Death of the Hymnal? Why Are Churches Beginning to Phase Out the Use of Hymnals in Modern Worship?

This is a post from the trio of writers at Church Music Today.


In 2008, Lifeway put out its first hymnal in over 17 years.  I know many worship leaders were excited about the new lineup of songs and arrangements.  The fact of the matter is that the hymnal was outdated shortly after it was printed.  Lifeway did a lot to try to make this a great resource and for that they should be commended.  In fact, they produced TWO hymnals: The Baptist Hymnal and The Worship Hymnal.  Learn more about them both here.  Moreover, they employed many online resources with varying arrangements, and new songs were continually being added to the mix.  However, for me, it just doesn’t have the staying power.  Online resources like SongSelect are much more useful, efficient, and cost-effective for my situation.  The real market for hymnals today seems to be the more traditional church or small/rural church with limited musicians and resources.

We, at Church Music Today, complied our opinions to weigh in on the usefulness of hymnals (the books themselves) in modern worship.  Check out our feedback below and weigh in on the post by sharing a comment!

(from Zach…)

Benefits to Hymnals

  • Hymnals help people learn to read music.  There is a whole generation that has no idea how to read music or sing a melody / harmony off a page.  As many of us grew up only knowing hymnals, this generation has grown up knowing only lyrical projection.  Older generations could at the very least follow the notes up and down the staff, even if they didn’t know how to read music.  As a by-product to lyrical projection, our congregations are now almost entirely unison singers.  Only the most skilled singers will attempt to sing harmony.
  • Hymnals are good for teaching.  Having a physical copy in the hands of your choir / congregation can allow for times of sharing the biblical meaning of the lyrics.  Many hymns deal with complex themes and worship leaders (myself included) should not take for granted that our congregations understand what they are singing.
  • Hymnals are more useful in churches with “classically-trained” musicians.  If your church still employs the traditional piano / organ lineup then you may find hymnals an invaluable resource.  However, the landscape is moving toward “ear-trained” musicians.  Most of the music written over the last 20-30 years for worship music is guitar / band driven, rendering hymnals nearly obsolete.
  • Hymnals “can” be a good long-term investment in the music ministry of the church.  In 2008, I made a little push for our congregation to get the new 2008 Baptist Hymnal.  Long-term investment was my argument.  I have since changed my stance.  Our church didn’t see it as a real need, especially since we never use the hymnals we have.  I purchase the accompanist edition for our piano / organ players and a couple more for our praise team.  At this point, I can see a million better ways to spend $5000 of the church’s money to make an impact for the kingdom than buying 400 new hymnals.  If your church has great resources and is being faithful to give toward the right things, it could be a good investment.

Drawbacks to Hymnals

  • Hymnals are not practical in the 21st Century.  We are a tech-savvy, visual society.  Our churches are not going to stop using lyrical projection so why not invest in projections, software, and computers to enhance our worship rather than hymnals?
  • Hymnals are not flexible.  The arrangements are simple and do not allow for much variation.
  • Hymnals are quickly outdated.  The very moment a hymnal is printed, there are new songs written that are not in it.  Lifeway has tried to alleviate this problem in their recent worship project but can they compete with other resources like CCLI SongSelect?  Lifeway charts cost $$ for everything.  SongSelect is a flat fee that provides unlimited charts, lead sheets, lyrics, and hymn sheets.
  • Hymnals are considered “traditional.”  Like it or not, hymnals have a stigma / an association of being old-school or part of the past.  While this is not a reason to throw something out, the church worship landscape is changing and will continue to change.  Most churches that are making a great impact on their community have employed at the very least a “blended worship” style.  Many are even more progressive than that.
  • Hymnals are losing their usefulness.  The market for hymnals is narrowing.  Worship leaders will probably always have a place for a hymnal in their planning.  Or maybe not?  Who knows?  I’m not sure, but the demand for hymnals is waning and I predict fewer will be printed in the years to come.

