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

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.


Phillip said...

I blush at the high praise you have for our music ministry at Bethany, Stephen. But I thank you for saying what is difficult for me to say myself: Bethany is a flagship congregation for those who want to see an example of how a vibrant, authentic Lutheran worship manifests itself in 21st-century American suburbia.

While I am blessed to play an important role in the worship life of this parish, I am the first to say that Bethany does this not because of any special talent I have, nor because of the many wonderful volunteers we have in our music program. No our worship is remarkable because of the great faith that has been sown so richly among us by our faithful pastors and through the living heritage of singing the Word and celebrating the Sacraments that we own as Lutheran Christians.

In other words, anyone reading this can be a part of nurturing this same living heritage no matter where they go to church.

How? JUST SING. Early. Daily. Often. Sure, we need to get ideas and resources from each other, and we are happy to participate in provding them for each other at Bethany and here at Liturgy Solutions, but others can only as examples - no matter how inspiring such models may be.

So, whereever you are at, just sing the Word of God, sing our great Lutheran chorales and the wonderful new hymnody in LSB, and sing the Psalms in many and various ways. Sing them alone, with your families, with you friends, with your congregation. Think of it as a spiritual exercise program for you and for all in your congregation who will sing with you. Like any exercise, you won't reach your goals until you start doing it. And the more you do it, the better you will get at it - and the more you will enjoy doing it.

What you wind up with will look/sound different - just as ten different body-builders continue look like themsevles even as they acheive the same healthy results. But, exercizing with the same Word and Spirit, you will realize the same vigorous Lutheran piety that characterizes my inspiring congregation.

Pastor Bowman said...

I have to disagree with your assertion that you cannot have songs with strong theological substance that are influenced by styles outside of traditional hymnody styles. You can have theologically strong songs, just don't expect them to sell on a large scale. It is just like I will never expect some of the good books CPH is now putting out to ever be on the bestseller list at Family Christian Bookstores.

And some of things you list while I am sure there are clergy and laity alike who fall into your categories, I see a lot of that already changing. The old is bad paradigm is changing for better or for worst because of the influences of the 'emerging church' movement and their use of old traditions.

Others aren't as sinisterly minded as you think, such as Communion at another time, a very old practice by the way. I know a few who have a separate communion service because they are trying to remain faithful to our position of close(d) communion. I know you won't like this, but some of the move towards guitars, etc. is purely practical, because organists are a dying breed. Congregations openly dread having to find a new organist simply because finding anyone is hard to do much less finding a good one. We are unusual in that we are blessed with a full-time organist and two fill ins, but most are lucky to find one. And no offense to CPH karaoke hymns just aren't the same.

For better or for worst, most Lutheran congregations do not alter the liturgy so it will be "cooler" but to fit their theme of the day. For the most part, they would agree with you in that the Liturgy should be retained. They would disagree that it has to be word for word LSB,LW, or TLH.

Phillip said...

Hello Pastor Bowman. Thanks for your comments.

Can you point me to where Stephen said that one cannot have songs with strong theological substance that are influenced by styles outside of traditional hymnody? I don't think he is saying that at all.

Regarding the "emergent" church, I had some hope when that movement started that many in the evangelical world might be led back to more substantive worship, but the "emergent" dabbling in various traditions has turned out to be an exercise in Romantic post-modernism. I think confessional Lutherans should be very wary of the emergents' use of tradition for the sake of tradition/experience/feeling. It may not be ritualism ex operate operato, but it is an appeal to natural man's religion nonetheless.

Regarding the Lord's Supper. Our confessions say that we offer it on the Lord's Day. Sure, one can find other practices in church history, but why go there?

And why do you think Stephen or I wouldn't like using guitars or other instruments? Have you read our passionate critiques of Lutheran infatuation with organs? I invite you to go back in the archives of this blog and read Stephen's excellent "Luxuriant Lutheranism: the Organ on a Pedastal". True, guitars alone can't provide the sustained pitches one needs for leading group song, but combined with voices, flute, bass, we agree that when such instruments are played skillfull they are FAR preferable to a mediocre organist - or even a recording a fantastic one. The Sciptures tell us to "sing skillfully" and to let "everything that has breath" praise the Lord. We are definitely "pro-Psalm 150" at Liturgy Solutions. :)

I hope we can keep the conversation going. But let's be more specific and try to make fewer assumptions, OK? I think it will be more productive.

BTW, with the advice of my DP in 2008, I attended 13 different services in 9 different churches on my sabbatical. My experience in attending worship in three districts during that time was that there was much more emphasis on being "relevant" (i.e. "hip") with the various adaptations of service that were employed than in being thematic. And these were all in congregations that were recommended as being representative of churches making a deliberate effort to emphasize what they believe to be quality worship.

I understand being thematic. We do this every Sunday at Bethany. But this is not what I see when I travel about the synod. FWIW

Stephen R. Johnson said...

