Conversation and information about music and liturgy from a confessional Lutheran perspective.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Power of Hymns

Merry Christmas! It has been a busy month as I have focused on rehearsing musicians and preparing Advent and Christmas liturgies. In the near future I will be returning to my series on liturgical renewal. But in the meantime, don't miss this excellent article on hymnody at the Brothers of John the Steadfast.

"If I Were the Devil" by Pastor Klemet Preus

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

What I Found

So, before we get into the "Three-Year Plan" that we implemented at Bethany to "nurture authentic worship," I think it best to take a look at what things were like at Bethany when I first arrived there. What was the state of worship in 1999 that led Bethany to call their first Cantor? Some knowledge of what liturgical life was like when I arrived will be helpful to understanding the need for a comprehensive plan for liturgical renewal, as the scope of what we undertook over the course of four years was thorough and significant--and therefore required a patient and deliberate approach.

When I arrived at Bethany, she was being served by three confessional pastors, two of whom had been there for several years, and one who had been added just a few months prior to my arrival. The DCE and principal were theologically conservative, and the call committee which had interviewed me was vocal in their support for our Lutheran liturgical heritage and our hymnody. I even noted during the interview process the wonderful absence of flags in the chancel and was told they had been placed at the exit to the narthex a couple of years before following congregational deliberation on the matter. So I was greatly encouraged that I'd be serving a solidly Lutheran parish and was looking forward to serving people who were unified on worship matters.

Only they weren't. Not by a long shot. Sure, the program staff and the call committee shared a vision of traditional Lutheran liturgy supported by a strong and creative music program, but I soon saw that there was much work to be done--and learned very quickly that there were some who either wanted no changes at all (for various reasons) and others who wanted Bethany to move in a totally different direction.

Certainly good things were going on. The preaching was and remains excellent. But liturgically I entered an environment where the following was the norm:

1 - Cutting of hymn stanzas and omitting of parts of the liturgy so that services without communion were but 45 minutes long. (And communion was only once-a-month at that time!)

2 - Two praise teams that "led worship" at all Sunday morning services: one group once a month; another, made mostly of non-members, once or twice a quarter.

3 - Little use of the chorales for hymnody.

4 - Little use of the excellent new hymns and liturgical resources that were in common use in sister churches (such as from HS 98).

5 - Very little ceremony; a high degree of informality in how the ministers conducted the service.

6 - An expectation that children's choirs were for pre-service entertainment.

7 - A general view of instrumental and even choral music for worship as being "special music" of general devotional content rather than as a means for proclaiming the Gospel.

You get the picture. More specific details will come out over the course of this series, but this is enough to give you a feel of the disconnect between the theology being preached and the liturgical customs of the parish. And, let's be clear: I'm not complaining. I was brought in to "improve the field" at Bethany, and was aware that the leadership was seeking a musical and liturgical life that would match the theological depth of Bethany's preaching and teaching. I just didn't realize the size of the gap until I got there. Having served previously in parishes with fairly rich worship traditions, I was unaware that large congregations within Lutheranism could have such "low church" traditions. And I was also unprepared for the number of folk who were actually opposed to the pastors' and lay leaders' vision for worship as well. In previous parishes, there were staff who wanted more "evangelical" or "entertaining" worship, but the people pretty much wanted Lutheran hymns and liturgy. At Bethany, many of the people wanted "contemporary worship", but the staff was opposed.

So it was into this environment I was installed as Cantor in January of 2000. Over the next 11 months, working with the pastors, a worship committee, and a "Ministry Council," we would draw up a document called the "Three-Year Plan" that would guide Bethany's liturgical renewal from 2001-2004. We did this because we believed that a significant amount of teaching would be necessary in order to lead the congregation to embracing a more Lutheran approach to music, liturgy, and ceremony, and so took the time to get the full leadership of the congregation on board and took the care to be fully transparent with the congregation about our plans.

Over the next few weeks, I'll share the plan with you, and let you know how things turned out!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Nurturing Authentic Worship

Nine years ago, my life changed dramatically. I accepted the call to serve as Cantor at Bethany Lutheran Church and School in Naperville, Illinois, leaving my previous cantorate at Trinity Lutheran Church in Peoria. This was a move to a larger church. Little beknownst to me at the time, I was not only going to assume more responsibilities - that much I knew - but I was also about to be embroiled in the "worship wars" that have permeated the Church these past few decades. My experiences in leading the Lord's song in previous parishes prepared me somewhat for the stresses that lay ahead, but the first few years at Bethany were to give me a most thorough education in teaching congregations, nurturing traditions, and implementing change.

The last couple of posts, "Learning By Doing" and "Letting It Happen", were not originally intended to lead into a review of my first years at Bethany, but the discussion that followed made me realize that they are the perfect introduction to a series of articles on those years, because during that time I did more explaining, teaching, and communicating about music & liturgy than at any other time in my 19 years as a church musician. I discovered that being proactive is often the best strategy - but that sometimes the wisest move is to simply act and answer questions and, if necessary, make apologies later. I learned that while teaching the congregation more about music and worship is a good thing, there is a limit to what they can reasonably be expected to learn, and so often earning trust can be more important than good communication. And sometimes, because "talking about music is like dancing about architecture" (Thelonius Monk), congregations need to learn by experiencing things the Elders or Worship Committee might never approve if proposed abstractly to them in advance.

Now certainly church politics comes into play with all of this. Whether a congregation is getting along or is in conflict, there is a congregational power structure, pastoral leaderhsip styles, and congregational culture and history to navigate. And then there are personalities on committees. Sometimes they are like Forrest Gump's proverbial box of chocolates! So the overall prinicples I've learned have to be applied in the context of a given situation. But, regardless of church politics, I think the story of my first four years at Bethany reveal effective strategies for nurturing authentic worship in a parish, and so I will share this experience with you over the next several posts.

Coming up: Developing a Three-Year Plan for Liturgical Renewal at Bethany

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Letting It Happen

OK, so perhaps the examples I cited in the last post may have seemed like "straw men" - but then again, perhaps not. Sure most of us don't have to get our organ playing ideas approved by a committee and then explained to the congregation, but, believe it or not, in some parishes elders or worship committee time IS taken up with discussing whether or not the organist should be allowed to drop out on a stanza for a cappella singing. And while good spontaneity can and does happen in the liturgy, having an improvisation flow into the congregation's standing and singing the final refrain of a song takes planning and coordination between pastor & musician. So sometimes we think we should be able to do something w/o discussion, only to discover the opposite; other times things may appear to "just happen", but they are the result of discussion and planning.

So how are we to know when to run something through "the process", and when do we go with our inspiration? Truth be told, there are no "8 Simple Rules" on this one. Such judgments are more of an art than a science. But here are some guidelines:

1 - Does the innovation effect just you, or the pastor, or the whole assembly? People are more accepting of novelty that others do; more resistent to anything that would affect their accustomed pattern of worship.

2 - Does the innovation serve the text in an overt way, or is it more subltle? When people are surpirized by something obvious, they "get it" and think it is cool that it just "happened". If the innovation is more sublte, though, the people need some teaching lest you want them to think you are promoting change for the sake of change. (!)

3 - Will the innovation be done well? This may seem obvious, but sometimes it is not. Sure, the first time conga drums are played, they best be played well if there is to be no backlash, but do we always remember to similarly prepare things like the first time the children's choir chants a part of the liturgy, the first time handbells play a free ring on a doxological stanza, or the first time the acolytes do a Gospel procession? Ideally these things would always be well done, but, in my experience, I've seen too often that these good ideas are poorly implemeneted, and so an opportunity to promote an enriched liturgical life in a congregation is lost because people don't respond well to anything poorly planned or poorly executed. The children need to memorize that part of the liturgy, and thoroughly reheasrse doing it in the context of what comes right beforehand in the service. The bells need to know exactly how the director is going to get them in and out of the free ring, particularly how they are to dampen their bells at the end. And why can't district worship services ever seem to get a Gospel procession right? Because sufficient time is rarely put into doing such things well.

