What every church leader needs to know about hymns and hymnals in the digital era

NEW MUSIC IS NOW BECOMING AVAILABLE TO THE AVERAGE CHURCH AT AN UNPRECEDENTED PACE. Simultaneously, music literacy is declining. Church leaders are often ill-equipped to discern between the various sources of music that may be infiltrating the church. Worship leaders may have competing agendas regarding worship styles, new songs to introduce, and favorite arrangements. Composers and songwriters may now publish or self-publish instantaneously, and your church can download digital music to print and project as well as play audibly. All of this can lead to confusion, impeded worship, and in the worst cases, division. The days of buying a hymnal and coasting for fifty years are over. Church leaders must become educated on trends and equip themselves to gracefully guide the church to filter the noise and select the best worship resources for their church culture and theology. This article attempts to aid toward that end, though it is by no means comprehensive.

I also must admit that the following certainly includes the bias of my beliefs and experience, though I have attempted to objectively present information that may be beneficial to a variety of church cultures.

Change is inevitable. Some may hope to ward off the confusion and controversy involved in adopting new music by simply refusing to change. To borrow and adapt a phrase: “[change] is upon you, whether you would risk it or not.”

Do we still need hardback hymnals? Many churches have thirty plus year old hymnals in the pews. A lot has happened in the last thirty years! In Christ Alone, How Deep The Father’s Love, The Power of the Cross, and Exalted are a few excellent contemporary compositions. Some churches have expanded their repertoire through digital hymnals, which is fantastic! But is it worth the investment to update the hardback hymnals?

Let’s consider the “cost” of not updating. Sure, you save some money, but at what cost? In many churches, the digital hymnal doesn’t always match the hardback. Some members still like to use the hardback for various reasons. It can be frustrating when they don’t match. Some leaders prefer to have a hardback when they lead. Having variations in lyrics and arrangements is impossibly confusing for everyone–and can seriously impede worship. Then there are the times when slides are unnecessary or unavailable. It’s sad that we have to go back in time thirty years every time we want to have a small group singing or an informal devotional without the projected music. Even worse, the church is again confused by the conflicting lyrics and arrangements. Might it be costing the church stale or confusing worship to keep on riding those dusty hymnals? What does it say to our youth about worship? Might they get the impression that hymnody itself is archaic and in need of being replaced by something else entirely?

4 reasons your church needs a new hymnal


1. Your hymnal is thirty years old! That may as well be 100 in hymnal years (similar to dog years)! It’s not merely starting to show wrinkles, it’s on life support! Surely that’s a good reason in itself. The hymnal isn’t the Bible. It gets old and tired just as we would tire if the preacher kept recycling the same old sermons and illustrations. Over time, it loses its relevance and appeal. The song that once awakened your soul may now put you to sleep. It still may be a good song, but if it isn’t effective any longer, we may need some new material. That’s not to say that we forget the old songs! Any good hymnal contains a carefully edited mix of quality songs, both old and new.

2. Half of your worship service order is marked (slides only). It seems only practical to update to a newer hymnal for your leaders and members who prefer to hold a hymnal. Many worship leaders are printing music scores and carrying a folio of only the needed songs, as they should, but some either don’t know how or don’t take time to do that.

3. Your Wednesday night devotional has become retro night complete with side burns, bell bottoms, and even a few tail fin cars in the parking lot. I mean, I thought that’s what we were going for with the vintage songs and all! As fun as this sounds, every week is a bit much for kickin’ it old school. What we need is to be recharged mid-week, and nothing does that quite like good worship, including some fresh new songs. You’ll need to either go digital on Wednesdays or update the hymnal!

4. The church is confused by the conflicting lyrics and arrangements between the digital and hardback hymnals. We can’t worship when we’re sight-reading, and many are not trained in sight-reading. What’s worse is when we’re singing conflicting words! A clear, consistent repertoire is important to aiding every member in being able to fully participate in worship.

5 questions to discern what is best for your church


1. What is your worship culture (contemporary, traditional, blended)?

2. How is worship led (single leader, praise team, band)?

3. How is worship experienced (congregational participation, performance)?

4. What is best for your church? This must take into account the needs of the overall church, not just one member’s or group’s needs or preferences.

