When the screen goes blank

I got an blessing yesterday from a most unlikely source. The musicians at church planned to sing five songs, but forgot to tell the overhead/projection team about one of them, “In Christ Alone”:

(Video: The Booth Brothers singing three of the four verses in a medley.)

I have heard it said that congregations can only remember repetitive choruses.

I have heard it said that we live in a Twitter and Facebook generation, and that we may as well get used to expressing our theology in 120 characters or less.

I have heard it said that it is too much to ask of a congregation in today’s world to remember three or four verses packed with good theology.

When “In Christ Alone” started, the screen went blank. Now my church has a couple of excellent singers, a number of decent singers, and, like any church, quite a few people who can barely carry a tune. So surely, when the screen went blank, the congregation sang the first 120 characters—the first line or two—and then went quiet?

No. At least 90% or 95% of the congregation sang every single word of all four verses.

Don’t be scared of good theology, and don’t be scared of taking three or four verses to express it. But more than that, don’t underestimate your fellow Christians. Even the ones who aren’t particularly musical might just be learning and remembering more than you thought.

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27 Letters to the Editor

Southern Gospel Journal welcomes letters to the editor. We will post the most thoughtful and insightful submissions. Ground rules: Don't attack or belittle groups or fellow posters, or advance heresies rejected by orthodox Christianity. Do keep comments positive, constructive, and on topic.
  1. That speaks well for your church Daniel. 🙂

    • Thanks! I suspect that there are more churches that could sing all four verses of a number of classic hymns than we might think.

  2. I pray you are right. I couldn’t say that about mine.

  3. Great post my friend!

  4. As Music Director at our church and as a big “fan” of Traditional hymns, I find the event described heartening. I have long contended that our congregation couldn’t sing the Doxology without the words in front of them either in the hymn book or on the screen. This event, as described, should stir the always bubbling under discussion regarding Traditional vs “P&W” music. My contention is that the traditional and even the “New Traditional” hymns, by the folks like the Getty’s, reinforce our basic theology and are challenging to our everyday walk (Am I a Soldier of the Cross). As most know, the Psalms we “read” were actually “songs” and were sung by rote. Also, some of the Gospel passed along to and by the Apostle Paul, were something like early creeds (now, don’t get bogged down here) that were taught and designed to be memorized. In my personal life and performance I have gotten hooked on the “words on the wall” and am striving to not do that anymore. When I was much younger, I memorized everything I sang but, I’ve gotten lazy and am trying to correct that. Memorizing helps from the performance aspect because it helps you concentrate on conveying the words with emotional intent. The said, the other side of that coin is that the screens have enhanced the overall quality and quantity of congregational singing because they now lift their heads and you can actually hear them.

    • Earlier generations memorized the Psalms, the creeds, catechisms, and numerous Scripture verses. And that was just in church. In school, they memorized portions of Homer and Virgil, speeches of great Greek and Roman orators, speeches from early American history, and that was just in school. At home, they passed down oral traditions, local and family yarns and stories, for generations, and that was just at home.

      Did earlier generations have bigger brains than ours, or brains with fundamentally different or better ways of functioning? Of course not. We’ve just gotten a little lazy when it comes to using those parts of our brains (and I speak for myself as well as most of the rest of my generation and people younger than me!)

      On a side note: I love the Traditional / New Traditional way you categorized these songs. Good thought there.

  5. I think we get far to used to seeing the words and don’t even try to remember them. I love to sing from memory as much as I can,it helps to cement the words in my mind.BTW I would fall more into the category of ‘making a joyful noise’ than of singing,but the Lord understands.

  6. Nice story, Daniel. The whole hymnal/screens battle (if it is a battle) is something I can’t really speak to. Maybe I’m “sheltered”, but I don’t remember ever even attending a church service in which anything but a hymnal was used for congregational singing.

    As far as memorization goes, most of the seasoned Christians in our congregation can sing the songs without any help from the hymnal, as they have been singing them all or most of their life. Of course, “Because He Lives” might be the newest song we sing as a congregation, so they’ve had plenty of time to memorize them.

  7. I think many people look at the words, be they on the wall or in a hymnal, simply because they are there, and not always because they don’t know the words. If you have something available, you’re probably going to utilize it.

    I am a song leader, as they are known in our circles, frequently. I lead songs in youth camps, church camps, conventions, church services, you name it… I always, even in youth camps, choose old hymns. I want to pass those songs down to the next generation.

    I’ve seen God move in a mighty way singing those old hymns, yes, even in youth camps. An old Wesley hymn, Arise My Soul, Arise was once the impetuous for a mighty altar service… In a youth camp. It was amazing.

    Yesterday morning, as we frequently do at our church, we started singing one song after the other, as the Spirit led, singing choruses and old hymns, and not once did any of us use a song book. We don’t have the songs on the wall at our church. But my point is, when called upon to do so, we sang those songs from memory, without a problem. I think most people could do this, if they’ve grown up around the hymns.

    I’m a huge SG fan. It’s my music of choice when I’m in my car, or here at home. But in church, nothing, nothing, nothing can replace the hymns. Their doctrine and theology cannot be topped.

