I love the “Go Figure” column in our denominational magazine, Presbyterians Today. Jack Marcum writes it, and he always has some fascinating statistics to share. In the July/August 2009 issue, Jack tells about the findings of a survey supporting the work of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song (PCOCS), which is working on a possible new hymnal. (For more on PCOCS, see the note at the end of this post.)

Research Services discovered from their work that a number of hymns in our Presbyterian Hymnal (1990) were neglected. Notable among these were many based on the Psalms (interesting, since the Reformed tradition once sang nothing but metrical psalms) and some of those from other cultures. But all the infrequently sung hymns shared a common characteristic: they were written after 1959. In contrast, 82% of the most widely sung hymns were penned before 1900.

That information got my wife and me thinking about how hymns really ought to be classified in the hymnal. It’s standard to arrange them around the liturgical year (Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, etc.) or the work of the persons of the Trinity. There are also hymns for the time of day, the sacraments, and so on.

But it seemed to us that hymns are a great deal like food. So why not list them according to a simple menu: starters, entrees, desserts, lighter fare? In the first category might be those little Sunday school choruses or maybe some Taize pieces, something quick that won’t spoil your appetite for the grand four- or even six-verse spread to come. Of course, under “entrees” would have to be those old hymns. Isn’t it true that those are beloved because they’re like comfort food? People love them not because the words or music is particularly sophisticated or theologically sound, but because they grew up with them, and singing the songs takes folks back to their childhoods. They’re like mama’s meatloaf or some really crusty fried okra and homemade mac ‘n’ cheese. (OK, that’s my comfort food; yours may be different.)

Also under entrees could be placed those more modern hymns that have “better ingredients” (that is, theology more faithful to the denomination’s standards). They’re rather like those “heart healthy” meals at some restaurants that have a little symbol next to them to tell you they’re low in fat or whatever. So the editors of the hymnbook could put a cross or probably the denominational seal (of approval?) next to the number. And preachers and choir directors could pick them and make people sing them once in awhile, but it would be like trying to get a kid to eat veggies.

Finally, the desserts. The folks I know that love praise and worship music don’t like my saying this, but this is where most of that stuff belongs. Sugary sweet tunes and words that fill us up with empty calories and give us a bit of a high, maybe even a brain freeze. Still, who doesn’t love desserts?

OK, that’s my take on what needs to be done for the new hymnal. Now I’m going to go  sing “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” then pig out on okra.

© 2009 Tom Cheatham

Note: For serious engagement with the work of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song (PCOCS), visit their website at www.presbyterianhymnal.org. Their acronym, by the way, is pronounced “peacocks.” Long before the iconic bird of the TV network or the color revolution for men’s clothing back in the day, the peacock was a symbol of the resurrection.