“Do you think hymns have any future?” A colleague of mine was recently asked this question by a student. Depending on where one attends church, hymn singing may be a distant memory or a style of Christian music that some worshipers have never even encountered. So, it’s not particularly surprising to hear such a question. Nevertheless, as a self-confessed lover of hymns I would describe this form of sacred music as not only having a rich past and a vibrant present, but also a bright future.
“What?” you may ask, “Do you mean that all the hymn writers and composers didn’t pass away at least fifty or one hundred or two hundred years ago?” No, indeed! Many people are surprised to hear that new Christian hymns are constantly being written and published. As a longtime member of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, and as the current editor of the Society’s quarterly journal, THE HYMN, I can assure you that hymns and hymnbooks are not a thing of the past, despite what you may have heard.
At American Baptist Seminary of the West’s weekly chapel worship, for instance, hymn-singing is alive and well. We use two different books, the African American Heritage Hymnal, (GIA Publications, Inc.), and the Chalice Hymnal (Disciples of Christ, Chalice Press). As our seminary’s director of contextual education, I am in contact with the churches where our students and faculty serve and worship. Many of these congregations also continue to sing hymns regularly, and use hymnals.
Several of the major denominations in the United States and Canada have published new hymnals in the last two or three years, or have one in progress. Evangelical Lutheran Worship, the latest hymnal of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, was published in 2006. The Presbyterian Church USA is currently at work on their hymnal, due to be published in the next four years. Celebrating Grace, created for and by several groups of Baptists (I was privileged to serve on this hymnal’s committee), debuts in early 2010. We are in the midst of a roughly twenty-year cycle, as many of the mainline denominations work toward a thorough revision and updating of their pew hymnals.
But don’t these hymnals simply recycle well-known pieces from previous centuries? Really, how many books do we need that each include “Blessed Assurance,” or “A Mighty Fortress,” or “O for a Thousand Tongues”?
It’s true, most hard-bound hymnals, which can contain 600 or more separate pieces, have a common “core” of hymns and songs. These have stood the test of time and proven their staying power in the worship and music life of congregations throughout the centuries and across the continent. But a good hymnal is also a living, breathing entity. It serves as a historical document of what Christians are singing during a given twenty-year period or so, whether in a particular denominational family or the larger church landscape. In addition, non-denominational hymnals and a vast number of smaller, paper-bound collections of hymns come into print by the dozens each year.
Editors and committees working on new hymnals are not just dealing with congregational song from past centuries. They actively seek newer texts and tunes that eloquently address life situations in today’s world. Consider these hymn titles:
“Touch the Earth Lightly,” by Shirley Erena Murray, a New Zealander, calls us to environmental stewardship.
“Till All the Jails Are Empty,” by Carl P. Daw. Jr., lifts up justice for the powerless and concludes each verse with “God has work for us to do.”
“As the Waters Rise around Us,” by Mary Louise Bringle, offers words of lament and hope, following the Hurricane Katrina disaster.
Do hymns have a future? Absolutely! If the creative work of the many hymn composers and writers I know and respect are any example, hymns will continue to be a vital component of congregational life and worship for many years to come.
Are you singing hymns at your church? Along with the best of contemporary praise songs and other forms of sacred music, hymns – old and new – can provide wonderful depth and breadth to worship, giving voice to both timeless truths and emerging revelations about our life in community and in the world, as the body of Christ.
Rev. Dr. Nancy E. Hall
Director of Contextual Education and Associate Professor of Ministry
American Baptist Seminary of the West
[Check out www.thehymnsociety.org if you’d like to learn more about an organization for church musicians, clergy, scholars, poets, composers, and other hymn lovers with varied backgrounds and interests.]