I'd like to focus on one comment that Pr. Bowman made and that Phillip answered. It is actually interesting that Pastor Bowman and I agree, even though his comment was inferring that we do not.

I believe that there most certainly can be strong theological songs that do not follow traditional hymn forms. But I do not see too many of them. And the reason for that is precisely the same as Pr. Bowman asserts: They will not sell. He has reinforced my argument. Nashville and L.A. does not produce songs that explore and expound upon distinctively Lutheran categories like the Sacraments, Law and Gospel, the theology of the cross, vocation, or sin and absolution, etc, because it will not sell to the broader audience of Protestant Evangelicalism. This is my point, exactly.

Being authentically Lutheran is not popular. And when you look at the results of the church growth phenomenon and the worship and musical practices it has embraced, there are hardly any theological distinctions that can be made between denominations. Why are we Lutherans so anxious to go down that path? Do we not have some vital distinctions to show to modern Christians that will aid them in their faith?

As I witness the LCMS poised to drink deeply from the well of Maranatha music and other like publishers, I am warning that the Lutheran distinctions are missing from these things and that we will lose them. That well is not filled with water that upholds the confessional standards of our Bible commentary - the Book of Concord.

Our Lutherans are losing their confessional standards and obscuring the Gospel in the process. This is because we are more concerned with style over substance.

The rest of Phillip's response to Pr. Bowman I affirm heartily.

Mike Baker said...

There are more options than "organist" or guitar. Here's one outside-the-box idea.

A contemporary keyboardist can pull off a fairly convincing emulation of traditional worship with the guitar tab hymnal. He can do that on piano, keyboard, or an synth-organ which is relatively cheap and easy to cart around.

I play several instruments, but I am functionally illiterate when it comes to traditional musical nomenclature. I have to physically count lines and spaces to tell you what notes are what... but I can give a no-frills but fairly familiar sounding "Alleluia Sing to Jesus" and "Thy Strong Word"

I read guitar tab for my piano music and fill in the gaps by ear (a must if you play in "a band" these days). Your average Joe in the pew doesn't really notice any difference. I was the "protestant organist" for the chapel during my tour in Iraq and I've never touched a real organ in my life. People would bring me sheet music to play and I'd have to explain to them that I had been faking it for months.

So find a decent keyboardist and you don't have to change your whole worship format just because your organist has the flu. In most cases, having at least the same instrament type is less "jarring" than going to guitar or going music-less.

Phillip Magness said...

Spot on, Mike!

And I can testify to that as someone who just got back from playing on the piano for a Doxology retreat using.......the LSB Guitar Edition.

We must remember that our hymns are folk music. Not art music. Not pop music. And just as classically trained "art music" musicians (should) learn to adapt their craft to become leaders of corporate song, so can (and should) jazz/rock musicians become leaders of corporate song.

Each does this not be turning the liturgy into "their" kind of music, but by using their MUSICIANSHIP to meet the task at hand.

May we all have ears that truly hear the music we are called to lead. Not the idealized ink on the page nor the passionate inspirations of our own minds, but the actual song of the saints in our midst, who rely on us to provide them breath, support, and direction, so that they may sing according to their faith.

Mike Baker said...

Exactly! True Christians service is aways about total submission in love.

In many ways musicians, church workers, and leading laymen should be considering their roles as servants of the Body of Christ rather than seeing themselves as teachers, executives, and masters of their particular programs.

A truly God-pleasing program seeks to accomplish what you have set out to do at Bethany: to serve the Body of Christ and give God alone ALL glory, honor, and praise. (...and 99.2% is not "ALL", people! Church workers don't get to claim a .8% honor gratuity. :P)

The wise steward of any God given artistic talent is first a servant of the Word and second a servant of his neighbor. We must always keep St. Paul's teachings in mind as we accomidate new Christians, unchurched, weaker believers, and those who suffer from vexed consciences. We must always "bear one another's burdens" with all patience and humility. You cannot do that if you are busy grand-standing or callously pushing an personal agenda about how the church should look, sound, or behave in a particular situation.

One should never go against individual conscience, but that is a far cry from going out and burdening the consciences of others with personal preferences or opinions that are carelessly presented as being divine in origin. This happens in all camps when it comes to worhip and church practice when overly zealous individuals start to see their particular point of view as an end in itself rather than a tool of service. Woe to the one who sees their method as THE way to "do church" rather than A way of being the church.

You must constantly remind yourself that God did not grant you your talents and gifts so that you could use them to exert influence over others. He did not portion out His gifts so that you could draw the attention and adoration of others by what you do, produce, or say.

The church musician is not a guru, indespensible expert, or a pop star. He is to emmulate Christ and be a foot washer who meets the needs of his brothers and sisters--no matter how humble or tedious the task at hand may be!

And at the end of the day, even when a pious goal appears to have been perfectly accmplished, Chistian musicians should obediently repeat the very words of Christ by saying, "We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done." [Luke 17:7-10]