Cottrill’s reasons to keep talking about hymnals

This post continues from yesterday’s personal-journey reflections.

Robert Cottrill, a Canadian, has spent a great deal of time blogging about hymns—their background stories, their meaning, and their use.  His material is typically very thoughtful and well written (although in my circles not likely to be read or considered as much as it deserves).  In a recent blogpost in praise of hymnals, he listed 38 reasons to support and use these hardbound books.  I’ve chosen a few of his reasons to share here, with some commentary of my own.


4) Hymnals are . . . ideal for texts that present a logical argument or tell a story, over several stanzas. When we sing these from a screen, we can’t see the whole thing at once. We can’t look back and see the logic, or the flow of the story, in what is presented.

I would agree, generally:  seeing all the song at once is more helpful than one might realize at first blush.  During the past couple of weeks in my job, I’ve been reading a great deal of tutorial material screen-by-screen.  In some cases, it is not possible to revert to the prior material to get a sense of how it fits together.  My comprehension overall would have been much deeper if I had been reading a book.

A corollary to the above is this:  a map that provides an overview of an entire geographical area allows for greater comprehension of places and distances than a tiny smartphone, a car’s GPS screen, or even a computer’s display.

5) During the service time, using hymn books gives the service leader the option of selecting or omitting stanzas (even on the spot), or responding with an unplanned hymn to other things happening in the service (like a prayer request, or something in a testimony time). The service leader should aim to know the hymn book so well that he can suit to what is happening in the service with a hymn, when appropriate.

Ignoring the oh-so-common misuse of the word “service” here (for which, by the way, I do not blame Mr. Cottrill, because he writes for an audience that understands the term the way he uses it), his main point is well taken:  spontaneous shifts and changes are generally easier with hard-copy books than with computerized projection.

However—and this is a big however—few leaders will know the book well enough, or think on their feet well enough, to make choices that serve the people and the Lord in the moment.  On a couple of isolated occasions, I have been aware that a PowerPoint operator quickly pulled in a song spontaneously, and that can certainly be done if the filing system is good and the operator knows his stuff.

8) If God speaks to an individual through a hymn, he or she may want to re-read the words after it’s been sung–either during the service, or afterwards. This is easy with a hymn book, but a projected song disappears as soon as it’s been used.

That point needs no further comment, except perhaps to say that many times, I have scratched a note to myself on an attendance card (what better use for those!) or on a bulletin about a song I wanted to look up later.

11) Hymn books can promote congregational singing. The singing seems more assured and enthusiastic when books are used. (I can only describe my own experience here, having preached in many different churches.) Often when projected images are used, the singing seems listless and very quiet. Looking around, I’ve seen many not singing at all. This non-involvement is increased when what is sometimes called a worship team is up front, and loudly amplified. The people in the pews tend to become listeners and observers.

Here, I appreciate Cottrill’s admission of the limitations of his own experience.  Some years ago, many people I knew were hearing and reiterating the supposed truth that projected music (and I do mean music, not just words) would actually enhance congregational singing because people would get their heads up out of the books.  There is some truth to that assertion, although I think not as much as people once claimed.  Cottrill might never have been in a place with both (a) projection and (b) energized singing, but I have.

I would differ with him, then, as to cause and effect:  the issue is not whether books or screens are in use.  Rather, the crux has to do with such factors as recent congregational history, aggregate music literacy, congregational dynamic, leadership, and the type of music.  Most of those are loaded expressions, and I won’t go into detail here.  What Cottrill notices is important, but I believe he is crediting hymnals too much for the good observed.  The real reason that some hymnal churches can sing with more energy than some projection churches has little to do with the books.

28) It’s good for each family to have a Guest Book, where visitors can sign their names. It makes a great record to look back on in later years. But here’s an alternative idea. Instead of having visitors to your home sign a guest book, you could have them neatly sign next to their favourite hymn in your hymn book. A great memento! And each time you sing or read that hymn, it will remind you to pray for the person.

This is a nice idea, and I wish I’d started it in my home years ago, but the practice would have faded by now.  These days (see the last blog post:  my relationship with hymnals is falling apart), I’m afraid the use of a hymnal as a guest book would be considered more of an oddball idiosyncrasy than a sign of depth or of God in the home.  Fact is, I’ve only signed one or two home guest books in the last 10 decade.

30) Hymn books can be used by those on the platform, or when members of the congregation are sitting or standing behind taller people. Or when singers are sitting in a circle, as is done at Bible studies. People don’t all need to be facing a projected image.

In the first part of #30, Cottrill seems relatively inexperienced.  Many church halls have screens that leaders can see, or synced tablets, or something.  It’s quite possible these days that anyone on a stage/platform can see a diplay of some kind.  This does beg the question of why multiple people are on a platform at the same time in the first place.  In my view, that practice tends to make things come off as over-formal.

However, the small group setting is worthy of note.  Congregational singing could once be shared whether a group had 800 or 80 or 8 people in it.  These days, it’s rare that a small group will consider any kind of participatory singing or worship.  If an object (whether a hymnal or a piece of paper) could be held in the hands, singing together might be more common.

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