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

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Who Has Been Good to You?!

We recently attended a concert of a local children's choir, Anima, formerly known as the Glen Ellyn Children's Chorus. It is one of the more famous of such groups around the country, making its mark during its glory years under the directorship of Dr. Doreen Rao. Some of you may have run across music from Dr. Rao's choral series, much of which is quite good. The group continues now under the leadership of Emily Ellsworth.

This may seem off-topic for this blog, but one of the things we share in common is a love for our heritage and a desire to preserve our culture and teach children well. This is primarily, of course, about the heritage we receive as Christians, and so I don't want to confuse the Two Kingdoms here. But as we are "in the world" even as we are not "of it", I think most of you also seek to be preservers of what is good in our national culture as well. Especially where it intersects with our church culture.

One of those selections is the "Johnny Appleseed Grace". I learned it at Camp Lone Star when I was in 8th grade, when I first started going to church. Lutherans love to sing it. We have slightly different versions of the tune in different parts of the country! Most of us refer to it by it's first line, as if it is a hymn: "Oh, the Lord's been good to me." It is one of my younger son's favorite mealtime graces.

Guess what? The Anima chorus sang an arrangement of this Americana standard as their closing number. But they changed the words to "The earth's been good to me." And made the audience sing that line every time. I guess such was to be expected from a group whose 'holiday concert' was themed "Voices from the Earth". Still, if you feel you have to sing something to appease the pagan kids' parents because the choir sang a couple of Christmas carols, why don't you write your own words instead of torquing with someone else's?

This is more than just abusing the lyrics. (What's next: a Gaia version of "Silent Night"?!) It is also about a community arts organization that is supposed to be nurturing cultural literacy - the reason public school allow Chrsitian choral repertoire in the curriculum - changing the core meaning of Johnny Appleseed's famous ode promotes cultural IL-literacy. It reminds me of the politically correct re-imagining of history.

Christians today are like frogs in a big kettle. Every day the world around us becomes more evil. Perversion 'mainstreamed' into our military. "Faith-based" advertisements banned from the Ft. Worth transit system. Shiny new abortuaries built 'proudly' in the middle of our communities.

This Christmas, I long even more for our Lord's return. Yea, I will merrily sing and play as we celeberate the birth of our King, and rejoice in the salvation He came to bring. But we live in a night that is getting deeper and darker every year. "E'en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Ah, Advent. Prepare, prepare! The busiest weeks for most of us are actually done now. I always get a chuckle when people come up to me the week before Christmas and say "you must really be busy right now!" I enjoy telling them that the first two weeks of Advent are much more hectic for me than the last two. Even with all my summer worship planning, the need to finalize arrangements, book practices, and get music to musicians at the same time Advent services and the school Christmas program are added to my plate puts me in overdrive.

But Advent is a wonderful season - definitely worth talking about. And yet it is so short while we are so busy that we church musicians and pastors don't talk about it as much as we should. So what's working for you?

Here's a few things that have been Advent blessings at Bethany so far this year:

*A Bach Cantata (#140, Wachet Auf) for our first Advent Vespers.

*The return of Schalk/Vajda's "Light the Candle", which we sing for the lighting of the Advent wreath.

*The wide amount of variety available at Liturgy Solutions for this time of year. It really is amazing how much Advent music we've got up on the site. Drawing from the catalog, I've used settings by Hildebrand, Blersch, Johnson, and Sonntag so far this year.

*Our Schola Cantorum kids kicking off our second Advent Vespers with Allan Mahnke's "Fling Wide the Gates". (Yes, we sing lots of things around here that aren't LS - chuckle)

*Our sermon series: "Christmas with Isaiah", which runs from the beginning of Advent through Epiphanytide, using the appointed Old Testament lessons from the Three-Year Lectionary.

*Singing "Prepare the Royal Highway" with the 'old' setting from LW. (Still using the LSB text). The people really love this hymn, and we've tried it with the LSB/LBW rhythm, but folks prefer it in 4/4. Here's a video using my arrangement from "Hymns for the Contemporary Ensemble", published by CPH. That series has been discontinued, but I'm thinking about starting that project up again at LS.

Speaking of LS projects, look for several new instrumental arrangements for congregational accompaniment to be uploaded by New Year's. These are for woodwinds & keyboard and are by professional composer/arranger Terry Herald, whom we are proud to introduce as the newest composer in our 'stable'. Welcome aboard, Terry!

So, that's a taste of what's working for me right now. What's working for you?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Of all the secular "holidays", Thanksgiving is my favorite. There are just so many wonderful Thanksgiving hymns! (And, besides, I'm a foodie. No wonder I love the French!)

Anyway, I'm just wondering what y'all are cookin' for tonight & tomorrow. Here's what's on the menu at Bethany:

OPENING HYMN - "Come Ye Thankful People Come" LSB #892 concertato for organ, piano, choir, congregation.

CALL TO WORSHIP - Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Proclamation

PRELUDE - "We Gather Together" Handbell arrangement by Frances Callahan.

ENTRANCE HYMN - "We Praise You, O God" LSB #785

LITURGY - A Liturgy of Sevenfold Thanks (basically a Thanksgiving Lessons & Songs format)

I. Thanksgiving For the Gospel (Luke 7:36-50) "Give Thanks" LSB #806

II. For the Company of Saints (Rev. 7:13-17) "Oh, How Blest Are They" LSB #679

III. For Children and Families (Mark 10:13-16) "Let Children Hear the Mighty Deeds" LSB #867

IV. For the Friendship of Believers (Eph. 4:1-6) "Gracious God, You Send Great Blessings" LSB #782

V. For the Harvest (Eccl. 2:24-26; 3:9-13) Quartet: "The Eyes of All" setting by Michael Larkin

VI. For the Earth (Psalm 8) Choir Anthem: "For the Beauty of the Earth" setting by John Rutter.

VII. For the United States of America (1 Peter 2:13-17) "My Country 'Tis of Thee" (original words)


VOLUNTARY "Songs of Thanksgiving" piano/organ duet arr. by Stephen Nielsen & Ovid Young

OFFERTORY HYMN "For the Fruits of His Creation" LSB #894


BENEDICTION "The Lord Bless You and Keep You" (choir; setting by Peter Lutkin)

CLOSING HYMN "Now Thank We All Our God" LSB #895

POSTLUDE "Now Thank We All Our God" handbell choir playing transcription of the Paul Manz organ prelude by Martha Lynn Thompson

In the AM we'll have Matins. Psalm 65 setting by Barbara Semen and Gradual by Carl Schalk (Psalm 104:24, 27-28,33; "I Will Sing to the Lord as Long as I Live"). Hymn of the Day will be "Sing to the Lord of Harvest" (#893). "Come, You Thankful People, Come", "We Gather Together", "Give Thanks", and "Now Thank We All Our God" will be reprised. Liturgical variation will be use of a Kyrie by my Comprehensive Music professor at the University of North Texas, the sainted Avon Gillespe. Years after his death I found that he had written a setting of the mass for the Roman Catholic church, the Kyrie from which I have taught our congregation.

I'll give thanks for the many teachers who cultivated the art of music in me as we sing and pray the Lord's mercy upon us all.

Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone! Share the joy! :)

Friday, November 12, 2010


One of my wife's friends sent her this video that is sure to strike a nerve with all musicians and pastors who perform weddings.

Being in a strongly confessional church, I don't have many "bridezillas" in my office. But I've had a few in my days.

In addition to some medicinal laughter for pastors & musicians & their families, I also recommend the following for those who don't understand why most of us vastly prefer playing for funerals over weddings.

(Warning: one four-letter word. Don't worry, it's not a commandment-breaker. Just a heads up not to watch this with unconfirmed minors.)

