There was a time when the faithful in the heavily Dutch corners of the Midwest would not have been able to sing along if the organist played the gospel classic "Precious Lord, Take My Hand."
True, some may have recognized the hymn that Mahalia Jackson sang at the 1968 funeral of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., since this was the civil rights leader's favorite: "Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand. I am tired, I am weak, I am worn. Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light. Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home."
But by 1987, this beloved African-American spiritual had been added to the Christian Reformed Church hymnal. A generation later, it has achieved the kind of stature that puts it in the core of the "In Death and Dying" pages of the church's new "Lift Up Your Hearts" hymnal.
"When you're creating a new hymnal, you know that you have to retain all those heart songs that just can't go away," said the Rev. Joyce Borger, editor of the 1,104-page volume, produced in collaboration with the Reformed Church in America. "We're talking about the hymns that you cannot imagine living without, and 'Precious Lord, Take My Hand' certainly falls into that category now. It has become one of our songs."
Research indicates the average church may have a repertoire of 150-plus hymns -- not counting Christmas carols and seasonal songs -- that worship leaders can list in the Sunday bulletin and know that most people will sing them with confidence.
The challenge facing teams that create hymnals is that "core songs" will vary radically from flock to flock, depending on where they are located, the dominant age groups in the pews and the cultural backgrounds of the worship leaders. The favorite-hymn list of a World War II generation pianist from rural Michigan will overlap some, but not much, with that of a Generation X guitarist in urban Detroit.
Also, while it's impossible to ignore classics from the Dutch Reformed tradition, Borger said "Lift Up Your Hearts" also needed to acknowledge the growing diversity found in today's churches, in North America and worldwide. In the age of increased contact between believers around the world -- not to mention YouTube -- it's common for suburban American teens to return from church trips to Africa or South America with notebooks full of new hymns they now cherish.
Then there is the surging popularity of pop-rock "praise choruses," which rise and fall in popularity from year to year, if not month to month. Also, the larger the modern church sanctuary, the more likely it is to feature video screens on which lyrics are constantly streamed into view. Why would digital worshippers want to tie up their hands with analog hymnals?