Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Can We Still Call Ourselves the Church of J. S. Bach?

I recall reading a complaint about music in Lutheran Churches today and the lack of a decent organ (pipe preferably) and as best I recall it was said that the music of Lutheran's chief musician cannot even be played any more in Lutheran congregations... (Maybe somebody out there can dig up that Schalk?  Bunjes?)

On this day in 1750 Johann Sebastian Bach was received into the arms of His Savior and into the blessed light of everlasting glory, where his musical genius suffers no lack of appreciation and where his goal and purpose is fulfilled without hindrance or distraction -- Soli Deo Gloria...

We Lutherans love to beat our chests in the limelight of our greatest heros (Bach, perhaps chief among them) but if we would remember him with thanksgiving before the Lord, we might also ask ourselves if the music of the average Lutheran parish is still worthy of the high ideals of faithfulness to Scripture, glory to God, and excellence in performance.  I fear that the answer is a resounding "no."

In too many Lutheran parishes we are without a decent organ and without a competent organist.  Sure I will hear about the cost of an organ (pipe or electronic), about the relevance of organ music to the modern day ear, and the lack of good organists (affordable, too).  But, we have dug our own hole here and now we stuck in it.  Look at the average congregation's budget and the amount spent on worship (music, resources, instruments, organists, etc.) and you will find it to be a disconcertingly small percentage of the total. 

When I came to my present congregation the budget for worship was $1800 and this bought choir music, paid for two organists and a choir director.  When all of them moved away, it is no wonder we could not find replacements.  In one year we proposed going from $1800 to $12000 and the gasp in the voters assembly could be heard in St. Louis and the sighs blew so hard the pages of Bach's Bible fluttered in the Concordia Seminary Library where it is housed.  But the congregation did it.  And increases tripled the salary and increased the budget until today we reap the blessings of nearly 15 years of making worship not only a spiritual priority but a budgetary one as well.

I consider myself cheap but we are too cheap as a church body to put resources where the priority should be.  We would not consider going without air conditioning in the heat of summer but we regularly go without an organist and the bottom line is generally money.  If there are no good organists available, it is largely because nobody can make a living at it anymore.  That is the fault of the congregation and our poor priorities when it comes to worship and music.  If there are no good organs in our parishes, it is because we consider this tool too expensive for us (never mind the things we will find the money to support or purchase!)

In too many other Lutheran parishes, the great ideal of music that speaks Scripture has given way to music that entertains the people and gives them a warm and fuzzy feeling.  We pick and choose hymns based on what folks want or like and not what the words say.  We move to contemporary musical sounds because that is what people listen to on the radio and we want them to feel at home in church as they are sitting alone in their automobile with no particular place to go but music blazing all the way long.  We use canned music and put in expensive audio and visual systems so that our song leader can sound like Michael W. Smith and we put images up to frame the musician and the words in flattering backdrop.

In too many other Lutheran parishes we are content with what passes and do not strive for excellence.  If the Pastor thinks about it, he might read through the pericopes before Sunday morning but often not.  If the praise bad has time, they may practice a little more and even out the balance between the bumping bass and the driving drums, but often not.  If the pianist or organist has a chance they might practice that newer hymn but since no one really knows it and we probably won't ever use it again, who would notice...  Much of what is wrong in worship is fixable with some practice, with a goal toward our best for His glory, and with desire to offer God nothing less than our most excellent effort.  I used to say to my kids in school, I don't care what grade you get if you are doing your best but if it is not your best even an A is not good enough.  What might be the outcome if God said that to us?

Soli Deo Gloria... It was not a slogan for Bach.  It was his lifeblood.  If we would honor Bach and glory in the fact that such musical genius, rich spiritual life, and dedication to his craft were formed in a Lutheran piety steeped in Word, Sacrament, and worthy music... then let us work to make sure that we are working to implement these in our parish life today...  Whether the music comes from the 17th or 18th centuries or the 21st century, it needs to be our best, it needs to speak the Word and serve as musical handmaid to that Word, and it needs to glorify God and not entertain the human heart... or our remembrance of Bach will be like the uncovering of a footnote in history instead of a light that shines throughout the generations....


