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

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.


Stephen R. Johnson said...

I did not have the benefit of attending both conferences, so I leave the comparison to Phil. But I will say that I echo his observations about the WELS event. It was truly inspiring and serves as a fine model for the LCMS in the future. I also wish to thank Phil for his partnership with me at Liturgy Solutions particularly during our recent web site retooling. It is good to have such thoughtful insight as we make our contribution to the world of liturgical music.

Pastor Kory Boster said...

I noticed you did not compare the liturgical dancers, or perhaps the WELS did not provide one. I was also wondering if the WELS allowed for women reading the gospels texts from the pulpit as did the LCMS. Sarcasm aside, who on the LCMS worship committee makes the approval of such things? Would you post their contact information for me? Would you comment further?

Phillip Magness said...

Pastor Boster,

I was watching my 4-year-old son the evening they had a liturgical dancer at Compline, so I really can't comment on that. Some who did attend who normally don't like liturgical dance did tell me that it was well-done for the genre (interpretive of a hymn text rather than a distracting show of "praise"; vestments appropriate for liturgical function). Were you there? What did you think?

There was one female lector at one of the daily offices, but not at the Divine Service. It seemed unnecessary and divisive, but perhaps liturgical piety for families and small groups apart from the Divine Service was intended to be displayed. I'm not sure. She didn't read the Gospel, but the Epistle, but not necessarily from the pulpit since the sanctuary at St. John's doesn't have a separate pulpit from the lectern. They used male lay lectors at other daily offices. Pastors read all the Scripture readings at both Divine Services.

These distinctions may not make this more acceptable in the eyes of some, but are important in the eyes of others. It would have been less controversial had the dancer & female lector participated in the hymn festival, but even then some would have taken offense.

If you'd like to discuss this with those who made these decisions and set the boundaries on them, you can contact Rev. David Johnson at the Commission on Worship, who was responsible for conference planning and preparation, and Rev. Greg Wismar, Chairman of the LCMS Commission on Worship, whose committee oversees and directs the work of the Commission.

Klein Oak High School Choir said...

Dear friends,

Someone emailed me the link to your discussion of the recent WELS Worship Conference, particularly because of your comments on the National Honor Choir. I was humbled and pleased to read such fine reports of the work our teens did that week.

As director of this ensemble, I can share a few things:

1. Only one piece that was performed was used in our high schools this past year. Granted, some of the students might have been familiar with a tune from past singing experience, but the majority of this music was new.

2. I mailed the music to each student in late June along with a practice CD complete with full tracks of most pieces as well as "learning tracks" where I recorded their individual parts on piano. I informed them they should arrive with their music learned, and I was pleasantly surprised at their preparation. This certainly allowed us to move beyond simply singing correct notes. Kudos to them!

3. Having conducted at a National choral festival in November, I was afforded the opportunity to start plugging this group back then. The WELS Commission on Worship did a fine job sending letters to our congregations and high schools. I followed up with a personal letter to the same groups. The results? In 2005, we had roughly 75 singers. This year, we received around 175 applications and formed a balanced (!) ensemble of 130ish.

4. Most important, as was noted in your blog, these kids truly embraced being the living voices of the Gospel, and it was an incredible experience to work with them.

I appreciate your passion for liturgy and worship, and I thank you for the kind response you offered following your time with us at Gustavus.

Michael Goede
Director, National Honor Choir

CMS said...

Would you consider publishing your keynote address for those who were unable to attend the conference?

I am pleased to report that our excitement has been fulfilled today at the delivery of your "Sing the Faith" CD's from CPH (entire catechism set to music for children). Our small congregation pre-purchased 60 copies, all ordered by member-families. It has been a great success. Parents who would never sit down to teach the catechism to their children are using them regularly at home and in the car. We even had a "Catechism Workshop" with the kids throughout the summer using the music.

I cannot thank you enough. In my estimation this is one of the great tools as a pastor that I can put to use.

Phillip Magness said...

Sixty CD's sold to your congregation alone, Chris! That's amazing. I think we need to make these available at our book store at Bethany!

Re: my address to the Institute. I would call the COW office in St. Louis and ask what they plan on doing with it. I understand there was a recording made by the folks at St. John's, but it wasn't immediately avaialable for some reason.

Let us know if you find out anything!

Phillip Magness said...


I am TOTALLY impressed then by the WELS choristers who prepared so well for this conference. Obviously they are more talented than I imagined - as I made the false assumption that they had worked on some of the music during the year (wouldn't be a bad idea, though, would it?!). At any rate, the WELS high schools are very much plugged into your conference, and that is a good thing.

Another good thing was your conducting. As a fellow conductor let me say that I was impressed by your poise, your clarity, and your warmth on the podium. Clearly you were a big part of why most everything went so well.

Thank you for your faithful leaderhsip of the Lord's Song.

In Christ,


Stephen R. Johnson said...


That's just way impressive! Congratulations to you and your honor choir. They have a lot to be proud of! I guess, given the right group of kids (or adults as other cases might be) and the right preparation on the part of the director in providing rehearsal resources, that kind of advance prep can really pay off. It was a blessing to witness.