Monday, May 9, 2011

Keep the Hymnal (and the screen, but especially the hymnal)

"WORSHIP HAS CHANGED in my church." When you hear a person say that, think, "Music has changed in my church," because in all likelihood that is what they mean. Worship has changed in my church, and, yes, mostly the music. The kind of songs that people sing, the way they sing them, the instruments used to accompany them--it has all changed in the typical conservative, evangelical church, not entirely but increasingly. We have new hymnbooks with contemporary choruses or no hymnals at all, more upbeat instrumentation, soundtracks are commonplace, praise bands, screens, etc., etc.

The change in worship style is not a new phenomenon. The church world has been undergoing the infamous worship war for decades and often conservative churches have reaped some benefits. But the conservative, hymn-singing churches that were accustomed to piano and organ and an occasional trumpet or violin are now changing. With little exception, worship has changed in the past ten or fifteen in these conservative churches.The hymns are still sung, the piano and organ are still in place, but bass guitars and drums and soundtracks and contemporary songs or renditions of old ones have introduced a new sound--close enough to the old to be acceptable in most cases but different enough to be noticeable.

For some the worship shift has been drastic, even over-night on occasion. For others, the shift has been more subtle. But unless we think that change itself is bad, it's not the change that matters but what has changed and why and whether or not the new methods and styles and forms are glorifying to God. There are good reasons for change and there are bad ones.

One of the welcomed changes, in my view, is the use of a projector and screen to post the lyrics of a song for all to see and even to be used in other ways that enhance our worship experience. One of the things about change, however, is that the introduction of new elements does not always necessitate getting rid of the old. Sometimes old and new work perfectly well together, even better than one or the other on their own.

I have recently been contemplating the place of hymn books in worship. I like to sing. To me it is often the most enjoyable part of a worship service wherever I am. I don't like just sitting back and listening to others sing. I'm not a great singer, I've never claimed to be, I know better. But I like to sing. I go to concerts to hear other people sing; I go to a worship service to sing with others. (I can hear it already: "Are you saying that a concert isn't a worship service?" Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying. But that doesn't mean that worship can't happen at a concert; that's just not its purpose. But that is for another post.)

So when I go to a worship service and I find that I'm merely a spectator in a concert atmosphere, I don't like it. One of the quickest ways for me to tell whether or not I'm a spectator or a participant is to reach down for a hymnal. If it's there, that's a good sign; if it's not.... 

One thing about the change is that conservative churches still use a hymnal along with a screen. This is nice. I actually like to sing a familiar song without the hymnal so the screen is nice because I don't need the music. The screen can be used to display the words to Scripture, songs, the sermon, etc. But in some cases, a church has eliminated the hymn book altogether and simply displays the lyrics on the screen. I can only think of two reasons for doing this: (a) it is assumed that the congregation will be familiar enough with the tune to sing without the music, or (b) the song is simple enough that it can be learned rather quickly without the music (perhaps with the help of a praise team). But, in my experience, these are very bad assumptions because they are very likely untrue, especially for visitors. What happened to being sensitive to outsiders?

So, I offer the following reasons for keeping hymnals within reach:

1. The music can't be displayed on a screen (in most cases).
If you have a screen and you display the words to a song, you better have a CCLI license. (A word to the wise.) But often having a copyright license does not automatically cover the music itself, only the lyrics. So the first reason to keep the hymnal is to avoid possible legal trouble.

If the first reason is not practical enough for you, just try squeezing all of the music notations onto a screen along with the lyrics and see how it turns out for you. I have never seen it done, but that's not to say that it's never been tried. Simply put, it would be very difficult for everyone or anyone who cared to see the music on a screen. It makes more sense to keep it just a few inches from your eyes.

2. Music education begins at church.
According to my father-in-law who has taught music education for over thirty years, music education begins at church--not in the classroom, not at home on your ipod, and not at a concert. That is to say, music education should begin at church. In a world where anything goes for music, what better place is there for a person to learn what is actually sacred about music itself? And how can a healthy appreciation of music take place when the only thing we ever see is the lyrics to songs we don't know how to sing properly?

3. The hymnal keeps the hymns within reach.
Literally, three to four hundred hymns are within our reach if we have a hymn book in the pew or under the seat. If we get rid of the hymnals, many of those songs will never be sung again. There have been many times I have just browsed through the hymnal and thought, "We haven't sung that one for a while. I think I'll lead it next time." You know the music leaders have hymnals and songbooks at home or online even if they only use a screen during worship. If they can use it to choose the songs, why can't we have one to see what they didn't choose? Maybe there's a bit of accountability to this as well.

4. Holding a hymnal promotes corporate worship.
As I mentioned already, I don't go to church to be a spectator. I go because it is one of a couple of times in my week when the opportunity for corporate worship is offered. As long as we sing only the songs with which I am familiar, a screen is satisfactory. But not so if we decide to branch out a little or if a visitor comes in or if I've been singing the song wrong the whole time, and so on. By having a hymnal in our hands we are all literally and experientially on the same page. A screen is great, but a screen without a hymnal often creates disunity.


Liz said...

I hope we (at our church) can keep it a both thing...

I do love that the screen pulls everyone's head up to see the lyrics and helps the ones whose hands are busy with kids. And for us the ones who come in late can pick right up wherever we are..

One observation about music education and new people/kids being able to read the music. I was pleasantly surprised when 3 kids (ages 7-12 & had never regularly attended any church) I brought to church were very capable of following the song leader and following along in the hymnal - I was prepared to show them how the music flowed. Maybe we've underestimated people and school's music programs when we assume the music notation would distract them or not be valuable.

I am afraid that a choice to remove hymnals will remove hymns from our lives eventually. Its a challenge to be both practical in ministry moments now and protective of important priorities that we never want to lose - in this case hymns - they have a lot to teach me and I want them to teach my kids as well.

Another random point: when I attended a mega church over a year ago, the worship time was the most difficult for me to understand. The praise band was doing fine (though not my taste), but hardly anyone in the (huge!) crowd seemed to be able to sing at all or know the songs, despite the antics of the praise band to encourage them to try! Darrell and I tried to sing or at least hum and we were the odd ones out - especially if we harmonized! (I'm blushing just remembering this awkward moment.)

David Fry said...

Oh, yes, Liz...David and I have experienced that too and talked so many times about how woefully un-singable many of their songs are/were. (Whoever "they" are...I know I'm being vague and generalizing.) How could I forget Mr. Rodney Sones' emphasis on the fact that one of the primary strengths of classic hymns or songs is their singability!

David Fry said...

uh...that was Sarah, not David. I've got to remember to sign him out before I post.

The Dickinsons said...

Thank you for this well thought out post. I personally am a fan of using hymnals.

I was happy to find your blog. I do plan on returning.

One more thing, I accidently skewed your KJV survey. I meant to choose "It's all I have" and I chose "It's not my primary Bible." Better said, "It's what I use." In the Spanish I use the Reina Valera which is based on the same texts. Keep up the good posting and good night.