A couple days ago I read a blog post from Tim Challies called, “What We Lost When We Lost Our Hymnals.” Mr. Challies is quick to point out that he is not advocating a return to hymnals, but wants us to consider what happens when we switch media in the church. With no malice or animosity, I wanted to take a brief moment to respond to his article. He writes:
We lost an established body of songs. Hymnals communicated that a church had an established collection of songs. This, in turn, communicated that its songs were vetted carefully and added to its repertoire only after careful consideration. After all, great songs are not written every day and their worth is proven only over time.
True, a book of songs is quite restrictive on a congregation’s musical repertoire. The idea that all of the songs in a given hymnal were vetted carefully and after careful consideration is not quite true. Have you ever gone through a hymnal? I have. I have a copy of the hymnal my church used when I was growing up. And lemme tell ya, THEY AREN’T ALL GEMS!
Sure, there are the greats that we all know and love. But my 50 year old hymnal has 504 songs! That means that, within our musical canon, there was a functional canon of songs we always did and songs that we NEVER did. Many of those we never did are not great music. they aren’t memorable nor are they especially inspired. I’m not even going to mention the patriotic songs that wound up in many hymnals. 😦
Finally, the Bible never calls us to an “established” body of songs. Psalm 96 encourages us:
Oh sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth!
SOMEONE’S gotta write the new songs. And when the Apostle encourages us to singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, there’s no mention of the old standards which were appropriate for use. Since God is a Living God who is actively involved in the lives of believers, it seems perfectly normal that our worship can reflect what God is doing here and now. Hymns of old? Great! Songs extolling the ongoing work of God in the world? Wonderful!
Mr. Challies continues:
We lost a deep knowledge of our songs. When we removed the hymnal, we gained the ability to add new songs to our repertoire whenever we encounter one we deem worthy. This reduces our familiarity with our songs so that today we have far fewer of them fixed in our minds and hearts.
Sure, we don’t remember the songs of old any more. But they aren’t Scripture – there’s nothing sacred about one generation’s worship music. There are powerful songs written today that are rich with good theology and musicality. They aren’t any less wonderful just because they were written 150 years too late. This kind of ageism says that “older is better” when it isn’t. Older is older. We venerate the songs that were powerful when we had a tremendous religious experience and we look down on songs from other people’s experience. But radio, Spotify, YouTube, and iTunes has give people a wide variety of options to fix wonderful music in our minds and hearts.
We lost the ability to do harmonies. Hymnody grew up at a time when instrumentation took a back seat to the voice. Hymns were most often written so they could be sung a cappella or with minimal instrumentation. For that reason, hymnals almost invariably included the music for both melody and harmonies and congregations learned to sing the parts. The loss of the hymnal and the associated rise of the worship band has reduced our ability to harmonize and, in that way, to sing to the fullest of our abilities.
Okay, this is just bunk. I’ve been part of hymnal-using churches, and some of them were simply awful with no ability to harmonize. Since most people cannot read music, having notated music means nothing. Churches that utilized hymnals would have a couple people who could harmonize, and others would follow the examples of others to learn voice parts.
This can STILL happen with worship bands. Many modern worship bands have 2-3 part harmonies. People in the church simply have to follow the vocalist that fits their range. But please continue, Mr. Challies.
We lost the ability to sing skillfully. As congregations have lost their knowledge of their songs, they have lost the ability to sing them well. We tend to compensate for our poorly-sung songs by cranking up the volume of the musical accompaniment.
Again, just because a church uses a hymnal does not mean anything about the skill and ability of the church. I know of many worship bands that spend a lot of time practicing so that they can be skillful and lead people skillfully. Perhaps Mr. Challies hasn’t spent enough time with the hymnal-using churches that sound like dying cats, but trust me – they’re out there!
We lost the ability to have the songs in our homes. Hymnals usually lived at the church, resting from Monday to Saturday in the little pockets on the back of the pews. But people also bought their own and took them home so the family could have that established body of songs there as well. Families would often sing together as part of their family worship. It is easy to imagine a family singing “It Is Well With My Soul” after eating dinner together, but almost impossible to imagine them singing, “Oceans.”
Ah, there it is – the crack against “Oceans.” It seems to be a common theme among Reformed believers. This comes across and being petty and merely personal opinion. I know for a fact that families can sing “Oceans” together because I have witnessed my wife doing it with our children. We utilize Spotify and YouTube to bring worship music into the house. Our kids are growing up around it, and the music they hear at the church is reflected in the home. The issues is not so much about hymnals versus modern media as it is about Christian parenting, and it’s less than honest to blame media for parenting failure.
Mr. Challies finishes his article with this line:
That little change from book to screen changed nearly everything.
I really don’t think it did. Before the PowerPoint revolution, churches decades ago made the switch from hymnal to using overhead projectors and transparency pages.
The hymns of old and the “new” choruses of the 70s-80s were printed on the overhead transparencies and one poor soul was designated to change the overheads, making sure to slide the page up or down so that the words were never cut off! HAHA – good times! And people complained then. I heard one octogenarian refer to the choruses from the 80s as “ding-dong-ditties.” HE HATED THEM! But people have always been complaining against new songs and media in worship.
But isn’t God bigger than a hymnal? Isn’t God bigger than your favorite 150 year old song (that used to be one of them new-fangled worship songs all those kids are singing)? Instead of lamenting the loss of old forms of worship, let’s embrace new ways to worship an unchanging God.
How about you? What’s your favorite hymn? What’s your favorite non-hymn worship song?