Posted by: rcottrill | February 24, 2010

Choosing a Hymn Book for Your Church

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.


  1. Thanks for the thoughts in particular, and the blog in general Robert.
    The local church of which I’m a part of has used a projector for song lyrics for five years now.
    For a long time we used the Church Hymnary, revised, like most Australian Presbyterian churches and then adopted denomination’s newer Rejoice! hymnal. Rejoice! had some fine additions to offer including Amazing Grace, which is absent from the RCH. Its modernising of texts appeals to some and not to others.
    The prevalent edition of the RCH was words only, while Rejoice! was mostly in melody line or staff editions.
    Without a biblical imperative for which way we do it, the issue of putting song lyrics before people then becomes a trade off.
    I’ve liked the flexibility with which we can bring in different songs with the projector. This Sunday evening I’m introducing Margaret Clarkson’s ‘For your gift of God the Spirit’ from the Trinity Hymnal, the last stanza of which was quoted by Philip Ryken as he addressed Tenth Presbyterian last Sunday. Your blog itself has contributed some new choices to our Sunday evening praise that are not in our previously used hymnbooks.
    The projector has helped us lessen the differences between ‘hymns’ and ‘songs’. We now treat them pretty much equally.
    If I had my complete preference I would print all the lyrics and a melody line each week in a take home sheet. But that is not feasible and is probably wasteful, as well.
    Thanks again for the comments above.
    Gary Ware.

    • Thanks for relating your experience, Gary, and for the encouragement of your use of my blog.

      Personally, I’ve found the “both-and” approach works best, speaking of hymn books and the overhead. That is, to have a good hymn book in the pews that covers most of the better-known hymns and gospel songs. (The three books I recommended do that–though more from a Baptistic and less a Presbyterian tradition.) Then, to augment that with the use of the overhead–in two ways in particular.

      I will sometimes attach a suitable chorus to the end of a hymn (usually one in the same or an easily transitioned key). I don’t necessarily alert the congregation to this ahead of time, but simply switch on the overhead as we near the end of the hymn. The second way the overhead is a great help is when I do hymn medleys. For example, for one of our Thanksgiving Day services, I selected a stanza or two of half a dozen hymns of praise and put them on overhead transparencies. We then could move through them without fumbling to find numbers in the books. Works extremely well.

      I don’t need the overhead if I do this with just a couple of hymns. I simply announce both numbers in the hymnal, with some basic instructions, and away we go. (I don’t have the congregation sing all the stanzas of both, but select a couple that suit the theme–usually the same two, to make it easy to remember: e.g. first and second, or first and last). Folks are asked to keep a finger in the second page, and be ready to switch. For example, we might sing a couple of stanzas of “I stand amazed in the presence / Of Jesus the Nazarene, / And wonder how He could love me, / A sinner, condemned unclean…” And attach, “More love to Thee, O Christ, / More love to Thee…” Also works well.

      Thanks again for your input. Great to hear from you!

  2. Robert, thanks for the great post on “Choosing a Hymnbook for Your Church”. Nice work. And — a special surprise — was seeing your mention of a Metrical Index… I can’t begin to tell you how many church musicians I’ve met over the years who have no “clue” what on earth “that index in the back of the book is for with all of the weird sets of numbers”! No doubt somewhere here “in the stacks” (the “virtual” stacks, that is) of your archives, there is a lovely explanation of a M.I., and how handy it is for expanding the use of a hymnbook. Ah, yes, and a M.I. is a fine place to teach the basics of meter, verse, and the ingredients of a good hymn to future hymn text-writers and composers. Thanks again for your work here! p.s. “Come, Ye Disconsolate” has been a personal favorite since my college days. Good thing they ended up leaving out that one verse!

    • Well! You inspired me. I created an article called About That “Metrical Index” that will appear after tomorrow’s almanac entries. I agree that many musicians and service leaders are unfamiliar with this helpful tool. Here’s hoping the article encourages them to do a little experimenting.

  3. YES!!! I am so excited! (By now you have probably guessed that I am a hymn “geek”!) How wonderful! An article on metrical indices (but let’s say “indexes”, so as not to sound too geek-ish!)! I can hardly wait! THANKS for doing this! And may GOD again “show off” (i.e., “receive the glory”) through your work, and in the lives and music of all who visit here! SDG

    • Okay, “indexes,” if indices looks too geekish. (Got a great laugh over that.) You can actually see the article right away under my Topics tab, plus another article I just posted called 30 Ways to Promote Hymn Singing. Anyway, us geeks gotta stick together. My nickname wasn’t “Professor” in high school for nuthin.

      All kidding aside though, I appreciate your comment and agree totally. The reason I spend hours doing this is not to promote myself, but to serve the Lord, and be a blessing to others, to His greater glory.

  4. […] Choosing a Hymn Book for Your Church « Wordwise Hymns […]

  5. […] In spite of the recent turn to overhead projectors and video projectors, I believe there is still a place for hymnals in the pews. If you are contemplating the purchase, check out Choosing a Hymn Book for Your Church. […]

  6. We are starting to use an overhead projector because the pastor is excited about power point. I know it will be used for projecting songs and I don’t like it. I like using a hymnal. I like reading about the authors, composers, etc. A lot of the hymns were once poems and they make GREAT READING! And by the way, when the pastor starts putting his outline and brief portions of his sermons on the projector I think the magic of LISTENING to the pastor/God is greatly diminished. Your attention is directed away from looking at the pastor and spent looking at a screen. And when you’re reading what is there on the screen you’re not listening. I want to be in awe of what the pastor might say next; I want to be in suspense of what is coming up next. I don’t go to church to read a screen; I go to church to read my Bible and listen/watch the pastor and worship with other Christians.

