Hymnals Still Have a Place in Modern Churches

Hymnals Still Have a Place in Modern Churches
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We don’t hear much about the worship wars these days. At their most intense a couple of decades ago, the church was rent asunder by contentious debate about worship style, worship components, worship decorum, and practically everything else that goes on in our Sunday morning get-togethers. Every church seemed to be choosing between opposites–organ versus praise band, historic liturgy versus rock liturgies (think Chicago folk service, Marty Haugen), contemporary songs versus historic hymns–and the fallout was ugly. Voting assemblies erupted in dissonance; members on the losing side transferred out.

But now, the voices have calmed and the dust has settled. Why? It’s true that some pastors declared a separate peace of sorts by establishing rival worship services: one for the traditionalists, one for the moderns. Others went the blended worship route, which, while leaving everybody a little dissatisfied—mixing pipe organs with electric guitars will do that—included enough elements from both styles to at least keep the group together.

It also could be that everybody is simply tired of fighting. Positions have calcified; viewpoints have hardened; nobody, however well intentioned, is changing anybody’s mind; and to bring up the subject would only pick at the still-tender sutures.

But it’s probably none of those things. The reason you don’t hear much about the worship wars is that one side has won them, or is winning to the point that the other is cowering in the back pews hoping they aren’t dragged out, made to wave their arms in the air and sing “Our God Is an Awesome God.”

Published in 2015, the National Congregations Study, a survey of nearly four thousand congregations from across the Christian spectrum undertaken by researchers at Duke University, found traditional aspects of worship in decline. Between 1998 and 2012, congregations that used choirs in worship decreased from 54 to 45 percent; those using organs dropped from 53 to 42 percent. The use of drums had a big uptick: 20 percent of congregations used drums in 1998, 34 percent in 2012. Churches printing bulletins fell from 72 to 62 percent. Informality in worship is way up (shouting “Amen,” wearing shorts to church); formality way down (calling the minister “Pastor So and So,” dressing up for services).

The survey didn’t spell it out, but informal worship with contemporary Christian music seems to have carried the day. All the megachurches are doing it. Rare—practically unknown—is the church that hasn’t bowed at least one knee to it.

Yes, that battle seems to be over. But maybe there’s still time to save the hymnals.

Hymnals, a historic legacy of Western Christianity, have been housed in pew racks in church sanctuaries for centuries, and those with musical notation as well as words have existed since the 1830s in the United States. They have been indispensable for worship for all that time, objects of treasure both in the sanctuary and in some households. In my tradition, back in the day, many confirmands received as confirmation presents not Bibles, but engraved hymnals. They carried their own hymnals to church.

Nobody’s doing that anymore. In fact, more and more worshipers aren’t even looking at hymnals once they’re in church. They’re looking at the front wall, at a screen attached to it, upon which are projected song lyrics, the words to the liturgy (if one is used), and perhaps even bullet-point outlines, photos, and YouTube videos.

The numbers are sketchy, and evidence is more anecdotal than empirical, but churches in all traditions, meeting in all manner of worship spaces, are increasingly fastening large white canvases to their chancel walls and leaving the hymn books to molder in the pew racks. Many churches have opted to use some form of projector technology; the National Congregations Study reported use of projected images skyrocketing by 23 percent from 1998 to 2012.

So, in a last-ditch effort, possibly a death rattle, let me lay out the case for hymnal-singing and against use of these omnipresent, disagreeable screens.

Which is the first point: screens are eyesores. In churches that don’t look like traditional churches, they almost fit. The accoutrements of contemporary worship dominate the space—guitars and microphones and drum kits and music stands and keyboards and amps—and behind that, you expect to see giant luminescent slabs on the wall. The incongruous fixture in these rooms is the altar.

In a traditional sanctuary, on the other hand, in a worship space with subdued natural lighting and pews and steps leading to a chancel housed with time-honored appointments like an altar, a pulpit, a lectern, and historic symbols of the faith, the screens jump out and slap your aesthetic sensibilities upside the head.

Why are they there? Some reasons are practical. They get worshipers’ heads out of the books and pointed up toward the front; this amplifies the volume during the songs. Also, the screens free up worshipers’ hands—no fumbling with books. Parishioners with weak eyes can see the words on the screens better than they can the words in a hymnal. For seekers—visitors, the unchurched—they make worship immediately more accessible.