Saturday, November 6, 2010


Thanks, everyone, for sharing your selections for Reformation Day. Let's move on to this Sunday: All Saints' Day (transferred). I've got two questions for us:

1 - What hymns will your people sing, and what liturgy will you use?

2 - Will you observe a Commemoration of the Faithful Departed from your parish in the last year? If so, would you mind describing your rite (what you do) and ceremony (how it is done)?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Reformation Sunday!

Hey, hey - Sunday is Reformation Day! Time for some "reader response." :)

What will your folks get to sing? Most certainly, "A Mighty Fortress". And most probably "Salvation Unto Us Has Come". And I think a majority will sing "Lord, Keep Us Steadfast In Your Word." I suspect many will also sing "Thy Strong Word", which has become quite popular this past generation.

Anything else?
What is your choir doing?
What setting of the Divine Service will you observe? Anything special?
And will you stand for AMF? All stanzas?
And will you sing all ten stanzas of "Salvation Unto Us Has Come"?
And how will you sing them?
And where in the service will you sing the hymns you've prepared?

The fall festivals can be so much fun. Let's compare notes!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Lutheran Catholicity

In my teaching in Congo, the musicians there learned several chorales, from EIN FESTE BURG to O DASS ICH TAUSEND (used for "By Grace I'm Saved" and 3-4 other hymns in LCL). We also learned a couple of African hymns - hymns that have become popular in the US that are Lutheran hymns from Tanzania. I'll post a video of the Congolese joyfully singing "Ecoute L'Appel de Dieu" (Listen, God Is Calling) on my next post. It is more of what one would "expect" from an African church choir.

But first, consider this: What Wondrous Love Is This, or "O Merveilleux Amour". Not originally a Lutheran hymn, but one we have adopted from the Sacred Harp tradition. I knew the words would touch the hearts of the singers in Congo, even as the modality and even the shapes of the phrases would be new for them. I heard several of my new friends sing this hymn later, after practice.

As I explained to them, we in North America sing some hymns from Africa, from Latin America, and from Asia, as well as from many different parts of Europe. Similarly, even as I encouraged them to always sing their beautiful African hymns and to continuing writing their own music for the psalms and spiritual songs of the liturgy, I told them that their singing of music from other parts of the world was a way in which they could be unified with their fellow Lutheran Christians throughout the world.

With that explanation, I introduced to them "What Wondrous Love Is This?", a beautiful love song to God extolling Him for all He has done for us in Christ Jesus. Being a Sacred Harp melody, it is from the American South, where I have my roots. So I told them this was a song from my homeland, and that just as we in Illinois will be one with them as we sing "Listen, God Is Calling" or "Jesus est le même" (my favorite Congolais chanson), so they can think of their brothers and sisters in the US whenever they sing "O Merveilleux Amour".

I think I'll just call this idea "Lutheran Catholicity". It is important that our "kernlieder" or chorales be sung throughout the world - most importantly because of their theology and then because of the sturdiness of the Lutheran Chorale tune in supporting the text. But also so that our churches throughout the world share a common set of core hymns and embrace not only our heritage but each other in song.

It's clearly something they want to do in Brazzaville:

Saturday, October 9, 2010


We've discussed much the merits of the organ - particularly a pipe organ - for the leadership of communal singing. There is nothing like wind moving through pipes for leading a large number of human voices. And the text-painting capabilities of "The King of Instruments" are unquestionable.

But the organ is but a tool. A tool to serve the Lord's song, which consists of the words & the melody. Hymnody is not art music; it is folk song. And sometimes the organ gets in the way - especially when it is in the wrong hands (which, sad to say it often is). Some even advance the idea that they "need" to have an organ in order to sing hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs - even though Christians did fine without them until just a couple of centuries ago, and even as most Christians seem to do just fine without them, including many Lutherans.

Ah, but our great LUTHERAN hymns surely need the organ, some might say? Again, it is certainly wonderful to sing our chorales with organs. At least good organs in the right hands. But they are at their best when they accompany the singing. Which means the singing should stand on its own. Unfortunately, in many places our singing has become dependent on the organ. Rather than walking side-by-side, like two friends going to the store, the organist drags the congregation around. But the congregation should not be subserviently walking two paces behind. Indeed, the congregation should be free to get to the store on her own. (The only thing the Bride of Christ needs is the Bridegroom, which is the Word of God, not the sound of pipes). If our hymnody is to remain a living tradition, it must maintain the character of folksong. Folksong enjoys accompaniment, but can always stand on its own, a cappella.

In Congo, I was pleased to share our living tradition of Lutheran folk song with our brothers and sisters in Christ, who readily embraced our hymnody and who eagerly desire to learn more of it. Their instruments are not organs, but drums and the occasional recorder or imported Western electric keyboard or bass guitar. Because their music is primarily lyrical, they readily learned and adopted our hymnody when it was taught to them as folk music, not art music.

So take a look, have a listen, and let us know what you think of this version of "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" from our brothers and sisters in Brazzaville, Congo:

Friday, October 1, 2010


Dear Friends,

I returned yesterday from Brazzaville, Congo, and eagerly look forward to sharing news of my journey and the Lord's ministry in French West Africa with you.

The upcoming posts will have a less liturgical emphasis, but will be appropriate nonetheless because the point of our work together is the proclamation of the Gospel. True, our focus is on how this may best be done through our singing of psalms, hymns, and liturgical songs, but such was the central part and prime reason for my recent trip, as I went to Africa to introduce the French-language edition of the LSB, Liturgies et Cantiques Luthériens, to our brethren in French West Africa.

For now, let me just just offer a few initial thoughts:

1 - Our hymnody is truly catholic, i.e. "universal". Its essence as folk song means our melodies can be planted and take root in any cultural soil. One of the most well-received hymns I taught was the French version of "Triune God, be Thou Our Stay". And the singing of "Savior of the Nations, Come" was especially vibrant.

2 - Chanting is also catholic. One of my favorite moments of the Divine Service last Sunday was the responsive Introit between Pastor Mavoungu and the congregation of 300. The formula tone used was also interesting in that it was more Ionian than most of our tones (expected) and more complex (unexpected).

3 - What we've been saying about the primacy of singing is so true. The best singing of the congregation was when they sang a cappella or with just traditional drums. When microphoned singers sang and an electric keyboard & bass joined in, there was less communal singing. Part of this was the (limited) skill of the instrumental musicians, but there was a fundamental shift in the spirit and voice of the assembly everytime they had "ownership" of the song.

Most inspirational was how thankful our brothers & sisters in Congo are for their blessings. They have been given so little, and yet rejoice so much.

May we who have been given so much (materially) in America be like-minded in thanksgiving, and may we be generous in our support of our fellow confessional Lutherans around the world. As President Harrison says, "Now is the time to rock the world for confessional Lutheranism."

This is our work to do together - not something to just leave up to synod. If the Lord moves you to want to help our brothers and sisters in French West Africa as I share my journey with you, please do not hesitate to contact me.

There is so much to be done.

Last thought for now:

4 - I think the coolest thing I witnessed was a 5th-grade girl reciting the small catechism in French. Perfectly. Her reward the next day was to receive her own Bible. Her joy was so thorough, so genuine.

Awake, our hearts, with gladness!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Bethany Lutheran's Model

I have been promising a post about Bethany Lutheran as a follow up to my last post here. Life becomes busy for me in the fall as I spend the better part of every day in my classroom where I teach. The evening hours are short as I have two young children, a wife, homework to review, dinner and household odds and ends to which to attend. And bedtime is as early as I can afford as I am up at 5:30 AM daily.

Having said that, let me give you my most concise assessment of what Bethany Lutheran does to model good worship music practice.

