Do Hymnals have a future?

John D. Witvliet thinks so:

  1. Hymnals are especially well suited to good group singing of many kinds of songs (though not all).
  2. Hymnals are portable.
  3. Hymnals are splendid for home piano or keyboard devotional playing.
  4. Hymnals are an efficient one-stop worship planning resource.
  5. Hymnals make it relatively easy to stumble on and fall in love with good music you never thought you would like.
  6. Well-designed hymnals offer a vision of a balanced thematic diet.
  7. Hymnals help connect songs with elements of worship.
  8. Hymnals give people access to a “cultural memory bank” that many desperately want.
  9. Hymnals can be appealing to seekers.
  10. A hymnal can be a surprisingly effective catechism for both brand-new and lifelong Christians.

I can’t remember the last time I used a hymnal.

And I can’t say that I miss them.

I don’t think my teenagers know what a hymnal is.

So it’s hard for me to think that hymnals have any kind of a future.

Do you think Mr. Witvliet is all wet?  Or am I?


HT:  Justin Taylor


  • Charles Rigby May 8, 2013 Reply

    Do hymnals have. Future. Not if we don’t know the value of its purpose is. I could add to the list but a other use of the Hymnbook is that it is where I learned to read music and sing parts. The screens only allow us to sing along in unison. Most contemporary music is performance music and not constructed for congregational singing. Then again the louder the music the less engaged the congregation is. If you mike the band why not mike the congregation so you can have a fair balance. The Hymnbook only has a chance for survival if people will see its value as a tool for worship. Without education and integration into the balance of the worship experienced it will be like a tool in the tool box that languishes because no one knows how to use it. Thanks. Chuck Rigby

    • Roger Hicks May 8, 2013 Reply

      Chuck – if you’re the Chuck I think you are………………you and I sang the bass part to a lot of hymns (and gospel songs) as we were growing up and in college. Not only did we sing parts – our hearts were deeply stirred by the texts – being partly responsible for God’s call upon us to Christian ministry. How very sad that our grandkids are missing out.

    • Trapper May 8, 2013 Reply

      > If you mike the band why not mike the congregation so you can have a fair balance.

      The congregation typically *is* mic’ed, but those mics go only to the record/broadcast/internet feeds and, being mounted fairly high, are usually for a more natural room ambiance…I don’t think anyone would want to hear the regular people’s voices! (except, maybe, from some distance!)


      Regarding “hymnals can be appealing to seekers,” I have to say I can’t remember a single time when a seeker said, “Oh, wow! Hymnals! I am SOOO glad to see you have hymnals! They’re JUST what I was hoping I’d find when I got here after never knowing anything about God, Christ, or churches before coming here today! They — and the people holding them — always look SO COOL AND EXCITING when I see ’em on TV and in the movies! I mean, when ‘Saturday Night Live’ referenced ’em in that one sketch, I didn’t laugh one bit because I was thinking I sooo wanted to look in one and sing from it, myself, some day!”

      In other words, it’s silly for people who can’t even remember being an unchurched unbeliever (or have only some vague memories from a long-gone era) to assume or even guess what unbelievers think about anything.

      • Roger Hicks May 8, 2013 Reply

        Trapper – I read that Chuck said “Can” be appealing. The “can be appealing” is of course based on a worship leader/director/pastor being bold enough and interested enough in people total spiritual welfare to EDUCATE seekers and believers in the use of hymnals and their spiritual/musical value.

  • Stephen Canfield May 8, 2013 Reply

    They are all but gone. I predict in the next 20 years they will only be seen in a few churches and on some worship leader shelves and that’s about it.

    • Roger Hicks May 8, 2013 Reply

      Stephen – that will be a sad day for the Church. Hymnals help us to worship the Lord in the SPLENDOR of his holiness. (Psalm 96:9)

  • Roger Hicks May 8, 2013 Reply

    I think John and Chuck are right on….IF the Church is interested in providing a musical avenue for the Christian and seeker to gain an understanding of the full glory and splendor of God. Praise songs are fine…..just simply don’t go far enough in providing the Church with a biblical understanding of God and the Christian beliefs and an avenue for personally expressing understanding and more complete gratitude to God. Praise songs highlight God’s grace………..hymns also offer a call to holiness. I personally believe the hymnal does have a future.

