Please note: This post is a direct response to the post "Why I Quit the Praise Band" by Pastor Eric Andersen found on the blog Steadfast Lutherans. It is not meant to be a personal attack on Pastor Andersen's character or faith, but instead to disagree with the content of his article.
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"Lutheran" is not a style. "Lutheran" is a manner in which you understand God, the Bible, the world, and yourself. The divine service and other trappings of the historical Lutheran church are distinctively Lutheran, sure, but they in and of themselves are not requirements for being distinctively Lutheran. To be distinctively Lutheran one must understand God in the same way that the Lutheran church fathers did - by faith alone, through Scripture alone.
I'm alright at guitar, piano, and bass. I know some stuff about setting up a sound system. I've played for a lot of worship events. I've done a lot of research in the genre of contemporary Christian music. During my time at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary I undertook a project to find 20 songs of a contemporary nature (that is, they sounded like the music the majority of Americans listen to, sing along with, and enjoy on a daily basis) that would be useful at the seminary. A select few of those songs can be found at wlsworship.net (realize, please, that most of them are hymn-like, not because I couldn't find other things but because you have to take baby steps when leading the whole seminary family in a new direction.)
So, I've spent some time with the issue of contemporary music styles in a Lutheran congregation's worship services. It hasn't been easy for me, because the genre is new and young and there is resistance from many good, trustworthy, godly people I admire. But I'm not going to quit, and here are some of the reasons.
- Praise music is suitable for congregational singing. Some of it. Just like some hymns are suitable for congregational singing and some need to be led by a cantor or choir. Fortunately, our predecessors in the church did the good work of filtering out the good hymn melodies from the bad ones. This, actually, is the same work Lutheran contemporary worship leaders do when they say "no" to overly syncopated songs with inconsistent syllabification from verse to verse and "yes" to the ones that find their way onto the lips of congregations quite naturally. Chris Tomlin is a first tenor, Todd Agnew is a second bass, but they didn't copyright their songs to be used only in certain keys, and the fact that millions of people sing their songs at the top of their lungs on a daily basis suggests to me that they are suitable for singing. When Lutheran worship coordinators and worship compendium developers do their work, they'll go ahead and find the keys that fit the majority of voices, making all melodies that are suitable for singing suitable for singers.
- The text, not the music, should be primary. With this principle I am freed to explore all genres of music - every piece that has ever been written in participation in the family of God, and as an administrator of the means of grace filter out the stuff that won't be helpful and keep the things that will. Limiting myself to a certain segment of the music that has been written would not only limit my options, but it would limit my audience only to people who find a certain style of music to be culturally intelligible.
Most of the confessional Lutheran people who have written songs for congregations have written hymns, yes - but not all, and not because they carefully researched every genre of music and determined that the chorale was the best and only form of music suited to communicating the truth of God in poetry. As the world and the church continue to diversify, the outward trappings of it (like musical style) will diversify right alongside it - because the core message, not the style, will be primary.
- When we're at church, we're on regular ground. Regular people come and hear a universal message, and ever since the temple curtain tore in two there is no such thing as designated, particularly holy ground. If there were, though, it would be (as "holy" defines) set apart, distinguished - not by it's style, but by it's purpose, it's results, and most importantly by the God who deigns to make it such. It is he alone who sanctifies anything.
Please don't get the impression, though, that I'm saying "anything" can be reverent. There are two basic factors that make something reverent: first, it follows the culturally defined norms that communicate reverence, and second, it's message or subject matter is reverent. (You can have somber sounds, organs, orchestras, distortion pedals, or choirs, but you're never going to make singing Blest Is the Man Whose Bowels Move reverent.)
In the context of Christianity, reverent subject matter will generally come from reminding people of the grand difference between God and us - in power, in love, in everything. No matter what, it will come from the truths of God that he's given us in his Word. It is limited in that way. The culturally defined norms for reverence, however, are only limited to the experience and expectations of the people present at a given worship event, leaving a huge space for variety in style. Reverence is not limited to one style. Quiet and contemplative music can be reverent. Huge concertos with full orchestras can be reverent. Rock music can be reverent. Just because a certain kind of music doesn't communicate reverence to you doesn't mean that it isn't reverent to some other segment of the population (possibly even a significant segment of the population.)
When I was a vicar, we had solid, traditional music, usually led by organ. One Sunday, a young couple came to visit. My wife and I were excited because, though the congregation I vicared at was friendly and we still hold all of them dear, there weren't that many couples our age. In speaking with them after the service, though, their main reaction was, "You have horror movie music." For them, the organ didn't mean reverent - it meant Dracula.
