Is Your Treasure the Word or the Soundtrack?

This is a guest post by Cheryl Magness.

Cheryl Magness
The recent BJS post “Firearms Training” discussed at some length the recorded hymn accompaniment tracks that were in frequent use at the LCMS national synodical convention in Houston last month. While the focus of the BJS discussion was the musical elements of the tracks rather than the use of tracks per sé, it got me to thinking. It seems that accompaniment tracks are becoming increasingly common in our churches these days, while real, living musicians are becoming less so, and that concerns me greatly. Whether the tracks contain the sounds of drumset and electric bass or pipe organ matters little to me, because both have the effect of replacing the authentic sacrifice of praise offered by a unique group of people at a singular point in time and space with something that is inauthentic because they cannot claim it as their own.

In October of 2009 Concordia Publishing House announced the release of The Concordia Organist (TCO), a collection of 31 CD’s that, according to the CPH website, contain “pipe organ accompaniments for all of the hymns and liturgical music in Lutheran Service Book.” Although various uses of TCO have been suggested since its release, it seems clear that its primary purpose has always been to accompany congregational singing. Rev. Paul McCain, editor at CPH, stated on his blog at the time of TCO‘s release that “the primary aim of the collection is to provide help to congregations that do not have competent organists” and Chris, blogger at Lutheran Kantor, recounted receiving an email from CPH that suggested that congregations seeking an “outstanding church organist” need “look no further” because with TCO that need had been met.

Shortly after TCO was made available there was quite a bit of discussion in the Lutheran blogosphere concerning the merits of such a resource: was it indeed a necessary and welcome answer to the question of how to provide musical leadership for congregational singing, or was it a case of good intentions gone awry? There were strongly held opinions on both sides of the question back then,  as there still were several months ago when TCO came up in the comments on a different BJS post.  In that comment thread Cantor Phillip Magness suggested, “Where your treasure is, there your heart shall be,” and his reference got me to thinking, “Just what exactly does he mean by that?” I have heard him say it before but never really thought through how it applies to TCO. Until now. 

The quotation appears in scripture in two places. In Matthew 6 the context is the admonition to not be obsessed with earthly wealth: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven . . . . For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Mt. 6:19-21)

In Luke 12 (the Gospel reading for today, Three-Year Lectionary, Series C), the focus is on not worrying, but trusting in God to provide:

“And he said to his disciples, ‘Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.

“‘Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.'” (Luke 12: 22-32)

As I reflect on how these two passages might apply to the question of congregational song, it occurs to me that the conviction that one cannot worship properly without a certain type of accompaniment–whether it is “contemporary” or “traditional”–is a kind of placing of one’s faith in an earthly treasure–that of the soundtrack rather than the Word. How much better to trust that God will enable the song of faith with the voices He has assembled and to encourage those voices with the instruments, however few or humble, that He has placed in their midst. If I might be so bold, perhaps the passage could be paraphrased thus: “Do not be anxious about your liturgy, what you will sing, or about your voices, how they will sound. For the liturgy is more than the organ (or praise band), and the song of faith more than the hymnal. . . . And do not seek what you are to sing or how you are to sing it, nor be worried. For all the churches of the synod seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added unto you.”

Now some will say, “But you don’t understand! You belong to a large, musically blessed congregation where you get to take part in some of the most beautiful worship there is to be had. You don’t know what it’s like to be in a place where there isn’t a skilled musician to lead.”

Well, actually, I do know what it’s like. I’ve worshiped at a lot of churches with limited musical resources. And you know what? I would much rather attend a church where the congregation is singing a cappella than one where they are singing along with a track, NO MATTER WHAT THAT TRACK IS PLAYING. The reason is that recorded music, as much as it has taken over our culture, has all in all done more harm than good when it comes to encouraging people to sing together. It has turned singing and music-making into something the professionals do while the rest of us listen because, after all, they are so much better at it, so why should we even try?

I see it everywhere. I see it in my piano students who drop out of lessons because they want to play “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and have it sound the way it sounds on the radio when Elton John sings it. When I try to explain to them that they are not ready to play it like that but that their version, simple as it is, is beautiful because it is theirs, they look at me dubiously. Luckily, some accept my assurances and keep on playing and working. But others give up, quit piano, and put on their headphones.

I see it, too, in the declining number of common songs that we as a culture share. Again I think of my piano students, who, so often when I assign a song that I think they will know because it is a folk song that I remember learning as a child, look at me blankly. I see it in the fact that we as a society don’t sing around the piano anymore because we are all too busy listening to our own recorded tunes (which by the way are so doctored that many of the musicians behind them would not be able to perform them live). And I see it in too many schools and churches that resort to recorded accompaniments for plays, Sunday school and VBS programs, and yes, even worship.