First of all, they have a philosophy. I am not quoting anyone here. Rather, I am stating their philosophy as I see it. It is this: Diverse musical styles serve the gospel well. And we ought to use diverse musical styles and every instrument known to man in the pursuit of serving and proclaiming the gospel. The only styles that inhibit this endeavor are those that are completely beholden to popular culture and entertainment functions.

So, what might you hear at Bethany? Will you hear an organ? Yes. Will you hear a piano? Yes. Will you hear a guitar? Yes. Will you hear timpani or conga drums? Yes. Will you hear all kinds of other instruments like, woodwinds, brass, strings, percussion, like triangles and finger cymbals? Yes. Will you hear an a cappella choir? Yes. Will you hear soloists? Yes. Will you hear African, Latin American, Early American, Old German, and New American styles? Yes.

So, given ALL this diversity, what will you NOT likely hear? The pop-band, (i.e. the praise band). You will also probably not hear the jazz band, although many new American styles borrow chord progressions from jazz (which reflects harmonic practices of turn-of-the-century French composers like Debussy, Milhaud, Poulenc, and Ravel, among others). But putting up the pop band or the jazz band to play the music of the church is too easy and it does not often prove to be the best expression of the Gospel. It is, in a word, uncreative. And it is far too grounded in worldly entertainment associations. We are not in church to be entertained. We are in church to worship and to hear the Gospel message in its fullness. The music should contribute to that fullness of the rendering of the Gospel.

Now I know the argument is going to be that not many churches have these kinds of resources to pull this off. But let me say two things. 1. If a church has the resources to have a praise band play every week, they have the resources to be more creative than that and can endeavor to provide more diversity than that. And, 2. If a church does not have any of these resources, they have many options as to how to deal with their congregational singing that does not involve having a quasi rock group play their hymns. I have written about this at length before so I will spare you the details.

My advice to Lutheran congregations: Like Bethany, embrace musical stylistic diversity, but do so with these things in mind:

1. Make the focus of your music program SINGING the hymns and liturgy. Singing is the number one component to emphasize.

2. Avoid pop-culture idioms. Keep the rock band (praise band) away from the Divine Service.

3. Use all the instrumental resources you have in your congregation - responsibly!

4. Make sure that all texts of hymns are doctrinally precise and clear. Not just that they do not say anything wrong, but that they say everything right.

5. Make sure the music reflects the spirit of the text. Don’t take the easy way out by using music that is simply the most “popular.”

At core, we need to retain a thoroughly Lutheran understanding of what is worship. The problem with modern Evangelicalism is that they do not share our particularly Lutheran view of what it means to be in the Divine Service, the holiness it conveys and the presence of God in Christ that it gives. Our LCMS has been, woefully, all too interested in following the lead of American Protestantism. Lutherans need to retain their fundamental and confessional understanding of what it means to worship as they choose their worship music. Stylistic diversity is great. But rather than appealing to people’s pet preferences and desires to be entertained in some way, we must make sure that our worship music upholds and illumines the Word of God and the presence of Christ in our midst.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Shaping Modern Lutheran Worship sans Praise Band

As I mentioned at the end of my last post, we in the LCMS do have models that can show us what a contemporary, vibrant, fresh, music program can look like without compromising a shred of authentic Lutheran identity. Let me show you a program that I know a little about. That is Bethany Lutheran in Naperville, where Phillip Magness, my partner here at Liturgy Solutions, is Cantor.

First of all, I am very much aware that many if not most of our churches do not have the resources that Bethany has. But that does not mean that they do not have any resources. Be aware that when I speak of what Bethany does, we must understand this to mean, what Bethany thinks. What is the philosophy that lies behind their approach to music? If we can understand this, we can begin to implement it with success in parishes that have limited or few resources as well as those that have a wealth of resources. Here are some things that I think Bethany Lutheran has realized; that have led them to the place where they are as a vibrant, flagship example of authentic Lutheran worship.

1. Lutheran hymnody is exciting

This is really a theological matter. If a pastor is convinced that the Lutheran hymn heritage has something unique to offer Christians in the way of Gospel proclamation and catechesis, they will want to drink deeply from it. If they want to use it, they can find ways of making that happen without capitulating to the desires of naysayers who think other, less theologically astute songs are more “exciting.” There is nothing more exciting about one kind of music over another. One can cultivate an appreciation for all kinds of music, if one opens their minds and interests to doing so. As Christians, we should be open to cultivating appreciation for the Lutheran hymn corpus because of the great value it possesses and the great contribution it makes to Christian understanding theological knowledge and ultimately, spiritual growth.

In order to do this, pastors and musicians may need to streamline their hymn repertoire in their parishes to contain fewer songs sung more frequently. They will also want to introduce more complex hymns slowly, one at a time.

The unfortunate flip-side of this is that one of the reasons why pop-styled music is becoming more and more prominent in our churches is because pastors and their congregations really do not value the hymn heritage of our Lutheran church. They find the musical remoteness of some of the hymns off-putting and do not think it is worth the time to learn such hymns. We have addressed this matter on the blog before and will not go into details now, but this view is absolutely fatal to Lutheranism, because all the hymnody becomes music that does not discuss distinctively Lutheran theological issues, denying the people the comprehensive richness of our Lutheran theology. If this is missing from our music, one can bet that it is missing from the preaching too. That’s how it was in evangelicalism as I witnessed the erosion of strong doctrinal categories. That’s how it will be for Lutheranism too as we toy with the trend toward all things contemporary in our parishes.

2. Singing begets singing

If you want your congregation to sing, then sing. Adding instruments does not beget more singing. If anything, fewer instruments begets more singing, because the voices themselves must supply the musical sound that fills the room. When a congregation gets the fact that their voices are creating the pleasant the sound they are hearing, they’ll sing more and better. They accomplish this by just singing. Sing the hymns from LSB, the old chorales and the new tunes. Let me give a couple examples:

Let’s imagine two congregations. One is inclined to sing and loves their hymnody, the other is not inclined to sing and is uncomfortable with their hymnody. With the latter, the biggest mistake a congregation could make is to employ lots of instruments, especially if a PA system is involved. Why? Because it will not create more singers, but will create more spectators. People who are not inclined to sing, will not become so because you get more enthusiastic people to lead them, or more pop-friendly musicians to accompany them. They will neither become so, if you have an organist who improvises fancy introductions to hymns and re-harmonizes stanzas at will. The only way a congregation like this will sing is if they are responsible for producing the primary sound component in the service through opening their throats and singing. Simple accompaniments will be necessary to accomplish this, be they by a keyboard, guitar or organ, with the help of a solo vocalist or small group singing the hymns. But even more effective, would be simply a few people in the congregation who will just sing out, making the people around them feel more comfortable to do the same. I have often suspected that the trend we are witnessing to put up the rock band as the primary sound for worship has really not encouraged more enthusiastic singers, but rather, more enthusiastic spectators.

I have experienced this phenomenon where I currently work. I teach music in a Catholic high school where the student body is not inclined to sing. I was asked to try to change this by creating a “singing culture” of sorts at the school. Here is how I am proceeding. When I arrived there was a small group that led the singing. They were not very good and they were too small to fill the room with sound. When many of those students graduated, I started using my classes to lead the music for the liturgy. Now I was using 60 – 80 students at once, who could fill the room with their sound. This made them love what they were hearing and want to do it more and better. There were groups that ended up being disappointed when they were not chosen to participate in a particular liturgy, even though they had for the previous one. The point is this: As these students began to experience the sound that they as a community were making, they grew more enthusiastic about continuing to do it. As they learned the songs in class they began to enjoy them. That’s what will happen with our hymns. To learn them is to love them.

