Posted by: rcottrill | September 4, 2016

The Value of Hymn Books

I realize this is a rather lengthy article as compared to most I write. However, I do want to put before my readers a reasonably thorough defense of the church hymnal. If you can think of other advantages, please let me know.
R. Cottrill

There’s been a trend in recent years, in some churches, to set aside the hymn books, and simply project the words to be sung on a screen or the wall, employing hymn software and a video projector. This can work. But there are advantages to using hymn books over projected images that are worth considering. Thankfully, there’s still a market for hymnals. New ones continue to be produced–a telling fact, since they’re costly to put together and publish.

Since this article was updated on the blog I’ve received comments from a number. They’ve been mostly positive, but I did hear from a missionary working with another culture and in another language whose people could see no point in hymnals at all. I do think such books may be particularly relevant to English-speaking people. Many other language groups do not have the heritage available to us.

Hymns and gospel songs (other that those that use the actual words of Scripture) are a kind of Bible commentary. And (counting translations) we have a wonderfully rich selection of these mini-commentaries, dating back almost to the beginning of the Christian era. The hymn book preserves a significant collection of these expressions of doctrine and devotion.

Think of having, at church and at home, and bound in one relatively inexpensive volume, commentaries on a variety of Bible passages, doctrines and biblical principles, written by Martin Luther, Isaac Watts, Charles and John Wesley, and many more. I understand that some may disagree with my point of view on hymnals, but I believe the subject deserves a closer look.

It’s quite possible that, in churches that have abandoned the hymn book, they have already been under-utilized for years, so their value is underestimated. Much more can be done with them than simply singing a few hymns each week from them. For a growing list of now over sixty ideas about how to enhance the hymn singing of the congregation, see 30+ Ideas for Promoting Hymn Singing.

In France, about five hundred years ago, the government pronounced it a crime to sing songs of praise to God (specifically the Psalms). And when that didn’t stop it, they went even further. They said that anyone found with a hymn book in his possession would be executed. Killed, for owning a hymn book! I wonder what we would do facing such a threat.

Here is what those people did. They believed that preserving their heritage of sacred music was worth risking their lives for. So, in spite of the danger, they wrote out the words of each song in tiny, tiny print. Then they bound the little pages together, making books so small that six of them could be hidden in one hand. And they went right on singing!

Scanning the pages of a hymn book is like taking a trip through history. The hymns of the church currently in use (not counting Psalms set to music) go back to within two decades or so of the death of the Apostle John. Hymn books provide a means of preserving a significant part of our Christian heritage, and doing so in a way that words briefly projected on the wall in a church service cannot.

In the centuries since apostolic times, the church has come through both triumphs and tragedies. There was the early persecution of followers of Christ, the crippling superstition of the Middle Ages, the new light of the Reformation, times of spiritual revival, particularly in Britain and America, the expansion of world missions, answers to liberalism’s attacks on various doctrines we hold dear, all of this and more is reflected in our hymns.

Many hymns also relate to the personal testimonies of individual believers, lessons learned in their experiences both good and bad. (For example, there are particular things that happened to Fanny Crosby relating to her songs Rescue the Perishing, Saved by Grace, and All the Way My Saviour Leads Me.) What the authors learned is passed on in their hymns, and this can bless and instruct us too, through their words.

By collecting this precious historical record in one volume, and identifying by name those who contributed to it, the editors have given us a valuable tool for doctrinal instruction and devotional expression. Here are some ways hymn books can be used, both in the meetings of the church and elsewhere, that make them better than projected words.

I. In Church Services

1) Hymn books can be used before a service begins. It’s helpful to sit quietly and pray, preparing our hearts for what’s to come. During this time, a chosen hymn or two can be read with great blessing–perhaps looking up and reading one being played in the Instrumental Prelude.

2) Did you know that even reading the Index of the hymnal can yield a special blessing before a service? It can. I have an article on my blog about it called Blessings in the Titles. Basically, the practice involves reading a title and asking questions such as: Why is this so? What does it mean to me today? Just use the titles for meditation, not the text of the hymn, and see what strikes you.

