. He writes:
We lost an established body of songs. Hymnals communicated that a church had an established collection of songs. This, in turn, communicated that its songs were vetted carefully and added to its repertoire only after careful consideration. After all, great songs are not written every day and their worth is proven only over time.
True, a book of songs is quite restrictive on a congregation’s musical repertoire. The idea that all of the songs in a given hymnal were vetted carefully and after careful consideration is not quite true. Have you ever gone through a hymnal? I have. I have a copy of the hymnal my church used when I was growing up. And lemme tell ya, THEY AREN’T ALL GEMS!
Sure, there are the greats that we all know and love. But my 50 year old hymnal has 504 songs! That means that, within our musical canon, there was a functional canon of songs we always did and songs that we NEVER did. Many of those we never did are not great music. they aren’t memorable nor are they especially inspired. I’m not even going to mention the patriotic songs that wound up in many hymnals. 😦
Finally, the Bible never calls us to an “established” body of songs. Psalm 96 encourages us:
Oh sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth!
SOMEONE’S gotta write the new songs. And when the Apostle encourages us to singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, there’s no mention of the old standards which were appropriate for use. Since God is a Living God who is actively involved in the lives of believers, it seems perfectly normal that our worship can reflect what God is doing here and now. Hymns of old? Great! Songs extolling the ongoing work of God in the world? Wonderful!
Mr. Challies continues:
We lost a deep knowledge of our songs. When we removed the hymnal, we gained the ability to add new songs to our repertoire whenever we encounter one we deem worthy. This reduces our familiarity with our songs so that today we have far fewer of them fixed in our minds and hearts.
Sure, we don’t remember the songs of old any more. But they aren’t Scripture – there’s nothing sacred about one generation’s worship music. There are powerful songs written today that are rich with good theology and musicality. They aren’t any less wonderful just because they were written 150 years too late. This kind of ageism says that “older is better” when it isn’t. Older is older. We venerate the songs that were powerful when we had a tremendous religious experience and we look down on songs from other people’s experience. But radio, Spotify, YouTube, and iTunes has give people a wide variety of options to fix wonderful music in our minds and hearts.
We lost the ability to do harmonies. Hymnody grew up at a time when instrumentation took a back seat to the voice. Hymns were most often written so they could be sung a cappella or with minimal instrumentation. For that reason, hymnals almost invariably included the music for both melody and harmonies and congregations learned to sing the parts. The loss of the hymnal and the associated rise of the worship band has reduced our ability to harmonize and, in that way, to sing to the fullest of our abilities.
Okay, this is just bunk. I’ve been part of hymnal-using churches, and some of them were simply awful with no ability to harmonize. Since most people cannot read music, having notated music means nothing. Churches that utilized hymnals would have a couple people who could harmonize, and others would follow the examples of others to learn voice parts.
This can STILL happen with worship bands. Many modern worship bands have 2-3 part harmonies. People in the church simply have to follow the vocalist that fits their range. But please continue, Mr. Challies.
We lost the ability to sing skillfully. As congregations have lost their knowledge of their songs, they have lost the ability to sing them well. We tend to compensate for our poorly-sung songs by cranking up the volume of the musical accompaniment.
Again, just because a church uses a hymnal does not mean anything about the skill and ability of the church. I know of many worship bands that spend a lot of time practicing so that they can be skillful and lead people skillfully. Perhaps Mr. Challies hasn’t spent enough time with the hymnal-using churches that sound like dying cats, but trust me – they’re out there!
We lost the ability to have the songs in our homes. Hymnals usually lived at the church, resting from Monday to Saturday in the little pockets on the back of the pews. But people also bought their own and took them home so the family could have that established body of songs there as well. Families would often sing together as part of their family worship. It is easy to imagine a family singing “It Is Well With My Soul” after eating dinner together, but almost impossible to imagine them singing, “Oceans.”
Ah, there it is – the crack against “Oceans.” It seems to be a common theme among Reformed believers. This comes across and being petty and merely personal opinion. I know for a fact that families can sing “Oceans” together because I have witnessed my wife doing it with our children. We utilize Spotify and YouTube to bring worship music into the house. Our kids are growing up around it, and the music they hear at the church is reflected in the home. The issues is not so much about hymnals versus modern media as it is about Christian parenting, and it’s less than honest to blame media for parenting failure.
Mr. Challies finishes his article with this line:
That little change from book to screen changed nearly everything.
I really don’t think it did. Before the PowerPoint revolution, churches decades ago made the switch from hymnal to using overhead projectors and transparency pages.