But they also possess a less practical appeal. We live in a visual culture. The control screens have over everyday life is staggering. Between tablets, laptops, smartphones, and e-readers, not to mention all those hours at the office staring at a computer screen, and then coming home to watch another screen for the evening’s entertainment, there’s no getting away from the bits and bytes, the ones and zeros. In that environment, why not worship with screens in church? They’re everywhere else.

In a culture that treasures the new, the convenient, and the informal, and plants a sloppy wet kiss on every new tech toy, the appeal of worship screens is easily explained.

The downside is that they eliminate hymnals from the worship life of the church. Screens come in; hymnals go out. And with them goes everything those books contain and represent.

On the practical level, it becomes difficult to teach new songs on a worship screen, primarily because there are no notes. Worship screens work only because worshipers already know the melodies, which may be why the worship playlists at contemporary services are so curtailed—the same songs tend to be sung over and over.

Pastors who want to expand their congregations’ musical repertoire with new hymns have at their disposal six hundred or seven hundred time-tested, theologically sound, tradition-approved specimens, all with notes and musical staffs, located right there in the pew racks.

Theology will suffer as hymnals fade off the scene, as the rich repository of theological teaching contained in the old hymns will be lost. The language in some hymns may be an obstacle for some, but the lyrics in those old hymns teach the faith far better than most of the praise choruses that dominate contemporary services. The old hymns were carefully crafted with theology at the forefront—the hymns presented doctrine; they told the saving story of sin and grace.

On a grander scale, what effect do worship screens have on worship? Are they truly neutral, as is said about much technology, and can be beneficial when used well and deleterious when ill-applied? The argument is made that screens do not affect the larger whole. We have the same worship we had when we worshiped without screens, we are told; we simply added the screens. Instead of people looking down at their books, now they’re looking up at the wall—everything else is exactly the same.

But it’s not. Worship screens cannot help but change worship. Hymnals are decidedly old school, but sometimes the old ways have too many benefits to abandon. For one, hymnals promote good congregational singing. They present more than the words to a hymn—they feature the notes and staffs themselves. Everybody sees the same notes, so everybody knows where the song is going. Even the musically untrained—and the less musically inclined—can stumble through an unfamiliar hymn for at least a few verses, following the notes up and down the scale, noting the changes in note values, until, by the third or fourth stanza, they have sufficient command of the melody to put gusto into their words. These people would be standing mute if they were watching words on a screen. As for the musically adept, hymnals add sophistication. These folks can sing parts if they want to—the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass lines are all there on the page—thus bringing harmony into congregational singing.

When churches use screens, if you don’t know the song, you don’t sing. You don’t know how many notes to assign to a given syllable or whether the melody goes up or down. There is no musical notation to fall back on. It’s like singing completely unfamiliar songs from a karaoke machine.

Hymnals discourage distraction and allow greater concentration on the lyrics of the hymn. Screens do the opposite. They promote distraction. A lot of churches surround their projected lyrics with background features against which the on-screen words are set—maybe waves are lapping at the words, maybe sunbeams are tickling the ends of the lines. Then there are the inevitable technical faux pas: misspellings, deleted commas, misplaced apostrophes, slides that are slow to advance, even wrong slides popping up on occasion.

You can’t beat a plain old book with black letters and black notes on white paper to keep your focus on to what you’re singing. There are no surprises there, no distractions; you get only what you expected.

Also, singing from a hymnal offers the worshiper theological context. You see the whole hymn with all the verses. Many hymns are constructed as theological “stories”—they take the worshiper on a salvation journey, from sin to grace. When singing from a hymnal you get to see that story unfold; you can review where you’ve been and preview where you’re going in the hymn. You get the whole drift of the lyrics, the full content, whereas screens typically give you no more than a single verse.           

Worship screens will kill hymnals, though not at first. Long after Gutenberg, books were still being hand-copied or printed from woodblocks—as an exercise in nostalgia or by technophobes unwilling to face the future. But, as Nicholas Carr puts it in his book “The Shallows,” “The old technologies lose their economic and cultural force. . . It’s the new technologies that govern production and consumption, that guide people’s behavior and shape their perceptions.” We hymnal-singers will take the hymnal to the grave with us. As screens push hymn books out of the racks, economics will push publishing companies away from producing new hymnals or revising old ones. Eventually there will be nothing but screens.

The long-term effects of that will be dire. The musical repertoire of the church will be constricted; old favorites will dominate hymn selection; even marginally unfamiliar hymns will slide off the radar entirely. Worship will be impoverished. The theology of the church will lose one of its most effective—certainly its most poetic and beautiful—transmission vehicles.

That would be a bad thing, for church music, for the church’s theology, and for the church overall.


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