The music that you hear in church is very different from the music that you hear on the radio. There are several reasons for this. The first is the purpose that the music, and just the music, of the Church is meant to serve. The worship of the Church is when Christians are gathered together around God’s Word and Sacraments. They are gathered together; in other words, they are united.
The unity of mind and spirit in the church is brought about by the Word of God. And the unity of mind and spirit in the church should be supported by the way in which the church functions, including the music which guides the way in which the church worships.
To put it plainly, there is not one single genre of music which is preferred by all the members of any congregation. As a general rule, people prefer the music that they listened to when they were in their teens and twenties. If the Church were to either pick a certain era of popular music for use in worship or if the Church were to tie itself to the ever-changing pop music scene, then it would be impossible for many Christians not to feel like they have been culturally “left in the dust.”
This is one of the purely practical reasons for retaining the traditional music of the Church. It is a genre of music on which everyone can agree because it is a genre of music which inherently doesn’t care about preference. Even though the music of the liturgy and hymns of the Church would seem to fall into the camp of what is called “classical music,” that doesn’t mean that all of the music of the church was written a long time ago.
It is true that many of our hymns are old, and it is true that essentially all the music of the historic liturgy is very old. But there are also new hymns being written right now. And there will continue to be Christian composers who will create new hymns and new musical arrangements of the liturgy. These additions will not be good or bad because they are old or new. They will be good or bad because they either do or don’t accomplish the purpose that is meant for the music of the Church.
One of these purposes, the one stated above, is to not pick the musical tastes of one generation over another. This includes the way in which we perceive music. When you are sitting or standing in church, the music that you hear and sing shouldn’t remind you of a rock concert that you recently attended. The music of the Church should remind you of Church.
A second purpose of Church music has to do with what worship is. Christian worship is not, primarily, something that we Christians do. The fundamental purpose of worship, and the structure around which the worship of the Church is built, is the fact that we need to receive what God gives us in the Means of Grace. The three pillars of the liturgy are: Confession and Absolution, the reading and preaching of God’s Word, and the reception of the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. This is the primary reason why we come to church, not to give but to receive. It is only after we have been “given to” by God that we give back to Him. And when we give back, we do it.
Worship is not a show that we watch. Worship is something in which we actively participate. To give thanks to God and to proclaim all the wonders of what He has done is a right and privilege that God has given to all his redeemed children, not just to those whom He has also blessed with above-average musical abilities. This is not to say that every Christian necessarily has a good singing voice. What this does mean is that the music of the worship of the Church needs to be the sort of music that can be sung by a lot of people, not just a select few.
When visitors attend services at my congregation, one of the questions I always ask them is “What did you think of the service?” One of the most common replies to that question is that they are surprised/amazed at how much the congregation sings. (They also usually express surprise at how good the singing at Hope is, given the fact that we aren’t a very large congregation.) The reason why the music of our worship gives them a reason to be surprised is because congregational singing, including how large a part it plays, is one of the distinctive markers of Lutheran worship.
This is why we keep using these “same old songs” in worship. The genre of church music is one on which everyone can agree because it is a genre unconcerned with preference. Church music is not meant to only be watched and listened to. It is a genre of music meant to include everyone. God has blessed all of us with his gifts of faith, forgiveness, and salvation. Just as we have all been blessed by God, so also we all have the right to return our thanks to God.
When Luther enacted his liturgical reforms, this universal “right to sing” was central to his decision-making. Along with restoring congregational singing to a primary position in the worship of the Church, Luther also composed hymns and asked that singing be taught in schools. Luther understood that for young people to be raised in the faith, they should also be raised in song. As heirs of the Lutheran Reformation, we should treasure this Lutheran musical heritage and should strive to continue in it—both for our own sakes and also for the sake of those who have yet to be exposed to the true faith in and worship of the Triune God.
Reverend Paul Webber
Hope Lutheran Church
West Jordan, UT