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.