Over the next few posts, I'll share a few examples of how meaninful innovations were either successfully "sprung" or successful planned and prepared. Maybe you've got some stories to share too!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Learning By Doing

Our Lutheran culture is big on "knowing what we are doing" - at least, supposedly, about worship. Suggest doing something liturgical and a predictable reaction will be "well, we might want to do that, but let's be sure to instruct and explain before we do it." Now, there is some healthy conservatism in that approach, and certainly we do want to catechize. But sometimes the liturgy itself teaches us, and our fear of "moving beyond" the level of the "average laymen" prevents us from doing just that. This strikes me as ironic, since the average layman doesn't know much about what we are doing in worship to begin with, and so is "learning by doing" all the time!

I'm going to break this down into more than one post - I've figured out that my posts have been too long! - but, to get everyone thinking, consider the following statements:

"Playing an introduction to the hymn of the day that is in the tempo of the hymn, establishes its mood, and reinforces melodic ideas of the tune might very well improve singing - but let's be sure to explain what you are doing to everyone before you do it."

"Using the proper invitatory would be cool. It certianly reinforces the season of the church year. But visitors would get lost because it's not in the hymnal. But I guess we could do that on a special Sunday if you announced it!"

"So you'd like to sing the last refrain of that hymn at the end of communion distribution with everyone standing. Yes, that would literally be 'uplifting' now, wouldn't it? And you've done that in other parishes, too? But I don't know. We wouldn't do that every Sunday. How would people know when or if to stand? Seems a bit too spontaneous to me. People might get confused."

How do these thoughts sound to you? Next I plan on sharing some examples of where people were prepared for something new and where people simply experienced something new as it happened - with both successful and unsucessful results with each approach.

Thursday, November 6, 2008


I apologize for the lack of posts in recent weeks. The recent election was rather totalizing!

But we "trust not in rulers; they are but mortal. Earth-born they are and soon decay." (LSB 797:2) We need to be reminded to that no matter who governs us. And as our leaders prepare to increase taxes and regulations on us, let us also sing "and take they our life, Good, fame, child, and wife, Though these all be gone, Our victory has been won; The Kingdom our remaineth." (LSB 656:4) God is indeed our fortress; we shall never be shaken!

So, turning back to things eternal, I thought we all could use something a little lighter, and so I point you over to my latest post over at the Johnny Steadfast website. It shares a fun little video Stephen sent me that I'm sure will brighten up your day.

Here's part of a follow-up comment I posted over there. I'm quoting it here to pique your interest and perhaps stimulate some more serious discussion regarding the art of church music:

"For late 70's, it was fairly cutting-edge New Wave. And I do give them credit for being tight. (musician slang for being in sync rhythmically and not hitting any wrong notes) And one has to admit that there is a certain catchiness to the whole thing.

But now I think this illustrates an even stronger point: even if the Church can succeed in being "hip" for a moment, the world will move "hip" immediately somewhere else. And so looking back such efforts will always seem comical, at best. (I have had similar riots singing some of the religious pop sheet music in a Sinatra style by well-intentioned Anglicans in the 50's, and have had a real fun time singing some religious pop from the 1920s.) So I think people will look back at LCMS "praise teams" in 30 years and get similar chuckles. It's just the way of our "fast changing world", to quote Dr. Barry.

The core problem with ALL of this is that the music is driven by a desired sound. It may be the beat of the Charleston, the lush chords of the jazz era, or the punky grooves of New Age. So the text is then contrived to "fit" into the prescribed sound, and deemed OK as long as the sentiments are judged to be religious and sincere. Music is valued for its psychological effects, not for its ability to magnify the Word.

A good text may actually find its musical form in a peppy beat ("Christ Has Arisen, Alleluia"), pick up some jazzy chords ("How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord"), or even be hip for a moment ("Gabriel's Message" as sung by Sting, for example). But such music succeeds over time in the Church - and is valued as good art even by secular musicians - because it is driven by the words, not by the beat or the harmony.

Jesus is indeed our Friend. The great Good News is that He calls us friends, even though we are unworthy servants. But without the primacy of the lyric element, music cannot proclaim that message. At best it might be able to carry it along in an obscured way; at worst it is simply a diversion."

Saturday, October 11, 2008


One of the resources to which I subscribe is the Cantus Novus "list-serv" provided by Pastor Stefanski's "CAT-41" site. (CAT-41= 'Confess and Teach for One'). Recently, a poster asked the folks on the list to share their customs regarding the use of the various settings of the liturgy. Responses confirm that some parishes use just one or two settings, others more. Each situation is different, given the liturgical history of a congregation and the average musical literacy of its members, but most parishes do some rotation of musical settings.

I think it is usually a good thing for a parish to have variety in its musical practice of the liturgy, though certainly some situations may call for the use of but one setting. I'll give specific reasons for some of the kinds of variety I advocate below, but before we get to that I think it best to point out that the liturgical principle itself is the establishment of a pattern around which meaningful variety and creativity can form. Indeed, good patterns such as one has with the order of the historic liturgy (or the rules of counterpoint, or the laws of harmonic motion, or the rules of rhetoric) allow greater freedom and creativity than we ever could have without them.

Because the liturgy uses the idea of variety-within-pattern with its balance of ordinary and proper texts (i.e. texts which are the same and texts which are appointed for a given day), and has simplifications and elaborations around its basic form (such as omitting the Gloria during Lent, a longer Verse with more alleluias during Easter, etc.), judicious and intentional selection of tunes for the liturgy serve to highlight liturgical form, amplify its simplifications and elaborations, and allow the overall shapes and forms of the liturgy to resonate more clearly. I am convinced that such use of the art of music can add meaning and sustain interest in the hearts and minds of worshippers, letting the Word dwell in them more richly.

Let us know what your custom is. Perhaps our conversation may enrich our mutual practice. Meanwhile, here's how a suburban congregation in Chicagoland makes full use of the resources of LSB:


GREEN SUNDAYS OF EPIPHANY - special setting, using Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei from Haugen's "Mass of Creation" (we have OneLicense), Celtic Alleluia, and Nunc D from LSB III.
JULY & AUGUST - a local setting (composed by the local Cantor, soon to be available for download via Liturgy Solutions!)

*In October we take a break from LSB I and either do LSB III or LSB V for Reformation (and some of the prior weeks). We alternate between these each year. When we do LSB V in October, we set it up by singing various hymns from the Deutche Messe throughout the year. (e.g. by singing "Kyrie, God Father" as the Kyrie during Lent).

We have the Lord's Supper twice a month at each of our four service times. The most popular service times, 9:00 & 11:15am, commune a third time whenever there is a fifth Sunday. We also add extra communion services on feast days.

When we do not have the Lord's Supper, we use one of the prayer offices (such as Matins or Evening Prayer most of the time, but do use "antecommunion" (the Divine Service w/o the Service of the Sacrament) on first and second Sundays. Antecommunion provides us some good opportunities to use some of the alternative Canticles or other options for the Entrance Rite (such as a hymn paraphrase of the Gloria). Our day school chapel services on Wednesday mornings use either Morning Prayer or the Service of Prayer and Preaching.

