From the Music Ministry

Change In Congregational Song
Part 2

This article is the second in a three-month series on change in congregational song in worship. Last month presented Harry Plantinga’s brief overview of the history of congregational song. Harry Plantinga is the Director of and faculty member at Calvin College. This month I present Plantiga’s observations about the current state of congregational song based on hymnmal publishing trends.

From Harry Plantinga’s blog post, The Future of congregational Song, published 3/11/2019 a

At . . .
we looked at trends in hymnal publishing. indexes nearly 6,000 hymnals that have been published in the United States and Canada. It’s not a complete index—we estimate it may have only a quarter to a third of the hymnals actually published—but it’s a decent proxy for the actual number of hymnals published. has seventeen hymnals that were published in the 1780s and fifty-eight that were published in the 1790s. The number per decade increases to the 1910s, peaking at nearly six hundred. The number then starts a long decline, temporarily reversing after WWII and after the 1980s outbreak of new song (as shown in the chart below). But the trend generally continues downward, and the number of new hymnals indexed at from the 2010s may be the smallest since the late 1700s. We wondered whether perhaps the number of hymnals indexed at was not indicative of the number of hymnals published, so we performed a search at FirstSearch of the number of books published containing the word “hymnal” or “psalter” in the title by decade. That graph shows a similar shape, suggesting that the numbers are representative. It is therefore possible that the number of hymnals actually published in the U.S. and Canada this decade may be the smallest since the 1790s; at any rate, it is clear that the number being published has been declining for the last century.


Of course, other kinds of publishing are contracting, with many magazines and newspapers folding, book publishing hard hit, music recordings declining, and the like. New media such as the web could be a factor. However, they can’t account for a decline starting in the 1920s. It may be that the cost of publishing a new hymnal has risen high enough that the number of different hymnals is declining while the total number of copies printed is not. New copyright licensing requirements add to the difficulty of publishing a hymnal. It also appears that the number of hymnals published for uses other than worship services, such as for clubs or societies or schools, has declined greatly. In fact, it seems that there is much less communal singing outside of places of worship. Still, the decline in the number of hymnals being published is dramatic.

Congregational singing is ancient—as ancient as the Psalms, at least—and no doubt it will continue into the future. But even as congregational song may wax and wane, experiencing fads and fashions, the means or technology of congregational song also changes. An obvious question is the extent to which such a change is occurring now—a change from printed hymnals to projection, from an approved collection of songs to a top-100 chart on the web, from congregational singing to performance by leaders. And to what extent are these changes beneficial or harmful to worship?

Next month, what I believe to be essential to congregational song and, in fact, all music used in worship. This last article in this series will draw on my forty plus years’ involvement with, observations of, and contemplations on congregational singing.