Hymns and Hymnbooks

Greg Strand – May 14, 2013 2 Comments

That the people of God are a singing people is true. Moreover, it is not something that will end but will continue on throughout eternity. We will neither tire nor cease singing thanks, praise, and adoration to worship our great God in all His fullness, in both His Person (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and His functions.

For believers today who are “tuning our instruments” for our final and eternal “concert” around the throne of God, we sing. The most significant hymnbook we have is the book of the Psalms. More broadly, throughout the years one book from which the church’s songbook is a part is the Bible. This book, the sacred Scriptures, has been and remains foundational to one’s private and public devotion. God birthed the church through His Word, and God sustains and nourishes the church through His Word.

The church has put the two together, broadening the church’s hymnbook to those “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” written and compiled by the people of God through the years and compiled as an aid to Christians to worship the Lord through song. In both personal and family devotions, and as the corporate people of God gather and worship publicly, the Bible and a hymn/songbook are often companions (this is not intended to put the two on equal footing, as it is only the Bible that is inspired, inerrant, sufficient and authoritative, not a hymnbook, which is, however, a suitable companion).

We live in a day when not many do family devotions any longer, so hymnbooks are not used. In the church, hymnbooks have been replaced by powerpoint slides. This does not mean that powerpoint slides are bad, or that hymnbooks are a thing of the past.  John D. Witvliet, Director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and Professor of Worship, Theology, and Congregational and Ministry Studies, Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, has written an article on “Ten Reasons Why Hymnals Have a Future.”

Here are Witvliet’s Ten Reasons Why:

  1. Hymnals are especially well suited to good group singing of many kinds of songs (though not all).
  2. Hymnals are portable.
  3. Hymnals are splendid for home piano or keyboard devotional playing.
  4. Hymnals are an efficient one-stop worship planning resource.
  5. Hymnals make it relatively easy to stumble on and fall in love with good music you never thought you would like.
  6. Well-designed hymnals offer a vision of a balanced thematic diet.
  7. Hymnals help connect songs with elements of worship.
  8. Hymnals give people access to a “cultural memory bank” that many desperately want.
  9. Hymnals can be appealing to seekers.
  10. A hymnal can be a surprisingly effective catechism for both brand-new and lifelong Christians.

Witvliet concludes as follows:

 In summary, hymnals are a good resource, not the only good resource. And they may not be even the best single resource for every one of these functions. But for overall value, it’s pretty hard to beat a single book that does so many things at once:

  • provides a comprehensive reference resource for finding songs and one technological mode of presenting songs;
  • functions as a musical collection and a worship book, with prayers and liturgies for congregational use;
  • presents a single-volume snap-shot of the diversity of the church throughout time and space, a kind of working experiment in the “catholicity” or “universality” of the church; and
  • acts as a single source for strengthening devotional, pastoral care, educational, and liturgical ministries, making it possible to integrate these dimensions of the Christian life.

A few questions of application.

  1. Do you still use a hymnal/songbooks in your private or family devotions? Why or why not?
  2. Do you still use hymnals/songbooks in your corporate church gatherings? Do you make them available?
  3. Do you see how they can be used as a supplement to catechize in the Christian faith and to give corporate expression to biblical and experiential truth?

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

2 responses to Hymns and Hymnbooks

  1. Connie Fretwell May 17, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    I’m so thankful to see this splendid article about hymnals and the importance of using them. Since I’m interested in education, though retired now, I’m thinking how to encourage retirees to use hymnals in private devotions. I was not taught to have private or family devotions, so the concepts have been slow in coming and I could still use help with that part of hymnal usage. I never thought of hymnals as a tool for catechism, though I realize that’s how I learned who God is. I’d like to know which hymns teach various character qualities of God and find an orderly presentation of hymns. How exciting these ideas are! I hope that Greg Strand continues to amplify them. Thank you!

    • Connie, it is great to hear from you. I am encouraged to learn of your use of hymnals, and that you continue to be eager to learn, to grow and to share with others. To your request, John D. Witvliet, author of the article, encourages one to use a topical or subject index in the back of the hymnbook to find songs listed according to doctrine, attributes of God, Jesus Christ, His birth, death, resurrection, the Holy Spirit, the church, etc. It might be important to state again what I did earlier – I am not an “only hymns” person, but am committed to worship in song through psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). May the Lord bless you as you worship God through song, and invite others to join you!

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