Choosing a Hymnal for a Worship Service

One person recently wrote in to ask:

1. What criteria would you use in selecting a new hymnal?
2. What particular hymnals would you recommend checking into?

Although we don’t use a hymnal in our Sunday meetings, if I were to choose one, I’d look for one that contains the best of Christian hymnody prior to the early 20th century. These are the songs for congregational worship that have been established, tried, tested, and proven to be beneficial to the Church.

Since a hymnal should serve primarily as a tool to teach and reinforce the doctrines of the Christian faith, I’d look for many songs by Watts, Wesley, Newton, Toplady, Cowper, Hart, and others that thought theologically before they thought musically. Few writers today write about the character and acts of God like the early English hymnwriters. They wrote well and thoroughly about topics like God’s sovereignty, the glories of the Savior’s substitutionary sacrifice, trust in affliction, hope in trials, and faithfulness in our mission. I’d look for a broad spectrum of themes, focusing on the glorious works and attributes of the triune God. I wouldn’t ignore relevance, but I’d be more concerned about biblical accuracy. Bonuses in a hymnal include creeds, confessions of the faith, and responsive readings.

In an e-mail conversation, Eric Schumacher mentioned that hymnals are an expensive investment and should be comprehensively researched. Taking the time to “test-drive” different hymnals is far preferable to simply going with what’s popular. He said, “I remember thinking how expensive Praise! was when I purchased it and how it would be costly for a church. On that note, given the long-term impact it will have on its users, churches should not be afraid to spend money on the hymnal they choose. Content should not be sacrificed for financial savings, even if they are significant.”

Modern publishers have produced many hymnals that seek to include many songs written in the past few decades. While recognizing that God is still birthing new songs is laudable, including them in a hymnal has some inherent problems.

  • Many, certainly not all, of the songs written in the past 30-40 years have a short “shelf life” and won’t be used past 5-10 years, if that long. If they’re in a hymnal, churches may feel it’s good stewardship to keep singing them.
  • Including newer songs for the purpose of being more current means publishers have to leave out older songs, many of which may be stronger in content and music than their replacements.
  • Generally, we exhibit an unhealthy trust in our own assessment of how wise we are in comparison to our fathers in the faith. It makes sense to give new songs time to prove themselves before they’re included in a hymnal.
  • New songs are constantly being written, many of which are better than other recent offerings.
  • Projection media or printing in bulletins has made it easier to include whatever new songs we desire.

That’s not to say that new songs shouldn’t be included, especially if they obviously contain a depth and quality that will endure.

Having said that, there are four hymnals I’ve come across that I’m happy to recommend.

The Trinity Hymnal
– This is widely used in PCA churches contains 742 hymns. Its objective is to “furnish a collection of ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ that are faithfully based on God’s word, clearly teach the doctrines of grace, and facilitate the biblical worship of God among his people.”

Christian Hymns – This is the hymnal of the Evangelical Movement of Wales. It comes in a music/lyrics format and lyrics only, and contains 901 hymns. Of course, because it’s a UK hymnal, some of the tunes are different from what Americans are used to. O For a Thousand Tongues and Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness are two examples. It includes a very helpful variety of indexes, including biblical references and allusions, metrical forms, and first lines of every verse.

Grace Hymns – I asked Pete Greasley, who pastors a Sovereign Grace Church in Newport, Wales for his recommendation and this is the one he cited. Filled with rich lyrics that extol the glories of God in Christ and the His sovereign grace. Again, some of the tunes differ from what Americans may be used to.

Praise! – This is a noble attempt by UK-based Praise Trust to put together a hymnal that modernizes the language of many traditional hymns, offers at least one version of every Psalm, and includes the best from many modern hymn-writers. Containing 976 hymns, it comes in music/lyric or lyrics only formats.

As I said, we don’t use a hymnal at Covenant Life, but do carry the Trinity Hymnal in our bookstore. Our church is not a music-reading church at this point, and I think it’s too large to change that. However, I think a hymnal can be a rich resource for families who have any musical gift and want to grow in their love for and knowledge of God through time-tested hymns of the faith.

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12 Responses to Choosing a Hymnal for a Worship Service

  1. Peter Schellhase July 14, 2006 at 7:24 PM #

    Thanks for the recommendations, Mr. Kauflin! I will relay this to my family – we’re looking for a more theologically sound hymnal.

  2. dan mcgowan July 14, 2006 at 8:18 PM #

    I’m just curious if you have another reason besides a song being “tried and tested prior to the 20th Century” for selecting a hymnal for use in churches. That seems to be limiting quite a lot of song possibilities from being used to glorify our Lord. And, when you say “prior to the 20th Century” what you mean is songs that are dated from 1899 and earlier, right? So, no song from 1900 forward should be used in worship? Surely I read this wrong – this cannot really be what you mean, right?

  3. Bob Kauflin July 15, 2006 at 7:13 AM #

    Dan,

    You wrote:

    “So, no song from 1900 forward should be used in worship? Surely I read this wrong – this cannot really be what you mean, right?”

    I’m not sure how you got that from what I posted, but I’m more than happy to attempt to say it more clearly.

    Because a hymnal is such an expensive proposition, it seems wise to choose one that “contains the best of Christian hymnody prior to the early 20th century.” I wouldn’t recommend that it “only” contains those songs, just that it contains them. I later wrote, “That’s not to say that new songs shouldn’t be included, especially if they obviously contain a depth and quality that will endure.” I picked that time period because in the latter part of the 19th century hymns were increasingly characterized by subjectivism, emotionalism, and vague theology. But there were fine hymns written during that era, just as there are in every age.

