By Jonathan Howe
I might lose my Millennial card for admitting this, but:
I like hymnals. A lot.
Yes, I realize I’m supposed to want to worship with fog machines and song lyrics on projector screens with cool moving backgrounds. And sometimes I enjoy that too—but not all the time.
So why would a 36-year old Millennial enjoy hymnals? Here are my five reasons:
- Holding the hymnal in my hands and reading the lyrics help me focus in worship. If my eyes are fixed on the words and notes to sing, I’m less distracted. Other than maybe the first and last verse of many hymns, I don’t know the words. Unlike many newer worship songs that I’ve memorized easily, I have to pay more attention to what I’m singing when using a hymnal because I’m less familiar with the words.
- I prefer the ability to read music and sing harmony. I’m one of the strange people you sit next to in church who default to singing harmony and not melody. Having the music in the hymnal helps—especially with unfamiliar tunes. While I can sing harmony by ear when needed, having the music in front of me is always preferred.
- Hymns use phrasing and words that modern songs don’t. Hymnals are full of rich theology and turns of phrase that we just don’t see anymore. Twitter’s 140 characters and the short lyrical hooks we find in modern songs have seemingly diminished our vocabulary. Hymns are full of poetic theological language missing in many contemporary songs.
- Responsive readings are virtually nonexistent in many protestant churches, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Our liturgies have left behind responsive readings—a core component found in many hymnals. Like the hymns mentioned in the previous point, responsive readings are filled with rich theology. As hymnals have been used less and less, responsive readings in our church services have all but disappeared.
- I want my kids to know hymns as well. I recently took my kids to an event that included a hymn sing. They knew virtually none of the songs. I knew all but one. I realized in that moment that they’ve never been in church services where hymnals were used. Everything is on the screen, and the songs being sung are the ones they hear on the radio. It’s good that they know the songs they do, but I’d also love for them to know hymns as well.
Does your church use hymnals? Do you have them and never use them? Are you a Millennial who misses using hymnals as well?
Jonathan Howe serves as Director of Strategic Initiatives at LifeWay Christian Resources as well as the host and producer of Rainer on Leadership and SBC This Week. Jonathan writes weekly at ThomRainer.com on topics ranging from social media to websites and church communications. Connect with Jonathan on Twitter at @Jonathan_Howe.
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!
Also, whenever I’m in a situation where hymnals are used, the congregation always seems to be singing louder and with more confidence. There is something about holding the hymnal and seeing the music/lyrics in your hands (whether in a hymnal or printed in the bulletin like CHBC does) puts you more into the experience, rather than being a spectator listening to a performance.
I personally feel that any church who thinks their congregation is struggling with congregational singing should put the lyrics in their hands, no matter what the worship style is and see what the results are.
OK. So there’s a decent question. Do hymnals encourage congregational singing?
Yes, but I like a mix
Hmm. I agree – that would be a very interesting experiment! For the average person – does having all of the words in front of of you help to sing?
If a congregation holding a hymnal seems to be singing more, louder, etc. – we should probably ask a few more questions to determine if their increased singing has anything to do with how many Christians vs. non-Christians are in the room, the level of maturity (and understanding of worship), the culture/sub-culture of the group, the familiarly of the congregation with those songs (are they often-sung songs or are they new), etc.
Let me propose a different thought. Where do people typically sing the loudest? I would say either in their car or in the shower – where they have no words. They sing the loudest because they have memorized the words (and others may not be listening, of course!). So maybe the BEST way to get our congregations to sing is to help them actually learn and memorize the songs so they will not have to look at the screen or a book!
I think that’s a good point. I’ve also noticed that phenomenon. As a student at SEBTS, anytime during chapel that an old hymn, or even a very familiar worship song is sung, there is a rise in congregational volume. However, every year during our 9Marks conference, Mark Dever leads the attendees in singing, a cappella from the hymnal, and there is no sweeter sound in Binkley chapel. It always sounds like everyone is singing.
I would love to hear the results if anyone has tried giving out either printed lyrics, or tried using a hymnal after using projected lyrics, to see if there was an increase in congregational singing.
I think the shower scene is a faulty comparison. Most people are inhibited about singing in public. Being alone and in a small room or shower lends itself to privacy and some neat acoustics. I am a trained singer/soloist and I never sound better than when I am in the shower. My next concert or live album may be from a shower.
And I don’t think the shower comparison rightly deals with the 4 part harmony benefit of the written hymn. I often attend a local church which uses a live praise band and the words are projected on screen. Being a worship leader I often put in ear plugs to protect my hearing (which is vital to the longevity of me being able to sing publicly) and then I watch the congregation. It is true that this church is the “happening place” in our southern town, but it is also true that something is not happening. About 90% of the congregation is not singing. Rather, they are enjoying a Christian concert, instead. Which has it’s place in worship but in this case I think it tends to “displace” worship.
We are working through these exact thoughts and you are spot on
Or just make our churchesbig showers or drive throughs! Seriously, though. I can’t sing. I do not get a spiritual depth from singing words I don’t understand (wert? What’s a wert?). I’m 50. I like hymns do not like hymnals or singing a hymn just because it’s a hymn.
