In the constant conflicts over worship in our synod, it seems that too often the level of discourse quickly devolves to snide caricatures of aesthetic peripherals at the expense of addressing underlying ideology. This should not be, so in an effort to practice koinonia in this matter, I will concede that many of our churches will sing with a rhythm section. Let’s face it: “Praise Bands” are not going to vanish from the synod. This is not a “trash those drums and get an organ, you hedonistic heathens!” type of essay. Some of our churches are not going to ever purchase an organ, some couldn’t if they wanted to, and some are dogmatically committed to the instrumentation of popular taste (unfortunately). My plea to you is this: If you are going to sing with guitar, do so in a way that is faithfully Lutheran. Please don’t aspire to imitate the consumer targeted doxological trends of the Evangelical circus. What’s the difference, you may ask? I submit these ten criteria for consideration. They don’t ask for the moon, but only for intelligent reflection on our practice, that we may resist the tendency to be driven by the winds of pop culture at the expense of sound doctrine.
- Consider carefully your use of space.
Don’t be a “church in denial.” It’s ok to actually look like a church, everybody already knows you are one. Bending over backwards to minimize this visually may have “worked” for Willow Creek, but increasing numbers of people are beginning to see this as disingenuous, especially those inclined towards taking faith seriously. I know, you can’t have the “black box” all the kids allegedly desire if you have altar and pulpit front and center. But reflect on what the centrality of these things, rather than the band, subtlety communicates about the significance of what happens in our worship gatherings. Are we subtly acquiescing to the charismatic belief that God is encountered through music? My friends, this is not Lutheran. We encounter Him through Word and Sacrament. Because of this, our worship spaces ought to look like they were designed around this ritual, rather than like a concert hall. It is an architectural fact that whatever is front and center receives a spacial emphasis which underscores its important. What does the arrangement of your worship space say about your priorities? Does it communicate reverence and awe for the true presence of God in our midst through Word and Sacrament? You don’t need a stained glass cathedral: This can be done simply and for far less money than a lighting array. Consider how your building, use of architecture, and interior design can be used to proclaim the Gospel and reinforce it. Don’t be afraid of looking “too Catholic,” even the Presbyterians are doing “stations of the cross” these days.
- Consider carefully your selection of repertoire.
One of the ironies of current American church culture is that often the proponents of the latest musical trends are the most resistant and prejudiced against old, because it by necessity must be boring (as if fun were an important spiritual consideration), irrelevant, or whatever. The reason this is so sad is that none of the creators of these trend seem to think so. All the latest worship rock stars record and sing older hymns, and many do entire albums of them. But the Tomlin and Crowder fans often don’t want to touch old music with a ten foot pole until somebody famous does it first. Let’s not wait for the “merchants of cool” to tell us when something old is kosher. Let’s think for ourselves, find something worth singing on its own merit, and apply some of our own creativity, rather than succumbing to cookie-cutter cover band antics. You might find that adapting older, sturdier melodies to your ensemble is an enjoyable creative process, and at the same time, discover some beauty from the Church’s treasury of pastoral poetry that speaks a word of Gospel to your thirsting soul.
- Consider carefully your relationship to tradition.
Avoid the “reinventing the wheel” approach that so many apply to their worship services. Nine out of ten times, their “reinvention” has a Methobapticostal brainchild down the street. Your tradition has given you a cultus, and this cultus deserves your respect because it has not only handed down the faith for centuries, but it is directly responsible for delivering the Gospel to you. Are you feeding your people a religious culture they can set down deep roots in, or a rotating diet of disposable fads? The adage goes “the more up to date something is, the sooner it goes out of date.” Let’s not inundate our folks with novelties they will quickly outgrow. Find creative ways to lean on the tried and true. The stuff that has carried the faith for centuries will not fail you now simply because it appears boring to some. Even though cutting edge may appear to mean “relevant today,” it all too often “irrelevant tomorrow.” Let’s emphasize stuff that has proven its staying power by communicating the Gospel down through several generations. You will be showing that your worship culture is deeper than the flavor of the month, and the hungering soul will appreciate this. Reflect on your congregation 20 to 40 years ago. If your church is new, what about the LCMS congregation you belonged to back then? What are some of the things you used to do? Why did you stop? More importantly, why were those things done to begin with? Can they assist you in proclaiming the Gospel today? You just may find that the way back is the way forward.
- Consider carefully the heterodox origin of popular contemporary hymnody.
Be very skeptical of songs of heterodox origin. Two of the biggest publishing houses of contemporary worship music, Hillsong and Integrity, are Pentecostal and Charismatic, respectively. This represents significant doctrinal drift from what we believe, teach, and confess, and their lyrics model this, albeit often quite subtly. Are we listening carefully? These heterodox traditions reject the sacraments as the means to encounter Christ, insisting that instead we experience God through music and by looking into our hearts. Much of their songwriting teaches and confesses this faith destroying lie, which has no business inside a Lutheran church. Screen your lyrics carefully and meticulously. There’s plenty of great lyrical material out there, so there’s no excuse for singing that when we could be confessing the Truth. The Zwinglian doctrinal background of the Evangelical music publishing industry is truly “of a different spirit,” as Luther would say. The Sacraments ARE the Christian’s life, and a tradition that rejects these usually defaults to the invisible Christ of my imaginary best friend in my “personal relationship with Jesus.” This is why “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs are so pervasive. Obviously the heterodox write many excellent songs for worship, many of which were included in the Lutheran Service Book. But we should integrate without blinders on and not be naive about the beliefs which their music expresses. The people in the pews will pick up on this, and to the extent you sing music of charismatic and revivalist origin, you might be surprised to learn how many of your parishioners embrace many of their teachings that are at variance with ours.
- Consider carefully the titles you give to your musicians.
Please, do not call the band director the “worship leader.” It has become a nearly ubiquitous religious term among Evangelicals, but ask yourself: What does this imply? If the person who simply leads music is called the worship leader, then it becomes natural to so closely associate music and worship that they become the same thing. Indeed, in Evangelical circles, the two are too often used interchangeably, and “worship” becomes relegated to a sub-genre of Christian music. It is mixed in on Christian radio with the latest entertainment hits until the line between music for worship and music for fun has been completely erased by a publishing industry who profits from this obfuscation immensely. The church has better things to do than to play these games. Word and Sacrament is our worship. The pastor leads these, therefore, he is the “worship leader.” A twenty-something dude with three chords and the truth can lead congregational singing, but he is a song leader, that’s all. His role is to function in support of the public ministry of the church exercised by the Pastor on her behalf. It is a supporting role.
…to be continued here…