Screens or Hymn Books? – Pros and Cons – a considered response

A little while ago I shared an article on my blog about the use of screens and hymn books in churches. This is it https://thefederalist.com/2019/06/18/churches-should-ditch-projector-screens-bring-back-hymnals/

I mentioned to some people that I’d reflect on it Here goes…

A number of folk responded very vociferously to what was perceived as an attack on the use of screens in churches. The article was strongly in favour of the use of hymn books. What surprised me was the lack of any critical analysis on either side of the argument.

To evaluate the use of screens over against books in worship we need to define our own understanding of worship. Without that it is hard to decide on the use or otherwise of tools that are meant to enable worship.

Worship involves us and God. It can also link us with our neighbours. It can be corporate. For the sake of this evaluation I am considering corporate worship of God by a gathered congregation.

Worship, praise of God, can and should involve all the senses. In saying that I’m conscious that some people have impaired senses. This, if anything, underlines the need for variety. We can express our worship in a whole raft of different of ways – visually, in sound, in stillness or movement, in taste and smell, through tactile stimuli and so on. Clearly not all of these are enabled or enhanced by books or screens. I make the point in order to stress just what these particular media help with.

Screens best present visual media. We look at them. I know that is obvious, but we do not, for the most part, use them in this way nearly enough in church. I remember some years ago putting together a montage of still photos. The intention was to generate a sense of awe. The set began in darkness with the voice of David Suchet, reading from the Jesus Storybook Bible the section from Genesis relating to creation. It then merged photos from the Hubble Telescope of stars, galaxies and novae. This was set to music from Saint-Saëns’ organ symphony.

It was used at different times in Drew University in New Jersey and a Cheshire village Methodist Church in a Cheshire village. No printed words were used.

More often than not, aside from a YouTube clip, we see words projected, hymns or worship songs to be sung. When Singing the Faith (the most recent British Methodist hymnal) was being compiled there was a conversation about the advantages and disadvantages of a digital over against a printed collection. So often what we do is predicated on cost and ease of use. Some folk were under the misconception that the digital collection would be by far the least expensive to produce. No account was taken of the cost of setting and editing words and music and the associated copyright implications and resulting royalties. These costs make up a significant proportion of the expense of compiling a resource. But part of the drive for digital resources is toward projection and this is understandable.

What effect does projection or printing have on our sung worship? I think it depends on what we want to sing. If the whole of a text can be fitted into one frame on the screen then the balance between print and projection is close. Indeed, visuals alongside the text can enhance it. I’ll come to the issue of music in a moment. Where a text requires a sequence of slides it can become harder to understand what we are singing or for the words to have the effect they might otherwise have had. Yes, we can move slides wisely and competently. I am not criticizing the actual way the technology is operated. That having been said havinga hymn spread over a sequence of slides can be really affective. Take John Bell’s hymn ‘The mind of God is forever changing’. The initial reaction to this opening sentence might be, ‘that can’t be right, surely God is the same yesterday, today and forever’. The intention is to bring us up short. But Bell is suggesting that our faith in God is predicated on a progressive, developing relationship. So further verses begin, ‘The heart of God is forever changing’, ‘The world God made is forever changing’ concluding, ‘The love of God – this is never changing’. It could be equated with the disclosure of the punchline of a joke, or the denouement of a mystery. You need to keep the last verse secret. The obverse of this argument is that the process can be somewhat subversive. The well known text, ‘In Christ alone’ (Stuart Townend) is sometimes objected to because of the verse which contains the line ‘Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’. Some people object so strongly to this that they will not sing it. Putting aside the theological argument for the moment, the appearance of the line over half-way through the second verse does not allow a singer to consider the text and decide whether they find it acceptable. Perhaps this is, again, the intention of the author. But the argument a particular theological perspective should be accepted without question is inappropriate within worship. Is it appropriate to manipulate people by the use of skilfully crafted words, and an excellent tune, into singing something which they cannot sing with integrity in worship? To take account of what we are singing, for it to make sense, it is sometimes necessary to be able to read ahead, and that requires more than a single verse, or sometimes just half a verse, to be seen.

One obvious advantage of a book is that it can be read ahead, but it can also be perused after singing. It can be a resource for spiritual reflection. This is not a prerequisite for the words of most worship songs or a Taizé chant taken in the moment. With a hymn that is developing an argument or expressing a credal belief it makes sense.

If we add music to the mix then we enter another dimension. The worship song is often written to be led by a singer or singers and for the congregation to participate karaoke style. I am not being pejorative in saying this. We sing along. The effect is often uplifting, deeply spiritual, sometimes repetitive. We pick up the tune as we go along. We mimic the leader. The method is historic and crosses theological and denominational boundaries. This type of learning and singing can be part of mega-church worship or a focus for a small prayer meeting; it can be slow, quiet, meditative, or driving and energetic. The words are less likely to be narrative, developing intellectually or theologically from verse to verse.

A traditional hymn may have these latter qualities and can, in addition, have a melody, which while repeating verse on verse, might well have verses sung in unison, harmony or by separate voices. For those who can read it sheet music, a book, is almost essential and certainly aids the task of the singer. Even having a melody line can assist less proficient singers to follow a tune. It is interesting that some older collections have such a device while it was not adopted for Singing the Faith, most probably on economic grounds. In addition books are easier to ‘thumb through’ visually than digital files, though electronic files can be searched more efficiently. The use of files or a hymnal in these ways can help the worship leader/hymn/song selector to find the right item with greater facility. It has been observed that over the last few decades, in some contexts worship has evolved. This has resulted in a move from a more coherent, to a less structured approach which does not require close thematic linking of theme and song or hymn. Has the decline in hymn book compilation and use driven this or is it symptomatic of it? That’s another question.

In conclusion (perhaps I should say, for the moment?) we probably need a fairly fluid approach to the use of books and screens neither ditching one nor disregarding the other. Nevertheless there is a need for a more critical use of both so that the tools, for that is what they are, fit the task.

© Andrew Pratt 13/11/2019