    God is always birthing new songs for His people to sing. If I didn’t believe that, I’d have a hard time explaining why I and other Sovereign Grace writers continue to produce new songs for congregational worship. However, because the number of new songs is so large and always growing, it makes sense to use less expensive ways of reproducing them, such as projection, bulletins, or songbooks.

    I didn’t check the copyrights on the hymnals I recommended, but I know that Praise! contains many outstanding hymns by modern composers such as Christopher Idle and Timothy Dudley-Smith.

    Hope that clears things up. Thanks again for asking.

  4. dan mcgowan July 15, 2006 at 8:52 AM #

    Hi Bob,

    Yes, I do understand what you are saying, I just don’t happen to agree with it for a couple of reasons…

    First, the mere fact that a song has been around a long time or sung for many years does not automatically indicate it has any “worship value.” I think the issue can never be a songs longevity – but, rather, does a particular song – regardless of when it was composed – honestly help us to encounter the presence of the Lord? And, since I happen to believe that ANY God-focused song can accomplish this (since worship is a CHOICE, not a RESULT of the songs we sing) then I would say ANY hymnal would work… there’s no need to spend a lot of money on a brand new hymnal… find a church who is getting rid of theirs and offer to buy them… most hymnals will have a good collection of songs that most will enjoy singing. My vote would be to abandon this idea of “time frame” as to what makes a song worthy or not.

    Second, I’m sure you already know this, but some readers may not. The word “hymn” comes from the word, “hymnos” (which I might have spelled wrong, not sure) and THAT word actually is defined as: “a song or ode to or about God.” This means that ANY song that sings to or about God fits the Biblical definition of “hymn” even though that may not be what our recent history has decided a hymn to be. In other words, every song Sovereign Grace has composed is, by definition, as much a “hymn” as “How Great Thou Art.” This is huge for me because we continue – even subtly in this post of yours, which I am sure you did not intend – to raise reasons for musical division in our churches whenever we maintain the use of classifying songs as either a “hymn” or a “gospel song” or a “chorus” or a “CCM song” etc. To God – they are ALL THE SAME – and, so, it should be that way with us as well.

    Thanks for clearing up your thoughts on this. Hope I was equally as clear.

  5. Jacob Young July 15, 2006 at 9:40 AM #

    Bob,

    I recently bought a hymnal for personal worship, and being a Reformed Baptist, I found the Trinity Hymnal: Baptist Edition (url provided below) to be of great service. I didn’t know if you knew about this particular hymnal, but I’ve really enjoyed it.

    This is where I bought mine from.
    http://www.sermonaudio.com/source_prodinfo.asp?PID=gi11105191648

  6. Paul Hayes July 16, 2006 at 12:56 PM #

    Do you feel that not using the hymnal limits harmony sung in your church?
    I have a significant group of “music readers” in my fellowship and try to keep using the hymnal at least part of the time to continue harmonization.
    Thanks for the recommendations-I also appreciate the Trinity Hymnal for its treasure trove of classic, deep, theologically sound hymns. Paul

  7. Bob Kauflin July 19, 2006 at 10:49 AM #

    Thanks again for stopping by.

    We seem to be missing each other in this conversation. I actually agree with the points you’re making!

    A song’s value is not determined merely by how long its been around. There are plenty of old songs that are rubbish, to quote my British friends. However, at the same time, there are many songs that stick around because they so effectively direct people’s thoughts and hearts to exalting the Savior.

    I also agree that our worship of God is not dependent on the songs we sing. A worshiper worship God. I’d just add that some songs are better than others for planting a clear view of God in our hearts and minds. For that reason, it seems entirely appropriate for a church to look for a hymnal that contains more strong songs than weak ones.

    Finally, classifying songs as hymns, choruses, or gospel songs, is not the same as saying one genre is better than another. Paul spoke of singing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” While we can’t be entirely sure what he meant, he appears to making a distinction in the kinds of songs we praise God with. Let’s continue to focus on the Savior who has purchased us and brought us together by His blood, and use every kind of song to express his greatness and glory.

  8. jon July 19, 2006 at 12:01 PM #

    Bob,

    Thanks, once again, for serving pastors with your research, wisdom, and experience…pointing to resources that few would have the time to look for on their own.

    jon

  9. Dan Hames July 20, 2006 at 9:04 AM #

    Christian Hymns is great!

    As is Gadsby’s Hymns is you can get your hands on a copy (no tunes).

    Dan

  10. Haylee A. July 23, 2006 at 2:05 PM #

    Crown and Covenant Publications sells Psalters, which are just like hymnals except they have psalms instead of hymns. A lot of the tunes are tunes that they borrowed from famous hymns, so a lot of them are pretty easy to pick up. I’m pretty sure they also sell cds from the Geneva College group New Song, who sing accapella psalms.

    There is also the group Sons of Korah and their spin-off artist, Jason Coghill. They both put out albums that are exclusively psalms, but with guitars and some other instruments. You can get Sons of Korah albums at gardenofreading.com.

    Haylee

  11. Kyle Irvin Murphy May 17, 2011 at 8:43 AM #

    Since you listed many of the good hymnals, which obviously must contain good hymns, would you mind listing any of the bad hymns, that are theologically inaccurate in some way, don’t show reverence to God, or have any other problems. If just one bad hymn is found in a hymnal I do not believe the church should supply or hold this hymnal.

    I am writing my high school thesis on humanism (focus on man rather than God) in the church. I have found many examples of how what man thinks is right has seeped its way into worship music in contemporary music, but I need to find some hymns that are bad as well.

    Thank you,
    Kyle Murphy

  12. Alec December 18, 2015 at 7:04 AM #

    Bob,

    Even a decade later, your post offers excellent advice.

    With the hope that others will benefit from your suggestions, your post is featured on Mishmash 9 | Hymns and him.

    Wishing you a “Merry Christmas”.

    Alec

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