Choosing A Hymnal

The congregation is the primary choir of the church, the hymnal its main resource for repertoire. Placed with the Bible in the pew, it is the book most frequently used in the service. Its selection is therefore a major decision. Here are some suggestions about how to choose the hymnal best suited to your congregation.

Take Time To Be Thorough

Choosing a hymnal wisely takes time. Investigate a candidate hymnal thoroughly. Those making the decision should live with it for a while; your congregation will live with it for several years.

Obtain samples of at least three good hymnals. Make a comparison chart of features, strengths, and weaknesses. Note what the new hymnal has that your present one lacks, and vice versa. The tradeoffs should be definitely in favor of making a change. The new songs should be sufficiently interesting and of adequate substance to make you want to teach them to your people, and to motivate your people to learn them and sing them frequently.

Do not choose a book simply because it comes in a color that coordinates with the sanctuary carpet! You sing the content of the book, not its cover. Nonetheless, its appearance should be sufficiently attractive to invite you into its treasures. Choose the best quality binding you can afford; you will prolong the value of your investment and preserve its appearance. Quality paper and printing produces notes and words that are clean and easy to read, encouraging usage.

There should be a significant number of important traditional hymns, plus a judicious selection of new ones. Every hymnal is a compromise. A new hymnal should provide material to help your congregation grow in its musical expression throughout the next decade. If you tire of it after three or four years, you have made an unwise investment.

Ask The Publisher For References

Contact people who use the book you are considering. Ask for a candid evaluation of the book’s strengths and weaknesses. Does their congregation feel enthusiastic about it, or do they politely tolerate it?

Study The Organization Of The Hymnal

Does it follow a sequence based on theological progression (God, church, Christian life, etc.), the liturgical year (starting with Advent hymns), a certain categorical distinction (e.g., psalms, hymns, spiritual songs), some type of topical order, or does it lack order altogether? Generally, hymns on a common subject should be grouped together.

Think through your needs for a full year. Envision how the book will be used. Make sure your hymnal has selections appropriate for your needs.

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Scrutinize The Texts

Be sure each hymn has something significant to say, and says it well. A good hymnal will have many “winners” and relatively few “losers.” Are verses omitted, or new ones included? If the text has been altered or “updated,” the changes should be helpful and significant, not distracting and merely cosmetic.

New hymns should have substantive literary as well as theological integrity. Durable new songs are increasingly few. A selection hits a peak of popularity and quickly disappears. Few songs of ten years ago are still sung today, and even fewer from just two to three years ago. A book easily can be outdated by the time it comes off the press.

Sing All The Hymns

The melodies should be singable and the rhythms manageable. Rhythms of new songs often are too complicated for the congregation. There should be a wide variety of styles. Melodies should be set in a comfortable range but not so low that they inhibit energetic, bright singing. There is no reason a melody cannot go up to a D or E-flat at least.

Study The Supplementary Materials

Responsive readings should be ones you will find most appropriate in your church. The book should have the basic indexes: title and first line listed alphabetically, a metrical index, a listing of tune names, and an author-composer index. If a single source has contributed more than three or four selections, it should merit such frequency; the writer should be historically significant, or at least currently in fashion. An index of scriptural allusions in the hymns is helpful for finding the hymn most compatible with a certain message. One of the most frequently used indexes is the topical one. It should be extensive, with numerous categories and cross-referencing.

Compare Reactions

Note the responses of those who have looked over the hymnal. A congregation will arrive at a more judicious choice when it is based on several qualified opinions. Be sure those who make the decision are qualified to do so. Take time to really pray about the selection. Then recommend the book with enthusiasm.

When you have chosen a hymnal through which your people can effectively worship, be edified, and communicate their faith, use its potential. Too often, less than half the hymns in a hymnal are sung even once, and fewer than 100 with any frequency. Make an effort to explore yours as fully and frequently as possible. You will be rewarded with a vibrantly singing congregation.

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A Review Of Three New Hymnals

Hymnal publishers face difficult times. Devastated by the practice of churches making up their own hymnals through unauthorized photocopies and overhead projections, they now are increasingly cautious about publishing new hymnals.

The practice in some churches of eliminating hymnals in favor of transparencies has only intensified the loss of the people’s musical birthright. Although there are notable exceptions, many of the materials easily learnable without printed music are textually and musically naÏve and repetitious, often sounding like variants of one another.