    • I do agree with your comments on the overhead (or video projector). There are many advantages to using hymn books. Churches should encourage members of the congregation to purchase a copy of the hymnal for home use. Then, they can (as you indicate) read the hymns for personal or family devotions during the week. (Of course, there are other advantages to using books as well.)

      Having said that, I’m not totally against ever using the overhead. Occasionally, I want to add another stanza of a hymn that is not included in the hymn book. In that case, both are in use. And when I preach, I usually provide a printed bulletin insert with an outline of the message, leaving space for note-taking. But once in awhile, a diagram or map, projected with the overhead, will add to an understanding of the point I’m making.

      Occasionally, I’ve conducted a seminar called “101+ Uses for the Overhead.” It’s surprising the number of ways it can be a help to learning. So, bottom line: Don’t stash it in a cupboard and never use it. But for most hymn singing, use hymn books. 🙂

  7. […] CHOOSING A HYMNAL. While we are on the subject, if your church is considering the purchase of a new hymn book, I encourage you to check out my article. It will give you many good tips as to what to look for, and how to make the final decision. […]

  8. Where can Living Hymns or Great Hymns of the Faith be purchased?

    • Two fine hymn books, each with its own advantages. Great Hymns of the Faith is now available through Brentwood-Benson Publishing, and Living Hymns is distributed by Striving Together Ministries. Both have their own web sites.

  9. Hi! I know I’m late to the party, but do you know of any good hymn books that contain ALL (or almost ALL) of the original stanzas?
    Or any good resource that contains such information?
    I really love singing (or in my case, joyful nois-ing) all the stanzas.

    • Nope. No hymn book that I know of comes even close to including all the words for our hymns. Lots of reasons for that.

      1) Such a book would be a monster. Can you picture senior citizens (like me!) clutching a 10-pound compendium of hymnody, in the pew, Sunday mornings?

      2) Next, the cost would be prohibitive. And knowing few people would be interested, no editor would want to bother.

      3) Third, not all hymn stanzas are created equal. While sometimes I fret that an editor has missed a particularly wonderful one, many others are duds, and that’s why they were skipped over. Hymn historians might be interested, but not many others.

      However, good news. My friend Dick Adams, at the Cyber Hymnal, does his best to include all the stanzas of all the (so far) 8,300 hymns he has posted. Sometimes, I find one he’s missed, and he’s quick to include it. So, my advice: If you want to see the full hymn, go right here…to the Cyber Hymnal.

      And, no worries. You’re not “late to the party.” We’re just getting started. Y’all come back any time. 🙂

  10. Thank you, Rob! You are 100% right!

    A book containing every stanza, ever, would be horribly difficult to lug around, and cost lots.

    Also, as an aside – I was in church, and the pastor directed us to a Bible verse. The girl in front of me picked up her iPad or some similar electrical device and looked it up! The horror! Okay, it wasn’t really a horrible moment, but I can’t imagine Jesus, in Revelation, approaching the scroll and thinking, “What was my password?” I know. To each their own. I’m getting over it, now.

    Your point 3 is especially true! I looked up the First Noel on Cyber Hymnal. Some of those stanzas – clearly, this guy had a deadline, ’cause – oh! Maybe Francis Bacon made an encore presentation, because there’s some kind of disconnect between the inspired first few stanzas and the labored, contrived final stanzas.

    Thank you for steering me to Cyber Hymnal. What a blessing! Thank you so much for answering my question fully. I appreciate your time and the resources you shared.

    • Thanks for your response. One hundred percent right? No, never…not on very much, anyway. 🙂

      But I did want to comment on your reference to Bibles on iPad, etc. I think they do have their place. I use a Kindle, all the time–mostly for recreational reading (novels, mystery stories, poetry). But on there, I also have a dozen devotional and doctrinal books, and half a dozen Bible versions. I usually read the Scripture passage on Sunday mornings at our church, and I use my Kindle for that. The lighting is not too bright, and I have the start of cataracts. But with the Kindle I’m able to make the print very large. It works well.

      However, I also bring my regular Bible with me. I’m convinced every person should do the same. I follow the preaching of the Word in my Bible, and sometimes underline or cross-reference things. Further, I might flip back and forth between passages that illuminate what the pastor is saying. (Same in Sunday School.) The various brands of e-readers have their use, but an actual book is much more flexible.

  11. Another excellent new hymnbook that may not be so well known in the US is “Redemption Hymns”. The website also has a helpful summary of the advantages of using a hymnbook rather than just a projector.

    • Thanks for your input Lindsay. I see that your name is appended to the list of advantages of hymnals on the site. So, are you the editor of the book itself, or a contributor? Redemption Hymns looks excellent. I do, however, have one quibble, the high cost of the music edition of the book. It’s over three times what most hymnals cost. If a church were to consider purchasing a hundred or more, this would likely rule out your book. And, having the notation in front of you is another advantage of hymn books over words projected on the wall. Even so, thanks for alerting me and my readers to the Redemption Hymns.

      • I went to the website. Redemption Hymns cost $48 New Zealand dollars. The postage is an additional $45.70 New Zealand dollars.
        So I went to Amazon to see if I could bypass the whole exchange rate thing, but was unsuccessful.

      • Yes, I know about this. Very disappointing, since the book sounds interesting. I ordered a copy of the words-only edition, just so I could see what’s included. I pointed out to them that hymn books in North America can be purchased for around $15 each. But this depends on a huge volume of sales. Granted that the music edition of Redemption Hymns is not a pew version, but rather a larger accompanists copy, with extras that would only be of interest to an organist or pianist. Still, too bad this work is inaccessible. Maybe that will change, if they can interest a North American publisher in the work. We’ll stay tuned.


%d bloggers like this: