My relationship with hymnals has been on the rocks for a while. We have a long history together—hymnals and I—but we haven’t spent much time together in a decade or more, and I find myself vacillating between (1) last-ditch attempts to save our relationship and (2) acknowledgment that it’s time to move on because of mounting pressures and other factors beyond our control. Whatever the underlying reasons, there’s only a fading romantic connection. Hymnals and I do share a solid foundation and important values, but we’ve definitely been growing apart.¹
I have deep historical connections both to hymnals and hymnology.² Relatives past and present, friends and acquaintances, and many significant others have been associated with the use of these books (and all this adds to the wistful feelings about hymnals). An explicit accusation was made against my dad in the 1990s, and, although he had served on an advisory council for Great Songs of the Church, Revised (the brown-covered books seen faintly in this picture, over toward the right), no one in my immediate family has ever had financial interests in mass-marketed hymnal production. Dad had spent many hours reviewing and corresponding about that hymnal, which is one of the two best in its class, and the very best available at the time. Never was any hymnal elevated to the Bible’s pedestal in my home. Collections of them were on my parents’ bookshelves, and the hymnals were sporadically used in devotional group singing in the living room and around the dinner table, but the books weren’t worshipped.
I have continued my parents’ practice of owning, displaying, and periodically using hymnals . . . although the frequency, amount, and depth of use have been decreasing. A couple years ago, I realized that I had no use for 25-or-so single-copy hymnals in my collection. Not having interest in trying to sell them on eBay or at a yard sale—any profit would surely have been dwarfed by time and expense—I tried to follow the “if you haven’t needed it or used it in 7 years” rule and threw them in a dumpster. I did experience a slight twinge of conscience and have so far kept another 30 or 40 hymnals:
- Ten copies of Great Songs of the Church No. 2 that was last regularly used in our home in 2013
- Eight copies of a previous edition of The Methodist Hymnal (historically the best mainline denomination hymnal with which I was acquainted, and a source for several purposes) and one Presbyterian hymnal
- Two copies of Praise for the Lord
- Misc. other CofC hymnals and handful of other single copies such as The Mennonite Hymnal
I’m now considering the growing-apart nature of this “hymnal relationship” from 2016 backward. . . .
We have visited three congregations in our new area. Two of them have hymnals, and we are considering an ongoing relationship with one of those groups. Most of our church groups from 2007 until now have owned and used hymnals, to one degree or another. Two churches from 2003-2007 did not use hymnals at all, and one did. The last time I was in a congregation that regularly used hymnals was 15 years ago, and that was prior to the ubiquity of PowerPoint (and the Paperless Hymnal) in many church gatherings. It does seem clear that there is a trend—among the churches we would consider working with, if not churches as a whole.
In 2016, most of the hymnals in the church halls we enter seem to be dusty and musty, but a few groups still pull them out of the racks periodically . . . perhaps because the projector bulb blew out when the machine was turned on Sunday morning. Or, perhaps an especially (a) thoughtful or (b) backward-thinking³ or (c) committed-to-hymnals leader wants to use a song that’s not electronically available.
It’s a shame when hymnals fall into disuse. My soul still needs the nourishment that came from the better songs and hymns of my earlier years. (I don’t intend the preceding statement to speak in any respect to the value of contemporary songs.) A couple years ago, I was blog-traversing my personal “worship history” and wrote this along the way:
I was starving.
Then my parents reminded me that a family we knew was working with a church on the north side of town — Hixson, to be precise. During a visit there one Wednesday night, I got tears in my eyes during a devotional time led by Danny Cline. Forethought was in evidence, and Danny led sensitively — and led a song with some spiritual depth to it. Sensitivity and depth were not to be taken for granted in the 80s of my life, for more than one reason.
A big part of me does look with longing at the unused richness of some songs in hymnals. Another part of me reads the handwriting on the wall rather acutely, realizing that hymnals and I—and hymnals and many entire congregations—are going separate ways.
Is the conversation over? Is there no hope for this relationship? Maybe not, if we’re only thinking about the physical item called a hymnal. I do want, though, to find ways to discover and rediscover the good content of hymnals in ways that non-hymnal people will also pursue.
Next: comments on a few of another blogger’s reasons to value the hymnal
¹ Please take no offense at the allegorical language here. I mean no disrespect toward God’s thoughts about human marriage.
² I’m much more interested in hymns themselves than hymnology per se. While I know a few factoids about the history and study of hymns, there’s only so much time in the day, and hymnology is not really one of my life’s pursuits.
³ The use of hymnals is not inherently backward-thinking. In the use of “backward,” I’m thinking of a few leaders who seem merely to be resisting learning anything new. Leaders’ song choices are certainly not always based on thought or intent.