Religion and agrarian life fit well together. Maybe this is became most religious traditions developed well before the Industrial Revolution, urbanization and the rise of the Middle Class society. Many of the Biblical stories that I grew up with had farming theme and rural roots: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Cain and Able (hunter vs farmer), Joseph’s dreams that provided Pharaoh with a vision of what to do with his grain, David the shepherd, angles announcing Christ’s birth to shepherd in the fields, Jesus’s parables, Paul’s list of the Fruit of the Spirit, etc.
Living in urban centers directed my mind to nuances of theological dilemmas. Living in a rural community, diminishes my concern about whether the Trinity makes Christianity Polytheistic vs Monotheistic. Parallel this with the music of the church. I have attended service with Gregorian chant in Florence, Italy, as well as Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion on Good Friday at St. Peter’s church in NYC. I find that a Hymn Sing by the Potomac Valley Men’s Choir in a country church is as authentic as worship might get.
Unless you live in a rural community, especially those near a Mennonite or Amish region, you may not have come across the tradition of the Hymn Sing. Literally, this is an evening of congregational singing, either accapella or with piano accompaniment. You can sit back and enjoy the choir or open your hymnal and join along. Most of these hymns originated in the 19th century, following 4 part harmonies in 4/4 or 3/4 time.
Certainly, we have contemporary church services (the county assessor is the drummer), and gospel bluegrass bands (a county commissioner leads one), and contemporary Christian music on the radio (sponsored by a local Baptist church). But, these styles of worship are different from the old hymns. Many of these songs have melodies, chord structures, and rhythms that highlight a singer or instrumentalist. These events often become performances. Old time hymns call for congregational singing. Maybe the congregation is a little flat, or a little off beat, but you are not likely to doze off or decided that you have to answer a text message when you are holding a hymnal.
The Potomac Valley Men’s Choir formed a couple of decades ago with the purposes of bringing men and congregations together from different churches in the region and to raise money for people and family’s with health expenses. They would set a date at a local church, sing for an hour, have an offering which they would pass on to the person (literally handing them an envelope with several hundred dollars to pay for gas to their medical appointments, or a motel room for their family while they were in the hospital), then gather in the Fellowship Hall for sandwiches and deserts.
As with many old-timey traditions, time is fading them from generation to generation. When we attend the hymn sings, we notice the membership aging, the numbers diminishing & the needs increasing. Similarly, we see fewer homes with gardens, and more with ride-on-lawn mowers, fewer people raising a cow for milk, or chickens for eggs, or hogs for meat, fewer people gathering at the old-home-place for Sunday Supper. The younger generations prefer different styles of worship, and may be used to seeing the lyrics to the hymns projected on the sanctuary’s walls, rather than on page 318 of the hymnal. The younger generation is more comfortable being entertained at the movies or from TV, rather than being a participant in the event. The younger generation’s sense of service is extra credit points for a community service project organized by their school or college.
I do not fault them, for I’m sure that past generations could criticize The Who for “My Generation” too. But, I see a cultural phenomenon from the 19th century slipping into the archives of the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
At the most recent hymn sing we attended, with a dozen men in the choir, and about 50 of us in the pews, and the church’s registry board listing 35 members in the congregation, 14 attending last Sunday, to add to the joy-full noise, the choir director invited all the men in the congregation to come up and sing a few songs with the choir. Children were invited at another time. The cold winter night added frost to the air, while we were warmed with a variety of Rugged Crosses and Blessed Assurances. For now time is still. A minister prays for a woman to understand the boundaries between today and eternity. The notes of the hymns come from all.