3) A well designed evangelical hymnal offers a balanced diet of songs representing different doctrines, songs covering a variety of devotional needs, and songs suited to a variety of occasions. The hymnal thus becomes an effective one-stop service planning resource. If it has a good Topical Index, the pastor and/or worship leader can quickly find a list of songs that relate to the theme of a service. A discussion of this can even take place over the phone, when each has the church’s hymn book before him. John Wesley writes:

In what other publication have you so distinct and full account of scriptural Christianity; such a declaration of the heights and depths of religion, speculative and practical; so strong cautions against the most plausible errors, particularly those now most prevalent; and so clear directions for making your calling and election sure; for perfecting holiness in the fear of God? [The latter phrases being taken from II Pet. 10:1 and II Cor. 7:1.]

4) Hymnals are especially well suited to group singing of many kinds of songs. If the congregation is singing a rhythmic song of praise such as He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, and folks are invited to clap in time, holding a hymn book is not practical. But hymnals are ideal for texts that present a logical argument or tell a story, over several stanzas. When we sing these from a screen, we can’t see the whole thing at once. We can’t look back and see the logic, or the flow of the story, in what is presented

5) During the service time, using hymn books gives the service leader the option of selecting or omitting stanzas (even on the spot), or responding with an unplanned hymn to other things happening in the service (like a prayer request, or something in a testimony time). The service leader should aim to know the hymn book so well that he can suit to what is happening in the service with a hymn, when appropriate.

6) Congregations enjoy times when “requests” are called for by the leader, so they can sing their favourites. This also provides an opportunity to sing hymns that haven’t been used for awhile. Choosing these is easier when members of the congregation can leaf through the books and find a song they’d like the group to sing.

7) Sometimes using hymn books places more of the hymn (more stanzas) before the congregation than would be projected in a given meeting. Many of these are rich in doctrine and devotion, and can be an added blessing.

8) If God speaks to an individual through a hymn, he or she may want to re-read the words after it’s been sung–either during the service, or afterwards. This is easy with a hymn book, but a projected song disappears as soon as it’s been used.

9) Some claim there is even a kind of emotional or psychological benefit to using books. When we take the hymn book, feel the weight of it in our hands, find the right page, and hold it up to sing, it becomes a visible and physical reminder that the church of Jesus Christ is not something new and temporary. Hymn books are a symbol of consistency and permanence that’s difficult to envision with fleeting projected images.

10) It’s worthwhile having books with music notation, because it facilitates singing in harmony, a wonderful fellowship experience. Not everyone has this skill but, with hymn books, it can be learned, over time. Once people begin to understand a little about music notation, it will be easier to learn new tunes. I’ve even felt that it would be helpful to have an occasional singing lesson with the whole congregation, with a view to teaching this.

11) Hymn books can promote congregational singing. The singing seems more assured and enthusiastic when books are used. (I can only describe my own experience here, having preached in many different churches.) Often when projected images are used, the singing seems listless and very quiet. Looking around, I’ve seen many not singing at all. This non-involvement is increased when what is sometimes called a worship team is up front, and loudly amplified. The people in the pews tend to become listeners and observers.

12) Hymn books are easily transported, and great for use elsewhere. They’re suitable for singing at home Bible study or prayer groups, or fellowship times in homes. On occasion, they might be used when services are scheduled at a retreat, or in a seniors facility. Hymn books can also be used in pastoral care. In such situations I’ve sometimes asked, “What would you like me to sing for you?” But even when the visitor is not a singer, hymns can be read in the hospital or nursing home and be a great blessing to patients or residents.

II. In Christian Education

13) Hymn books contain the names of the authors and composers of the songs. This provides a snapshot of our Christian heritage. We’ll see names cropping up a number of times–Watts, Wesley, Newton, Crosby. It can be an added blessing to use other songs by the same author, especially as some of the history of these gifted saints is shared from the pulpit, or in the church bulletin. I believe those who use a steady diet of projected images in worship are in danger of losing touch with our great heritage.

