One of the changes we made in the past year to mitigate against the pandemic was to begin printing out the entire worship service in each bulletin. I’m happy to announce that beginning March 7th, we are going to be going back to our old bulletin format, with the outline of the service and readings in the bulletin, but the service itself and the hymns will be available in the hymnal. I’ll get to why we think that makes sense from a public health perspective, but first I want to discuss why we even have hymnals at all.
Even before the pandemic, some have wondered why we continue to use the hymnals. We have the technology to project the service onto the walls of the sanctuary, or (obviously at this point) to print the entire service. So why would we want to introduce hymnals, which are heavier, and require us to flip to several different pages?
There are some practical reasons of course. For one, the cost of printing services every week is not insignificant both in dollars and in our office administrator’s time. Printing out the service every time also amplifies the opportunity for errors and inconsistencies. Projecting the service also requires a significant amount of time, both to make attractive and easy-to-read slides, and requiring another volunteer at every service to operate the equipment. Plus, it would put us at the mercy of cables and a computer which, even at their best, fail far more often than a book or piece of paper does.
But it’s not mainly for practical reasons that we preserve the use of our hymnals. The basic structure of the service doesn’t change week-to-week, and that’s by design. The Divine Service is almost completely direct quotations from Holy Scripture. We don’t think we can improve upon God’s Word, nor do we think we know better than twenty centuries of Christians who have learned the faith by hearing God’s Word, praying, and receiving the Sacraments in the pattern of the service we have today.
On top of that, the regular repetition helps us to learn and retain what we hear week to week. I recall visiting a shut-in several years ago whose dementia was so severe she had forgotten her own name. Even then, she could still pray the Lord’s Prayer. Through thousands of repetitions in her life, it had been burned forever in her memory. She was able to die with the words of Jesus on her lips.
But why do we need to keep using the hymnal? After all, we have been using the service exactly as printed in the hymnal, so we don’t have to change anything if we print it out in full each week. Well, something is also lost if we lose the use of the hymnal. Studies show that your brain interacts much differently with material you read from a book than what you read on the internet, for example. The medium of flipping pages, holding the books, and scanning your eyes up and down helps your mind to recall what you read more than just endless scrolling with a mouse. Studies also show that you will learn the Bible far better if you bother to look up the passage and read it from a Bible, rather than just look up the passage on a Bible app or on a printed sheet. In the same way, looking at the service and the hymns in a book, flipping the pages to find what you need, will help you to learn it better.
Using the hymnal teaches us something else too. We preserve books that we treasure. We re-read them and pass them on to others to read. Less permanent or important information tends to get printed on paper that destined to end up in the wastebasket. We believe that the liturgy and the best of twenty centuries of Christian hymnody deserves to be preserved, re-read, and passed on. Using the hymnal reminds us that we are not alone, that other Christians have worshipped the same Lord Jesus and received the same gifts from Him well before we did and will long after we are gone. We preserve the words of our faith and worship in a book that will last because the faith is something that will last. It’s not something that we are constantly changing to conform to the latest fads. We use what we have received from those who came before us, and we intend to preserve and pass it on to those who came after us.
What about the public health concern? Early on, the CDC warned us to disinfect every surface. At the time, we knew less about how COVID-19 is transmitted, and there was a concern that touching shared surfaces could be a possible source of transmission. That was over nine months ago. In the meantime, studies have shown that surface contamination is not a major vector for transmission of this virus. It is extremely unlikely you will contract COVID-19 from using one of our hymnals, which is why we feel it is safe to resume using them again.
In fact, it is quite sad that many have been made to feel that church is unsafe. The state of New York released extensive contact tracing data that they analyzed over many months. Do you know what percentage of cases were traced to church? A whopping 0.69%, which was less than half of the number traced to restaurants (1.45%), and far less than the largest share of contracted cases, which came from household social gatherings (73.84%). This really deserves its own newsletter article, but one important way science has now finally caught up to God’s Word is in demonstrating that God’s House is not a dangerous place to be. It is the place where God pours out immeasurable blessings on us in His Word.
God’s richest blessings in Christ Jesus,