Further reflections from the other guy . . .(from John)

I think Zach has done well in outlining the pros and cons of continuing hymnal usage in the evangelical church–I have little to add to his points.    What I will share are some random musings:

I find it ironic that we have come full circle in our worship practices.   Several hundred years ago, worshipers would have been completely visually and aurally oriented because most could not read.   The stained glass windows helped them learn biblical stories, and the imitative and repetitive musical forms helped them sing the unison tunes without any musical training.    In the physical response (kneeling, gesture, etc.) and leader-centered liturgy, the people were invited to both observe and participate in the drama of worship–but not necessarily to think about it.  The advent of printing, the translation of scripture into accessible languages, the inclusion (over some resistance) of harmony and countermelody, and the increase of literacy meant that more and more congregants could read both scripture and song for themselves–could hold the Bible and the hymnal in their hands.   This of course contributed to independent thinking, reformation, division, theological controversy, and people staking for themselves new ways to worship–including no longer holding the hymnal in their hands.    Which means they could again physically respond to the drama of worship.   And here we are again.

But being an independent thinker myself, I treasure the capacity to dwell on the scripture and the song text as the Spirit guides me into truth.   So I am a little leery of being totally at the mercy of the video operator (or preacher, for that matter) when it comes to assimilating truth whether spoken or sung.   We would all rebel at the notion of not being able to hold and read and ponder our own Bibles.   But there is no question that for a growing number of evangelical churches, the hymnal is no longer deemed necessary to express our faith and theology in worship.

So why do they keep publishing these supposed relics of another era?   Perhaps there is still a strong market among churches that continue to embrace the use of hymns and traditional instrumental accompaniment.   Perhaps they recognize that there will always be those who enjoy the tactile sense of holding a book in hand, and being able to dwell on a text beyond the length of time the pixels flicker on the screen.   Or maybe they just think there are still thousands of pew racks that need something in them and countless uneven table legs that need leveling.   (I would have mentioned filmstrip projectors that need elevating but that really would date me).

But if they were to ask me, this would be my advice for the publishers:

Publish hymnals with hymns.   Reducing choruses to hymnal arrangements usually results in bland, unappetizing musical mush.   As Zach rightfully indicated, both the availability and usefulness of choruses from other sources is much greater.    Use time-tested hymns, proven newer hymns (i.e., Getty, Townend, etc.), rousing gospel songs, and avoid the temptation to be on the cutting edge with lots of new, untested material.   We have places to get that.  Recognize that most new hymns are not introduced to congregations through hymnals, but in their use by performing groups either within or outside the church.

When you do introduce a new hymn, make sure it’s musically accessible.   I have seen many a great text wasted with an unsingable melody.

And I wonder if there would be a market for some abridged, low-cost hymnals for churches to use as supplements.   This would help in the preservation both of the theological substance and musical art that the hymns represent, and would not require such a huge financial investment.

What troubles me more than anything else about this discussion is the prevalence of the “market” as a driving force.   I am realistic enough to know this is inevitable–and understand that market can mean just the felt and expressed needs of worship leaders and their congregations.  No harm in trying to meet those needs.   But I do have a hard time reconciling market-driven church with the call to sacrificial discipleship–just as we in the church have a hard time growing from consumers of religious entertainment to committed followers of Christ.   So perhaps those publishers still cranking out hymnals in the face of declining market share are doing us a favor.   They remind us that value is not determined by popularity alone.   And that it might do us all some good to occasionally dust off some hymnals and allow the harmony that God created to be the vessel of the truth that He authored.

(from Dennis…)

Where do I begin?  My amazing blog contributors have done a great job collecting thoughts on where the future of the hymnal lies.  I believe the best thing for me to do is to look at this issue from the perspective of the congregation.

In the view from the pew, the congregation has been commanded to sing.

Psalm 96:1 Sing unto the Lord a new song…

But, more specifically, what have they been commanded to sing?

Colossians 3:16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.

There are members of my congregation who genuinely care about singing.  Some, are more concerned with style over substance (preference over purpose), that is just called human nature.  Many cannot help but compare and prefer one things over another.

Other congregations members could care less about whether or not the song came out of a hymnal, supplement, Praise & Worship publication, Internet, or was written in-house.  They just have a desire to sing.

The bottom-line from this perspective is that hymnals are not needed for worship.  Neither are pulpits, platforms, choir lofts, or the church building itself.  Extreme thought?  Not really.  The church building itself really took off in Kentucky in the 1950-1970 range and has become an idol in some people’s eyes.  And, everything within the building has become a part of that idol.

  • Choir Rails
  • Pulpit
  • Choir Robes
  • Communion Tables
  • Chairs for the Pastor to sit in
  • Flags
  • Hymnals

In reality, we don’t need any of those things to worship.  We need the Holy Spirit.

