What a Hymnal Represents
Dr. R. Scott Connell serves as Assistant Professor of Music and Worship Leadership at Boyce Bible College and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Connell is the worship leader at First Baptist Church Jacksonville.
Many involved in worship today view a hymnal as a vestige of the past. They were used by churches of a bygone era for a style of worship from a bygone era, right? They seemingly have no relevance today. Now we have instantaneous access to hundreds of thousands of worship songs on the internet. Why limit yourself to some 500-600 songs in a printed and bound book that is “out of date” as soon as it is printed?
I am not suggesting that anyone should.
Yet, what the hymnal represents is an approach to worship planning and practice that needs to be retained today, and for some needs to be reclaimed today. Here are 5 things a hymnal represents to our worship heritage that should be employed in modern worship today, even if a hymnal is not actually used in worship.
1) Tried, tested, and approved worship songs. A hymnal was produced after considering all the available hymns and songs of the time before committing to print a limited number of recommended songs for worship. These decisions were often made by theologically and musically astute individuals and committees. Their intent was to guard congregation from theological error and employ the best (e.g. congregationally friendly) musical setting of a given text. While there is much written today that needs to be sung, there is a great deal more that will/should never be sung again. Hymnals represent the time taken to sort through the chaff to find the wheat.
2) Diverse yet balanced content that served the primary doctrines. A hymnal had to serve a broad constituency and could not placate a narrow schism. It had to highlight the essential theological doctrines to serve the interests of mainline Biblical Christianity. Secondary doctrines often could not be represented in the interests of unifying a church body around the primary doctrines of the faith. Hymnals emphasized the essentials, yet there was also enough diversity to remind churches not to overemphasize some doctrines while neglecting others.
3) Diverse yet balanced musical styles to serve a multi-generational context. A hymnal should serve the full spectrum of different generations in worship because that is what a healthy church should be. Multi-generational worship should not be a special emphasis Sunday but a weekly fact. Every generation is represented by a particular body of musicals styles. “Older” and “newer” songs are often marked by older and newer musical settings. Hymnals typically gathered both the old and the new together to demonstrate worship’s timelessness and requisite musical diversity.
4) A heritage of worship language that was collected from “a great cloud of witnesses.” The beautiful poetry of an 18th century hymn represents worship language from a faithful generation that preceded today’s worshipers. To borrow their language is to stand upon their faith and learn from their practice. Today’s context is unique but today’s need for truth and faith is the same. To call upon the worship song of a previous generation is to remind today’s worshipers that the gospel stands forever. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever and has sustained his church for centuries.
5) Congregational worship emerged from personal piety. Older hymnals were pocket sized. They were not found in the “back of the pew in front of you” until the late 19th and 20th centuries. They were brought to corporate worship by the individuals because they were a part of the personal and family devotional practice at home. This represents an understanding that worship began in private and converged in the corporate assembly. It garnered a contributor mindset rather than a consumer mindset. Hymnals were compiled with scattered worship as much as gathered worship in mind.
While it is unlikely that anyone reading this should go defend the need for their church to buy hymnals for use in worship, it is imperative that we reclaim the values in worship that a hymnal represents. Too many “disposable” worship songs are thrown into worship today without proper evaluation and consideration. To properly shepherd one’s congregation means seriously guarding what words will be “put in their mouths” for use in corporate worship.