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More on the Hymnal vs. Screen thing

I think we all agree that the hill marked “The Battle of the Hymnal vs. the Projector” ought to have no man’s grave on it. This question is not a fundamental of the faith, and answers to the problem do not even fall out along the same lines of the broader worship debate, which is far more important.

But let’s not allow the hollow platitudes of Claudius over King Hymnal’s death be permitted too quickly. David’s article suggests five good reasons for considering life support on the hymnal:

  1. Hymnals identify a local congregation with the catholic (in a good sense) church.
  2. Hymnals teach you how to worship from the example of the catholic church.
  3. Hymnals are a collection of the church’s best devotional literature. Take them away, and we lose our best expressions of Christian piety.
  4. Hymnals require deliberate selections from informed persons.
  5. Hymnals include printed music which better facilitates an understanding of the whole business of worship.

These are good points, and I’d like to interact with and add to them.

On the first point, I’d add that hymnals that appropriately include the universal church’s songs demonstrate to us that our faith is one in a powerful way. I am not saying that there is some one feeling that makes Christianity what it is. In fact, quite the contrary. The hymns of the universal church demonstrate not just an affective response to Christian truth, but the Christian truth itself. I may have some important disagreements with Ambrose, but I can both the truth of his hymns and the affections he so well illustrates.  In so doing, good hymnals show us that we today in the 21st century do, in fact, share a “mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.” We ought not be parochial, and hymnals help protect us from this.

I want to add to the second point that if or when hymnals really do begin to disappear, it will be a sad day for the church. There is a sense in which we pass along what we know. We have been characterized by not knowing enough hymns of the church. If it were not for printed hymnals, I’d never know hymns “off the reservation” like If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee; Whate’er My God Ordains is Right; Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands; Jesus, I Will Ponder Now; Come, Thou Redeemer of the Earth; All My Heart this Night Rejoices; and Behold the Great Creator Makes. The list goes on.

My point is that I didn’t get these hymns from our parts of the Christian world. I picked them up from other hymnals. If those other hymnals were not published, or ceased from being easily obtained and devoured by young great-old-hymn-addicts like me, then I’d probably never know about them. I don’t buy for a moment that if hymnals were to die these hymns would be still available. The internet doesn’t work like that. Anyone who has tried to serious work and research on the Internet knows how monolithic and stilted it is. The internet gives the appearance of an expanse of information (thanks to Google’s marketing, I suppose), but it is more often than not a mere house of mirrors.1 The best resources are not available on the Internet easily. And if we stop producing hymnals–if tomorrow no other hymnal was ever produced–many hymns would all but vanish from Christian use. Even when a Christian is exposed to only one hymnal, he can more easily find the lost treasures never sung in it as he flips through it before the prayer service some Wednesday night during some momentary down time. Flipping through the hymnal is easier than flipping through the The Christian tradition of devotion to God would be hindered, and this would not be a good development. I am not arguing here that great hymns would in fact vanish, but that finding them would become much more difficult, especially in evangelical traditions where hymnody has soured and curdled, and that’s the majority of evangelical traditions. This point could be developed further, but I have to leave it there in the interest of time.

David’s third point is exactly right. If hymnals were taken away, the family worship in our church’s families would be stilted. Take hymnals away, and it is even more difficult to pass down widely our tradition.

And I think the fourth point, about the value of hymnal editors and their selections is probably David’s strongest. Now, I have serious antipathy toward most the hymnal editors in the popular American evangelical “tradition.” Hymnal editors, who have a serious obligation before God to give the faithful the best diet of Christian song available, have been too often driven by market forces. Hymnals, they think, have to sell. As a result, I was for a long time cheated of the best hymns in the Christian tradition in exchange for songs like “In the Garden” and “I’ve Got a Mansion.” This mindset is kind-of like the seeker-sensitive mentality applied to what is for most Christians nearly the second most important book. Woe to us! We have traded the best for what is most easily sold. (Let the reader consider.) Of course, I do not speak universally, and I do not indict casually. But editing hymnals is a most serious and high obligation with severe responsibilities. And we could be better at it. And, thanks be to God, not every hymnal is so captive by these motivating factors. But we simply do not have in slide shows and Internet searches the ability to edit and suggest a certain diet of Christian song in the same broad way a hymnal does. This would be the biggest problem if we all went to projectors tomorrow. The state of the church’s taste in matters of Christian song is at an all-time dearth. And now we want to take their four slides per Sunday, each slide being used four to five times per year, as the new canon of Christian hymnody? How would anyone ever find the greener pastures, if not for hymnals? Now it is the random searcher’s even more random mouse click that determines what’s in and what’s out. The blessing and the curse of hymnals is that there is an editor involved. Though, as I state above, this is not always a good thing, I’d take it above no informed editor at all. Say what you want about Hymns for the Family of God, at least it has “The God of Abraham Praise!”! We may have choice words for Soul-Stirring Songs and Hymns, but it still has “Come, Thou Almighty King”!

