I read an interesting article the other day focusing on the importance of church hymnals as a critical part of genuine worship.
In traditional churches, the worn hymnals packed into small shelves in the pews is a critical part of the worship service. Some see them almost as important as one’s own Bible that everyone dutifully brings with them every Sunday.
In more contemporary churches, those hymnals are not as easily found. Some churches have ditched them altogether in favor of lyrics to worship songs projected on giant screens. In some cases, the songs chosen are still hymns; in others, the time-honored tunes are replaced with more contemporary worship songs that some find as having less substance.
I read an interesting blog post from Tim Challies the other day titled, “What We Lost When We Lost Our Hymnals.” Challies argues that when the hymnals went out of the sanctuary, we lost five things that were important to worship. Click the link to read his full post: I’m not going to address all five here.
But I will address a couple of his points, and right off the bat, I’ll agree with him that I don’t necessarily believe we should return to hymnals and ditch the big projections. I don’t think projecting the words on the screen is worse than having the physical book in your hand; in some cases, having the lyrics on a big screen might just be easier to read than the small print in most hymnals. (If you don’t know what I mean by that and you haven’t yet reached the age of 40, just know that bifocals are likely in your future: you’ll understand then.)
I also agree with his notion that we’ve resorted to “cranking up the volume of the musical accompaniment” in modern church, but I’m not certain that the “gain of the amplifier” is so much because of the loss of our ability to “sing skillfully” as much as it is a way of trying to grab people’s attention as a rock concert would. There are still people in church who sing modern worship songs well — at least as well others might sing hymns — and are likely to be more familiar with the modern stuff since it’s more likely to be found on Christian radio than the older pieces.
But there are two “loses” he suggests that I can’t quite agree with the most.
First, he says we lost an established body of songs. He says that the hymn books communicated not only that a church had “an established collection of songs,” but also that those songs in that body were “vetted carefully” and added only after “careful consideration.”
I can’t agree with that statement; I don’t think contemporary churches could fairly be accused of not having an established body of songs. There are songs we sang at my last church, a non-denominational church, for years at a time. Yes, some songs would take a “break” while others would fade away completely as new ones came out. But there was still a long-term run for many of the songs that wasn’t that much different than the life of some hymns.
While it’s true that older songs might not come back all that often the way hymns would, it was easy to forget that certain hymns ever existed as seldom as some of them were played, so I don’t see a big difference here.
Also, having worked closely with one worship leader, I can definitely say that even modern music is still vetted with careful consideration before individual songs make their way into the rotation. It’s highly unfair to assume that because songs are rotated in more often, that worship leaders would just hurl in song after song just to have something new to sing without paying attention to the lyrics or the message.
The second loss the church suffered, according to Challies, is the ability to have the songs in our homes. “It’s easy to imagine,” he says, “a family singing, ‘It Is Well With My Soul’ after eating dinner together, but almost impossible to imagine them singing, ‘Oceans.’”
I grew up in a Christian family and we never sang hymns after dinner. Thinking back, I can’t recall one conversation with a fellow church-goer my age who ever mentioned singing hymns in the home. Maybe they did, but it wasn’t something they ever talked about.
On the other hand, I know a few people who do play contemporary Christian music in their car and in their home. Thanks to services like iTunes, it’s actually easier to bring modern worship music into our daily lives than it was in decades past when hymnals were a regular part of the church experience.
Beyond that, the book in the sanctuary has absolutely no reasonable impact on whether we bring the music into our home: that’s determined based on whether a family makes doing so important: removing a hymnal does not preclude a family from singing hymns on their own any time they wish. The fact that you can still buy hymnals if you wish suggests that the music is still available for anyone who wants it, whether it’s sitting on the pew Sunday morning or not.
Maybe there’s an important tradeoff we’re overlooking.
For many of us who grew up in the church in the hymnal era, life during worship meant looking down, focusing on the music, not looking around at your neighbors. It was like solitary confinement in a room full of people in a sense.
But when the words are projected on a big screen, you tend to be more aware that you’re not in this worship thing alone: you see the people around you who are worshipping as you are. Sometimes you see a level of enthusiasm you didn’t see in the hymnal days. That could be a bad thing if it makes you self-conscious by making you question why you aren’t as enthusiastic as others. But it could be a good thing if it shows you that other people are as enthusiastic in celebrating God and worshipping Him as you are, even if the music is modern and even if you aren’t reading lyrics from a little book.
I think the question of hymnals is about the music style, not the book.
If contemporary music isn’t your thing, I respect that.
I like some of the hymns very much, but there are others that I’ve never been a fan of. And as for the song he mentioned in his argument about not having music in the home, “Oceans” may be one of my least-favorite church songs of all-time because it relies on a melodramatic build-up and a chorus that feels like it repeats about 439 times. If I were to have worship music in my home, you can bet that this particular song wouldn’t be one of them and that I’d probably take any hymn you could come up with ahead of that one song.
Hymns aren’t for everybody. But worship songs aren’t, either.
But the lyrics appearing in a book is not automatically better than lyrics appearing on big screens. It’s simply a different way of doing the same thing. What lyrics (and songs) that are selected is the real issue here.
Does your church use church hymnals or big screens? Which do you prefer and why?
Patrick is a Christian with more than 26 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.