5. Note that I am not addressing whether some of these approaches to worship are biblical and pleasing to God in this article, only which hymnal may be best suited for your church. Admittedly, what pleases the Lord should be the most important question.

A critique of modern hymnals


Conventional Hymnals

Hymns for Worship Revised + Supplement (HfW) was edited by R. J. Stevens and Dane K. Shepard, with Tim Stevens aiding in the Supplement. The Revised book was published in 1987 and the Supplement followed in 2007. The Foreword says “Traditional favorites have been included along with old and new hymns and gospel songs.” The supplement adds a “collection of hymns, gospel songs, and contemporary praise and worship songs [that have] been arranged for congregational singing.” The hymnal well serves traditional, conservative churches who seek to encourage full congregational participation and includes 702 songs. Generally, HfW is a gospel leaning hymnal with a fair amount of content from friends of the editors. The Supplement freshened the hymnal with 151 additional songs including a mix of contemporary music and many notable works by brethren that broaden the repertoire in a way many welcomed with enthusiasm. The editors’ attempt to arrange contemporary music to be more suitable for congregational singing has been appreciated by churches of such a worship culture, though some of the altered arrangements may have done more harm than good. A hardback hymnal, large print hymnal, accompanying digital slides, additional digital only eChoice supplement, and recordings are available at http://www.rjstevensmusic.com.

Songs of Faith and Praise (SoFaP) was edited by Alton H. Howard and associates. It was published in 1994. The introduction says it includes “the greatest variety of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs ever assembled… The finest of traditional hymns… along with contemporary praise and worship songs…” The Table of Contents arranges the selections by various themes, followed by a section of Spirituals and Special Themes. SoFaP seems to have had aims of being a spectacular hymnal of sorts. It includes more “handbook” style features than any other hymnal, as well as over 1,000 songs. It is arguably the largest and bulkiest book of any major brotherhood hymnal making it difficult to hold for very long. Howard took the liberty to substantially edit familiar songs, including many classics, with jazzed up arrangements. Anywhere I have sung out of this hymnal, the classic arrangements are still being sung by a segment of the church while the rest try to sing the notes as written. After more than twenty years, the bold attempt to supplant classic hymns with new jazzier versions has only served to confuse our hymnody. Additional features include elaborate descants and solos intended for use in progressive churches with praise teams and performers. Ironically, many conservative, traditional churches have unwittingly adopted this hymnal but seem to ignore the spectacular embellishments–or at least attempt to. Generally, the hymnal leans toward music that is more entertaining or popular. The editing process essentially involved taking the top CCLI ranked songs and adopting them as the core of the hymnal. Many of these contemporary songs were carried over without any attempt to adapt them to more accessible arrangements for congregational singing. SoFaP was the hymnal of choice for churches who favor pop-sensation over enduring quality. In addition to lacking newer hymns due to its age, one could argue the hymnal does not entirely achieve the “variety and balance” that it claims as distinguished works from more classical and folk composers are notably absent. Also, some of the highest quality hymns among the brotherhood are excluded as their authors were outside the circle of fellowship of the editors. Still, the hymnal has been one of the most popular ever published in churches of Christ. A hardback hymnal, premium bound hymnal, large page leader’s edition hymnal, accompanying digital slides, and additional digital-only supplement are available at http://www.taylorpublications.com. Note that The Paperless Hymnal does also largely correlate to SoFaP though not entirely. Recordings are also available, though often the recordings differ from the actual arrangements in the hymnal.

