One of the reasons for the diversity in church music is that no specific instructions were given in Scripture on how churches should conduct worship. We have the Psalms, which Jews sang for centuries before Jesus was born, and Jesus quoted and referenced them repeatedly. Luke records songs of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon in his narrative of Christ’s birth. We know that singing was part of the Apostles’ lives; Matthew 26:30 tells us they sang a hymn after the Last Supper. We know the early church sang hymns as well; Paul mentions hymns in his instructions to the Corinthians on worship. Singing was there right from the start.
But God did not see fit to tell us exactly what to do. He could have given us much more specific instructions on instrumentation or style, but He chose not to. He chose instead to give us flexibility. Christ commanded us to make disciples of all nations, and in each nation music is tightly intertwined with culture. The scriptural flexibility in worship has allowed Christians from all parts of the world to worship the same God in their own ways. It’s a beautiful testament to God’s providence and grace that He gave His people freedom to use their creative abilities in service to Him instead of prescribing a strict set of musical regulations.
That freedom comes with a responsibility, however. In 1 Corinthians 14, we read, “Everything must be done so that the church may be built up,” and “Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.” Think of those directives as the flip side of flexibility: Worship should strengthen the church, and things can’t be so loose that people get lost. Strength and unity often go together, especially in service to the one true God.
The purpose of structuring worship, then, is to reconcile the freedom of flexibility with the responsibility of ensuring order and unity. There are many different ways of doing that. One of the most common has been to publish a hymnal.
Hymnary.org, an online repository of church music, catalogs nearly 6,200 different hymnals. Many of the most popular ones are denominational, and denominations will update their hymnals from time to time. Churches, either at the denominational or congregational level, depending on polity, select a hymnal and use it in worship. Going through a polity’s decision-making process confers legitimacy on the selected hymnal and allows for unity.
In practice, of course, it doesn’t work so smoothly. Selecting a hymnal can be a source of great conflict within the church. People get bent out of shape over the style of music or the exact wording of hymns. Many churches have decided it’s not worth the fuss and have abandoned hymnals altogether.
There are real advantages to having a common songbook, however, and they don’t have anything to do with musical style.
Hymnals are normally put together by committees with members in different areas of expertise. There will be musical experts, publishing experts, design experts, and theological experts. They work toward a common goal for the hymnal. For denominational hymnals, it’s putting together a songbook that conforms with that denomination’s teachings. For nondenominational hymnals, it can be any number of purposes, theological or musical. Either way, the hymnal was created for some purpose, and churches can choose the one that fits their understanding of congregational worship.
The hymnal front-loads the difficulty in selecting songs for worship. By selecting a hymnal put together by experts you trust, you don’t have to vet every song before singing it in a church service. Someone already studied the songs and gave them a thumbs-up. They also organized the songs so it’s easy to find one that fits a particular service. By the time the hymnal reaches you, it has been looked over by countless people who are supposed to have the best interests of your church in mind. There’s real security in that. Without a hymnal, that sense of security is lost.
Hymnals also ensure a certain degree of familiarity throughout the congregation with the songs being sung. It’s difficult to worship God and learn a brand-new piece of music at the same time, especially for people who aren’t musically inclined to begin with. Songs in hymnals are also written to be sung along with, not performed by professionals, so they should be easier to follow for those of us who don’t taking singing lessons. By having a common body of songs to pull from, churches can ensure that congregants have at least some idea of what’s coming and will be able to participate in worship more easily.
That commonality doesn’t have to transform into monotony. The Episcopal hymnal, for example, contains 720 songs. That means you could sing three different hymns every Sunday for over four and a half years without repeats. At the very least, you’re going to repeat Christmas and Easter songs every year anyway, and we all know some hymns are more popular than others (nobody ever complains about singing “Amazing Grace” too much), so really things could stay fresh even longer than that. If your church uses a hymnal and is overly repetitive in song selection, that’s not the hymnal’s fault.
A good hymnal allows for plenty of variety while also offering familiarity and staying within secure boundaries for theological soundness. The question of whether to use one is not primarily about musical style. There are hymnals now with contemporary songs in them, and there’s nothing wrong with that. God is sovereign over all time and the entire universe, and He isn’t partial to songs written by Englishmen in the 1700s.
The advantage of using a hymnal is in reconciling the flexibility God gave us with the responsibility for order in worship so that the church is strengthened and God is glorified. Churches should pause before throwing that idea away over differences in musical taste.