Selecting a hymnal or collection of songs for a congregation is not an easy task. Oh, it’s easy to grab a book with songs that I like, but choosing a hymnal for a congregation carries the daunting responsibility of providing a primary source of the spiritual language of the congregation, and a couple of generations to come. The average congregation changes hymnals far less often than its ministry staff, about once every 20-30 years. That’s a long time to be singing from a collection. All the more reason to choose wisely.
Our theology is shaped by the hymns we sing–for good or bad–and it should be as we “teach and admonish one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3.16). How often we hear the cross referenced in prayers and meditations as “that old rugged cross”, or someone refers to our “blessèd assurance” in Christ. In a well-edited collection of church music, as we sing rich songs and hymns, we write the word of God on our hearts.
Elders, what do you want your flock writing upon their hearts? Parents, what do you want your children singing? Do you want depth of scripture content? Songs that teach “the full counsel”? A collection that has been scrutinized by a committee of conservative preachers, teachers, and elders? There are collections out there that go through this kind of scrutiny, but not all of them do. Ask these kinds of questions, even if someone graciously donates 500 hymnals to your church without asking anybody (this happens extremely often).
Not all hymnals or collections are created equal, and it is much deeper than which one has the songs we like to sing. Many of our favorite hymns were doctrinally edited, either by excluding a verse or altering a phrase. Many hymns teach unscriptural ideas, and could not be sung scripturally, even with a large helping of poetic license. A good hymnal committee excludes these kinds of hymns from the collection.
Some hymns are just plain controversial, even if they can be sung scripturally. “Days of Elijah”, “Thomas’ Song”, and “Did You Repent, Fully Repent” are among them. The first two are never sung well in a congregation anyway, but think long and hard before inviting an opportunity for division. We have enough of those as it is.
A recent email circulated about Sumphonia’s new hymnal, “Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs”, and what it included and excluded from its list of titles. I was not part of the committee, but I’m very familiar with the criteria and the thousands of hours that went into compiling that book. The editorial committee has been very transparent about that process. If a song or verse was excluded from that hymnal, before we conclude that it was a careless oversight, there are a few things we should take into account:
- People called, emailed, and wrote from around the country, begging the editors not to include songs like “Days of Elijah”, “Did You Repent, Fully Repent”, and other songs that really don’t edify the church, and may do more harm than good (your mileage may vary)
- The editors polled the brotherhood, for many years, with all 1800 some-odd hymns from brotherhood hymnals of the 20th and 21st centuries. They pulled the top 550 from that list, so there would be a core of hymns that everybody knew. In fact, this core is several times larger than even the average congregation sings over a several year span (usually 100-150 songs), so there’s a lot of variety there.
- The editors then used an extremely strict Biblical and musical filter to find songs that were either brand new or otherwise unknown to much of the brotherhood.
- Many popular songs of today were excluded because they did not work in a congregational setting as they were written for a praise band or praise team, or they didn’t have much spiritual merit.
- Heavily syncopated rhythms (like “Days of Elijah” has) do not work well at all in congregations, and without fail will leave older generations in the dust. The editorial team included some syncopated songs, but some songs just would not work.
- There’s a good reason certain songs did not make it from older collections like “Sacred Selections” and “Songs of the Church” into later hymnals.
- The editors brought back numerous verses that past hymnal editors excluded, due to space constraints. Sometimes, the complete meaning of the song was lost due to excluded verses.
- This is one of the most thoughtful collections of church music the Church has ever seen, and certainly has the most variety of any collection in the brotherhood
- It is the lightest brotherhood hymnal in publication (I believe it weighs about 1/3 of what “Songs of Faith and Praise” weighs)
- There are other wonderful collections out there too, but many of them won’t have the variety and quality of this collection due to their age. The brotherhood has written a lot of hymns in the last 20 years, and the cream of the crop was included in this hymnal
There are a lot of resources for new church music now, especially with the advent of the internet, but beware that downloading songs (legally or otherwise) may well bypass an editorial filter. I highly encourage elders and church leaders to scrutinize new music off the internet and from recording collections and folios because they likely have not been through any kind of editorial scrutiny. If you are not musically savvy, there’s a good chance there’s somebody in your congregation or a nearby congregation that can help you determine if a song was arranged for congregations or not. Feel free to reach out to me as I write and arrange congregational hymns, and I would be happy to help in any way that I can. There are songs that work very well congregationally, but there may be versions in existence that were designed for a praise team or professional chorus. Just because you recognize the title and it is in shaped notes does not mean it is going to be intuitive to sing.
Finally, the next time you see a hymnal, don’t just see it as another book. A group of people spent countless nights of burning the midnight oil and thousands of hours compiling it. The songs inside it each took 100-200 hours to write, and then 3-5 hours to transcribe onto the page in software. Multiply that by 700-1,000 titles as that’s what modern hymnals contain. A lot of care goes into that kind of collection. Please appreciate it. And please think before copying pages from a praise team folio instead of picking songs that were carefully edited for congregational edification, enjoyment, and praise.