Praise for the Lord (PftL) was edited by John P. Wiegand and associates. The Expanded Edition was published in 1997. According to the foreword, “Our aim in compiling Praise for the Lord has been to collect the enduring hymns from the past and add a variety of new quality material.” The contents list a Core Collection of 800 hymns; a Special Collection of 100 songs including National Hymns, Folk Hymns, Children’s Hymns, Gospel Songs, and Devotional Songs & Hymns; and an Expanded Collection which contains 90 additional contemporary songs. An additional supplement was later produced but never published commercially. The repertoire is fairly broad and balanced. PftL is well-suited for traditional worship settings with a single leader and congregational participation. It is especially suited to churches who value discernment in repertoire. While a high quality and popular hymnal, a significant body of notable work by songwriters among the Non-Institutional brethren is unavailable in this hymnal. Additionally, it is naturally lacking songs written after its time from which many new standards have emerged. A hardback hymnal, large print edition hymnal, accompanying digital slides, and recordings are available from http://www.taylorpublications.com.

Songs for Worship and Praise (SfWaP) was edited by Robert J. Taylor, Jr. and published in 2010. The preface says:

…we have taken the best traditional songs with arrangements you know and love, merged them with the best hymns from Songs of Faith and Praise, then added the best praise songs from the Praise Hymnal. We then added newer songs just now appearing plus included more traditional songs not usually found in other hymnals. It is our hope and prayer that this blend of old and new hymns will serve the Lord’s Church for years to come, proving that it’s not what’s old or what’s new that is important, but what’s good!

The Table of Contents organizes around eighteen sections including various conventional topics plus Patriotic, Christ’s Birth, Spirituals, and an Addendum all totaling over 1,000 songs. A sequel to SoFaP, SfWaP repents of Alton Howard’s excessive addition of features and usage of space resulting in a more fitting hymnal for holding comfortably. Furthermore, brother Taylor practices a greater reverence for the originals, reverting to the more familiar arrangements that have proven their enduring quality. Some churches may wish some of the more difficult contemporary pieces had been edited for accessibility. Also of note, the hymnal manages to include at least some quality works from across the brotherhood, though much of the best of Non-Institutional Hymnody is still absent. SfWaP best serves churches seeking a blend of contemporary, traditional, and gospel songs with an emphasis on popularity, sometimes at the expense of quality and theological depth. Some of the songs will almost certainly require the use of a praise team to effectively sing, due to their complexity. A hard back hymnal, premium hymnal, large print hymnal, and accompanying digital slides are available from http://www.taylorpublications.com. Recordings are also available, though often the recordings differ from the actual arrangements in the hymnal.

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs (PHaSS) was edited by the Sumphonia committee (www.sumphonia.com) with substantial input from others including John Wiegand of PftL. Published in 2012, PHaSS is the newest full-sized hymnal in churches of Christ. The Preface says it is “a hymnal for congregational worship.” Some 550 titles were chosen by an involved survey of the brethren. Further, it says, “To this core repertoire were added 300 titles of all genres appropriate for congregational worship; these genres included contemporary, folk, gospel, New English Renaissance, and high church hymns.” PHaSS is not officially a sequel to any hymnal, though some regard it as such to HfW and to some extent PftL. But perhaps the most similar hymnal in form and fashion would be Great Songs of the Church Number 2, a hymnal of tremendous stature and enduring quality. PHaSS attempts to include selections new and old of the highest quality and suitability for congregational worship. It is a hymnal most likely to be adopted in more traditional, conservative churches. There is a great reverence for original lyrics and composition, though alterations were made to less familiar works including updating Old English to more contemporary pronouns and verbs. Occasionally, the editors carefully and minimally altered songs for greater accessibility. One of my favorite features of this hymnal is the inclusion of some forgotten stanzas–not the ones that needed to be forgotten–but rather some truly remarkable hymn texts that I think many will find to be inspiring and worshipful. Some may feel the hymnal is high church leaning, so it is not likely to appeal to the church who desires a purely contemporary praise experience. Still, the music found in PHaSS is some of the most beautiful available to us today including a number of contemporary works. A hardback hymnal, premium hymnal, accompanying digital slides, and recordings are available from http://www.ceibooks.com and http://www.sumphoniahymnal.com.

