Our District Administrator, Naomi Prince, shares an article written for the Methodist Recorder which looks at the outcome of research done for her undergraduate dissertation.
‘Methodism is Born in Song’ – a phrase that is frequently said in the Methodist church, and whilst historically this might be the case, can the Methodist Church say that hymns carry the same importance within the 21st Century church as they historically did? I have spent the last year researching this question and subsequently wrote a dissertation titled ‘An analysis of the role of the hymn in the Twenty-first century Methodist Church’, because while hymns still form the centre of our services, is the function that hymns play in our faith lives the same as they historically did?
In January 2022 I launched a questionnaire on social media, asking the 21st Century Methodist Church their opinions and understandings about the use and function of hymns. These questions ranged from understanding whether people understood what an authorised hymnody was to whether music was a way that they had experienced God, and the answers were fascinating. This following article is going to summarise my findings, as many who participated indicated that they would be interested to hear the results, so I hope that you find them as fascinating as I did.
For those of you who might not be aware of this, the Methodist Church has an authorised hymnody which means hymnbooks that are published by the Methodist Church are approved by Methodist Conference as pieces of work that express the doctrine and theology of the church. For the most recent hymnbook Singing the Faith this meant that the hymnbook was put under the scrutiny of the Faith and Order Committee who deemed that every hymn fits within Methodist Theology.
While this is understood at the organisational level of the church, I was interested to see if this understanding had filtered down into our churches, so asked people to share their understanding of what having an authorised hymnody meant. 44% of participants used the words doctrine, theology, or belief in their responses, with another 20% of responses indicating an understanding that the hymnbook was collated and approved by the organisational body of the church. These responses indicate that the authorised nature of our hymnbooks is not well known among Methodist congregations, and this is suggested even more when I linked whether people were trained in ministry (such as worship leader, local preacher or minister) to their answers.
The majority of those who were trained in ministry had an understanding about the history behind our hymnbooks, thus suggesting further that this tradition is not known within our local churches.
Who owns our hymnbooks?
Historically, the most significant hymnbook that was published was published in 1780 and was titled A collection of hymns for the Use of the People called Methodists. This hymnbook was a collation of hymns that follows the journey of a Christian from Sinner to Believer and was used by John Wesley to educate members of the church on some key aspects of Methodist theology such as the characteristics of God to salvation. Previous hymnbooks published by John Wesley often focused on a particular theme, however congregations started to ask John Wesley for one hymnbook which could be used throughout the year and in multiple settings, which is why the 1780 Hymnbook was published. This hymnbook was incredibly popular and was a staple within the early Methodist Church, undergoing many different editions, with a lot of future hymnbooks feeding off the content of this hymnal. Within the modern church the hymnbooks which have been authorised are the 1933 Hymnbook The Methodist Hymnbook, Hymns and Psalms and Singing the Faith.
Within the last 100 years there have been three different authorised hymnodies published, so I was interested to see which hymnbooks people had a physical copy of, and subsequently how they used them.
On the graph above you can see the findings from this question, with the orange colour indicating those who aren’t trained in ministry, and the blue showing those who are. Due to space the hymnbooks are identified by publication date, so for clarity 1933 was The Methodist Hymnbook, 1983 Hymns and Psalms, and 2011 is Singing the Faith. This graph shows that those who are trained in ministry are more likely to own hymnbooks, especially when referring to Singing the Faith. Now this might not seem surprising, as when putting together worship a hymnbook is quite helpful when it comes to picking hymns. However, this development is interesting as it was not that long ago that Methodist members were expected to own their own hymnbook and bring it to church each Sunday. With less people owning hymnbooks, has the personal relationship with one and their hymnbook also been lost?
Use of the hymnbook
So, when I set up the questionnaire I was intrigued as to how the 21st Century Methodist Church used their hymnbook, and whether this practice was still alive. As you can see in the graph to the side, it can be said that it is, but that the predominant function the hymnbook plays is in preparing worship and use during a Sunday Service, with 86% of participants selecting that option as a response. It is here where I wish that I had been more specific in my questionnaire, as it would have been interesting to see if age was a contributing factor to how people responded. It could be assumed that those who use their hymnbook for prayer and personal devotion were older members due to the tradition of the church that they grew up in where access to a physical and personal copy of a hymnbook was more common, but unfortunately my questionnaire did not gather this information. It cannot be denied that this practice is still alive in the church, just maybe not to the extent that it used to although it is hard to be certain in this due to no existing data.