Bethany Lutheran understood two things: 1. Sing the Lord’s song to the fullest, including the hymnody of the historic church, and, 2. It is not more instruments that leads people to more singing. Rather, more singing leads to more singing.

3. The use of instruments

Following an understanding of these things, we can now talk about the former congregation from my example above that loves to sing and does so, vibrantly each week. With them, you can use whatever instrumental combination you want because they consider themselves, and their voices part of the music making process. They have developed a love for their hymnody and are engaged in the spiritual/liturgical conversation with one another; they know it and they like it. Any instrumental addition will be regarded as an enhancement to what they already provide with their own voices. It will not distract them from singing. It will not make enthusiastic spectators. It will be embellishment of the liturgical dialogue that is going on. The instruments can help illumine the text and are embraced as part of the celebration.

So, how should such instruments be used? This is where Bethany Lutheran excels. In my next post, I will discuss how the Bethany philosophy provides a much more interesting, creative, pathway to a fresh, contemporary sound and how the praise band is fast becoming hackneyed and trite. Employing a pop/rock-styled worship expression is not nearly as creative as employing a rich, liturgy and hymn based worship expression that is both modern and traditional. As to resources, those churches that can mount the praise band every Sunday are likely have the resources to do something along the lines of what Bethany has done to be modern, vibrant and yet authentically Lutheran in their worship life. The question is, are they willing?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

How We're Changing

Part 3 in a series

The LCMS convention is long over, but some of the music demonstrated there reflected the influence of pop-culture influenced American Protestantism. This Protestantism is, to be sure, not Lutheran. They take their cues on worship from Nashville and Los Angeles recording studios and companies like Maranatha Music and Integrity. These entities exist to make a buck and in doing so, cater to the lowest common denominator when it comes to theology. Anything that would identify one theological position from another cannot possibly be produced by the major record labels. It would not sell. The song may not say anything objectionable, but that’s where the money is.

Yet, we Lutherans are now clamoring after this stuff as it if is novel and new. We’re 30 years too late and even some of the most vigorous evangelical proponents of the new efforts in worship back in the 70’s & 80's are now wondering if the affect they had desired actually worked. The Emergent Church has now formed as, believe it or not, a backlash to the mega-church, Willow Creek–styled, mass appeal techniques. Yet, despite these clues, the LCMS convention was advocating by its own showcases the very same approaches to worship that the evangelicals were using 25 years ago. Are we not just a bit slow on the uptake?

Here are some things that are happening in the LCMS now that the evangelicals did ever so long ago. It all looks really familiar to me because it is exactly what occurred when I was in the Evangelical church through the 80's and the 90's.

• Viewing doctrine as divisive and an impediment to missions
• Thinking that one can possess strong doctrinal positions, and change the musical styles to those influenced by the pop-culture (top 40 mostly).
• Disappearance of the chancel furniture except maybe on Communion Sundays
• Praise band leads almost all of the service, typically drums, guitar, keyboard, bass, lead singer.
• Hymns barely to non-existent
• Old=bad, new=good
How-to, practical sermons for daily living rather than Christological, law/Gospel proclamations (may not be epidemic in the LCMS yet, but don’t worry, it’s coming)
• Disdain for the liturgy. We retain the things that might still qualify us as “Lutheran” but we really wish we could get rid of those too. The liturgy becomes a “style” seen as a necessary evil, rather than a “substance” that is life-giving through what it purveys. So it is altered to become "cooler," if not downplayed, or discarded altogether.
• Communion practiced less frequently or on days other than Sundays
• Service more like a concert with the band warming up for the main act -- the sermon!

I have noticed that we are shifting to a more and more amorphous brand of Christianity where doctrinal distinctions and precision is downplayed in favor of “bringing in the lost.” But we are not using the true Gospel to do it. We’re using techniques. We take the true Gospel for granted. We think to ourselves, “Hey, we’re Lutheran. That cannot happen to us. I mean, my pastor has a Book of Concord sitting on his shelf, after all–– I think.”

Departing from well established Lutheran music to products put out by Nashville and L.A. are sure to threaten our Lutheran identity. The sacraments are not addressed in this music, neither is sin. Nor are a host of other theological distinctions spelled out in our exhaustive Bible commentary, the Book of Concord. So, for those who think that we can start down that list above without directly affecting our historically held Christian and Lutheran distinctions are going to find it to be impossible. No such thing as Evangelical style and Lutheran substance. It just does not exist.

In my next and perhaps final posting in this series, I will speak about how worship music can be contemporary, traditional and authentically Lutheran all at the same time. Better yet, go to a service at Bethany Lutheran in Naperville, IL where Phillip Magness is Cantor. That’s exactly what he does. Bethany and its music should be the standard bearer for the how to be thoroughly, confessionally Lutheran and yet create exciting, fresh musical expressions in a variety of styles. We’ll talk about how they do that in the next post.

Friday, July 23, 2010

What Makes Lutheran Worship Lutheran?

Part 2 in a series.

One of the most challenging things I faced as a former worship leader in the Evangelical Free Church was exactly how to define what worship was. One elder at the time quipped, “Ask 50 different people what worship is and you’ll get 50 different answers.” This was absolutely true and remains true today. One of the great things about Lutheranism is that it recaptures and explains a view of worship that is Biblical and objective–– not according to my whims, but according to what God says.

Worship is God gathering His church together so He might give to us His gifts. These are the gifts of His Word, Baptism, His Supper and His Holy Absolution. We are sustained through these things. Worship in essence calls us to get out of the way and let these things come to us, that we might receive them in gratitude and allow them to renew and shape our faith. As we hear the Word of God read and preached, we also share it together in our songs and hymns. Since we know that the Holy Spirit works through the Word of God, we do not wish to waste time singing things that are not the clear and well-explicated Word. Lutherans have always regarded our hymns as mini-sermons. This is because what we sing is just as important as what we hear preached. The Word of God present in our hymns sustains us in our faith.

The modern praise and worship craze that the Lutherans are now readily employing runs antithetical to our long held definition of worship. The songs do not proclaim God’s Word in any substantial manner. Rather than appealing to the objective Word of God and expounding upon it, CCM appeals to our subjective emotions, insists that it is us who serves God in our worship rather than God who bestows his gifts as we gather. In modern praise and worship practices, we are to ascend into God’s presence. I used several musical techniques used to accomplish this and it was all really emotional manipulation. But the impulse behind it was mysticism.

In Lutheran Worship, God descends to us, making His very presence real in the body and blood of his Son, Jesus Christ. This He does by the power of His Word and promise, and it is objective. Jesus’ body is present in the Holy Supper because He says it is. And what He says, He does. This is a far cry from the impulse in modern Protestantism to want to experience God as some kind of internal happening. I used to hear people say, “Wow, Jesus was sure present in our worship today.” As Lutherans we can be assured, by God’s own promise, that Jesus is present in His Holy Supper, and through his Word, every single week, every time we gather around those things, whether we feel it or not.

The Sandi Patti song, “Lord I praise you because of who you are; not for all the mighty things that you have done…” is not exactly a CCM hit. But it emerged out of a culture where Christian entertainment has become very popular (and unfortunately imported into church worship). Sandi Patti became a very popular Christian version of say, a Celine Dion, but even before her. As you can tell by the first line of the refrain of this song, it is meant to communicate this: “Of course it is easy to praise God when you get something out of it, or when He does something for you. You ought to really praise Him for who he is. Then you know you will be praising Him rightly.” As altruistic is this sounds, it is pure Gnosticism. Everywhere does Scripture praise God because of His actions. Look at song after song in Scripture. Start with the Psalms, look at the praises of Daniel, Moses, Mary the Mother of God and hosts of others. You don’t even have to go any further than Psalm 136 to see how God is perpetually praised for what he does. Indeed, the Incarnation is the supreme act of God coming amongst his people in a tangible, external, real way. Jesus’ life was a life of doing things: healing, teaching, serving, and ultimately, dying to forgive our sins–– an action on His part–– and then rising again, ascending, judging. This is the God who saves. Not the cosmic “who you are” that the song refers to. Folks, the modern praise and worship movement in all its manifestations is infested with Gnosticism. This runs thoroughly contrary to Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions and has been rejected in our historic worship since day one. We know who God is because of what He does!