  • Rick May 8, 2013 Reply

    Depends on what is in the “Hymnal”. The classic hymns will continue to be around for decades to come. Some of the Spiritual songs, I don’t think they share the same bright future. The solid hymns connect us to our church heritage…those that have gone before us preparing the way. In worship, I think we need to share the hymn story and how it connects us to previous generations of Christians. In the contemporary setting, Tomlin and other arrangers have refurbished great hymns with a modern twist. Such rewrites, help pull new generations of followers to sing the old with something new. The Church historically, has a good ear for music and what connects them to God. Doesn’t really matter if it’s old or new as long as it is pierces the heart both mentally and emotionally, it will continue to be sung and played by church future, present, and past.

  • jean ohlerking May 8, 2013 Reply

    Yesterday I was playing my marimba (for my own enjoyment and personal praise and worship for my Lord) and a young friend happened to be at my home. She was amazed at the harmonies as i played an old hymn. Our new music (i’m not knocking it–it speaks to the hearts of the singers) has no place for harmony, and it’s hard for me to find the rhythms/tempos in the new music. So i play the old hymns with their simplicity and add my own versions of complex harmonies. A bit like my own life…

  • Adrian May 8, 2013 Reply

    Sadly, many in our churches are musically ignorant and see no value in a hymnal.

  • Karl May 8, 2013 Reply

    I love hymnals. I have a row of them on the book shelf, and refer to them frequently. We have some in the pews, for those that want them, but the words are on the screen. I would like to see them in an electronic version so I (or pastor/worship leader/music coordinator) could have easy access to the great hymns and the confessions, prayers, liturgies that go with them.

  • It is not the job of the Church to preserve hymnals. The Church was only given 1 job; to make disciples. I use a hymnal weekly as 1 musical reference/source among many. I also think it prudent that if you can’t offer anything to this conversation besides “that’s sad” or “I love hymnals”, please refrain from the discussion so we don’t turn hymnals into idols here.

  • James May 8, 2013 Reply

    And the beat goes on and on and on. I’ve been a worship leader for nearly 50years and I think I’ve have seen and heard just about every variation, theme, argument and discussion on hymns, worship songs, scripture songs, praise songs, heritage music etc.
    Hymnals are going fast. Not due to popularity or unpopularity. They are going because of the shift in many factors:
    *Pardigm of the “traditional” church is changing rapidly
    *Music convenience and taste of the 21st century is changing quicker than we can imagine
    *Music Finances, hymnals are expensive and usually not the only resource needed for worship music in a church
    *The young are inheriting the church and to them Hymnals are clumbsy, hard to handle, inadequate sources of worship music for all ages.
    *Instrumental proficiency is changing. Hymnals are geared toward 4-part singing and keyboardists. Since the young are gravitating toward guitars, drums etc. the keyboard is a part of a band, not the central instrument. (I’m also an organist with an M.A. in music performance and church literature)
    *If a hymnals value is only in teaching music then there are much better tools than a hymnal. Learning to read notes was a residual factor not the main factor of a hymn. In Early church history, hymns were used to teach doctrine and theology. And more importantly with Ambrose, hymns were used to counter the Arian Heresies of the 1st Century.
    *I’ve also taught Hymnalogy for many years and hymns are NOT the music, a hymn is the text. Music comes and goes, but the text is what’s important.
    I’ve used many different hymnals from a myraid of denominations and most denomintional hymnals are terrible. They focus on their little doctrinal group with no wider appeal.
    The only church in my area that I know still uses a hymnal are the Anglicans (Former Episcopalians).
    I’m a substitute organists for many of our area churches and the Anglicans are the only ones who use a hymnal exclusively.
    The other churches use them occasionally and with other scripture songs and worship music.
    *The worship resources are shallow and usually based on the Liturgical year. Which is fine, if you follow the liturgical year for your denomination, but my experience is very few if any follow the liturgical year strickly as spelled out for Christendom.
    There is no simple answer to why they are fading, and certainly once gone they won’t return. And for some churches the hymnal was never a major player in their worship experience.
    One other factor are choirs. There are only three churches in my area who have choirs anymore:
    1st Presbyterian, Visalia, CA. (Where I conduted the choir and was organist)
    St. Paul’s Anglican church (Led choir and sub organ)
    St. Mary’s Catholic Church (Sub organ and do weddings & FUnerals).
    That’s it!
    So with the Hymnals fading, so are choirs and organs.
    All three of those elements represent the past mode of worship leading and style.
    It was a glorious time with all three of those elements working very well together and giving support to the worship of God and preaching.
    However, that’s not our present world.
    Do I cry over it and mourn the loss? No because God is just as alive and energizing the new worship through new worship leaders, song writers and annointed musicians.
    God is doing a new thing, and whether we like it or not, God is in the middle of it, moving people closer to Him.
    One last aspect I’d like to mention that is changing.
    Have you been to a Ball game, or graduation, or public ceremony where we sing the National Anthem and pledge the allegiance?
    We attended my daughters college graduation and the National Anthem was “sung”….by a quartet. Everyone, except my wife I, just stood and listened. We sang along with my family and few older folks.
    “So we are no longer a singing nation,” as my WWII friend remarked to me one fourth of July.
    And the same can be true of churches.
    Don’t blame the contemporary music on people not singing, there are plenty of wonderful, spirit-filled, contemporary worship music you can blow your lungs out singing…with harmony. My wife and I sing harmony to the new music all the time.
    We tend to glorify the past and miss the opportunity of the present.
    Blessings my brothers and sisters in Christ, the old is passing away but a new thing is coming.