It probably depends on the congregation, but in my experience, yes. Hymnals encourage participation because it is not a remote activity — like looking at a screen and listening to a band. Worshipers hold the words, and even the music, in their hands; they become a part of the experience, not apart from the experience. Again, that’s my experience, and it is far from a universal proclamation.
Having the music in front of you, to follow, is important when you are unfamiliar with the tune. Lyrics only leaves me struggling to sing a long.
So to give a slightly different perspective, or to change the question rather, does holding the words to songs increase participation vs screens?
I say this because I’m a youth pastor’s wife. (We do hymns with the kids, but not like we’d use hymnals for them.) We have musical worship on both Sunday and Wednesday nights using screens and a band. The participation is normal. Mostly everyone sings and at a decent volume (though we have a LOT of shy quiet kids).
We do special nights in the summer we call “Fire Ups” where we hang out outside, cookout, outdoor games, and then come together for music around a bonfire. A screen isn’t practical for this music time, so we print the words on sheets of paper bulletin style and take requests from the songs we have. I swear we get more singing in this setting even with the distractions of the outdoors. I don’t know if its the nature, the circle we sit in, the more acoustic set we do, etc. But, I think there is something to be said about physically holding words in your hand vs reading them off a screen.
I wonder what news reporters feel reading off of a paper in their hands vs reading a teleprompter? What psychological phenomenon occurs that makes us feel like participating or feels more comfortable singing with the physical words in our hands?
Those are great questions. I’m not sure of the answer, but maybe there’s a confidence that comes with the concreteness of holding something.
Great reading and thought provoking. Particularly, #2 and #5.
We’ve experienced the opposite at our church. We recently installed screens, and this has only bolstered the congregational singing, making it louder because people are looking up at the screens rather than down into the hymnal. We still reference the hymnal if people want to use it, and there are some that do. Personally, if it is a tune that I know, I would rather look up at the screen. We also still use responsive readings from time to time. It is also a very multi-generational church.
No. An understanding and that our worship services are corporate rather than individual and encouragement to sing cause congregations to sing. The church has been around much longer than the hymnals. Persecuted Christians sing hundreds of hymns with no hymnal. My church sings well and we don’t use hymnals. We do sing hymns.
My question is, “Has any one considered the value of the things taught in singing hymns vs ‘radio songs’?”
Teaches young to read music and adds strength to the message and keeps our Christian history alive !
My church seldom ever sings a good old hymn unless they change it with more hip hop lyrics!
I am not sure if hymnals encourage congregational singing or not, but I can say that most hymns are easier to follow than many popular christian songs, especially for the elderly. I am one of the leading voices at my church and I can notice how sometimes old people are not able to follow certain rythmic patterns.
In Argentina, we do not sing hymns as often as we used to, and the reason is that many do not understand the meanings encoded in the lyrics. But the good thing is that there are a couple of new bands that have started composing theologically rich and gospel-centered songs.
PD: I loved the article and I really really miss hymnals and hymns.
I am an old Dinosaur and I truly love the old hymns! My church only seldom will flash the words on the screen to a hymn. My memory is no longer good and I cannot remember the tune (if any) for the worship songs we sing, nor can I remember the words. Sometimes I tell my wife, “I don’t think I have heard that one before,” She says, “oh, yes, we have sang it before!”
Not sure Hymnals vs. words on a screen (or newer worship songs) is a good comparison. I’ve been in churches that use Hymnals that sang out with passion and churches that had new songs on a screen that worshiped with similar fervor.
As a millennial in ministry, I feel like there is a lot of talk looking for a “silver bullet” to attract millennials.. “We need a different worshiped space.” “We need to change out of our robes.” “We need to offer communion more.””We need to go back to our roots.””We need to get more modern.”… the list of “how to engage the wandering millennials” goes on.
Bottom line (IMO) is be the church that God is calling you to be. And do it with excellence and passion. It’s not one size fits all. Focus who God’s called you to be and connect with your community, and I think many millennials will be attracted to that.
I do have to admittedly disagree with the 3rd point though (Hymns use phrasing and words that modern songs don’t.) There are many modern songs that incorporate some awesome phrasing, theology, and scripture. To say they don’t is a little short-sighted to me. I do have a great appreciation for the richness of Hymns, but we shouldn’t discount modern worship songs either. I mean all Hymns were once “modern” worship, right?
Also, not sure singing words we don’t readily understand (doth, bulwark, o’er, etc…) is always good. Can be confusing for some.
I really appreciate the thought that went into this article. I think it’s a great discussion for us in the church to have.
I personally, as a musician, do not enjoy the contemporary Christian music (although I understand that many people are blessed by it, and I’m glad for that.) I feel that much of the music is sloppily put to Scripture, and the tunelessness is not an enhancement. Much of the new music is taken from popular CD solos, and then “adapted” to congregational singing. The phrasing is conversational, often awkward, and not really possible to “read” and sing with, if you have not listened to the gasping, teary CD solo at home (which I haven’t, and won’t). This is just my personal opinion; but I have struggled, as well as watched others struggle (especially elders) with trying to join in on these songs. And so, when we move (which we do every so often) I try to locate a church that uses hymnals. I love the thoughtfully-composed old hymns, adding harmonies, and reading the notes if I’m not familiar. I’m glad that there ARE still churches that give us this option.