On David’s fifth point, I only add that Christians ought to be people who are serious about music and reading music and singing well. I’m reminded of the words of Jonathan Edwards:

Second, do you not live in sin, in living in the neglect of singing God’s praises? If singing praise to God be an ordinance of God’s public worship, as doubtless it is, then it ought to be performed by the whole worshipping assembly. If it be a command that we should worship God in this way, then all ought to obey this command, not only by joining with others in singing, but in singing themselves. For if we suppose it answers the command of God for us only to join in our hearts with others, it will run us into this absurdity, that all may do so. And then there would be none to sing, none for others to join with.

If it be an appointment of God, that Christian congregations should sing praises to him, then doubtless it is the duty of all. If there be no exception in the rule, then all ought to comply with it, unless they be incapable of it, or unless it would be a hindrance to the other work of God’s house, as the case may be with ministers, who sometimes may be in great need of that respite and intermission after public prayers, to recover their breath and strength, so that they may be fit to speak the word. But if persons be now not capable, because they know not how to sing, that doth not excuse them, unless they have been incapable of learning. As it is the command of God, that all should sing, so all should make conscience of learning to sing, as it is a thing which cannot be decently performed at all without learning. Those, therefore, who neglect to learn to sing, live in sin, as they neglect what is necessary in order to their attending one of the ordinances of God’s worship. Not only should persons make conscience of learning to sing themselves, but parents should conscientiously see to it, that their children are taught this among other things, as their education and instruction belongs to them.

If we need to learn to sing, it is a good thing for us to learn the customary method of reading music in our civilization. This is not a “cultural thing,” given the universality of Western notation and classical music (Bach Collegium of Japan, QED). We ought to sing our best for the glory of God. Part of singing our best is learning to sing well. And so the broader culture of music ought to be something we as believers are generally accustomed with. Because of our interest in song for the glory of God, I believe that Christian churches ought to be above all one of the places where the heritage of singing music well is passed down. As David de Bruyn cautioned, this does not mean that reading music is  necessary for vital Christian piety, but only to say that it really helps, and, broadly speaking, an ability to read music ought to be a part of our culture. And we don’t do well, I don’t think, to remove those alleged “distracting elements” (i.e., musical notation) from our corporate worship. Truth be known, I find it nearly always distracting to be asked to sing a song, the (rather quaint) tune of which I do not know, from seeing the words only. This simply does not work. And I find that I make mistakes in singing the tune even after repetition. Not so with printed music. In that sense, it’s much less distracting.

In conclusion, I want to add one more point to David’s. I think hymnals ought to be preserved over projected texts for at least one more reason. I believe that it is not healthy for the church today to be so enslaved to technology. Christians are bombarded by technology at every turn (keep in mind that I say this as I write on my laptop while listening to streaming Haydn via Spotify connected by Bluetooth to my stereo). Technology is not a bad thing, but I don’t think we’ve yet got a handle on how to use it wisely. For that reason, I think we ought to be very cautious about implementing it in our services and on our facilities. In a certain sense, I think it is an important thing for a church to exercise great discernment with how it uses technology. Just because we can doesn’t mean that we should. And for this reason, I think it behooves us to use projected songs very cautiously. It communicates that we rush in like fools where angels fear to tread. I appreciate the church with whom I worship, for technology is sparingly used. It has become for me a much needed break from the world of ever advancing and attention-consuming technology. It reminds me that God is eternal, and not bound by the latest trends. Yes, we use technology (lighting, microphones, speakers, a powered organ, heat, cooling, etc). No, I am not a Luddite. But I appreciate a congregation of believers where the latest, most cutting-edge technology is not Lord. Our services can easily continue, whether or not there’s power.

Clearly, all of this is a matter of wisdom. But I’m with David. I’ll keep my hymnal.

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).

  1. I know this is a debatable point, but I believe it is defensible. []