    • Rick May 8, 2013 Reply

      James, You hit it on the head. Well said and.well done!

    • Brian May 8, 2013 Reply

      Very well said

    • Debbie Dodson May 11, 2013 Reply

      A great, balanced reply. Thank you!

  • Kim May 9, 2013 Reply

    I am a worship leader. I am a fan of the old hymns that I grew up singing but not a fan of the hymnals. Most people know at least a few verses of Amazing Grace by memory. Give them a book to hold and their nose is buried in it. Words on a screen, they are looking up and oft times, ignoring the screen, singing. I am always amazed by that. I’ve been thru the “worship wars” as I call them–hymns, praise songs, a blended service. At my former church, it only counted as a hymn (they’d pacified the grumblers against the “new music” by having a certain number mix of hymns to praise music) if it was sung from the book! Yes, it can become an idol. I do think it is sad to lose some of the old music and the great lyrics so I incorporate it into our worship service, but not sung from the book.

  • Robert Barnes May 9, 2013 Reply

    We have hymnals in our pew chairs (Trinity Hymnal 2nd Edition) and we also flash the lyrics to hymns on the screen. There are 3 people in the congregation who pick up the hymnal and use it instead of the screen. All 3 are singing parts and reading music.

    I’ve been involved in worship leadership for 30 years (started when I was 17) and leading from a single book, a single resource, is a disadvantage. In a time where you can find so many good lyrics and tunes and immediately get them on a screen, and get lead sheets to your worship team/pianist/organist, it’s simply too limiting to have a single book that you must use.

    Hymnals can continue to exist as an anchor point, as a reminder that we are not recreating the wheel every week, mix your own metaphors. We are rooted in history, and that history is found in Scripture primarily but also in another book. It’s a hymnal. And for it to continue to exist and be a resource is important. It simply can’t be the only one.

    • James May 9, 2013 Reply

      Excellent comments and addition to the discussions. I think you’re spot on.

