As I wrote in this 2010 post, I very much enjoy many Mormon hymns. I also mentioned in that post that there are some songs in the LDS hymnal that I don't much care for. But mine is just one opinion among millions.
Although I don't currently serve in a church calling that directly involves music, I am often the go-to guy to substitute leading the music in meetings. I get to accompany on the piano with some regularity. And when all other options have fallen through, the opportunity to play the organ in sacrament meeting sometimes falls to me as the ward's unofficial fourth string organist.
Sometimes when I lead the music all I can see from the podium is a load of somber faces with about a third of them not even bothering to try to sing. Elder Dallin H. Oaks once described a similar experience. I try to be warm and enthusiastic when I lead the music, but some hymns don't evoke much passion.
This D-News article says that "The trend toward informal and entertaining and exuberant worship services ... continues to climb" in the US. The number of churches where "people jump, shout or dance during the main service" is steadily increasing. Not so much (if at all) among Mormons. Nor do I expect to see much variation in this pattern during my lifetime.
Latter-Day Saint worship services are firmly rooted in the church's early pioneer cultural heritage. Many early leaders and saints came from New England where puritanical protestantism reigned. Most of the early converts from outside of North America came from conservative northern European protestant cultures where solemnity was seen as properly pious behavior for worship services, while any type of exuberance in a worship setting was seen as a throwback to degenerate hedonistic paganism.
The patterns established by early saints continue to strongly influence Mormon meetings. Consequently, we Mormons don't get too excited about anything during our worship services. Although people claiming to have the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ ought to be the happiest people on the face of the earth, Mormon congregations tend not to look very happy during meetings. Or even very alert. Our music lends to this. But is it possible that we could see this pattern change somewhat in the future?
In this LDS Living article, well known entertainer and Mormon convert Gladys Knight (the "Empress of Soul") says, "Our congregations are filled with a growing diversity of people from different races and cultures. I look forward to the day when we embrace their music without feeling uncomfortable." When I read this I felt like uttering a soulful "Amen!" I'd love to see this happen.
There have long been some cultural variations in Mormon worship services around the globe. In Norway where I served as a missionary, congregations could sing The Spirit of God so sedately that one could easily doze off mid verse. While in Central America where my wife served, congregations tend to sing Secret Prayer with gusto.
Wouldn't it be great to see more cultural diversity encouraged in our worship patterns? One way this could happen is through our hymns. But the slow adoption of new hymns presents a significant roadblock to this goal. Our current LDS hymnal was released almost three decades ago. The previous hymnal was released three and a half decades earlier.
Last Sunday I didn't see a hymnbook nearby as we prepared to sing. So I whipped out my phone, pulled up a hymn app, and quickly navigated to the correct hymn. My daughter and I used the phone to sing. Given that the church has gone heavily into online and mobile multimedia, wouldn't it be relatively easy to release new hymns without waiting for a new hymnal to be published three times per century?
I realize that many church members do not have electronic devices that could display hymns. Some that have such gear can't fathom using it that way. And maybe it's too early to stock screen devices in chapels in highly developed regions, let alone in less developed areas. But maybe the church could try a pilot program, as it often does with other things. It seems like technology should allow our hymn repertoire to be much more dynamic than it is.
Besides, tech writer Bret Swanson tells us that within a decade we can expect iPhones to cost $3 apiece. Maybe we aren't that far away from the point where technological advance will make it cheaper to stock LDS chapels with electronic devices containing a vast array of church media than to stock the pews with hardbound hymnbooks.
A whole generation of hymns has been produced since our current LDS hymnal was published. Most new hymns to which I have been exposed still sit comfortably in the staid puritanical culture of early Mormon pioneers. Is it not possible to be appropriately worshipful outside of this narrow culture? I'd love to be exposed to Mormon hymns written from different cultural perspectives. Heck, I'd love to play and sing those hymns. Is there any good reason in this day and age that we should be limited to 341 hymns?
I realize that hymn singing is a joint cultural experience for members of a congregation. It is also likely true that the average Mormon congregant living where Mormon culture is most dense has strong familiarity with fewer than 50 hymns — the same songs we sing week after week. While this familiarity has value, so could the practice of learning and singing new hymns on a regular basis.
But even the possibilities that I have suggested fall short of Gladys Knight's vision. She sees Mormons generally embracing and being comfortable with worshipful music from the cultures of those joining our congregations around the world. Indeed, she sees diverse worshipful singing as a pathway to something closer to our celestial goal. How soon can we go there?