The struggle to choose the hymns for the small rural congregation I serve is a microcosm of the challenges faced by members of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song (PCOCS) as it decides what hymns and songs to include in the next Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) hymnal and electronic resources.
When I first went to church, when I was about 15, I found myself in a hymn-singing tradition. When I began to write hymns in the 1960s it was natural for me to follow that tradition. I think that a congregational song, or a hymn—which is a lyric that develops a theme or tells a story which unfolds over more than two or three stanzas—can be in any kind of musical style.
A tacit assumption is that PowerPoint computer presentations are merely a means to an end, a value-neutral tool used for innocent, even noble purposes: enlarging text for the hard of seeing; reducing the demand for printed materials; bringing younger people, who spend much of their lives in front of screens—TV, computer, cell phone, PDA—into worship. But PowerPoint is not value-neutral. As information design analyst Edward Tufte has argued, PowerPoint promotes a kind of cognitive style that routinely disrupts, dominates and trivializes content.
There are great gifts—both theological and musical—in the songs being sung in Japan and Peru and Zimbabwe. If those of us in the Northern Hemisphere do not within the next ten years sing the songs of Asia, Africa and South America in worship, our exclusion of them will be deemed racist. It will be seen as a case of musical apartheid.By joining other Christians in song, we in the body of Christ share the joy and the pain of fellow members, most of whom are black and poor, not white and affluent.
The images abound in stock video footage accompanying stories on evangelicals, the religious right, megachurches and the culture wars—the obligatory shots of middle-class worshipers, usually white, in corporate-looking auditoriums or sanctuaries, swaying to the electrified music of “praise bands,” their eyes closed, their enraptured faces tilted heavenward, a hand (or hands) raised to the sky.