Happy with my hymnbook

ConferenceA few weeks ago I was at a conference. It was excellent. The accommodation was good and the food was plentiful. It was good to catch up with old friends and to make some new ones. And there was a lovely unity. Those who chaired sessions or spoke were united in their emphasis on the central truths of the gospel. The doctrine of God’s sovereignty came through powerfully in session after session. The worship was reverent. The preaching was earnest, passionate, winsome. The conference did me good.

Does that mean that there was nothing about the conference that I would have preferred to be different? Of course not. When any group of believers meets, however much they have in common, there will be some things in which they’ll differ from one another. Sure, if I organised a conference and had total control over every single detail, I could say that everything was done just the way I like it. But nobody else would be able to say it – and I suspect that the following year I’d be the only attender…

Let me give you an example of one little thing at the conference that disappointed me. Most of us sang without hymnbooks. All the hymns we sang were taken from the new Christian Hymns. They were fine and we sang them well. But most of us didn’t actually have a copy of the hymnbook in our hands. Instead, the words of the hymns were projected onto a screen. There was a limited supply of hymnbooks available for those who really wanted one and searched around. But the rest of us had to live without.

Now I know that that is increasingly the norm. It is increasingly rare to attend a conference and find that people are singing from the printed page. And it’s not just conferences. More and more churches have decided to dispense with a hymnbook. And I recognise whole-heartedly their right to do so. There is no issue of biblical orthodoxy at stake. The Bible never forbids us from using a projector or says that we must use hymn-books. In fact, if anything is certain, it’s certain that New Testament churches, in a pre-printing world, did not use hymn-books. So the use or non-use of hymnbooks really is an area where churches and Christians can exercise Christian freedom. I would never tell a church that it was wrong to go down this line. I would never refuse to worship with a church or attend a conference because the hymns were projected onto a screen. And I would certainly never dream of starting a campaign to force churches or conferences to restore the hymnbook! The Biblical command is to sing, teaching and edifying one another, making melody in our hearts to the Lord. The Bible says nothing about the mechanics of our singing. Dispensing with the hymnbook didn’t spoil the conference for me. It didn’t even spoil the singing.

And yet I still felt a pang of disappointment. And I did come home thinking, “I hope that we, as a church, will never have to go down that road”. I guess we might have to, one day. I suppose if publishing houses stopped printing hymnbooks entirely, unless we were in a position to publish our own, we’d have to adopt the new technology. But I do hope it won’t be necessary.

Why? Why do I want us to hang onto our hymnbooks? Well, for at least three reasons.

1. Visibility

Christian HymnsThe first reason is simply practical. It’s easy to see a book when you’re holding it in your hands. But when you have a large crowd of people trying to see a screen at the front of the room, almost certainly some will find they can’t. Elderly people or folk with impaired vision may not be able to see the screen at all. Sure, they may have equal problems reading a hymnbook, but at least they can make use of a magnifying glass or other reading aid. Shorter people and especially children will struggle to see the screen over the heads of people in front of them. Young children will need to stand on their chairs, or be lifted to shoulder height by their parents. Otherwise, they’ll finish up detached from the singing and finding other – unhelpful – things to do! Projector-and-screen singing has largely been popularised by churches which don’t encourage children to stay in the worship services of the church.

2. Contentment

The second reason springs from my own deep-rooted suspicion of variety for variety’s sake. Talk to the leaders of churches which have got rid of their hymnbooks. Ask them why they decided to move to the new technology. The answer you’ll hear again and again is that they’ve done it so that they can draw on a wider selection of songs. Churches which have a hymnbook are more or less restricted to a fixed number of hymns or songs. Yes, of course, they can always print off an extra hymn and hand it before the service (we do that from time to time). Or they can put together their own supplement (we have our psalm folders). But most of the time, they will choose from among the 600 or so hymns in their hymnbook.

Churches which use the screen however, have the option of trying out new songs every week. The pastor – or “worship leader” buys a new CD, or goes to a conference; hears a song he’s not heard before, and the following Lord’s Day the church is singing it together. Providing the church has a copyright licence it costs nothing, and it only takes minutes to upload the words. The digital projector has made it possible for churches to be constantly introducing new songs. And many church leaders take it for granted that that’s a good thing.

I’m not so sure. The fact is that most of the new songs are pretty low-grade in terms of quality. Musically they’re shallow. Words-wise they’re shoddy. Theologically they’re superficial. They’re like the songs that dominate the pop charts – they’re not made to last. They’re churned out in a matter of minutes by professional song-writers; they’re instantly popular; within a few weeks or months they’re forgotten – to be replaced by the next big hit. I’m not sure that it does churches or Christians any good to be singing a constant stream of third-rate in-and-out-of-fashion hymns. Wouldn’t a smaller number of solid, time-proven songs be more beneficial in the long run?

I’m not sure that I want to encourage the let’s-constantly-be-changing-and-updating mindset. Yes, that’s the outlook that dominates our society. But should it dominate the church? Advertisers have created the idea that we’ve always got to be throwing away the old and buying the newest, latest thing. Last year’s mobile phone may be perfectly adequate for my needs. But if a newer model is available, I’m made to feel I’m losing out if I didn’t get it. Last season’s football strip still fits my son. But he’ll be sneered at if he hasn’t got the new one with the green stripe on the collar. So we’re tempted to live in a constant discontent, unable to enjoy the good things we have because we’re told there’s something newer and better available. Couldn’t the desire to be singing new hymns every week simply be driven by that worldly discontent? (“The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart” – Screwtape).