14) Occasionally, a hymn quiz can be printed in the church bulletin one week, with the answers printed there the following week. With hymn books available, participants can look for answers either at church, or at home if they have a copy of the hymnal there.

15) At church, a hymn poll can be taken, asking all who participate to list their favourites. (This is much easier with a hymn book in hand.) Later, the results of the poll could be tabulated, and an entire service could be built around the “Top 10” (singing a verse or two of each). With a bit of thought, these can often be arranged in a logical order so a related devotional message or theme will unfold throughout the service.

16) It is safe to say that most congregations who use hymn books don’t see them as also being text books. But they are–wonderful ones. It is possible to take a quarter (13 weeks) in an adult Sunday School class, to explore the biblical teaching expressed in some hymns. In the hymn books, learners can compare the songs of a particular author, or songs on a particular theme, or from a particular era. Doing this will teach a bit of church history, and help those involved to focus more on the message of each song that is used by the congregation.

17) Some years ago, I taught a course on Hymnology to the Grades 7 and 8 children at a Christian elementary school. I told them some of the interesting stories behind the writing of our hymns. Using books for this enabled me to point out the names of authors and composers, and show other songs in the book by the same authors. The books can also be used for elementary singing instruction with children, as the music notes are available.

After I taught the classes mentioned, parents reported that their children took part with enthusiasm in the hymn singing in the church, pointing out to their surprised parents the hymn authors they’d come to know. Something like this might be done in a simplified form in Children’s Church, Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, or at summer camp. (In the latter two programs, stories about a particular hymn writer and his/her songs could provide a daily series for the week.)

18) I heard of a church that uses copies of their hymn book as prizes in a children’s Bible memorization program. This gets God’s Word into young minds, and gets hymns book into homes that may profit from them. It also reminds everyone of the importance of our hymns and hymnals, definitely a prize to be treasured.

19) I heard of a project in another church where those in a children’s choir were given their own copy of the hymn book if they memorized the first stanza of 20 hymns, and could recite them in front of the others. This could be done with any group of children, not just a choir. (Suggestion: Use the same 20 hymns for all. Then have the children recite them in unison. Group recitation is very valuable–and thrilling.)

20) A church can plan a Community Hymn Sing, inviting other churches to join in. I’ve led many of these, and folks find them a blessing, and a great time of fellowship with other congregations. Because there will be more people who can sing a part (soprano, alto, tenor, or bass), using books with music notation could make this an unforgettable experience, and promote more parts singing in the churches involved.

III. In the Home

21) Every possible effort should be made to encourage members of the congregation to have their own copy of the church’s hymnal at home. In my view, if they cannot afford one, the church should supply it. The tremendous value of this cannot be overstated. It ties the home and the church together in a unique way. It brings the fruit of the devotional experiences of the home into the church, and carries the blessings of the worship and instruction of the gathered church into the home.

22) It’s possible to study hymns at home, just as we study God’s Word there, and use them for daily devotional reading.

A. W. Tozer wrote: “I say without qualification, after the Sacred Scriptures, the next best companion for the soul is a good hymnal….To read or sing a true hymn is to worship with a great and gifted soul [meaning the author] in his moments of intimate devotion…. Every Christian should have, laying beside his Bible, a copy of some standard hymn book.”

Using a home copy of the book, you could read through a hymn, looking up words you don’t understand, and writing a brief definition of each in the margin. Then, you might read the hymn through again, underlining significant things (a promise to believe; a command to obey; a blessing to enjoy and share; an example to learn from.) Reference to this blog will provide background on authors and more. Also, if you learn where your favourite hymn is found in your hymn book at home, you will be ready to call out the number when a time for favourites is given at church.

