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

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.