A while ago, Richard wrote in to ask:
“Do you think there is an advantage one way or the other for a congregation to sing from a hymnal and songbook/sheet (so that they are all looking down), or singing from the words on a large screen in the front of the room (where they are all looking up and facing the same direction)?”
First, I think that people can sing from hymnals and still be “facing the same direction,” and that you can sing from a hymnal and still be looking up. However, I’m not making a case for using hymnals. Or not using them. Actually, I’m surprised at how strongly people defend one position or the other in dealing with this issue. There are good reasons for doing both, and God doesn’t make perfectly clear in Scripture which one He prefers.
The benefits of singing with lyrics projected on a screen? Here are a few:
* more freedom to respond physically while singing
* easier to add new songs to the repertoire
* people look up more naturally, making it easier to sing
* you don’t have to read music to participate
* people sing unison, so it’s easier to pick up the melody
* you’re following the Scriptural practice of passing on melodies orally
The benefits of using hymnals (or other written music):
* the congregation can sing in parts, which makes the sound more beautiful
* people who have never heard the song (and can read music) can sing it immediately
* centuries of enduring hymns are at your fingertips
* people can buy the hymnal (or music) and sing the songs at home
* words can be reflected on more readily as they don’t disappear as soon as you sing them
* singing in parts models the Scriptural principle of unity in diversity
Perhaps it works best when a local church chooses one primary way to sing songs, and then seeks to overcome the weaknesses of that method. If you use a projection screen, you might teach songs more carefully (to make sure people learn them), sell hymnals in your bookstore, incorporate doctrinally rich hymns into your meetings, provide ways that people can take the lyrics home, and use a font size that allows more words to be shown at one time. If you use song sheets or a hymnal, you can intersperse simpler songs that the congregation can learn by ear, make it a point to regularly introduce new songs, and have the congregation sing melody on the first verses of song (so that newcomers can learn them).
All things being equal, I think history favors songs that can be orally transferred. Notated congregational music wasn’t all that common until the 16th century, when Martin Luther and others revived congregational song. But problems continued. Congregational singing was so poor in 18th century America that “singing schools” were established to train Christians in the basics of theory and note reading. Some of those still exist today. Still, having notes in front of you doesn’t insure whole-hearted, thoughtful engagement.
Which is more beneficial for a church – singing with notes or without? Neither. What’s most beneficial for a church is to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in their hearts to God. (Col. 3:16) And that’s something that can be done well with notes – or without them.