A couple of decades ago, churches split in a grand debate over worship. Contentious arguments raged over every aspect of worship style, components, decorum, and practically everything else. Every church seemed to be choosing between opposites—organ or praise band, historic liturgy or rock liturgies, contemporary songs or historic hymns. The fallout was ugly. Assemblies erupted in dissonance and members on the losing side transferred out.
Years later, the voices have calmed and the dust has settled. Some pastors declared a sort of “separate peace” by establishing rival worship services—one traditional, one modern. Others went the “blended worship” route. While this included enough elements from both styles to at least keep the group together, everyone was left a little dissatisfied. Mixing pipe organs with electric guitars tends to do that.
Perhaps we no longer hear about the worship debate because everyone is simply tired of fighting. Positions have calcified. No matter how well-intentioned, few minds are being changed. Bringing up the subject only tears open wounds that haven’t quite healed.
More likely, the reason you don’t hear much about the worship wars is that one side has won. It may not be a total victory, but one side is clearly winning while the other is cowering in a back pew hoping a pack of millennials doesn’t make them wave their arms in the air and sing whatever Chris Tomlin or Bethel Music wrote that morning.
Informality at Church Is Increasing
Published in 2015, The National Congregations Study undertaken by researchers at Duke University surveyed nearly 4,000 congregations across the Christian spectrum. It found that traditional aspects of worship were in decline. Between 1998 and 2012, congregations that used choirs in worship decreased from 54 to 45 percent; those using organs dropped from 53 to 42 percent. Use of drums increased from 20 percent to 34 percent of congregations between 1998 and 2012.
While churches printing bulletins fell from 72 to 62 percent, the use of projected images rose by 23 percent. Informality in worship is way up (shouting “Amen,” wearing shorts to church) and formality is way down (calling the minister “Pastor So and So,” dressing up for services).
The survey didn’t come right out and say it, but informal worship with contemporary Christian music (CCM) seems to have won the worship war. All the megachurches are doing it. It’s hard to find many churches that haven’t bowed at least one knee to the modern, informal trend.
For those who attend their church’s traditional service, the demographic trends are not encouraging. Ushers for these services might as well require an AARP card for entry. At my church, the number of kiddos who trotted forward for the children’s sermon last Sunday was zero. It won’t be long until “old-timey” Protestants are searching out liturgical worship services like Catholics have to search out a Latin Mass.
While the larger worship war seems to be over, there might still be time to save at least one element of the traditional service: the hymnals.
Hymnals Are Disappearing
Hymnals are a wonderful legacy of Western Christianity. They’ve been housed in pew racks in church sanctuaries for centuries. Since they first appeared in the United States during the 1830s, hymnals have been indispensable for worship—objects of treasure both in the sanctuary and in households. In my denomination, many received engraved hymnals as confirmation presents.
Churchgoers used to proudly carry their own hymnals to church. Nobody’s doing that anymore. In fact, more and more worshipers aren’t even looking at hymnals in church. Instead, their gaze is fixed to the front wall and a screen attached to it.
On this screen, everything from lyrics, to announcements, to YouTube videos is displayed. Churches in all traditions, meeting in all manner of worship spaces, are fastening large white canvases to their chancel walls and leaving the hymn books to molder in the pew racks.
A report from 2004 indicated that almost 60 percent of churches used some form of projector technology at last once a year. Another study from 2011 estimated that two-thirds of Protestant churches employed a large-screen projection system. In a last-gasp effort, here’s the case for bringing back hymnals and ditching those awful screens.
Screens Don’t Belong In Church
To the first point: they’re horrifically ugly. In churches that don’t look like churches, the sort that instinctively prompt you to look for basketball nets and a scoreboard, they almost fit. Screens feel at home among the accouterments of contemporary worship that also dominate the space—guitars, mics, drum kits, keyboards, and amps—and behind that, typically giant luminescent slabs on the wall.
