What We Lost When We Lost Our Hymnals



Few memories are as synonymous with church in my mind, as the sight of my mother holding up a raggety old red hymnal and singing to the top of her lungs the songs of Zion.

Sadly, the number of children who are privileged to such memories in today’s world is dwindling with each passing hour; partly because church is becoming an afterthought to so many and partly because many religious establishments are “moving past” the golden era of hymnals.

The following is an article written by Tim Challies, in which he seeks to remind church folk what they lose when they give up their hymnals:

If we were to go back in time twenty or thirty years, we would find that most churches had hymnals. They had hymnals because it was the best way of providing each member of the congregation with a copy of the songs. You’d hear it in every church: “Take out your hymnal and turn to hymn 154…” And then hymnals went the way of the dodo and we began to look instead to words projected on a screen. Here is some of what we lost along the way.

We lost an established body of songs. Hymnals communicated that a church had an established collection of songs. This, in turn, communicated that its songs were vetted carefully and added to its repertoire only after careful consideration. After all, great songs are not written every day and their worth is proven only over time. Therefore, new hymns would be chosen carefully and added to new editions of the hymnal only occasionally. Churches would update their hymnals, and, therefore, their established body of songs, only once every ten or fifteen years.

We lost a deep knowledge of our songs. When we removed the hymnal, we gained the ability to add new songs to our repertoire whenever we encounter one we deem worthy. And we do—we add new songs all the time. As we add new songs with greater regularity, we sing old songs with less frequency. This reduces our familiarity with our songs so that today we have far fewer of them fixed in our minds and hearts. Few congregations could sing even the greatest hymns without that PowerPoint screen.

We lost the ability to do harmonies. Hymnody grew up at a time when instrumentation took a back seat to the voice. Hymns were most often written so they could be sung a cappella or with minimal instrumentation. For that reason, hymnals almost invariably included the music for both melody and harmonies and congregations learned to sing the parts. The loss of the hymnal and the associated rise of the worship band has reduced our ability to harmonize and, in that way, to sing to the fullest of our abilities.

It often seems like all we want from the congregation is their enthusiasm.
We lost the ability to sing skillfully. As congregations have lost their knowledge of their songs, they have lost the ability to sing them well. We tend to compensate for our poorly-sung songs by cranking up the volume of the musical accompaniment. The loss of the voice has given rise to the gain of the amplifier. This leads to our music being dominated by a few instrumentalists and perhaps a pair of miced-up vocalists while the larger congregation plays only a meager role. In fact, it often seems like all we want from the congregation is their enthusiasm.

We lost the ability to have the songs in our homes. Hymnals usually lived at the church, resting from Monday to Saturday in the little pockets on the back of the pews. But people also bought their own and took them home so the family could have that established body of songs there as well. Families would often sing together as part of their family worship. It is easy to imagine a family singing “It Is Well With My Soul” after eating dinner together, but almost impossible to imagine them singing, “Oceans.”

It is probably too late to go back to the hymnal. I am not at all convinced we ought to. But it is still worth considering what we lost along the way and how congregational singing has been utterly transformed by what may appear to have been a simple and practical switch in the media. That little change from book to screen changed nearly everything.

Do you like articles like this?  If so, click here to learn more about receiving a year’s subscription of the print edition of Appalachian Magazine!

Share this article with your friends on Facebook:


  1. I agree with some of the points here. I don’t think that because songs are not in the hymnal that are sung on Sunday are absent necessarily from the home, as we have the internet and radio stations that give people the opportunity to hear songs elsewhere.

  2. ONE (only one tho) of the reasons I no longer attend. Choruses displayed on a
    computer wall screen DONT CUT IT!! I cannot abide the shallow 7/11 choruses.

    • I’m sorry you don’t attend church- you are missing out on corporate worship… not all congregations have given up the old hymns and hymnals. I’m the song leader at my church and we sing the old hymns in 4-part harmony every Sunday
      I Love our worship time!!

    • I am a Nazarene from West Virginia,. we have a small congregation of less than 20. We use a hymnal and our Piano player is autistic and around 19 years old, he has been our piano player for a few years now, . He taught himself to play the piano. Sometimes he puts in a fancy note or 2, sometimes 3 or 4, or a vibrant ending to the song..it is all in fun tho..He and his music make our songs all the more enjoyable. Wouldn’t have it any other way..