Our rotations on the prayer & preaching offices are as follows:

Advent, Lent, Summertime, October in the AM- Matins
Christmas, Epiphany, Eastertide, September, and November in the AM - Morning Prayer
Wednesday Lenten Services - Matins in the AM; Evening Prayer in the PM
Wednesday Advent Services (PM only) - Evening Prayer w/ Taizé music.
Saturday 5PM Services - When the sun is up, Vespers; in the dead of Chicagoland winter, when the sun is down, Evening Prayer!

Why do we do this?

The advantages of seasonal rotations are considerable:

1 - Everyone gets to "settle in" to a particular setting over several weeks' time. This is especially important for young people learning the settings, and even more important for catechumens and visitors.

2 - It reinforces the primacy of the TEXTS over the tunes. Many Lutherans unfortunately think of "the liturgy" as a particular set of melodies w/ texts in a book, rather than the historic prayers and patterns of prayer of the Church.

3 - Seasonal rotations, when done consistently over several years, highlight the seasons of the Church Year. It is common in parishes with this practice for people to voice hopeful expectations toward specific seasons when their favorite versions of various Canticles might be sung (ex. "I can't wait until Easter when we sing 'This is the Feast' again," and "Isn't Epiphany when we get to do the Haugen 'Glory to God in the Highest'?").

4 - Using a few different settings also improves the music literacy of the congregation, thereby strengthening their hymn singing. No, it doesn't make sight-singers out of them, but the use of varied settings and various options on the Canticles, Alleluias, and responses makes people pay attention to the notes and helps their music reading at a fundamental level.

5 - Having at least two settings guards against the false idea that there is some uniquely holy setting of the liturgy (all settings are of human construction and therefore fall under the Judgement!), and helps preserve us from vain repetitions of the service. To be sure, vain repetitions come from the heart of man and so can and will occur no matter how much variety there may be in a parish. The problem is not the repetitions (otherwise the Lord's Prayer would be settings us up!), but in the vanity of man. However, providing at least some variety does communicate to the parish that their performance of any given set of tunes is not a meritorious work.

6 - Variety also defends the liturgy against charges of being 'boring'. Let's face it, though it is extremely rare for someone to complain about saying the Lord's Prayer every week, people do get tired of singing the same tunes ad infinitim. Even the best music gets tiresome over time, even music composed for such a purpose (like good liturgical music). Rotation of settings maintains interest and inoculates against liturgical burnout.

On a personal note, I want to add that this last point has been proven in several parishses, including the last two where I have served. In these cases, where there was little liturgical variety, many folks were clamoring for 'contemporary' worship; however, when greater liturgical variety became the custom in the parish, most of those expressing dissatisfaction with the liturgy became satisfied and moved from saying that the worship music was boring to saying that the worship music was something to which they were looking forward! Care must be taken to provide the right amount of variety, and to introduce new things at a deliberate pace, so as not to overwhelm the congregation, but the practical lesson in such cases is clear: it is not that the liturgy has been tried and found wanting, it is that the liturgy in all its fullness has not actually been tried!

So there you have it: "how we do it" at Bethany. I certainly don't think our rich and varied practice should be normative, but I offer it as an example of the customs of a singing parish that mines the riches of LSB and avoids the "worship wars" that plague so many parishes today.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

All Kids Can Sing

I am a music teacher. I teach at a Catholic high school in the Bronx, NY and have about 120 students this semester consisting of freshmen and seniors. The music program at the school is underdeveloped, which is why they had me come in. They want to cultivate a singing culture at the school. They want the kids to sing in the liturgies and to build a good choral program. My classes have several components. I teach voice pedagogy and basic theory as well as music history. And we sing – a lot.

I started by just singing at the kids. You know, singing the announcements, instructions, etc. Their first assignment was to come to class the next day and sing me a greeting. They thought I was out of my mind. Like anything else, these kids have gotten used to the antics of Mr. J. So, my singing is now to be expected, as is the daily regimen of song in which my students must participate.

The other day, I was listening to small groups sing canons (for a grade). One senior was having a hard time with pitch (well, several do, but this one in particular). It so happened that I could hear a couple of pitches that he was singing in tune. He was singing way too low (trying to sing an octave below where the men sing the canon). That means that his lowest notes were really unsingable, with rare exception. When he got to the upper notes he hit the “D” below middle “C”. When I asked him to do that again, he did and, after a little coaching, began singing the canon in the right octave and, by in large, on the right pitch. I asked him if he understood what had just happened and he kind of shyly grinned. I asked if he had every done that before and he admitted no. It was a breakthrough for him! I learned something and so did he – but so did the class. Their lack of skill in singing is not due to an inherent inability to do so, but because they have not used their voices in such a way since they were little children. When they have time and someone to teach them those voices come back! There are more examples of this but time and space prevent me from sharing them just now.

In the church, parents, Sunday school teachers, DCEs and pastors become the gatekeepers of what children sing. It is often believed that they cannot sing things perceived to be too difficult for them. But when there is time and someone to teach them they can, do and are even enthusiastic about learning difficult hymns. I have proven this over and over in my work with the church. So has my wife, who had worked with children on songs like “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” at Christmas time with complete success. The kids sang it as well or better than anything else on the program that day.

Experts would not be surprised and would likely stand in unanimity about the abilities of children to sing music adults perceive as too difficult. Still, even after more than one such example of the abilities of kids to comprehend musical substance and execute it, parishes still resort to canned music for events like VBS and Sunday school Christmas programs with superficial tunes and lyrics, depriving the children of early exposure to rich spiritual food contained in hymns of the Lutheran heritage and building a comprehensive musical vocabulary. Ironically, the church musician is often the last person who it is believed has credibility on such matters. I guess it is hard for people to believe that the musician would actually know something about the teaching and learning of music.

There is good news for you pastors and church workers who wonder whether your kids can embrace, sing and enjoy the Lutheran hymn heritage. The answer is a resounding YES! Find the time to teach them with a competent teacher and you will find success. It may be a little intimidating for the parents, though, when the kids sing hymns with ease that give their folks trouble. But maybe the kids can then teach their parents!

Friday, September 19, 2008


Fall is fast approaching, and here in the Northern Hemisphere that means harvest time - agriculturally speaking. But in the Church, most of us have just gotten a bunch of programs started that correspond to the academic year, and so while the fields around us are being harvested, things are just starting to sprout in our various plots of the Lord's vineyard.

True, we've had a summer full of "green" Sundays - i.e. when the paraments are green to reflect the liturgical season of the Sundays after Pentecost, known as the "Time of the Church". This is a season of growth, and the readings focus on sanctification, fellowship, vocation, and trust. Certainly we have grown as the body of Christ as the Spirit nurtured us in God's words and promises. But the programs of the Church are on a different "growth pattern" as they are by necessity more in sync with the academic calendar than the pericopes of the Church Year. And so our program years are just now getting off the ground.

How is your garden growing? Here at Liturgy Solutions, I am pleased to report that things are going very well at Bethany. The "fishing for choristers" expedition went exceedingly well. We're up to 24 kids in the parish children's choir, with three more expected to come after soccer season. Meanwhile our day school junior high choir has grown from about 30 kids to 56! We did have a couple of adult choir members move away - but we have picked up 3 new members and are holding steady at 36. Our contemporary and youth ensembles remain strong, as do our bell and brass groups, and new things are happening as well: a new bell choir for beginners is forming, and our day school music teacher is discipling new youth brass & wind ensembles in addition to his school band program. All in all, 148 people participate regularly in music ministry at Bethany - not bad for a congregation that averages about 575 in worship!

Certainly this all happens by the Lord's hand. His Spirit has given us a singing faith, and the people of Bethany love His song. But He uses us to bring forth the harvest, and this talent would not be manifesting itself so abundantly were it not for the faithful service and support of our pastors, our staff and the many, many volunteers who do over-and-above things to make things happen.