I have to personally agree and disagree. I find some hymns so difficult to follow musically and I’ve been in choir and played instruments most of my life. So in that way I disagree. But then there are hymns that I can catch right on to. Same goes for contemporary worship songs. There are plenty of songs that shouldn’t be done for congregational singing that for what ever reason a worship leader still tries to do, but that’s at their discretion. There are many hymns that I would just never do as a congregation because they are so difficult for people to follow. Like i said, its up to the discretion of whoever leads the musical worship, but I find it goes either way between hymns and contemporary.
Are we talking about HYMNALS as in books of songs or HYMNS as in the songs themselves? I feel like that is important to narrow down.
And if we are talking about HYMNS in the sense of “old” songs on sheet music, the era in which they were written (500 years ago, 200 years ago, 100 years ago, 50, 10, modern), the author that wrote them, and the area they came from (and probably a few other things) has SO much to do with the style, complexity of the music, wordiness of the lyrics, etc. Just because it is an “old” song (which is very relative), does not mean anything. At the same time, there are some brand new songs that came out today that are deeply rooted in Scripture, musically full and complex, etc. – check out Redeeming Grace’s music.
I have always been Lutheran -known as the singing church. All of the congregatios I belonged to have used hymnals.Used to have to memorize them as a kid. Glad I did. For me it’s easier to concentrate using a hymnal.
Over the years, our people have learned significant amount of theology
through the hymns because the don’ t always listen to our preaching.
Continuing with your FINE remarks ! —–YOU are RIGHT ON !! The congregation has 30 minutes as THEIR PART of WORSHIP to GOD….. the Preacher has the last 30 to bolster the Christian or lead a lost person to Christ. Thats the WHOLE OBJECT = its called WORSHIP. To have EFFECTIVE Worship TO God, the SOUL must be stirred. If your heart does NOT release what you BELIEVE during your time of SONG, then the communication is WEAK and not your BEST OFFERING to the LORD ! Whatever YOUR STYLE, it has to be effective. Gumming words 7x over are as non productive as singing a hymn you NEVER heard and will never hear again. Screens help you look forward and easier to see, but their is NO OWNERSHIP if you do not HOLD physically a HYMNAL or PEW BIBLE in your hands. You make NO effort to reach GOD if everything is handed to you. You reach to GET a hymnal out of the rack, , YOU open it, you sing a PART, you see the words, you place the hymnal back. It does make a difference. The SAME holds true with the BIBLE… please dont tell me what page in the Pew Bible EZRA is on…… MEMORIZE the books of the BIBLE — We COME to Corporate Worship to GIVE to GOD ………..not see what we can GET !!!!!!!!!
Well folks I am totally “OLD SCHOOL” and do NOT even feel like I have been in church where they use ONLY the “on screen” lyrics. Seems the theme of the whole thing is simply to “repeat” the verse/line/word as many times as possible. Two or three time is OK but REALLY that is just boring and does not put me in a worship mood even in the slightest. I have looked for a church that this has hymnals or has handouts and as of today 4/9/17 there seems to be nothing in the 92503 area that does this . So, sadly I have not been attending church for ages now. I look up the church and call to find out what they do in their services. “N”
I now attend a classical Episcopal church where an old hymn book is used exclusively. There is a lot of theology in the hymns, especially those used in Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Pentecost, etc. Yes, in churches where hymn books are not used or they are so new that the classic hymns have been removed, I did miss them.
There are some great new hymns, and often they are included in the newer books. But it’s good to know many are still using them.
Recently, I’ve helped plant a new church. We’re in the process of creating a new hymnal (with notes for four-part harmony) that will allow us to include classic hymns as well as add new songs we like.
That’s cool, Jeremy.
When you are concentrating on the harmony, which I love to hear, is your heart feeling the words while looking at the notes?
Yep. Sing enough hymns, the harmony comes more easily. I’ll bet some melody singers aren’t paying attention to the words either.
our hymnal has the words and music for power point. so we sing hymns and contemporary songs off the wall with music shown. Our church loves 4 part harmony. (we’re an acappella church)
Personally, I would feel very comfortable holding a hymnal and singing harmony parts or reading the melodic line of a hymn. After all, I grew up in church singing hymns. However, I’m becoming more and more aware that the feelings that stir in me on issues of preference are some of the same feelings causing my unchurched friends to stay far away from church. These types of issues are what I have come to call insider issues. Caring too much for the preferences of those already saved isn’t providing the church much in 2017. I’ve got to get beyond my preferences and the preferences of those who have attended church for a while and move my focus to the majority of millenials who have never had a church tie and who feel quite opposite about things like singing from hymnals.
I’m not sure they are opposed to hymnals as much as they are opposed to rote tradition. Hymnals do not equal boring and stuffy all the time.
Let’s be carefully, too, to not equate “hymns” to a certain era or style of song. A “hymn” is a praise song – that is it. So any song that is a praise song of God, regardless of when it was written, what style it was written in, and to what culture it was written to – is truly a “hymn.”
Amen Robert, I’m 75 years old and, in my opinion, we have just about worn out this topic. There are many Hymns that are sound in theology but they were not written to be sung to God in praise and adoration. And there are many modern contemporary songs that have amazing theology and also usher us into adoration and praise of our awesome God. Any song that conveys that God is the greatest treasure we could ever find and comes out of us as adoration to Him are good, regardless of when they were written.
