A Good Hymnal Is a Terrible Thing to Waste
One of the finest things I’ve ever read on worship is Harold Best’s contribution to Exploring the Worship Spectrum: 6 Views. In his chapter, Best pens an eloquent defense of the spiritual and musical capabilities of the printed hymnbook. He explores eight reasons why “the best hymnbooks are treasure troves of theology, prayer, Scripture, song, hymnic information, stylistic variety, and liturgical opportunity.” I’ve summarized his reasons in my own words and tried to provide an apt quotation for each one.
1. The hymnbook is a servant of the Word of God. “The hymnbook is, in its own way, a comprehensive exegetic work; it is metric theology. Over centuries of thought and practice, hymn writers have virtually left no topical or theological stone unturned. Hence, we can safely say that a properly compiled hymnbook is a primary and indispensable source for thinking and singing biblically” (66).
2. The hymnbook is remarkable diverse in style. The content, the styles, the meters, the range of simplicity and complexity, the full scope of human emotion–the hymnbook doesn’t just contain “hymns” as a fixed genre, but hundreds of hymns much more diverse than even the best selection of the best songs from the last twenty years.
3. The hymnbook is also musically diverse. “Two thousand years of musical evolution are offered: chant, psalmody, carols, folk tunes, ethnic tunes, curving Welsh ballads and hearty English melodies, Germanic stoutness, French clarity, early American forthrightness, gospel tunes (both black and white), nineteenth-century sweetness, twentieth- and twenty-first-century freshenings and asymmetries” (67).
4. The hymnbook thrives on hands-on printed material. “To the extent that many contemporary practices have overlooked the value of visual musical literacy and carry-around texts, and in a literal sense have reverted to preliterate oral tradition, they are failing–not just the church, but culture” (68).
5. The hymnbooks has been foundational in the history and development of choral music. “What is sung by the congregation, what is performed by choral ensembles or soloist(s), and what is played on instruments are kin to each other, discrete members of a large family, each of whom graces and welcomes the other” (68).
6. The hymnbook is a working history of the church’s response to God in worship. “As the Word of God is read in a worship service, the hymns in that same service talk back to the Word and onward to God in faithful concord. In this sense, congregational song joins prayer and homily in prophesying: It speaks up, speaks out, and speaks truth” (69).
7. The hymnbook is a tremendous tool for private devotions. “If the hymnbook suffers neglect in our times, it is not so much because shortsighted and thoughtless pastors and worship leaders have discarded it, but because it is sequestered away in sanctuaries and used only on Sundays. Over the course of a singing year, maybe twenty or thirty percent of its contents, give or take, will have been used. But give every parishoner a copy of a great hymnal and challenge each one to absorb and integrate its contents fully into an eager and farseeing devotional regimen, and you will have a revival of interest, not just in hymn singing, but in the Lord himself” (70).
8. The hymnbook is scholarly and surprisingly flexible. “One of the joys of going through a good hymnbook is to peruse its Scripture readings and lectionaries, stories, prefaces, indices, creedal statements, and devotional commentaries, suggested orders of worship, and prayers. . . . A good hymnbook is also clever–or maybe I should say a good hymnbook in the hands of a clever worship leader is a remarkably flexible tool. Through the use of metrical and tune indices, new matchings of tunes and texts can be found that allow for variety and freshness” (71).
The bottom line: “Therefore, with the Word as the center of all church song, the hymnbook as its singable exegetic companion, and a significant body of hymn-related church music, we have a living organism that is virtually without parallel in the life of the church” (68).