by Jonathan Aigner (originally posted on Ponder Anew)
I think hymnals are important symbols for worshiping congregations. Here are some of the reasons why.
- Hymnals actually teach music. We’re making less music than ever before. Oh, to be sure, there’s lots of music going on around us, but very few people are actually making it. We’re just consuming it, or at the very most, singing along with music someone else made first. But even an untrained musician can look at the words and music in the hymnal and learn to follow melodic direction and rhythmic value.
- Hymnals set a performance standard. Contemporary worship music is based on recording instead of notation. This is endlessly confusing, and it opens each song up to individual interpretation. Without notation, it is exceedingly hard to sing well as a congregation. Hymnals fix that. Everybody has the same notation, so we all know how the song is supposed to go.
- Hymnals integrate the music and text. Words on a screen give no musical information. Hymnals fix that. Singers aren’t dependent upon learning the song by rote.
- Hymnals allow you to sing anywhere. When you depend on projection to display hymn texts, you’re bound to do your music making in a space outfitted with sufficient media.
- Hymnals allow people to take possession of the music. I know congregants that love to find out the next Sunday’s hymns during the previous week, so they can open up their hymnal, refresh the words, and work on their part so they’re prepared to lend their voices. Preparation like that is one of the ways music making becomes a worshipful activity. Hymnals make it possible for people to have easy access to the best songs.
- Hymnals don’t screw things up. Unless some kid has ripped the page out of your hymnal, you know the hymn you’re looking for is going to be there. Technology lets us down all the time, and if it happens in the middle of a song or hymn, you’re sunk.
- Hymnals are as helpful as the singer needs them to be. It’s hard to ignore a screen, no matter how well I know the song being sung. Its mere presence sends most people into a trance. There are times I must pay close attention to the hymnal. I recently sang the hymn “Ye watchers and ye holy ones” in a service. I know of the hymn, and I know LASST UNS ERFREUEN, but I didn’t grow up singing it. I had to follow the entire time. I needed the hymnal. Last Saturday, I sang in the choir for a funeral. It was a beautiful service; a reflection on a life well-lived in service of the kingdom. When it came time for the final hymn, “Blessed Assurance,” I rose, opened the hymnal, and held it out, but didn’t look at it once. I long ago internalized every note and word of this hymn. I was free to look out into the congregation, making eye contact, sharing the ethos of the experience with others.
Symbolic / Theological
- Hymnals are a theological textbook. There is no perfect hymnal, but well-crafted hymnals are reliable sources of theological information.
- Hymnals involve tactile action. Hymnals make the people work. Picking up the hymnal, finding the right page, and holding it up to sing grounds you in time and space. Feeling the weight in your hand engages you in the activity more than staring at a screen ever could.
- Hymnals are not particularly distracting. Screens are actually very difficult to follow. Whenever I’m forced to read a projected text, I am so easily lost in the colors, backgrounds, and movements. I find myself anticipating when the next slide will be advanced. When I’m using a hymnal, none of that comes into play. I have the words and music, and I don’t even have to worry about turning the page.
- Hymnals preserve the aesthetics of the Sanctuary. There is rarely a good place to hang a screen. Even worse, when installed into older spaces, the result can be a visual nightmare. Don’t be mistaken. It may be a secondary issue, but it’s also a theological one. A particularly painful example is the Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. The beautiful organ pipe arrangement and the stained glass baptistry were masked by three massive projection screens. The en chamade were completely removed.
- Hymnals confront us with “new” songs. We tend to go back to our favorite songs too often. It’s easy to fall into a rut. I recently looked back at a year’s worth of bulletins, and was a little embarrassed at how much we had sung several hymns. Not that there was anything wrong with the hymns, but the congregation needs to be stretched to learn unfamiliar songs. When I was a kid, I enjoyed learning to play my favorite hymns on the piano from my mom’s 1975 Baptist Hymnal. Along the way, I would run into hymns that weren’t my favorites. After a while, while flipping through the book, I would run into these hymns again and again. Finally, I would stop and take a look. Often, these “new” hymns turned out to be great sources of encouragement to me, even though they were once unfamiliar and foreign.
- Hymnals give validity to new hymns. New hymns are often defined by the company they keep. When new hymnals are published, if they’re done well, they will introduce us to newer songs to be added to the ranks of hymnody. The fact that these songs are now sandwiched in between hymns like “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty” and “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” adds to their validity.
- Hymnals make songs less disposable. Okay, obviously you can throw a hymnal away if you want, but text on a screen is there one second and gone the next. There’s no visible permanence. Hymnals are symbols of consistency. They give life and breath to the great songs. They demonstrate that what we sing is worth keeping around.
- Hymnals give congregational singing back to the people. Congregations watching screens are at the mercy of whoever is sitting behind the computer. Holding hymnals symbolizes the fact that the voice of the congregation is the primary instrument in corporate worship.
Are hymnals perfect? More to the point, is there a perfect hymnal? No. Still, we lose out on much benefit by getting rid of them.