Danger Of Overhead Hymns
By Robert McEvoy
Frequently I find myself longing for a decent hymn book. Finding one that is non-charismatic, reformed, evangelistic, and with the emphasis on the Holiness of God and the Lordship of Christ, rather than on 'me' is hard enough, but add to that the need for the hymns to be relatively easy to sing, in understandable verse, bound in a manageable format and with good complementary sections for children and special occasions, and any church is faced with a nearly impossible task.
When I bemoan the lack of such a compilation of hymns, people sometimes suggest that the answer to all our problems is to dispense with hymn-books altogether, and buy a computer and a data projector. The arguments are certainly persuasive. The church could choose its own hymns, selecting the songs that best express its worship from the best of the available collections and books. Particular hymns could easily be introduced to accommodate special services, such as baptisms, evangelistic events and anniversaries. Announcements, children's talks and even sermon notes could be projected onto the screen, making the whole service a more visually attractive event. And of course, the most swaying argument of all; the data-projector is, above all things, the latest trendy device for churches.
The 'gadget generation' is fascinated to the point of obsession with the technology of computers, DVD's and iPods, so, the argument goes, why should our churches fall behind, and not make use of the latest and best of modern hi-tech science.
Furthermore, advocates of hi-tech hymnody will point out quite rightly that hymn-books themselves are a fairly recent innovation in worship. The early church knew nothing of them, singing either from the Psalter, or possibly in antiphonal hymns led by a presenter.
So, the argument goes, since hymnbooks have no strict Biblical warrant, and neither do overhead projectors, why not go for the one that will best assist the modern church in its worship, and the overhead projector would be the method of choice to accommodate the needs of this generation.
Now all of this seems to be so persuasive, and the pressure from technology orientated congregations so great, that many churches, even in reformed circles are simply bowing to the inevitable and dumping the hymnbooks in favour of the new methods. But are the arguments for discarding our hymnbooks so overpowering?
Lacking in any experience of 'data-projected' worship, I recently slipped into the back of a big trendy church, just to experience it for myself. It forced me to take a closer look at the whole idea of overhead hymns and my first observation was that the service was to some extent 'clinical.'
When I lead a service of worship, there is some aspect of my personality represented in that service. I make mistakes, because of my own forgetfulness. Sometimes I announce the wrong hymns, and sometimes I leave out verses, or ask the congregation to sing a verse twice, because it is important to the preaching that day. Sometimes I simply decide at the last minute to change to a completely different hymn altogether.
But the overhead-driven church had worship that was so carefully planned that nothing could go wrong, nothing could be changed without incurring great inconvenience to the computer operator, It was not just 'well planned' - it was sterile. It had been rendered devoid of the human personality of the convenor.
But worse was to come. As I watched the hymns scrolling down the screen, I realised that the words were slowly vanishing from sight. God often speaks to people through the theology expressed in good hymns. Who could misunderstand the succinct presentation of the Gospel found in the hymn,
"Tis not that I did choose Thee,
for that could never be,
This heart would still refuse Thee,
Hadst Thou not chosen me.
While singing a hymn, a sinner can, through the work of the Holy Spirit, come under conviction of his sin, and begin to comprehend something of the love of God in Christ crucified. Many a sinner will linger over the words of such a hymn, and read them again and again, as God speaks to his heart. But the words on the screen are gone.
The poor heart searching for peace that this world cannot give will find no encouragement in the words of a hymn that is displayed for the minute or two then gone. And they can never turn it up later, it is gone forever, or at least until the pastor decides to sing it again. And after all, hymns are more than a series of disconnected verses.
Hymn writers often wove their words to make up a whole expression of an aspect of Christian truth, moving systematically through the verses of the hymn. Yet on the screen, we sang hymns a verse at a time and the first verse of the hymn was long forgotten by the time the last verse was reached. It is no surprise therefore that the churches which find it easiest to adapt to 'overhead worship' are those who sing songs which are more often than not devoid of theological content, and have repetitive words. It would seem to me that churches who wish to express Christian truth in their hymns, and to have worship which is both pleasing to God and edifying to the worshippers, would find 'overhead-worship' unsuitable and unsatisfactory. There is a whole list of other dangers for the church that adopts the 'overhead hymnal.'
A completely 'open-ended' treasury of hymns, such as becomes available when the hymn books are replaced by a data-projector is actually a danger, rather than a blessing. It is probably the thin end of the wedge. A church could, and probably would find that its whole style of worship would be changed by gradual and subtle inclusion of charismatic hymns, with the attendant doctrinal aberrations that would bring. The argument that a minister or organist would have control of the list of hymns is spurious. Special services for young people, ladies groups and special occasions will give any amount of people an opportunity to either introduce hymns to fit with their own agenda, or to put undue pressure on the minister to comply with their ideas of what worship should be.
There is another matter, which must not be dismissed too lightly, for when you have no hymnbook to hold, what do you do with your hands? People simply don't like standing with their hands at their side. They want to do something with them. It is common in charismatic worship for people to wave their arms around, clap their hands and make other inappropriate gestures, and perfectly sensible churches have found that when they remove the hymnbooks, some members of the congregation have begun to lift their hands up, or clap their hands. They are just one step away from the unbiblical practice of applause in worship. They have relegated worship from a heart-felt expression of inward praise, to an outward show of physical activity, consistent with the doctrinally sterile hymnody and preaching of the modern age.
The alleged benefits of using the data-projector as an aid to preaching are over-rated. Sermons and notes can of course be posted on the overhead, but any preacher worth the name will be uneasy with such an innovation. A sermon is a living thing. It is not a lecture or an essay or even an address, and it ought to be given in the power of the Holy Spirit. The preacher should be led and guided by the Lord in his delivery, and in the transaction between the pulpit and the pew; there should always be a third element. The preacher takes the Word and expounds upon it, the congregation listens to what is being said, but the Holy Spirit applies it to the hearts and minds.
The overhead itself might actually become just another distraction. Recently I attended a seminar on effective communication in preaching, and the point was made that 'maintaining eye-contact' with the congregation is vital to good communication. That certainly made me think. It's hard enough to maintain eye-contact with people who habitually seat themselves as near to the church door as possible, without then asking them to look at sermon points on an overhead projector, somewhere away over to the side. The possibility of visual communication would be completely hopeless.
So, what do we do, as faithful church leaders and pastors, trying to keep our churches and assemblies pure from error, and present them with a compilation of hymns which reflect Biblical doctrine? Do we go with the trend, and put in the overhead and the power-point, or do we continue the search for a Reformed, evangelical hymnbook that will meet our needs? Or would we be better to revert to our puritan roots, and restrict our praise to the psalms? At least in that way, none of these questions would arise. Now there's a thought, and a topic for an entirely different discussion.
The Reverend Robert McEvoy, is the minister in charge of Ballymacashon Congregational Church, Saintfield Road Killinchy, Co Down.