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How to Use a Hymnal

hymnal, hymns

Blogger Brian Hehn is the Director of The Center for Congregational Song, adjunct professor of worship at Wingate University, and Director of Music at Light Street Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD.



This kind of information may be old news to some of our readers, but there are those of you who may not have grown up singing from a hymnal and have recently found yourselves being asked to either use or sing from a hymnal. I bet many of you might also teach Sunday School classes, confirmation classes, or other educational settings where a simple article on “how to use a hymnal” would be particularly useful to share. So here we go!


What is a hymnal?

If you google this question, you’ll read first that a hymnal is a noun with the definition of “a book of hymns.” But a hymnal is much more than that. For more in-depth answers to this question, I’m going to rely on two very thoughtful organizations. The first is The Hymn Society in Great Britain and Ireland, which is a sister organization to The Center for Congregational Song’s parent company, The Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada. The Hymn Society in Great Britain and Ireland offers many “short guides,” one of which specifically answers the question what is a hymnal? The subheading they use with brief explanations following each are:

  • A good hymnal immerses us in Biblical language and the Biblical message.
  • A good hymnal is a handbook of theology.
  • A good hymnal is an important teaching tool.
  • A good hymnal is a key part of corporate worship.
  • A good hymnal is the voice of the church through history.
  • A good hymnal offers a broadly ecumenical meeting-place.
  • A good hymnal reminds us of the world-wide church to which we belong.
  • A good hymnal is a repository of the church’s diverse music styles.
  • And more…to read the full article, you can click here.

For another short but good read on what and why a hymnal is, check out this 1-page document from Samford’s “The Center for Worship and the Arts”: “Using-a-Hymnal”

Finally, if you’re in the “but aren’t hymnals going away” camp…or you have any friends or colleagues asking that question, here’s a wonderful article on the topic by John D. Witvliet of The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.


What’s in a hymnal?

Hymnals generally have some, all, or more than the following sections:

  • Opening Liturgy/Worship Section – The beginnings of hymnals often include creeds, worship orders, prayers, and more. These are often denominationally specific, but often times these resources are broad enough to meet the needs of a variety of traditions and perspectives.
  • Hymns & Songs – This is, of course, the largest section of a hymnal. Hymns & songs are often organized by liturgical season (Advent, Christmas, etc…) and/or by theme (Confession, Adoration, Gathering, Sending, etc…).
  • Psalms – Sometimes psalms are included in the main part of the hymnal, but some hymnals have a special section for psalm settings. Sometimes this is near the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of the “Hymns & Songs” section mentioned before. Depending on the tradition a hymnal is from, these psalms may be musical settings, musical refrains with words for the verses, or just words that have “points” to enable chanting.
  • Copyright Index – Hymnals almost always include the bulk of the copyright information (and on the copyright holders) in an index in the back.
  • Topical and Scriptural Indices – Most hymnals will have both a topical and scriptural index. These are great for looking up hymns and songs that deal with specific topics (like a list of hymns that deal with “Comfort,” or if you’re trying to find a hymn that references a specific scripture (like a list of hymns that Luke chapter 2). The scriptural index is sometimes accompanied by a separate “lectionary” index that has hymn suggestions for all Sundays in the lectionary.
  • Other indices that are usually included are a list of authors, composers, and sources; tune names; Tune meters; and hymns alphabetically by first line.
  • For a wonderful explanation of how to use many of these common hymnal indices, check this article out:


More Resources

If you have any questions about hymns or hymnals, there are two go-to places:

The first is The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada and the second is These two organizations are the experts and have staff

that are more than willing to help answer your hymn and hymnal-related questions.


Here’s a fun video of how to use a hymnal (from a Lutheran pastor using a Lutheran hymnal…but generally useful information!).


We hope you’ll enjoy exploring your hymnal(s) and teach others about all they have to offer our communities of faith and our families.