Lutherans, ask yourselves the question: Is the music we are singing grounded in the objective, external word of God, or in Christian experience? Does it explicate scripture like a mini-sermon, or does it seek to create a mood, elicit an emotional response, or worse, “ascend” into a mystical experience with God?

Lutherans have always rejected a theology of glory in their worship. A theology of glory suggests that we contribute something to our salvation and growth. Everybody wants to feel as though we are gaining God’s favor by our own actions. So we seek the mystical experience. We expect that we can encounter God in some tangible way by using the right music, in the right style, perhaps with a little mood lighting. We want God to make us feel His presence. Take a look at this popular CCM chorus: “In the secret, in the quiet place, in the stillness you are there. In the secret in the quiet hour I wait, only for you, cause I want to know you more. I want to know you, I want to hear your voice, I want to know you more. I want to touch you, I want to see your face, I want to know you more.” Let me just say that one can sincerely believe everything this song says and still die in their sins.

Lutheran theology has always held that salvation comes to us as pure gift. We did not earn it and we do not deserve it. We merely receive in faith what God gives. And, by the way, that faith is a gift too. All of this is outside of ourselves. It is received by believing the promises; by grasping in faith that what God has said is true, not because it is validated through an “experience” with God. So, songs like that above, have no place in Lutheran worship.

Yet, amazingly, God in His grace has given us Himself to experience. He tells us, “taste and see.” His very presence comes into our lives as a pure gift to be received by undeserving sinners. Clamoring after the mystical encounter with God as we are so inclined to do these days amounts to nothing more than unbelief. It is a refusal to believe the words, “This is my body… This is my blood.” It is refusing to believe that those things are enough. We want more, so we must have our favorite music. We want more, so we insist on feeling something. We want more, so we must hear sermons that tell us what to do to be better people and contribute to our own justification. We’re not content with God’s gifts. We spurn His gifts by seeking after a more meaningful experience.

Check out a quote by a fellow named Mike Baker. I do not even know him, but am looking forward to remedying that. He, like me, is relatively new to Lutheranism. He, like me, was a worship leader in the praise band. He, like me, discovered great riches in the Lutheran Confessions. He has left some very inspiring comments in response to my previous blog which was highlighted at The Brothers of John the Steadfast site.

…By the grace of God, the Holy Spirit guides you–a broken desert hermit–to the Lutheran Confessions and you use that like a map to find this remote oasis where the waters of the Gospel flow in endless streams of beautiful, life-giving grace. And it’s free! Not only that, but the water is PURE and there are people in the church [pastors] who have the sole job of just handing it out to you ALL THE TIME. Shoot, if you don’t stick your hands out, they will put it in your mouth themselves! And the water isn’t just to lure in new folk. It’s for everybody! All the time! Did I mention it’s free?

…and the stiff-necked people who have been lounging in the shade the whole time you were out there being made into beef jerky by false doctrine don’t even know what they have. They don’t even teach their own kids about the water. They are too busy complaining about how boring the water is and how it would be better to put in a coffee shop or cut down a lot of these pesky trees to get a better view of the outside world.

Mike did not know he was talking about me and the relief I found in the clear waters of the Lutheran Confessions, but he was. His comments are also about Lutherans who have taken God’s gifts for granted and are seeking after things that will not provide what they think they will. Please consider our warning, not because we deserve to be listened to, but because we learned from our mistakes and observations, from many years of not realizing that God gave us worship so we might receive His gifts – and that is enough!

Monday, July 19, 2010

More Like the Baptists Every Day?

Part 1 in a series.

As a former church musician in the Evangelical Free Church, I was for years immersed in efforts to use music to create enthusiasm for and numerical growth in worship attendance. The LCMS is going where I was, and subsequently left, in favor of a truly Lutheran brand of worship. The LCMS is looking more and more like the Free Church; not everywhere, but in enough places to cause alarm. And it is not so much about who is doing what, as much as there is a consciousness pervading the LCMS that is bound to make us into a more and more mainline protestant church and a less and less Lutheran church. Lutheran theology and worship is distinctive and has certain hallmarks that make it what it is. If we want to preserve these things, we need to speak more clearly about how we are not.

When Jesus comes again in glory to judge both the living and the dead, nothing will be set ablaze more quickly than 21st Century popular culture. Yet, it appears that we cannot wait to befoul ourselves with it. And the 2010 LCMS Convention provided some very good examples as to how. It was disappointing to me to witness the egalitarian manner in which worship music styles were treated. The arguments about how differing musical styles communicate different messages are well established, yet we insist on acting as if they do not, as if differing musical expressions carry no implications, for better or worse, one way or the other. At very least, the music of the pop-culture is carnal and not churchly.

The mainstream evangelical protestant denominations have seen fit to make their worship music reflect the sounds and moods of the secular popular culture almost exclusively. This trend is steadily increasing in the LCMS. The more the music sounds like the world, the better. This usually involves a drum kit, electric bass, electric guitar, and some kind of keyboard. And this has become the essential accompanying entity for their services. Out goes the organ, and even a piano, and in come the trap set, electric bass, and guitar. And this core group of instruments, with the timbres they produce, is the sound that defines contemporary worship music–– and for supporters, it is a requirement. Any other manifestation of a contemporary sound is of little to no interest for congregations intent on going in this direction. This, no matter how much better other contemporary initiatives may serve to uphold and illuminate the texts of the music being sung or how creative and masterful other stylistic renderings may be. For supporters of this approach, there is only one kind of contemporary music: rock-n-roll (or maybe jazz). How many of our churches are moving in this same direction?

It seems apparent to me that the LCMS Convention was trying to model both repertoire and performance standards for this pop/rock style–– a style that was presented, this year more than ever, as a perfectly viable option for any of our LCMS parishes to employ. So, just like the evangelical protestant, we are incorporating into our services a pop-culture sound, some parishes to a significant degree, where the sound of the band becomes normative and essential for our worship music, or so it is thought.

Nowhere was this more dismally exemplified than during the Karaoke styled, congregational hymn singing, setting traditional hymns to prerecorded hymn accompaniment tracks, using this pop-band style. This practice quickly made its way into evangelicalism a couple decades ago. Apparently it is more satisfying to sing a traditional hymn with a back beat, electric guitar and trap set rather than with an organ, piano or both, or even with combinations of other instruments. I seriously question whether most people think this is all that cool to begin with. But even if they do, I am more confident in this: the rock band accompanying a traditional hymn forces its text into a mood or spirit provided by the music. It should be the reverse. The text should inform how the musical accompaniment is crafted. This time-tested, honored, and responsible approach to hymn accompanying is all but destroyed when using the pop-band approach to congregational singing. And the evangelicals who have employed it have essentially given up using traditional hymns in their worship. This is because it does not work! Are we Lutherans doing the same thing?