The point is, people don't leave themselves behind when they are at worship. They aren't suddenly lifted into a mood or mindset that is transcendent of their regular life. In worship, we "rise up" and meet God, sure, to some extent, but in an equal or even greater way he comes down to meet us, where we are and where we need him. That is the meaning of Gottesdienst.
- 7/11 songs communicate differently. It's not my intent to advocate too strongly for highly repetitive songs with a simple meaning, but there is a power in repetition that doesn't affect people's minds the same way that lots of good content all-in-a-row does. Repetitio est mater studiorum (repetition is the mother of learning) after all. It even exists in the liturgical or rite-oriented realm - in the Agnus Dei or the Sanctus, and even the simple fact that many rite-oriented worshiping congregations are repeating the same songs and texts week after week, so that the people will know them when they are older.
As a side note, when the song "Trading My Sorrows" says "Yes, Lord. Yes, Lord. Yes, yes, Lord" those words are used as a reference to Christ's "Verily, verily" or "amen, amen" in the gospels and are a powerful approval of the message of the verses, which is a lesson in contentment and even in the theology of the cross: "I'm trading my sorrows, I'm trading my pain, I'm laying them down for the joy of the Lord." That message is exactly what God wants from us - take the focus off of our lives, put it on the grace of God.
- Theology matters, and praise songs have it. Not all of them, not perfectly. Thankfully I have been theologically trained and can filter out the bad, which is the work of the minister of the means of grace and the reason a hymnal doesn't include every hymn that's ever been written.
And for those who would point to the genre of Christian contemporary music and say it lacks theological depth and fullness, I would say this: What do you expect? It's mostly lay-people who aren't Lutheran who are writing this stuff! Paul Gerhardt was not the first to write hymns, but he brought the task to a new and rarely paralleled level. If Lutherans, both pastors and laypeople alike, would stop rejecting diverse genres of worship-useful music wholesale, we would start to see our theologians, pastors, and other theologically trained individuals churn out Gerhardt-worthy (or nearly) texts in diverse and modern styles. Lutherans wrote the greatest Lutheran hymns, and it will be Lutherans who write the greatest contemporary songs. )And we could be 20 years further in this process if you'd stop holding our creative minds back with needless guilt over "acceptable" styles of the worship event.)
- The Church is Catholic, but not homogeneous. The Church is wildly diverse. God is always 100% the same, but people aren't. Culture and communication vary. Speaking of communication, I think the world of cellphones can teach us a lesson about what worship can look like in our time. Some are advocating for an iOS (Apple's mobile operating system) approach to worship. Let's create one, excellent, somewhat universal product so there is only one option for everybody. Let's force them to use that option even when it doesn't match up with the way they think. Let's point at the wide adoption of that product as proof that it is the only valid product and let's suggest that a top-down approach will serve all.
Some, on the other hand, are taking an Android approach - one that could be defined by Android's tagline, "Be together, not the same." We are to be united by having one faith, one hope, one Lord - not by having one service, one style or one practice. Part of the beauty of the Gospel is that it transcends tribe, race, or culture. God didn't save us so that we could be perfectly in sync with all other Christian people. He did it so we could in sync with him, which would in turn make us much less divisive toward one another.
If we, in fear, suggest that all people must hold to a certain practice that has proven true in the past, we are putting the cart before the horse. Liturgy and hymnody don't maintain orthodoxy. People do, because God, in his grace, chooses to use certain individuals and his Word to keep the Church on track. All the glory for this is his - not the liturgy's or some hymns'. For us to suggest that a certain neutral practice of any kind is bound to lead people astray is fear-mongering and misguided.
The Church consists of the communion of saints, a communion that transcends time and culture. The liturgy, on the other hand, as it is typically practiced in the majority of confessional Lutheran congregations, does not transcend time and culture, which is precisely the reason the liturgy is often rejected today. The liturgy we have today has been passed down through the generations, and through that process has adapted and changed in ways our forefathers would not recognize, but would certainly deem appropriate. Pure doctrine drawn from God's Word is the very best Christian tradition and the highest expression of the continuity of the Church from generation to generation. Since we are in communion with the Church of every age, it is only natural that the God we worship would not be radically different than that of previous generations. Not to be confused, of course, with the way we worship.
So, why won't I quit the praise band? Because I'm Lutheran, and to be Lutheran is to point all people to Christ by whatever means available.