Playing “Can You Top This?” can be a fun parlor game.
But in real life, it’s not a game, and for David Eicher and Meg Flannagan, it’s really tough. For more than six years, Eicher has devoted himself to Glory to God, the new Presbyterian hymnal, for which he has served as editor.
For the past three years, Flannagan ― formerly a pastor in the Nashville area ― has been equally dedicated to promoting the book, traveling throughout the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) acquainting pastors, music directors and church members with the 853 songs in Glory to God and the ways they can enrich the worship lives of Presbyterian congregations.
Eicher and Flannagan ― and all those on the hymnal committee and on the staff of the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation (PPC), as well as countless volunteers who have helped organize and stage regional hymnfests introducing Glory to God ― have done well. Glory to God, released last fall, is the fastest-selling hymnal in the history of the Presbyterian Church.
“This work has been so fulfilling that I can’t imagine ever doing anything else more important,” Eicher says as he watches his time as the hymnal’s editor come to a close at the end of this year. “People are taking [Glory to God] and running with it ― it’s kind of like giving up our baby.”
Flannagan, whose Glory to God service is also concluding this year, agrees. “This work has felt like a fulfillment of my sense of call. For all my days I will consider it the highest privilege to have been involved.”
The overwhelmingly positive response in the church to Glory to God has confirmed both the desire for a new Presbyterian hymnal and the marketing strategy devised to make this one successful.
Glory to God has been a 10-year journey. The 216th General Assembly (2004) authorized a feasibility study by PPC, in cooperation with the PC(USA)’s Office of Theology and Worship and the Presbyterian Association of Musicians. The next Assembly in 2006 gave the full go-ahead. The Glory to God collection was introduced to the 2012 Assembly, which commended the new hymnal to the church for its use.
“We intentionally tried to involve the whole church in the development of Glory to God,” Eicher says. “We constantly let people know what was going on and gave them opportunities to respond with questions and comments. They trusted the process, which helped the book.”
The 15-member Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song ― appointed in 2008 and chaired by noted hymn-writer Mary Louise Bringle ― “from the very beginning focused on the power of congregational singing,” Eicher said. “They knew what the hymnal could be ― a bridge across the whole church, one book for all worship services.”
A key part of the marketing strategy was a series of six festivals around the church during the past year. Events were held in Wayne, Pennsylvania; Albuquerque; Ft. Worth, Texas; Atlanta and Louisville. All of them included worship services using the liturgical resources in Glory to God, keynote addresses on the theological role of liturgical and musical resources in the Reformed tradition. A total of more than 1,000 people attended from more than 30 states.
“One gentleman even came from Japan,” Flannagan says. “He’s active in the Japan Hymn Society, heard about Glory to God and was interested in what’s in the book.”
“The real value of the hymn festivals was getting people to open the book,” Eicher says. “People hear ‘hymnal’ and say, ‘That’s not for me.’ But once people open the book, they see the possibilities and it takes care of itself ― we don’t have to sell it.”
Eicher says one church music director told him that “before Glory to God I would introduce new songs to the congregation with fear and trepidation, but now we sing at least two new pieces every week.”
Glory to God came none too soon. “We had new hymnals in 1955, 1974 and 1990,” Flannagan explains, “so historically 20 years is about the norm. To those who say the 1990 book is current enough, Eicher quotes a Young Adult Advisory Delegate to the 2012 General Assembly, who told his committee, “I wasn’t even born in 1990!”
Demographics and the technological revolution have also impacted Glory to God.
“Conversations are completely different than 20 years ago,” Flannagan says. “We had some ‘world’ music in the 1990 book but there’s much more variety in Glory to God.”
“We didn’t deny electronic means of delivering the material,” Eicher says, noting Glory to God’s online and smartphone applications. “This effort has not just been about publishing a new book.”
Second-guessing is commonplace in undertakings as massive as the development and launch of Glory to God, but not for Eicher and Flannagan. “It’s exceeded our expectations,” Flannagan says. “It’s being claimed and used throughout the church ― Presbyterians want to learn new songs to go with the old and familiar.”
“I can’t think of anything I’d do differently,” Eicher says. “Everything I feared didn’t happen and everything I dreamed did happen. I can’t thank the [hymnal] committee enough for consistently looking for what would be best for the whole church.”
As thanks for the General Assembly’s consistent support for Glory to God over the 10 years of its development and launch, PPC has published a special edition of the hymnal, featuring a green cover ― the regular edition comes in red or purple ― with the seal of the 221st General Assembly embossed on it. Each commissioner and advisory delegate will receive a copy as a gift, and a few will be available for purchase in the General Assembly bookstore in Detroit.
“They won’t last long,” says Eicher with a grateful smile.