There was another interesting comparison between whether people were trained to lead worship and how they used their hymnbook as you can see in the graph above. When it comes to using hymnbooks as a way for personal devotion and prayer it is seen more commonly among those who are trained in leading worship. 89% of those who are trained ticked the boxes ‘personal devotion’ and ‘prayer’ compared to 49% of those who are not trained in leading worship. This therefore suggests that the training provided to those in Worship Leading, Local Preaching and Ministry positions inspires use of their hymnbooks outside of a Sunday Service. It could also potentially be explained by the fact that those who are trained in leading worship have a more active devotional practice however this is a theory. Regardless of why, this data suggests that this element of Methodist tradition is getting lost, and if hymns are still considered as theological and doctrinal documents of the church, there should be some encouragement and education on how to use a hymnbook outside of a Sunday Service.
Hymns and Faith Life
While on a ship on the way to America for a mission trip, John Wesley met a group of Christians from Europe called the Moravians, and through this meeting was introduced to the power of music in strengthening faith and being a way to connect with God. From this meeting, hymns became a crucial part of John Wesley’s faith life and something he brought to the Methodist Church.
Due to music being a core element of the denomination of Methodism I was intrigued to see whether music had played an important role in people’s faith life. I asked participants to answer two questions, the first being whether music had played a significant role in the development of their faith, and then another question asking whether hymns were a way that they experienced God regularly in Church.
Whilst responses to both questions show how important music is in people’s faith life, its interesting to see that 85% of participants recognise music as playing a significant role, whereas 76% also see music as a way for regular connection with God. This suggests that while music enables people to have a regular connection with God, it is also a part of worship that enables transformation in someone’s faith life.
Outside the context of faith, there is lots of research into the impact that music can have on a person. For example, when we listen to music the hormone dopamine is released and multiple areas of the brain which are involved in emotional responses are engaged. This emotional response is also heightened when experienced with other people, so the emotive connection and ease of connection with God through music may be partly explained through this neurological response. Research into the relationship between music and lyrics is also an area which provides some explanation as to how music is such a powerful form of connection between an individual and God. In his book ‘The Experience Factor’ Geoff Luck says that lyrics that contain ‘enhancing and inspirational themes [that] can seriously increase long term appreciation and depth of engagements’ due to a sensation of ‘knowing that lyrics represent something bigger that us’. When put into the context of religious music this idea of them being written about something ‘bigger than us’ is very fitting, as we are often singing about a God who is beyond our full understanding, so this combined with music being a way for emotional expression could explain how music allows such a powerful connection with God.
Hymnbooks as a source of education
As mentioned above, the content of our hymn books contains the theology and doctrine of the Methodist Church, which subsequently means that each individual hymn can be a place for teaching. For example, the Charles Wesley hymn And Can it Be contains references to 15 different Bible passages, as well as reinforces the theology that salvation is free and free to everyone. Whilst not all hymns have the same theological richness as each other it is undeniable that they all have the potential to teach, however that requires people to engage with the lyrics and reflect on their meaning. Despite the devotional practice surrounding hymnbooks having declined, 81% of participants still responded yes when asked if they engaged with lyrics when singing them in church.
The participants were also encouraged to write a more detailed response and these answers were interesting. There were comments about how the move away from hymnbooks makes reflection on the lyrics of hymns harder due to them being projected onto a screen, alongside the comment that the language of some hymns is restricting, while other responses recognised the significance of lyrics and how powerful they can be when they fit with the theme of the service. However, it cannot be denied that the music used in worship is recognised as an important element of worship, with the lyrics containing content that prompts reflection, whether that’s before, during or after the service.
While hymns might prompt reflection, I was also interested to see if people turn to their hymnbooks to learn about the doctrine and theology of the Methodist Church. Historically hymns were used to help introduce people to some Methodist teaching and therefore might be more accessible than Wesley’s sermons. As you can see, 61% if respondents turn to their hymnbooks for education on Methodist Theology and Doctrine, however again there is an interesting comparison between those who are trained in leading worship and those who aren’t as you can see below.
