I returned recently from the annual conference of the Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada. I’ve been a handful of times over the years. As usual, it was a wonderful conference with hundreds of worship leaders, pastors, priests, hymn writers, publishers, hymnologists, and people who just love to sing hymns.
This conference was in Dallas, a warm place in July, and I believe that the 2020 edition will be in Atlanta, another warm spot. Then, in 2021, this terrific event will journey to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the campus of Calvin University (formerly Calvin College), where Hymnary.org is located, and where the weather is always beautiful! Maybe I can give a tour of the Hymnary.org facilities to any interested attendees.
In Dallas, each night (and a couple of other times) there were hymn festivals, all different. One was organ and brass, beautiful, uplifting, and loud. One was experiential, singing simple songs many times, standing in a circle and looking at each other. One was Pentecostal style, featuring a Hammond B3. One included songs from Africa, Asia, South America, North America, and perhaps elsewhere, embodying the breadth of the Kingdom. At times the singing was linear, with rich theology and beautiful harmony, at other times contemplative, at other times, intended to rouse the spirit. At times it was led by organ and other instruments, at times by praise band, and at other times a cappella. Festivals were lead by Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals, and mainline protestants. Yet each festival included joyful praise, confession, petition and dedication.
These festivals raised an interesting question in my mind, a question that was also dealt with in a couple of the lecture sessions: the question of how congregational singing functions to form us spiritually. Is its genius that it expresses our faith in a way that invites everyone to join in? Is it to arouse the emotions and build fervor? To teach us theology and help us affirm our belief to each other? To build community? To pray together? Is it a part of the “communion of the saints”? All of the above equally?
One theme for worship leaders was the suggestion to be thoughtful about the purposes of congregational song and to lead it in a way that promotes those purposes. Do you think that an essential component is praying together? Then consider whether your practices invite people to pray and to hear each other praying. Do you believe that participation builds the communion of the saints? Then think about whether your practices promote participation or watching and listening.
And what effect does the use of technology have on spiritual formation? But that’s a whole ’nother matter…