The Great Hymnal Debate

In a recent post going around the social media-sphere of pious Christians - especially those who hold that orthodoxy is better than modernity in worship atmosphere - Tim Challies brings up a topic that was a hot topic of debate more than twenty years ago.

The idea of a hymnal vs. modern worship with *gasp* words on a screen.

Really? Are we still talking about this in 2017? Apparently we are. And since Mr. Challies - who has a serious way of bothering me in his attempts at explaining things - doesn't know me, but several of my friends have shared this post. I need to address what is dead wrong about his post. To sum up, Mr. Challies discusses the "things we lost" when we stopped using hymnals in churches, and subsequently describes things that aren't exactly a "biblical defense" of his ideas.

Now, let me give this disclaimer up front - a a woman, with an evangelical background who leads worship in a modern setting - I know there will be a lot of people (men mostly) who will dismiss me out of hand because of my female-hood AND the fact that I'm coming from modern worship leading. BUT....if you hang with me, let me defend myself before you toss me out with the bathwater. First, I grew up in a hymnal holding church - it's where I learned that worship music isn't about the music. I love old hymns and sing them still all the time. I own scads of music that includes old and new music. In fact, some of my favorite modern worship songs integrate old hymn lyrics and melodies. I love orthodox recitations and high church services as much as I do modern worship sets. I went to a Catholic University and feel at home in a home southern church as I do in a Latin Mass (which I've attended in Europe). There are times and places for all forms of worship. Each style venerates God in their own unique and beautiful way. I am more than just a worship leader, I have studied two degrees worth of History Degrees, and learned how to think critically and have been mentored by Pastors from Dallas Theological Seminary in biblical thinking. So hopefully this gives me a tiny bit credibility from whoever reads this.

The easiest way to discuss the Challies post is to take his arguments point by point.

1) "We lost an established body of songs" - Actually, we did not. Those songs still exist, easily accessible on the internet in print (usually for free), recorded, for purchase of free streaming on any number of services and at most local libraries. Song writers still use them as inspiration, re-record them, work them into fresh arrangements, or add portions of them into other newly written words. Challies' post states that songs were added to the hymnal after "vetting and careful consideration" - I'm not sure that it's anything beyond copy rights bought by sustained writers of the time that each hymn publishing house would include. Because songs like Amazing Grace have no copy right - having been established long before "vetting" and some hymnals carry praise choruses written by the Gaithers and others do not - this is simply a dollar bill cost thing. Hymnals aren't some magical church book. Hymnals were not printed until at LEAST the 18th century in mass quantities and only then for the wealthiest people. It wasn't until the turn of the century that they started cropping up in churches en masse as established now, and even that came to a halt during the Depression. They simply weren't affordable for small congregations. The early church did not have printed hymnals they carried from house church to house church. The Medieval church goers could not even read by and large, so they definitely did not use hymnals. The Hymnal as Challies argues is actually very much a modern utility of the 20th century church. Or if I want to be generous, the 19th century, which is fair as well - but Jesus wasn't advocating for hymn books.

2. "We lost a deep knowledge of our songs" - I disagree with this. Deep knowledge is a completely subjective concept. Do we know a song like "Amazing Grace" any less deep because it's lyrics are projected on a screen? I find that doubtful. The biggest argument Challies has here is that we "add new songs whenever" we want to.  Well, let me address this from a Biblical point of view. Revelation 14:3 states that those worshiping before the Throne of God were "singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed." And the glut of verses from the Psalmist refer to singing "new songs" because God was and is constantly doing something NEW. If we consistently sit on what God has done in the past - while good and honorable (altars) but fail to recognize what God is continuing to do in the story of history...we fail at recognizing God's majestic grace. He didn't die on the Cross for us to sit in the past and never experience his grace as new. His mercies are new every morning. Isaiah repeatedly states that God is doing new things. David repeats the theme again and again - Look what God did and also...look what he is doing now. I will again bring up the point that the early church did not have a hymnal to 'have a deep knowledge' of songs. They learned them as they progressed in the community. Not every worship experience requires us to be able to sing along. Some profound worship experiences can be simply letting a song be sung over us, letting those words (new or old) be placed on us like a comforting blanket, lifting encouragement or balm to soothe hurts. I am a singer but I don't always sing. Sometimes I just sit and listen. Because that's a part of worship too...learning, growing, stopping.

3 & 4) "We lost the ability to do harmonies" and "We lost the ability to sing skillfully" - I'm addressing these two collectively because it is essentially the same argument. Challies' argument here is "The loss of the hymnal and the associated rise of worship bands has reduced our ability to harmonize and in that way, to sing to the fullest of our abilities...this leads to our music being dominated by a few instrumentalists and perhaps a pair of mic-ed up vocalists while the larger congregation pays only a meager role."  - I didn't agree with much of the post I'm rebutting but I will say that I do agree that by and large complexity in worship music is scarce. However. That is not always a bad thing. This last Christmas, I had the blessed joy to go to a local Presbyterian churches annual "Handel's Messiah" sing-a-long. They invite the community to join in a choral/community singing through of the Messiah along with some carols commemorating the season - accompanied by a full orchestra, and organ. It was so fun to go back to my college Choral days of reading music and singing really difficult pieces with the strangers on the pew next to me. It was joyful and fun, but you know what I also find joyful and fun? Simple songs that even the least musical person in my congregation can join along to. Challies' argument here is that you have to be a talented musician able to sing harmonies and skillfully to have a valuable worship experience. I disagree here adamantly.

