Worship leaders are hymnal editors. Whoever chooses the people’s song for their congregation is not only a hymnal editor but also is a primary shaper of the way their congregation understands and expresses faith.
Each song is in its initial form a personal testimony of how the composer views God at work in her/his life and in the world. While every testimony may be a valid witness of God’s grace, not every sung testimony should become the church’s song. Editors, pastors, and worship leaders are part of the process of deciding whose individual witness might become part of the common sung faith of the church. A hymnal—whether in print or in an electronic form—is a record of the witness of the Church throughout the ages—past, present, and even the future.
A Short History of Hymnals
The idea of a hymnal has changed over time. In the 17th and 18th centuries, hymnals usually contained only the words and looked like poetry collections. You didn’t find them in pews. People owned their own hymnal, if they could afford one, and brought it to worship. They were important both as devotional books at home and for public worship. In some cases, such as the Anglican Church, collections of hymns were bound with the Book of Common Prayer. Prayer books were both devotional manuals for home use and worship guides for public liturgies.
Until the latter 19th century, hymnals with musical notation were generally for musicians who needed the notes. Parishioners had only words. The music was lined out by a leader in a call-response fashion—a process that took a lot of time and had mixed results depending on the skill of the leader. With advances in printing technology in the 19th century, denominational hymnals proliferated and inexpensive song collections became common. Disposable collections produced by an enterprising editor could be reproduced quickly and new editions, even with modest alterations, made the publisher more income.
During the last half of the 20th century, electronic media broadened the possibilities for disseminating song. CDs became, for many, electronic prayer books that could be played at home, in the car, or carried in a more portable form. Individuals who learned these songs in this way then could participate in the common worship of the people more effectively. DVDs and YouTube technology provide not only the songs, but also give us a feeling for the context in which they are sung. We can hear various interpretations of the same song by different artists. We can also hear and see congregations around the world singing their faith.
Singing in Time
Worship exists in a wonderful time warp. We recall God’s actions of deliverance and salvation in the past, we apply them to our lives in the present, and we look with hope to the future. Congregational singing plays a most important role in helping us express this time warp. We sing with the saints who have gone before and whose faith has brought us this far on the Christian journey. We also sing the witnesses of our present day—songs that remind us that the Holy Spirit is still at work in the world. We also need to sing songs that point us to the future—what we may become.
One of the reasons that we need a living hymnal is that it helps us avoid the pitfalls of singing exclusively in the past or in the present. Singing only in the past risks making our worship a liturgical museum, and is the theological equivalent of saying that the Holy Spirit has stopped working in the world. Singing only in the present reflects an attitude of theological amnesia and perhaps some arrogance. We are saying that we no longer need to pay attention to the saints.
What of the future? Perhaps we need to reflect on what our congregation should become in the next 25 years. Should it become more culturally, generationally, and economically diverse? What ministries should it undertake to become a greater witness in the community? How should we speak more effectively to the pressing needs of the world? Once we attempt to answer these questions, then we are ready to ask an important question for worship: How can we sing ourselves toward the church we want to become?
So you want to make your own hymnal?
Hymnals in whatever form they appear (printed, projected, digital) are usually carefully considered efforts by a denomination or publisher to bear witness to our faith throughout the ages, express our faith within the world we live, and sing ourselves into the church we may become. To this end, most of us do not have the skills to do this alone. We risk singing only what is familiar, easily learned, or comes up first on a Google search.
Before you start putting together your own compilation for your congregation, you have some homework to do.
1. Discerning with the appropriate group, decide where this congregation should go in the future—who should we welcome; what is our message; how should our local church connect with the universal Church; how should our local story connect with God’s salvation story. This is crucial in deciding what your congregation may become and how you can sing the people toward this new identity.
2. Examine hymnals or other song sources in your congregation’s faith tradition. What are the theological categories of song? What songs are essential to the identity of the tradition that should be included in the congregation’s repertoire?
3. Examine recent hymnals from a wider denominational perspective, especially those hymnals and hymnal supplements that have been produced in the last 20 years. Note the theological organization of each collection. Note the balance of historical and current (last 30 years) hymns. Notice the balance between familiar and unfamiliar material.
4. Thinking of time, develop a list of songs that represent the broader witness of the church’s faith—the songs of the saints. What songs have become popular in the last thirty years? What are songs that your people need to learn that reflect a renewed vision of the church?
5. Return again to point 1. What songs will help to fill out your congregation’s story and connect them with the great story of salvation? What songs will connect your local body of Christ with greater body of Christ throughout the world? What songs will help them pray more fully whether in adoration, praise, thanksgiving, petition, intercession or blessing? What compilation of songs provides theological breadth and depth?
6. A compilation of only familiar songs is DOA (Dead on Arrival) and does not look to the future. Your plan for a hymnal should also include a pedagogical strategy for teaching new songs on a regular basis as you sing yourselves toward the church you want to become.
Stewards of Song
Our music ministries exist somewhere between the beginning of time “when the morning stars sang together” (Job 38:7) and when all will gather to sing “worthy is the Lamb” (Rev 5:12). For a short instant in God’s understanding of time a worship leader is given the privilege of being a steward of the people’s song for a specific congregation. We are charged with keeping the song alive. This is most humbling.
“Holy God, We Praise Thy Name,” a wonderful 18th-century German hymn, translated into English in the mid-19th century, paraphrases the great fourth-century Latin hymn, Te Deum (“We praise you, O God”). The third stanza captures the link between song and the life of the Church very well:
Lo! the apostolic train
Join the sacred Name to hallow;
Prophets swell the loud refrain,
And the white robed martyrs follow;
And from morn to set of sun,
Through the church the song goes on.
I think the last line of this stanza might also read, “Through the song the Church goes on.”
C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music Director and Master of Sacred Music Program at SMU /Perkins School of Theology Scholar and teacher, he has been honored with numerous awards and research grants and authored Gather into One: Praying and Singing Globally among other books and articles on music, singing, prayer, diversity and worship.