I saw this article — “What We Lost When We Lost Our Hymnals” — on the Appalachian Magazine website, where an anonymous editor or webmaster recalled, with a real sense of nostalgia, “… the sight of my mother holding up a raggety old red hymnal and singing to the top of her lungs the songs of Zion.” It was credited to Tim Challies, a Calvinist blogger and elder of Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto, Ontario, and some Appalachian readers thought it was a little too nostalgic.
“We may not bring our personal copy of the red ( blue, green) hymnal to church services,” wrote one, “but we certainly carry mobile devices capable of storing and accessing all the music we love. … We’re to worship the Lord, not the song book.”
But Challies sounded a chord with me on several of his points. Including these:
- We lost the ability to do harmonies. Hymnody grew up at a time when instrumentation took a back seat to the voice. Hymns were most often written so they could be sung a cappella or with minimal instrumentation. For that reason, hymnals almost invariably included the music for both melody and harmonies and congregations learned to sing the parts. The loss of the hymnal and the associated rise of the worship band has reduced our ability to harmonize and, in that way, to sing to the fullest of our abilities.
- It often seems like all we want from the congregation is their enthusiasm.
We lost the ability to sing skillfully. As congregations have lost their knowledge of their songs, they have lost the ability to sing them well. We tend to compensate for our poorly-sung songs by cranking up the volume of the musical accompaniment. The loss of the voice has given rise to the gain of the amplifier. This leads to our music being dominated by a few instrumentalists and perhaps a pair of miced-up vocalists while the larger congregation plays only a meager role. In fact, it often seems like all we want from the congregation is their enthusiasm.
I’m not sure that most congregations ever knew how to sing skillfully. At least not in my hearing. But on occasion I sang with Primitive Baptists from raggedy old copies of the Old School Hymnal or Elder Cayce’s Good Old Songs in rural East Tennessee. They even had red bindings. And after I moved to the Midwest and got to know Lutherans of the older generation, I stood in awe of the way they sang harmony to the hymns of the day — even when they were sitting out in the congregation.
And after singing backup with a praise team for a couple of years, I can relate to Challies’ point about reducing our ability to sing harmony. I can usually improvise bluegrass gospel harmonies, but all too many contemporary worship songs are written in gawd-awful keys with strange chord progressions that go sailing way up out of my vocal range and leave me squawking and sputtering around high E.
The reason I like to sing harmony parts is because I can’t reach the high notes in unison. Even out of the hymnal. If it goes above D an octave above middle C, I’m squawking and sputtering.
But I do have to agree with the commenter in Appalachian Magazine, Ed Weaver posting at 6:20 a.m. on April 17, 2017, who said:
Most importantly the Bible says to make a joyful noise, and places little emphasis on skill where singing is involved.
We’re to worship the Lord, not the song book.