When we sing the great Christian hymns, we’re reminded that we worship God with the vast company of believers through the centuries. Today, Sinclair Ferguson makes the case for having hymnals in our homes and in our churches.
If you were listening to Things Unseen yesterday, you’ll maybe remember two things: first, that our theme for the week is “Christians Love to Sing,” and second, I signed off with a question—hardly the most profound, soul-searching question you’ve ever been asked, but nevertheless, I meant it quite seriously—Do you own a hymn book? Remember, I was suggesting that next to a good Bible translation, a concordance, and a decent one-volume commentary, a hymn book is perhaps the most important book you could own. And part of my reason for asking the question is because I’ve come to suspect that many Christians today don’t actually possess a hymn book. That’s a huge contrast with the church culture of fifty years or so ago.
When I became a Christian, many Bibles were actually published with a built-in hymn book at the back. You not only took your own Bible to church, but your own hymn book too. Now, I realize there’s something very convenient about the church supplying everything you need for the worship service, but I actually think it’s been at a cost. For example, it’s no longer clear to your neighbors when you leave for church that that’s where you’re going with the book in your hand. But there’s something else: part of the loss in some churches is that you end up at the mercy of seeing the words you’re singing only on a screen, and I think you can become a victim of the law of unintended consequences.
If your church uses a screen, let me urge you today to buy a hymn book. You owe it to your Christian growth to own one. Now, why do I make that radical and rather countercultural, old-fashioned suggestion? Because I’m an old man? Well, it’s simple, really. Because in all likelihood, if you don’t have a hymn book, you don’t know the vast majority of the great hymns of the Christian church, and you don’t know the hymns that never go up on the screen. In fact, you don’t know if you’re being fully nurtured by what you’re singing or starved by whoever chooses what goes on the screen.
But there’s another reason for having a good hymn book. It’s this: if your church uses a screen, you probably only see one verse of a hymn at a time, never the whole hymn. All you see is single verses. And that means you’re being deprived of what Christians have valued for centuries: seeing and understanding the flow and logic of a great hymn as it moves from verse to verse. It’s all in front of you. You see the whole.
The great hymn writers were students of Scripture. And some of them were not only unusually gifted poets, but also fine theologians capable of developing an idea and illuminating biblical truth. Yes, we’re always at the mercy of whoever is responsible to choose the praise in our congregation, whether we use a hymn book or not. And everybody—and for that matter, every congregation—tends to have favorites. But knowledge of your hymn book means you can still get to know all of the hymns, reflect on, and grow through their teaching. Because often they’re sermons in song, you can follow the theological reasoning of the hymn.
And with a hymn book, you probably get almost twenty centuries of hymns, not just the last twenty years. When you sing your way through a hymn book, you begin to appreciate that in your praise, you belong to the vast company of believers through the centuries. And that’s so important for us today, because then you’ll realize that the church is far bigger than you ever imagined. There’s perhaps never been a day when that’s more important, because the contemporary church’s thirst is to be exactly that—contemporary in everything. And that often means that Christians are deprived of the wisdom of the ages.
Please don’t misunderstand me. This is not an attempt to demean all modern song and hymn writers and modern songs. But if that’s all we sing and all we know, we are rejecting a wisdom practice of the church throughout the ages. And actually, we’re the first generation in three hundred years to do that. And frankly, we’re not a smart enough or a spiritual enough generation to be able to afford to do that. And in addition, as numbers of commentators point out, our praise is more likely to reflect the deep subjectivism and individualism of much contemporary Christianity. So here’s today’s message: if you don’t have a hymn book, please get one.