RobbieFish said...

Hear, hear. I hear tell that most of the CUS is scrapping degree programs in "traditional" church music (organ performance & repertoire, choral musicianship, etc.) & multiplying degrees in "worship leadership" of the CCM type. Somebody somewhere is going to defend this as a decision driven by market forces & economic necessity. But I think it is a sign that the LCMS is acquiescing in the death of American Lutheranism.

Dr.D said...

It is hard to see the term "praise band" in a post about J.S. Bach. The two thoughts just do not go in the same vein in my thinking at all.

I happen to be one of those who have never accepted the idea of the "praise band" as a component of public worship. To me, this is simply noise and a distraction, smacking of entertainment, unfit for the house of God. It will never appear in my parish.

Anonymous said...

There are plenty of churches willing to drop that kind of money on sounds systems, screens, electronic equipment, music equipment and CCM license fees. The money always shows up for what is important to a congregation.

Janis Williams said...

Hear, hear, anonymous!

Just watch a few youTube videos of CCM "worship." Somehow, I don't think congregations in Bach's day were up on their feet dancing. And they DID have dance music in his day.

I suspect if we could go back in time to see Baal worship in Israel, we'd see some very similar activity. They very likely spent much $$$ (shekels?) on what today we consider crude idols. Maybe we are better today at visualization; we don't need the statues to "do" worship.

Padre Dave Poedel, STS said...

As a Pastor who highly values and respects our excellent and amazingly competent organist and pipe organ, and wishes he could bring him on full-time (even my salary is not full-time) I nevertheless put our budget where my priorities are. What our organist wants....well we do whatever we can to make it happen.

As a result of these efforts, our Divine Service is done very well musically, liturgically and in spite of my own limitations as a preacher, doctrinally sound.

I heartily concur with your challenge as to whether we can rightly call ourselves the Church of Bach. I pray that we begin moving in that direction rather than the trajectory we have been on for the past 15 years.

An aside: at a Cursillo weekend (don't get me started about the music there) one of the groups sang a part of the liturgy from the LBW as an after-meal prayer. The majority of the women present had never heard the traditional liturgy sung in their congregation!

Dixie said...

One thing I don't understand, and maybe it is because I am not a fan of the organ as an instrument in general, but when I read various blogs and articles lamenting the Lutheran church going the way of contemporary services two things are emphasized more than any...organ music and liturgy. Why such an emphasis on music but not architecture and general appearance?

I just returned from a vacation in Europe and when I see those incredible structures and sacred art and sacred spaces it is hard for me to imagine how we ever became so comfortable in America with such sterile worship spaces. Perhaps it is because of the original pioneer type bare church structures and the memory lives on but why are so many energies focused on discussing the music but not so much on the sacred spaces?

I can't help but believe putting effort (and money) on the appearance of the sacred spaces would help combat some of that casual contemporary stuff. Contemporary music rings hollow and seems stupid in a church appropriately appointed with sacred art and space. They just don't go together. But that kind of music is not so uncomfortable in sterile, unadorned spaces that are an altar and big empty cross away from just being a meeting hall. I think we have made it pretty easy for contemporary music to move in.

And it is not impossible to build a beautiful church these days. My dad attends a Catholic church in Phoenix built in the 1980's that isn't far from some of those beautiful Euro churches...maybe not as many statues but certainly the architectural and design features are along the same vein and definitely not "meeting hall" style.

And we shouldn't expect to put everything in at once. It took over 400 years to put the mosaics in St. Marks in Venice. There were generations that never started nor saw the completed project but understood the value of doing it. I think the American church goers are missing this kind of instruction on the importance of beautiful sacred space. I know for years I thought it didn't matter. Now I see things differently.

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Pastor Peters said...

is the link to one of many posts where I also lament the lack of art in the Church... it is not one or the other but both and... in this case the post was about the church that boasts Bach but cannot play his music due to lack of an organist, lack of an organ, or the lack of desire for his music... all three tragedies.