Like the evangelical, Lutherans in many areas are already closing themselves off to real variety and creativity in worship music, in that, if the service does not have the exact kind of instrumentation and style they want, it does not pass for being contemporary enough. Take away that trap set or remove the electric guitar and the music is not truly contemporary! Like me, those contemporary musicians and composers who resist this style, are open to almost any style of music that does not attempt to mirror or bend the knee to the pop-culture as it is manifest in our day. We are open to a great variety of musical styles, instrumentations, textures, harmonic, rhythmic, and ethnic vocabularies. These are the tools we use as musicians. Our goal is musical quality, as we are musicians. Our great priority is to retain and exalt our rich hymn tradition from ancient and post-Reformation repertoires. Our goal also is to cultivate a churchly, contemporary musical expression that sounds like something other than what the world reserves for it’s most licentious musical entertainments. Is this not a more responsible and creative approach than just simply engaging the pop-band?

Here’s my concern for the LCMS and earnest Lutherans everywhere: After a decade of an all but complete endorsement of pop-culture styled contemporary music (as evidenced by this recent convention) we are moving in exactly the same direction as our Protestant evangelical counterparts. It would be interesting to see how many of our own congregations have minimized the liturgy to the barest framework, altered it to barely recognizable, or jettisoned it entirely–– as the mainline protestants have done. The more of this music parishes employ the less it will be thought that careful adherence to the liturgy will be necessary. Same with our hymns. In evangelicalism, hymns have all but disappeared entirely. How close are some of our parishes to doing the same? How many of your young people are learning hymns? Which hymns? Does it matter? In modern Protestantism, it clearly does not. Insofar as these things are happening among us, we may expect to suffer the same theological fate as the watered down services of the evangelical protestant. It will affect the thrust of our preaching and the definition of our worship, taking us further and further from our confessional moorings.

Next post will discuss how, even in the face of vehement protestations to the contrary, the employment of pop-culture styled contemporary worship music serves to erode our confessional theological precision.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

New Hymns at Liturgy Solutions

As a matter of fact these hymns cannot be found anywhere else other than at Liturgy Solutions. These are not hymn stanzas, but multi-stanza congregational hymns for your congregation to sing in Divine Worship as often as you like. Some of these hymns are texts that can be found in LSB, but have tunes that are different from those in LSB. Some of them will have tunes in LSB, but have new texts written to those tunes subsequent to the release of LSB. In either case, the hymns you find at Liturgy Solutions, are not available anywhere else. We offer them exclusively with the permission of the composers and the authors (poets).

Right now, we have several hymns posted by Stephen Starke and Stephen R. Johnson. But there will be more added as time goes by. In any case, these "Starke/Johnson" hymns are unique and are available exclusively HERE.

Now, a bit about the prices: We all know that if you want to use a hymn under copyright, you have to pay the publisher of that hymn a fee. You have to request permission in writing, and they send you their fee requirements for the use of the hymn. This fee almost always is for a one-time use for the hymn you are requesting. In other words, you do not have permission to use it anytime you wish, but rather, just for the one event or service for which it was requested. Fees for this could be as little as $25 or $30, or they could be much more, depending on how many times you need to reproduce the hymn for your congregation. A congregation of 100 attendees will not pay as much as a congregation with 600, and so forth.

When deliberating this at Liturgy Solutions, we determined that we would need to charge a little more for our congregational hymns than for our choral pieces. Here’s why: If you purchase a choral piece for a choir of 25, you will probably photocopy it 30 times. You will likely collect all those photocopies that were used and file them in your choral library after they have been used. You may need to make the occasional additional copy for lost pieces, because music can get lost over time.

On the other hand, when you reproduce a congregational hymn, you will copy it so that everyone in attendance can have a copy in his or her bulletin. This could be 60 or 80 copies, or it could be several hundred. And you will likely not save them. They will get thrown away with the bulletin.

For this freedom, Liturgy Solutions offers you a great bargain. Purchase a congregational hymn that you like for much less than a traditional publishing house would charge and use it as often as you like, knowing that you are supporting the work of the composer and poet who crafted these fine hymns. You may also enjoy the rich substance of these hymns over and over, every year without having to secure additional permission. We hope that this will help the Lord’s song to thrive in your parish.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


The main purpose of Liturgy Solutions is to help church musicians proclaim the appointed pericopes of the day that are normally sung. The Lutheran Divine Service is very flexible, and so the particular propers used from parish to parish vary. Some congregations use the appointed Introit to begin the Entrance Rite, others sing an Entrance Hymn instead, and still others sing the Psalm of the Day at that point. Similarly, between the first reading and the Epistle, some sing the Psalm of the Day, others sing the appointed Gradual. Some parishes use the appointed Verse before the Gospel; others use the setting in the service book provided as an alternative, in effect making the Verse an "ordinary" instead of a "proper". Then there is the Hymn of the Day, sung by the congregation. In Lutheran circles, this hymn is appointed and so in a way is one of our "propers". Hence, it is more likely to receive special treatment by the choir, and so we offer hymn stanzas to support that practice.

Most parishes establish a certain pattern about all this. Either the choir is in the habit of singing the Verse or they aren't. The do hymn stanzas or they don't. The Psalm of the Day is used or it is not. Some others, including mine, vary the practice. Some Sundays a choir singing the Verse of the Day, some Sundays the congregation sings what is in the hymnal. We usually sing the Psalm of the Day, but sometimes the choir sings a Gradual. And there about seven different ways we sing the Psalm, so there is variety there as well.

Whatever your custom is, summer usually means a break for your choir. Even where there is a summer choir, it is often a different, smaller group and so a different approach is needed. In places where there is a strict pattern for when the choir sings and when they don't, summer provides an opportunity to do something different. Congregations - and musicians - are more accepting of doing something different because of the season, especially if it is a simple variation. The advantages of this are two-fold: one can readily find something accessible for your musicians (who are fewer and rehearse less in the summer) and the congregation can learn through experience that the pattern of worship is about the Word, not when "it's time for the choir to sing."

Here are a couple of examples. In a place where the choir doesn't take stanzas on the Hymn of the Day, have a summer quartet sing a stanza or two each week using a simple SATB setting such as found in TLH. It'll be easy to put together, and the congregation can readily understand that "they're not doing an anthem because it is summer." (grin) As the people become accustomed to the blessing of this practice, you might continue it on occasion in the fall with your full choir, using a Bach chorale for a stanza on Reformation Sunday or even a creative setting from Liturgy Solutions. (Had to get that in there!)

Or maybe you are in a place where the Psalm is always chanted, and you have no choir for the summer. Once a month, the Psalm could be done instead in a song setting by soloist, with the congregation singing a refrain. Again, since there is no "anthem from the choir", people will be more accepting of this in the summertime. And, once they experience the blessing of the practice, they will be ready to have the psalm sung this way on occasion during the year.

What do you do with your propers in the summer?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

What a Great Choir!

So now we are on to Trinity Sunday. Because it falls on Memorial Day weekend this year, many choirs in the church won't be singing. But not at Bethany! I may have the most dedicated - as well as one of the most talented - groups in the whole Missouri Synod. Huzzah! I am a cantor who is indeed richly blessed. :)

I did poll my group to make sure it was going to work for us to sing this Sunday. Turned out more were available for Trinity Sunday this year than Pentecost! As I said in my last post, I had to craft Pentecost for a smaller choir this year (we had 20). It did go very well, though, thanks be to God. I received compliments on the service throughout the week and am looking forward to the service being loaded onto our podcast. (We had a few glitches, to be sure, but, as Robert Preus quipped, "It wouldn't be a Lutheran liturgy without at least one mistake!")

Anway, this Sunday we'll have 29 out of my 36. :) And they will sing for all of both the 9:00am and the 11:15am services. Just like the brass group. (I told you they were dedicated!) On the Entrance Hymn, "O God, O Lord of Heaven and Earth" the choir will sing my Liturgy Solutions setting of stanza 3. The Verse of the Day will use the Caribbean "Halle, Halle". The Voluntary will be Ernani Aguiar's "Salmo 150" (published by EarthSongs), a staple in the modern concert repertoire. It is one of the choir's favorites and a great way to end the choir season. And, yes, we sing it in Latin. Oh yes, one more piece - which we sang at the beginning of the year - the choir & the brass will lead the congregation in Carolyn Jennings' magnificent concertato on her hymn "Voices Raised to You We Offer".