I think it’s good for Christians to learn to be satisfied with the “Same old Things”. If I enjoy cornflakes I don’t need to try out every new flavour of cereal that appears on the supermarket shelves. If I’m comfortable with my walking boots I don’t need to scour the hikers’ magazines to find out if there are better ones out there. Let’s be grateful- and contented – with what we have.

Sure, there will be times when something becomes available that is genuinely and obviously better than what we had before. And then if we can afford it, we’ll adopt it. I learned to type on a manual typewriter. From there I moved to an IBM golfball machine. Then to my first primitive Amstrad computer. And now I’m typing this on a laptop using a modern word-processing package. I preach from the ESV, not from Tyndale’s translation. I’m not going to cling to things just because they’re old-fashioned. But neither am I going to buy into things just because they’re new-fangled. As far as I can see, nobody’s yet found a better way of eating a boiled egg than with a spoon. As far as I’m concerned, nobody’s yet found a better material for slippers than sheepskin. When someone tells me that they have, perhaps I’ll try it out. But I’m not going to waste my time searching for ever new and better products. I can give thanks to God and rejoice in what I have.

I think there are enough great hymns in the Grace hymnbook or in Christian Hymns to feed and satisfy a Christian or a church for a lifetime. Yes, every now and again I come across a new hymn that seems to me to be well worth adding and learning. (Look back over our occasional “But it’s not in Grace Hymns” articles in the church bulletin). But I could live perfectly well with what we’ve got.

And at least I actually know many of the hymns in the hymnbook. Just because I sing the same hymns year after year, they’ll stay with me, lodged in my memory. And when I’m an old man, sliding into senility or dementia, or when I’m lying on my death-bed, the words of those hymns will still be there for me. I’d rather have a small number of hymns fixed immoveably in my mind and heart, than a constant stream of hymns sung while they were in fashion and then forgotten.

Christians in many churches are restless, constantly looking for something new and better. If adopting projector-and-screen encourages that restlessness, we’re better off without.

3. Understanding

The third reason springs from my conviction – or my experience – of the positive benefits of a good hymnbook. I don’t only use my hymnbook “in church”. I take it home with me. I read the hymns – and sing them – in my own quiet times. I examine the hymns. I look up the Bible passages that the hymn is based on. I unravel the connections of thought. I ask myself questions. “Why does the hymn-writer use that word?” “Why does he move from talking to the Father in verse 1 to calling on the Son in vs 2?”. I pray through each line of the hymn. “Jesus, lover of my soul – Lord Jesus, do you really love my soul? But my soul is stained with sin. You couldn’t really love a soul like mine could you? But the Bible says you do. But that doesn’t mean that you’re satisfied with my soul as it is… you love my soul so much that you’re determined to save my soul, to cleanse my soul, to make it as holy as you yourself are…” I grow in my understanding of the hymns. So when I’m singing the hymns in church, I’m bringing to the singing all the understanding and enrichment that I’ve gained at home. And whatever I gain from the hymns in church, I take home with me to enrich me further.

When a church gets rid of the hymnbooks and adopts the projector, all that is lost. Verse 1 of a song – plus the chorus – appears on the screen. We sing it. It vanishes and verse 2 appears. We sing it. It vanishes and verse 3 appears. And then the song’s over and we move on to the next. I’ve got no opportunity to study the song. To memorise it. To examine it. To think it through. To turn it into prayer. Once it’s gone from the screen it’s gone from my sight.

Churches which have thrown out their hymnbooks – generally speaking – don’t expect Christians to study hymns. And so they don’t sing hymns that need to be studied. They don’t sing hymns that are full of Bible references that need to be looked up. Or hymns where the language is demanding. Or hymns full of rich doctrine that needs to be digested. I’ve written before about the book of psalms – our God-given model hymnbook. Many of the psalms are complex, hard to understand. They couldn’t be grasped just by singing them through as they’re flashed on a screen. They deserve – and demand – intensive study. I believe we need hymns like that. And if we have hymns like that, we’ll need hymnbooks to use for their study.

Gnats and Camels

Gnats & CamelsSometimes folk visit our church and they’re surprised that we’re still using a hymnbook. They imagine that it’s simply that we’ve never thought of updating our approach. Or we’re hopelessly bound by tradition. But I hope you can see that there are reasons why we do things the way we do.

And let me emphasise again: other believers and other churches are free to do things differently. I’ve already said that I don’t view the use of hymnbooks as a matter of Biblical duty.

I could never be happy in a church which turned away from the Bible as God’s inspired, inerrant, all-sufficient, supreme Word. Or in a church which failed to preach the good news of Jesus Christ, crucified for sinners and risen again, the only Saviour. Or in a church which denied the truths of divine sovereignty, salvation by grace alone. Or in a church which neglected the ordinance of baptism or failed to exercise discipline and guard the Lord’s table.

But could I be a happy member of a church where folk sang their hymns from a screen? I hope so. Could I worship in a church where the Lord’s Supper was celebrated with Ribena and individual glasses? Yes, however odd I think such practices to be. Could I join a church where a collection plate was passed round in services? Where the minister was addressed as Pastor So-and-so? Where the children were taken out of services to be taught separately? Yes, yes, yes. I don’t like any of these practices. I have my own preferences In all of them and I believe those preferences have biblical reasoning behind them. But I cannot say that to take a different position is to disobey non-negotiable biblical commandments.

One of the great challenges for Christians in every generation is to know what are the crucial issues. What is negotiable? What is non-negotiable? When do we say with Luther, “Here I stand, I can do no other”. And when do we say, “Here I’d prefer to stand, but if you prefer to stand over there, I’ll join you!”? We need God’s wisdom to get it right.

“Let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual up building…. Let each of us please his neighbour for his good, to build him up… May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God…” (Romans 13:19; 15:2, 5-7).

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