Hymnals and a Heritage of Song: Maintaining Continuity in Congregational Singing
Dr. Joshua Waggener
Dr. Joshua A. Waggener serves as Assistant Professor of Music and Christian Worship at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern. Waggoner is the worship leader at Grace Baptist Church in Wake Forest, NC.
The experience of singing with a hymnal
“Open your hymnals and turn to hymn number ....” For many of us growing up in evangelical churches before the turn of the millennium, these words signaled our most common shared activity in worship services: congregational singing. While our churches may not have recited creeds or confessions or even said the Lord’s Prayer together, we regularly sang hymns of the faith with the help of a simple piece of technology: the hymn book. This technology fit comfortably in your hand. Each song was laid out on one to two pages, typically with three to four stanzas of lyrics set to four-part harmony
As church kids sitting next to our parents (or grandparents, or other adult models), we learned to find the right hymn and follow along on the right stanza. We knew we were expected to join our voices with those around us as the song leader led the way. Although the depths of some hymn lyrics were lost on us, this was a formative spiritual experience of our young lives. Many of these hymns were etched in our memories for life, along with Bible memory verses and significant sermons. Little did we know that the songs in those hymnals would stick with us, and we would develop preferences–reactionary or nostalgic–based on the experiences we had with those hymnals in hand.
Singing with the saints who came before us
But what songs did we sing from those hymnals? We sang British classics such as “Holy, Holy, Holy.” We sang American folk hymns like “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” We sang nineteenth-century Sunday School hymns such as “To God Be the Glory” and twentieth-century revivalist favorites including “I Stand Amazed in the Presence.” Hymnals from the late twentieth century even included first wave Maranatha! praise and worship choruses like “Seek Ye First” and charismatic renewal songs like “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” Compared to many worship “set lists” today, the chronological scope of our songs could be quite broad (easily 100 plus years) and represent a range of denominational traditions (Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, and non-denominational churches).
By singing songs and hymns diverse in their provenance and date of composition, we were singing with the saints who had come before us. Somehow their songs of faith had ended up in our church’s hymnal, and we recapitulated their melodic testimonies according to our own contexts and customs. It was as if, in practice, we were acknowledging that the Holy Spirit had worked in believers that came before us, resulting in expressions of praise and thanks, profession and contrition. While singing these once-new-but-now-old songs again, we sometimes experienced the work of the Spirit in our day, acknowledging His continued presence and power.
Singing with the saints to come after us
In many evangelical churches today, both the technology facilitating congregational singing as well as the sources of those songs have changed considerably. Instead of looking down at hymn books, we look up at screens. Instead of singing “classic” hymns of faith, we increasingly sing “contemporary” songs of praise. Instead of including centuries of song, we often exclude most things written before the turn of the millennium.
The dangers of these innovations have been decried extensively: making worship music a consumerist choice; always seeking an individual, emotional experience in worship; valuing contemporaneity over all other criteria for song selection; losing musical literacy and congregational part singing; etcetera. The advantages of the revolution in church music practices have also been argued: making worship music relevant to a new generation; enjoying more authentic and intimate worship; contextualizing worship technology and music according to today’s media use and soundscape.
But regardless of technological innovations or worship style perspectives, my concern is that our songs are increasingly ephemeral. As we have become free to use songs outside of our church’s hymnal, we may have lost the opportunity to pass along “treasures old and new” (Matt 13:52) to our spiritual kids and grandkids. This highlights the importance of an intentional canon of song for local congregational singing.
A commitment to a canon of song for your congregation
In general, a “canon” can be defined as a rule or principle by which other things are judged. For example, the Bible consists of a “canon” of books recognized as Scripture by the early Church: 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New. These inspired words provide the “rule” for our faith, allowing us to discern truth from error and orthodoxy from heresy.
