This article is not a rebuttal of Tim Challies’ March 29, 2017 blog post, “What We Lost When We Lost Our Hymnals” (https://www.challies.com/articles/what-we-lost-when-we-lost-hymnals). As a matter of fact, I greatly appreciate his gracious approach to the topic. Shared on The Association of Small Church Pastors’ Facebook page, it has almost 7000 views and 238 shares (as of April 6, 2017). Challies’ viewpoint is a popular one among small church pastors and attendees. This article, rather, is simply another viewpoint.
First, let me say that I am a big fan of the tried and true hymns of the evangelical tradition. No “praise song” lifts my spirit like “It Is Well with My Soul.” No contemporary worship song moves me like “The Love of God.” Which new song is as mighty as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God?”
Most pastors I know agree that the old hymns are theologically stronger than the new songs, focusing more on thought and fact than feelings. Let’s face it; many praise songs simply fall short when it comes to biblical accuracy and theological consistency. I’m a fan of the hymns.
That being said, defending the hymnal (the book that contains the hymns) is not a hill on which I will die. Let me share a few things we gain when we give up the hymnal (the physical book) and sing from lyrics projected up front.
WE GIVE UP A SACRED COW
I am a veteran pastor of almost 30 years, now pastoring my fourth and hopefully final church, which I founded in 2005. In all of my first three churches the hymnal was a sacred cow when I arrived.
In the late 80s and early 90s the “worship wars” were being waged as churches slowly began to project song lyrics on a screen, first with overhead projectors (yes, I said overhead projectors), and then with PowerPoint from computers. Churches actually had splits over the preferences of “worship styles.” Younger pastors will find this hard to grasp, but it wasn’t unusual to hear of fights breaking out over the use of the sinful projector and screen.
One Sunday in my second church we sang “How Great Thou Art,” but instead of looking down at our hymn books, we looked upward (toward the screen) and sang outward. From my position on the chancel platform, it was a marvelous experience! The singing was louder and with more enthusiasm. One would think that everyone would rejoice because of this. But after the service, a revered stalwart of the church approached me and said, “That was a hymn. Hymns are to be sung from a hymnal!”
The paper and ink of the pages; the cardboard and cloth of the cover; the gilded letters and edges; none of these holds any mystery or possesses any intrinsic sacredness. They’re books. How is a hymn projected on a screen any less spiritual than one recorded in a book?
PEOPLE SING OUTWARD AND UPWARD INSTEAD OF DOWNWARD
As already stated in the previous point, when we project lyrics on a screen or display them on big screen monitors, something amazing happens. No longer are worshipers looking and singing downward, they’re looking upward and singing outward.
Not only is this significant from a musical experience perspective, projected lyrics also increase the confidence of those who can hardly see the words in a hymnal. I’ve had many older people over the years, once they came to terms with “the screen,” admit that they can finally see the words and sing with greater confidence.
OUR HANDS ARE FREE TO BE USED AS INSTRUMENTS OF PRAISE
I hear a lot of preachers lamenting about their people’s reticence to raise their hands in worship, but then put hymnals in their hands to prevent it.
Let’s face it: it pretty much takes two hands to hold a hymnal. Then there’s the retrieval of the hymnal from the hymn rack, the rustling of pages as people find the hymn, and the cacophony of returning them to the racks.
By projecting songs on the screen, we free our people’s hands to be raised or to clap or to be lifted up. How is this a bad thing?
WE HAVE NO EXCUSE NOT TO SING NEW SONGS
I’ve been in church since I was about eight years old, and recall with great fondness singing the old hymns in the church I grew up in. “There’s Power in the Blood,” “At Calvary,” and “Just as I Am” still hold a dear place in my heart.
But I remember, as a teenager in the 1970s, asking our pastor to sing a new song I heard. After singing him the song, he stated that he liked it, but that it wasn’t in the hymnal. Our church never learned or sang it.
Churches that insist on singing only from the hymnal miss the opportunity to sing fresh, new songs. The Bible informs us that the early church sang “Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19). That is, they sang the scripture, traditional songs, and new songs. Shouldn’t we do the same?
With a copyright license, your church has the right to duplicate almost any song out there. Creating slides for projecting is as simple as Googling the lyrics and copying and pasting.
WITH THE NEW SONGS, WE SING TO GOD AND NOT JUST ABOUT HIM
Most people miss this distinction. The vast majority of hymns refer to God in the third person. As a matter of fact, many hymns are written to reflect the singer singing to another person, not to God.
“Tell Me the Story of Jesus” is actually not sung “to” Jesus, but to some undisclosed person “about” Jesus. “In the Garden” tells someone else that “He” walks with me, instead of saying to God, “You walk with me.”
There are exceptions, but if you peruse your hymnal, you’ll discover that most of the songs are written with God in the third person.
Conversely, just about every contemporary praise song sings “to” God, and not merely “about” Him. To me, this is no insignificant distinction. After all, isn’t worship directed towards God?
In our church, we sing hymns and praise songs, but we project them all on a big screen so we song upward and outward. Regardless of the genre, in our hearts we must sing “to” God and for His glory.
MANY SMALL CHURCHES’ HYMNALS ARE TATTERED AND TORN
Hymnals are expensive. How many of our churches, especially the smaller ones, have tattered and worn hymnals? Pages missing, kids writing in them, covers coming loose; these are all symptoms of the fact that purchasing new hymnals is expensive. Our small church recently decided not to replace our worn out hymnals. Instead, we bought Bibles for people to use or to take as their own. We don’t have the funds to do both, so we chose to buy the Bibles.
NEITHER WAY IS A PERFECT WAY
Discarding hymnals for big screen is not without its drawbacks. This article has addressed the pros of giving up the hymnal, but there are also some cons.
* You Are at the Mercy of Technology
When you discard your hymnals for the big screen, there is always the chance of something going wrong. The bulb in the projector dies, the laptop computer freezes, or the power goes out. These scenarios render your technology useless, causing you to wish you had retained those hymnals.
* You Are More Likely to Make Mistakes
How many times have you been distracted by a misspelled word on the screen, a slide out of order, or inaccurate or inconsistent phrasing? Projecting lyrics on the screen demands a commitment to excellence. You can’t do it haphazardly.
* You Will Get Push-Back
Unless you started or are planting your church, you will more than likely get a significant amount of push-back when transitioning to projected lyrics. When mistakes are made, your die-hard traditionalists will remind you how perfect the hymnals were.
* You Risk Singing the Hymns Too Infrequently
I am saddened how few of the hymns the younger generation know. Let’s face it, it is doubtful that any praise song you sing today, no matter how loved, will be sung ten, twenty, or thirty years from now. I’m convinced that we must keep the hymns before the people. Use the projector, but don’t forsake the hymns.
* You Replace One Sacred Cow for Another
Finally, while it is easy to criticize the folks who refuse to give up “the old ways,” many “modern worshipers” have done exactly what they hate: created a sacred cow by making projecting lyrics the only valid way to worship. Neither side of this worship-style coin is right or wrong, better or worse, godly or sinful; they’re just different approaches to the same goal: to worship God and bring people into His presence.