In a traditional sanctuary, on the other hand, with subdued natural lighting, pews, and steps leading to a chancel, the screens jump out and slap your aesthetic sensibilities. Housed next to time-honored trappings of ecclesiastical tradition like an altar, a pulpit, and a lectern, screens just don’t fit.
So why are they there? Some reasons are practical. Screens elevate worshipers’ heads out of hymnals and up toward the front, which amplifies the volume during the songs. Screens also free worshipers’ hands. Parishioners with weak eyes can often see words on a big screen better than words in a hymnal. For visitors or the unchurched—“seekers,” as they’re often called—screens remove the learning curve required to read music.
Projector Screens Reflect Our Tech-Obsessed Culture
In our visual culture, screens possess another, less practical appeal. The control screens have over our daily life is staggering. We spend countless hours at the office staring at a computer screen then come home to watch another big, flat screen for our evening’s entertainment. Between tablets, laptops, smartphones, and e-readers, there’s no getting away from the bits and bytes, the ones and zeros. With all this, why not worship screens in church too?
In a culture that treasures the new, convenient, and informal, and plants a sloppy wet kiss on every new tech toy, the appeal of worship screens is easily explained. The downside is that as we eliminate hymnals from the worship life of the church, we lose everything they contain and represent.
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.
If you’re not already familiar with the tune, you cannot sing from a screen. There are no instructions on how many pitches you must devote to each syllable. In cases like these, most just end up keeping their mouths shut. This also limits the complexity of the songs’ music and words, because it’s easier to learn simpler songs when new ones are introduced without sheet music.
Hymnals Provide Deep, Theologically Rich Worship
As hymnals fade, theology also suffers. The rich repository of religious wisdom contained in hymns will be lost. The old-fashioned language of hymns may strike some as unusual, but their text teaches the Christian faith far better than most of the praise choruses that dominate contemporary services. Old hymns were carefully crafted with theology at the forefront. Traditional hymns present doctrine clearly and beautifully convey the gospel story of saving grace.
On a larger scale, how do worship screens affect worship? Are they like other technology—truly neutral, beneficial when used well and deleterious when ill applied? We still have the same worship, they say. We simply added the screens! Instead of people looking down at their books, now they’re looking up at the wall—everything else is exactly the same!
Maybe so. But probably not. We may not want screens to change how we worship, but they certainly will. They definitely change the sermon-receiving “experience.” Images on the screen constantly interrupt attention. They do change the view, and they do put the technology front and center, rendering it visible where it used to merely exist subtly in the background.
While singing in a modern service, it’s hard not to start thinking about things other than the music. Will the slide change at the right time? Will the correct slide come up next? “Oh, look, there’s a typo!” It’s hard not to see how technology distracts from the meaning of the words we sing.
Screens represent a move away from permanence to the transitory. The words contained in a hymnal were printed in a book that was published with care. Inked on the paper accompanied by notes and staffs, hymnals were real. The words on the screens may look like the words in the book, but they lack substance. They’ll disappear the moment the switch is flipped off.
To Save Worship, We Must Rediscover Hymnals
If circumstances don’t change, worship screens will eventually kill hymnals—although it may be a slow, painful death. Long after Gutenberg, books were still being hand-copied or printed from woodblocks. In his book “The Shallows” Nicholas Carr points out, “The old technologies lose their economic and cultural force. . . . It’s the new technologies that govern production and consumption, that guide people’s behavior and shape their perceptions.” We traditionalists may take the hymnal with us to the grave, while economic forces will push publishing companies away from producing new hymnals and revising old ones.
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 the whole thing is moot. How long before implanted hardware in our brains will allow us to download hymns and project them directly onto our retinas? Voila! No more screens.
Those who wish to see the Christian faith prosper, however, should consider the long-term effects that replacing hymnals with screens will have on worship and faith itself. What technology giveth, technology taketh away. The musical and theological repertoire of the church will be constricted. Even marginally unfamiliar hymns will slide out of the public consciousness, forgotten forever—and worship will be impoverished for it.
This article was first published in RealClearReligion.