Why hymnals matter in the digital age

At The Christian Century, Mary Louise Bringle writes about the enduring role of hymnals in the digital age:

Hymnals are more like telephones than automobile tires. Tires wear out visibly and require replacing. Telephones, on the other hand, seldom wear out, yet still get replaced when updated models offer new features attractive enough to warrant the change.

Like telephones, hymnals are built to last. Aiding their durability is the fact that they get limited outings (mostly on Sundays, often in the hands of gentle users). As physical books, even after 20 or 30 years their spines remain unbroken and their pages unwrinkled. Even more significantly, as collections of the church’s cherished songs, the hymnal’s contents may actually improve with the familiarity of age.

Little wonder, then, that many churchgoers greet the announcement of a new hymnal with the puzzled, plaintive or even outraged question: Why? Why do we need new hymnals when the ones in our pew racks are still perfectly good? If “perfectly good” means showing no wear and tear, the question makes sense—all the more so if the person asking it is a stranger to the new features available in updated models.

Some of these features, as with telephones, involve technology. In the 21st century, hymnals appear not just as bound volumes but also as digital resources: e-books downloadable to the device of the user’s choice; projection editions with slides of words (or, in some instances, words and musical melody lines) for congregations that sing off a screen rather than a printed page; web editions with fully searchable indexes, audio files to hear what any given song sounds like and downloadable files of words and music to print as bulletin inserts. A 2008 product from LifeWay Christian Resources was cleverly promoted as “a hymnal without a back cover” because additional materials, whether made available online or on CD-ROM, could indefinitely expand the contents of the printed book.

But if changes in technology were the only developments prompting the next generation of hymnals, publishers could spare themselves the time- and resource-consuming processes of product development and simply digitize existing books, marketing the resulting websites and projection DVDs to tech-savvy congregations. Instead, over the past six years or so, denominations around the country have been creating whole new song collections.

Read full post here.

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