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The old rugged hymnal: New songs and old media

October 16, 2012
By Adam J. Copeland, guest blogger

The denomination with which I’m affiliated, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has developed a new hymnal to be published next year. Of this undertaking many have wondered: in the year 2013, should we be publishing printed paper hymnals in addition to hymnals in electronic book form and ones intended solely for digital projection? As a member of the hymnal selection committee, I have thought about these questions deeply and come to appreciate the technology of an old-fashioned printed book in a new way.

Traditional paper (or “dead tree”) hymnals are durable and never malfunction. A publishing employee once told me that when she is establishing a contract with a printer, she literally throws their books against the wall to determine the sturdiness of their bindings. I happen to know that simultaneously dropping several hymnals from a church balcony can make quite a noise and not damage the hymnals. I haven’t found anyone willing to loan me a Kindle, Nook, or iPad to replicate the experience with an e-reader.

I own a Kindle, iPad, and iPhone and use them all to read books. And yet, when I am buying a non-fiction book for work, or even a quality fiction book for pleasure, I usually opt for a paper version. Why is that?

In short, the ancient technology of paper books allows me to access them immediately in my office, have several open on my desk at once, and markup the text with ease. Adding textual notes on an e-reader, though possible, is more cumbersome than writing in the margins.

On the other hand, e-readers allow for seamless copying and pasting into documents, powerful search functions, and the ability to carry a sizable library collection in a super-light device. Enhanced digital books offer great promise.

With new media changes in mind, in addition to traditional paper hymnals, the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation will publish a web-based electronic version of the hymnal as well as an e-book version. I’d wager that most congregations, however, will still find the technology of a paper book ideal for the purposes of most worship experiences. Printed paper hymnals are affordable, durable, and don’t need to be charged. To my knowledge, the e-book version will be one of the first hymnals published in this form (and some copyright holders will likely not grant electronic permissions, so some pages will sadly be blank).

What should we make of this Presbyterian hymnal technology case study? To use another sort of worship metaphor, when “contemporary Christian music” was all the rage in the 1990s, many congregations moved to services consisting of 100% contemporary music. Today, many of those same congregations have transitioned back to worship services with a wide variety of musical styles, including traditional, contemporary, and global music. Perhaps the move to e-books is not dissimilar. While e-books (and forthcoming e-hymnals) present great promise to worshiping communities, they likely will not totally replace the paper hymnal technology that has existed for hundreds of years.

When the next Presbyterian hymnal is published, pastors will surely enjoy the ability to plan worship while traveling without having to pack a heavy printed book. My suspicion is that many of those same pastors will also enjoy looking out on their congregation on Sunday to see them singing from the printed page.


Rev. Adam J. Copeland teaches in the Religion Department at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where he serves as Faculty Director for Faith and Leadership. To read more of Adam’s writing, visit A Wee Blether and follow his Tweets at @ajc123.


The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact

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