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

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.


Anonymous said...

The worship practices in the LCMS really are becoming more Baptist every day to the point where bapticostal 'contemporary' worship has become the norm. If those of us who know better sit idly by, we could see our hymnody and liturgy die out. We can and must begin to reverse this, and the place to start is education. If we aren't teaching our children and adults the hymnody and liturgy of the Lutheran church, then we have no right to complain about what is going on in the LCMS.

Stephen R. Johnson said...

Thanks timshew! Families who love and teach the liturgy and hymns with Lutheran identity can be very helpful in this reversal. Sometimes people may need to seek out a different LCMS church than they are attending -- one that may be a little further from home, but is ordering the liturgy and hymnody rightly. Don't just settle.

Anonymous said...

Hi Stephen,
I agree with you. A lot of what makes Lutheranism Lutheran is its historic and Germanic roots. Asthetically my husband and I appreciate the music from this history and the hymns that have been written from it and since.
Thing is, we are a minority and so are you.
What usually happens in Protestant Christianity is people split and splinter over each idea, belief, preference.
So the LCMS as one big whole is probably going to deteriorate eventually, perhaps fully by the time our children are our age.
There will always be some people out there who will cling to the more traditional music and carry it on into the future, and hopefully even continue writing music in this tradition.

D. Ray McClellan said...


Good article. You will be happy to know that my wife and I are a part of a PCA church plant, Monroe PC in Georgia. We handle the music using a porable organ keyboard, the Roland C 190. Plans are that when we get our own building, we will also get an organ. We sing only hymns and psalms w/ organ accompaniment. Our pastor is 37 years old and believes that hymns and psalms are the best musical match to our theology.

D. Ray McClellan said...

P.S. -- this is from D. Ray

Fr. Jon M. Ellingworth said...

We are at risk of an entire generation or more never having heard traditional, orthodox Lutheran hymnody and liturgy. This is how it happens folks, "collective amnesia".

When it comes to liturgy, many of the rubrics are truly adiaphora; nevertheless, because of this "collective amnesia" problem, I feel compelled, out of faithfulness to my ordination vows if nothing else, to utilize the rubrics to thier fullest -- so that we don't forget, so that our children grow up exposed to the fullness of Lutheran worship and doctrine.

Churches that offer both a traditional and a contemporary service could actually (likely) end up with two churches: one attended by older Lutherans and one attended by Baptists.

Janet said...

Regarding Jon Ellingworth's quote: "Churches that offer both a traditional and a contemporary service could actually (likely) end up with two churches: one attended by older Lutherans and one attended by Baptists."

I see that happening already, and not just because of contemporary "worship." Another reason is lack of oversight with regard to Bible "studies" that small groups are allowed [or encouraged!] to use: Rick Warren and John Ortberg's work to name two.

Danshep said...

I have seen some interesting things in our church. For example, a newlywed couple joins. She was LCMS, he was Assembly of God. Later, he gets chosen to be an Elder. Then in the course of Elder work, a couple of them (who also did not grow up LCMS) decide we need to "beef up" our worship with cymbals, drums and a guitar. There you have it. A lot of the time, the Elders could be at the crux of where an LCMS church is going.

One other motivator is loss of membership. Many times in council meetings, I have heard from Elders or Council members, that our membership is going down. Therefore, the logical deduction is to go "praise worship" mode, to attract new (young) members.

Mike Baker said...

You cannot divorce contemporary worship from the Pentecostal, Wesleyan, and Charismatic theological systems that created them in the 1950s and 60s. These belief systems are completely opposed to several cornerstone understandings in Lutheranism.

Contemporary Worship and Church Growth are two different things that have only recently married because they enjoy a symbiotic relationship that helps the agendas of both movements. Be careful and do not look at the contemporary worship scene 50 years after its creation and assume that the current version of the Purpose Driven movment (a recent arrival 1980s+) pragmatically invented contemporary worship to be relevent, interesting, or cool.

Contemporary Worship was around long before Church Growth gained any strength as a movement in any church body. Those of us who grew up in charismatic churches know that Church Growth embraced a worship movement that already existed in multiple protestant denominations decades before secular business practices became in vogue for contemporary chruches.

Contemporary Worship at its roots is built on a foundation of pure Christian mysticism that cannot be reconciled with even moderate interpretations of Lutheran theology. You have to ignore one or both belief systems in order to make the two practices fit. Even if you pull that off, they will always be awkward because the two cannot coexist. One of the two will always seek to overcome the other because the theologies that created both practices are mutually exclusive.