23) A little homework project could be assigned at church, regarding a hymn to be used on the following Sunday. Family members could discuss what the author means by a particular line, or what we can learn about prayer, faith, Christ’s return, etc. from the hymn. This is bound to greatly enhance the use of the song the following week.

24) One author states he knows members of a congregation who love to find out what the next Sunday’s hymns will be, so they can open up their hymnals at home and meditate on the words. God bless the worship leaders who prepare in advance so folks can do that! The hymn singing in that church will be strengthened accordingly.

25) You could find two or three families who love to sing hymns. Then, arrange to get together perhaps once a month, in a different family’s home each time, for a hymn sing. As long as one person can lead, no instrument is required. If all present attend your church, they could bring their own home copies of the hymn book. But if you include friends outside the church who love the hymns they would need books. With permission, borrow enough from the church so each person has one.

26) I heard of parents who had their children memorize a Bible verse, and a stanza of a hymn, each week. This is another way to enhance the congregational singing later on, and children’s appreciation for the hymns. Having children and adults learn and recite hymns together could become a wonderful family activity. It could be done once a week, at any meal that seems best. At English tea time (around 4:00-6:00 p.m.) each Sunday, pastor and hymn writer Edward Bickersteth asked each member of his family to quote a hymn. His son remembered this experience, years afterward.

27) Having a copy of the church’s hymn book at home enables those who play an instrument to play again songs used in the service on Sunday. They can play old favourites, or to try new hymns in the book that can be requested at church later. During a year or more when my own father was suffering with cancer and was unable to sleep at night, he would plug headphones into the organ (not wanting to disturb the family) and play from our hymnal by the hour.

28) It’s good for each family to have a Guest Book, where visitors can sign their names. It makes a great record to look back on in later years. But here’s an alternative idea. Instead of having visitors to your home sign a guest book, you could have them neatly sign next to their favourite hymn in your hymn book. A great memento! And each time you sing or read that hymn, it will remind you to pray for the person.

IV. Its Relative Ease of Use and Costs

29) Clearly, hymn books can be used when projectors can’t. Technology can let us down at any time–when the projector breaks down, or the bulb blows, or when the one trained to use the equipment is absent. Also, if there is enough light from windows, books can be used during a power outage, while a projector cannot.

30) Hymn books can be used by those on the platform, or when members of the congregation are sitting or standing behind taller people. Or when singers are sitting in a circle, as is done at Bible studies. People don’t all need to be facing a projected image.

31) Because a video projector and the necessary computer are expensive equipment, these are sometimes stored away in a safe place between uses. That means they must be set up each time. Hymn books can often be left in their place, week by week, and simply picked up from the hymn racks when needed.

32) There is a cost associated with the purchase of hymn books. (More of that in a moment.) But there’s also a cost associated with the purchase and maintenance of projection equipment. Replacing projector bulbs is expensive too.

33) To project hymns, there is the further cost of purchasing the appropriate computer program. For example currently: MediaShout 6 costs $400; Proclaim costs $200 per year; Easy Worship (though I don’t care for that term!) costs a base price of $400, plus $200 for upgrades. Paperless Hymnal costs $1,200 for several sets of its songs. The latter projects the music notes too, but that poses another problem. The creators sometimes use new or unfamiliar tunes for well-known hymns, tunes that would have to be learned or the projected music would be useless.

34) Operators of computer programs and projection equipment must be recruited, trained and scheduled. And he or she needs some skill in knowing exactly when to move on to the next image–not too soon, or too late, or singers will be confused. There will inevitably be occasional hitches with operator absences, equipment problems, and selecting the wrong song on the computer. None of these problems exist for those using hymnals.

35) There is also the need to have adequate computer equipment to run one of these programs, and the job of programming it, week by week, by selecting from the software the hymns and stanzas to be used at a given meeting.

36) To project hymns that are under copyright is restricted by copyright law. For a church with an attendance between 25 and 99, Church Copyright Licensing International (the CCLI) currently charges $132 per year for the needed permission. In addition, a weekly record of the songs used must be kept, and sent in to the CCLI. On the other hand, when a church uses hymn books instead of a projector, there’s no annual fee, and no record keeping is needed (though this is a valuable practice for pastors and service leaders).

