Hymnals or Screens?

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.

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22 Responses to Hymnals or Screens?

  1. westlakeal February 3, 2006 at 8:40 AM #

    Thanks for your wise and gracious treatment of this. The best bits of both, then a reminder of what is biblically fundamental.

  2. Mike February 3, 2006 at 11:53 AM #

    I couldn’t agree more. So often we want to defend our preference as opposed to the fundamentals of Scripture. One of my pet-peeves is Worship Leaders/Music Ministers simply latching on to the latest craze or fad for use in planned worship gatherings. While there may be nothing wrong with some of the newest fads, it is the motivation that bothers me most. Sticking to Psalms HYMNS and Spiritual Songs is what God prefers, regardless of how it is presented (screen or hymn book). All too often these days, Hymns are left out of the equation. This breaks my heart as there are so many tried and true, Theologically rich Hymns that are God-honoring and uplifting. Stick to the Book (Bible) and you’ll get it right!

  3. Debz February 3, 2006 at 1:50 PM #

    Thank you for this. I go to a church that uses hymnals but in music ministry outside of the church I always project lyrics on screen. Thank you for pointing out the benefits of hymnals as just recently I was beginning to get frustrated with my church’s approach.

  4. Russ February 3, 2006 at 4:21 PM #

    I affirm you final conclusion, but with a few caveats on how you got there: 1) Commending the use of high-tech projectors and screens as “following the Scriptural practice of passing on melodies orally” seems a bit odd. Paul didn’t have power point, and screens are still a visual medium. And, while they didn’t have hymnals in the first century, neither did they have bound Bibles. Both are the product of the 16th century, a time of renewed doctrinal faithfulness and a time of renewed congregational singing. 2) True, one doesn’t need to read music to sing from a screen, but it’s not necessary to sing from a hymnal either. 3) I do fear that the art of singing hymns in parts is being lost for most evangelicals. For those raised in churches with screens and no choirs singing in parts is completely foreign. Further, when I’ve sung hymns in churches that don’t use hymnals, the instrumental harmonies used often clash with the standard vocal harmonization (minor chords substituted, etc.) so that even those able to sing parts from memory are prevented from doing so.

  5. Bob Kauflin February 4, 2006 at 12:16 AM #

    Russ,

    Thanks for the insightful response. You’ve helped to sharpen my thinking here. My responses:

    1. Great point that we didn’t have bound Bibles either until the 16th century. However, for the greater part of history, including New Testament times, congregations have sung by ear rather than by written notes. In spite of the absence of the written Word at certain times, God clearly commands that it be read (1 Tim. 4:13; Col. 4:16). No such command exists for musical notation.
    2. Never thought of the fact that you don’t have to use the notes to sing from a hymnal. Talk about missing the obvious…
    3. While I appreciate the effect and beauty of singing in parts (Martin Luther was especially emphatic about that), I’m not aware of any place in Scripture where God says that melody alone isn’t sufficient for praising Him. We’ve also found that when a congregation sings unison and the musicians reharmonize the tune, it can cause people to hear lyrics in a fresh way. While I agree that there are numerous benefits to preserving harmonized evangelical hymnody, I stop short of being insistent that churches should practice it. I’m trying to recognize the difference between what is primary in corporate praise (singing) and what is permissible and pleasant (singing in parts).

  6. Marcguyver February 4, 2006 at 1:16 PM #

    I love this: “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.”

    If you accomplish the aforementioned; I have to agree that everything else just becomes the ‘means’ of how you get there, but never becomes as important as the ‘destination’.

  7. Rod Fultz February 4, 2006 at 5:54 PM #

    Bob,
    As always I am refreshed and instructed by your teaching. I really DO thank the Lord in every remembrance of you my friend. Thanks for serving the church in this way.

