Which Hymnal or Song Collection Should We Choose?

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.

6 thoughts on “Which Hymnal or Song Collection Should We Choose?

  1. Can you tell me why Did You Repent, Fully Repent? was omitted? I think from time to time we as Christians must take a spiritual inventory of our lives to see if we truly have repented of our sins since first we believed and were immersed, and this song causes the Christian to seriously think about that. Other than that, I think this article explains the purpose for which the book mentioned was compiled. I think there are too many songs that go unsung, while there are other songs with which I have some scriptural problems with, and I discuss this at length in the Comment section of Facebook’s Church of Christ musicians. We have enough songs that we can consider a core collection, and I think that’s what was this hymnal’s intended purpose. This is a step in the right direction!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hear ya, and don’t necessarily disagree. However, some feel (and I agree) that songs like this might do more harm than good. How does one know if they have “fully repented”? The scriptures don’t really teach this idea.

      Either you have repented or you haven’t, so I think more Christians have walked away from this song second-guessing themselves, which is not the intention of the song.

      Many people avoid this song for that reason, and also because it’s not written well musically anyway. The music does not fit the mood of the text. For these reasons, I never lead it.


  2. Thank you for this article. Very thought provoking.

    As a member of a congregation using the new Sumphonia hymnal and loving it, I have one question that has bugged me about it. Why did they not include the second verse of “Because He Lives” (“How sweet to hold a newborn baby…”)? I understand exactly why they didn’t include the songs mentioned above like “Days of Elijah” and “Did You Repent?” but that verse doesn’t seem to fit any of categories for things that were left out. I have known many people who love that song and that verse and never really heard anyone have a problem with it.

    Again, I love the book and the collection. But if there was an explanation for that particular omitted verse, I would love to hear it.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Tim! Good question. One of the challenges of writing a good hymn is that it needs to be broad enough to be the congregational prayer, expression of praise, and so forth, not merely a personal (the author’s) expression. Many a barren woman has been forced to painfully sing “How sweet to hold our newborn baby”, such that many people begged Sumphonia’s editors not to include it. A thoughtful songleader could just exclude that verse, but since the song isn’t terribly long, songleaders seem to always lead every verse, so the best solution was just to exclude verse 2.


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