All this does not happen in a vacuum. We give God the glory for assembling such a great team, and for granting us the wisdom and resources to build a quality program. Some of this wisdom is associated with some of the topics we have already blogged about here at Liturgy Solutions. The E-fast was inspired by Dr. MacDaniels address at the Institute, and was part of a congregational renewal campaign that brought forward many volunteers. The "fishing for choristers" expedition used several resources, including the "Singing the Faith" video I picked up at the Institute. And there are so many resources available today to help a congregation build a program.

The Lord has similarly blessed you with people and resources for leading His song in a way that is most appropriate for your parish. Success requires your dedication, your labor, your passion, and your perseverance, but He has given you a song to sing, and faith to sing it. We at Liturgy Solutions are here to provide additional resources and our collective wisdom to assist pastors and musicians as they plant and nurture programs for worship and music.

We rejoice that things are sprouting up here at Bethany, and pray that your garden is growing as well. If things are not, and you think you could use a little help tilling the soil, casting seed, or otherwise caring for the liturgical harvest, consider our consulting services. Conferences are great, and books can be very helpful, but sometimes the voice of experience can best address your particular situation. Let us know if we can help!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A New Way of Fasting

This past weekend we had an "E-fast" at Bethany. As a spiritual exercise, we adapted the time-honored practice of fasting from food and instead "fasted" from all electronic devices. The thinking was that people today use electronics more often than they eat, and so an "E-fast" would provide more challenges throughout the day for people to step back from the world and focus instead on Christ and His creation.

To promote doing this together as a church family, we met at 9am on Saturday for a prayer service before heading out into our vocations and enjoying our electronics-free day. About 40 of us attended the service; dozens more participated in the E-fast on their own. Here are the basic rules we sent out to the congregation:

Rules for the 24hr E-fast

“UNPLUG from the world!”

1. There should be no use of the following electronics:

a. Computers

b. Television/DVD/DVR

c. Video games in any form. (Hand held, TV or computer)

d. I-Pods, stereo, radio in home or car, & CDs.

2. There should be no activities with the family that would involve the use of these things such as going to a movie theatre or a gaming place.

3. Phones and cell phones are to be used only in an emergency. There should be no unnecessary phone calls, texting or use of the internet, e-mail or gaming on your cell phone.


Those were the rules. To help people take full advantage of the blessing of fasting, we offered the following ideas to help people with their devotion. I say "take full advantage" of this opportunity because fasting of all kinds is for our benefit, not to merit any favor before God - just as "the Sabbath was made for man; not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:29).


Spiritual Exercises

* Family Devotion - extend your family devotional time by digging into one of your favorite Bible stories and then discussing together how you fit into the story – and how Christ is at the center.

* Catechism Challenge - review part or all of the Small Catechism and then focus on something you may have forgotten. Re-memorize that part and let it be your meditation throughout the day.

* Family Prayer – extend your prayer time so you can name and give thanks for all the "plugged in" things available to us in this country and in this century. Praise God for richly and daily providing all we need to support this body and life.

* Family Walk - it isn’t necessary to spend all 24 hours in non-stop prayer, but consider taking a Scripture Verse or Catechism Verse to memorize and meditate upon while you walk together as a family. Be open to letting the Spirit lead your conversation and meditation to surprising places!

* Have a Hymn Sing – have everyone in the family pick a favorite hymn and/or a favorite song and let the Word dwell in you richly through song. Start by praying a psalm together. Psalms of praise include 98, 100, 117, 136, 148, 150.

* Meditation - Pray for the Holy Spirit to speak to you through the Word, take a few minutes to clear y our mind, read a chapter from the Bible and allow your mind to go wherever the Word suggests, spend time in prayer over that which comes to mind. It may be confession of sins, prayers for the needs of others, prayers for your own concerns, and thanksgiving. Return to a key Verse from the chapter after your prayers, commit it to your memory, and let it speak to you throughout the day.

We also wanted people to enjoy the temporal blessings of being "unplugged", and so encouraged them to enjoy extra time with their family and friends as well as to spend special time in God's Word. So we came up with a list of activities for unplugged family fun, just to get people thinking about the possibilities of what they might do away from so many modern conveniences

Family Fun

*Wash Family Pet

*Clean Garage or Basement

*Go to the Zoo

*Go to a water park or an amusement Park

*Family Reading Time – read on your own, but also take time to read aloud to one another!

*Board Games


*Go for a Bike Ride – this could be a chance to meditate on a Verse, too!

*Go the the park

*Have a Picnic

*Make Dinner as a Family

*Clean the House – this can be a surprisingly good time if everyone invests in it fully!

*Play Outside Yard Games (basketball, volleyball, badminton, croquet, baseball, softball)

*Go Golfing

*Remember loved ones (visit the cemetery)

*Pick Up Trash in Your Neighborhood - or even someone else’s neighborhood!

*Go to the Library – remember what we used to read before blogs???

*Look at Family Photos – and share your family history with your children.

This e-fast led into our annual Rally Day activities, which you can read about here. Do at least check out the photos, as the picture of our Johnny Steadfast booth is definitely worth the click!

One of our main themes for this year's Rally Day was to encourage all members of our congregation to find at least one thing to do regularly for the body of Christ at Bethany. The E-fast was intended to give people time to pray about how they might participate in the Lord's ministry through our congregation. Hopefully, the perspectives we got from living a day without electronics gave us time to consider much more than that: how much God wants to participate in our lives, and how we are freed in Christ to enjoy fellowship with Him and with each other.

Monday, September 1, 2008


Jesus told Peter that He would make him into a "fisher of men" - but nobody told me when I was in music school that I would become a "fisher of choristers"! Being in a larger congregation, I don't have to worry much about getting adult choir members now that I have developed a program, but each year it gets a little harder to bring in the children.

There are many reasons for this. First, I'm getting older. I'm less hip than I used to be. Sure, a parent told me this year that her daughter was rejoining choir so that she could sing "for me" this year - so I guess I still have enough groove on for the 5th graders (!) - but I must admit that I've lost some of the appeal that younger directors have for children. But at the same time, I'm older and wiser, and am more savvy. So I don't think age is a detriment, just something for which I need to adjust and compensate.

And then there are the gazillion things that compete for children's attention these days. That is something one can readily point to, and a lament I've heard from many. But there were about as many soccer-crazed families in the 90's as there are today, and, while I would agree that it is more difficult to START a program in today's environment because of all the competing activities out there, I really don't think the number of options out there for kids today is a reason why fewer are choosing choir. Indeed, parents program more extra-curricular activities for their children today than they used to, and so the odds that one of the things they may choose to do would be choir have actually increased.

So what is it, then? I think the biggest reason it is harder to "fish for choristers" today is the huge amount of professionally recorded music that surrounds people in our culture today. It makes it harder for children to be convinced that they can make good music - especially if there is little music-making in the home, as is sadly the norm today. And the children today are the offspring of those who grew up after the big youth music explosion of the 60's. Those who came of age in the 60's and early 70's had parents who were from a previous era and so were more likely to be encouraged in music making. They were also encouraged by their peers as well. But now we are two generations into being surrounded by sound, and something has happened along the way. Fewer parents value music education. Kids are less interested in listening to each other. It is just so much easier to push a button. And music is seen more as something to be consumed rather than something to be enjoyed.

Couple the above with modern-day parents' inclination to let children themselves decide what they should be doing with their "extracurricular" time, and you really have a problem: most parents don't look at church choir as part of the education of their children, and children have no concept of what they can achieve and what joys they can experience through church choir. So they don't join.

