Perspective From the Choir Loft

God of majesty, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven, be with Your servants who make art and music for Your people that with joy we on earth may glimpse Your beauty. Bring us to the fulfillment of that hope of perfection that will be ours as we stand before Your unveiled glory; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen. — A Prayer for Church Musicians and Artists, LSB, 307

Whether you consider your musical taste to be refined or an eclectic hodge-podge you cannot deny the power of music. Music has been used to soothe and bring comfort; to stir the hearts and minds of worshipping communities; to teach young and old; to express the emotions of the heart; and to stimulate the courage of men on the battlefield (to name just a few). I want to briefly sketch the role of music in the life of the church in this post, avoiding the Scylla and Charybdis of the “worship wars” that typically sink such discussions.

Music as God’s Creation and Gift

Music is an inherent part of our humanity as image-bearers of God. And like all gifts, it is meant for the good of the receiver. Although just one of many art forms given to humanity for enjoyment and God’s praise, music is the most comprehensive in nature, serving many purposes. Additionally, the role of musician as a vocation is found in the heritage of Jubal, Asaph, and Chenaiah in the Bible.

For Martin Luther, the basis of understanding music in the life and worship of God’s people was viewing music as creation and gift of God. In the preface to Georg Rhaus’s, Symphonieae Iucundae, he repeatedly stresses music as God’s gift.

I would certainly like to praise music with all my heart as the excellent gift of God, which it is and to commend it to everyone... And you, my young friend, let this noble, wholesome, and cheerful creation of God be commended to you... At the same time you may by this creation accustom yourself to recognize and praise the Creator (LW 53:321, 324).

To think of music to the contrary, for Luther, was to call into question one’s humanity. He pulled no punches when he wrote:

A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard it [music] as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of dogs (LW 53:316).

This may sound harsh, but Luther was passionate about music because he rightly understood that it originates with God. During the Reformation, he was confronted by many well-intentioned radical reformers who condemned music because of its potential to negatively influence people. In his preface to the Wittenberg Hymnal, he wrote of such people:

Nor am I of the opinion that the gospel should destroy and blight all the arts, as some of the pseudo-religious claim. But I would like to see all the arts, especially music, used in the service of Him who gave and made them (LW 53:316).

Luther set the stage for the freedom of composers, choirs, and instrumentalists to develop their talents and abilities to the highest degree possible both inside and outside of the church.

Music in the Liturgy

Music employed for worship has always been controversial. All worship is contemporary in the sense that it is happening in the present. At one point, all hymns were a new song unto the Lord; thus, I find the distinction of “traditional” vs. “contemporary” to be unhelpful in moving the conversation forward in any meaningful way. First, such labels often segregate generations of Christians on the basis of personal musical taste under the guise of attracting or retaining members. This has led to a cafeteria approach catered to the musical desires of supposed niche demographics. Second, I believe pastors and music directors can do better when selecting and evaluating the appropriateness of a hymn or musical piece for the Divine Service than to treat worship as if they were PR directors for an advertising firm. We have more than enough consumerism to deal with in our culture.

With this said, let me offer some brief thoughts on music in the liturgy:

  • Some melodies do not carry the lyrics as well as others. As St Paul writes, we are to let the Word of God dwell richly in our hearts, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in our hearts to God (Col 3:16). This assumes that the content of what we sing is based upon the Word of God, thus there is a catechetical dimension to music in the church. Thus, the form and content of a hymn should marry to support what is being sung.
  • In his book, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, Ken Myers notes that popular culture specializes in instant gratification and has the tendency to spoil our taste for something better (like candy with a child). In other words, pastors and parents must take the time to educate those under their care about worship, which includes why we sing what we sing in church, which may be very different from what is streaming on your Pandora playlist throughout the week.
  • In a tradition like Lutheranism, I have found that when a congregation incorporates popular praise music, it is often so dissonant from the rest of the service that the common liturgical portions of the service (i.e. Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, etc.) are truncated, spoken, or deleted all together. Thus, the distinctions between a Lutheran church and that of any other evangelical church are diminished as the hymnal is chucked to the side. The results are often three-fold: (1) The Word of God that saturates the liturgy is also diminished; (2) Congregational participation drops as parishioners become passive listeners; and (3) the church is forced to create multiple service options (traditional, contemporary, etc.), further separating the flock either by personal taste or age demographics. I say this not to condemn congregations using popular praise music, but to encourage wisdom in how it is employed.

Here are six questions I use to select hymns/music for the weekly service:

  1. Does the song support the lectionary readings, themes, or church calendar?
  2. Does the tune support the lyrics (not all of them do)?
  3. How familiar is the congregation with the tune?
  4. How learnable or durable is the song? Not every hymn has a melody that stands the test of time. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s good; and just because it’s new, doesn’t mean it’s bad.
  5. Does the song compliment the other music, chants, etc.?
  6. Can our musicians pull it off? The talent in each parish will vary, thus expectations must be realistic.

Next month I will cover the topic of preaching and how to listen to a sermon.