Hymnbooks vs overhead projection

Don’t dump your hymnbooks!

Well, it looks as if I’ve immediately given myself away! Seriously though, comparing the use of hymnbooks versus overhead projection is a bit like trying to compare chalk and cheese. Quite simply, each method offers quite different output and both have their pros and cons.

It’s certainly worth remembering that a hymn is no better or worse for being displayed on overhead projection rather than being printed in a book. Having said that, I do have a preference for hymnbooks based on practical and financial considerations relating to how the media we use supports singing and worship both at Church and at home.

The case FOR overhead projection:

• People sing better with their heads up and their hands unencumbered
This is absolutely true. Whenever I sang in choirs we were encouraged to memorise the words so we could look up when singing – if only to ensure that all eyes were focussed on the choirmaster! We all sing well on our feet with our heads up. I know there’s an argument that we can engage better physically with our hands unencumbered by hymnbooks but, for me, this ‘advantage’ is marginal at best.

• Access to an almost limitless choice of music
Once again, this is undeniably true. It is, however, also potentially problematic. There’s a real danger of exchanging quantity for quality. I’m not particularly referring to the songs themselves, that’s an altogether different issue, but as a musician, a constant stream of new, and therefore unfamiliar, music doesn’t lend to quality singing. I’m fully in favour of learning new hymns but it does need to be handled with care. In fact, this is a major topic in itself.

The case AGAINST overhead projection

• Visibility – or lack of it
Everyone needs to be able to see the words. In some Churches this isn’t a problem. They have one or more large, well-placed screens and overhead projection works very well. But this simply isn’t always the case. We can’t sing with confidence if we don’t know the words and can’t actually read them.

Successful implementation of quality overhead projection is subject to a number of factors including the financial resources of the assembly, the layout of the premises and the seating plan. If you can’t implement this system well, you may wish to consider whether it’s worth the financial outlay.

• Technical issues
Power cut: If the power goes down or the computer hangs, do you have an alternative strategy to fall back on? (Such as hymnbooks… )

• Operators
Someone, preferably two or more, will have to be well-trained to run and maintain the projection equipment. Smooth, timely overhead changes are really important. There’s nothing more confusing than the wrong words appearing at the wrong time and it can stop the singing dead in its tracks. If your operators are absent unexpectedly, you may encounter the same difficulties as outlined above for a power cut.

• Legal issues
The 8th commandment: ‘Thou shalt not steal.’ (Exodus 20:15)
Most modern hymns are copyrighted. Churches simply don’t have the right to publish, display and distribute certain music without a license. It’s against the law and it constitutes theft. (See CCLI – Christian Copyright Licensing International) There are ongoing financial implications related to purchasing and renewing the appropriate license(s).

The case FOR hymnbooks

• Visibility – seeing the whole song
Everyone can read the hymn no matter where they’re standing in Church. The hymn can be viewed in its entirety; every single verse and refrain. There seems a curious disconnect when individual verses appear for a few moments before being replaced. This is even more important when singing the Psalms as we need to understand the lyrics as a whole. After all, when we read Scripture, we don’t just view one verse at a time in isolation.

• Following the melody

This is very important, especially if it’s a new song. Of course, some hymnbooks are words-only versions, in which case, as far as the melody is concerned, it’s no different than reading the words from an overhead projection. The choice to buy a words and music version is both efficient and cost-effective because they can do double duty in supporting musicians and non-musicians alike. (For example, you can train up your ‘undercover choir’ using the normal hymnbook and there’s no additional financial outlay for new music.)

• Portability
Perhaps a particular hymn really speaks to our hearts and with a hymnbook, we can, of course, take it home to meditate on the words and sing it over and over again. If it’s a new hymn, there’s the opportunity to learn it and practise during the week. Hymnbooks are also very suitable for house meetings, Church retreats and mid-week activities which may not take place in the main auditorium.

• Interface with visitors
If you have greeters who welcome people and hand out hymnbooks, this can provide the first interaction with visitors to your church. Through the years, I’ve travelled a fair amount and I’ve been to many Churches. The choice of hymnbook was often quite enlightening as to what I might expect from the tone and content of the service.

The case AGAINST hymnbooks

• Financial outlay
Whatever the size of your congregation, the purchase of hymnbooks does represent a significant financial outlay but there are no copyright issues for using them in Church and therefore no need for ongoing license renewal. It’s worth bearing in mind that there may, however, be copyright issues if you want to copy and circulate music from your hymnbooks.

• Restricted repertoire
This is certainly true but I guess it depends on what hymnbook you choose. My recent version of Complete Mission Praise offers 1144 hymns and songs. I can live with this kind of restriction! Even if I choose to adopt the exclusive Psalmody, I still have 150 Psalms available and a whole variety of tunes to mix and match.


In the final analysis, both methods have value but congregational singing isn’t just about reading words from a screen or a book. It’s about praising God, interacting with each other and learning from what we sing. Perhaps if we examine WHY we sing and WHAT we sing, we’ll be better placed to decide HOW we sing.