Singing together in our living room yesterday (Palm Sunday) during the ongoing pandemic, it occurred to me just how difficult it is to replicate the entertainment ethos in our living rooms--no soloists "leading" us, no band, no amplifiers, no voice enhancement technology, no mood lighting, in some cases, no fog machine. How did the underground house churches do it? How do they do church in Nigeria or North Korea without the hipster band? The following is an excerpt from GOD SINGS! my new release on recovering the biblical ethos of worship in our congregational singing:
GONE AWAY HYMNAL
dear pastor friend of mine, lamenting the loss of hymnals in so many churches, refers to lyrics projected up on a screen as “off-the-wall songs.” He’s not a fan. But the popular trend is definitely against him. Most churches see it as a giant step forward to leave their hymnals moldering in the basement of the church, relics of a bygone era, and good riddance.
The rationale is that people are looking up, not fumbling with the pages of an old book. And what about the visitors, unbelievers that come to church? It’s way easier for them to just look at the words up on the screen. No hunting for the right page number. No confusing musical score to distract them. It’s huge progress to leave those hymnals behind us.
Still more, it is argued that the old hymnal doesn’t include all the cool new songs. We’re stuck singing lyrics written hundreds of years ago by a bunch of old dead guys. Ewww. The new way lets us add new songs any time we want. Just get the lyrics to the tech guys; they can plunk them into power point slides, and we can sing the latest new thing next week.
But what have we lost by giving up our hymnals? We surrendered scrutiny. Publishing a hymnal is an enormous task, requiring careful organizing of the hymns by themes and biblical texts, also requiring an editorial committee of people chosen because of their literary and theological training and experience. Hymnal editors spent years compiling the best hymns for congregations to sing.
Giving up our hymnals takes all that scrutiny away and leaves us at the mercy of the latest new songs. We need more scruples about the new material. It’s way too easy to fabricate a worship song and introduce it next Sunday; no vetting, no scrutiny, no gatekeepers, no hymnal editors.
When we abandoned our hymnals we also abandoned literary and theological standards of orthodoxy and excellence. All too often, emotional nonsense, however well-intentioned, supplants a timeless hymn like Bernard of Clairvaux’s “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” that every Christian needs to sing in corporate worship several times a year and in family worship at least as often. Instead, we endure the singing of vacuous, repetitive lyrics that fall far beneath what is appropriate and well-pleasing to God—the kind of lyrics that used to be in our hymnals because they had undergone the rigor of the centuries.
Without that rigorous scrutiny we may find ourselves joining in a catchy Disneyland song about the world singing God’s love, “and we’ll all join hands,/every woman, every man,/we’ll sing His love.” This sounds like it was penned by a universalist Unitarian worship leader. True, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God, but unbelievers won’t be joining hands and singing his love. They will be weeping and wailing and gnashing their teeth at his wrath.
The hymnal helped us learn our theology, get it not only into our heads but into our hearts. The off-the-wall-song phenomenon hastens theological decline and illiteracy, leaving us vulnerable not only to doxological drivel but to blatant doctrinal error and apostasy.
GONE AWAY BIBLE
Another yet more pernicious loss when we abandoned our hymnals for the power point projection screen, is that in doing so we abandoned our Bibles. When we have the screen up there already, and the tech guys have the power point program at their fingertips, it’s simple to project the biblical text up on the screen too. Consequently, few people bring their Bibles to church anymore. Why bother? I realize that this too is motivated by good intentions, even gospel intentions; we want visitors who are unfamiliar with a Bible to see the biblical text under consideration effortlessly, without the distraction of an actual Bible in hand.
Getting your Bible off the screen instead of from, well, the Bible, is the equivalent of taking a nutrition pill instead of pulling your chair up to the dining table and feasting on a slab of grass-fed beef steak with all the delectable accoutrements.
An unintended consequence of getting our Bible from a screen, is that many do not know how to find their way around their Bibles (many can’t even find where they last laid their physical copy of the Bible; it’s got to be here somewhere). I wonder how many millennials could even find Zephaniah 3:17, back there in the clean pages, in a physical Bible, with pages, margins, a concordance, maps—you know—a real book.
I began annotating the margins of my Bible(s) in college, cross referencing, adding hymn lyrics on similar themes, quotations from Puritans and Reformers, and other great preachers since. My Bible is precious to me. First and last, because it is the Word of God, but also, because I own it. It is the same copy of it I read over and over. It has my marginalia in it. I can reread passages that I read and dated in times of celebration and thanksgiving, and in times of grief and sorrow.
Forfeiting our hymnals in favor of an ephemeral projection screen is one of the greatest contributors to biblical illiteracy. We are no longer a generation of Bible Christians. Oh, sure, we have the app on our phones, with all the notifications popping up to distract us, but we don’t truly own our Bibles.
The loss of the Bible leaves us vulnerable to the theology of the new social revolutionaries, shouting their unflinching doctrinal priorities in our faces. One of the ways we can tell when we are being more shaped by our culture than being shapers of it, is when the Bible’s language and themes begin to sound odd to our ears, when we feel like we need to make apologies for the biblical authors, worse yet, for the Holy Spirit. They didn’t really mean to put it that way. Couldn’t they have been more sensitive to the priorities of our culture?
This is yet another important reason the Church must continue singing the psalms and the best hymns of our spiritual forebears. Then, after our minds, hearts, and imaginations have been thoroughly shaped by biblical and historical doxology, only then are we equipped to contribute new appropriate hymns for this generation of Christ’s body to sing.
HYMNS AS POETRY
In the course of my research, writing, and teaching about hymns over the last decades I have learned many wonderful things about hymns, hymn writers, and hymnody—and every time I open the hymnal (usually the Trinity) I learn something new.
I love singing hymns. I love the very best of our hymn lyrics from the last 1,800 years or so, and I have come more and more to love them not only as heartfelt passionate expressions of praise to God but as the best of English poetry...
Douglas Bond is author of twenty-eight books, including The Resistance set in enemy occupied Normandy, and two-time Grace Award book finalist; he directs the Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, is an award-winning teacher, podcaster, speaker at conferences, and leader of Church history tours in Europe. Visit his website for special buy-3-get-1-free book deals and study guides during the virus lock down at bondbooks.net