I have been promising a post about Bethany Lutheran as a follow up to my last post here. Life becomes busy for me in the fall as I spend the better part of every day in my classroom where I teach. The evening hours are short as I have two young children, a wife, homework to review, dinner and household odds and ends to which to attend. And bedtime is as early as I can afford as I am up at 5:30 AM daily.
Having said that, let me give you my most concise assessment of what Bethany Lutheran does to model good worship music practice.
First of all, they have a philosophy. I am not quoting anyone here. Rather, I am stating their philosophy as I see it. It is this: Diverse musical styles serve the gospel well. And we ought to use diverse musical styles and every instrument known to man in the pursuit of serving and proclaiming the gospel. The only styles that inhibit this endeavor are those that are completely beholden to popular culture and entertainment functions.
So, what might you hear at Bethany? Will you hear an organ? Yes. Will you hear a piano? Yes. Will you hear a guitar? Yes. Will you hear timpani or conga drums? Yes. Will you hear all kinds of other instruments like, woodwinds, brass, strings, percussion, like triangles and finger cymbals? Yes. Will you hear an a cappella choir? Yes. Will you hear soloists? Yes. Will you hear African, Latin American, Early American, Old German, and New American styles? Yes.
So, given ALL this diversity, what will you NOT likely hear? The pop-band, (i.e. the praise band). You will also probably not hear the jazz band, although many new American styles borrow chord progressions from jazz (which reflects harmonic practices of turn-of-the-century French composers like Debussy, Milhaud, Poulenc, and Ravel, among others). But putting up the pop band or the jazz band to play the music of the church is too easy and it does not often prove to be the best expression of the Gospel. It is, in a word, uncreative. And it is far too grounded in worldly entertainment associations. We are not in church to be entertained. We are in church to worship and to hear the Gospel message in its fullness. The music should contribute to that fullness of the rendering of the Gospel.
Now I know the argument is going to be that not many churches have these kinds of resources to pull this off. But let me say two things. 1. If a church has the resources to have a praise band play every week, they have the resources to be more creative than that and can endeavor to provide more diversity than that. And, 2. If a church does not have any of these resources, they have many options as to how to deal with their congregational singing that does not involve having a quasi rock group play their hymns. I have written about this at length before so I will spare you the details.
My advice to Lutheran congregations: Like Bethany, embrace musical stylistic diversity, but do so with these things in mind:
1. Make the focus of your music program SINGING the hymns and liturgy. Singing is the number one component to emphasize.
2. Avoid pop-culture idioms. Keep the rock band (praise band) away from the Divine Service.
3. Use all the instrumental resources you have in your congregation - responsibly!
4. Make sure that all texts of hymns are doctrinally precise and clear. Not just that they do not say anything wrong, but that they say everything right.
5. Make sure the music reflects the spirit of the text. Don’t take the easy way out by using music that is simply the most “popular.”
At core, we need to retain a thoroughly Lutheran understanding of what is worship. The problem with modern Evangelicalism is that they do not share our particularly Lutheran view of what it means to be in the Divine Service, the holiness it conveys and the presence of God in Christ that it gives. Our LCMS has been, woefully, all too interested in following the lead of American Protestantism. Lutherans need to retain their fundamental and confessional understanding of what it means to worship as they choose their worship music. Stylistic diversity is great. But rather than appealing to people’s pet preferences and desires to be entertained in some way, we must make sure that our worship music upholds and illumines the Word of God and the presence of Christ in our midst.