These days, many churches have abandoned the traditional hymns and gospel songs of the faith, turning instead to contemporary choruses. And even when a few of the hymns are used, it’s often in an abbreviated or altered form, with the words projected on a wall. Sadly, the hymnals have left the pews in many churches, to be consigned to some dusty cupboard.
But there are valid reasons to stick with the hymn books. Next to the Bible, a good hymnal may well be the Christian’s most valuable treasure. It contains a distillation of church history, and of the life experiences of great saints of bygone days. It provides a wonderful teaching tool (cf. Col. 3:16).
Using books usually places more of the hymn before the reader, as well as providing information about author and composer. And it gives the body of Christ a means to engage in unifying fellowship as they sing together, possibly in harmony, if some can follow the notes. Churches need to encourage individuals and families to purchase copies of the book for home use. The hymn book can be a blessing in personal and family devotions. Songs sung in church can be sung or read at home.
This author takes the position that the hymn book still has a valid place in the services of the church But choosing a new hymnal for your church is not a simple matter. It should be done carefully. With that in mind, here are nearly three dozen practical tips for the church wanting to purchase a new hymn book.
A. General Considerations
1) The decision should be made by a committee, rather than by one individual. (Include on the committee the pastoral staff, church musicians, and insightful people from the congregation–spiritual men and women who know the Word of God.)
2) Pray about your choice individually, and as a committee. But realize that you will never be able to satisfy everyone. (Remind the congregation of this, and assure them the committee is seeking to make a wise and balanced choice.)
3) Take plenty of time. This is a big (and expensive) decision that may affect the church for a number of years.
4) Encourage committee members to talk to pastors and members of other churches. Find out what they are using and how they like it.
5) Keep your local church doctrines and policies in mind (and those of your denomination). For example, if your church has a strong missionary emphasis, does the hymn book provide an adequate number of suitable songs in that area.
6) No hymn book can keep up with the contemporary music scene, so don’t make a major issue out of whether the book contains all the newest and latest. (By the time you buy the book there will be more “newest and latest”!) There are other ways to provide a selection of newer songs.
7) Don’t buy a small book simply because, “That’s all we can afford.” You may find later you have made a poor investment. A quality hymn book should contain 500-800 songs. Too many congregations are stuck in a rut and sing fewer than 50 hymns, over and over. They need to expand their devotional vocabulary by learning more about our heritage. Get a good-sized book, and have your musicians teach “new” hymns regularly.
8.) You should be able to find several books that are possibilities. Purchase (or borrow) a copy of each, and give each committee member time to evaluate them individually. Then discuss findings as a group.
B. Textual Factors
The words of our hymns are basically poetry. Some of it is poor to average in quality; some is sublimely beautiful. But even the simplest lines of verse can express profound truths that stick in the mind and ring in the heart, long after the songs are sung. It is the words which must be central. The music provides a frame for their message, but the words are always most important. For that reason, give careful attention to the words of the hymns.
9) There should be hymns representing various periods in church history, and representing the major writers of each era. A few hymns come from the earliest centuries of church history–and even before, if we count Psalms set to music. But the majority of our hymns date from the Protestant Reformation (about 1500) onward. Key names to look for: Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, John Newton, Fanny Crosby, and Philip Bliss.
10) Watch for the opposite problem: too much emphasis on one author and one period. Sometimes the editor of the book is also a hymn writer, and he may overload the book with his own songs, leaving less room for those of others.
11) Does your congregation have some special favourites? Look for a book that includes them. Usually a book will include a good selection of the “standards” because they are widely known and loved.
12) Watch for alterations in the traditional texts of hymns. Some editors attempt to modernize the words–with mixed success. Some remove all the thee’s and thou’s, even when the poetry suffers as a result. And some concerned with gender equality balk at singing hymns that refer to “men of God” assuming that misses the women. (“Men” can be used in a generic sense to refer to mankind or humankind.) If such things are a concern, it will affect your choice. (This author’s personal view is that usually we should leave traditional hymns as they are, unless blatantly false doctrine requires a change.)
13) Many hymn books also contain a selection of Bible portions (usually at the back of the book). These are useful for congregational reading. In a day when a variety of Bible versions are in use, unison or responsive reading of the Scriptures is difficult. Check the variety and practicality of the portions included. And is the Bible version one that your congregation would find acceptable?
C. Theological Factors
People ought to get their theology from the Scriptures, not from a hymn book. But it remains true that our hymns are a valuable tool for teaching biblical truth. However, the authors of our hymns wrote from an extremely wide doctrinal spectrum. Some hymn writers were theological liberals. And along with Baptists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Methodists and Pentecostals, are Roman Catholics, Unitarians and more.
Usually, our hymns focus on commonly held beliefs–but not always. You may find some thoughts which are not true to Scripture. What then? We do not need to throw out the whole hymn book on that account. Sometimes, we can agree with the basic sentiment, even though we might argue over the details. Other times, we can simply avoid using certain hymns, or certain stanzas within a hymn. You must determine how you will handle this issue.
14) Are the major doctrines of the Bible covered? Or are there gaps? Be aware of your church’s doctrinal statement as you examine possible hymn books. Are some key truths missing? For example, in the liberal community there is sometimes an abhorrence of references to the blood of Christ. Attempts are made to edit out hymns that make reference to it, such as “Power in the Blood,” or “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” or “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus.”