Thanks for that Tom! I so respect how you just said: “Any song that conveys that God is the greatest treasure we could ever find and comes out of us as adoration to Him are good, regardless of when they were written.” 🙂
Amen. Isn’t that the purpose of our worship/adoration to Him? Where is our heart, mind and soul when we are singing to Him? Let’s remember our focus, Church.
I agree. By general definition, hymns are written for worship God by recalling who He is and what He has done. Praise songs should be the same, but much (not all) of Christian music today is not about God but about the worshiper’s experience. And where God is mentioned, it is in generalities (i.e. He loves me, He saved me), with little or no more detail than that.
We are a small, rural church where the hymnal is still very important. We just bought new ones because there are a lot of newer songs that have been added. We often pick some of the unfamiliar songs to sing on Sunday night and it is a really fun and joyful time of worship.
A seminary student announced in a class I was speaking to a few years ago that he was using the 2008 Baptist Hymnal to make his church more contemporary. Everybody stopped and looked at him. So I gave him the floor. His strategy: (1) the new hymnal has a lot of modern songs, and (2) since they are in the BH, the older folks see them as legit. Pretty savvy.
I like it. Thanks, David.
I love it! I have a collection of Baptist Hymnals going back to the 1800’s, and the 2008 Baptist hymnal is a great edition, it puts many older songs and hymns in easier keys, and includes many great newer songs and hymns!
I was just at a men’s retreat where the whole weekend we sang from hymnals. Just men, just voices. We were encouraged to pick the hymns as we went. No fancy lights, no instruments, no performance.
It was a blessing to my soul to sing with these men rich songs from old hymnals.
I am 34. I grew up in Pentecostal/evangelical churches. I decided our family will get some hymnals and learn to sing them as a family. Please give me some recommendations.
And people say men don’t sing in church…..
That’s wonderful! I can imagine that was a glorious sound.
Therein lies another problem with contemporary worship. You may remember a book a few years ago called “Why Men Hate Going to Church”. The writer noted that many of the old hymns were geared toward men – “Onward, Christian Soldiers”, “Rise Up, O Men of God”, etc. Much of contemporary worship lacks that masculine flavor.
As the writer said, the solution is not to rid ourselves of all contemporary music, but to write more songs that are appealing to men.
Great article. These are great points for churched people. Where I am in New England, there is little to know foundation. I’m experiencing Post Christian in real time. Churches people will find churches , but where do lost people go? The only people who ever ask for hymnals is churched people. As for congregational singing, passion is the key to what you are singing. I would watch people sing Victory in Jesus but saw no Victory. Would love to hear others thoughts. Thanks!
Maybe we’ve done a poor job explaining why what’s contained in hymnals is important? Maybe we should emphasize their content more than their tradition?
I agree with you. Also many people don’t know the history behind the songs in the hymnal and how God inspired the writer through an event in their lives. Many went through tragedies and remained faithful. Examples: I surrender all, It is well with my soul, etc. So to me, songs like Victory in Jesus, has more meaning to me the older I get and the more I realize what He has done in my life. When we sing, I Surrender All, do really mean it, or are they just words?
“When we walk with the Lord, in the light of His word…
What a glory He sheds on our way….”
“Mercy there was great and grace was free
pardon there was multiplied to me
There my burdened soul found liberty
“Great is thy faithfulness, oh God my Father … there is no shadow of turning with Thee…”
It don’t get much better than those … I can sing with all my heart, mind, soul and strength. (Hey .. something Biblical about that phrase…)
And I am 100% harmony, too. for 50~ years now. Love standing in front of Randy, as we harmonize. When I can hear him rather than the amplifiers and loudspeakers in front of us.
Struck a big nerve with this one, brother!
Thanks, Bob. Appreciate you.
Yes! There is nothing more beautiful than a congregation singing parts!
I appreciate the article, but I must say – I was disappointed. Only 2 of your points had anything to do with a “hymnal” – the other 3 had to do with the particular songs that are stereotypically IN hymnals (meaning old, theologically-rich songs). There are many, many songs that I have found in “hymnals” that are NOT theologically rich or even Biblically wrong (and you can’t just edit the text to fix it!). Many of these songs have little to do with God and more to do with “me” (which has more to do with the era in which they were written and not the book, of course).
I personally disagree that hymnals help FOCUS – but that is just my opinion and about me (i focus better when there are fewer words on a screen, no pages to turn, etc.)
As for the music notes – that would be a great benefit to someone that is familiar with sheet music or knows what to do with notes on a staff. I’m not sure what % of our people that is.
As for the good, time-tested, theologically rich songs – YES! Let’s keep them going and weed out the rest. But they can just as easily (or easier) be put up on a screen instead of hardback hymnbooks that I can’t store in my portable church chairs 🙂
Can’t put hymnals in the chairs? There’s an app for that! 😀
Exactly. With some free content in there too.
I can just see it now – everyone with their 4.7″ screens squinting to see what the alto line is doing on the chorus…
I’ll stick with my 80 pt font on a 100″ screen up front for now 😉
It works much better on a tablet. Obviously.
