In the recently concluded online fund drive for Hymnary.org, many donors also left short messages of thanks and encouragement. One donor's comment was this: "I love hymns ... If you asked for money, it means you need it! Please keep the work going. And please, accept my widow's mite. God bless you."
For Nyna Sykes, associate director of the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), such words mean a lot.
"They're right," she says, "when we ask for money it is because we need it. Our budgets at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library are extremely tight."
Despite those tight budgets, big improvements are planned in the next year or so for two of the websites under the CCEL domain, both ccel.org (in existence since 1994 and in line for modest improvements) and Hymnary.org (online since 2008 and primed for a major added capabilities).
On ccel.org, classic Christian literature is made available free of charge. The site will be revamped, refreshed and relaunched in the fall of 2019 to provide a better user experience, including easier navigation and better viewing on screens other than desktops, including phones. This will be the site's first such major reworking in a dozen years or so.
"We're focusing on the core," says CCEL director and Calvin University computer science professor Harry Plantinga, "which is providing these books in easy access."
The Hymnary.org project will be even more substantial and significant, with the potential to change the ways that churches around the world think about congregational singing and worship planning.
Hymnary.org provides free access to hymns and hymnals, and, like ccel.org, draws traffic from around the globe. Begun just 11 years ago, Hymnary.org has grown from 30 hymnals, 15,000 hymns and information on 5,000 authors and composers to 6,000 hymnals, one million hymns and information on almost 40,000 authors, composers, arrangers, translators, hymnal editors and others!
But, even with those impressive numbers, Plantinga and Sykes and their crack team of developers have a keen eye on the future.
Plantinga notes that the number of hymnals being published in the U.S. and Canada has dropped pretty steadily for the last 100-plus years, and this decade it may be at its lowest level since the late 1700s, not long after the U.S. was founded.
Yet, Sunday-morning congregational song isn’t going away; rather, the means by which people access music are changing. Churches are increasingly foregoing hymnals in the pews, for example.
So, for the past six months, and for the next 12 months or so, a big question for Hymnary.org is how the site can best serve in this changing environment. Plantinga envisions Hymnary.org adding capabilities to move from being an index of hymns and hymnals to a full-service system for supporting and managing congregational singing at thousands of congregations in the United States and around the world.
The working title for the new platform is My.Hymnary, and if the plans and dreams and desires of Plantinga, Sykes and their team come true one might think of My.Hymnary as a worship leader concierge, an electronic assistant that can help leaders select songs, present songs to congregations in a variety of formats, enable denominations to easily make authorized collections of songs available and much more.
Hymns would be available in My.Hymnary in a multitude of formats (just words, words and music, music for a specific instrument and more). My.Hymnary could also be available as an app and could be used by people in the pews in ways that would fit their needs. So, people who read music could have all of the hymns available with notes. People who need large print could have that option via the app. My.Hymnary would allow for a high degree of local customization. And My.Hymnary would use artificial intelligence to learn with a church and to provide suggestions for hymns that might fit liturgical seasons, the lectionary, the scripture passage and other relevant parts of a particular service.
"This is a big project," says Plantinga, "really a reinvisioning of Hymnary. It's our largest project by far. We're developing the future, doing things no one else is doing."
For the CCEL developers the task sometimes seems daunting. Will Groenendyk, web development manager, leads a team of five developers -- Anna Brink, Ann Brown, Zach DeCook, Bryant George and Micah Ng -- who are working fulltime on My.Hymnary (and developers Daniel Harold, Quincy Howe and Robert Van Lonkhuyzen are keeping Hymnary humming while My.Hymnary progresses).
"It's a large, ambitious, long-term project," Groenendyk says, "but it is so exciting .and motivating to see Harry’s vision for the project and to see the compelling ways we will be able to come alongside churches all over the country and world, assisting these churches each week in their worship preparations and services. Just like Hymnary.org is still evolving today, more than 11 years after its inception, I don’t know that there will ever be a moment where My.Hymnary is done,' so long as it is beneficial to our users and we have the resources to sustain it."
And for Groenendyk and all the developers, for Sykes and for Plantinga, there is much more to this project than just the work.
"To a person our staff here talks about how blessed they feel to be part of this project," said Sykes, who manages all CCEL staff. "We all know how hymns have played a gargantuan role in Christianity. As technology is changing the church service, Hymnary.org and My.Hymnary will be positioned to help maintain the essential role of music in the life of the church."