The hymns of old and the “new” choruses of the 70s-80s were printed on the overhead transparencies and one poor soul was designated to change the overheads, making sure to slide the page up or down so that the words were never cut off! HAHA – good times! And people complained then. I heard one octogenarian refer to the choruses from the 80s as “ding-dong-ditties.” HE HATED THEM! But people have always been complaining against new songs and media in worship.
But isn’t God bigger than a hymnal? Isn’t God bigger than your favorite 150 year old song (that used to be one of them new-fangled worship songs all those kids are singing)? Instead of lamenting the loss of old forms of worship, let’s embrace new ways to worship an unchanging God.
How about you? What’s your favorite hymn? What’s your favorite non-hymn worship song?
18 Replies to “Hymnals? We don’t need no stinkin’ hymnals!”
Great post….I think I am very like minded with you on this topic, sharing a common background and experiences. Thanks for writing!!
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Thanks for reading!
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Great post. I’m gonna link to it from my blog!
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This is an octogenarian that enjoyed both sides of this discussion! I just plain love worship music —some old and some new!! I don’t “get” all of either genre. Lets just keep raising our voices in joyful adoration of the living God,who lives within each of us!! Thanks,Chris ,for another thoughtful discussion!!! Keep up your great work!!
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Thanks, my dear!
Two of the oldest hymns ever discovered were the Oxyrhynchus hymn and Phos Hilaron both from the 3rd or 4th century; by and large, every single ancient hymn from thousands of years ago has been lost to time.
I just read an article talking about a crisis in church worship music: there are fewer organists than ever before, fewer people are learning how to play them and that means many church organs are collecting dust.
But the main body of hymns is roughly 200 years old; with the exception of Gaither music which somehow wormed it’s way into the more recent versions of hymnals.
Ultimately, we’re all different and we all respond differently to music itself. There’s no one size fits all approach to worship. God gets honored when a teenage kid plays his electric guitar skillfully to glorify His name, when a vocalist lifts up His name in song, when an elderly piano player bears the pain of arthritis in her fingers to create a hymn melody.
One thing you can’t do is just assume that others have had pretty much the same experiences you have had when it comes to music. When my dad was a kid in school, there was a heavy emphasis on singing. By the time I was in school, singing had been left up to the churches – who were so busy they left the singing up to the schools. So when I see those lines and symbols on a sheet of music, it doesn’t mean much of anything to me. On most Sundays, I just don’t bother with singing hymns and stick with my MP3 player to lift me up with music that I do know.
If I had to be stuck with a hymn: “Amazing Grace” only when sung to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun” and “Marvelous Light”; though I’ve been out of the loop with the contemporary music being stuck where it’s all hymns all the time, so I don’t know what else is out there.
I’m young-ish (29) and I love Hymns. I didn’t grow up in a church with them either. It is well with my soul, Amazing Grace, In Christ Alone, Be Thou My Vision, I need Thee, etc…yes please! But I will say that I love contemporary music as well. It has to be a. A balance. One can’t be stuck in the past or in the present. You have to be lead where the Spirit takes you. For example, we generally don’t do hymns on a normal basis at our church (mostly contemporary) but last week the Pastor (spontaneously) felt we should all sing Amazing Grace together. IT WAS POWERFUL! But it also wasn’t forced. We were led! Be Led, not by your preferences, but by the Spirit!
My post wasn’t about song choice as much as it was the media we use to carry the song.
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I just heard Tim Challies give a seminar this past weekend, on Technology and the Christian Life.
How was it?
It was great, Chris. I’d only ever heard of him a few months ago, a pastor friend knew him or of him. He came to his church for Friday night and Saturday. Quite interesting.
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Ir was quite god. He spoke on the Christian’s relationship to the internet and how to protect our children n famiies
You mentioned the author’s ‘crack’ against the song Oceans. Yet you referred to another of his comments as ‘bunk,’ hymnal using churches sounding like ‘dying cats,’ and ‘Octogenarians.’
I’m a senior citizen and pretty open minded about people’s music preferences. I would love to attend your church and listen to you lead us in Oceans, but it might take some mental discipline to set aside your somewhat harsh opinion of me and others of my generation – before I could ‘worship’ with you – knowing what you truly think of us.
Then you misunderstood what I wrote. I didn’t say all hymnal using churches sounded like that – only that using hymnals doesn’t guarantee a great sounding church. And octogenarian is not an insult – it’s a description of someone in his eighties.