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Commentary: Developing a new hymnal in harmony

A proposal to authorize development of a new United Methodist hymnal will be considered by delegates to the 2008 General Conference during their April 23-May 2 meeting in Fort Worth, Texas. A UMNS photo by Ronny Perry.

A UMNS Commentary
By Dean McIntyre*

April 16, 2008

Dean McIntyre

What might a new United Methodist hymnal look like in the United States?

Which hymns will be included? Will we sing or speak the psalms? What worship services will be included? Will we call God mother or father––or both?

Will it be another printed book for the pew racks or will the hymnal be on a CD for projecting onto screens? Will we download the songs needed each Sunday from a Web site? Will we have hymns and songs in many languages?

Will a new hymnal include more contemporary praise and worship songs and choruses? How about some rap, responsories, revival songs or reciting tones? Will it have more newly composed hymns in traditional style? Will we lose or gain Wesley hymns? Will the texts of Wesley be simplified and set to contemporary music? Will it have melody only, four-part harmony, or keyboard accompaniment with guitar chords? Will old favorite hymns be dropped to make room for the new songs and choruses?

The directors of both the United Methodist Board of Discipleship and the United Methodist Publishing House have proposed to the 2008 General Conference that now is the time to begin production of a new United Methodist hymnal for the United States. They also have proposed a four-year study into the need for and possible publication of an official United Methodist hymnal for African-American and Africana congregations.

In 2007, the Board of Discipleship and the Publishing House completed a four-year study of the church's music and worship needs, primarily those associated with congregational song. The complete study report is available online. In addition, the Board of Discipleship recently completed a series of research surveys related to music and worship practices and the United Methodist hymnal.

What people think

These studies and research surveys are valuable in finding out what the people, pastors and musicians think about these and other issues related to worship, congregational singing and our hymnal. They help agencies and editorial committees understand what are the practices, trends, desires and needs in the local congregation. They help agencies and publishers remain responsive to the present, anticipate the future and stay faithful to the past as they plan new worship and music resources.

The studies and research, however, are only part of the complete picture. There are numerous other considerations in planning a new hymnal and other resources. A survey is completed by one individual, but a hymnal is for millions of individuals and thousands of diverse communities with numerous backgrounds. The church includes people of all ages and races, both genders, urban and rural, large and small congregations.

More questions: What are the denomination's membership demographics today, and what are they projected to be over the next generation? What is the current state of technology and how does that compare with the technological capacity in the local church? What price will ensure affordability for customers, as well as ensure the publisher’s ability to recoup the hymnal’s research, editorial and production costs and fund future publishing efforts?

The recent surveys, then, are an important planning tool. However, understanding what worshipers, pastors and musicians are thinking reveals only part of the picture.

With that in mind, here are just a few of the statistics and findings from recent surveys:

  • The top three favorites in the current United Methodist Hymnal are "Amazing Grace," "Here I Am, Lord" and "How Great Thou Art."
  • The top three favorite hymns from The Faith We Sing songbook are "The Summons," "I’ll Fly Away" and "As the Deer."
  • The top favorite of United Methodists under 30 is "Be Thou My Vision."
  • The No. 1 requested hymn to include in a new hymnal: "Eternal Father, Strong to Save."
  • Top three requests to include an updated United Methodist Hymnal or in The Faith We Sing: "Love Lifted Me," "Open the Eyes of My Heart" and "God Bless America."

Others findings indicate that the:

  • Most frequently sung non-Christmas hymns over the past three years are "Amazing Grace," "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" and "Blessed Assurance."
  • Most frequent songs from The Faith We Sing are "Shine, Jesus, Shine," "Sanctuary" and "They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love."
  • Ten percent of pastors, worship planners and chief musicians expressed interest in multiple languages in the Psalter.
  • Thirty-six percent prefer the Psalter as it is now presented, 27 percent prefer not to include the chanting, 38 percent would like Psalms set as hymns and songs.
  • Seventy-five percent would like to have Healing Services in the hymnal.
  • The least-used worship service in the hymnal is Word and Table IV, unused by 34 percent.
  • Forty-three percent want more praise choruses in the hymnal; 34 percent do not.
  • Seventy percent sing the melodies of our hymns; 61 percent will sing harmony when it is provided.
  • Seventy percent are comfortable using male-only language for God, 25 percent are comfortable using female language for God, and 42 percent are comfortable using male or female language for God.
  • Twenty-eight percent prefer to sing lyrics on a screen; 70 percent prefer to use a hymnal or songbook.
  • Sixty-five percent prefer Wesley texts with their traditional tunes; 33 percent prefer contemporary tunes.

*McIntyre is the director of music resources for the United Methodist Board of Discipleship in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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