What the hymnals vs. screens debate says about us

July 30, 2014 - By 
Amazing Grace

Last week there was a flurry of activity on the internet over this popular article that gave reasons for using hymnals, as opposed to screens, in worship. I shared the article on my Facebook page with the following comment:

I’m not sure I agree with much of this article. It’s amazing how passionate people can be about their preferences.

The second part of my comment was primarily aimed at the comments section of the blog post. I felt the author was well reasoned and balanced in his approach, though I disagreed with most of his points.

If you wonder where I stand on the hymnals vs. screens debate, I mostly take a middle of the road position. I have nothing against hymnals (I have some dear friends in the hymnal production industry). In fact,  I collect hymnals, use them for reference and inspiration, and absolutely love hymnody and hymn histories. I, too, see the advantages of screens, and though they are often paired with lack of music education, dumbing down (or even loss) of corporate worship, and the use of only modern songs that nobody knows, I simply don’t see it that way. In my experience, screens have actually aided and strengthened congregational singing. So if a church gets to make the choice, hymnals and screens are both very good options. (And I even wrote a somewhat hotly debated article in favor of screens.)

As someone pointed out on my Facebook page, screens and hymn books are both merely technology. They are both simply tools. To quote, the goal is “to use what you can to aid the congregation in worship…. Don’t worship the aids.”

That’s a good point that many of us need to remember.

I’d like to share some interesting figures. Typically, when I share a link to an article on my Facebook page (not my personal page), I normally have a reach of around 1,000 people. As I understand it, the “reach” is the number of people who would have had that link displayed in their news feed. (This is controlled and regulated by Facebook, not me.) People may have ignored it or skipped over it, but they at least saw it. (I have over 3,200 “likes” on my page.) When I shared last week’s article in favor of hymnals, it was no surprise that the reach was far greater—to the tune of over 10,500.

Here are some general observations that I think the hymnals vs. screens debate says about us:

1. There is still a high level of interest in this topic.

That actually blows my mind. I personally worked through the issue over ten years ago, but in many places, church going people are still thinking the issue through.

2. People have an invested interest in their worship.

This should please those of us in church music leadership. The fact that so many people are going to read these topics, and even chime in, is really a good thing. This should prompt us to be thoughtful, biblical, intentional and expedient in our corporate worship decisions.

3. Some people have drawn some incorrect conclusions regarding the debate.

If you think a church that uses screens doesn’t sing the old hymns, you may be wrong. If you think that one of the primary purposes of a hymnal in corporate worship is music education, then you may be wrong.

Who says singing in unison is bad or inferior? Who says staying with a hymnal is limiting? Some of the most frequently used arguments for either side tend to be some of the most fallacious arguments.

4. Some people have become overly passionate about the wrong thing.

People are very opinionated about this topic. I mean very opinionated. Though there have been some, I’ve seen very little middle-of-the-road opinions about it. People are either strongly for it or strongly against it.

Some of you need to take a step back. Just because you have your likes and dislikes doesn’t mean you need to destroy someone else’s opinions or feelings on the matter. Some people think that the louder they are the more accurate their position is. Do they really think that that sort of behavior changes anyone’s opinion? No, it does not.

5. Some people take it a step further, and make agreement with their position a test of godliness.

In other words, “if you don’t agree with me, you’re in sin.” Is the questions of hymnals vs. screens really a right vs. wrong issue? No, it is not. It is merely a preference issue.

If you flatter me (read the sarcasm there) by telling me I’m in sin because I use screens, that’s going to shut down the whole conversation. That’s rude, uncalled for, and frankly unintelligent. And I fear it’s this type of rhetoric that has pushed many people away from Christ and the church.

In conclusion, I almost titled this article “Hymnals vs. Screens: What God Says.” My first sentence was going to be: “Nothing.” And that’s the truth. God doesn’t say anything on the matter. I’m certain it would be wise to follow God’s lead, and not make a big deal out of something that the scriptures don’t make a big deal about.

What am I missing here? What does the hymnals vs. screens debate say about us? (Fair warning: I will be leery to press “approve” if your comment is a rant about why hymnals are better, or why screens are better.)

Posted In:  Church Music Ministry
  • Rockinmamelouise July 30, 2014 at 8:20 pm

    I sing alto and I really like to have the notes to follow. My daughter has perfect pitch and she didn’t think I should be struggling with singing. She tried to sing parts and said she understands now. Also, many of the contemporary songs, for me, at least, I can’t find a harmony. I am also wondering has any congregation ever been allowed to vote on the type of music or the use of a screen vs hymnal. When I look over the congregation I don’t see many people singing. I hear the worship team singing, but not the congregation. I have observed this is several churches.

