Among progressives, there is a prevailing mentality that if a trend is headed in a particular direction, it ought to be followed. The closer to the front of the line one is, the more advantages await him. Those at the front of the line, it is said, are those who write the history for future generations. While at times alluring, this progressive ideology is at the basis of much of fallacious thinking today.
One such trend is the trend to project words on a screen for singing and Scripture reading. This might seem like a peripheral matter, but in the following essay, I will demonstrate that it is a very unhealthy practice with the effects on future generations becoming increasingly worse.
In its defense, words projected onto a screen can have some advantages. Many churches have parishioners who use various translations. If Scripture reading is done responsively, it becomes necessary to read out of a single translation. A powerpoint presentation may give this opportunity. Furthermore, many songs never make it into hymnals or may be in various other hymnals. It is unpractical to have a stack of different hymnals for each person. Therefore to avoid confusion, powerpoint is used. Besides this it is common to have elderly people in the church who cannot read the small typeface of the hymnal. For these people, the powerpoint is a welcome relief. Finally, in the defense of powerpoint, it gets people to unbury their noses from their hymnals and look up. This makes them sing better and boosts the quality of singing for the congregation.
The first and most obvious loss of projecting words on a screen is the loss of part-singing. Most congregants do not know their part well enough to sing it from memory. Only a few are well-trained enough to harmonize with watersheding technique. (The term comes from barbershop groups who harmonize as they go. The lead singer starts and the other parts fall in around the lead.) Therefore, projecting words on a screen virtually eliminates the ability of the people to sing parts.
You might wonder why this is a loss. First, it is a historical loss. There is a rich tradition going back more than a half-millennium of part singing in church. Rather than wrestling through the departure from a historical tradition, the tradition is simply dismissed without research, understanding, or discussing what might be lost. This view of tradition is much like clearing out your grandparents estate and tossing everything into a dumpster instead of researching the worth and having a proper estate sale.
The loss is more than just a departure from tradition, it is also a loss of variety. God created people’s voices with different vocal ranges. Some men sing bass, some tenor, and a few fortunate souls even sing countertenor. Some women sing alto, some soprano, and some mezzo-soprano. Children often sing soprano, but can often learn to sing alto. Singing in parts gives each person a place to fit in with the congregation. If words are projected on a screen, everyone will sing melody, meaning the basses, altos, and tenors are not having a chance to sing something that fits their range well. There is no opportunity for a bass to sing deep resonant notes that support the congregation. There is not a chance for the tenors and altos to sing the passionate inner voices to give a precise rendering of the emotive context of the piece. It is all tossed out the window when the lyrics are projected on a screen.
These things are obvious losses from the very beginning. There are yet others which are more subversive and more harmful. I will now write of these.
The hymnal is a sieve. Christianity over the centuries has produced thousands of songs and hymns. Not all of them were worth singing. Most of them have fallen out of memory. Generations have decided which ones were important to pass on to their children and they compiled these into a hymnal. At times, better songs have been written. At times, the disvalue of other songs was recognized and thus hymnals have changed over time. Some songs, such as Cantatas were not meant to be sung by congregations, but by choirs. These have often not made it into hymnals. The value of a hymnal lies in its ability to condense the vast array of songs down to a few hundred that a congregation is likely to sing in its lifetime. This allows the poor quality songs to be sifted out and forgotten.
Unfortunately, with the availability of cheaper paper, hymnals have had a tendency to be produced in a more cost-effective manner, meaning that the hymnals have not needed as much consideration to be reproduced. This has led to lower-quality compilations in the past century with the availability of mass-printing. Computers are yet another turn in the road, since it costs virtually nothing but 5 minutes of typing to get lyrics projected on a screen. There is no peer-review necessary and no cooperation between churches required. Thus, the songs being passed on to the next generation are not filtered. It is like drinking coffee made without a filter. You may or may not have good coffee, but you have to use your own teeth to filter out the grounds. A heavy diet of songs from a projector will make a person accustomed to unfiltered and, if confronted with the real thing, he will not know how to handle it.
Singing from a hymnal should be a motivation for the singer to memorize his part and his lyrics so that he no longer depends on it. It is like a crutch for the mind to memorize the songs which should be sung throughout the week. This is the ideal for when an elderly person has sung all his life, he can sing from memory when he can no longer see the page. In a case where a person is converted later in life, it would be possible to print out the lyrics in a large font for him to sing when he can no longer read the type in the hymnal. With cyber hymnals, it is very easy to find the lyrics to songs and hymns from most hymnals.
Singing ought to be practiced and prepared for. It is very difficult for a person to sing a song worshipfully while he is still learning the words. If the words are projected on the screen, it is virtually impossible to practice worship, since the powerpoint of the lyrics is often not public domain and not allowed to be passed on to each member. Some members may not have computers to practice, and if they do, they might be in places in the home that are not suitable for singing, such as a closet. Not to mention that experience shows people do not practice songs at home when they appear on the projector screen for the service.
Finally, it is probably foolish to think that the supply of fuel and electricity for the world will last forever. If our Christianity is to last for longer than a few generations should the Lord tarry, we need to be independent of technology in our worship. Even if a hurricane struck the town, the worship of a church that is dependent upon electronics would be limited. Having hymnals and knowing them well makes it possible for churches to worship no matter where they are in the world and no matter what happens to the electricity. (The same would go for speakers and audio-visual equipment as well. If your pastor cannot project his voice loud enough in your auditorium without a speaker system, you are dependent upon technology. You might need to move to a smaller building.)
If we are serious about preserving Christianity, we must pass on what we received, not what we made up. This means that technology is contrary to conservatism–at least in worship. This also means that this blog post is worth discarding if the power goes out.