I was able to join Stephen for the last night day of the WELS worship conference and so offer some comparison and contrast for our readers:
1 - Preaching. What I heard in St. Peter was consistent with reports I got from a couple of folks who attended all of both conferences: the WELS preaching overall was stronger, more substantive, and more Lutheran. Not that the preaching was all bad at LCMS, but certainly there are some gifted preachers in the WELS - and they take the idea that the Worship Conference is for pastors as well as musicians quite seriously. I will say that the LCMS preaching was stronger at past Institutes, but if I were to keep score here (which I'm not), I'd say "score one for the WELS!"
2 - Orders of Service. The WELS are introducing a new hymnal supplement and so several new service settings were introduced at the conference. (Full disclosure: it includes my tune for Christopher Idle's "If Christ Had Not Been Raised") Certainly this is the place to do that sort of thing - but I think it was a little overdone. Part of the joy of these conferences is singing the common tradition together and that wasn't done as strongly at the WELS conference as I think it should have been. I might have liked a little more liturgical variety at the LCMS conference - but LSB didn't give us much new to work with (which is another story for another post). That said, I thought the LCMS had a better balance between "familiar" and "fresh" - even as I commend the WELS Commission on Worship for doing an excellent job with their hymnal supplement AND this conference.
3 - Hymnody. Both conferences featured good hymnody, sung with gusto by the assemblies. The WELS had an accent on new tunes & texts appearing in their new supplement; the LCMS did a better job of reflecting and expressing the catholicity of the church with the variety of hymns selected. If there is interest perhaps we'll post a list for folks to compare. Just let us know.
4 - Psalmody. Both conferences did what most LCMS congregations don't do: they sang the psalms. I think this is actually a more common practice now in WELS, but I need more than my experiences and some anecdotal data to confirm this. At any rate, WELS is to be commended for providing many new psalm refrains in its supplement. LCMS is to be commended for having more variety in its practice of psalm singing (though we could have used even more!). I will offer one caution for WELS, though: at Evening Prayer on Wednesday night, I found myself starting to agree with Carl Schalk's observation that "we are being refrained to death these days." While I disagree with Carl on this, as I think refrains contextualize the psalms and are useful ways of engaging the assembly and incorporating them into psalm, I do think there is a limit to how much of this style one should use. Certainly with all the musicians present we could have done a little more than the THREE songs with refrains sung after the sermon at Evening Prayer that night - in addition to the one on Psalm 141 earlier in the service! I think 1-2 refrains in a service is fine; four is a bit too much.
5 - High School Honor Choir. OK, at this point I must say that even though Dr. Von Kampen did a STELLAR job with the LCMS kids - and even though one of my sons was singing with the LCMS group(!) - I must give strongest praise to the WELS for a job incredibly well done. The LCMS evidently has a lot to learn from the WELS in organizing, recruiting, and motivating young people for these conferences. The LCMS choir had 42 singers: 16 sopranos, 12 altos, 7 tenors, and 7 basses. The WELS, despite being a much smaller synod, had 128 singers - 32 in each section! They sang much more literature - and much more challenging literature - than the LCMS group. These kids were obviously working on this music well before the conference, and I suspect that the WELS high school choir directors were plugged into the planning and so used some of the conference music in their own programs this past year. Most of the students were from WELS high schools - but there was a good number of public and home schooled youth as well.
I think the contrast between these groups is illustrative of the conflict and dysfunction within the LCMS. Most LCMS schools do not value and nourish our rich musical heritage and so our youth are deprived of some great faith-shaping experiences. It appears to me that this is less of a problem in the WELS. And it was such a joy to watch 128 high school students joyfully singing classical sacred music, and great liturgical music from our Lutheran heritage. They were singing in spirit and in truth and it showed! Imagine what the LCMS could do if we were to have lots of high schools excelling in choral music, have those schools networked and plugged into conference planning and preparation, and then bring in 128 of the cream of the LCMS crop to have a music camp for a few days before the conference. It would do so much more than make for great worship: it would motivate the next generation of the church's musicians for the years to come.
One last comparison - both conferences made great and good use of instruments. I hope that all the musicians who attended will go home and use more of the musical talent in their parishes. It is so easy to simply "just play it on the organ", but there is so much more ministry taking place when we use the gifts God has placed among us in our parishes. With both youth and instrumentalists, a rich liturgical piety is nurtured through involving more people in the Lord's song. May we musicians dedicate ourselves to discipling the talent placed among us - and may our congregations support this work by budgeting appropriate funds to support music ministry in the Church.