The Hymnal: An Endangered Art Form?

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The Hymnal:

An Endangered Art Form?

Following the rich and varied tradition of curating music, a few ministries are declaring that the hymnal is still very much alive. Find out who they are and what each unique collection of hymns looks like.

You are walking through the halls of a great art museum.  In gallery after gallery you view masterpieces ranging from classical antiquity to cutting-edge modernism. Your awe and appreciation is deepened by the knowledge that you are seeing only a small representation of the museum’s vast collection. The basements below hold a vast repository of art, many times greater than what’s on display. Someone, you realize, has carefully selected the works that hang on the walls, choosing each in relation to the others to tell a story, explore a theme and provide fresh insight. Without the museum’s curator, all this art would simply be an overwhelming pile of paintings, without context, correlation or connection.

Gathering the Best and Brightest
As with art, so it has increasingly become in almost every arena of modern life: the role of the curator is essential. We live in an age that often threatens to bury us in a digital avalanche of information and entertainment. Without a mediator, someone to sort through it all and make the meaningful choices, we’re easily overwhelmed. It’s the curator who guides us, provides a perspective and separates the best from the rest.

Nowhere is this truer than in the realm of psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. The history of the Church has, in many ways, been written in music, and over the course of two thousand years expressions of praise and worship, of doctrine and devotion, have flourished in astonishing abundance. It’s a process that’s been enormously accelerated in the new millennium. The advent of the global Church, combined with the instant access of the Internet, has created a cornucopia of Christian music to add to the already rich tradition handed down by the Church. Faced with this treasury of music, addressing every aspect of the faith, the need for a competent curator has never been greater. 

Yet, paradoxically, that trusted curator (itself the result of curation) has been in existence for almost as long as believers in Jesus have gathered together. You can find it in many churches in a rack on the back of the pew, right next to the Bible. John Wesley called it “the little body of practical divinity.” We call it a hymnal.

Programmed Obsolescence
In the age of overhead projection, PowerPoint and the multi-media worship experience, it may seem odd to stake a claim for the continued relevance of the hymnal. It flies in the face of the post-print age, the rapid transition from Gutenberg to Google. Nothing, it seems, is more anachronistic than ink and paper between two covers. Indeed, from outward appearances, the age of the old-fashioned hymnal is fast waning. In a recent Worship Leader survey of over fifty members of the Christian Music Publishers Association, only seven reported that they were still in the hymnal business.

The reasons are obvious. “The worship style and technological expertise of many churches often render a single volume, bound hymnal obsolete,” says Lester Ruth, Research Professor of Christian Worship at Duke University. “Consider the simple fact that many contemporary congregations want to raise their hands when they worship. You can’t do that if you’re holding a hymnal. One of the reasons early Methodists rejected the Anglican Church was because they wanted to clap and lift their hands during their services. Even then the use of hymnals created a tension between the more reverential and expressive styles of worship.”

Financial constraints also play a key role. “Publishing a hymnal is a very expensive proposition,” explains Steve Bock, President of Fred Bock Music Company. “It typically involves a two to four year development and editorial process. The finished product can be up to eight hundred typeset and engraved pages. You’re often trying to sell to a customer who only wants to replace old copies every twenty-five years or so. On top of that, until recently there was no other format for Sunday service songs than in a printed book. Now there are dozens of different delivery systems.” 

Visionary Innovation
Yet Bock himself is the heir to a revolutionary approach that changed forever the relevance and reach of the modern hymnal. His father, Fred Bock, was the creator of Hymns for the Family of God, considered by many to be the most influential hymnal of the modern era. Released in 1976, it has since gone on to rack up sales approaching four million units is still a perennial bestseller. “What my dad did was to turn the whole idea of a hymnal on its ear,” Bock asserts. “He was the first to introduce material not previously in the traditional lexicon of Church music. This was especially true of the songs of Bill and Gloria Gaither. They were wildly popular but had never been part of any hymnal until my dad included them.”

The groundbreaking status of Fred Bock’s undertaking, which took him nearly fifteen years to compile and edit, speaks directly to the role of the hymnal as an aggregator of praise and worship at its best. Simply put, Hymns for the Family of God, was among the first and most successful attempts to break the hymnal out of its denominational boundaries. Previously, Lutherans sang Lutheran hymns, Presbyterian sang Presbyterian hymns, and the best songs of any denomination remained within the strict limits of that church. 