  • Part of me wants to share this article on my feed, but another part of me says the majority of people on my friend list will look at it and think, people seriously argue over using screens in their worship services?? It really is silly the things we make issues out of. And sadly, this type of debate is exactly what causes unbelievers to look at us and want no part of Christianity.

  • You’re 100% correct. People focus way too much on the material and forget about the spiritual. The people who debate this so vehemently obviously have never visited a missionary or underground church where they don’t have ANYTHING but the Holy Spirit to lead them in worship. Those Sinners!

  • BTW Rockinmamelouise. I think the main reason you don’t see anybody singing in the congregation is because the worship team. They can sing loud and proud and you really can’t tell,without looking around, that no one is singing. In the contrary if you have a single “song leader” it is very obvious if he is singing by himself. I find in our church at least 85% of the people are singing that I see.

  • It should be the content that matters and not the method. Oh try this, put the hymn page on the screen!!! Would that make everyone happy? No. People are dying and going to hell and we have what they need, the Good News! It’s sad that so called Christians put more time into something like this then telling the lost about the Saviour.

  • I completely agree. Amazing that hymnals vs. screens is still such a hot topic… in 2014.

  • I like your point, Scott. Like I said, people need to just take a step back.

  • Our focus betrays our true love. Appreciated your comment.

  • I don’t know. Some churches have worship teams and the congregation sings out well. I’m just not convinced you can blame it on a worship team, or a song leader, etc. I think it has more to do with the heart of the worshipers.

  • Off topic, but for many of the “contemporary” (modern) songs, I can’t find the melody. Ha! (Appreciated your comment.)

  • As much as I love hymns from the hymnals, when the author uses the words “SHOULD still be using hymnals” it comes across as dogmatic. I wouldn’t say we should use hymnals anymore than I would say we should be singing the latest and greatest top 40 praise and worship songs “God has given us”. If there is no Biblical principle to base your preferences on then please don’t use the word “should”. We have enough things we actually should be doing that we need to be concerned about.

  • Benjamin Archibald July 31, 2014 at 12:04 am

    I appreciate the thrust of this article. I am a young music pastor and our church recently (within the last year) started putting all the words to all of our songs on the screen while also announcing hymn numbers for those who like to use the hymnal. I have always been a huge proponent of balance in all issues of music in worship and I think that this article conveys the balance we need in a great way. I think that the hymnals vs. screens debate screams of some of the same things that Christ dealt with from the Pharisees. Tradition is great, but when we begin focusing on tradition instead of Christ then we have a problem of idolatry in our worship. Thanks for this article James! It was an encouraging read.

  • The article you referenced missed the most important reason for hymnals: something “spiritual” to look at (apart from the Bible, of course) when the sermon is boring!

    The church I work for simply does not have a appropriate place for a screen. So we use bulletin inserts and make sure that a new song is used in enough different places to be familiar quickly. I prefer the hymnal-can tolerate the screen, if I have to. Now, if you took away all of the hymns and just left chorus type music….then I would have something to say.

  • Agreed, Amy! I thought that too. What does the debate say about us you ask? I believe it tells the world we are not unified in Christ. That it doesn’t take much for us to completely take our eyes off Him and split hairs over tradition vs progression. I loved this article. I hope it produces a stirring in our hearts to humbly accept the differences / preferences of our brothers and sisters in Christ and move on. We’re in a war. Jesus deserves our unified focus for the work He’s given us to do.

  • I am the pianist for a small (about 75 people) Mennonite congregation which has a long long long history of four-part congregational singing, both a capella and with accompaniment. We have also incorporated praise songs into our worship as well as singing with guitar and banjo (yes, banjo) accompaniment. Our congregation is so dedicated to four-part singing that even when we are singing praise songs from words on a screen, by the second verse, the congregation will be singing in parts they made up by ear. We sing praises. It’s just what we do.

    Recently, our congregation hosted a regional meeting for Mennonite churches throughout the Pacific Northwest. Our worship services (planned by others, not us) included hymns from the hymnal led by a song leader as well as praise songs on a screen led by a worship band. I listened carefully to what was happening during the service. When hymns were being sung, the roof was being lifted off the church. When praise songs were being sung, the volume dropped by half and I heard many comments later that the praise songs were too frustrating for many to sing because they didn’t know the tunes and had no music to follow. At that event, there was no time for teaching the praise songs to the congregation, most of whom were not familiar with them. I have no doubt that they would have become favorites (as they have become favorites of mine) had people been given an opportunity to learn them. I think there is a place for all kinds of music in worship, and people need to be willing to be gracious to each other–on both sides.

