Contemporary Worship

Standard

This is a bit off topic but given the fact that I haven’t posted anything in a while I figured it was better off topic than off air (so to speak.) The following article popped up on my facebook feed the other day and while I actually like the singing of the traditional hymns, at least the lyrics, I’m not sure I could disagree more with the article.

As a point of reference let me say that I am a member of the praise band at my church, primarily singing but acting as backup for several other slots as well. I grew up in the church and love the old hymns but I love theologically relevant contemporary songs as well. Furthermore I prefer to listen in daily life to music which at a minimum is performed by people who take their Christianity seriously enough for it to drive their music, even if every song is not overtly christian. I feel that this is a modern interpretation of living in the word.

http://theologyinworship.com/2014/07/22/reasons-why-we-should-still-be-using-hymnals/

I’m going to go through a point by point rebuttal and I’ve copied the headlines, you’ll have to go to the article to get his take. Some of the criticism is valid but most of those I feel are much more with the way video screens are used rather than with the concept themselves.

Musical

Hymnals actually teach music. I’m really not sure where he’s going with this one, at least as a separate point. Relatively few people read music enough to be able to pick up a hymnal and sing a song correctly. For those of us who can, to a point, it is helpful but we are not the people who are falling by the wayside in singing in the first place.
Hymnals set a performance standard. This is one of my biggest complaints about the way contemporary music is handled in my team. Many of these songs are produced for radio airplay. Not only does the published music for them not always exactly follow the version familiar to those of us who listen to christian radio but sometimes neither version is exactly right for a particular worship situation. A competent praise team should be able to take the combination of the two leads and merge them with the worship situation into an arrangement that is appropriate for the situation, and still familiar enough for the congregation to join in. Furthermore that arrangement may change from week to week if the situation, especially place in worship, does.
Hymnals integrate the music and text. See the above comment about the lack of music reading ability in the general congregation. On the other hand I see many times where the formatting of the word on the screens could be done to better help the congregation with the rhythms of the piece.
Practical

Hymnals allow you to sing anywhere.Well duh, Hymnals still have a place in the church and non-sanctuary events are a good example. Even then printing just the songs to be sung is often easier than carting a load of hymnals around. Actually with the prevalence of tablets and smartphones providing the words to individual screens might be even easier.
Hymnals allow people to take possession of the music. The example given is only possible for those congregants who own their own hymnal or take one home, even less likely than them knowing how to read music. In this day of itunes, youtube, and pandora simply printing the contemporary songs for the next week would be helpful with or without a hymnal.
Hymnals don’t screw things up. This is a given. On the other hand PA systems fail, lights fail, etc. Spending an appropriate amount of money and training time on the technology system should prevent most of the issues most of the time. I’ll address the familiarity level later but unless this happens as you are introducing a new song the congregation should be able to limp along until the tech comes back up, assuming your praise team actually knows the song already too.
Hymnals are as helpful as the singer needs them to be. I will agree that there is a pitfall of staring at the screen. Even as a singer in the praise team we fall into it as well with our monitors. On the other hand there are plenty of hymnal singers buried in the book as well. Appropriately engaging singers, designed screen shots, etc. can limit this danger.
Symbolic/Theological

Hymnals are a theological textbook. They are a textbook that someone else wrote. As Baptists we are supposed to believe in the autonomy of the local church. Rarely do all the songs in a hymnal mesh with the prevailing discernments of the local congregation. The general opus of songs sung can be that textbook on a more congregationally personal level assuming that the theology in the individual songs is examined by those presenting them.
Hymnals involve tactile action. This is probably the one point that I disagree the least on but it is still mostly the opinion of someone who comes across as technologically adverse.
Hymnals are not particularly distracting.Once again, a valid pitfall but one that proper graphic design should minimize.
Hymnals preserve the aesthetics of the Sanctuary.I think I would agree with this more if he hadn’t shown a before and after example. The after shot he showed was beautiful, if in a very contemporary way. The before looked dated rather than classically beautiful. I worship in a sanctuary that was started in the 1850’s. Very little of the style has been changed although the turn of the century stained glass gives a later Victorian slant to it. Our screens are small and no they don’t exactly fit the decor. All churches will not have this problem.
Hymnals confront us with “new” songs. Once again, how many congregants have access to hymnals outside of the worship service. Actually doing away with hymnals and giving them to the families in the church may do more to maintain the knowledge of the old hymns that are not typically sung than keeping a pewback of hymnals primarily filled with songs that are not sung.
Hymnals give validity to new hymns. Once again, proper theological screening of new contemporary songs before introducing them to the congregation serves the same purpose
Hymnals make songs less disposable. Keeping a song in a hymnal that is never sung is just as disposing as removing a song from a computer list, except to those who cling to it for themselves.
Hymnals give congregational singing back to the people. Huh? The congregation is at the mercy of whoever picks that weeks music whatever form is used for leading them in it.

As I implied above I have very eclectic musical tastes. I love the old hymns but for many people they are no longer engaging. The church has always struggled with music. From the baroque times through W. C. Handy to the folk music of the seventies and early eighties. The church has attempted to maintain a relevancy of music to engage both active congregants and visitors who may not know any music but current hits. Engaging the congregation for singing has many facets. As far as music selection there is a balance between theological relevancy and situational relevancy, between familiarity and it being a teaching opportunity, between giving the congregation what it wants to sing and giving it direction on what it needs to say to god or themselves. Many of the complaints in the article read to me to be complaints about contemporary music in general. If nothing else the publishing cycle of hymnals prevent them from including truly up to date music. I think we can find a way of making the old hymns relevant to a modern vibrant church but enforcing the use of hymnals is not the way.