During the last few decades a contest was waged in many churches over the use of hymnals and congregational singing of hymns versus praise choruses projected on wide screens above worship teams performing for the congregation.
With only a few holdouts, the struggle is now over, with hymnals seldom found in the sanctuaries of most churches today.
In my little Methodist church, the Sunday school didn’t have the funds for special children’s songbooks. When all the classes met together for a mini-worship service before breaking off to our classes, we sang from the small Cokesbury Hymnal passed down to the Sunday school when the congregation purchased the newer Methodist Hymnal for worship.
As an eight-year-old, my favorite songs were The Old Rugged Cross and Onward Christian Soldiers, the latter because we were allowed to march around the sanctuary while singing.
In later years I was blessed to serve beside my pastor husband in a series of small Baptist churches who had not, yet, abandoned hymnals in worship. Our sons learned to read music and sing rich harmonies to the accompaniment of piano and organ, just as I had done.
Beyond a musical education, the hymns gave us who grew up singing them a rich theological vocabulary.
The words of those hymns became ingrained, even though we only began to understand their true meaning as we matured.
Take the Old Rugged Cross, for instance. It played on the local Baptist church’s carillon as I walked to work one day recently. As the bells rang out, I sang the words in my head. When I reached the phrase “and his glory forever I’ll share,” for the first time I reflected on just what that word, “glory” referred to. The idea of sharing God’s glory had seemed a bit egotistical to me when I first thought about it, but now I realized His Glory refers not to fame, not celebrity, but rather His infinite beauty and love. That’s something I long to share.
Like the Bible, the source of most of the old hymns, the words become richer and more meaningful each time we encounter them.
While there are praise choruses whose words sometimes come to mind to comfort me, I thank God for all the hymns I’ve sung over the years which are now written on my heart.