  8. Evan May February 5, 2006 at 1:23 AM #

    Bob:

    I remember that awhile back you wrote an article that presented how one is to blog as a means of worshipping God. I have just posted my article “Blogging in the Context of the New Testament Church,” which I hope places blogs in the proper Biblical perspective. This is a difficult subject of which I have much to learn.

    Thank you,
    Evan.

  9. Russ February 6, 2006 at 6:15 PM #

    Bob:

    I wouldn’t argue that melody alone is insufficient. In fact, I’d be quick to add that vocal melody alone is sufficient even when unaccompanied by musical instruments, but I suspect (the excellent a capella Glad recordings notwithstanding) you would agree that there would be a loss if all instrumental accompaniment of congregational singing were to disappear tomorrow. I can (and have) worshipped in churches that were committed to unaccompanied exclusive Psalmoldy, and believe that is genuine worship, yet I appreciate what hymns and instruments add. The distinction between what is primary and what is permissable is vital, but there is also a danger (and one that I think evangelicalism more often tends toward) of discarding what is inessential yet still valuable. It’s analagous (roughly) to your earlier posts on theology. It might be enough to believe that Jesus loves me and died for my sins, but the simplicity of that belief does not allow one to discard the pursuit of deeper theological understanding.

  10. Bob Kauflin February 6, 2006 at 9:20 PM #

    Russ:

    I was telling my wife on our date night how much I appreciate these kind of interactions. I can’t thank you enough for sharpening my thinking in these areas.

    Yes, I would agree that there would be a loss if “all instrumental accompaniment of congregational singing were to disappear tomorrow.” I also think that evangelicalism tends toward “discarding what is inessential yet still valuable.” I think this frequently happens when we prioritize what is inessential in lieu of what is essential (God’s Word and the Gospel).

    My burden is to guard against making what is inessential sound like it’s essential. In the process, I don’t want to sound like secondary issues are irrelevant and unnecessary. God gave us music to celebrate and reflect His glory. Harmony, rhythm, dynamics, etc. can all contribute to that goal. But at the end of the day, a congregation can sing unison a cappella for 100 years and never lack in its expression of God-honoring biblical worship, only in its appreciation of the many ways God has given us to express that worship musically.

  11. Hannah March 2, 2006 at 2:37 PM #

    Hey there guys! GREAT to have discovered this site, and to find people that are interested in these things! Our church has decided to install a projector and screen. The congregation consists mostly of elderly ladies who are dubious about technology and adverse to change generally (trying not to stereotype here). I’ve been put in charge of writing an article for the parish magazine – ‘benefits of the up and coming screen to our worship’ (or something similar). Any more suggestions for points i could raise within this article???? Any help greatly appreciated :)

  12. saraann1987 April 25, 2008 at 11:46 AM #

    At my church, we have the lyrics projected onto a screen and in the bulletin the page numbers are listed, at least for the songs available in the hymnal. I always pick up the hymnal and look up the song. I love the feel of this timeless book in my hands and being able to see the music. I also enjoy being able to see all the lyrics on one page instead of waiting for the words to progress on the screen.

  13. Bob Kauflin April 25, 2008 at 1:57 PM #

    Saraann,

    You highlight a number of the reasons it can be beneficial to use hymnals. Thanks.

  14. Michael Owens May 25, 2008 at 8:10 PM #

    Is there any reason why the four-part music couldn’t be projected? It would need to be tweaked, but done right, you could have, perhaps, most of the advantages of both.

  15. Bob Kauflin May 25, 2008 at 11:55 PM #

    Michael,

    I think in most cases the size of the notes and lyrics might be too small to be seen if projected. But it’s certainly worth a try.

  16. Rick May 26, 2008 at 9:41 AM #

    Thanks, Bob for the discussion here. I am wondering about what you do, if you do anything, to help the older generation to accept singing off a screen? We have a blend of hymns and choruses, all projected on the screen (and we include the hymn numbers so people can sing out of the book). But, there are several who will not sing anything that is not in the hymnbook. What if the younger generation in our church refused to sing the hymns? I know the biblical principles here, but is there a gentle way that you would approach individuals and encourage/exhort them in this?