We are a little church in a big city. We sing hymns every week. We have hymnals for those that want to use them for harmony but we also project the lyrics so the older folks can see them easier. We have had people visit and not come back because we are so traditional ???? Wish we could find some of these guys that want a hymn singing church. LOL
In the churches that I’ve served as music minister, reading / singing from the hymnals is definitely a preference for those already saved. And even then, when I would dare to use a hymn, from the hymnal, that was unfamiliar to the older folks I would get in trouble for that as well, even though it was in the hymnal. The preference has been, “Sing from the hymnal but only sing the songs we know.” The interesting thing is that most of the people could sing those familiar songs without even looking at the hymnal. Holding a book is simply a habit / preference. The church where I am currently serving has just transitioned to screens and it seems to me that the people are singing better because they don’t know the words as well and have to concentrate more. Plus, their heads are up and I can hear their voices much better. All that being said, I use a blend of old and new. This past Sunday we sang “Holy, Holy, Holy” followed by “Praise the Father, Praise the Song.” I don’t think you can get much more meaningful words than, “To the valley for my soul, Thy great descent has made me whole.” Last point. The screens, for me, enable the songs to flow better rather than having to wait while we turn to the next song in a book.
Great point – we are all creatures of habit! (Which isn’t always a bad thing, of course).
Great article. These are great points for churched people. Where I am in New England, there is little to know foundation anymore. I’m experiencing a Post Christian nation in real time. Churched people will find churches , but where do lost people go? In my experience, The only people who ever ask for hymnals is churched people. As for congregational singing, passion is the key to what you are singing. I would watch people sing Victory in Jesus, but saw no Victory. Would love to hear the thoughts of others on this. Thanks!
Wow Gary – what a statement “I would watch people sing Victory in Jesus, but saw no Victory.” That made me shudder.
Maybe some of our churches/pastors need to take the Matt Redman approach at times and (with the risk of running off the church-hopping consumers), take a step back, go a little more raw and bare-bones, and focus on the meaning behind the words as well as focusing on their hearts of worship coming from holy and pure lives.
Completely agree Gary. Big difference in perspectives based on if you’re churched or unchurched (or who you’re trying to reach). If you want to do something that churched people love, hymnals are a great way to go. You will simultaneously have the exact opposite effect on (most) unchurched people.
It seems that millennials are looking for authentic worship and the use of a hymnal brings back a simpler time in church history before the worship wars exploded and divided so many churches. I have had the privilege to serve in several different types of worship settings from exclusively traditional hymnal driven to contemporary. I like hymnals because it does allow people another tool to use in worship, but hymnals can be limiting in selections of the great old hymns and modern worship songs. I am currently serving in a great situation where we have the 2008 Baptist Hymnal available for people to use but we don’t use it exclusively. I try to pull from other hymnals as well as LifeWay Worship and the many other resources that are out there when planning worship. In addition to the 2008 Baptist Hymnal we pull our worship songs from Celebration Hymnal, Hymnal for Worship and Celebration, the 1956, 1975, and 1991 Baptist Hymnal, The Broadman Hymnal, Heavenly Highways, and many other hymnals. As a worship leader, it is my passion in worship to have a balance between the great hymns of the faith and modern worship songs.
Jason, I like you words “authentic worship”. I like hymns including some of the newer ones as well as spiritual songs. I believe, when the Holy Spirit is in charge totally, we will have that authentic worship leadership. Example: I went to a church which for the most part sang lively, but I did not like when we sang “Brethren We Have Met to Worship” because the “worship leader” drug it. A positive message was not conveyed. Then I went to another church where it was sung more lively and realized it was a song conducive to true worship. It was just the perspective I had. Any song or service can be like that, whether to loud, to soft, to unengaging, to many new songs that no one knows, bands that are so loud you cannot hear yourself think let alone the fact your hearing may be being distroyed. Ultimate responsibility is the Senior pastor of the church and those in the pew who have prepared themselves for worship.
I agree that, in general, the hymns are far superior to most modern “worship” music. I particularly like the way that Promise Keepers used hymns by updating them with more modern and peppier music. However, this boomer likes the idea of doing both projection and hymnals. Purists like my wife prefer the hymnal so they have the music, but I think for the majority the projected words puts our heads up and promotes better singing. I also have the problem that the light in many sanctuaries is not the best and for those with presbyopia it makes the words in the hymnal hard to see.
Thank you for sharing this, Jonathan! Like you, I also want a healthy knowledge and love for the hymns in addition to enjoying what modern worship is bringing us. This really hit my nerdy side because I love hearing & singing harmony, and the hymnal helps with this. Thanks for stepping out on this!
I disagree with a lot of this, some for personal reasons and some based on ministry experience. Note that I have a degree in music and have been the worship arts pastor in three different churches as well as lead pastor in two (which is what I do now). I’ve also been part of one of the fastest growing churches in America.
1. My experience is the exact opposite. It’s harder for me to focus on worship with my face buried in a book. Obviously just my experience.
