Geeking out at a new hymnal

I can get a bit giddy at the idea of an e-hymnal.

By Jerrod Hugenot

Years ago, I remember watching Star Trek: The Next Generation where the Starfleet crew moved about the USS Enterprise with hand-held data pads (technically spelled “padds” on the show). From these pads, one could access the ship’s database, take care of routine ship operations or enjoy a little leisure time reading. (Captain Picard still maintained a small collection of classic leather bound volumes in his ready room. Truly, a sign of greatness!)

I wondered if we would see the day when a hand-held data pad was available. I also wondered if a girl would ever take interest in me. I am happy to report on both counts that my wife and I share an iPad mini where we read the New York Times, keep up with social media and stream old episodes of classic science fiction. Alas, the Next Generation is now considered “classic,” and is being released anew for its 25th anniversary with HDTV improved effects.

We now have the “iHymnal” coming to the market. While some churches have clergy who preach from their iPad, now the laity can download an app and bring along their tablets as well. Church can be as low or high tech as we choose. Nonetheless, it allows a new way of going “old school” and still being the coolest kid in your pew.

Recently, I was most delighted to read a ministry magazine with an advertisement for a new hymnal. While there’s nothing that novel about new hymnals and other song books being advertised, one amenity listed among the familiar options of pew edition and accompaniment edition caught my eye: the hymnal is available as an app for one’s tablet! (Note: You can download the app for tablets only. Unfortunately, there is not one for the iPhone or other smartphones at this time. Also the tablet is really the best reading screen, as it is roughly the same size as the regular hymnal.)

I felt myself a bit giddy at the idea of an e-hymnal. I’m not much one for hymns and choruses projected on screens up front. I still like the heft of a hymnal in hand. Nonetheless, a hymnal that is available as an app for one’s iPad or similar device is encouraging for younger and tech saavy congregants and clergy. It combines the old school feel of holding your worship hymnal while subtly weaving the hymnal into the other times that tablet is in hand, which as you know is far more often than we care to admit.

The app makes the hymnal portable, journeying wherever you go with your tablet, which for most tablet users is pretty much everywhere. The hymnal moves away from being “just at church on Sunday morning” and potentially alongside you as you go to work, on vacation or at home when the comfort of a good hymn might be just what you need.

A little about this particular hymnal: The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) recently released a new denominational hymnal, Glory to God. While no hymnal is perfect, every hymnal adds new hymns, inevitably not likely to stand the test of time, and every hymnal retires a hymn, much to the dismay of often older congregants. This particular hymnal represents a wide variety of hymns ancient and modern, striking a balance of retaining the familiar and offering a new variety of hymns to expand a congregation’s repertoire.

The app version is priced just like the print editions. You can choose to purchase the pew edition or various levels of accompaniment editions, depending on how your church uses instrumentation. For most of us, we will use pianos or organs for hymnal accompaniment. This app offers the opportunity to purchase a version where you can pick and choose other accompaniment scores based on that morning’s available musicians (i.e., a guest trumpeter could have the appropriate sheet music to match leading the hymn or augmenting the organ’s accompaniment).

On the latter count, pastors and other worship planners know that it’s a slow path for the new hymns, scattered gradually across years of Sunday morning worship. Indeed, if sensitively addressed, the new hymnal becomes known as “our hymnal” and may be even mourned when it is eventually replaced years later.

For some pastors and worship planners, the app also levels the playing field for persons who gladly admit they are not musically inclined. The search function allows you to pair up appropriate hymns with a given Scripture reading, especially useful if you are a church working with the Revised Common Lectionary. Further, you can tap a play button and hear a basic piano accompaniment, helping put to rest your worry of “Is it singable?” if you are not able to read music confidently or have access to a keyboard to plunk out the melodic line.

As churches go through times of transition, I gladly suggest that a new church hymnal is its own version of a church transition, and hopefully not an occasion for church conflict. We need to be generous in singing from all the eras and styles of church music, as the church is a great tapestry of traditions, especially with music. Also, as this recent article from The Atlantic observes, religious communities are becoming one of the few places where people gather together and sing.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.