By Aaron Wilson
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — This August, Lifeway Christian Resources is celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the Baptist Hymnal. It’s a milestone Mike Harland, director of Lifeway Worship, finds humbling—especially considering a physical form of the 2008 hymnal wasn’t initially supposed to exist.
“The original idea was that a new hymnal for Baptists would be digital only.” Harland said. “But we did extensive research and discovered almost half of the churches we served still held hymnals every week.”
The result of this research was for Lifeway to produce three resources simultaneously—a new physical hymnal, a site for digital worship resources in LifewayWorship.com, and full accompaniment orchestrations of every song in the hymnal.
“We had five production teams that would each deliver 20 completed songs per month,” recalled Grammy-winning producer Greg Nelson, who worked on the orchestrations. “This continued for 10 months until we had recorded 1,000 songs.”
According to Nelson, it was the largest recording project in the history of Nashville—a feat especially notable considering the city is known more for honky-tonks than hymnals.
In addition to recognizing the scale of the project, Harland said he felt its weight, knowing it would have an immediate impact on the body of Christ and that it would represent church history for years to come.
“Hymnals are something anthropologists and historians study,” Harland said. “I knew this resource would represent Baptists and evangelicals for decades.”
With this in mind, great care was put into every detail of the hymnal, from song selection and orchestration style, to typeface and pagination.
Making a hymnal
One of the biggest hurdles in producing a hymnal is song selection. The song selection team began with more than 3,000 song titles. “We sent a survey to music leaders from a cross-representation of the Church who ranked the songs on a scale from ‘must include’ to ‘must not include,’” Harland said.
From there, an executive selection committee and theological review group painstakingly whittled the hymn list to 674 songs.
“We used a project management visual with thousands of action steps that wrapped around the walls of a conference room,” Harland said. “I remember one engineer saying it looked like we were building The Death Star.”
Harland said he hated that analogy at the time because The Death Star explodes in “Star Wars.” But it turned out the Baptist Hymnal and LifewayWorship.com were indeed destined to blow up—in a good way.
“The response we got was amazing,” Harland said. “I’ve had many pastors tell me their congregational worship experience dramatically changed for the better because of these tools.”
To date, approximately 80,000 unique visitors have used LifewayWorship.com, according to Harland. He estimates between 2 and 2.5 million churchgoers now use some resource from the Baptist Hymnal or LifewayWorship.com every week.
These results are encouraging, he said, especially considering how the hymnal was made with the local church in mind.
A hymnal built around church practice
“We knew one of the biggest challenges churches face in music is a lack of musicians that can accompany congregational singing,” Harland said. “That’s why we went to the expense of recording full orchestrations for every track.
“And each track had to be a song the church was singing,” Harland said. “We didn’t put songs in it no one had ever heard of. This hymnal was built around church practice.”
Congregational usability was also a key factor that shaped the hymnal.
“We worked for two weeks on paginating the hymnal,” said Ken Barker, senior music editor at Lifeway Worship. “Once we decided how the hymnal would flow thematically, we worked on the layout from beginning to end, which was like trying to work a massive puzzle.”
Every detail down to typeface was made with churches in mind.
“Realizing how important legibility is, great care was taken in the selection of fonts,” said Dr. Terry Terry, who retired as Lifeway’s manager of music publishing and operations in 2009. “I remember procurement asking me how big the hymnal would be so they could price it out.”
Terry guessed 896 pages, which turned out to be the exact number.
“God already knew; He put that in my heart,” Terry said. “I remember being handed the first copy off the press. I just wept.”
Harland said God’s blessings were evident throughout the hymnal production process.
“Over the course of development, not one musician called in sick—not one hard drive crashed,” he said. “It just seemed like a divine hand was guiding us through the whole process.
“We now look back over the last 10 years and maybe see a glimpse of why God provided for us that way because of how many churches the hymnal project has helped.”
A hymnal with no back cover
As Harland and others celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the Baptist Hymnal, they’re also looking to the future.
“The intention with the hymnal and LifewayWorship.com is that it would be a hymnal with ‘no back cover,’” Harland said. “Meaning, we would continuously update and add to this collection.
“We add something new to the website almost every week,” he said. “This will be something we’ll be committed to for a long, long time.”
In honor of the 10-year anniversary, Lifeway is offering 25 percent off all pew and large-print editions of the Baptist Hymnal through the end of 2018. Learn more at LifeWay.com.
Aaron Wilson is a writer for Lifeway Christian Resources.