The Value of the Hymnal

This is the 24th in a series of Friday posts on congregational song.

I have no interest in revisiting the whole debate about hymnals versus projection. But whichever one you are presently using, it is constructive to remember the continuing value of the hymnal.

For those of us who choose and lead hymns, we need to keep at hand a large and varied collection of hymns. Not only is it a useful source, but it challenges us and holds us accountable. When we were compiling the Sing to the Lord hymnal, we sent out a usage survey for its predecessor, the Worship in Song hymnal. We asked worship leaders to tell us how often they had used each hymn in Worship in Song in the past 12 months. Respondents told us over and over again that, having been forced to go through the entire hymnal, they were shocked and disappointed at how few of its riches they had been enjoying.

Without a hymnal to stretch us, we are more likely to take the path of least resistance. We draw from our limited memories and reuse the same familiar hymns again and again. A hymnal disciplines us and draws us deeper into the wealth of wonderful hymns that are always at our disposal.

The hymnal is also a priceless devotional book. More will be said about that in a later post.

As you look to the future, are you hoping for improvement of projection technology, or are you planning for a hymnal purchase? In either case, it’s helpful to remember the advantages unique to a hymnal. Here’s at least a partial list:

  • With a hymnal, we can see the music and visually follow it, even if our musical ability is limited. For some of us, trying to sing a melody we can’t see is unnerving.
  • Part-singing is a beautiful tradition in the church. Current projection systems will make it extinct.
  • With a hymnal, a glance at the page shows us the size and shape of the hymn. As we head into the hymn, we can see where we’re going.
  • With a hymnal, we can also look back. If a verse stirs us or puzzles us, we can read it again and ponder it.
  • Most hymnals tell us not only who wrote the hymn but when. Readers want to know when and by whom a book is written, and the same information is helpful to singers.
  • A hymnal can go places a projection system cannot. Hymns need to reach beyond our church sanctuaries, and a hymnal helps make that possible. Again, more about that in a later post.

As we move forward, let’s not leave behind treasures that are still irreplaceable. No matter how useful our projection systems, a hymnal remains one of those treasures.


  1. James Lowery says:

    Thank you for this series. Good reminders of “The Work of the People” in active participation in expressing THEIR worship to the Lord.

    I do ‘quibble’ with your call to ‘move forward.’

    In time, yes.
    In actual discipleship-through-music of The Congregation? Hardly.

    What the majority evangelical church in the West seems to be experiencing is a journey backward to pre-Luther times, when The People could not participate in their work which was left to the “professionals” of that large (so-called) praise team, the Schola Cantorum.

    Your warnings are timely and ‘spot on.’ Keep them coming!!

    Jim Lowery
    Richmond, VA

    • Ken Bible says:

      Yes, Jim, my reference to moving forward was regarding time. I agree with your concerns about congregational singing. I witness the difference every Sunday. Thanks for your observations.

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