37) It’s an older tool, and comparatively low-tech, but if we want to try a hymn medley (using selected stanzas of several hymns linked together), or teach a new song not in the hymn book, an overhead projector works well, at very little cost.

38) In assessing the cost of new hymnals, you can figure that, with a good binding and reasonable care, they will last for a decade or more. If the CCLI charge remains the same as it is now, over ten years it would cost the small congregation $1,320 for a copyright license. This is nearly the cost of brand new hymn books, which are easily usable for ten years.

The total cost for 75 books (including shipping) is presently around $1,500. Of course, the cost of 50 or 60 books would be less, and that number could well be adequate for the next few years for a particular church. But even at $1,500, spread over ten years, the cost would be only $150 per year, or $2.88 per Sunday.

In buying hymn books, churches often plan for a well advertised special offering to be taken for the project. If a decision is made to get new books, the church should also strongly encourage individuals and families to buy a home copy (with a different coloured binding, so it’s not confused with the church’s copies).

If new books are purchased, individuals or families can be invited to donate one or several books in memory of a loved one, with a memorial sticker placed in the book. This not only helps defray the cost of the books, but provides a lasting tribute to these individuals which is not possible with projected hymns. For more about this see Choosing a Hymn Book for Your Church.


  1. I’ve always been more for the tangible–preferring the actual book to the virtual–eschewing e-readers for the real deal. Even when I was in the classroom–we had an entire unit devoted to book-making as an art form. Sometimes this progress business is not always what it’s cracked up to be.

    • Great to hear from you! And “book-making”–how neat is that! Thanks for your input and encouragement. I’ve been wondering whether the article would get me written off as a dinosaur whose time had long past. Not that I’m suggesting for a moment that you are a dinosaur! 🙂 God bless.

      • Oh I feel more and more like a dinosaur every day—I still like to actually write, with a pen, on paper, a letter or card, and actually use the post office to mail it 🙂

      • Thank you so much for this article. It certainly makes sense… I once touched briefly on this subject in my book “Singing on the Journey Home.” You’re right – there are numerous advantages for using hymn books as opposed to words projected from a screen!

  2. […] (although in my circles not likely to be read or considered as much as it deserves).  In a recent blogpost in praise of hymnals, he listed 38 reasons to support and use these hardbound books.  I’ve chosen a few of his […]

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments on the blog about hymn books. Responses have been interesting. Most have been positive. I did hear from a missionary working with another culture and in another language whose people could see no point in hymnals at all. I do think they may be particularly relevant to English-speaking people. Many other language groups do not have the heritage available to us.

      Hymns and gospel songs (other that those that use the actual words of Scripture) are a kind of Bible commentary. And (counting translations) we have a wonderfully rich selection of these commentaries, dating back almost to the beginning of the Christian era. The hymn book preserves a significant collection of these expressions of doctrine and devotion. I understand that some may disagree with my point of view; all I’m trying to encourage is a second look.

      Out of curiosity: What do you call a church service? A meeting? A gathering? It’s seems an appropriate term to describe an assembly of God’s people in which we serve Him (the sacrifice of praise, Heb. 13:15), and serve one another (vs. 16). 🙂

      God bless. And thanks again for the review.

  3. I missed those days when we used hymn books in the fellowship. During the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the church building was ransacked. Broken pews and papers are all around, a few hymn books lay trodden except one which I have cherished till today. Hymn singing will be back, God willing.

    • Bless your heart, I hope you’re right. When the church abandons the rich heritage of our hymns, it is greatly impoverished. It’s not that we worship age, and reject anything new. It goes much deeper than that. The devotional heart and doctrinal strength of our traditional hymnody is rarely matched today. When Samuel Davies describes sinners as “such guilty daring worms,” that says something!


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