What this graph shows us is that if people are trained in leading worship, they are more likely to turn to their hymnbooks to learn about Methodist theology and doctrine. This again raises the question of awareness, as this correlation suggests that the training taken by those who lead worship provides some education into the history surrounding hymnody and the Methodist Church.
Hymnody and Evangelism
The Methodist Church has a history rich with evangelism, reaching those in marginalised areas and bringing them to faith. John Wesley travelled to areas where there weren’t churches and preached outside so that all could hear, and hymnody played an important role in this. In the questionnaire that was released in January, I asked participants to answer the following question ‘Do you believe hymns are still an important element in being an evangelistic church? Why or why not?’ but due to the scale of participants that responded it was not a question that I could fully explore in my dissertation due to the word count. However, the answers indicated that 53% of participants felt that hymns were still an important element of bringing people to faith, however there was a recognition that there were some issues. For example, some of the language of hymns is not that accessible, and in order for people to hear the lyrics they need to be in church so if people are not coming through church doors they won’t be able to experience teaching through hymn lyrics, or experience God through music.
There were also quite a few comments about hymns being out of date and old fashioned, with there being an idea that we need new hymns and new styles of worship in churches to bring people through the front doors. Unfortunately, I was unable to delve deeper into this during my undergraduate but am now taking a research masters to explore this very question of whether hymns still have evangelistic potential, whether they are too old or if this is a misunderstanding. This also means that there will be another questionnaire coming so keep an eye out for that!
Have hymnbooks become less important?
The final question in my questionnaire asked participants to answer yes or no to the following question ‘In your time as someone linked to a Methodist Church, do you believe Methodist Hymnbooks have become less important?’ and how people answered this question was surprising. As you can see in the graph just opposite, the responses were 50/50, with 209 participants responding No to 205 responding Yes.
Originally, I thought that this response was unhelpful, as it shows that the church is very split in its thoughts. However, it was through conversation with various people that I came to realise that the fact that the church was split 50/50 on this question is quite significant. Historically the hymnbook was a central aspect of our church. It was at the heart of people’s devotional life and was how people were introduced to the theology and doctrine of the church, so one could assume that the hymnbook would be seen as an important aspect of our denomination. However, the response to this questionnaire suggests that this view has changed, with 50% of respondents feeling that hymnbooks have become less important.
Now while this might seem quite damming to the Methodist tradition of hymn singing, it must be noted that when given the opportunity to expand their answers some people emphasised that whilst hymnbooks might have lost importance, they didn’t think hymns had lost importance. Some explained that due to the introduction of technology, physical hymnbooks were less important due to the availability of projection, or that due to the internet they didn’t need a hymnbook.
But with everything else my research brought up, what does this mean?
What does this research mean for the 21st Century Church?
With the rise of the internet and the vast number of newly published worship material it could be argued that the need for a physical hymnbook is declining. The statistics from my research show that hymnbooks are not playing as important a role in individuals faith life, and with the rise of churches having WiFi and projection, physical hymnbooks are not required in churches in the same way. But does this mean that the Methodist Church has lost its DNA in hymn singing.
No – I don’t think it has. I believe that the church has lost some tradition surrounding hymns, and maybe there needs to be some reflection done about the devotional practice of hymns with some education regarding our history, but with the growing industry of worship music maybe the importance of hymns is changing. I also think that while a physical hymnbook may be losing importance there is the potential of unlocking a digital hymnbook which can be updated and edited with ease.
I don’t believe that the Methodist Church is finished with hymns, but I do believe that the role of hymnbooks has changed, although whether for the better I do not know. There is so much power in the hymns in our hymnbooks, and I would encourage people to turn to their hymnbooks in times of prayer and devotion because hymns are a brilliant way to connect and learn about God.
This research is not the end of my study into hymns but is also what I believe needs to be the start of further research and reflection into how Methodists use hymns in their churches and faith life. If anyone would like to contact me for more information about this research, please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org – I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions.