What is to follow is a response from me to the article, Why Churches Should Ditch The Projector Screens and Bring Back Hymnals that was posted to www.thefederalist.com back in June of last year (2019). I have seen this article numerous times before, and had debated on responding, but it seems to have resurfaced again, and so I felt a respectful push back would do the discussion some good. And that is what I intend to do.
Please note that this article is not intended to attack traditional churches, or solely support contemporary churches, but to directly address the points made by this author in his article. As a worship leader, I have a deep appreciation for all aspects of church musical worship, so I appreciate and see the value in it all.
That said, before I dive in to the points made in this article and my thoughts on them, I did want to first address the author, Mr. Tom Raabe.
To The Author
Mr. Raabe, I feel it is unfortunate , and was saddened to see that you started your article the way that you did with a snarky and undercutting tone that belittles anyone right out of the gate that might disagree with the thesis you posed regarding hymnals and projectors. Not only do you start off this way, but throughout your entire piece you interject unnecessary jabs at those on the other side of this discussion, which honestly, leaves a bad taste in the mouth of those who are trying to simply understand your reasoning behind this article.
Reality is, I think your piece could’ve communicated the same thoughts on hymnals and projectors without delving into mockery and belittlement of your readers who may disagree with you.
As Christians, I think it is important that we, who are influencing Christian culture through writing, speaking, and teaching (and other ways), take the time to ensure that we are fostering respectful dialogue. I realize that I have done a poor job of that in the past, and I’m doing my best to heed the voice of God on the matter, and the clear commands that he has given in His word to us to be ready and willing to defend what we believe, but do it in a respectful and gentle way (1 Peter 3:15-16). So I apologize, first and foremost, for the tone I have used in the past that was less than admirable.
I realize that you and I fall on different sides of this discussion, but I would hope that all parties involved could maintain a sense of respect and honor toward one another as we discuss our disagreements, and hopefully help one another, and the church at large, find a way forward that brings honor to God and fosters unity among the body.
That said, let me dive right into to the various points raised by this article.
Point 1: Informality at Church is Increasing
In this section, I can only assume that through what you compared as being on the decrease and what was on the increase, that these are the things that you consider to be “non-formal”:
- Projected images
- Shouting “Amen”
- Wearing shorts
I think the understanding of “formal” vs “informal” is largely within the eye of the beholder. In reality, what you are comparing is “the old way of doing things” and “the new way of doing things”. As culture shifts so too will musical tastes, fashion, technology, etc…so it is understandable that we will see those kinds of shifts within the church as well.
Thankfully, drums, projectors, and wearing shorts are not biblical precepts or commands just like organs, hymnals, and wearing suits and dresses are not biblical precepts or commands. They are simply a reflection of society and cultural trends at this time.
Now, while shouting “Amen” is not a biblical precept or command, I’m not entirely sure why “Shouting Amen” was cited as being informal. This one is odd to me. But, lets look at the word, “amen”.
Amen = “uttered at the end of a prayer or hymn, meaning ‘so be it’.
In other words, when people are shouting amen, just like with hymns or prayers, they are saying “I agree with this!”. I am not entirely sure how this could equate to being “informal”. I would actually be more encouraged to hear that word because at least you know who in the room agrees with what’s being taught….not that shouting “amen” is required to communicate that. But it just isn’t something I would immediately classify as “informal”.
That said, I’m sure that Michal, daughter of Saul and wife to King David, probably had similar thoughts racing through her mind when she saw her husband dancing before the Lord in the streets of Jerusalem as he led the ark of the covenant back into the city (see 2 Samuel 6:16-23).
With indignation she said, “How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ female servants, as one of the vulgar fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!”
And to this apparent disdain for what she thought was behavior too unbecoming or “informal” for a king, David responded:
“It was before the Lord…and I will celebrate before the Lord. I will make myself yet more undignified than than this…”
In other words, what we do in the Church gathering in our “worship” isn’t intended for the approval of or admiration of other people…it’s for God and God alone.
Drums are an Old and New Testament instrument, that were widely used in worship. If you don’t like them, that’s fine…but don’t try and draw a distinction between instrument choices and labeling one as being more “formal” and acceptable while another less formal and unacceptable.
Furthermore, how we dress going to church isn’t really a concern for others either. God doesn’t look at the outward appearance, but at our hearts (1 Samuel 16:7). Should we be conscious, to some degree, that what we wear is not too revealing? Absolutely…but that’s more of a question of modesty than formality.
Something to also consider; your assumptions of what is “formal” and “informal” is entirely based on a western understanding of formality. If you were to visit churches all around the world, they would all look different. You may not find any instruments there, or instruments you’ve never seen before. You may find people dressed in clothing that you would never wear in public, much less to church. You may find books with music, projectors, or nothing at all…just singing from memory.
But, that is the beautiful thing about the body of Christ…we are colorful and diverse and this should be celebrated, not pitted against one another.
Judging the worship of others is something God takes very serious. Just ask Michal who found herself barren, and unable to have children (v23), all because she looked down on David for how he chose to worship God.
That is not a place I would like to be, and with all due respect and honor, I would caution you and others to consider the same. Is that really the side we want to be on? Judgmental and harsh toward those who worship God differently from us?
