Matt Boswell, worship pastor at Providence Church in Frisco, Texas, recently presented some engaging thoughts on the history and value of the church hymnal. As a book which expresses doctrine in song form, the hymnal served has as the “handmaiden of theology” for centuries. Boswell laments:
As technology has marched on, however, it has chased the hymnal into obscurity. The hymnal didn’t possess the strength of overhead projectors, or the flexibility of the computer. It was no match for the rapid-fire songbook of the local church. In defeat, the hymnal retreated to dusty boxes and hidden bookshelves in dark rooms of church buildings. What once served Christ’s bride so faithfully was dismissed in a charge of iconoclasm.
Boswell is not arguing for a movement of hymnal recovery to the neglect of contemporary worship offerings. The church does and should continue to produce new songs which honor God and proclaim his glory and his gospel (see Psalm 96:1). Rather, the call is one to appreciate the deposit of faith from the past. This appreciation can lead to greater depths of spiritual growth and even renewal. So should you go into the church basement and start dusting off those old hymnals? I think we should, and here are three reasons why.
1) Hymnals contain the testimony of previous generations.
Though songs were inserted and removed with progressive hymnal releases, a standard hymnal is like a history book set to music. Hymns dating to the beginning of the church all the way to the present day, give worshippers a declaration of faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) across the centuries. In a generation where history is minimized by technological and cultural advances, a hymnal represents a stalwart declaration of the historical faith of Jesus Christ. These songs, mirroring the testimony of Scripture and the experience of the church, provide a window into the lives of saints who have gone before. As we sing the hymns of Charles Wesley, we should envision the open-air gospel preaching of the 18th century which brought so many to faith. As we proclaim the gospel through the words of Amazing Grace, we should remember the life-transformation that stands behind its author, John Newton. As we unite in song to an ancient Ambrosian hymn, we should reflect on the fourth-century defense of orthodoxy weaved throughout the hymn’s tightly woven theological fabric. Hymnals preserve and proclaim the testimony of generations of faithful believers who came before us, and who will one day join us in heavenly worship of the one true God.
2) Hymnals sustain the theological concerns of the church universal.
Some people call them “Jesus is my girlfriend” songs. Theses are contemporary Christian songs which sound like the latest pop song–just change the name of Jesus to another pronoun and you have the next big hit! I might not be as generous as I should be in this regard, but any time spent listening to contemporary Christian radio should confirm this notion. Not that all hymns of old avoid theological reductionism, but a complete hymnal reveals a continuing thread of theological concern present throughout the entire church age. Just like we shouldn’t interpret one verse of Scripture to the neglect of the whole, nor should we focus on a certain contemporary theme to the neglect of the wider theological spectrum. A cursory read through a standard hymnal will reveal a wide range of theological themes and concerns necessary to sustain the worship and instruction of the church. Theological topics such as the Trinity, atonement, and eschatology among others comprise the mortar for the doxological bricks used for building up the church.
3) Hymnals re-train the technologically dependent minds of today’s generation.
As a youth minister, I see this happen all too often. When asked to take out a bible and a notebook, many students pull out their smartphones. In many circumstances, I do the same thing! Many of us these days read Scripture from various electronic devices. It is ever-more common to see Scripture being read and sermons being preached from tablets and smartphones! We can search Scripture, take notes, and look up necessary information all at the touch of a finger on a screen. Though this has numerous advantages (and downfalls), the purposeful pursuit of using the hymnal refocuses hearts and minds to the words and musical notation on printed paper. Even as I type this post, I have a smartphone and tablet at hand, yet the more I use these the more I realize that contact with the printed page produces in me a sensory experience that a LCD screen is incapable of doing. As I hold a thick, hardback hymnal I experience the weight of the church’s musical contribution. I hold the pages of music written for the glory of God, representing blood, sweat and tears from the pens of its writers. I am reminded that it cost people something to write and produce this Christ-honoring material. The same argument applies to maintaining a physical copy of God’s word in private devotions and public exhortations. You may not buy the argument I am making here, and that’s fine. But I invite you to consider the physicality of the hymnal and relate it to the spiritual commitment it represents. Does that same experience come through holding your iPad? Do you reflect on the divine canon of Scripture when you scroll with your finger on a touchscreen? While God certainly uses technological means to bring people to himself, I invite you to think about how tactile experience with the objects of our faith effect our understanding of their importance. This is the main function of the communion meal. It should also be with our printed documents of faith.
I’m willing to bet that even if you’re church doesn’t officially use hymnals, there is an old one sitting on a shelf somewhere in the building. And if not, then I invite you to take a stroll to your local used book store or second-hand store and look for some of those discarded relics of doxological history. Of course, we must also be aware of the desire to slavishly adhere to hymnals to the neglect of new songs produced from the pens of modern day hymn writers. We need to cherish both old and new songs which seek to accurately represent God and stir the church to worship. We should admire all hymns, both new and old, that uphold the gospel and call the people of God to reflection and repentance. In the end, we should praise God with all available resources, and I believe that for many of us, that means dusting off the old hymnal and cherishing the deposit of faith contained therein.