Since our last hymnal review (CT, May 9, 1975), three significant nondenominational hymnals have been published. In each instance, the editors have striven for quality in content, editing, and production.

Since its release in 1976, Hymns for the Family of God (Paragon Associates) has become the best-selling independent hymnal. It is innovative, and it is large, with 507 selections and 192 readings.

Fred Bock, the general editor, and his staff were responsive to the tastes of the average congregation. Not only are both traditional and contemporary repertoire well represented, but there are even some standard pieces from the choral literature that could be sung by the congregation, such as Stainer’s “God So Loved the World.” The Christmas section is excellent, and includes two of the Alfred Burt carols. There also is a rare, but welcome, emphasis on the relationship of believers to one another.

The hymnal is organized into four major sections—“God’s Love for Us,” “Our Love for God,” “Our Love for the Family of God,” and “Our Love for Others.” As is true of all three hymnals, the titles used for each hymn are the common ones. There is no attempt to systematize everything by first line, a device that may contribute to uniformity, but also often creates results that may be described as “interesting.” Alternate stanzas are numbered on each line and printed in italics, to help the singer keep track of which line to sing.

As one means of heightening the excitement of congregational singing, the editors have included 27 last-stanza reharmonizations. There also are several vocal and instrumental descants.

One wishes for more readings from Scripture. Readings are distributed throughout the book, which not only encourages meaningful congregational participation in worship, but enhances the usefulness of the book at home.

Hymns II (InterVarsity Press, 1976) was begun by editor Paul Beckwith. After his death. Hughes Huffman and Mark Hunt completed the project.

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Although the book is not large—only 204 selections—it exudes quality. The editors have placed much emphasis on texts with substantive content. A strong British influence—including 25 selections from the 1973 hymnal, Psalm Praise—means that many selections are unfamiliar to the average American churchgoer, but they merit learning and using. Some, like Frank Houghton’s outstanding Christmas hymn, “Thou Who Wast Rich,” should be memorized as well. There is a separate section of psalm settings at the end of the book. There are very few gospel songs.

A unique editing procedure is the hyphenation of words according to how they are sung rather than how the dictionary divides the syllables. For example, “ev-’ry” becomes “e-v’ry,” and “prom-ised” becomes “pro-mised.”

Hymns II is well adapted to informal use, for it is relatively small in size, is available in a soft binding, and has guitar symbols. In fact, some selections have only melody lines and chord symbols.

Although there is no topical index, the hymns are arranged topically, and one can use the table of contents to locate the categories. There is the now-mandatory index to Scriptural references and allusions in the hymns.

The most recent of these hymnals is Praise! (Singspiration, 1979), compiled by John W. Peterson and Norman Johnson (see “Christian Music’s Unsung Hero,” CT, Sept. 2, 1983). Johnson’s expert editing and comprehensive knowledge of hymnology is apparent in every detail.

This, too, is a large book, containing 572 selections, with worship resources grouped separately. Responsive readings are taken from the New International Version. To encourage congregational use, service music is apportioned throughout the book, rather than collected at the end or printed on endpapers. Johnson’s solution to helping wayward congregational singers keep their place in multi-stanza hymns is to print a small arrowhead by the beginning of each line of the middle stanza.

The inclusion of a number of fine Scandinavian hymns reflects the Scandinavian backgrounds of Peterson and Johnson. Contemporary hymnody is well represented: 77 of the selections were composed in the 1970s. However, the compilers were careful to retain not only traditional hymnody, but well-loved gospel songs as well, from such old favorites as “I’ll Fly Away” to George Beverly Shea’s “I’d Rather Have Jesus” and Don Wyrtzen’s fine hymn of worship, “Worthy Is the Lamb.” Although it is not a true hymnal, we should mention The Electric Hymnal (Word, 1983). It consists of individual hymn kits, and is an innovative attempt to provide churches with good quality, legal overhead transparencies.

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Publishers want to meet the hymnal needs of the congregation. The heritage is ours, and we need each other to preserve it. These three hymnals all make valid contributions to that effort.

Other major hymnals still in print: Hymns for the Living Church (Hope), Great Hymns of the Faith (Singspiration), Hymns of Truth and Praise (Gospel Perpetuating), Worship and Service Hymnal (Hope), Hymns of Faith (Tabernacle), and The New Church Hymnal (Lexicon).


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