At my current church, there is a young man and an old man, both in wheel chairs, barely able to utilize their bodies to their fullest potential and their singing voices...neither professional nor skillful....and they sing LOUD. And I stand on stage and see the young man in the front row where his parents wheel him and I can her his voice over the sound of the instrumentation but his face is full of joy.. He is one of my favorite things about leading worship - If I could put him on stage so others could see - which we have asked him to join us at least once and he brings us to tears. There is also a group of teenagers that come to second service with their youth leader and when the music starts, they light up. They lead ME in worship while I serve them by singing from stage. It's a community effort. It's not less because I have the microphone and they don't. Now, some churches do focus on the "performance" aspect of worship - which I do have issue with but that's another argument. The idea that failure to be skillful on the every man level is a slap in the face to genuine worship. Simple worship songs are simple for purpose  to make it easy for average singers or less to sing along. In my small (20-40ppl) church, there were those who are afraid to sing complex songs - they simply did not sing. To say hymnals create the "ability" to sing skillfully is kind of laughable. People who sing skillfully work at it. And trust me, I work HARD to learn harmonies, work with incredibly talented people I serve under to learn and stretch my ability beyond simply singing skillfully.

Do we focus on excellence in our musicianship on stage? YES. Why? Because we are doing it for God and he is honored when we do the best and offer the best on the altar. So I walk on that platform and I lay down - not just skillful singing, but my whole heart. Because worship as a musical activity should be done well - I agree with this - but it's not just about ability. It's about the heart, the offering you're giving. I could stand in front of a crowd and sing Amazing Grace with all the glory of Rene Fleming's voice and still not offer worthy worship to the King. Challies fails to understand this. A good worship leader - whether leading a hymn from a hymnal or a praise song  from a screen - should be inviting people to join them at the throne.

5) We lost the ability to have the songs in our homes. - This is ...and I apologize for the harshness here - ludicrous. Let me go back to stating that hymnals are printed books and that was rare until the 19th century and only for the wealthy. Secondly, with the dawn of modern music streaming services, digital music, cd players in cars, blue tooth speakers, etc. Music is actually more accessible in home than ever before. In fact, there's a guitar in my living room right now I can pick up at any time and sing songs if I so choose. We use satellite worship music stations when my family is home at my parents' home and listen to songs constantly. In 21st century America - we have more access to music. But that isn't the point - Music in the home comes from the HEART. A family in central Africa does not use hymnals. In fact, i'd be shocked if they even knew what one was. They worship in song the way that they worship. A book of compiled music does not stop or end worship music in one's home or life.

Jesus explains himself that worship isn't about music. It's about the heart, about truth. in John 4:23-24 "But the hour is coming and is now here when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and Truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth." Hymnals or not - worship isn't about how original the words on the page are, the music or how many times a phrase is repeated. It is about what you are offering to God - and it has to be more than the music.

And this argument is so hard for me to discuss because - every culture, every iteration of worshipers should be free to worship as they see fit. I'm not saying hymnals are bad. They are beautiful & I used them as a young person, I still have a couple of dusty ones in my home. I listen to hymns re-arranged in modern instruments, I listen to them sung by opera singers sometimes, I sing them on days when I wake up with an old melody in my brain. I have hymn lyrics on walls in my home. But I also sing modern worship songs, I listen to them. I repeat phrases like "you are good" or "oh how you love us" - because sometimes, like a kindergartner - I need repetitive, simple reminders. And you know what? That's ok. I don't need a hymnal for that.

What I remember most from a trip to Nepal to an orphanage is sitting in the back of a room full of teenagers singing worship songs scrawled on a piece of paper repeating the words to a simple praise song "I love you, Lord" badly out of key, way out of tempo and all over the place....but these kids? They worshiped more than some folks I see in some churches in the USA.

My point is this. Hymnals aren't bad. But neither are screens with lyrics on them. In fact, sometimes, maybe we need to scrawl the words on paper and sing from there. Or maybe we need to stop forcing people to worship the way that we are comfortable with and start being a little more open to what God is looking for - worship in spirit and truth. Because I'm pretty sure if you walked into a church in an indigenous area, you're not going to find hymnals, power points or "Skillful" harmonies either. Hymns, psalms and praise songs are all theologically accurate and valid forms of worship. Scripture doesn't say "thou shalt sing only by hymnal." And to value that higher than other forms of worship denigrates every form of worship that is non-American too.


Popular Posts