Hymnals = Vinyl Records: The case for and against hymnals in worship

For music lovers there has been a resurgence of vinyl sales over the past decade. (Or so they say.) The story goes that once tape cassettes and CD's were introduced into the music industry artists put their music on records at a steeply decreasing rate. Now, through illegal downloading services, itunes, Youtube, and through all the many streaming services even the compact disc has become obsolete. But in the midst of the binary age (some) people realized they love their music in a physical form, loved the "warmer" sound of "analog" recordings, and loved spending lots of money on audio equipment. Records are back baby! From used record stores, to remastered reissues of classic albums, to entirely new albums, people are buying and listening to music on records again.

I am one of these people. Over the past few years I have amassed a decent amount of both old and new albums on vinyl and I have spent a chunk of change on the equipment to go with them. But here is what I know: buying albums on record is mostly a thing of the past. The musical world has changed irrevocably and although vinyl has lived on into the present and has found a beautiful resurgence, from here onwards it will always and only remain a niche market, even if it continues to be a significant niche.

Some people hail vinyl as THE way to listen to music and as THE hope for the consumption of music in our disembodied, distracted, fickle, digital age. "It brings us closer to the music!" "It's as close as we can get to the way artists wanted us to hear their work!" "You can hear way more of the music if you've got the right equipment!" All true, especially to us vinyl proselytes. 

And yet personally, over the past year I have listened to new music and older music in a variety of ways. Basically, when there is a song I want to hear I find a way to listen to it in the quickest way possible. Often, for me, this means listening to something on Youtube or Bandcamp where a song is able to be streamed in seconds. Sometimes it means listening to a CD, which I do still buy. Over the past year I have bought/downloaded a few songs off of itunes or Amazon. I have downloaded a couple of albums for free off of Noisetrade. I have not really used any streaming services this past year (though my wife has and my friends have) and a handful of times I listened to music on the radio. I am happy to say I did not use any torrenting sites to acquire music in the past year (although there is a chance an older version of me might have done so). In other words, when it comes to listening to music I use any and all avenues and venues to do so.

Which leads me to the use of hymnals in church worship.

Some people are strong advocates for the continuance or re-introduction of hymnals during worship. This article is probably the most popular and succinct example of the pro-hymnal camp: 15 Reasons We Should Still Be Using Hymnals.

Guess what? I basically agree with everything Jonathan Aigner writes. In point after point he makes a wonderful and beautiful argument for the use of hymnals (of which I have lots of by the way, just as I have of vinyl!).

Still, like the vinyl-only argument what he fails to acknowledge is that hymnals are basically a thing of the past, that church culture has (all but) moved on. He also (nearly) fails to acknowledge any of the downsides to hymnals:

(Remember that I basically agree with everything he says as you read this negative list)
1. Hymnals are expensive for congregations to replace. Purchasing 200 hymnals for your church is a major decision and needs to be a worthwhile investment. I have been part of a church plant on a very limited budget for the past five years, where both my lead pastor and I have been bi-vocational ministers. A set of hymnals simply was not an option for us (though the building we recently moved into came with a few Episcopal Hymnal 1982's).

2. Hymnals inhibit physical expressions of worship. Sure you can kneel, raise your hands, dance, or hold your kids while singing from a hymnal, but at the same time the freedom to kneel, raise hands, etc. is inhibited by holding the hymnal and by constantly having to refer to what is on the page in order to know where you are at. The ability to have music and lyrics projected on a screen is quite frankly physically liberating, even if many people find them a sacrilegious eyesore. Nonetheless, projection allows the worshipper to inhabit a more fully incarnational expression, a spiritually embodied expression of worship. I grew up in Pentecostal churches where people were free to move as they saw fit. I hope to encourage this in my own church's worship as much a possible as most people struggle to let go even just a little emotionally and physically during worship. I am sure hymnal lovers would disagree, but to me hymnals are distracting and often non-user friendly, even while still containing all the musical and theological benefits listed in the article above.

3. Hymnals are impossible to update properly in today's worship music culture. Worship music is moving fast these days. Good luck keeping up with it all. I will write at length on the plague of the disposable worship music culture we have created for ourselves in my next article, but when it comes to hymnals they (to me) represent one unhelpful extreme on the worship music spectrum. Their greatest benefit is their greatest downfall: they are set in stone and limited in scope according to the tastes of their editors who only knew what they knew at a particular time. The opposite end of the spectrum though is even more unhelpful: all new music all the time and whatever is newest is best. But this is the topic for another article. Nonetheless, the limitations of holding onto a particular hymnal edition for your congregation should be acknowledged soberly.

4. A decent portion of the selections in hymnals consist of untested new songs a hymnal committee are experimenting with to see if they "stick" with congregations for years to come. However, most of those new songs either go unsung or end up being despised by song leaders. Essentially, all the new songs are guesses as to what congregations and song leaders will like and they usually end up feeling dated pretty quickly. This means a decent chunk of a given hymnal is wasted space.

