Beyond Hymnals and Screens

There has been a recent series of posts, blogs, and articles about the use of hymnals, the loss of hymnals, what we gain with screens, what we lose with screens, etc. Behind these posts is an assumption that whether it is printed or pixelated on a screen denotes two different types of music. As such, this becomes more a discussion of style. However, at the heart of the matter is what is the purpose of singing in worship and how does that influence what we sing.

Understanding the role of music in worship is more than a simple blog can handle. However, if I may, allow me to introduce the following questions for further reflection:

What is the purpose of singing in corporate worship? It is to express truth, reach emotions, or instruct? Is it to get people ready for the sermon? Is it an entryway for people to get comfortable who would otherwise be uneasy in church? Is the singing for the benefit of God or the congregation or both?

Is there (or should there be) a palpable difference between the aesthetics of worship and other opportunities for singing together? Does the context of a coffee house, campfire, concert hall, stadium, living room, or sanctuary change our expectations and practice of making music?

How is music presented? What instruments are useful for leading worship—in terms of type and how they are played? Is there a difference in what is helpful in leading congregational singing versus what is effective on a stage?

How do we choose what to sing? If we only hear and sing things with which we are comfortable, will we grow spiritually or just reinforce our own prejudices? Do we ever present music in worship because “it is good for us” or only because we like it? As C.S. Lewis talks about in An Experiment in Criticism, do we “receive” what we sing or do we simply “use” it?

Are we willing to let musical ideas be less important than leading the congregation so that they intuitively know when and what to sing? (I’ve been in contemporary services in which it was so loud that there was no reason for me to sing, and I’ve been in traditional services with organ and brass ensembles with arrangements so long and confusing that I did not know when to sing. Both experiences ostracize the congregation as participants.)

Do we plan worship to reflect the time and place in which God has placed our particular congregation? Do we plan worship to connect us with the saints of old in a continuity of worship?

These questions are not rhetorical in nature but rather conversation starters and potential evaluators of the significance and responsibility of leading in worship and shepherding a congregation by thoughtful choices and decisions. What an incredible blessing and calling!

Greg Wilbur