The Family Hymnal

April 18th, 2017 | | No Comments
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Recently Tim Challies put out two excellent blog posts on “What We Lost When We Lost Our Hymnals” and “What

We Gained When We Lost Our Hymnals.” The posts are balanced (as the titles suggest) and thoughtful. I think he is correct when he suggests that it would be unwise to return to the hymnal on the one hand, and equally unwise not to think through the implications of losing the hymnal on the other. These two posts sparked me to consider our worship practices, so I plan to use my next few posts to offer some scattered reflections on worship, using Challies’ thoughts as a springboard.


Challies ends his list of what we lost when we lost our hymnals with the “ability to have the songs in our homes.” Most families of yore would purchase a hymnal to bring home with them (we have at least two old hymnals in our home, for example) so they could sing the same songs at home that they were singing at church. The words were there, the melody was there, and—if you had somebody who could play piano—even the music was there. Families could gather around the piano (or just around the coffee table) and sing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” or “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” during their times of family worship. Now no one gets to see the music (few of our musicians even read music anymore), much less take it home with them, which means we’re left with singing the melody (as we remember it) a cappella or putting on a CD Spotify or a YouTube clip. That is something lost, indeed.


Of course, the issue runs a bit deeper than this. It’s not just that we don’t have music in front of us anymore. After all, very few can read music, so what good would it be? (In fact, Challies argues that when we lost our hymnals, we lost the ability to harmonize. I’d quibble with him here, as I think we’d have lost our ability to harmonize regardless, because our culture no longer values Fine Arts owing to its narrow-minded focus on STEM education. But that’s a soap box, so I’ll step off and just rant in my own head.) No, the deeper issue is that we don’t really have songs to sing during family worship anymore. Most contemporary songs (and I’m an unapologetic defender of contemporary music, mind you) are difficult and boring when sung a cappella; they require instrumentation. In addition, like culture’s Top 40 chart, the songs rotate incessantly (more on that in another post). Just as soon as the whole family knows one, we’re onto the next.


And, of course, this means we vet songs much less carefully, so we always run the risk of teaching our kids a song that really isn’t worth singing. There have been some truly awful songs sung widely since the CCM movement began in earnest. It’s not that there weren’t some truly awful songs written in the 1800s too; it’s just that they were winnowed over time, thank God.


So what do we do? If family worship is an absolutely indispensable—though neglected—grace, and singing is an indispensable part of it, how should we proceed?


I think the answer is pretty simple, really. Get a hymnal, and use it at home. In other words, let’s not let this be one of the things we lost when we lost our hymnals. Despite being a big fan of the “latest and greatest,” I want my kids to learn the hymns of old at home. Why? I can think of at least three reasons.


  1. They aren’t learning them enough at church. There are a lot of reasons for this, and I’m certainly not wanting to stir up trouble—“Like one who grabs a stray dog by the ears is someone who rushes into a quarrel not their own” (Proverbs 26:17)—but it’s true. I want my kids to have deep roots in the faith, roots that run deeper than their or my generation. I want them to feel a connection to Christians throughout the centuries—Francis, Luther, Wesley, Watts—and singing the songs of bygone generations is one of the best ways to do it. (Reading is an even better way, but that’s another soap box.) If I have any concern that they’re not going to learn the words well at church—well enough to draw on them in moments of praise, wonder, doubt, grief—then I’ll ensure they get them at home.
  2. I want them to learn vetted songs only. I’m fairly theologically astute, and I’m sure I could separate the wheat from the chaff easily enough, but I am also a product of my time and culture. I have blindspots that I’m unaware of—that’s what makes them blindspots—so I need the benefit of multicultural, multigenerational input. If I’m going to ensure my kids memorize certain songs, I want them to be the very best songs. I don’t want them to waste any time or brain space on transient lyrics.
  3. I want them to have a shared vocabulary with many other Christians. The songs we sing in church are so important because it is one of the primary ways we learn theology. Ask me about the incarnation, and I will immediately blurt out, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.” Get me thinking about the wonder of the crucifixion, and I will tremble in awed whispers, “Alas! and did my Savior bleed, and did my Sovereign die?” Throw me in the fiery furnace, and I will shout triumphantly, “When through fiery trials your pathway shall lie, my grace all-sufficient shall be your supply.” And the Christians around me will, in each case, nod understandingly, or perhaps even start to hum along. I want my kids to have that same experience (much more so than I did, in truth!), to be able to draw from the same well. That won’t happen with the flavor of the month song that happens to be playing on K-Love right now (not belittling K-Love or those songs, mind you).


In sum, this could be something we’d lose now that we’ve lost our hymnals, except we can’t afford to lose it. Get a good hymnal. Learn the songs if you don’t know them already. And—most importantly by far—sing them together as a family when you gather daily (or as near to it as you can muster) for prayer, study, and worship.


“Oh, that with yonder sacred throng, we at His feet may fall! We’ll join the everlasting song, and crown Him Lord of all!”

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