John D. Witvliet notes the function of hymnals in the life of the church has changed dramatically over the past thirty years.
Many congregations rarely use them. Thousands of Christians seldom, if ever, open one. When people hear of the new hymnal publications, it’s natural for some of them to ask, “Why would you ever want to publish another hymnal?”
The most basic response to this is that many congregations do use hymnals every week, in both public worship and in church education and pastoral care. Still others are rediscovering the value of hymnals, reintroducing their selective use alongside other ways of presenting songs.
Hymnals make several valuable contributions to Christian life today, in dynamic interaction with all the other ways we access and project music and information. Further, a hymnal is a valuable resource for all kinds of Christians, as well as congregational leaders, whether or not their congregation uses a hymnal in worship.
Here are ten reasons why:
1. Hymnals are especially well suited to good group singing of many kinds of songs (though not all).
Cyclical songs of exuberant praise are well served by projecting texts. People’s hands are free for clapping, and the text can easily be cycled through a set of slides. Singing from a hymnal can inhibit participation in songs like these.
But the reverse is true for other kinds of songs.
Hymnals are well suited to singing contemplative songs, where it is helpful to sing with bowed head, while seated or kneeling.
Hymnals are especially useful for singing in harmony, unless that harmony can be projected.
Hymnals are ideal for texts that are more linear—texts that unfold an argument or tell a story in several stanzas. When we sing those kinds of texts from a screen, we can’t see the whole thing at once, and it’s very easy to lose track of where the song is going. (The same can be said for reading the Bible while seeing only one verse at time.)
Congregations do not have to settle for only one way of presenting songs, whether in print or via projection.
2. Hymnals are portable.
Hymnals can travel easily into Sunday school rooms, summer camps, hospital rooms, family rooms, and more. Many congregations that no longer use hymnals or songbooks for worship are realizing that they—without intending to—no longer sing together in places that lack projection equipment. Or, they end up singing only a very narrow range of songs that the congregation may know from memory. This means that they sing less (or not at all) in Bible study groups, in council or staff meetings, or at other gatherings.
I am so pleased to know that some churches that do not use hymnals in worship nevertheless have a library cart with thirty hymnals on it that travels throughout their church so any group can use hymnals at any time.