“We’re proud that in our hymnals you can find Fanny Crosby on one page and Michael W. Smith on the next.” So says Mike Harland, Director of LifeWay Worship, one of the most prolific and profitable hymnals publishers, with over two hundred active titles in its catalog. It’s a sentiment that echoes the pioneering work of Fed Bock and underscores the hymnal’s function as a key curator of Christian music.

Among LifeWay’s most popular and enduring publications is The Broadman Hymnal, produced for the Baptist Church in five editions spanning over seventy years. “It was the first hymnal to include ‘The Hallelujah Chorus,’ ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ and ‘Oh, Holy Night,’” Harland proudly points out. “From the beginning, our aim was to honor tradition at the same time that we made room for the new, for the songs the church is singing now.”

The grand task of renewal
The process of bringing those two elements together provides a revealing glimpse into way modern hymnals continue to facilitate, mediate and update the sound and substance of worship. For the 2008 edition of The Broadman Hymnal, LifeWay convened a panel of over five hundred music ministers, worship leaders and scholars to make selections from a list of more than 3,500 traditional titles. 

“That was before we even considered any new songs,” Harland continues. “We not only looked at material that had never previously been in a hymnal, but also opened the process to submissions, both from individual songwriters and publishers.” As a result, the hymnal includes such contemporary contributors as Keith and Kristyn Getty, Chris Tomlin and Paul Baloche. “Twyla Paris cried when we handed her a copy of the hymnal that includes her song ‘Lamb of God,’” Harland recounts.

“Compiling a great hymnal could be considered a science,” asserts Mark Cabaniss, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Word Publishing. As with LifeWay, Word has bucked the trend of the hymnal’s decline with the 1997 release of The Celebration Hymnal, a nondenominational mix of new and traditional music that has sold over two million copies to date. Utilizing the same rigorous, wide-ranging process of choosing material, The Celebration Hymnal also depended on what Cabaniss calls “prayerful consideration” in the choices made. “It’s more than a numbers game,” he continues. “The goal was not just to put together a hit parade of hymns. The material was painstakingly fitted together, with theological content given as much consideration as style and singability.” 

This comprehensive approach is being mirrored by denominations eager to bring new depth and meaning to the hymnals that are still very much a part of their worship experience. Among the more notable new arrivals from mainline churches is the Celebrating Grace Baptist Hymnal, as well as the upcoming Glory to God, sponsored by the Presbyterian Church.

 A worldwide trans-generational hymnal
“We live in a global village,” asserts David Eicher, Editor In Chief of Glory to God. “Someone could write a song in Africa and we could be singing it here the next day. Any hymnal that aspires to be relevant has to take that into account. In putting together Glory to God we cast a wide net. We looked at material from Mennonite, Lutheran and Roman Catholics sources to name only a few. At the same time, we had committees seeking songs from the ecumenical worldwide Church and contemporary praise and worship songwriters. But we also had to be careful to honor the traditions of our own church. Putting together a hymnal is very much like working on the family photo album. You want to preserve the pictures of generations past, at the same time making room for the new arrivals. Longevity counts, because it’s the Church itself that determines what lasts and what passes away.”

It’s a point that underscores the fundamental challenge facing the hymnal form moving forward. Simply put, is there still a place for a curated collection of hymns in the digital age? 

The answer, according to those on the leading edge of hymnology, is a resounding yes.

Gutenberg marries Google
“Rumors of the demise of the hymnal have been greatly exaggerated,” opines Scott Shorney, an executive at Hope Publishing, one of the more prolific presences in the field. “While the market for printed and bound hymnals is increasingly limited, the internet has provided us with extraordinary new opportunities for expansion.” The proof of his claim can be found on Hope’s Online Hymnody site, which features hundreds of specialized titles, almost all of which are available as PDF downloads.