  3. I wish I could agree, but so many of the author’s points are simply not true. We haven’t lost the ability to sing skillfully, haven’t lost the ability to sing harmonies, and we’re not using instrumentation to hide a lack of talent. Of course none of these are blanket statements.
    Many churches employ a blend of music both from hymnals and more contemporary artists. The church we are members of is an example of this. We still have hymnals and we use screens to display the lyrics.
    We may not bring our personal copy of the red ( blue, green) hymnal to church services, but we certainly carry mobile devices capable of storing and accessing all the music we love. Familiarity comes down to personal preference, we’re all quite familiar with the lyric, melody and harmony of songs that resonate deeply within us.
    Most importantly the Bible says to make a joyful noise, and places little emphasis on skill where singing is involved.
    We’re to worship the Lord, not the song book.

  4. Printed music didn’t always equal beautiful harmony. The majority of congregation members only used the hymnal for words. Many of the points in this article are providing a nostalgic, yet not completely accurate view of the hymnal and it’s role. The method in which we sing is not the cause of the diminished role of the church in society. Don’t get me wrong, I love old hymns. I do believe if prior generations, who “bought their own hymnal for home,” really were living their lives to glorify God, the next generation would have, too. Loud bands with light shows isn’t always worship. I also contend that singing loudly out of a book because that was the social norm and expectation is also not always worship. We need a generation who worships the Lord, not the method.

  5. We lost a lot more than that,, We lost the true gospel. The churches need to bring back the Hymns. Theres a theology in those old songs. Theres a focus on the Blood, a focus on the Cross of Christ, a story of the Bible being told. Not all Hymns are great but theres much anointing and drawing of the spirit in those old songs. WE NEED EM BACK!

  6. As an adult baby Christian many years ago, I learned much doctrine from the hymns in the hymnals we sang from during worship. The congregation I worship with now is divided into two services, one traditional and one contemporary with a praise band. I often attend both, but the hearty participation in the traditional service including lovely harmonies and lustily sung “joyfull noises to the Lord” does more to join our hearts together in worship of our Heavenly Father than any number of the repetitious phrases of praise songs. I don’t miss the polished wood or the stained glass windows, but worshiping in song works better for me with our hymnals.

  7. When the Pilgrims arrived on these shores they sang hymns in four part harmony. Within several generations that skill was lost. William Billings revived that skill with music schools based on shaped notes.
    Technology has seduced us away from being musically literate. In time we will either lose congregational singing altogether or the church will once again be the promoter of the arts. My 2 cents!

  8. I have a theory that if we researched it, there would be a correlation between the disappearance of hymnals and the decline in reading proficiency in children. When I was little, struggling with focusing on readin, I learned from following along with my Mother as we sang from the hymnal. Children either go to a children’s church, don’t pay the least attention to the projected words, or simply aren’t expected to attend family worship anymore. Songs with lyrics are used regularly to tech children to read fluently. I see it as an effort to try to make up for the loss of learning to read alongside our parents while singing from a hymnal.

  9. Some very good comments here. All have merit. All I know is that as a member of a worship team(guitarist) I agree that a mixture of the old hymns and some current contemporary music is the way to go. Our team will often do one or two verses of the hymns in traditional style, then we can rock it up some. As a musician, I find that this way you can minister to most of the people. I agree that many of the new songs lack substance and are boring in that all they do is repeat,repeat,repeat. Come on, I;m old but I got it the first ten times I heard it.Also, I find that the whole light show thing is nothing more than smoke and mirrors.Just because the secular musicians do it doesn’t mean we have to do that in church. We ,the band, are not there to entertain. That’s the way I see it.

  10. A few years ago, a retired minister who had Parkinson’s sat behind my family every Sunday . He had the usual physical problems of the disorder, walking, balance and hestinance of speech. However, when it came to singing the hymns his voice could be heard loud and clear. He would stand with one arm around his wife while she held the hymnal. The hymnal with their names in the Dedication given when he had to retire from the ministry. It touched me each week as he sang praises to his Lord.

Comments are closed.