Over the past 60 years, I have increasingly become annoyed to see Protestant worship services become shallow and tepid, and I think a big reason for this is that the hymnals have been taken out of their racks. Don’t get me wrong. I actually like the worship songs, mostly—unless they strike me as whiny, or as Christian “jingles”, or they are used as 7/11 songs: seven verses sung eleven times. And the choir directors, musicians, and singers are fine people, and earnest Christians. I don’t expect every music director to be as outstanding as Tobin Davis of Shadow Mountain Community Church (El Cajon, CA). I can be well satisfied with moderately good selection of music, moderately well played. But I think the music of the worship service is very important. As Halley’s Handbook says it, there are two purposes for Christian worship services: expositional Bible teaching and congregational singing. All that is required for congregational singing is a pianist (or organist) and hymnals. That is why it grieves me to see them removed and sold, or simply given away. It is unnecessary, and I believe it needlessly hobbles the spiritual growth of our young Christians.
One of the most memorable, educational, and enjoyable things about attending church as a child was learning to use the hymnal. Four or five times during each service, my four brothers, little sister and I had to lift these heavy books out of their racks and open them up. We sometimes read responsively from the Apostle’s Creed or Lord’s Prayer, but most often sang the old hymns as Mrs. Bowen played the organ. In time, we learned to sing in parts (tenor, bass, alto, or melody). What congregations sing in parts today?
It bothers me a great deal that my grandchildren have never even heard the hymns I sang every week. They have never been exposed to the rich theology in the hymns of Calvin, Luther, or the patriarchs of the church. These great men and women wrote songs to sing when grateful, as well as when troubled by persecution, sickness, the outbreak of war or famine. In opening the hymnal, I became a living part of the tradition and the heritage of a remarkable two thousand-year-old institution—the organized Church. Over the years, I was exposed to lots of different hymnals (Methodist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Quaker, Baptist, others). The hymns in the hymnal were generally arranged by topic, including Christian Hope, the Holy Spirit, Judgment to Come, the Christian Home, and even Times of War. There was something about singing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”, “Alas! And did my Savior Bleed”, and “God of Grace and God of Glory” that was both edifying and strengthening. These old hymns infused deep reserves in my soul. I only wish I had taken them more seriously at the time: it would have made me a sturdier and steadier Christian. I miss those old hymns! When in recent years I have found myself with foreign missionaries during an evening worship service, or I visit an otherwise dead denomination which has nevertheless chosen to sing from the old hymnal, I admit it: tears flow. The popular guitar and drum “worship songs” no doubt have their place. But I cannot help but declare that we have taken away much by removing our hymnals. I think it is a bad choice for churches to make: an unforced error, and maybe even a sign of Apostasy. It reminds me of the falling away of God's people in the days of Noah.
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