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Is the hymn book a relic of the past or a treasure for the future? Many seem to think that the traditional use of the hymn book has ended. I would hate to see that this would ever be the case.
Recently, I was surprised by a survey conducted by Ellison Research and released in “Facts and Trends” of LifeWay Christian Resources. It stated that while the use of Praise and Worship music has dramatically increased in congregations with 74 percent including it in their worship services, the use of the traditional hymn as increased up to 88 percent. The actual use of the hymnal has also increased in its use.
Before listening to too much to talk about the demise of the hymn book’s usefulness in our worship services, let’s consider some of its positive attributes.
First, most of the best hymn books have been compiled by groups of top theologians, pastors, worship leaders, and lay leaders to ensure that the hymn texts contain sound doctrine that is true to the Word of God and appropriate for its intended church or denominational use. This helps guard against popular lyrics creeping into our worship that may lack biblical integrity. When using new music, the pastor and worship leaders should examine carefully the content of the words. Hopefully, a good hymn book will give an added confidence of theological integrity.
Secondly, there is nothing like actually holding a book in your hand and being able to carefully examine and meditate on the text. Many churches that project the lyrics on to screens do not even use or make available an actual book. This works OK for many new songs designed with a radio format which offer lyrics that are very quickly digested while making an immediate, although sometimes shallow, impact. However, some of the best hymns are rich in poetic imagery and contain a theological depth that demands involved thinking and mediation.
Finally, the hymn book is a history of our past and the saints who have gone before us. Its music and lyrics allow us to join in an unending song that has been passed down through the ages. There is much that can be learned by studying the lives of the writers and the times in which they wrote. A good start would be to read some of the excellent books on hymns by Robert J. Morgan who is the pastor of the Donelson Fellowship in Nashville, TN. The stories of the great hymns are truly inspirational.
Should we use the best of the new contemporary music in our services? Absolutely! There are many great new Christian songs being written with some of the best new hymn texts being created by the English writers. Some of these new songs will stand the test of time, although, we can only truly say which ones in retrospect. With the hymn book, we have the music and words which have endured.
So, let’s not throw out the hymnal just yet. It is not an ancient relic of a time gone by, but a valuable treasure that can be used and passed on to future generations to the glory of God.
James M. Stevens
Senior Music and Culture Advisor