2. I agree with this, personally…but most people (like, a significantly high percentage) can’t read music.
3. Pretty strongly disagree. Many modern songs use lots of beautiful phrasing. Yes, many are shallow and repetitive…but by no means all. I’d also contest the idea that hymns have more rich theology than many modern songs. Yes, many do. But many hymns also have awful theology, and many modern songs have lots of theological depth. I’d also argue that many hymns are overly stuffy or use antiquated language that makes no sense to unchurched people, so it goes both ways. I think there is an assumption that “if it’s a hymn, it has great theology” and “if it’s a modern song, it must be shallow.” Neither is true. In both cases, selecting the RIGHT songs is key.
4. Again, this is more personal perspective, but responsive readings were one of the things that turned me off most about church. Super boring and ritualistic, that ended up just being “going through the motions”. Yes, this is completely on me. But, then, it’s also completely on most unchurched people, which becomes a barrier.
5. Completely agree with this. But there is a way to do hymns in a way that is musically current/relevant (and doesn’t necessarily need a hymnal to do it).
Also, in response to some of the comments about congregational singing: the other factor for us is that most unchurched people, when polled, say that they don’t want to hear themselves sing. Churched people largely prefer “congregational singing”…and the louder it is, somehow the better. Unchurched people (largely millenials, I might add) feel that congregational singing is awkward and off-putting. They want to experience the music rather than being the focus of it. Hearing themselves (or their neighbor) singing breaks that immersion. This isn’t true across the board, of course, but the statistics do show that this perspective is more common, especially with people under 40 (including those under 20).
As with anything, it’s largely a matter of perspective. My guess is that this author largely comes from a churched background. Things start to shift when you’re talking about people that have no experience with church.
I attend what I call a country congregation in a Baptist church that was established in 1854 (our current building was built on the same site in 1950) and we have always used hymnals. I’m surprised by other people’s shock when asked about our services. I play piano and have even had churches ask me to record hymns so they can sing them in their church because none of their music people know how to play hymns. I’m not sure I believe that, maybe their worship band just doesn’t want to …..
My Grandmother, in her time, grew up going to singing schools. The use of singing schools to teach parts/harmony, vocal technique, methods (like shape notes) to easily transpose keys – resulted in a large part of a congregation knowing how to read music (at least if the notes go up, the voice goes up if nothing else). I think that had a lot to do with keeping hymnals in the pews. Singing schools are starting to have some sort of revival in areas, so maybe people will want to see music again and not just “words on a wall.”
Matthew 15:8-9 ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ ”
At the end of the day, worship must be more than just something from our lip. A heart that is near to God is important. So, “trendy”, is really not the question. The question, is the song a God-exalting song? And that question can be asked of any song, no difference the date of publication.
Singing schools sound fascinating.
Singing schools are interesting. See if there is a Sacred Harp group in Nashville, Jonathan — there probably is. It would be an interesting experience if you’ve never experienced it before.
Those old “convention-style” songs that they use in singing schools are a lot of fun to sing. On the choruses, the parts go all different directions (not unlike a piece from Handel’s “Messiah”, but with a country flavor). One of my great regrets is that I never attended the Stamps-Baxter Singing School when Ben Speer was leading it. His father was an old-style singing school teacher, so he knew how it was done.
We saw a resurgence of singing schools in the 90’s, due to the new popularity of southern gospel music. I suspect there are still a few around.
I started “leading singing” in a non-instrumental church when I was ten years old (I turn 75 this year). As an adult, with a music degree, I continued “leading singing”.
The most enviable place to be was in front of the congregation. It was like directing a 200 voice choir. We sang four parts and they could sightread a new hymn with ease. The closest today with a worship team leading is when the instruments stop playing and we repeat the final chorus a cappella. To my old ears it is heavenly.
Really only #1 requires a hymnal. We can and do project musical notation for some songs. As a lead pastor who has led worship both ways over 35+ years I can say it’s largely preference, but what I have noticed is that our singing is better with the screens than with the books since with the books people tended to look (and down) down or into the book. Now heads are up and the singing projects out. And there’s no need to break the flow by announcing pages, verses, etc. And, since we live in a culture which is less musically literate than it once was, no need to explain what repeats are, where they repeat to, etc. I love hymnals, but I wouldn’t go back to using them exclusively or even most of the time.
I’ve learned that, for the most part, millennials who prefer hymns, hymnals, and other traditional aspects of corporate worship, are those who grew up going to church. The emergent movement that sought many forms of earlier traditions was largely a millennial movement of churched young people who were doing what their parents did, rejecting the methods of their parent’s generation. The Boomers rejected the traditional worship in favor of contemporary. Emergents rejected the contemporary worship of their parents. But emergents had very few conversions. The strength of contemporary forms of worship (which simply means that it is familiar and understandable for people in modern times) is that unchurched people can understand what is going on, even though they have not spent a lifetime in church culture, or have had to have lengthy explanations about what all the traditions mean. Hymnals are rarely meaningful for those who did not grow up going to church. Some traditional churches are reaching unchurched people, but evangelism is still most effective in churches that try hard to keep everything understandable to common people. The churches that so many of these blog posts criticize, those with lights and fog and video screens, still have far more young people attending them than the churches that do things traditionally. I’m in favor of any form of worship that helps people connect with and honor God. If you really do that with Fanny Crosby style hymns, that’s great. But are you bringing lost people with you?
That’s a fair question.
