In Defense of the Forgotten Hymnal

15 08 2009

Over at iMonk, Michael Spencer has started a series of posts on the “Evangelical Liturgy,”  where he explores in-depth all of the different aspects that come together to create a worship service.  Today’s entry, “The Toolbox,” looks at the resources that guide our worship.  He lists 9 tools: the Bible, the hymnal, creeds & confessions, worship books & directories, congregationally developed resources, the church covenant, the Christian year, the lectionary, and common musical responses.

I have to admit, my gut reaction was: doesn’t that seem a little, well, liturgical?  I would go as far as to assume that all worship services can stand to benefit from using certain liturgical practices in certain contexts, but to use all of them at once?  How could you have anything except a traditional, ritualistic worship service?

Some of the commentors agreed with me, or at least agreed with my starting place: contemporary worship.  One asked:

“Please clarify – when you refer to the “hymnal”, are you referring to a collection of the hymns themselves, or are you also referring the format of binding them all in a book, with musical notes, for people to hold while they sing? Is the format itself important?
In other words, if a church sang those same hymns perhaps using some aids other than a hymnbook (overhead projection, or maybe just memory), would you deem that sufficient for the liturgical toolbox?”

Spencer’s reply:

“People asking if we can project the hymnal: Yes, but you will get far fewer benefits. Why don’t we just project the Bible and everyone can avoid actually having one. Then their hands will be free to twitter the sermon :-) No, seriously. Let people have a book in their hands if they want. Teach the music. Let them browse the indices so they don’t say things like all the hymns are the last 140 years. Let them read the small print and the liturgical resources.”


“You can read the texts.
You can read the indices.
You can see the scriptures that go with the songs.
You can learn to sing and to read music. (I did.)
You can learn the composers and writers.
You can discover there are Catholics in your Baptist hymnal.
You can discover cultural diversity.
You can discover history.”

That hit hard.  I grew up attending a traditional worship service with my family and actually remember when I resisted the impulse to move into “contemporary” worship.  (The change only happened when I began playing violin with the band and discovering the art of improvisation.  For me,  then, making music became one form of authentic worship.)

But… I grew up on liturgy.  I sat next to my grandparents, who looked ahead in their bulletin and opened the hymnal to the page of the next song.  And I spent many services thumbing through that hymnal and discovering how it worked.  As a budding classical musician, I was so excited to find out that Felix Mendelssohn wrote the tune for “Hark!  The Herald Angels Sing” or that “Be Still, My Soul” is based on the melody of “Finlandia.”  (To this day, it remains one of my favorite hymns for that very reason).  After learning about the forefathers of our faith in Sunday School, I started noticing hymns like “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown” and “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” written by Charles Wesley and Martin Luther, respectively.  I appreciated and memorized the creeds in the back of the hymnal.  I played games in the index.

And because of this, I think I have developed a deep appreciation for all forms of worship music.  Although we are seeking out a “contemporary” worship service in our current church search, it saddens me to think that as a church, we could lose the collective memory that is contained within these hymns.  iMonk is more blunt:

“We are nothing short of idiots for getting rid of them [hymnals], and I choose that word carefully. Who in the world decided that we would throw out two thousands years of worship because it didn’t fit in with our current plan to sound like the secular music of the last 40 years? Good grief, what a demolition job this has been. I know a lot of young people “like” the new music, but we have a responsibility to those who came before us, not to prefer or like what they did as much as they did, but to use it with respect and honor for the value that is in it. Handing the entire musical and lyrical heritage of two millenia of Christianity over to a “worship leader” to be eradicated in favor of contemporary music only is insane.”

Just as I received a Bible from my church when I began third grade, I received a hymnal when I graduated from high school.  What a gift, and precious resource, it has been for me!  I don’t read it everyday, but it stays on my bookshelf and is used more often than you might think.  Although having children is definitely a prospect for the far-away future, I do hope that, no matter what kind of church we attend, I can still teach them some of these songs of the faith.

Now, I’m not saying that the hymnal is perfect (and maybe we need a hymnal that includes BOTH new and old).  Nor am I saying that worship bands should only sing outdated hymns–although I do think we could do better in that respect.   The song itself is the same whether played with an organ or with an electric guitar.  But even the most hymn-conscious worship leaders tend to stick to the “safe” songs, like “How Great Thou Art” and “It is Well With My Soul,” and even then, they only play the most well-known verses.  (My personal pet peeve is when they leave out the “When we’ve been there ten thousand years…” verse of “Amazing Grace”)

But it’s not just about adding them to the musical repertoire.  We can learn from not just the melody of these hymns but also from their message and history.  (Don’t believe me? Read this fascinating history of “Jesus loves me”!!)  If we can base entire sermons around songs by U2, why not around “Holy, Holy, Holy,” as well?  And how much richer would our “toolbox” be if we regularly drew upon the entire 2000-year liturgical history of Christendom?

Whew!  Who knew I was so passionate about hymns?

Update (8/22/09): If you want to read more about the hymnal at iMonk, read his newer post “The Hymnal,” in which he calls upon a panel of experts from varying religious traditions to unpack the role of the hymnal.



2 responses

16 08 2009

I totally agree! While different kinds of music speaks to different kinds of people in different ways, all are valid and worth experiencing. There is something very comforting about knowing that there is a written collection of something—whether it be songs, scripture or even letters home—that can be referred to and studied, and passed to future generations. Somehow a “google search” doesn’t seem to hold the same kind of permanence and lasting influence.

22 08 2009

Wonderful comment by iMonk, and I completely agree. That is why I’ve spent many years of my adult life studying and writing about our hymnody. For my weekly newspaper column, I’ve written about more than 600 so far. And I expect my daily blog, Wordwise Hymns, will eventually deal with many more than that.

A song is not necessarily better because it’s old, or worse because it’s new. But our Christian hymns are part of our heritage, and they must not be abandoned on the basis of some misguided notion that it is a sin to use anything that wasn’t written the day before yesterday. (Anyway, don’t get me started!)

You mention that the tune for “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” comes from Mendelssohn (a born again Christian, by the way). You are right. He composed the melody for a cantata, and said at the time that he thought it was destined for greater things. But, interestingly, he didn’t think it would be suitable for a hymn!

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