Fortunately, we are blessed with a strong singing congregation at Bethany, and many of our members highly value the art of music. So I still have some parents who put their kids in the children's choir because they are continuing in the tradition of "the singing church", the name by which the Lutheran church used to be known. And I try to arrange trips for the older kids, as that is a motivator for them, and I go out of my way to talk to the kids as well. But even here most of the parents let their children decide whether or not they will sing in the church choir, and so I was pleased to find a new resource to help me with my "chorister fishing" this year: Children Making Music, a DVD Video for Children, Parents, and Congregational Leaders recently released by the LCMS Commission on Worship.

I'll review this resource over the next week, but for now let me just close by saying that I showed the segment for children from this DVD to our 4th & 5th grade day school students this past week, and will show it to the 3rd grade next week. I think it made a good impression on them, and so I'm hoping they had good things to say about making church music this weekend when their parents look into their school bags and get my latest invitation to join choir.

Maybe this time when Millennial Parent asks "Jane, would you like to join Cantor's choir this year?" we'll get few more children saying "Yes!"

Friday, August 22, 2008

Sing the Faith - The Small Catechism Set to Music

Not to be confused with Singing the Faith, the DVD resource discussed at length in the previous post, Sing the Faith is the entire Small Catechism set to music, available now on CD as well as spiral bound printed music. Pastor Christopher Seifferlein of Adell, WI, has been an avid fan of these songs and wrote a review that we at Liturgy Solutions think you’ll appreciate. Pastor Seifferlein says . . .

Last week I had something special planned for vacation. To some it might not seem like much, but for my three children (ages 1, 4, and 6), the highly anticipated “Sing the Faith” CD was enough to calm the waters during our lengthy driving tour through the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan. The only commotion we heard from the backseat was the occasional remark, “this is my favorite one,” or “start over from the beginning Dad.” Even the parents enjoyed singing along as we geared up to go over the Mighty Mac.

We’ve been using portions of this music in our congregation ever since Concordia Publishing House began releasing it in the Growing in Christ Sunday School curriculum two years ago. After long last the entire project has been completed and is available on one CD. Phil Magness composed the tunes for the Primary and Secondary texts, and the good folks at CPH put it all together, complete with beautiful singing by children. Kudos to a job well done.

We pastors are always complaining that no one uses the catechism, but here is a resource where even those who aren’t so regular in their family catechesis can make use of the catechism at home. Parents who would never sit down and teach their children the text of the catechism are slipping this disk into their player as they run errands around town in the family minivan. And the children are learning it! Last year our Sunday School of 15 children sang by heart in church the entire text of Luther’s explanation to the second article of the creed (at ages 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7)! It’s been a boon to my teaching credibility as well. The adults are surprised to see the children learning (and enjoying it too). My boast to the congregation has been that we do more work in the catechism in our one hour of Sunday School than most Lutheran Schools do in a whole week. Thanks Phil for making my job easy.

This summer for the second year in a row we featured this resource during a weekly “Catechism Workshop.” The families of our parish were invited to a half-hour program after church where a chief part of the catechism was learned throughout the summer months. This CD has been an integral part of preparing the congregation for a paradigm shift, what I call “raising the bar and lowering the communion age” (all at the same time). The small congregation that I serve pre-ordered 60 copies alone. (Phil, you owe me a drink the next time I see you.) At the meager list price, parents were purchasing them not only for themselves, but also for their godchildren as well, and grandparents were buying multiple copies as presents for their grandchildren.

Be warned that “Sing the Faith” is no Small Catechism set to “Vater Unser,” but neither is it Psalty the Singing Songbook either. I have found the music to be appropriate, engaging, and accessible to both young and old alike.

I even had one lady ask about Private Confession and Absolution after she contemplated the words of the Fifth Chief Part while singing it.

Only one comment. Why didn’t somebody think of this before?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A DVD Resource Worth Its Weight in Gold – Especially if It Weighed More.

Singing the Faith is a rich video documentary about the Lutheran hymn tradition. The premise of the production is to outline the theology and practice of some of the “heaviest hitters,” both composers and poets, in our Lutheran hymn tradition. These figures then stand as examples of clear thinking about how music functions in Divine Worship as well as devotionally in our lives.

Produced by Kantor Richard Resch of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, this video was released under the auspice of the “Good Shepherd Institute,” a conference on liturgy and church music that takes place every November at the Seminary. Featured in this production, and I won’t name them all, are scholars and performers of the highest order. They are “big names” recognized the world over for their prowess in their field. Organists like Martin Jean of Yale; scholars like Robin Leaver of the Juilliard School (formerly of Westminster Choir College); Carl Schalk of Concordia, Chicago; Daniel Zager of the Eastman School of Music and Christopher Boyd Brown of Boston University; and composers like Kevin Hildebrand of Concordia Seminary in Ft. Wayne all present compelling explanations as to how the Lutheran hymn tradition can still be as vibrant and relevant today as it has always been.

The DVD is 80 minutes long and may be viewed as a whole presentation, or in four, 20 minute segments, divided conveniently. There is a handy guide, a booklet for the discussion leader from which they may draw interesting points of discussion. A 40–50 minute class can be easily spent watching one segment of the DVD and then proceed to investigate matters presented in the video by looking at music from the hymnal and considering the questions for discussion.

The segments of the video are arranged historically, early to late, beginning with Luther, his view of music and how it took shape. Robin Leaver provides a fascinating and animated commentary. I guarantee most people will not have heard anything like it. The second segment is about the first post-Reformation hymn writers. Martin Schalling (Lord, Thee I Love With All My Heart) is discussed, as is Philip Nicolai and, of course, the great Paul Gerhardt. The third segment deals exclusively with J. S. Bach, his mindset and practice. It features a performance by the Bach Vespers Choir of Trinity Lutheran Church (NYC) singing the Cantata Ein Feste Burg, BWV 80. The final segment deals with hymn poets of our modern time, focusing on Wilhelm Loehe, Martin Franzman, Jeroslav Vajda and Stephen Starke. It shows how earnest hymn writers of the modern Lutheran tradition do not seek to find their way out of the thought process and philosophy of their forbearers. Rather, it shows how they seek to adapt and enliven that philosophy so that modern minds and ears can learn, understand and practice the rich Lutheran musical tradition.

I cannot recommend this resource enough. It is of very high cinematic quality and Richard Resch serves as a most articulate and pastoral narrator. In parishes where the leadership values our Lutheran hymn tradition, this resource will go a long way toward teaching the parishioners what it is and how it can be a great spiritual blessing to us today!

Preview this DVD by viewing a 12 minute trailer at:

Singing the Faith is available through Concordia Publishing House. Item # 99-2260

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Occasional Wedding Blues

Weddings are usually a joy, but church musicians and pastors all know what a pain they can be. Some people want to use the church building for a wedding - but don't really want a church wedding.

Generally, we don't have much of a problem with this at Bethany. Due to the conservative nature of the congregation, pastors who rarely perform non-member weddings, and a carefully designed process for planning weddings, most of our weddings go quite smoothly. I've got one later this month that I'm really looking forward to, when our Lord will join together a lovely couple who have planned a Christ-centered ceremony with great music. Indeed, we've done many really cool weddings at Bethany.

But the kind of problems that regularly occurred in previous parishes still come up every once in a while. Let's face it, no mater how well pastors catechize, one will always have transfers come in, and no matter how poorly they were taught in their previous parishes, whatever experiences they have had or been allowed to get away with in the past is "Lutheran" for them because, after all, it happened in their "Lutheran" church.