That kind of thinking can be dangerous. I’m all for evangelism, but we make a mistake when we let the world set our agenda for worship. I’m afraid many churches are doing just that. Steven Furtick, for instance, talks a lot about evangelism. He insists his methods reach people for Christ. Yet I’ve watched him on TV a few times, and he has a terrible habit of twisting Scripture to make it say what he wants it to say. He might be drawing big crowds, but I really have to question whether he’s winning people to Jesus.
That’s not to imply that contemporary music is always bad. As Paige Patterson has noted, all songs were contemporary at one time or another. I’m just saying that we have to use discernment in the ways we “contextualize” the gospel. As the emergent movement has proven, many times it leads to error and even heresy.
Interesting discussion points. I understand the various points given but I wonder how much of this conversation is preference driven. Most of the points are a “me” or “I” focus. “I focus in worship”, “I prefer the ability …”, “I’m not sure that’s …”, “I want my kids …”.
If I may ask, what is the purpose of sharing these thoughts? Is it to raise awareness of other methods of joining in song?
As one commenter alluded to, it is difficult to define what makes a hymn vs a praise song. Those distinctions are different for each person. Perhaps, there should be no distinction although the Bible does refer to three types of song that all give glory and honour to God (hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs – Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16).
There are resources for displaying notation on screens. http://www.digitalsongsandhymns.com/ is one resource. Also, our denomination has a hymnal, “Lift Up Your Hearts”, that provides notation for the screen (both a lyric-only option as well as a musical notation option). I’ve seen them used in a variety of churches, some well, some not.
Great read, thanks for all you do. I’m a worship pastor at a medium size church in Knoxville TN, and we no longer use or have hymnals in the sanctuary and thus utilize screens at front of house for lyrics projection. We utilize a wide variety of music and styles in services, and sing hymns each and every week. I agree that hymns are plum full of theology and truth and that is why we sing them. That being said whether someone is reading the lyrics from a piece of paper or a screen should ultimately have little to no bearing on one’s ability to worship through congregational singing. We are not a liturgical church by any mean’s but I incorporate scripture readings EVERY Sunday and we use call and response readings from time to time.
Concerning those that are musically inclined and want to read parts and sing harmonies. In our situation most of those people are either singing harmonies by ear or serve in some capacity on our worship team and have music to practice and prepare with.
For our church singing hymns, but singing them from a screen and sometimes in a different arrangement is a great way to bridge the gap and foster cohesion and unity in a room that has 500 people from ages 4-90 in a given service.
Blessings on your ministries friends.
Also want to mention that I believe there are hymns with strong theology and there are hymns with little to none. The same can be said of modern worship songs….some of them are strong and some are severely lacking.
Whether a song is 250 years old or published in 2017 it needs to be tested against scripture.
The thing about hymnals is that it can be distracting from the message. This is not a knock against hymns, but rather hymnALS. The words in hymnals are arranged rhythmically and syllabically rather than in poetic form like you would read in a lyric sheet or on a projector. With the notes and broken presentation of the lyrics, it is harder to follow the content. Although it may not be the intention, content takes a back seat to musicality in the presentation of hymnals. On a projector, you can see complete phrases and thoughts and more easily interpret them. Most in the congregation I’ve found sings the melody cause it is easier and because that rings more sentimentally with them than a supporting harmony part. And there is the ever classic problem of the last verse in a hymn being too far away from the notes that it is a distraction in and of itself. I have worshiped both ways, and much prefer the projector then I am in a congregation.
Also about the stereotype that hymns are richer and modern songs are shallow is just that…a stereotype. There are great new songs being written, though granted there is a lot of run of the mill stuff being produced today. There are more hymns than many would care to admit with poor theology (Old Rugged Cross anyone?) and some wonderful new music being written today. It just takes effort to sift among the bad apples of both traditions and get to the good stuff. We do a blended style with focus on rich theology at our church and it serves our congregation so well.
I’ve never thought about the arrangement of the words. That’s a great point.
What’s wrong with “The Old Rugged Cross”? I think its theology is quite good.
If people say that much of modern worship music has poor theology, this song, too, could be considered in the same light, similar to the song “Above All” (Jesus never thought of me as He was on the cross, He thought of doing His Father’s will; His Father’s will was to sacrifice His Son to save His people, which includes me).
“The Old Rugged Cross” is a song that uses poetic imagery to lead people to understand the depth of loss, pain, suffering, forgiveness and mercy given us by Christ. The music is rich. It ebbs and flows. It has a climax, it has an ending. It moves people. The lyrics leave something to be desired. Where some might see it fail, is that the cross becomes the iconic imagery rather than Christ. The “dear Lamb” never left His glory, it went with Him. Jesus never became less than the Son of God at any point. Approaching the cross saves nothing. Approaching Jesus, giving Him all we are and ever have been, in contrition and rejoicing is the only way to the Father.
Excuse me for saying it, but you’re straining at gnats. When the song says Jesus left His “glory”, it’s clearly talking about the glory of heaven. Furthermore, it is perfectly scriptural to exalt the cross of Jesus because of what it symbolizes. The apostle Paul said he boasted in the cross of Christ. Was he a heretic?