Hymnals aren’t needed for worship, but they are excellent tool to teach, evangelize, and so on as our contributors have outlined for us above.  The biggest responsibility we have as a leader in worship is to sing Biblical songs.  In 1975, 1991, and then 2008 did everything that LifeWay publish in their hymnals need to be put in there?  Did each song have a singable melody?  Was everything backed scripturally or was it loosely based on a portion of text?  John hit it right on the head when he wrote about the ministries being marketed-based.   Would it be too much to say that LifeWay itself is partially responsible for the issue of Southern Baptist “worship wars”?  My thinking is “yes” because the church was so dependent on the hymnals for generations that when nothing new came out for seventeen years….it made the 1991 hymnal irreplaceable in many’s eyes.  We’re talkin’ SEVENTEEN years!  Think about all the great hymnody and music to come out in that time frame.  Music leaders were fighting a battle to sing that Bible-based music that wasn’t in the hymnal.  That produced immediate conflict when leaders began adding words into the bulletin, inserts, and then later, on the screen.

Note the word “partially” when speaking about LifeWay.  We aren’t bashing LifeWay at all.  There are many contributors to the squabbles and arguments on music in the church.  Most importantly, we (the leaders) are called not to pick sides, but to follow the call of the Holy Spirit when planning and preparing music for the time of corporate worship.

Do I still use the hymnal in worship?  YES!  Do I post the lyrics to the hymn on the screen?  NO!  Has my life been changed for the better by the hymns of yesteryear and today?  YES!  In fact, the music of Keith Getty has greatly inspired me recently.  Over the past ten years, the modern hymns of the Getty music group have shaped my ministry more that any other songwriter.  Did I need the printed words and four-part music written out in a book for me?  No.

God has inspired hymn writers to compose many great Bible-based hymns.  The theologically-founded text and beautiful melodic lines of the hymns are timeless.  Man put them into a collection and began marketing them.  But overall, the collections of songs in one book have been greatly beneficial in worship.  Modern worship trends seem to say that hymnals (not hymns) are fading from relevant culture.

What say you?  This isn’t a debate on which is better: choruses/modern worship songs or hymns.  This is a collection of thoughts on the current state and future of the hymnal (not hymns).

What is the future of the hymnal itself?

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6 thoughts on “Death of the Hymnal? Why Are Churches Beginning to Phase Out the Use of Hymnals in Modern Worship?

  1. As one whose personal collection of hymnals takes up way too much space on my shelves I will add this: as much as I love them and still enjoy perusing a hymnal to view its contents, I am using them less and less as a worship tool. The only time we use them at all now in our worship is on Wednesday evening for prayer meeting, when 90% of our attendees are senior adults. When I transfer to the great heavenly choir I fully expect that my collection of hymnals will go into paper recycling or (gasp!) into a landfill somewhere. They are, even now, relics of the past. Unless the world suddenly loses its dependence on computers (which will not happen) hymnals are just collecting dust from now on.

    • Hey Steve!

      Thanks for the comment! I agree…though we still use the hymnals, I believe more and more churches are solely dependent on the internet…thanks again for the comment!

      Dennis

  2. 7-11
    seven words eleven times or in some cases 5-15 . Singing is a big part of the worship service and it moves the Sprit in me. Most of the new songs sound like a form of camp songs or songs that youth groups sing on bus trips. Most songs in hymnals humble me to tears. They have a message that in most cases remind us where we came from when we were lost and where we’re headed now that we belong to our Lord and Savior Jesus. I find that most of the lyrics in hymnals are taken from Bible Verses, thus a sermon in every song. I don’t care if it’s in a book or on a screen don’t get rid of the old songs from the hymnals or at least throw us old timers a bone every now an then.

  3. For me, the lack of hymnals is a major factor in my no longer attending services.

    I moved to a new city, a new church whose traditions were different from my own. I was thrown into services made up of songs I had never heard before, for which I was only given the words, no hint of tune at all. I felt *incredibly* awkward and left out.

    I am a musician. I can sight-read. I can’t read minds. Faced with the prospect of having to be a silent outsider, visibly on the fringes, for months or years until I learned every song in my new congregation, I opted to make my worship private instead.

    I don’t mind people relying on printouts so long as they actually print out the MUSIC!

  4. Pingback: Because Crying is What I do at Weddings | Honey Did you See That?

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