And so we have conversations where we have to do things like explain why "Ave Maria" is not an appropriate selection for a Lutheran service, only to hear about how said transfer has been Lutheran all her life and had "Ave Maria" at her wedding and at her sisters'! And you have to explain what psalms, hymns, and canticles are literally five times, only to hear about how they just want a "solo". And then after singing several solos that are hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs (canticles), they pick one. But in helping them with the bulletin, one has to explain again what a canticle is and that it is indeed in the program when they get panicked about seeing Scripture readings associated with the song and start to demand, "Where did you put the solo?!"

And of course they not only think they are know all about Lutheran doctrine and practice, they are the wedding experts, too! Even though the pastors and cantor have done hundreds of weddings that have been very worshipful, they just aren't convinced that 200+ people will participate in the service and so don't want to put anything in the program that would communicate such an expectation. Oh sure, people can say "Thanks be to God" or "Lord, have mercy" or the Lord's Prayer if they WANT to.....but they think putting such helps in the bulletin would be 'offensive', even though they are in the bulletin at church every Sunday. After all, "we've been Lutheran longer than you have!"

Yes, we in the church are called to serve. But some folks forget that we are to serve the whole Church - not just them. Instead, they think they should get things their way - just like at Burger King. They don't want to be bothered with reading a booklet prepared for their benefit, nor work through the parish worship planning worksheet for weddings. They evidently don't think we've ever encountered anything they haven't already thought of! They are the experts about what they want, thank you very much, and find the idea that they might learn from the Church to be demeaning. It's America, after all, right? And isn't everyone's vote equal? These churchly ideas are just your opinions, and I like my ideas better! As John Locke on ABC's LOST says: "Don't tell me what I can or can't do!!!"

(Note: I originally titled this post "It's My Party and I'll Cry if I Want to", after Leslie Gore's 1963 hit, but I upon reflection I think people were missing the point and/or the reference. But if you've made it this far into the post, I think you'll get the humor of that now!)

And of course the people that wait until the last possible weekend to meet with you then complain about having to work through any issues because they have to get the program to the printer yesterday even though the wedding is a month away. And no matter how nice you are, you still wind up getting the phone hung up on you or otherwise being treated rudely. Makes you wonder if you'll get paid. The "I want the church to do what I want" crowd doesn't have the best track record on that score.

Oh well, it's not the first time, and it won't be the last - even though we're more flexible at Bethany than many churches: we don't insist on following the order in the hymnal or the agenda, we allow lay readers, allow alternate readings, have no position on unity candles or gifting of flowers, allow long receiving lines at the end of the service and suffer in silence when couples insist that their 3-year-old nephew really can do the job of ring bearer! But still some treat me like I'm Regan (sp) from The Exorcist with my head spinning around in 360s just because I try to get them to follow the standards our congregation has set forth in our wedding policy manual.

I often joke that I'd rather play a funeral than a wedding. But it is true. I think I'll make that our next poll question!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Hearing the Savior's Song

While I'm tempted to post over here regarding the brewing controversy down in Texas (about a female pastor from a charismatic non-denominational church being slated to "lead worship" at the upcoming Texas District youth gathering, "GloryBound"), I'm going to just invite you to head over to the Johnny Steadfast site and catch up with that on your own if you haven't already heard or read about it. (

My topic today segues nicely from this, though, as I continue my reports on the LCMS Institute on Preaching and the liturgy. While young Lutherans will be encouraged to seek God's "presence" apart from His Word, the third plenary speaker at the worship conference, Carol McDaniel, encouraged us to seek God's presence where it is truly found: in Christ. Rather than directing us to the noise of this world as the entertainment experiential evangelists do, or turn us inward on ourselves like the mystics would do, she directed us to the classical Christian spiritual disciplines. God wants to spent time with us, and Carol, a parish church musician who also teaches at Concordia-Irvine, pointed us to how we can spend more time with Him.

Carol's address was titled, "Can You Hear the Savior Singing?" She sought to help musicians and pastors grow in their vocations by redirecting those who lead worship to the source of all true worship: God Himself. She pointed to a key problem that we in the Lord's ministry face today: NOISE. The NOISE of the world distracts us from hearing the voice of our Savior. Not in a charismatic sense, but in a real sense of being in the Word so that the Spirit can have His way with us. And her solution was a call to return to our spiritual disciplines, which she defined as "time-honored and Biblically-supported ways of placing our story within the big story of God's Word." She then offered the following rubric to guide us back into these proven disciplines: STUMPED.

S - Sabbath Keeping. This can be so much more than attending the Divine Service. It is helpful to prepare for the liturgy the night before, to arrive early to church to mediate on the psalm and readings of the day, and then to discuss the service afterwards. The Sabbath was made for man; yet we don't take full advantage of this wonderful gift!

T - Treasure the Truth. Remember your baptism. Return to it in Confession & Absolution. Meditate on the commandments before confessing your sins. Avail yourself of individual confession & absolution. And rejoice your salvation!

U - Unplug. Try fasting from the technology. (BTW, we're going to do that at Bethany next month: as part of a congregational assimilation campaign we are going to "fast" from technology for 24 hours!) Go on retreats periodically. Go for a walk without an e-book or an iPod. Read the Bible BEFORE checking your emails. Be still and know that God is God! (Ps. 46:10)

M - Meditate. Not in the Eastern or mystic sense, but in the Christian tradition of letting the Word dwell in your richly. Memorize scripture. Chant the psalms. Journal about your reflections and discuss your questions with your pastor. "Our God longs to spend time with you."

P - Pray. Worship in the Divine Service.....and worship every day. Keep one of the daily offices as a family or at least as an individual. Keep a prayer journal. Make appointments to pray with other Christians. Read books on prayer and hymns by great theologians. Pray through the catechism; pray a psalm every day. Do not give up meeting together. Pray without ceasing!
(Hebrews 10:25; 1 Thess. 5:16-18)

E - Engage. Don't just lead worship. Worship! Find places and opportunities to worship without leading. Pastors in large churches; let the other pastor preside while you just go to church. Pastors in all churches: find times to go to another parish. Musicians: go to church when you don't have to sing or play! She also added "encourage" as a spiritual discipline. Build others up, by letting them lead - and also by letting them know you appreciate them. (I think she is on to something here: though we workers don't get applause in church work, we do get a lot of love along with lumps. But do we let all the wonderful volunteers know how much we appreciate them? If our spirituality truly is extra nos, then it does seem logical that expressing appreciation for others is part of our saying "Thanks be to God". God has put people in our midst to give us our daily bread and to be "Jesus with skin on" for us. It is therefore a good discipline to acknowledge our neighbor as God's gift to us.) Therefore encourage on another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. (1 Thess. 5;11)

D - Commune. And commune frequently. Disciple the next generation into our communion. Devote yourselves to the apostles' teaching, to the breaking of the bread, and to the prayers. (Acts 2:42-47)

Keep the Sabbath. Pray Psalms. Meditate on the Commandments. Seek Absolution. Commune Frequently. Remember Your Baptism. Do one of the daily offices each day. Pray over the catechism. Memorize God's Word.

I wonder if that's the kind of teaching the youth in Texas will be getting from their district as that non-denominational "worship pastor" leads them in their worship? Or from the Baptist preacher who will be speaking there as well? Or the other pastor from a different non-denom....oops, I'm giving in to temptation!

Thank you, Carol, for a wonderful, inspiring address. May our pastors and musicians keep their spiritual disciplines, that they may not grow weary, but grow strong in their vocations as they serve the Lord in His ministry.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A Tale of Two Conferences

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.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Concio et Cantio

These two Latin words refer to the Divine Service activities of preaching and singing respectively. In Dr. Daniel Zager’s presentation today at the WELS conference on worship, he outlined how specifically Kantor Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) used these exact words to refer to the tight connection, as Luther called it, between preaching and congregational singing. Zager is a musicologist at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, so his presentation had a strong historical element. He is able to masterfully discuss history and practice in a way uncommon to most presenters - concise, yet thorough, analytical, yet accessible.

