Earlier this year, while teaching a course on Brethren in Christ history and theology at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa., I worked with Dr. Dwight Thomas to organize a hymn sing on campus. My students were required to attend this event, but the opportunity to sing old Brethren in Christ hymns also drew upward of 100 others: college faculty, staff, and students; pastors and laypeople from local Brethren in Christ congregations; residents of Messiah Village; and others.
After a rousing hour of singing, Dr. Thomas agreed to take some questions from the audience. One intrepid participant raised his hand and asked, “Will there ever be another Brethren in Christ hymnal?”
Now, a bit of context for this question. Those “in the know” will recall that the Brethren in Christ have had five hymnals in their history, published in 1874, 1906, 1935, 1963 and 1984. Most are known by the color of their covers: the green hymnal (1906), the brown hymnal (1935), the red hymnal (1963), and the blue hymnal (1984).
The last Brethren in Christ hymnal is now 30 years old. And in those intervening 30 years, Brethren in Christ music has shifted significantly. Following the pattern of the larger American Evangelical movement, Brethren in Christ congregations have switched from singing primarily traditional hymns to singing contemporary worship songs, the kind produced by the Vineyard or Hillsong movements. They’ve moved from using choirs (which only became mainstream in the Brethren in Christ tradition in the 1950s and 1960s) to using specialized worship teams. And they’ve moved from singing from printed hymnals to singing “off the wall” — from slides projected onto screens positioned strategically throughout the sanctuary.
So the question, “Will there ever be another Brethren in Christ hymnal?” is a pretty loaded one — one that suggests the trajectory of Brethren in Christ (and American Evangelical) music over the course of the last 25 or so years has been bad, and that a new hymnal is needed to stem the tide.
Dr. Thomas answered “no” to the question when it was raised at the hymn sing. I tend to agree, although sorrowfully, since I prefer hymns to contemporary worship songs. Given my answer and my antipathy toward that conclusion, I was pleased to read “15 Reasons Why We Should Still Be Using Hymnals,” from the Ponder Anew blog. (As an aside, I love the tagline for this blog: “Discussions about worship for thinking people.” We need more thinking people doing the work of music ministry in the church.) In the post, the blogger divides his reasons for hymnal use into three categories: musical, practical, and symbolic/theological.
Here’s a sample argument from each category:
MUSICAL: Hymnals actually teach music. We’re making less music than ever before. Oh, to be sure, there’s lots of music going on around us, but very few people are actually making it. We’re just consuming it, or at the very most, singing along with music someone else made first. But even an untrained musician can look at the words and music in the hymnal and learn to follow melodic direction and rhythmic value.
PRACTICAL: Hymnals are as helpful as the singer needs them to be. It’s hard to ignore a screen, no matter how well I know the song being sung. Its mere presence sends most people into a trance. There are times I must pay close attention to the hymnal. I recently sang the hymn “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones” in a service. I know of the hymn, and I know LASST UNS ERFREUEN, but I didn’t grow up singing it. I had to follow the entire time. I needed the hymnal. Last Saturday, I sang in the choir for a funeral. It was a beautiful service; a reflection on a life well-lived in service of the kingdom. When it came time for the final hymn, “Blessed Assurance,” I rose, opened the hymnal, and held it out, but didn’t look at it once. I long ago internalized every note and word of this hymn. I was free to look out into the congregation, making eye contact, sharing the ethos of the experience with others.
SYMBOLIC/THEOLOGICAL: Hymnals give congregational singing back to the people. Congregations watching screens are at the mercy of whoever is sitting behind the computer. Holding hymnals symbolizes the fact that the voice of the congregation is the primary instrument in corporate worship.
You can read the full list here.
It was hard for me to pick just one “Symbolic/Theological” entry to share, since I think hymnals have such profound theological value, both in terms of the content (the songs themselves, which tend to communicate theology in greater complexity than their pop-influenced contemporaries) and the act of using a hymnal itself. Especially for a people like the Brethren in Christ, who value community, mutuality and “brotherhood,” singing from a hymnal replicates our core values. We share a common page and are united by that page. We join our voices in four-part harmonies that are mapped out for us on the page (as opposed to the screen, which includes no musical notation). Hymnal usage, as the blogger notes in the passage referenced above, “symbolizes the fact that the voice of the congregation is the primary instrument in corporate worship.” We come together as a worship community in using a hymnal: we share the same page, we unite our voices, we can hear one another sing, and we lead one another in that singing.
By contrast, contemporary worship bands — in my opinion — tend to transform corporate worship into a performance, where the congregation is simply along for the ride, reading the words “off the wall” and, over the din of the band’s instrumentation, barely able to hear their brothers and sisters joining voices in song.
Of course, none of this answers the key question of this post: “Will there ever be another Brethren in Christ hymnal?” What do you think?
Devin Manzullo-Thomas and his wife attend Grantham Brethren in Christ Church in Harrisburg, Pa. He blogs here, where this blog originally appeared.
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