Again, some will say, “But you don’t understand. You’ve got the best. You’re like Marie Antoinette who, out of touch with the masses, said, ‘Let them eat cake.'”

Granted, I’ve got a pretty good Cantor. And yes, I’ve been fortunate to be the beneficiary of his worship planning and musicianship for quite a few years now. But here’s the thing that troubles me deeply: I firmly believe that if there had been a Concordia Organist 25 years ago, there would not be a Cantor Phillip Magness today. Why not? Because of that message: “Look no further.” You see, the way that my husband came into church work was that there was a NEED. He never intended to be a church musician. I married a pianist who, in his early years, worked as a freelance musician, teaching privately and at a local community college while playing a variety of “gigs.” When we joined an LCMS church and started singing in the choir, that’s all the music we expected to do at church. He wasn’t, after all, an organist or a choir director.  Then came that fateful day when our pastor came to Phillip and explained that the current choir director was tired of dividing her time between her home parish and the one we attended, and she really wanted to be able to exclusively attend her own church, and would he consider taking her place? He said, “But I’m not a church musician, Pastor!” His response? “You’re the best we’ve got!’ Phillip accepted the job. Not long afterward, a mission congregation of the one to which we belonged asked if he might consider helping them out as organist. He explained that he didn’t know how to play the organ, to which the reponse was, “Would you be willing to learn?” He was willing. He took lessons. And before long he was playing organ and directing choir at both congregations (and hoping against hope every Sunday morning that he wouldn’t get held up by the train as he traveled back and forth between the two). But if either of those congregations had given up on having a live musician–if either of those congregations had decided to “look no further” and resort to tracks–there would have been no need for him to  learn (or for folks to patiently wait and bear with him while he did). Thank God that wasn’t the case!

Every church has its challenges. I have never attended a church that was not struggling in some way, but I have repeatedly seen God use those struggles to turn people toward Him, to teach and strengthen them in the faith. There have been times in my life that I would have gladly sacrificed musical abundance in exchange for God’s taking away some of the other burdens that my congregation was facing. But looking back I realize that those burdens were ultimately used by God for good. If your burden is the lack of a skilled musician, I have no doubt that God can use that for good, too. “‘Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

I think it’s important to remember that we are a synod, which means that we are to “walk together.” The call to walk together is the reason we have “worship wars”–because we understand that the radically different ways that many of our churches worship are not indicative of walking together. The call to walk together is also a reminder that we as a synod are one body, and that what happens in one of our congregations has implications for our church body as a whole. One might ask, “But why do you care if we sing CCM (contemporary Christian music) or use tracks? It doesn’t affect what you are doing in your church.” But the answer, of course, is that it does. Everything that we do in one of our churches extends, for either good or bad, to all of them. And it is my belief that while the use of recorded music may have short-term benefits for individual congregations (an assertion that I think is debatable), it is going to have long-term negative consequences for the Church. By providing a way for congregations to easily fill a need for music by writing a check and popping in a disc, it is going to discourage the cultivating of current and future musicians for the church, something which impoverishes not only the Church but its members (music ministry is as much about nourishing musicians or potential musicians in the faith as it is about serving their congregations). By providing the perfection that can only come from recorded music, it is going to send the message that the sacrifice of praise offered by the people of a certain time and place is not good enough to stand on its own, effectively negating the gifts of every flautist, pianist, guitarist, or percussionist who might help lead the Lord’s song. By providing music that has no human element, that is not sensitive to the living, breathing assembly that it is “leading,” recorded accompaniments send the message that the real song is the one coming out of the little black electric box at the back of the church, since if the singing stops it will just keep going (as long as there’s not a power outage, of course).

I understand the appeal of tracks. I, too, have wondered, “But what about this church? What about that one? They don’t have the resources we have.” My heart goes out to congregations that don’t have skilled musicians readily available in the same way that my heart goes out to churches that don’t have pastors, or churches that are facing serious budget shortfalls, or churches that are experiencing division and schism. But I think with all of those challenges we must not give up and “look no further” but must continually keep our eyes on the big picture, not only of the present but also of the future. The path of least resistance is not always the best path, and the perfect is the enemy of the good. The use of recorded music for worship–and this includes The Concordia Organist–might mean easier, more beautiful worship NOW, just as sweeping congregational differences under the rug by deferring to the loudest voices might buy temporary peace.  But both are examples of choosing present ease over future good.


Cheryl is a pianist, writer, editor, cantor’s wife, and homeschool mom. She blogs at roundunvarnishedtale.blogspot.com.

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