That said, I would agree that those on the other side of you ought to take caution as well. Not only could they be guilty of judging those on your side of the aisle, but they could engage in worship practices that are not biblical, just the same as anyone. But let the Bible be that guide, not our personal preferences about attire, instrumentation, and how lyrics are presented. You just won’t find a guide in the bible for those things.
Point 2: Hymnals are Disappearing
“Hymnals are a wonderful legacy of Western Christianity.”
Hymnals are indeed a legacy, in as much as it represents the technology that the Church had available to it to provide the Church world with a collection of songs they could include in their musical worship. As you rightly pointed out, hymnals first appeared in the 1830’s.
With that in mind, serious question, what did the church in America use before hymnals for the 1830 some odd years prior to that?
I took a look…hymnals came into being, really, around 1532. Which means the church existed for over 1,500 years without a hymnal.
I took a class in college when I was studying worship ministry called “Worship History”, and I learned that before hymnals music wasn’t even allowed in most churches. And before that scrolls were used as a means of writing things down. And before that clay tablets.
So if hymnals didn’t exist prior to the 1830’s in the US, and 1532 elsewhere, it could be argued that hymnals represent a small portion of worship music history in the 2,000+ years of church history. This doesn’t ‘make them insignificant.
But let us understand what they really are…a tool. If projectors existed 200 years ago, or even 2,000 years ago I’m sure the Church, and dare I say Jesus, would’ve been using them then too. But they only had printed material. So hymnals were what they came up with.
“Churchgoers used to proudly carry their own hymnals to church.”
Serious question, why was this something to be proud of?
God doesn’t look to kindly on the proud (Psalm 138:6 “For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly, but the haughty he knows from afar.”) So why carry something around with pride? Is the pride in the book itself? Is the pride in the words? Is the pride in the God that book was designed to help worship through music?
I don’t know that this makes a great case in support of hymnals. If anything, it makes a case that we have a pride issue in the church that we need to deal with.
“Another study from 2011 estimated that two-thirds of Protestant churches employed a large-screen projection system.”
As I attempted to point above, technology has changed and improved over time. Churches are going to introduce technological advances into their gatherings as these things happen.
There was a time when churches didn’t have central heat and air. A very long time in fact. Do we suddenly go back to those days because that’s how the churches used to be? Probably not because technology has made it so we can endure hot and cold temperatures more comfortably. Likewise, projectors have made the mass dispersal of information and music easier in a church gathering. This isn’t problematic, it’s just the reality of life.
Point 3: Screens Don’t Belong In Church
“To the first point: they’re horrifically ugly.”
This is a largely subjective perspective, and not one I find to be very convincing. Perhaps you don’t find it attractive, but there are many churches who have successfully employed the use of projection systems and worked it into the beautiful ornate structure that pre-dated the system.
You rightly point out the practical nature of projection systems, however, when you point out that they help to elevate worshipers heads, amplifies the voices, and frees the hands. You also rightly point out that members with vision issues can often see the words on the screen better than in the hymnals, which is interesting because earlier in the article you suggested this was more easily overcome with large print hymnals.
But as previously mentioned, the aesthetics of it all is purely subjective, and ignores the fact that many churches have employed companies to come in and help work the system into the existing structure in a very useful and honoring way of the existing structure.
To me, the pro’s far outweigh the con’s in this case.
“For visitors or the unchurched–“seekers,” as they are often called–screens remove the learning curve required to read music.”
In as kind a way as possible, let’s make something very clear here, very few people actually know how to read music no matter their age. In the not so distant past (starting around 1815 in England) there were hymnals frequently used by many churches, especially in the more rural and mountainous regions, called “shape note hymnals” which didn’t employ the knowledge of music as much as it employed the knowledge of pitch and symbols representing those pitches. So people learned the music by learning the symbols and noting the direction on the staff the notes were going (up or down).
The point is, we kid ourselves if we honestly believe that a large portion of congregations at any time in history were able to read music.
For example, I am a worship leader myself, and at one time I served in a church where I had a choir. I had a sweet older lady who played the piano for that choir, but she couldn’t read music, nor could half the congregation. The piano player played entirely by ear. I am far younger than she (by at least 40-50 years), and I can read music. But for context, this church was as traditional as traditional gets, and the age of the congregation was well into their 70’s for a large portion of them.
I’ve served in many churches, in various denominations and worship styles, across many states, and I have found this to be the case no matter where I’ve been.
I feel that this is just a disingenuous attempt to lean on “reading music” as an argument for hymnals. It’s not a true representation of reality or history.
Point 4: Projector Screens Reflect Our Tech-Obsessed Culture
To some degree, this is probably true. Our culture is obsessed with technology. But not all (or most) technology is bad. Like with anything, abuses occur. The same people screaming that our culture is obsessed with technology get up on Sunday mornings and in the middle of their sermon boast about how they are going to go and destroy the Ryan’s buffet for lunch following the service (I literally watched this happen, more than once).
My point; the abuse of something doesn’t necessitate the disuse of something.
People abuse medicines. But it can be argued that medicines have their place.
