When I was a kid, I often saw hymnals in churches. Today, hymnals are vanishing, replaced by The Screen at the front of the church.
The banishment of hymnals disturbs me.
First, hymnals require more involvement and commitment from the congregation in a church service. If you walk into a service where they require nothing more than gazing at the front of the sanctuary to follow along, you are more of a spectator than a participant. But if you walk into a service where the song leader asks you to sing Hymn No. 472, and you must pick up a book and turn to the right page in order to follow along, that requires more commitment and involvement than reading a screen.
Second, hymnals increase the power of the congregation, whereas The Screen
increases the helplessness of the congregation. Who has not been in a church
service where the person(s) in charge of displaying lyrics on a screen didn’t
get to the right lyrics in time, and you were left in the dark because the
screen was out of sync with the song leader (or
“praise team”)? With hymnals, the congregants are not at the mercy
(or the incompetence) of one or two persons to make sure they have
the right words to sing at the right time.
Third, hymnals give the congregation the music. Who has not been in a church service where the song you were supposed to sing was totally unfamiliar, and the screen gave only the words—and thus you were shut out from participating, and could only observe? With a hymnal, even if you haven’t sung the song before, you have the music to read. (If you’re still in the dark because you lack the ability to read music at all, then that is your fault, and it is YOUR responsibility to change that. And at any rate, you aren’t any worse off with the hymnal than without.)
Fourth, because hymnals give us the music, they give us more singing
options. Some folks have limited vocal ranges, and the melodies of some
songs go beyond their ranges. However, with a hymnal, all four parts
are before you: bass, tenor, alto, soprano. You can still contribute
to the music even if you can’t sing the melody. And if you sing a part
other than the melody, you are providing the HARMONY, and you make the
congregational singing richer and fuller. There are no harmony parts with
The Screen. Yes, it is still possible to sing harmony, but you have to
guess what the harmony is—and sometimes the musicians or
group “praise team” will be harmonizing the song differently
than you, and there will be discord.
Fifth, hymnals connect us to history—and thus to many Christians who have gone before us. Indeed, a book is history. As Neil Postman wrote, “Everything about [a book] takes one back in time—from the way it is produced to its linear mode of exposition to the fact that the past tense is its most comfortable form of address.” In the hymnal, we “meet” and fellowship with Fanny Crosby, Philip Bliss, Ira Sankey, Charles Wesley, John Newton, Elisha Hoffman, and many, many more.
Sixth, hymnals show that Christianity matters SO much, and inspires SO much, that there are hundreds and hundreds of songs about it, and that these songs are important and inspirational enough to collect and to print in a book.
Seventh, hymnals are individualistic. One can hold a hymnal in his hands, open it, turn its pages, read and absorb the important, inspiration songs before him, and can even carry them with him, if he wishes. The Screen is not individualistic; it is collective. It is not to be held in one’s hands. It offers no abundance of songs to read and absorb. It is not for an individual to take, much less to carry at one’s side.
Eighth, hymnals give us permanency and stability, and lengthen our attention spans (or prevent our spans from shortening). The Screen, in contrast, inculcates impermanency and instability, as it is always changing from one instant to the next, and this shortens our attention spans. A hymnal affords the ability to dwell, to meditate upon, and to examine, the words of a song; and we can do so even after the singing has ceased. The Screen disallows dwelling or meditating upon, much less examining, the words, for its motion is perpetual. Lyrics appear thereon for a brief interval, then vanish to be replaced by another set of lyrics, or other content entirely—which, in turn, vanishes after its own brief interval.
Ninth, hymnals are unfriendly to commercialization of Christianity, while The Screen is most friendly to it. The Screen is very friendly to the music industry (so often “ministry” becomes industry) which churns out new songs and albums with the underlying goal of monetary profit; to get everyone to go with the next fad, the latest high, the newest rush. The industry’s products often leave out correct doctrine, because correct doctrine would offend those who have incorrect doctrine, and they wouldn’t buy the products. The less orthodoxy, the more the touchy-feely-ness, the more likely the products will sell and the profits will rise.
In contrast, many writers of hymns are departed from earth, and are not in an industry for money. The hymns they penned often sprang from times of dire need, times of pain, times of rags, times of grief. Many contain deep doctrine. Further, some of the most encouraging, uplifting hymns come from those who lived in harsh, uncomfortable eras, without the conveniences and comforts that we take for granted today: electricity, running water, air conditioning, microwaves, fast food, automobiles, airplances, radio, television, Internet. Small wonder that their words and their witness and their music hold a depth and make an impact that is hardly to be found in the shallow songs from a music industry.
The Screen has its uses, but the hymnal is far better for congregational singing, and should be restored in churches and in Christian life.