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.