People abuse alcohol, but even Paul said to Timothy that wine can be helpful for health reasons.
People abuse food, but we need it to live.
The projector, like any other technology, is no different. It can be used for good and for bad.
That said, you go on in this section to say…
“It becomes difficult to teach new songs on a worship screen, primarily because there are no notes. Screens only work when worshipers already know the melodies. Worship ‘playlists’ at contemporary services are often meager because the same songs tend to be sung over and over.”
I am sorry, but this particular point is somewhat laughable. I don’t mean that disrespectfully, but what you are saying literally projects on contemporary churches as a “problem” that I saw every week growing up in a more traditional (formal) church.
I grew up in traditional churches (or formal as you call them), that only used hymn books, and I’m sure my experience is not that much of a far cry from others – but we sang the same handful of hymns every year. New songs weren’t really new songs, they were just new versions of old songs. And again, the majority of people in those churches couldn’t read music.
The truth; in contemporary churches, just like with traditional (formal) churches, people sing the loudest and engage the most with songs they are most familiar with. In
Generally what I have seen in traditional/formal churches is that they have played the same songs for decades, therefore the people know them better. Not because of the notes on the page, but because of the frequency of their use.
Contemporary churches do more than institute “worship playlists” to help the congregation become familiar with songs. Some churches will literally take the time to teach them in a live setting. Some will introduce the song as a special a couple times, and then do it with the congregation. Others will do the song, but only a portion of the song and add more to it over the coming weeks. Still others will repeat the song several times over the coming weeks to allow the congregation to become familiar with the song.
So your statement is way off the mark and assumes that these “issues” you cited for the contemporary church are not also issues in the traditional/formal church. Which they clearly are.
Point 5: Hymnals Provide Deep, Theologically Rich Worship
There is indeed a great repository of theology in the hymns. But there is also a great deal of theology within the contemporary songs as well. There is also lots of error in the old hymns. And there is lots of error in the contemporary songs. The hymnals are not above reproach, nor are they scripture and infallible. Likewise, neither are contemporary songs.
It is important to note that worship music can be a teacher. I agree there. But it is wrong to suggest that only hymns can do this job effectively. If you examine a good portion of modern worship songs, you will find they are pulled directly from the pages of the Bible. For example, “Better is One Day” by Matt Redman, or “As the Deer”. These are just 2 of a great many songs from contemporary circles that teach the bible as directly as any hymn does.
In fact, many modern songs are starting to be written with a certain flair for the old hymns. Songs like “In Christ Alone”, or “Like Incense/Sometimes by Step”, etc. These musicians are blending old and new and making it a beautiful thing.
Point 6: To Save Worship, We Must Rediscover Hymnals
I disagree. To “save worship” we need to rediscover WHO we should be worshiping.
The method and vehicle of the musical aspects of worship are all subjective. What you consider the only way to do things via traditional circles, was at one time considered the wrong way to do things. What we consider to be progressive and forward thinking in contemporary circles will one day be seen as traditional and outdated ways of doing things.
Overall Thoughts of This Article
I really wanted this piece to convince me that hymnals were the better choice. But it failed miserably as it really didn’t tackle the subject at all.
The sad truth of it all is that the piece did not present any real evidence from scripture as to what worship should look like, it provided zero historical precedence as evidence that their claims were true, and it fell short of being a piece intended to persuade anyone who may prefer projectors to reconsider hymnals.
It did, however, spend a great deal of time passively aggressively attacking contemporary churches and making traditional churches out to be victims of an unjust war. The focus was entirely on subjective preferences as the means to the end of “true worship” and lacked any real theological approach to worship.
This really saddened me, because I’ve been seeing this article circulating by countless people over the last several months and I have to wonder if the Western Church truly understands worship at all.
We clearly don’t because the majority of us think worship is mostly about music, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
So What is the Solution?
The solution is a hard one…we have to take ourselves out of the picture and stop making worship about us if we are going to be able to truly worship God. This is hard because it means we have to stop thinking about ourselves, and what makes us happy, and start thinking abut what worship meas to God.
I appreciate and love the aspects of the traditional churches. I’ve even taken a job in a church as a worship leader for the contemporary service of a church that also has a traditional service, and that has many members who prefer the traditional side of things. We attended the Christmas Eve service which was a classic candle light service, and it weaved together contemporary and traditional aspects in a very beautiful evening that I felt truly honored God.
Church, we can totally coexist in our worship of God when we make it less about our preferences, and more about the unity that is found in a church body that worships God without ourselves getting in the way…in a church body that honors the ones who have come before, and encourages the ones who are still on the way.
Fact is, neither side has the corner market on what worship is so long as both sides assume that worship is about them and not about God alone.
In the final paragraphs of your piece you say, “Does any of this matter? Will the warnings of traditionalists bring any worship screens down from the chancel walls or lead congregations to rethink installing them in the first place? Maybe this whole thing is moot.”
And to that I’ll simply say…if our focus and obsession is always on the “how” and less on the “who” then we completely miss the point of worship anyway and it won’t matter if it’s with organs, choirs, and hymnals–or with guitars, praise teams, and projectors…we’ll get it wrong every time.