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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

For the Hymnal

Published Wednesday, January 29, 2020 By Joshua Pauling

Growing up in Evangelicalism, the norm was to bring your Bible to church. When I found my way circuitously into confessional Lutheranism, I quickly noticed hardly anyone brought a Bible to church, but a few members brought their own hymnal. At first, the lack of Bible-bringing was puzzling and carrying a hymnal instead seemed almost idolatrous. I have since come to understand that the hymnal plays—or at least should play—an important role in the daily life of the Christian.  A hymnal in the pew and in the home reminds us that the Christian faith is an inheritance, that there is a resonance between church life and daily life, and that there is a permanence to Christianity. The hymnal communicates a confession of faith that echoes far beyond the words and melodies throughout its pages. In an era troubled with transience, digital fragmentation and theological feebleness, the Church can fortify itself by retaining the physical, tangible realities of the Book, and its accompaniment, the hymnal.


Creating and publishing an actual hymnal takes significant time, research and reflection from countless contributors. There is extensive deliberation in the selection process, consulting previous hymnals inside and outside the denominational heritage and evaluating each piece theologically and musically.[1] Changes are not made lightly nor on a whim. The final product has a gravitas that is lacking when songs are projected by means of a screen. Such digital projections are not subjected to a rigorous review process in any meaningful way, and new songs can be sung without reference to their origin, theological accuracy, or musical merit.

The hymnal also communicates that there is a history to the songs being sung. Each page in the hymnal communicates the authors, dates, tunes, meter and translators of the songs. This all helps tell the hymn’s story, its origins, and connections to other songs. Singing hymns from different eras, languages and regions of the world shows that Christians are a part of something larger than themselves by taking them beyond their cultural styles into the unique and timeless culture of the Church. In this way, local churches remember their place in the church universal. Singing songs from the projector, by contrast, strips them of their history and context, unintentionally contributing to a rootless Christianity that tends to wither in the face of difficulty.


Having the physical hymnal in the pew and at the dinner table creates a beautiful resonance and harmony between church and home. A liturgy of life emerges that helps Christian piety and devotion extend beyond Sunday morning. This is especially well-facilitated in Lutheranism and other traditions where the hymnal also contains Scripture-saturated liturgical services, rites, creeds and prayers for all phases of the day and occasions in life, enabling the Christian to speak God’s own words back to Him. Without this connection point, the events of Sunday service seem foreign to the rest of the week. Having a hymnal in the pew and in the home helps join the sacred and the secular.

The hymnal complements the role of Scripture in all of life by facilitating the proper preparation and response to the Word. Properly adorning Scripture with prayer and song, the hymnal simplifies devotion in the home, and brings a maturity and richness that surpasses even our best extemporaneous efforts. Conducting personal or family devotions no longer is a guessing game when the hymnal contains beautiful services of Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer and everything in between that can be tailored to each situation. Very quickly, these liturgical structures are internalized as the songs, prayers and creeds come to resonate in the mind and heart throughout the day.

A hymnal structured around the rhythms of the church-year and lectionary helps communicate the Bible’s content as story, which is vital for Christianity to be compelling. Scripture’s ultimate message of Christ-on-every-page is made clear in a hymnal that is liturgically centered on the narrative of Redemptive History. In an era of fragmentation when so much of life is cordoned off into separate spheres, the hymnal can communicate the grand meta-narrative humans long for, unifying everything under the proper Lordship of Christ.


Using a physical Bible and hymnal sends a message in and of itself. It makes a clear distinction between the ever-changing, opinion-driven words read on the internet screen, and the timeless, objectively true words of Scripture. Matthew Barrett makes this case with his insightful response to iPads in the pulpit, “Dear Pastor, Bring Your Bible to Church,”[2] as does John Bombaro in his astute critique of digital texts, “The Book That Isn’t Really There.”[3] Physical texts communicate a message far beyond the one contained in their pages, while digital versions send a different message that easily obfuscates Christianity’s core incarnational reality.

Hymnals also facilitate memorization and communicate stability with words permanently present on the physical page. The brain interacts with physical texts more naturally than digital texts, because a physical book has a topography, a landscape as it were, with which the brain creates a mental map of the content that greatly aids in understanding, retention and memorization.[4] This is a very different experience than clicking and swiping through words that vanish into the unknown depths of digital space, or singing songs via projected, ephemeral words there, and then gone. Christianity is real, permanent and unchanging, and deserves better than the ghost-like shadows of songs on the wall or the shifting pixels on a screen. Think about the confusing message of singing about the Word of the Lord enduring forever by means of words projected on screens where the words don’t endure for more than a few seconds. To be sure, there are many salutary uses of digital formats of Scripture and hymns and the countless accompanying resources available. It is my contention, however, that the use of these digital formats in Church services does not communicate by the medium the permanence of its message, that is, the gospel.

Using a hymnal also provides a stable body of songs to be sung, and the notes with which to sing them. If words are projected solely on the screen, congregants may be unsure of the melodic direction of the song, or its beginning and end, and can find themselves captive to whatever words come up next on the big screen. Or worse, they might give up on the whole process as they tire of trying new songs without real musical notation or melodic accompaniment provided. The PowerPoint projector makes the whole process seem capricious or whimsical, with congregants waiting for what the man behind the screen will do next. A hymnal, on the other hand, provides the whole text visible at one time in one place, permanently there for further thought and reflection. The logical and theological progression of the verses are evident on the page.

The relative permanence of the hymnal over time fosters a sanctified familiarity around hymns, liturgies and melodies used throughout one’s whole life. These are the songs and prayers that are remembered in times of celebration and suffering, life and death. It is in this way that the songs of angels and archangels and all the church triumphant resonate together with the church militant in adoration of the Incarnate One. The hymnal brings this reality into the everyday experience of life and helps one confess this faith as an inheritance that is permanent and universally true, resonating through the ages.


This call for a rediscovery and cherishing of the hymnal is not a nostalgic cry for traditionalism. It is about what the hymnal helps the Christian confess throughout the week and what the hymnal communicates through its use in worship. While using physical hymnals may technically fall under the category of adiaphora, or things indifferent, it is a decision that should be made with great care and thought, as it is a decision with far-reaching consequences. The hymnal itself makes a confession, and helps the Christian make their confession. The physical hymnal is a subtle reminder that Christianity is not a dualistic spirituality of the mind. Christianity is an embodied religion that worships the embodied God, the enfleshed Word, Jesus Christ. The physicality of the Bible and hymnal reinforce this reality.

Josh Pauling teaches high school history, was educated at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University, and has written for Front Porch Republic, Salvo Magazine and FORMA Journal. He is interested in the cultural intersections of history, philosophy and theology, and the beliefs and practices of historic Christianity, which has led him to All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) where he is head elder.

[1] Peter Reske, “The History of LCMS Hymnals,” Last modified February 14, 2017, https://blog.cph.org/worship/2017/02/history-of-lcms-hymnals .

[2] Matthew Barrett, “Dear Pastor, Bring Your Bible to Church,” last modified August 18, 2013, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/dear-pastor-bring-your-bible-to-church/ .

[3] John Bombaro, “The Book That Isn’t Really There: Digital Texts and Declining Discipleship,” Modern Reformation 22, no. 3 (2013), https://www.whitehorseinn.org/article/the-book-that-isnt-really-there/ .

[4] Ferris Jabr, “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper Versus Screens,” last modified April 11, 2013,  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/reading-paper-screens/ .

  • Joshua Pauling

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