Colossians 3:16 identifies two main purposes for the hymns that we sing in the assembly. First, those hymns must be useful for teaching and admonishing other brethren. Second, they must be useful for glorifying God. With these divinely ordained goals in mind, the editorial board of the new hymnal Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs has spent the past five years ensuring that the content of this hymnal fulfills the highest goals of worship.
“Congregational singing isn’t recreational,” said board member David Maravilla. “It should be meaningful not only to people who like to sing, but also to people who don’t like to sing and would never sing for fun. Good worship, including song worship, should appeal to everyone who cares about the Lord.”
Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs will include approximately 850 hymns. Of these, around 550 will be familiar hymns that the board identified using a novel method. In 2006, the board compiled a list of every hymn that has appeared in a hymnal used in churches of Christ in the past half-century, more than 1800 hymns in all. Then, the board invited all Christians to evaluate those 1800 hymns in an online survey. More than 200 brethren across the U.S. and Canada completed the survey. With few exceptions, the 550 highest-rated hymns became the core of the new hymnal.
“Those hymns selected in the survey are a good reflection of what brethren desire to see in a hymnal,” said board member Mark Coulson. “These are songs that are familiar and contain strong, Biblical messages.”
When the members of the board selected the remaining 300 hymns, they had a similar goal. They looked for unfamiliar hymns that would be as valuable and enduring as hymns that brethren have already sung for decades. “A hymn will have longevity if it makes a unique point that really resonates with people,” said Maravilla. “If the content is meaningful and can make people think and feel in worship, those are the things that you’re looking for when you’re looking for things that will go beyond a generation.”
These new hymns were chosen from a number of genres: hymns written by brethren, contemporary hymns, hymns from what is known as the New English Renaissance, and unfamiliar classic and folk hymns. The editors drew equally from each of these four genres.
This accomplishes two important goals. First, it ensures that the selected hymns are representative of the body of hymns available, not of the editors’ personal preferences. Second, it makes the hymnal useful to brethren with a wide range of musical tastes. Christians who prefer stately, formal hymns will find many new selections to enjoy in Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, but so will worshipers who embrace a more contemporary style.
Hymns written by brethren posed a unique challenge to the members of the board because they knew many of the authors. The board introduced a special process to remove even the possibility of favoritism. “These hymns went through a blind review process,” explained Maravilla. “Even some of the editors’ hymns were rejected in that review. That was the highest standard we used for any genre. The hymnal was not an outlet for hymns written by people we knew, and we went out of our way to make sure it didn’t look like that.”
The board also considered the reaction of the brotherhood to these new hymns. A hymn that is already widely used by churches was likely to be included in the hymnal.
Next, the board selected the best of the hymns from the contemporary movement. “It would be silly to ignore what exists simply because we haven’t used it before, if it can be used in worship,” said Maravilla. “You’ve got to consider everything that exists.”
They also selected hymns from the New English Renaissance, a genre of hymns written in England beginning in the 1970s. Previous brotherhood hymnals have included some of these hymns; Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs includes more. “It’s important to bring these hymns in because they’re good,” said Maravilla. “They’re untapped—by churches of Christ—content that is good in worship.”
The Table of Contents also contains some unfamiliar older hymns, both from the classic hymn tradition and the folk hymn/Sacred Harp tradition. “Some hymns have just slipped through the cracks,” said Maravilla, “and most churches of Christ don’t know them, yet they’ve been classics in the denominational world for years.”
In considering all of these genres, the editors asked whether a given hymn was suitable for the assembly. “Our content in general is for congregational use, not for camps or barbershop quartets,” said Maravilla. “Our focus was worship in the congregation.”
They also evaluated hymns for congregational singability. “If most churches of Christ couldn’t sing a hymn, even if it was good, it was most likely excluded,” said Maravilla.
When the editors chose to include 850 hymns in Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, rather than the more than 1000 hymns contained in other modern hymnals, they took into consideration the ease with which congregations can produce hymn supplements. “We knew that if we left something out, a church could put it in its supplement and be able to use it,” said Maravilla.
That decision allowed the editors to develop a hymnal that could use good-quality paper, have easy-to-read type, and still be small enough for worshipers to hold easily in their hands. Although the hymnal is not a compilation of every hymn that a particular congregation might use, it contains a core of Biblically sound, spiritually moving hymns that every congregation can use.