Hymn books versus songs on a screen

There is an article floating around the Internet that suggests churches should opt for hymnbooks rather than songs on a screen. Are there concerns about this movement?

Two caveats. First, this is a first world problem. Churches in mission churches probably have neither. Second, this is not a topic that touches on any biblical principle. The Bible says as much about hymnbooks and powerpoint presentations as it does the Pittsburgh Sealers, which is to say, it says nothing.

I recall the first time I led singing with the song projected behind me. For the first time in four decades of song leading, I saw every member of the congregation with his or her head up. I thought, “That’s a first!” How many times had I asked singers to sit up straight and look at the song leader?

Of course, they weren’t looking at me, nor were they following the motion of my hand. They were looking behind me. But it was a start.

In our fellowship, I am grateful for the services of the Paperless Hymnal, a project that provided clear words and music, large enough to be seen even in a large auditorium. I am especially grateful that they saved us from screens with waterfalls and mountains and trees as background. OK, when you get old like me, you will understand. I just can’t see the words with all the shapes and colors. Also, Paperless Hymnals provided us with music. We are already flirting with a monochromatic singing style anyway, with men and women simply following the lead of the song leader. We are losing the ability to sing in four-part harmony. Those mellow altos you heard in worship? Respectfully, they are frequently our more “mature” ladies. Their tribe, along with the bass and tenor, are dying out.

When you opt for songs on a screen, you will want to ensure operators who are committed to what they are doing. This is a greater problem than we realize. Being an operator of technology has opened up the opportunity for more to serve the church. It is distracting in the extreme to see that the operator has not advanced to the next verse. The song leader is left abandoned, the congregation drifts to puzzled silence. Next thing you know, the screen is flashing line after line as the startled operator tries to catch up. Also, the song leader does not have the flexibility to “call an audible” and skip to verse four without consternation.

This is more than distracting; it is detrimental to worship, surely the most important thing you do on a Sunday! Of course, there are many operators who take their task seriously.

A new hymnbook, by definition, becomes obsolete the moment it is published because, in the period between song selection and publication, a dozen contemporary songs have emerged in youth devotionals and college campuses. So if being state-of-the-art is important to you, well, songs on a screen can always be supplemented with the latest, most up to date addition. (The question of whether it is wise to uncritically accept every song simply because it is new is a question for another time).

But hymnbooks can still play a role in enriching a congregation. Do you remember when you were a kid paging through a hymnbook during what seemed like an eternal sermon? I recall thinking: “Wow Isaac Watts wrote a lot of songs!” I wondered how Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge got into the hymnbook. (“Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’ve come”). But I also recall weeping when I read the words to “My Jesus, as thou Wilt,” (Mom whispered, “Are you OK?”). I was. Powerful lyrics from a beautiful song, not for the last time, had moved me. I also remember looking through the hymnbook apparatus and noting that songs could be put in categories of “Prayer,” “Communion,” “Praise” and so on. I saw that many (even most) songs could be connected to a Bible passage (or passages). I was not quite 12 years old.

Such an experience is not available to congregations that have opted exclusively for a screen. Only song leaders will have the full list of hymns available. I am respectful of my fellow song leaders, but I do not think this should be left exclusively in their hands. I have not always agreed with a particular hymnbook’s omissions or additions, but I understand the value of several people with musical, theological or English usage credentials considering what would be useful for the church.

In a word, I do not think we should choose between the two formats. Any congregation that can afford a screen in the front of its new building can also afford to purchase a few hundred books for the pews.

Our hymns “teach and admonish.” They uplift and encourage. They are worth the investment (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16).

One thought on “Hymn books versus songs on a screen

  1. Thank you for a balanced article. I am not sure I can agree any more than I already do. In some ways I think you must have been looking through my eyes when I was a child looking through the hymnal, oh look, these songs have the exact same music . . .

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