    Thank you so much for your ministry and look forward to seeing you in July/August! That is if I don’t get the call to go to Korea and bring home my son!!

    Great is His faithfulness!

    Rick

  17. chad May 27, 2008 at 1:01 PM #

    The congregation where I serve has various styles throughout our worship services. We use both the hymnal and the screen in our worship.

    What is interesting is how emphasis is put on singing in parts and unity. Any thoughts on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s view on singing in parts is actually promoting dis-unity and attracts attention to the individual singer? I think we have all stood around a person that wants to be heard badly so they sing loud and in a different part.

  18. Bill Rayborn August 2, 2008 at 1:50 PM #

    While I still enjoy singing from the hymnal, the screen has one great advantage…that – to me – is perhaps its greatest disadvantage.

    Uhhh White Man speak with forked tongue? No not really.

    Actually my concern about the screen lies not with the screen itself or the lack of part singing…but rather with the WORSHIP LEADER. I’ll explain.

    It was just a few years ago when almost all congregational singing was from the hymnal…a book with maybe 500 selections of which we used maybe 200 with any regularity. Thus, those who attended regularly would get to know those selections fairly well.

    Now, enter the screen, the Internet and the Praise and Worship emphasis. All of a sudden the worship leader has not 500 selections from which to choose…but literally hundreds more that no one has ever heard.

    You still with me?

    Now, the problem is that the worship leader is now exposed to so many choices (and some of them might even be called “good.”)
    that he/she can hardly wait to share with the congregation that, quite frankly, is not nearly as excited about singing something new as the leader is.

    So, what happens many times is the worship leader in his/her excitement to share that new-found joy winds up with the majority of songs being unfamiliar to the average worshiper…and we wonder why no one sings.

    Remember, much of your congregation subscribes to the “I don’t
    know much about music, but I know what I like.” And, being translated to the English is “I don’t know much about music, but I like what I know.”

    Long way around the barn so say we need to both sing that which is familiar and introduce some of the better new songs in most any worship service.

    That and 25 cents will get you a local call at the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.

    =bR=

  19. Joe Chase November 30, 2008 at 3:21 AM #

    We project music and words. We sing all a cappella. Still a hard thing to teach new music because fewer people read music and we don’t have instruments to demonstrate the melody or harmony.

    Still the music we know is beautiful and edifying.

  20. Elen Berry January 17, 2012 at 3:54 PM #

    As one who loves the early hymns of the faith, I’ve been heartbroken with the lack of their inclusion in all but two services I’ve recently visited.

    As a 66 year old , still working full time, and often am comforted by these dear hymns. When I recently had an angiogram, “Standing on the Promises” stayed with me at the diagnosis, the test and recovery.

    When churches exclude these hymns or have the congregation try to sing the “tune” as well as words from a screen it doesn’t work.

    Bottom line for me The Christian rock bands, screens and praise teams remind me of being in a bar. With 20 years of sobriety I don’t need this on Sunday morning.

    FYI: I did find a small church that still sings from the hymnal and has traditional worship services. It is growing and growing….people (and not only older ones) have a need for this.

    Another FYI: Your young people and leaders might listen to a few older members (if you still have any).

    • Bob Kauflin January 17, 2012 at 6:39 PM #

      Hi, Elen. Thanks for leaving a comment. I’m 57, so I’m at least approaching the older member status. I believe it’s important that I not limit myself to singing what I have enjoyed in my life, but also learn to appreciate what engages upcoming generations. Ideally, we can learn from each other, while together seeking to do that which most magnifies Jesus Christ. There’s a tension between singing what’s familiar and singing what might be unfamiliar to me, but speaks to others. I seek to encourage churches to keep both in mind. Hope that’s helpful.

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