Timeless Psalter is an ecumenical project that began among members of the churches of Christ. It is a monumental effort to set all the psalms to Western rhyme, meter, and verse in hopes that the psalms will again be sung by the church as they once were. The intent of the psalter is to capture all of the ideas found within the psalms, based on a belief that the hymnal of scripture is essential to the soul to be read and sung aloud. Much of the music is composed to be accessible to congregations, though some is for special singing groups. A large number of editors and writers collaborate on the project with a standard of excellence in quality in every respect. The psalter includes original translation, brief commentary, and multiple arrangements per psalm in traditional and contemporary styles, hard back and spiral psalters, and slides for the music as well as responsive readings. High quality recordings and other materials are available at http://www.timelesspsatler.com

Unconventional Hymnals and Music Sources

The Paperless Hymnal (TPH) is edited by James Tackett. New volumes are offered periodically offering an ever expanding repertoire of music to churches. True to its name, the hymnal is only available digitally. It does correspond to some degree to SoFaP, SfWaP, and PftL, though there may be confusing variances on some songs. Slide note formats or full page scores may be printed for leaders, though the print is smaller than a conventional hardback hymnal making it difficult to read while directing the church. TPH essentially compiles a broad array of music of all genres arranged for SATB a cappella singing. The lyrics and music are for the most part unfiltered and unedited, which at times results in the publishing of songs that are a bit rough around the edges. Multiple arrangements may be included of a particular song which could be confusing in a disorganized church with a large rotation of leaders. Churches who wish to have a hardback hymnal will struggle with confusing variations between the slides and the book at times. TPH notably lacks hymns written by brethren in the Non-Institutional churches. TPH may be best suited for churches who wish to sing a broad array of popular music. Some of the music is quite accessible for the average church while other selections will almost certainly require a praise team to sing effectively. Given the lack of restriction of a hard back hymnal, TPH is easily positioned to revise and expand over time as new material and trends emerge. What TPH lacks in refinement, it makes up for in widespread appeal. TPH has served many churches well across the brotherhood for years. A spreadsheet index is available that may be the single most useful resource for worship leaders and worship planning today. The hymnal may be found at http://www.paperlesshymnal.com.

Praise & Harmony (P&H), led by Keith Lancaster of The Acappella Company, produces a mix of contemporary, gospel, and traditional hymns in SATB for a cappella congregational singing. Music is published an album at a time with scores, slides, DVDs, and recordings. The general repertoire is heavily contemporary and gospel leaning but has been expanding wider in recent years to encompass a richer repertoire ancient and modern hymns as well as psalms. The arrangements are intended to be congregational, though many congregations will struggle with much of the contemporary content without a praise team or highly involved training effort. The arrangements are often unique from other versions so use of the training CDs and DVDs is recommended. P&H is a solid resource for churches desiring a high energy praise experience while preserving SATB a cappella, but talented worship leaders will be needed for the most effective implementation. Resources may be found at http://www.acappella.org.

The Zoe Group (Zoe) is a contemporary praise team that specializes in creating SATB arrangements of contemporary popular Christian music. Music is published by album with scores, slides, and recordings. Shaped notes have begun to be offered optionally. Music from Zoe is best utilized in contemporary churches with a highly skilled praise team. In my experience, when Zoe arrangements are attempted in churches with a single leader of average ability, even in strong singing churches, the worship struggles to get off the ground. The music is heavily syncopated and vocally challenging. Much of it was originally written for use with a band and generally would probably sound best with instrumental accompaniment. The difficulty of this music usually results in lower congregational participation making it most useful for churches who desire to put on more of a performance style worship. Some of the songs feature shallow lyrics and questionable theology. However, if your church can sing it, much of the music is exciting and quite enjoyable, if not entertaining. Resources may be found at http://www.zoegroup.org as well as http://www.fearless4you.com. Note that fearless4you is the work of Randy Gill, D. J. Bulls, Jr., and Shane Coffman. It offers a catalog of worship resources including The Zoe Group music and more. There are some outstanding modern hymns being set to congregational arrangements and four-part harmony also being published by this group.

Hallal Worship, led by Ken Young, is a contemporary praise team that also produces worship music with instrumental accompaniment. Their music is best suited for progressive churches with a professional music staff. Resources may be found at http://www.hallalmusic.com.


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