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Are Hymnals a Thing of the Past?

In a recently published article in Worship Leader, Rory Noland poses the question, “Are We Ready for the Virtual Hymnal?”  In contrast to the hymnal, which is a composite of prayerfully selected songs covering a wide range of theological topics, the diet of songs in a contemporary worship setting is often based on the worship leader’s personal preferences.  

I would like to share a personal experience that relates to this.  A number of years ago when I was a worship pastor in an Assemblies of God church, we had a guest musician who included in his repertory the familiar hymn, “My Jesus, I Love Thee.”  As he sang the final stanza, “In mansions of glory and endless delight….” four older members of our congregation stood with hands and hearts uplifted.  As a rather young worship pastor, 42 years of age, I realized that my repertory of songs had not included songs on the theme of heaven.  Because of my rich heritage of hymns and my appreciation of scripture-based contemporary songs, I thought I was providing a balanced repertory of songs.  This was a teachable moment for me. 

I appreciate the efforts to reach our culture by speaking a language that is understood. Last Sunday our son and his family attended a service where 70 people were baptized. That particular church is contemporary in worship style, and people are finding Christ.

The other day a close friend of ours visited us.  I sat at the piano and played a medley of hymns and choruses for him.  He attends a church that is contemporary in style and bursting at the seams.  When he vacations in Florida, he worships at a denominational church.  The pianist plays familiar songs for about ten minutes prior to the service, and he is blessed by this time of worship.  In the large church he attends at home, there’s an abundance of new songs and a dearth of traditional songs.  Why do some churches marginalize seniors in their attempt to reach the lost?   I know that the effective blending of styles requires skilled leadership, coupled with a passion to minister to all people.  Rory Noland, in his thought-provoking  article stresses  the need for diversity in both style and content.  The late Donald Hustad defined worship as a full human response to God’s full self-revelation .  I would add that a full response is one that facilities response by all who gather in the Lord’s name. 

Our “sound byte” culture has opted for the repetitious singing of both thoughts and melodic patterns.  Unfortunately, even the church has helped to cause this shrinking of the mind. Fortunately this is countered by the writing of Keith Getty, Stuart Townend, Graham Kendrick, and others whose thoughts progress.  Another redeeming factor is the redressing of classic hymns by contemporary artists.  

I question the assumption that a hymnal has a shelf life of about six months.  Tom Fettke’s Celebration Hymnal includes classic hymns and choruses that stand the test of time.  There are congregations that use this, and denominational hymnals for a much longer span of time.  I am constantly adding choruses that are current, and I notate these in Finale and insert them in Powerpoint presentations. 

As you can probably sense from my thoughts, I’m part of the older crowd.  However, I have no desire to be a part of either a “hymns only” or “chorus only” church.  I embrace both the old and the new.  My roots are in the Mennonite church, and I appreciate the grounding I had in the singing of hymns.  As a young person I was challenged to sing thoughts, to focus on the words more than the music.  Since then my wife and I have been privileged to serve in different churches: Baptist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, and several other denominations.    Each of these experiences has been enriching.

I closing this discussion it’s important to move beyond style.  As we prepare to lead in worship, let’s become so full of a song’s message that we can’t keep it inside.  This is important for those who all who sing or play instruments.  To this I would add, prepare by discovering the scripture(s) on which a song is based.  Let’s be faithful stewards of the Word of God.   

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