15) What about the theological accuracy of hymns in the book? As noted above, we will not agree with every phrase of every hymn. But are these the exception, or do doctrinal problems predominate? Sometimes, simply changing a word can improve a hymn. An example: Early versions of the hymn “Beneath the Cross of Jesus” contain this line at the end of the second verse: “Two wonders I confess– / The wonders of redeeming love and my own <I>worthlessness</I>.” But Christ did not die for “worthless” people. We are unworthy of His love, yes. But not worthless. Later books often amend the line to read, “The wonders of redeeming love and my unworthiness.”
16) Special attention should be given to the area of the Second Coming, and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Are the hymns generally supportive of the position of your church? If your church is not charismatic, for example, you should avoid books that emphasize charismatic teaching.
D. Thematic Factors
To see the range of topics covered in a particular book, you should be able to check the Topical Index at the back. (If the book lacks this helpful tool, it is a major omission.)
17) What topics are covered in the book? Your pastor should be able to find songs that will complement his pulpit ministry, helping him to emphasize key truths. Church services ought to be planned around a definite theme. Is that possible with the choices available?
18) Watch for the opposite problem. A thematic over-emphasis–too many hymns on one topic, to the detriment of others. (A less frequent issue, since editors aim to please as many people as possible!)
19) What about special occasion music? Is there a good choice for Christmas and Easter? What about Thanksgiving, New Year’s, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and so on. Consider the special days or occasions (such as believer’s baptism) emphasized by your church. Will the book help you with those services?
E. Musical Factors
While the music is of less importance than the words, it is not unimportant. Our enjoyment of a beautiful painting can be hindered by a distracting frame. And the tune, or tune arrangement, can either enhance or detract from the message of the words.
20) Are the tunes used with the texts the familiar ones? A little creativity is fine, but most congregations will not be happy with a steady diet of unfamiliar tunes. Too much innovation can simply be a nuisance.
21) Even if the tune looks familiar, an arranger may have done new things with the melody or the harmony that will confuse the congregation–or the accompanists. Watch for the words “Arranged by” (or Arr.) along with the name of the tune’s composer. Have your church organist or pianist play through some of these to see what changes have been made.
22) Consider the pitch and the musical range of the songs. It has become common in newer books to lower the tune slightly so the melody is reachable by those with lower voices. This can strengthen congregational singing. It is not so much a concern if your accompanists are able to transpose on sight, but that ability is not possessed by all.
23) Is there a special edition of the hymn book available for the instrumentalists? Often the print in these is larger, and they sometimes include guitar chords above the music. Your musicians will thank you for books that are spiral bound or looseleaf, so they will lie open more easily as these usually are.
F. Mechanical Factors
24) What indexes are included in the book? Usually, there is an Alphabetical Index of each hymn–often by the first line, as well as by the title. (Very occasionally, a book will include the first line of each verse.) Another important index is the Topical Index. How do you find hymns about prayer? Or about the cross? These topics and dozens more should be covered.
Along with these two, your musicians will find an Alphabetical Index of Tunes, and a Metrical Index valuable. (It is possible, with the use of these, to select a different tune for many hymns. Done occasionally, this can add variety, and give the hymn a new feel.) Some books include a useful Index of Authors and Composers. And if there are Scripture portions in the book it should have one or two indexes for these–indexing them by passage and by subject.
25) For some of the newer books there is a computer program available with even more extensive indexes, and help with service planning, etc. This can be a valuable tool.
26) What are the paper and the print like? The paper should be a good, clean white, with a texture that is smooth rather than course and grainy. The print should be black, clear and readable. Think about the seniors in your congregation. They will thank you for attention to this.
27) What about the binding? It should be both durable and attractive. Purchase only a hard cover hymn book, with a sturdy sewn binding. Otherwise, you will soon see pages beginning to loosen and fall out. What colours are available? Is there one that particularly harmonizes with the decor of your church sanctuary?
G. Financial Factors
28) What is the cost per book? You can expect to pay around $14-15 for a good hymn book. Multiply that by the number needed for your congregation (keeping in mind those occasions when there are more people present, and also the prospect of future numerical growth). Don’t stint on this. For 100 books, the cost will be $1500 plus shipping (and some possible taxes). This is a large expenditure. But think of it as being spread over a decade or more, the period in which you may well be using the book.
29) You could finance the project by having each adult and teen contribute the cost of one book. You might have special envelopes prepared, and a special Sunday’s offering (well advertised in advance) designated for this.
30) Another option is to have people donate books in memory of family members or friends who have passed away. A tasteful sticker in the front of these books could say “Dedicated to the memory of ____ / By _____.”
31) You should also encourage families to purchase their own copy of the book for home use. If possible, these should be a different colour, so they are not confused with those belonging to the church. Another means of differentiating the two is to have the church books gold stamped with the church name. (Some hymn book publishers will do that, for a small additional cost.)
32) When the books arrive, plan a special service of dedication for them. Place them at the front of the sanctuary, and have a prayer of dedication. Then distribute them. If you can devote the whole (or most of the) service to singing from the book, this is an excellent way to introduce it. Have your choir or a soloist prepared to sing a number; ask for some favourites, introduce one or two new songs. Make it a great occasion–because it is!
33) Here is a list of three hymnals presently in print. I have been the pastor of churches that used each of them. The first two are special favourites of mine. Depending on your needs, one of these may be what you are looking for.
¤ Living Hymns. Newly revised, with over 850 songs, some not available elsewhere, this is a fine heart-warming book. I highly recommend it.
¤ Great Hymns of the Faith. A little smaller and less expensive than some books, but still excellent. The more I’ve used it, the more I’ve come to admire it. Also highly recommended.
¤ The Celebration Hymnal. A newer hymnal with a helpful combination of old and new songs, plus added features such as segues between some songs so that they can be used in a medley. If you’re more into the contemporary style, this one may be preferable.