This article was originally featured in Cogitare’s Summer 2023 print edition.
During my entire four years as a student at Grove City College, the chapel program has struggled to maintain the respect of the student body. Nowhere is this more evident than during the normal chapel services held Wednesdays and Fridays. Attendance is grudging, as evidenced by the credit requirement, frequent skipping, and the perennial complaints one hears walking about campus. Many, perhaps even most, students scramble in and whip out a phone or a laptop as soon as they get a chance, covertly shopping, gaming, or scrolling through social media. During the praise portion of the service, a few brave souls belt out the lyrics on screen while the rest of the congregation begins mumbling.
This sad state of affairs cannot be laid at the feet of the current Christian Formation Office. Attitudes towards chapel were much the same when Dean Weaver was Chaplain, and the program has generally improved since his departure. The Fivers offered by faculty, and the inclusion of major speakers like Chad Van Dixhoorn and Scott Hahn, have been welcome additions to the weekly chapel regimen.
Nonetheless, the office could easily take a big step in securing the student respect and participation it so craves. What’s more, this step would not require a major change to the program’s organization and would incur zero financial cost. The step I am speaking of is this: the office should include the singing of traditional hymns out of the Trinity Hymnal during the chapel services. About six of these Hymnals are already found in each pew in Harbison—more than enough to share. To be clear at the outset, I am not arguing that the service ought to include hymns because hymns are more theologically substantive, or aesthetically pleasing than praise music, although both these things are also true.
Instead, my case is a chapel-centric case for the use of hymns rather than praise music in the weekly services. Hymns offer some things the chapel program quite clearly needs: the respect and participation of the students. Our chapel program should lean into the resources already at its disposal in order to gain student respect. We own hymnals already have the glorious architecture of Harbison Chapel – could not the hymnals be easily used in tangent with our architecture to shape the attitudes of the student attendees?
Environments and expectations really do matter to how people think, feel, and behave. The church has been practicing liturgies for centuries in part to achieve this sort of effect, shaping the attitudes of worshippers towards one of respect and awe.
Hymns are conducive to a tone of reverence during the service. They do not pander, as praise music does, to an audience, with easy feel-good lyrics and vanilla acoustic instrumentals. No, hymns demand something of a congregation: their lyrics are old and often awkward, and the music they are set to is complex. These features give hymns an edge over praise music in their ability to encourage a proper attitude – and even participation.
The seriousness of hymns is one advantage they offer to student participation in, and respect for, a service. Whatever else one might say about hymns, they are serious. Their themes are often more complex – even darker – than those of praise music. To modern ears, they speak from a somber time gone by—one of serious dress, church pews, and grandparents. Hymns thus demand to be taken seriously. In contrast, contemporary praise music exudes a sort of casual optionality, it carefully avoids imposing in any manner upon those present. Such music would be perfectly suited for creating the inoffensive ambiance that malls and other places of commerce rely on. Praise music is no more conducive to reverence than the music one hears inside a Starbucks.
Similarly, the difficulty and reward of hymns promote participation. One must pay real attention and make a real effort to keep up with a hymn. It feels good to sing them well and sounds impressive. By singing a hymn you have the sense of accomplishing something, of overcoming a challenge. Whereas praise music is insultingly easy, one feels a little embarrassed singing along to it. Praise music expects almost nothing of its participants and gets just that.
Students will not only feel more obliged to take chapel seriously if hymns are sung. Chapel will also become more worth taking seriously. It will become closer to an institution that forms and truly educates its participants in a liberal sense. Students will be forced to grow in a small way to meet the challenge of hymns and the new tone of the service.
The difficulty of hymns may at first seem to be a weakness. “After all,” a Grove City employee says in his heart, “how could we possibly teach a community of thousands of people to sing music this difficult?”
To this objection, I say that churches across the world have been teaching buildings full of people to sing hymns for hundreds of years. Lo, I have even witnessed this miracle first-hand! All that is required is for the congregants to sing the hymn four or five times. Of course, there will be growing pains. Many students will not participate initially or at least not with much effort. But what is the danger here? There is hardly anything to be lost: participation is already at rock bottom.
A would-be reformer may also wonder if hymns would be less impactful for the student body. Their emotional tenor and spiritual content is deeper and more difficult to grasp. Praise music is much closer to the style than contemporary twentysomethings are used to. Hymns are not, for most, very relatable, and many evangelicals did not grow up singing them. Grove City students hail from a variety of Church backgrounds with very different tastes and preferences.
Such observations are broadly correct. However, is it even possible for hymns to be worse at connecting with students than our praise music status quo, which seems only able to elicit a dull murmur, one mercifully covered by the drums and guitar up front? Virtually no one sings as things stand. If praise music is so much better at connecting to the broad student body, then why can’t it seem to connect at all now?
True to form, it seems that the hymns set to praise music that the chapel uses actually garner more participation than their pure praise alternative. I suspect this is because many Grove City students are quite familiar with hymns. Even if this were not the case, that is, if hymns are just as dismal in their ability to draw participation, they ought to be preferred for the tone they evoke as I discussed earlier. Between an option that offers no participation and no respect and an option that offers no participation but a bit more respect, the choice is clear.
A final obstacle to the hymn switch I am proposing is political. Currently, the music used in the chapel is chosen by the students who make up the chapel worship team. For a student to change it, she would have to persuade those currently on the team or stage some kind of takeover. Since both of these options are likely impossible, and the second is just stupid, it is time that the OCF employee responsible for managing the worship team steps to the plate.
I imagine it is difficult for the OFC administrator in this oversight position to lay down the law. The worship team may very well dislike this infringement upon their freedom and responsibility over the chapel music. This is where Grove City College administrators come in. Being part of the institution that owns Harbison means that you can tell the team what music they are to use. Being part of the institution that owns Harbison also means that you ought to serve the entire student body, not just the few who do enjoy and participate in chapel worship as it currently is.