In music or literature, a “canon” is often a list of works considered to be exemplary or authoritative. Such lists include an accepted number of established works, but are often open to the possibility of adding new works that achieve a recognized level of quality or newly-discovered works by a composer or author.
What then, is a canon of song for congregational singing? According to Constance Cherry, a canon of song is “a body of song that has been vetted and authorized for use in the worship of a given Christian community.” Early English-speaking Protestants sang the canon of biblical psalms, adapted in meter and rhyme for congregational tunes. Since the Baptist Benjamin Keach wrote The Breach Repaired in God’s Worship (1691) and the nonconformist Isaac Watts presented his case in A Short Essay Toward the Improvement of Psalmody (1707), English-speaking Protestants have found it increasingly appropriate to sing newly composed songs and hymns as expressions of our personal faith.
As we carry on the tradition of congregational singing in our churches, what will our canon of song include? Can we commit ourselves to repeatedly singing songs which will nourish faith from generation to generation, regardless of what form of technology is used? To move in this direction, I humbly suggest the following steps:
1. Identify and develop a canon of song
Make a list of the songs currently sung in your congregation, and identify those worthy to be repeated. Recognize that a congregation can only sing so many songs well. Therefore, give yourself permission to limit the number of songs you sing. Note that this canon will not have the authority of Scripture or claim inspiration or inerrancy. However, as an intentional collection of repeated songs it will help form a unique corporate identity for your church based on your theological, cultural, and musical values.
2. Steward your canon well, as a “theological dietician” of worship
In his book The Worship Pastor, Zac Hicks encourages worship planners to aim for a “balanced diet” in worship music, with attention to biblical dichotomies (e.g. transcendence and immanence, joy and reverence) and established criteria for song selection. His metaphor of a “theological dietician” helps us realize that we have the important task of serving our congregations well-prepared “meals” involving a variety of doctrinal themes and expressions, both in week-to-week services and in long-range planning. By cutting back on songs from more familiar “food groups” and adding new (or unknown) ones from less familiar “cuisine,” we will become good stewards of congregational songs for the health and growth of the Body of Christ.
3. Plan worship with a pastor's heart and a holistic liturgy
Seek to incorporate just the right hymns for your current flock, with a view towards the past, present, and future of the congregation. But don’t rely upon the song selection to do all the work. Consider creeds, corporate prayers, and especially Scripture readings that will unify your congregation around the Gospel instead of their musical preferences.
Here is the challenge: In your congregation, will you guard against the ephemeral in your selection and practice of worship music? Will you build a heritage of songs worthy of repeated singing from one generation to another?
 “Holy, Holy, Holy,” text by Reginal Heber, tune by John B. Dykes
 “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” text by Robert Robinson; sung to tunes from The Sacred Harp, 1844 as well as Wyeth’s Repository of Sacred Music
 “To God be the Glory,” text by Fanny J. Crosby, tune by William H. Doane
 “I Stand Amazed in the Presence,” text and tune by Charles H. Gabriel
 “Seek Ye First,” text based on Scripture, tune by Karen Lafferty
 “Shine, Jesus, Shine,” text and tune by Graham Kendrick
 Constance M. Cherry, The Music Architect: Blueprints for Engaging Worshipers in Song (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2016), 103.
 Full title: The Breach Repaired in God’s Worship / Or, Singing of Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs Proved to be an Holy Ordinance of Jesus Christ
 Full title: A Short Essay Toward the Improvement of Psalmody / Or, An Enquiry How the Psalms of David Ought to Be Translated into Christian Songs, and How Lawful and Necessary It Is to Compose Other Hymns According to the Clearer Revelations of the Gospel, for the Use of the Christian Church
 For assistance, I recommend chapter 5 of Constance Cherry’s The Music Architect, “Evaluating Worship Music: Creating a Canon of Song.”
 Zac M. Hicks, The Worship Pastor: A Call to Ministry for Worship Leaders and Teams (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016). See chapter 6, “The Worship Pastor as Theological Dietician.”