Shorney and others are quick to point out that the utility and usefulness of the hymnal make it a natural fit for electronic distribution. “On our website we offer a full complement of resources related to our hymnals,” explains LifeWay’s Harland. “We have orchestrations and arrangements for every hymn, as well as a singer’s page and extensive training tools. We also recorded the entire project with a full orchestra and vocals tracks, all of which are downloadable. At the same time, even though we released our own hardbound edition, we realized that producing a new copy is as easy as moving a cursor to the print command. Clearly, the digital realm is a platform well suited to the hymnal’s essential function.” 

Glory to God editor David Eicher agrees. “We will be releasing the project in various electronic forms,” he explains. “There will be a stand alone e-book, as well as a fully digital edition, with an emphasis on worship planning, offering full searches in various categories, MIDI files and other downloadable functions.”

“The book form will inevitably morph,” predicts Professor Ruth of Duke. “Technology is both new and adaptive. It has allowed for a rapid turnover of worship repertoires, at the same time offering the means to preserve the songs people have stored in their hearts for generations.”

It is a process already well underway, thanks to a handful of upstart online innovators, such as the Raleigh, North Carolina-based website Cardiphonia. With a name that means “utterances of the heart,” Cardiphonia is the brainchild of worship leader Bruce Benedict, inspired by what he calls “music that grows out of the local church.”

Macro and Micro
“I wanted to provide resources and connections for worship leaders writing their own hymns rooted in local church expressions,” Benedict explains. Along the way he began producing online hymnals utilizing much of the new music he was discovering, as well as a liberal sprinkling of older material. The result was what Benedict terms “mini digital hymnal packets,” built around specific themes including, among others, the Lord’s Supper and the Apostles Creed. “People used to carry around their hymnals as much as their bibles,” Benedict explains. “It was their primary devotional book. Now that can happen on a mobile device.”

Indelible Grace, operating in Nashville, Tennessee, is another notable harbinger of the digital hymnal. Founded by Kevin Twit, Indelible grace was birthed out of a mission to recover old hymns and put them to fresh music. Their hymnal, the Indelible Grace Hymnbook (formerly the RUF Hymnbook) is a combination of music emanating from Indelible Grace as well as songs written by various students from the Reformed University Fellowship ministry (a ministry to college students on over 200 campuses). “The Fellowship provides a forum for songwriters to get together to trade inspiration and resources,” Twit explains. “From there it was just a natural next step to create a new hymnal based on that material, as well as classics that still resonate today.”

The Indelible Grace Hymnbook lives primarily online, where it showcases a growing collection of both new and traditional hymns. According to Twit, they hope to unearth and create the songs that pastors want their congregations singing—songs that cover more of the theological spectrum. “We seek out hymns that deal with concepts like the Trinity and explore what the cross really means,” explains Twit. “We hope to fill some of the gaps left by a strict diet of contemporary worship.”

200,000 and counting…
Perhaps the most ambitious of the digital hymnal endeavors is Hymnary.org, operating under the auspices of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in Grand Rapids, Michigan. With an enormous database of over 200,000 hymns, the site was founded by Greg Scheer, a local worship leader, and Harry Plantinga, a Calvin Institute Computer Science Professor.

“Our overriding goal is to be a comprehensive as possible,” Scheer explains. “We compile extensive information on thousands of common hymns, including PDFs of sheet music, audio tracks, a wide variety of arrangements, full texts, biographies of individual writers, scripture reference, notes for worship, as well as list of hymns dealing with similar subjects and a search function by theological theme. We also have a network of volunteer specialists who constantly monitor the website for inclusiveness and accuracy. Visitors can search a particular text, track what hymnals it has been published in, or can register their own hymnal in the database.”

The Hymnary project taps directly into the incredible legacy of historical hymnography. “It’s a way to access the great cloud of witnesses surrounding us,” Scheer states. “It is a record of the giants on whose shoulder we stand.” According to LifeWay’s Mike Harland, “What we sing is a way to understand what we believe. A writer whose song ends up in a hymnal is contributing directly to the story of faith for future generations.” 

But hymnals are far more than simply archives of our ancestor’s songs. At a time when denominational barriers have fallen, when new music expands on the legacy of the past and vice versa, hymnals fill the vital role of actively curating the vast body of Christian music. In the process they provide an indispensable resource for those worship leaders who will write the hymns of tomorrow.  

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