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One of the finest things I’ve ever read on worship is Harold Best’s contribution to Exploring the Worship Spectrum: 6 Views. In his chapter, Best pens an eloquent defense of the spiritual and musical capabilities of the printed hymnbook. He explores eight reasons why “the best hymnbooks are treasure troves of theology, prayer, Scripture, song, hymnic information, stylistic variety, and liturgical opportunity.” I’ve summarized his reasons in my own words and tried to provide an apt quotation for each one.

1. The hymnbook is a servant of the Word of God. “The hymnbook is, in its own way, a comprehensive exegetic work; it is metric theology. Over centuries of thought and practice, hymn writers have virtually left no topical or theological stone unturned. Hence, we can safely say that  a properly compiled hymnbook is a primary and indispensable source for thinking and singing biblically” (66).

2. The hymnbook is remarkable diverse in style. The content, the styles, the meters, the range of simplicity and complexity, the full scope of human emotion–the hymnbook doesn’t just contain “hymns” as a fixed genre, but hundreds of hymns much more diverse than even the best selection of the best songs from the last twenty years.

3. The hymnbook is also musically diverse. “Two thousand years of musical evolution are offered: chant, psalmody, carols, folk tunes, ethnic tunes, curving Welsh ballads and hearty English melodies, Germanic stoutness, French clarity, early American forthrightness, gospel tunes (both black and white), nineteenth-century sweetness, twentieth- and twenty-first-century freshenings and asymmetries” (67).

4. The hymnbook thrives on hands-on printed material. “To the extent that many contemporary practices have overlooked the value of visual musical literacy and carry-around texts, and in a literal sense have reverted to preliterate oral tradition, they are failing–not just the church, but culture” (68).

5. The hymnbooks has been foundational in the history and development of choral music. “What is sung by the congregation, what is performed by choral ensembles or soloist(s), and what is played on instruments are kin to each other, discrete members of a large family, each of whom graces and welcomes the other” (68).

6. The hymnbook is a working history of the church’s response to God in worship. “As the Word of God is read in a worship service, the hymns in that same service talk back to the Word and onward to God in faithful concord. In this sense, congregational song joins prayer and homily in prophesying: It speaks up, speaks out, and speaks truth” (69).

7. The hymnbook is a tremendous tool for private devotions. “If the hymnbook suffers neglect in our times, it is not so much because shortsighted and thoughtless pastors and worship leaders have discarded it, but because it is sequestered away in sanctuaries and used only on Sundays. Over the course of a singing year, maybe twenty or thirty percent of its contents, give or take, will have been used. But give every parishoner a copy of a great hymnal and challenge each one to absorb and integrate its contents fully into an eager and farseeing devotional regimen, and you will have a revival of interest, not just in hymn singing, but in the Lord himself” (70).

8. The hymnbook is scholarly and surprisingly flexible. “One of the joys of going through a good hymnbook is to peruse its Scripture readings and lectionaries, stories, prefaces, indices, creedal statements, and devotional commentaries, suggested orders of worship, and prayers. . . . A good hymnbook is also clever–or maybe I should say a good hymnbook in the hands of a clever worship leader is a remarkably flexible tool. Through the use of metrical and tune indices, new matchings of tunes and texts can be found that allow for variety and freshness” (71).

The bottom line: “Therefore, with the Word as the center of all church song, the hymnbook as its singable exegetic companion, and a significant body of hymn-related church music, we have a living organism that is virtually without parallel in the life of the church” (68).

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15 thoughts on “A Good Hymnal Is a Terrible Thing to Waste”

  1. CherylVT says:

    Excellent reminder of why I love to sing from the hymnal instead of staring up at a wall and/or screen. Not to mention the part about being able to read the music for new songs…

  2. Dorothy says:

    I agree. There is nothing better than singing a hymn from a hymnal. It resonates on so many levels, the nostalgia it brings from singing a familiar hymn from childhood, the respect it brings when you see the date it was composed and realize it’s been sung for hundreds of years, the rudimentary knowledge of music it brings all members as they follow the printed musical score, the poetry of the language soaring in gorgeous melodies, and the rich theological and spiritual knowledge contained within it.
    No wonder I am so disappointed to have to sing a three line refrain 12 times in a row while staring at a wall.

  3. Ed says:

    I’ve been thinking of getting a hymnbook for devotional purposes for a while but my local church doesn’t use one. Top Recommendations?

  4. R C says:

    These are also great reasons to sing the psalms, God’s inspired words, which for hundreds of years (thousands, actually), were considered the only music for God’s people in worship–such a treasure trove! You don’t have to worry about theological wackiness creeping in, you store up God’s Word in your heart continually, and you see Jesus in the Old Testament every time you sing. We’ve been so blessed to have such a hymnal every time we open our Bibles.
    Eph. 5:19 “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord;”
    You can find psalters with music notation through Crown and Covenant.

  5. Kevin DeYoung says:

    We use the Trinity Hymnal at our church. There is a Trinity Psalter too. Crown and Covenant puts out a psalter as well. For many years our congregation used the gray CRC Psalter Hymnal. There are a few clunkers in there (and some lyrics get changed in frustrating ways), but all in all it was a very good hymnal for us.

  6. Paul Janssen says:

    The RCA/CRC’s new hymnal, “Lift Up Your Hearts” is quite good. (And I have no personal ties to it whatsoever) The congregation I serve is trying to decide between it and “Glory to God.”

  7. anaquaduck says:

    There is something about hymnals, the extra tune details, headings, creeds etc. These create a lesson in history & culture as much as worship & testify to God & His salvation in so many ways. I am thinking of a psalter hymnal from years ago. The thing is a screen on a wall can be just as useful as a stone tablet when it comes to God & the same can be said of a simple chorus or a multi versed hymn.

  8. Reed says:

    Great post, thank you Kevin!

    Do any of you know of a psalter that relies on the ESV? I’d like to get one for personal and devotional use, but I’ve never seen one. Are any such projects even underway? This seems like something there would be quite a demand for.

  9. Dan says:

    And you might even find the Heidelberg Catechism in the back of one!

    How sad it is that churches in their quest for spontaneity and authenticity, discard in prejudice the things of our faith that are most precious.

  10. Rev. Zachary Anderson says:

    I would have agreed until I came to Puerto Vallarta and was asked to start from nothing with people who had just come to know Christ. We have graduated to hymnals but not a single member of our church reads music. We happily use powerpoint to help people become acclimated to church music and just singing! It is just a tool and it doesn’t take away from the glory of God. By the way, almost all of our members, when they learn our songs, also request hymnals to take home to use. We are moving in the right direction.

  11. God wrote a hymnal, which is entirely sufficient for that purpose.

  12. I couldn’t agree more. There is nothing better than the old hymnals. I am in my 30s and would rather listen to songs from old hymn books than newer songs today.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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