“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.”
Unfortunately, many churches have done this with their hymnals, but I think they 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.