5. Hymnals tend to represent the best selection of hymns from a particular tradition, not ALL traditions. This is a relatively minor quibble as basically all hymnals contain a near inexhaustible wealth of riches, and yet very often you will find significant absences from hymnal to hymnal depending on your knowledge of hymnody. I am no expert on where every hymn has found a home in a hymnal, but www.hymnary.org is an incredible resource giving often vast amounts of info on individual hymns, including what hymnals they can be found in (take for instance my favorite hymn "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling"). There are many attempts at all encompassing hymnals out there such as the Gather Comprehensive, but every collection has its limits, either in terms of historical scope or place in time.

Therefore, from where I stand hymnals are neither bad nor good but instead a particular technology with its own set of benefits and downfalls, even if some argue it is a superior "technology" compared to the newer technologies. Therefore, if hymnals are to be used in modern day church culture they should be used wisely, with instruction, and with considered patience by church leaders who have people in their communities in which a hymnal will be a foreign and difficult to use object. 

My admonition for pastors and song leaders would not be to create an either/or scenario but to instead embrace the complexity of our age and be savvy enough as community leaders to help our people be equally as savvy with how we learn and sing the music that is our praise offering to God. Acknowledge that music can be learned in a variety of ways. Acknowledge that all forms of technology have downfalls and that hymnals in and of themselves are not the answer but an answer (even if you happen to think they are the best answer).

From Sunday to Sunday this might mean embracing the difficulty of learning how to teach music in multiple different way, perhaps even taking the risk to teach a new song without any printed or projected music at all. The record music industry has had to get very creative in how it gets music out to people in the wake of the internet as a disruptor. Church music leaders need to acknowledge the world of church music has been equally disrupted and adapt accordingly. Our call is to learn to navigate between where our people are at culturally and where they need to be musically and theologically. The world of the one hymnal that serves the worship of a generation or more has passed and we should not live as if the cultural shift has not happened. Therefore, teach hymnody and multiple harmonies and theology with hymnals, printed music, projected music, and yes, even aurally. Combine them all and see what happens. 

If you are a projector only church think about opening up those dusty boxes sitting behind the baptismal and get out the hymnals again. Teach your people one song a month from there and help them learn how to sing in two, three, or even four part harmony. And if hymnals are nowhere to be found, find a way to print the music in your bulletin. Getting out the hymnals is a bit like cracking open some vinyl: they might be old and dusty but it just feels nice.

This article is part of larger series called "Worship in Full Spectrum", which encourages us to embrace paradox when it comes to worship and worship music. So here is the paradox in this particular article: the truth is, nothing actually has to change in the music of any particular church congregation. A group could use the same hymnal for 100's of years or even the same set of 5 hymns from time immemorial but so long as the people are sincerely worshipping God in heart, mind, soul, and strength, then hardly anything else matters. The heart of the matter is not to either sing what has been past down through the ages or the newest new song, but for us as the Body of Christ to worship the almighty God. So in this sense, Church music leaders, do as you feel led. 

And yet, as a church music leader I am drawn into a more complex path, of simultaneously seeking out the old and new, of embracing the changes of our culture(s) while also learning how things were in the past. This more complex path is disruptive to what I think I like or know about worship music—on both ends of the spectrum. I have been and continue to be disrupted by both the past and the present manifestations of the Church's song. To Worship in Full Spectrum is to embrace the complexity of it all, no matter how mind boggling it gets. It may mean leading music in a church that uses hymnals, projectors, instruments, voice only, worship in the round, worship in choir stalls, worship on our knees, and worship dancing in the aisles—all to different effects and purposes, implemented at various times, and within the realms of Paul's 1st Corinthians ordered church.

So use hymnals or don't or use everything you can get your hands. Either way, be willing to embrace the complexity of the place we find ourselves in.

Previous article in the Worship in Full Spectrum Series: 
Worship in Full Spectrum: An Introduction

Related Articles:
Worship Music Should Be Radically Contemporary
The Multiverse of a Worship Song: Matt Redman's "This Beating Heart"
Why I've Never Sung Matt Redman's "10,000 Reasons" At My Church
The Top 5 Worship Songs of the Last 10 Years


Jed said...

Perhaps transparent overheads = cassette tapes.

I love the perspective. Hymnals can be apart of a vibrant worship in a modern worship setting. When we start to get extreme, saying it's the only way to worship or there is no way we can worship with hymnals, seems to be when we start to get off course.

Thanks for the post.

PostConsumer Reports said...

That's a great correlation. Although cassettes are kind of coming back again, though definitely as a novelty. Maybe the truly hipster churches are doing overhead projectors!

Thanks for your thoughts.