“The Old Rugged Cross” is poor theology at best. First of all, the sentimentality of it is akin to an old family heirloom like a grandfather clock or a record player and takes away from the reverence of the subject. Second, the focus is on the cross rather than the Savior who died ON the cross. Going with that, are we to “cling to the cross” or to our Savior? And how would we exchange the cross that Christ died on for a crown, which sounds awkwardly like a lottery ticket? It’s just a poorly written hymn on many levels. It is important to distinguish elegant poetry with sound theology. Many contemporary songs are admittedly rather elementary in a poetic sense, but contain sound theology (though not all). Some hymns like this one and others suffer from bad theology. Hymn does not mean good and contemporary does not mean bad. Discernment should still be exercised on the part of the Scripturally rather than sentimentally minded Christian.
This article certainly generated a lot of comments., so many comments that I could not read all of them.
I was around when the first wall screens were introduced, then with overhead projectors and transparencies. It did free people’s hands and raise people’s heads–two of the the benefits given for changing to a wall screen and overhead projector at the time.
Since that time I have realized that many congregations have never been taught the proper way to hold a hymnal–up high, level with their eyes and not down low, level with their chests. Teaching a congregation the proper way to hold a hymnal can increase the volume of its singing. Holding a hymnal at eye level the congregational singer sings outward rather then downward. As far as hands are concerned, one does not need to lift both hands to praise God. Nor does a hymnal require two hands to hold it.
A good hymnal generally contains a selection of hymns and worship songs that reflect the worship of Christians in other times and places as well as in our own time and place. These hymns and worship songs are part of their witness to us. They are also a reminder that the Church of Jesus Christ existed before we were born and will continue to exist long after we are gone.
Congregations using hymnals in their worship do not have to concern themselves about unexpected equipment failure or power outage–a constant reminder of the fragility of our high-tech world. They can keep on singing. Hymnals are low-tech. All a congregation needs is the light of the sun or an oil lamp or two and someone to lead the singing.
Going low-tech on Sunday mornings might help Millennials develop a different perspective to life, one less dependent on technology and human beings and more reliant upon God.
You make a great point. If we had a major power failure in this country, a lot of churches would be in trouble. My parents grew up during the Great Depression. They lived in a rural area with no electricity or running water, and most people still traveled by horse and buggy – or by foot. Yet they still managed to worship. Mind you, I don’t go back to those days, and I love much of modern technology, but I share your concern that churches have become much too dependent on it.
CORRECTION: “I don’t *want to* go back to those days”
All I can humbly say……., as one who sang from a hymnal for 30 years and love sitting around the piano singing some of the great old hymns,……. is that I feel the writer has not discovered ‘WORSHIP’ yet… and I’m not talking about noise smoke and lights in darkened auditoriums. For me I discovered a vast difference between singing hymns and worshipping God. That difference came 30 years ago with the Baptism in Holy Spirit.
One advantage to singing hymns is that we have had 100-200-300 years to weed out most of the theologically bad ones. Thousands and thousands of hymns were written. 300 or so made it in our hymnals and we only sing 60 of those. Even then, there are still questionable ones out there.
Because contemporary music is contemporary it doesn’t have that advantage.
Having said that, I prefer contemporary. And, it is just that, a preference. When I want to convey a thought using music it is a contemporary song that I think of most often. Not always, but most of the time. I think that’s just me being wired a certain way.
We can list pros and cons of either over the other but at the end of the day it is a preference.
I have had the privilege of speaking at small and large churches with traditional hymns and contemporary worship. The style has nothing to do with the authenticity of Worship in my opinion.
I am a pastor in his early thirties. I pastor an intergenerational and multiethnic small church and we have been printing off song sheets for the congregation. I would love to incorporate hymnals for a few reasons, but the hymnals we have are decades old and we try to incorporate the music of everyone present. Do you know of good newer hymnals that incorporate newer songs (for my under 40 crowd) as well as multiethnic pieces?
Purchasing hymnals are a significant expense so before we make that investment I would like to know it fits our ministry goals.
Check out the new 2008 Baptist Hymnal also called The Worship Hymnal. It is 600 plus pages of songs from centuries ago right up to around 2000 plus new songs. When you purchase them I believe there is a place on the internet where you can also obtain newer songs from them as well.
It is from Lifeway
I’m almost 60, but I like the screens and the old hymns….it makes me look up when I’m singing (ok, singing is a loosely used verb here, haha), instead of looking down at a book. I seem to sing out more when I can look forward instead of down. It’s pretty easy to pick up the tune for new songs after one verse.
Bravo! My whole quarrel with contemporary worship is not the music (I don’t like it, but I respect the fact that others do). My quarrel is with those who think contemporary is the only way to worship. My sister used to have a plaque in her room that said, “Make new friends, but keep the old. The new are silver; the old are gold.” I feel the same way about music. There’s nothing wrong with new songs, but we make a vast mistake when we discard the old ones.
Personally, I’m not all that particular about whether we use a screen or hymnals. My church does the former, but I’ll admit I sometimes miss the hymnals. I’m glad to see that some younger folks are starting to feel the same way.
Yes sir – I am a 30 year old Pastor, planted an Independent Baptist church in Southern California 3 years ago. Tomorrow morning after I set up chairs I’ll set out the hymnals.
I enjoy many of the newer songs, but I also love the songs from the Hymnal.