  • The question in considering the two sides really is “what direction are you headed?” With either choice, or even with a middle-of-the-road choice, there will be an end result. Many times we make decisions without truly thinking about where it may lead us in ten, twenty, thirty years and beyond. Every choice we make leads somewhere.

  • This is a discussion about (1) opinions–which everyone has, and (2) change–which no one claims to like. You’re right in that neither of those is clearly defined in scripture (kind of like the music styles that go with the arguments), and so it is one of the areas where we must apply Biblical principles. There is certainly no cause for division. Our church has chosen to go the “both” route, and I’m thankful. It has definitely INCREASED the participation from many who find the hymnals difficult to read (too small or too confusing). It has NOT determined the style of music that we will use. And we have given thought to “where it will lead us” and the end result. We want the end result to be that we truly honor and glorify Jesus Christ and worship HIM–not entertain the crowd. All of us need to prayerfully consider not only the issues in question, but the end result of bickering and arguing over personal preferences.

  • Well said James. I agree with this 100%. We us hymnals and screens as appropriate and have no problems with either. My biggest problem is lack of patience with people who are so dogmatic about such a little thing. The important thing is that we worship and praise God. It isn’t just hymnal/screen. Some people are just as adamant about other things in the church that just aren’t important. This probably isn’t pleasing to God and is just another tool of Satan to prevent true worship.

  • YES!!! You can also put the words of the old hymns on the screen, which we do. Just helps focus on the words of the song when you’ve sung the notes for years. I personally have found new meaning in songs I’ve sung forever by doing this. I’d never really concentrated on the words.

  • I like this too. What we need to do is allow the Holy Spirit to lead our worship; and to worry about winning the lost to our Savior. Step back and think.

  • I agree with most of what you say. The only point I found troublesome was this one:

    “In conclusion, I almost titled this article “Hymnals vs. Screens: What
    God Says.” My first sentence was going to be: “Nothing.” And that’s the
    truth. God doesn’t say anything on the matter. I’m certain it would be
    wise to follow God’s lead, and not make a big deal out of something that
    the scriptures don’t make a big deal about.”

    In an obvious overstatement, one reason that the Bible is silent on this topic specifically, is that both technologies (hymnals and screens) were absent in that day. To have more directly tied your point to a then-present day parallel might have been more effective.

  • Good point. Thanks for your comment.

  • Thanks for your really kind words, Benjamin. When we began using screens, we too announced the hymn numbers. We don’t announce them any more, but we do include them (if they are included in our pew hymnal) on the screens. That way, folks who prefer the hymnal are welcomed to use them.

  • Janet: I’m impressed with the description you give of your church’s congregational singing. You are so blessed to be a part of such a wonderful church. I truly believe you are experiencing a little piece of heaven on earth!

  • True enough, every choice does lead somewhere. But I have heard too many people use the “direction” argument whenever something new is proposed. And, whether you choose hymnals, screens, or both, all of those choices can lead to a good direction or to a bad direction. You may have more you might want to elaborate on, but I try to avoid the “direction” argument trap.

  • You bring up a huge point: the hymnals/screens issue doesn’t have to have anything to do with music style. While often it does, there are plenty of examples where it doesn’t. For example, we use some modern (or, contemporary) songs that are not found in our hymnal, but we also use older songs that didn’t make the cut in our hymnal. These are two separate issues, and we have to be careful not to conflate the issues. Thanks for your feedback.

  • It can certainly be a distraction from the main thing. Appreciate your feedback.

  • You’re probably right. (I never claimed to be much of a writer. I’m a lowly church musician!)

    But that paragraph speaks to the point that some people want to make it a matter of right and wrong, or biblical and unbiblical. I just wanted to point out that they can’t do that, because it’s not in the Bible.

  • It is a gift to be part of all the voices lifting in praise, and one I treasure.

    On a related note, I am so enjoying your arrangements; they fit perfectly in with our services and sound so fresh. As someone who is an adequate, although not accomplished, pianist, I appreciate very much having arrangements that I can play easily without a lot of practice time, which is sometimes hard to come by. Thank you!

  • So glad you can use them!

  • Hi James……what was the original article that sparked this reply/ post?

  • There is a link to it on the first line of text at the top of this page. (It’s kind of hard to see.)

  • Thank you.

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