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?


Mike Baker said...

The best thing that ever happened to me as a new Lutheran who never heard half of the songs Lutherans sing was doing "Hymn Sings" before church rather than a Prelude.

Pastor stands at the front of the church and lets people call out their favorites. The organist plays and the congregation sings a stanza or two. You can get through a half dozen tunes in a pre-service and it is usually a surprising mix. Good stuff.

Another one that helps to foster a confident, singing congregation is the occassional informal "practice" in the minutes before the start of the service when a new or hard hymn is in the rotation for the night. Going through the first two lines as a group prior to the service greatly improves my confidence when that one comes up during the service.

Phillip Magness said...

Very true, Mike.

In developing the singing of congregations, I have often used the practice of "lining out" hymns pre-service. I rarely need to do so today at Bethany, but it is still a valubale tool.

Likewise, a time of "singspiration" here and there is quite good. We often do this at Christmas, to make sure everyone gets to sing their favorites, but such hymn-sings are always good motivations.