How to Transition to a New Hymnal

When I started playing the organ in church, every Saturday morning either my mother or my father drove me from the farm to town so I could practice for the Sunday service. Sometimes when I arrived at church there would be a small slip of paper on the organ with the songs for the Sunday services written on it—all hymns from the 1934 red Psalter Hymnal. More often I had to walk across the street to the parsonage to wait while the pastor picked the hymns. Several things were certain: all the hymns would be from the Psalter Hymnal, they would all be playable on the organ, and most of them would be very familiar to our congregation.

Our pastor was the only person involved in planning the worship services, and our congregation was homogeneous. But in our church and others, many young men (and a few young women) had recently returned from serving their country in World War II. Worshiping in other settings had introduced them to other hymns, so some churches began slipping other hymnals into pew racks or simply placing them on the pews. Still, the organ was the primary instrument used for worship.

Worship changes. Our knowledge of the worldwide church changes. The faces of our congregations change. And our hymnals must change too.

Fast-forward to the 1987 gray Psalter Hymnal. (The 1957 blue Psalter Hymnal was published between the red and the gray, but the blue hymnal still consisted entirely of metrical psalms and hymns.) The gray hymnal brought some major changes—some of the songs required accompaniment other than an organ, many of the songs were not metrical hymns, and songs in other languages were included. This was true of many hymnals published in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Between 1934 and 1987, worshiping congregations had become more diverse. With those changes came the necessity of having more than one person involved in planning the worship services. Since the publication of the 1987 hymnal, that diversity has only increased. What a delight it is to be part of worship planning in congregations that use a variety of music in worship. And what a delight it is to worship in diverse congregations!

Using the gifts and knowledge of a variety of people is essential to meaningful worship. So if your congregation does not have a worship planning committee that embraces diversity, consider advocating for age diversity, ethnic diversity, and diversity in preferred styles of worship.

Change is a constant. Churches change. Worship changes. Our knowledge of the worldwide church changes. The faces of our congregations change. And our hymnals must change too. I cannot imagine many of the Christians I know today worshiping with access only to the psalms and hymns I knew as a child.

So how can your church successfully make the transition to a new hymnal? Here are a few suggestions:

Start with what you know. Begin by choosing songs and hymns that are very familiar to your congregation, and continue to use those congregational favorites regularly. I cannot tell you how often someone has asked me, “Is (insert favorite hymn) in the new hymnal?” For many people, acceptance of the new hymnal depends on whether it includes their old favorites.

Serve it up with style. Once you’ve shown your congregation that the old favorites are still there, begin to introduce new songs and hymns whose style is familiar to your congregation. The work of people who are writing new hymns and contemporary songs deserves to be validated, especially since their work often deals with topics that were not addressed in old hymns.

Introduce new instruments. Gradually add instrumental accompaniment that is less familiar. Someone once said that any instrument is appropriate for worship except for the saxophone. Well, that person is wrong. The saxophone can be used very well in worship!

Delve into new genres. The way a new song is introduced to your congregation is very important. Maybe have an instrument play the entire song through before anyone sings, then add a vocal or instrumental ensemble or praise team for a verse, and finally add the entire congregation.

Recruit some help. If your church has a choir, have them introduce a song one week, and then the next week have the congregation sing it. Sing the new song a couple of times in the next few months. Also consider teaching the children in your church a new song and having them teach it to the congregation. Haven’t we all gone home from church humming or singing a song that children sang in worship?

Mix it up. Use a new song as part of the prelude or offertory, and print a verse or two of the song in the order of worship, indicating where it can be found in the hymnal.

There are many other ways to introduce your congregation to new songs. Be creative! There is a wide diversity of songs in Lift Up Your Hearts, and you will find many, many songs (new and old) that people will gladly sing in church and during the week. This hymnal is sure to be a great blessing to the Christian community. Enjoy!

For additional ideas go to

Annetta Vander Lugt began playing organ in church when she was 14 years old. The organ has been her lifelong journey—in Iowa, Utah, New Jersey, and Michigan. Hymns and psalms are her passion.

Reformed Worship 108 © June 2013, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.