At the core of this conflict are fundamental disagreements over topics such as the Holy Spirit, Divine Revelation, and Original Sin.

Stephen R. Johnson said...

Yes, Mike, you are preaching to the choir here. Not everybody knows that history that you pointed out so well here. The thrust of my argument will be that the theology espoused in the contemporary movement is antithetical to Confessional Lutheran theology, and yet, we are running after it like a panting dog with its tongue hanging out. Your recent comments have caused me to consider some options as to how to articulate it. For that I am grateful. You will see another post here at Fine Tuning soon. Just remember that we have very similar histories and play for the same team.

Phillip said...

Yes, DanShep, often well-intentioned Elders do lead the congregation astray, thinking that they are the "voice" of the congregation, "representing" them, rather than seeing themselves as supporting the Office of the Holy Ministry.

This is one of the reasons the Brothers of John the Steadfast was formed: to get men into the Lutheran Confessions so that they may be strong spiritual heads of households - and worthy Elders in the church. Such Elders certainly do listen to the congregation and help the pastor hear their concerns, but they also support the Lord's ministry by amplifying what our pastors believe, teach, and confess.

I'm on the Board of Directors for the Brothers, and Stephen is a member of the chapter at his congregation. We invite you to check them out by clicking on the icon on the Liturgy Solutions home page.

"You too can have a confessions reading group in your parish." :)

Blessings on your efforts to teach and to train your Elders, that they may help nurture authentic Christian piety in your congregation.

Pastor Bowman said...

And here I thought what made us distinct was our message not the sound of our music.

I would argue that much of our problem isn't the music, it is the fact we are lazy. Rather than writing sound music in a contemporary sound we are borrowing from groups with shaky theology(at best). Unfortunately, what I have been saying to others (reform it, bring it from where it is to where it needs to be) is now largely falling on deaf ears as both sides are so dead set against each other they are unwilling to acknowledge there may be a third option. We have contemporary music and we are taking a two pronged approach to dealing with the problem one we are writing new pieces with good theology and greater depth; and also, we are writing new arrangements of traditional hymns. We have also despite heavy insistence to cut back on length of service retained much of the liturgy and incorporated many long forgotten liturgical traditions. Side note, the fun thing about long forgotten traditions is people think they are new and innovative. Also, while investigating an advert we received for a show called Time of Grace I discovered a group called Koine, who come out of WELS and is doing some really good arrangements of traditional hymns.

I would encourage you to be careful with how broad a brush you use to paint. Not everybody who does not go straight hymnal is abandoning what makes Lutherans distinctive from pop American Evangelicalism.

At the same time, the insistence of traditional hymns, liturgy, and instrumentation, if it has not already, is becoming a new form of pietism/legalism i.e. "you aren't really Lutheran if you don't look like me". We need to be careful, for while the hymnal is a most excellent resource for proclaiming the Law and Gospel in the Divine Service, it is only a resource and not the only way to proclaim the Law and Gospel.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't resist but comment on this post...and here all I was looking for was a good Lutheran liturgy to baptize my daughter since I live in a country/city where Lutherans aren't present.

Fact is...there aren't a whole lot of tunes that we are using today that Jesus and his disciples sang at the last supper. Also sadly, though Jesus was omnipotent, he didn't decide to invent the organ when it was time to sing a hymn before they left and he was betrayed. In fact these tunes and these instruments were not yet existing when Paul encouraged us to use hymns.

Therefore I really agree with the statement that says Lutherans should be creating music. There is no need for this music to imitate generations gone by. There is a need for it to come from good doctrine and sound teaching. The best thing the Lutheran church has going for it today and has had going for it the last 400+ years is a firm belief in God's word.

These arguments about hymns are very cultural centric. Not just Lutheran culture, but German Lutheran culture. I live among a tribe in the Philippines. Their good music involves gongs or a certain type of playing on a keyboard that is far different from your hymns. These ideas on hymns tell the have to be like us. Lutherans (actually Christians) should be telling the world, "let's be like Christ."

Some people may have been able to swallow the living in a different culture idea. Now I'll get a little more controversial. Christian Rap...Reach Records and Crossmovement are doing a wonderful job at taking the Bible and putting it into Rap music. It's much more doctrinal than contemporary worship songs (you liked that). It's also a lot more doctrinal than many a Lutheran hymn (you didn't like that). Sadly they are not Lutheran. I would welcome a good LCMS rapper any day. This is where I reiterate the statement of the need for Lutherans to be creating good worship music.

Blessings all.
Still looking for the right Lutheran liturgy to translate for my daughter's baptism.