Alleluia, indeed!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ah, Pentecost!

I know a pastor who got this silly idea into his head that "the reason the music for Pentecost isn't as grand as for Christmas or Easter is because the Holy Spirit just humbly points to Jesus." Now, I certainly believe, along with the rest of my confessional Lutherans, that the Spirit's work is indeed to create faith in our hearts. He calls, gathers, and enlightens us in the one true faith. And, to be sure, He also gives us spiritual gifts, aids the Church in her mutual conversation and consolation, and provides countless other blessings, even as the chief work of the Spirit is to call us by the Gospel and keep us faithful. That's why He enlightens us with His gifts!

But to therefore justify the lackluster way many parishes celebrate Pentecost and to even say that it is fitting and appropriate to have a diminished celebration on purpose is quite bizarre. To the contrary, because the Holy Spirit performs the miracle of creating faith in our hearts, so that we can believe in this Jesus and own the forgiveness of our sins, the Feast of Pentecost should be grand and glorious - just like Christmas and Easter. For without the Spirit, we could not believe in the One whom God our Father has sent! Jesus' death for us would then be in vain.

So, in the end, it is all about Jesus. And the Holy Trinity is blessed co-equally even as we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit and praise Him for His wonderful works on Pentecost Sunday. In the comments section, for those who are interested, I'll share some of the things we'll be doing at Bethany this Lord's Day. I hope you will take some time to let us know what you will be doing as well.

May your Divine Services be glorious indeed this Sunday.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Michigan Happenin'

Just a quick shout out to all our friends in Michigan - and to all who have friends in Michigan - to get the word out: Matt Harrison will be speaking in Traverse City next week: May 6 & May 7. All are invited! Click here to find out all the details. Please feel free to add your own link to CFLM to help us get the word out. Share the joy!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Happy Walter Day

Actually, today is St. Mark's Day, and I just enjoyed Matins here in St. Malo, Colorado, where I am playing for a Doxology retreat. It was a beautiful service held in the "Church on a Rock" here near Estes Park, a beautiful little RC sanctuary which was made even more beautiful by the sound of 26 Lutheran pastors singing the Lord's song this morning. I must add that it was a special blessing to hear the preaching of Rev. Hal Senkbeil this morning and to pray the liturgy under the leadership of Rev. Shawn Kumm, who chants beautifully.

So what's this about Walter, then? His commemoration was YESTERDAY. But, having been in flight to Colorado, I missed Lutheran Kantor's excellent post on the topic. I tried to comment over there, but for some reason his site is not accepting comments. You can read his Walter Day post here, which includes an inspiring poem by Walter himself.

For your listening enjoyment, you might want to listen to this motet on "Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Thy Word" by Walter, as sung by the small choir assembled for the last BJS National Conference this February.

Monday, April 19, 2010

It's Time to 'Fess Up

OK - I was never a great blogger - but in the beginning Fine Tuning did offer about a post a week, sometimes more. And Liturgy Solutions was posting lots of new content regularly. I think it is fair for all of you to know the answer to "Phillip, what are you doin'?" (insert Chicago accent into the question)

For the past few months, I have been spending much of my free time working with a great group of friends over at Cross-Focused Leadership for Missouri. We are promoting a return to the churchly style of leadership that characterized the LCMS during her great days of unity and growth. In a nutshell, this means leading the church as a spiritual family, not a business. We believe that it is time for us to come together around Scripture and the Confessions, putting them first over policies and programs. Accordingly, we are supporting Rev. Matthew Harrison for synodical president, and rejoice that he received over 1300 nominations from LCMS congregations to serve in this capacity (almost 600 more than the incumbent, Rev. Gerald Kieschnick, received).

This Saturday, those of you in the New England and New York areas have an excellent opportunity to meet Rev. Harrison. He will be teaching and preaching at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Norwalk, CT. The Saturday AM session will be on his latest work: "A Little Book on Joy: Living the Good News Life in a Bad News World". After lunch, he will talk about genuine and exciting opportunities for mission that the Lord has set before us. Plenty of time is provided also for Q&A afterward. Stephen and I strongly encourage everyone in the to come out and be encouraged in the Gospel. You can get all the details here.

I guess it makes sense that musicians like me and Stephen would be excited about Harrison. After all, a return to theologically-based leadership would mean that our synod would once again uphold Lutheran liturgical piety and practice as the model for our parishes. And, for those of us who love singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Canticles), that would be a good thing.

Friday, April 9, 2010


The LCMS Commission on Worship has now posted recordings and transcripts of the proceedings at MtCow:

I will certainly be continuign my commentary here, but for those who want to digest a little more in the meantime, I am happy to report that you may now proceed ad fontes.

I hope all of our readers and their congregations are having a joyful Eastertide.

Christ is risen!

Monday, March 29, 2010


So what is going to happen with all this talk at MtCow, anyway? Was it just a exercise in exchanging ideas so that we could check something off our lists? Some of us - including everyone at the Northern Illinois District (NID) table - became concerned that little fruit would actually be born from the conference. Indeed, one of our frustrations was that much time was spent on generalizations about which the vast majority of us agree, while avoiding the real divisive issues of "wine, women, and song", sacramental piety, and the Office of the Holy Ministry. These concerns began to surface after Vogel's address and grew louder as the conference continued.

Coincidentally, as I am at this point in my reflections on the conference, I am pleased to report that, at least here in the NID, we will be going forward with the process in a way that should be more helpful to those of us who desire greater synodical uniformity. After the last Board of Director's meeting, District President Gilbert told me that the district pastors' conference next winter would be a district replication of MtCow. This, of course, is what is intended to happen in all the districts in some shape or form. What encourages me, though, is what our bishop said: "And we will do it right. We are going to deal with specifics."

This follows in the wisdom of Norman Nagel, who famously said, "When discussing worship practice, it is important to be specific."

We can talk about adiaphora and the Gospel and the Means of Grace all day and never get to the real issues that divide us. It's time we start talking about the elephant in the room. Bring it on! :)

And maybe, we'll have a synodical president who understands that It's Time to talk about a lot of other things as well!

Saturday, March 6, 2010


Recently a visitor to Bethany-Naperville commented positively on the choir, noting that "their singing had life to it."

Their song indeed has life. It is a privilege for me to conduct Proclaim (the adult choir at Bethany). They have hearts for the Lord, and a desire to use their musicianship to magnify His Word. Accordingly, they work with me on polishing sound and developing their instrumnets in a way that many church choirs would resist.

So often church choir members consider their service only to be their personal sacrifice of praise. At best, they then see their sacrifice as an offering on behalf of the assembly. I call that "vertical worship". It's just them & Jesus - and we get to watch. By God's grace, though, I am blessed to be at a place where the choir is devoted to the Lord's ministry, and so they understand their service to be not only their sacrifices of thankfulness and priase, but also a participation in the proclamation of His Word (hence the name). I call this "cruciform worship", because it is horizontal as well as vertical. The choir sings to God and to the assembly, sharing the gifts they receive from Him.

This makes all the difference on so many levels.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

More Snippets from MtCow

I return now to my series of reports on the LCMS "Model Theological Conference on Worship". I am advancing this conversation because it is the one thing I can see the synod doing that is in the spirit of "It's Time", Rev. Matt Harrison's proposal for effecting meaningful reconciliation and unity in the Missouri Synod. The worship wars are an impediment to the Gospel, and I believe the effort begun in St. Louis last month is a good step toward bringing concord back to the churches that subscribe to the Book of Concord.