The entire presentation held my interest, but given the musings on contemporary worship in the LCMS and evidently the WELS, I was interested in how he dealt with the musical issues as they touch parish practice. I’ll hit on a couple things in this post.

First, the overarching question is how should the music function in divine worship. Music may evoke several different responses from people as it unfolds in worship, but the bedrock question of how it ought to function needs to be clear. If we are going to be Lutheran in our worship identity, we ought to start with how Luther and the early Lutherans dealt with the subject. For Luther, singing was an extension of preaching. It was the way people heard the message of the preaching anew – through song. The preaching was often tied to the Gospel and so the music was often tied to the same. Regardless, music was a partner in the ministry of the Word. This practice was very much in play for Praetorius and also for the later composer J.S. Bach, who wrote cantatas mirroring the Gospel readings for the day.

When we think of music in our worship today, is this our understanding? Do we really believe that music serves a unique place to help people reflect upon the subject of the preaching. Do we use music to teach them different facets of what they hear read and preached? Often the answer is no. We frequently are sidelined by the culture of our congregations, thinking that they cannot handle such “lofty” things. In doing so, we fail to give them the opportunity to contend with the subject. We short circuit the process before it even has begun. Is it naïve for us to think that we can actually teach our congregations to have this uniquely Lutheran outlook concerning their singing? As difficult as congregations can be, I think, even so, the answer is, not only is it not naïve, but it is a mandate, and spiritual treasure awaits the congregations who can meet the challenge.

The job of the pastor and church musician is to teach their congregations this very thing. They are to gently instruct people that their singing is part of learning Holy Scripture and even more, part of their receiving the gifts of Christ. When they come to church, they should not look for a pep-rally. Nor should they have a bad attitude when a hymn they do not prefer is sung. Congregations need to be guided into an understanding that what they receive in church is something completely other than what they receive on their radios, in their theaters, or on their favorite CDs. Music in the Divine Service is to point them to Jesus. Sometimes the hymns will be hard. Sometimes they will be easy. Sometimes they will be something the people like. Sometimes they will be something they do not like. They may have to learn something new, while singing other things that are very familiar.

One very difficult matter that keeps us from this understanding is the fact that almost everyone regards music in a one dimensional way. For most, it is entertainment, plain and simple. Entertaiment is the sole function of music in most people’s lives. In the church, our charge as pastors and musicians is to help our people leave the entertainment mentality behind the minute they walk into church. It is to help them focus on the question, “How will Christ show himself to me today in our singing?” It is to foster an attitude of unity of purpose so that our congregations are not divided along such artificial lines as musical preference. It is to cultivate a love for our rich hymn heritage amongst our people so that they learn about Baptism, the Sacrament of the Altar, the theology of the cross, the atonement, redemption and all the other gifts that Christ has lavished upon us.

Avoid the temptation to scratch the itch of a vocal minority who thinks that they cannot worship unless every last musical criteria they hold is met. This is to keep them in their entertainment mentality and to give a place to blatant consumerism in things spiritual. The Holy Spirit does not need us to “sell” the Gospel, and such an approach attempts to do just that. He is able to soften the hearts of people who have disdain for the message of our faithful Lutheran hymn poets, old and new who give us their perspective in their rich hymns. And yes, this is a disdain, not merely for the music, but for the message it contains as well as for the function and purpose of music in authentically Lutheran worship.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Very WEL Done!

I am at the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s Conference on Worship hosted by their Commission on Worship. Bryan Gerlach and his team have put together a real extravaganza, food for the soul, ears and mind. There is much I could say about all the goings on here after a mere day and a half, but I’ll start with this morning.

There was a lovely Divine Service introducing all kinds of new music, hymnody, canticles and psalm settings that are found in their newly released Christian Worship Supplement. More on the Supplement in another post, but safe to say it is a lovely compilation of hymnody and liturgical music, old and new. As with every volume any synod releases, it will receive its share of critique, but as a volume of for worship it appears to be fit for the task.

Following the Divine Service we heard our first plenary address given by Rev. Jon F. Zabell, pastor of St. Paul Lutheran in Green Bay WI. Zabell’s address was nothing less than astounding. His talent as an orator could well be described as virtuostic, with an command over the subject matter that was natural, pastoral, extremely balanced and good natured. One could not help be drawn into his speech and captivated by his careful yet accessible analysis of the subject.

He basically discussed the formulation of hymnals in the WELS, but used it to address how the church grows in its understanding of why we worship the way we do. He referenced the highly pietistic and rationalistic bent within WELS from its earliest days in the U.S. and showed how those influences kept the church from true Lutheran orthodoxy in the hymns they sang. Pietism sang about the emotions of the faithful, while rationalism concentrated on singing about morality. So the hymnody was about how well we love Jesus and how to be a good neighbor. Not that either of those things should be ignored, but rather how they need to be informed by a pure and simple confession of faith in our worship – a confession that by its nature is doctrinal.

He illustrated this quite wonderfully by taking us back to Eden. Adam and Eve really only had one act of worship they were required to perform (other than just living their lives in the presence of God). That act was simple: “Do not eat of the tree.” By not eating of the tree, Adam and Eve were making their confession. “We believe God," was the confession they made. But Satan, as he always does, offered them another confession: that they might be like God. In eating of the tree, which was “good for food” and no doubt tasted good too, our first parents supplanted the objective “we believe God” for a subjective experience of being like God. Satan played the card that the end game in their worship was to feel good. And he still does so today.

In the WELS as well as in the LCMS we are toying with just how far to go in utilizing “contemporary” worship and “alternative” services. All things are permissible, but not all things are profitable, so says the scripture. What is behind our yearning to look into these things? Could it be a dissatisfaction with things old (like our post-reformation heritage hymnody of the 16th and 17th centuries)? Could it be a desire to spice up the service so it is more appealing? That it make people feel better in the worship setting? Could it be that we think we can assist the Holy Spirit in growing his church even when Augsburg says that he creates faith in the heart when and where it pleases him? Whatever reasons we are using to assess this matter, these do not seem to reflect the understanding of worship bequeathed to us by Luther as he took his cue from Holy Scripture.

Zabell discussed many things in his hour long presentation that I cannot begin to cover here. But one thing he did mention that hit home with me, was the need for the church to set itself apart as Lutheran worshipers – apart from the world, that is. We do not seek to entertain, or just touch the emotions as an end in itself, nor do we seek to aid the Holy Spirit who would otherwise be impotent without our efforts to spice up the service a little. No, we worship that we might receive Christ. That Word and Sacrament might be lifted up as Christ is present in them. We do this through the employment of the liturgy, hymns old and new, and songs by the choir, old and new. Music that fleshes out our confession, draws us to the work of our Savior and focuses us upon him. More later.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Prayer Book for Christians

Are we all back home and settled in yet? If so, what did you think about the conference? And would you help me share the conference with those who were unable to attend? Please post your comments. Let's start with the first plenary, Dr. Dean Wenthe's "The Psalter: A Prayer Book for Christians."

Dr. Wenthe, President of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, reminded us that psalms are not abstract, but "embedded in the great drama and narrative of the Bible." For us to read the psalms correctly, then, we must see them as "a complete narrative, and understand them as part of the Torah." This story leads us into sacred space (Eden, Mountains of the Lord), sacred time (feast days), and sacred persononel (priests, Levites), and sared media (altar, tabernacle, temple).