  • James May 11, 2013 Reply

    Thank you to everyone:
    Who responded to my comments. I mean no disrespect to our heritage of hymns. I too grew up on them as many of you have. But what was once a center piece for our worship has become secondary or even non-existent in some circles of worship.
    Early church history also had the exclusive mode of singing the Psalms. There were no music sheets, or chords etc. Those faded and left the norm around the time of Charles Wesley.
    In fact Charles as a young man grumped about singing the Psalter so his wise father challenged him to come up with something new. That night he went home and started to write “new” songs. As he traveled around with guitar strapped to his back years later, those “new” songs began to catch on.
    Some didn’t like it and fled the church building in fear that God would plunder the building on their heads because they weren’t singing the old Psalms. Which were primarily plain song, or just the melody, no harmony.
    So we’re come a long way, and in some ways we are returning to a simpler way of worship, not so much liturgy, but certainly more “entertainment” for some, but participation for others.
    I sincerely believe some hymns will be here till Christ returns. They are too rich, too deep, too wonderful to pass away. And when the young sing them, they are energized just like the rest of us who have loved them from the beginning of our worship experience as believers.
    Keep the good faith of loving and watching for God’s new and fresh ways.
    Yes they are new, and sometimes hard to embrace, but isn’t that what we as followers of Jesus are all about? Growing, expanding our borders as Jabez has said?
    Blessings to you, and I hope my comments have been a blessing upon all who have loved the traditions of our past, but are not fearful of embracing the new also.
    Harmony, and melodious chords of peace.

    • Charles Rigby May 11, 2013 Reply

      In keeping with the passing of the hymnal I just read several days ago that Old South Church in Boston plans to sell one of their 1640 Psalters for 10 to 20 million so I guess the old books are worth something. We ought to rebrand the hymnal as a great companion book to assist in you Bible Reading program. Have one beside your bed on the bed stand for a moment of inspiration. I have. O beef with contemporary songs. They are certainly the expression of today’s committed writers but just as I like a lot of modern art I try not lose the influence of the masters. Great thought you have given. Thnks a lot. Chuck Rigby

  • James May 11, 2013 Reply

    Hi Chuck;
    Wow, 10 – 20 million. 1640 sounds like one of the Dutch reformed Psalters. I was music minister in the RCA for a time, and some of the folks were mentioning to me how much they missed singing from their Psalter “hymnal”. Very interesting.
    Thanks Charles for your comments. And your expressing that you have no problem with the new, you certainly like the influence of the Masters and I echo those exact sentiments.
    I teach music history in our local college, and I’m reminded every week when I teach how much I appreciate the masters. And with in that course I also teach 20th and 21st century music. And again I’m reminded of the marriage we have with the old and new.
    Thanks again Charles for your inspiring commentary.
    Blessings on you

  • Grant Parish May 11, 2013 Reply

    I belong to a large (6,000+ members) growing church. We use hymnals every week because we don’t have screens. I love hymnals and wonder how people know what notes to sing if there are only words on a screen.

    Our hymnals have a mix of older and newer hymns so we do get our dose of new songs. Looking at the info on the song writer as I sing helps me to feel connected to our faith heritage.

    • Roger Hicks May 11, 2013 Reply

      Grant – good to hear of your church’s use of hymnals. I would love to gain some more insight from you regarding your church’s use of hymnals. I am currently working on a couple writing projects and I would like to include some info from your church. I would greatly appreciate it if you would contact me at this email address…….

  • James May 12, 2013 Reply

    I’m curious:
    Where is your church located and what affiliation are you with?
    There are churches who do use hymnals.
    I think the point of our discussion is they are a vanishing breed along with organs, choirs, stained glass windows, pulpits (in some places), seating where everyone is in a row and faces forward, Full-Time music ministers, Full-time Youth directors, etc. A lot of the change is driven by finances, but some is simply driven by the talent within your church and area, and some change by shear interest and desire.
    Thanks for your contribution. More power to you.

  • Roger Hicks May 12, 2013 Reply

    Here’s an interesting clip from a “younger” hymn lover……..”Why I Like Hymns”


  • Roger Hicks May 12, 2013 Reply

    Sorry…….guess the link address is not correct……..

    • Charles Rigby May 12, 2013 Reply

      Roger: I looked up the link and thought it was an interesting video featuring a creative young person. Who grasped what we are chatting about. Chuck Rigby

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