Going forward then, following Dr. Jeff Gibbs' address, was Rev. Larry Vogel. He sits on the synod's Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR). His focus was on the incarnational, the real presence of Christ in Word and Sacrament, and how that makes our worship truly Christian. We as Lutherans don't need to move "toward" this truth in our theology of worship. We're already there - or should be. The tension among us is that some claim that there is a conflict between sacramental worship and mission. Pastor Vogel says there should be no tension: "it (baptism) is mission: telling and living the new life of Christ's Body."

Besides, we have no choice. If we are to worship the true God, then we must worship according to His command. We must "let God have it His way". Though the world may differ, "it just won't do to make 'spiritual high' the goal or focus of our worship." Sadly, many churches today do just that in an effort to be "missional". And, in doing so, they prove that "worship customs affect doctrine, and are therefore not adiaphora."

So where then is the freedom? After all, we believe that differing customs are not necessarily divisive. (AC VII) The answer is found simply by looking at the Reformers: what they did, and what they did not do. They did not change the essence of worship, nor even its basic order and content; instead, they moved preaching and liturgy and hymnody into the vernacular, that many would hear and believe. Where this is done responsibly, we have good and healthy variety in the Church. Where it is done poorly, the Gospel suffers.

This, I believe, is where the rubber hits the road. And Pastor Vogel then pointed to this by highlighting what he called "Pastoral Realities": to be both "welcoming and faithful" in a "continaully changing America" while working with the "limited capabilities of musicians and pastors." We need wisdom to know what we can do well and effectively. As any musician can tell you, "it is one thing to have instruments - it is another to know how to use them."

Here I cannot help but end with a connection to our work here at Liturgy Solutions. Much of the talk at things like MtCow is conceptual. Very important and necssary, but not immediately applicable. It takes education, experience, skill, and discernment to distill and apply these principles in practical and productive ways. We at Liturgy Solutions serve to provide tools to help you do that.

Your choir is the most effective instrument you have for leading your congregation in worship. By choosing texts that sing faith into people's hearts, and by providing them music for those texts that is appropriate to the musicians and relevant to the hearers, they are truly able to magnify the Word and inspire the congregation's devotion.

May we use our instruments as conscienciously and intentionally as a good preacher uses his pulpit, that many may live the Eucharistic life. +

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Those Files in Your Library...

....tell you a lot about the history of your parish, and even of the trends in church music and American culture as a whole (how 'bout some of the 70's artwork on those covers?!).

Since I've been at Bethany, we've "archived" close to half of the choral music. Evidently it is some sort of transgression to throw the stuff away, supposedly because of all the needy congregations out there just aching to sing dated, heterodox drivel, so we box it up and store it in the attic above the gym in a back corner - where it can be disposed of by a future generation. Some of it actually does get thrown out, such as illegal photocopies or old evaluation copies of out-of-print octavos. But mostly we just store away those things we know we will never use so that we can make room for that which we can and will use. And now we are looking at instrumental music as well.

What sorts of things does one discover? Periods where the all the new music for choir was the "praise music" of an earlier generation, a type of "traditional" CCM, from many of the same publishers who now give us choral knock-offs of today's Bapticostal radio music. Other periods are much better, with sacred classics from the Lutheran repertoire. Periodically, one even finds a few years where the director purchased psalmody and hymn concertati. And then there are those romantic eras where a predecessor bought lots of big works (children and adults' choirs plus brass and bells!) which are still in pristine, unused condition. Guess (s)he went off to a workshop and got all excited about something.......only to discover that planning, rehearsing, and putting together all these forces in Bethany's old sanctuary was too much to do. I found a similarly interesting history when I went through the library during my cantorate at Trinity-Peoria (with choral music from the 1890s in German, along with English anthems dating back to the 1910s!).

I think digging through the library is one of the most important things a new director can do when coming to a parish. One can see where a choir and a congregation have been. One can discover some favorites that will help the new director win the confidence of his new choir. And one can find gems along with the jokes. (I'm sure those who followed me at Trinity have enjoyed the copies of "How?", the spoof of Carl Schalk's hymn anthems written by the late John Folkening.)

What have you found in your library?

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Right Story

The first speaker up at MtCow was Dr. Jeff Gibbs, who did a fine job of framing our discussions. As he aptly pointed out, a project such as a "theology of worship" is like roofing: everything depends on the first shingle. If the first shingle is incorrectly laid, then everything else will be out of alignment.

Of course, the first shingle for worship is the Gospel. Christ crucified for us for the forgiveness of sins. As we unpackage this in relationship to the "worship wars", Dr. Gibbs pointed out that "the corporate worship of the congregation must be set in the right story." Too often, worshippers and worship leaders center worship on their personal story, their personal experience of faith. But while the Divine Service does return us to our baptisms and so does indeed personally renew our faith, the narrative of the service is not about Christ-in-us, but about Christ-for-us that we may be in Christ.

What does this mean for the church's song? It means that our music should not be primarily about self-expression, but about Christ-expression. In other words, worship is not simply a confession of our own personal experience of Christ, but rather a confession of the whole story of God's salvation of mankind.

This obviously norms the texts we choose, but it also shapes the kind of music we make to support those texts.

Does your music proclaim the "reign of God"? Does it bring the comfort of Christ being with your hearers "always, even to the end of the age"? Sure, we all love to share music that has been meaningful to us. And there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, we draw inspiration from such music and it helps us in our craft. But are we making music that is meaningful to others?

I submit that the craft of the liturgical musician is to manifest "Christ-for-us" through the music proclaimed to and sung by the assembly, making music that has been personally meaningful an inspiration to others in Christ AND taking music that has not inspired us and discovering how to make it meaningful to all.

Whether one plays the organ, directs a choir, or leads a liturgical consort of guitar, flute, and bass, this is where our musicianship lies.

Too often, traditional Lutheran musicians shy away from the personal and lose that vital artistic connection with the musical spirit that inspired them to play and sing in the first place. And, far too often as well, contemporary musicians will not discipline themselves to make music for the assembly, rather than just for themselves.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

HOW DEEP HOW BROAD HOW HIGH (Thoughts from "MtCow")

Much of the language used to discuss worship at the Model Theological Conference on Worship (MtCow), was centered on "diversity", "choices", and "styles". Clearly the focus was on the second half of the constitutional article cited in the resolution that authorized this gathering: "to develop an appreciation of a variety of responsible practices which are in harmony with our common profession of faith." (LCMS Const. Art. III 7b)

But the first part of this article, also cited in the convention resolution, is that the LCMS has as one of its objectives to "encourage congregations to strive for uniformity in church practice." This would be Art III 7a.

Cultivating "diversity" and "choices" and "styles" reinforces a tension between variety and uniformity that need not be. Instead, if we are serious about responsible practices which are in harmony with our common profession of faith, I submit that we should instead speak about the "breadth" of the Divine Service, the "depth" of the Divine Service, and even the "height" of the Divine Service.

Were we to do that, we would maintain the focus on the uniformity we are constituted to strive for, and also embrace the various practices and customs that are a legitimate and responsible part of our living heritage. "Breadth" would acknowledge the various languages and cultural situations in which worship occurs. "Depth" would encompass the variety that is provided for within the rubrics - just as a basic dance such as a waltz can be simple or elaborate and still be a waltz. And "Height" would embrace the arts in service of the Gospel.

Height. Breadth. Depth. Of Christ. For us. Just as in the wonderful hymn "O Love, How Deep". Just as the Scriptures speak (Eph 3):

14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family [3] in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Isn't this what worship is all about?