Using some classic artwork to illustrate his points, Wente then went through the "grand narrative" of Scripture, illustrating the unity of salvation history as "reunion and renewal" with God, as the art brought our Christ in the Old Testament, particularly with images of Moses an David as types of Christ. One lighthearted moment here was when he showed David dancing and praising before the Ark. He pointed out that the artist included David's wife evidently chastising him for his excess from the balcony, and joked that "she must have been LCMS!"

He also included some artistic depictions of New Testament scenes, to reinforce the connections between the testaments. He included Mary addressing Simeon, showing that Christ was "The glory of thy people Israel" and also Albrecht Dürer's famous "Jesus Among the Doctors," whom Wenthe called "the theological faculty of Jerusalem!" Christ is the fulfillment of all that unfolded in the First Testament, and the psalms are the prayer book of all who inherit the New Covenant in their baptisms.

Continuing with his theme that "The psalms resist abstraction," He went on to point out that if they are not sung and prayed out of an understanding of salvation history, they do not reach the heart, the mind, the soul. He suggested that we would be well-served today if we were to recover the language of our church fathers and view the psalms as the "living voice of Jesus". Viewing them in this way presents the gracious character of God, to be seen rightly, that we may behold the goodness and graciousness of God in the OT. This would be so helpful in our day and age, when so many view the OT has purely "Law."

Yes, he said,"the Gospel is everywhere in the OT, because God is everywhere in the OT." He comes to us in gracious means, just as His gracious presence came to His people via the Tabernacle. Did you know that there are 15 chapters on this? He appealed to the musicians of the church to remembe rthat the Glory of the Lord filled the temple for the goodness of the people - for their salvation. Even the preface to the Decalogue highlights this. THIS thinking about the psalms & the OT helps us see God through the proper hermeneutic of Law & Gospel - not Sovereignty of God. We are able then to see the Torah story as "breathtakingly good and beautiful." Such an understanding should underscore our approach as worship leaders to praying and singing the psalms.

Finally, Wenthe brought things even closer to home by pointing out that the psalms overturn the false teachings of the cosmology of the ancient world. Similarly, they overturns the false teachings of the modern university which sees the world merely as a grand accident, rather than as a wise and wonderful creation. Psalms "get God right" and so they help us to "get God right." They bring us into reality and help us to see things as they ARE.

What are your thoughts? Does your congregation understand the reality of the Psalms? Is it your custom to allow the Biblical reality of the Psalter to shape and inform your prayer and praise? May we always uphold the beautiful vision of God the Psalms reveal to us, that we may praise Him for His goodness, through the mighty and righteous deeds He has done for us through His Son.

Friday, July 25, 2008


What a great conference! I'll write several posts over the comings days so that you may catch up on the proceedings - and so that those who attended might share their comments as well.

For now, let me apologize for not being able to "live blog" as intended. Between service interreptions, an incredibly busy schedule, and sharing one lap top with my family, I just didn't have the opportunity to post. Lesson learned: if Fine Tuning is to successfully live-blog a future conference we'll need to: a - make sure we have a good internet setup in place, and b - have someone ready to journal the conference who isn't busy presenting, performing, rehearsing, and giving a plenary address!

For now, let me just do two short things. FIRST, thank you, David Johnson, for speaking to the assembly on Wednesday about the need to be quiet before services so as to respect their fellow worshipppes and also to respect the musicians who had prepared preservice music. Everyone was fine before the first service, but the chatter before the other services on Tuesday and before matins Wednesday AM was so loud, I was going to post about that. I was truly shocked that so many MUSICIANS would act that way - especially since I hear musicians complaining all the time about how congregations don't listen to their preservice music! I guess the best construction I can put on it is that everyone was just really enjoying seeing old friends and making new ones that we just got carried away. So, thank you, David, for gently reminding everyone of good churchly behavior - and for keeping me from writing a snarky little post! ;)

And, second, speaking of seeing old friends and making new ones, I really enjoyed the fellowship at the conference - in both meanings of the word. The fellowship we shared in worship was stellar, and a real blessing to those of us who lead worship each week, as it gave US a chance to "just go to church." But we were also blessed in the colloquial way - what Americans call 'fellowship' and what our confessions call the 'mutual conversation and consolation of the brethern.' It was great seeing old friends and making new ones. The Church is truly built up in this way through these conferences.

Hopefully, we will all be seeing each other again in three years. There were some inklings that future conferences will emphasize 'diversity' and embrace other 'styles' of worship. For many that I talked to at this conference, that would definitely not be something that would bring us together again in three years. We'll have to see the details on what all this means - and perhaps my fears are unfounded. But I do hope that the excelleng quality of these conferences will continue, and that I won't be missing all my friends three years from now.

In the meantime, thank you, Jon Vieker and David Johnson for putting on such a great conference. Thank you, Rachel Asburry, for all your hard work and for your faithful service. And thank you, Commission on Worship, for keeping this conference and its worship as a model for our congregations. May these conferences remain "The LCMS at its best!"

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Just returned after attending the opening Divine Service, listening to Dr. Wenthe's plenary address, attending choir practice, and restocking the Liturgy Solutions booth. It was simply a fabulous afternoon - for me and for my whole family - and I'll share more detail if this site generates interest. For now, though, let me just share with you today's Divine Service.

I almost titled this post, As It Should Be, because I was reminded of a comment made by a Columbian cellist at my alma matter one evening twenty years ago after listening to someone play Brahms exquisitely: "That was Brahms as it should be played." And today's Divine Service was "as it should be" at a conference like this: the LCMS at its best.

I'm tempted to get theological and muse about how the baptized are truly at "their best" when they are being washed and nourished by their Lord, but for now I'll just say that the LCMS is at its best when we worship according to our culture and heritage, embracing all the Lord's gifts with creativity and humility, and joyously be who we are. But more on that, later.

And today truly was the LCMS at its best. Kantor Janet Muth is to be especially commended for preparing the children's choir so well. They made a fabulous contribution to the service! Today being the Feast of Mary Magdalene, they added true Easter joy to our worship, especially with their vibrand and clear singing of Bach's "With Loudest Rejoicing". They also provided beautiful stanzas on the hymnody, singing stanzas on "For All the Faithful Women", "I Am Jesus' Little Lamb", "O Gracious Lord, I Firmly Am Believing", and "At the Lamb's High Feast" - many in special arrangements. They also provided the Verse, led the famous Victimae Paschli Sequence which was sung in place of the Hymn of the Day, and provided the Voluntary during the receiving of the offerings. That they were able to get all this together so well in less than a day is a testimony to the talents of Kantor Muth - and to the talents of the children themselves (including, I'd like to add, my lovely daughter, Caitlin!).

I was also impressed by the organist. I believe it was Paul Soulek, the director of music here at St. John's, whose sanctuary is our chapel and main meeting space for the conference. I also see David van Kampen played keyboards as well - so maybe they both played organ. Or maybe David was pianist for some of the preservice music. If anyone knows, fill me in! Anyway, the organ is a very nice instrument - a 1967 Schlicker - but it is especially nice when played be these young and capable and sensitive hands. I expect we will all be hearing much more from Paul - and David - in the future.

I would also like to compliment the instrumentalists, who added so much to the service. I saw LS composer and Concordia Nebraska professor Jeff Blersch conducting the ensemble, and want to commend him and Andrew Schultz for doing a great job coordinating that aspect of today's worship. The brass "kicked", as we musicians say, and the various winds and strings added meaningful touches to the service.

I also appreciated very much Dr. Wenthe's presentation: "The Psalms: A Prayer Book for Christians". I'll post more about that after Evening Prayer. To which I'm now headed!