  8. Daniel
    After the Singing Americans quit I spent a long time helping out in church and actually ended up playing for the traditional and contemporary service. In the comtemporary service it killed me to not hear singing other than the 10 people of stage trying their best to lead but one morning the power went off and the only thing I heard was the grand piano I played and a few hundred singing Shout To The Lord. I backed down and played really soft so i could hear the beautiful voices. It was a blessing. After they finished the power came on about ten minutes later . I was bummed out when that happened.

    One more thing. When Obama’s screen (telepromter) goes blank he’s lost. Lol.

  9. I love this topic & all your comments! My church uses hymnals. We occasionally pull out & use the old hymnals used back in (at least) the 50s. That always causes us to share our fond memories of people who sang those now seldom-sung hymns.

  10. Screen? What screen? We still use the song book mostly on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings, and our Sunday night worship songs are songs that we pretty much know by heart. Being a Pentecostal church, we’ll sing the song 100 times, so even it’s a new one, everybody pretty much knows it by the fourth or fifth go-around 🙂

    • I have mixed feelings about screens. 🙂

      There is a merit to screens, because they let you introduce new songs worthy of introducing immediately, without having to wait 5 or 10 years (or 30) to replace all of a church’s hymnals. Perhaps the best of both worlds is a hybrid where both screens and hymnals are present.

      • I have nothing against screens, but I’ve always felt like people learn better when the words are not right in front of them. It gets into the subconsciousness easier when it’s learned and memorized, and once it’s memorized , it becomes more natural to sing from the heart. I think it’s easy to just let the words do the work for you when they’re right in front of you.

        As a choir leader, I may pass out words to new songs right at first in practice, then I take them up after a few minutes. The singers usually give me some ugly looks 🙂 but in the end they really KNOW the material.

      • Well, I grant that singing from the heart/memory is certainly the best, but churches still have to answer screens vs. hymnals when they’re singing a song (whether new or old) that’s new enough to the church’s repertoire that they don’t have it memorized yet.

  11. There are certain songs through the years that everyone knows the words by heart – Amazing Grace, How Great Thou Art, etc.

    I think In Christ Alone is right up there. But if it were another hymn maybe not as well-known, I doubt there’d be the same number of people who’d remember.

  12. We have both a screen and hymnals at our church… we often use a mixture of both. Sometimes, there is a song that isn’t in the hymnal and we need the screen so our leader isn’t singing a solo! Other times, we find that a song isn’t in our computer program, so we have to use the hymnals.

  13. To be honest, I’m surprised at the number of people here who say their churches still use hymnals over the words on the screen. All I’ve ever known is the screen as the primary source. The churches I’ve attended still keep the hymnals in the back of each pew though. Sometimes, they’d even announce the hymn number for those who wanted it, but still kept the words on the screen for others – a nice balance.

    I wonder if the difference is because I was raised in the north.

    • It may also depend on your denomination. Hymnal use is much stronger in some denominations than in others.

      • Good point!

    • I would venture to say it!’s more age related than geography. Also more urban vs rural. As a sound and video contractor, I have found urban churches were quicker to pick up the new technology. No offense, just experience.

      • No offense taken.

        My experience is opposite of those though. Raised in rural churches where it was mostly older people in attendance, but still had projectors.

    • When I worked at Lifeway some years ago, they did a study to determine if a new hymnal was called for. They polled churches and found that 90% of Southern Baptist churches still used them. So they published a new hymnal in 2008. If there’d been no money in it, they wouldn’t have bothered, and we sure sold a lot of them.

      This reminds me of the time I got in trouble with my congregation. When our pastor joined us five years ago, we sang all the verses of the hymns. But he wanted me to arrange the services so that we would sing fewer verses and more songs with praise choruses, which were largely new to us. It got to the point that he wound up claiming the credit (blame?) for the change. Luckily I serve as a volunteer, so they couldn’t cut my pay! But, five years later, they still don’t like it. For that matter…I don’t, either! You just can’t beat the old hymns.

      • I’ve seen this tried over and over and over, and it usually ends up sounding like a train wreck.

        My vote is to sing whatever you’re going to sing. If it’s a Hymn or Gospel Song… sing it. If it’s a Praise Chorus… sing it. If it’s a Contemporary Worship Song… sing it. Let it be what it is. The “blending-styles-medley” thing just doesn’t work… most of the time.

  14. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t have a problem with “screens.” The “problem” I do have is being expected to sing along on a song I’ve never seen or heard before. It would be extremely helpful to people like me, if a melody line (music notes) were included along with the lyrics. These days, new songs don’t usually hang around long enough to become sacred. Of course, there are exceptions like “In Christ Alone,” “Shout To The Lord,” etc. .

    If all else fails, and the projector goes out, it’s still “okay” to go back to “Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art,” “Because He Lives,” etc. . Who knows, you might even hear a little harmony coming from the audience. That’s what I miss hearing the most these days.

    • I agree totally. I like to look at the music not just the words. Use to people could actually learn to sing in church, not so much anymore . It’s an awesome sound to be singing a congregational song and hear people singing other parts besides the melody.