Sunday, December 18, 2011

Unpleasent truths.... and comforting lies...

We must take note also of a most deplorable tendency of our times, namely, that of preferring the shallow modern “Gospel anthem” to the classical hymns of our Church. The reference is both to the text and to the tunes in use in many churches. On all sides the criticism is heard that the old Lutheran hymns are “too heavy, too doctrinal; that our age does not understand them.” Strange that the Lutherans of four centuries and of countless languages could understand and appreciate them, even as late as a generation ago! Is the present generation less intelligent or merely more frivolous? (Paul E. Kretzmann, Magazin für evang.-luth. Homiletik und Pastoraltheologie [June 1929], pp. 216-217) 

It has been said by those inside and outside Lutheranism that the Reformation was sung as much as it was preached or taught.  We would do well not to forget how singing the faith embeds the doctrine or teaching of the faith into our hearts and minds.  This is no less true for youth than it is for old age.

I find it interesting that in Luther's day the youth were confirmed and communed at a much earlier age than the eighth grade or freshman age of my own youth and much of our current LCMS practice.  The children of Luther's day did not have the benefit of a universal system of public school education to teach them to read and write, cheap and accessible published books and materials to teach them, and a host of technological tools to use in the classroom.  Yet somehow they learned the faith, went to private confession, and came to the Lord's table and to their place as confirmed members at a younger age than our children tend to do today.

I find it interesting the modern complaint that the great Lutheran chorales and hymns as too heavy, too difficult to sing, too doctrinal, and too long.  We are told that the kids cannot sing or get anything out of those hymns (and perhaps it is true of the adults, as well).  How is it that nearly five hundred years ago, without benefit of a universal system of public education and without the abundant presence of music in their lives like we have today, these children learned, sang, and grew in the faith through the use of the great Lutheran chorales and hymns?  Were these children smarter than our kids today?  Were they more apt musically or theologically to sing the music and to understand the doctrine inherent in these hymns?

I believe that we are selling our kids short.  We have already decided for them that there is nothing for them in the liturgy or the hymnal.  We have already taught them to expect to hear the music of the radio or mpe player in Church on Sunday morning.  We have already taught them that feelings are more important than truth and that personal taste is the primary criteria for what we sing or do on Sunday morning.  We have made these choices for them and we have sold them short.  We have told them lies about what they can learn, what they can sing, and what needs to be present in the music of the liturgy and then we are surprised when they turn up their noses at the hymnal.  It is not their fault.  It is our fault.  We have sold them short, discounted their intelligence, their capability, and their wisdom.

Too much of what is dumbed down in the liturgy and hymnody of Sunday morning is because the parents have decided what their kids can learn, what they will like, and what will be effective teaching and nurturing them in the faith.  We as adults in Church should repent of the way we have sold short our youth, made poor decisions on their behalf using them as excuses or justifications for those bad choices, and then criticized them when they fit into the stereotype we have have created.  It is time to stop.  If not for their sake, at least for ours...

We dull their senses with the baby talk of Sunday school, catechism, hymn, liturgy, and children's sermons.  We act as if they are incapable when, in reality, we boomers and the like are using our kids and grandkids to justify our personal preference for entertainment that is both shallow and trite.  We are pushing them out the door by deciding not to emphasize catechesis, by putting down what happens on Sunday morning, by allowing them to make decisions that are reserved for parents, and by using them to justify our own doubts, fears, and personal taste for what we think the Church should be and do.  I think it is high time we stopped selling our kids short.  They are smart.  They are capable of far deeper levels of learning and comprehension than we have allowed.  They watch what happens on Sunday morning.  They learn by memorizing familiar texts and melodies (not by a constant parade of new things).  They want to learn.  They want to participate.  Maybe we should give them a chance!


Jeremy Loesch said...

A good Sunday just got better! Thanks for this interesting read, and I agree with it. Young, old, in between, let us stop insulting the intelligence of the people!

Thanks for sharing.


Anonymous said...

Amen, Amen, Amen.

(A single Amen is not a sufficient response to this post!

Bill H.

Anonymous said...

For Pastor Peters, it is same song,
different verse.

Anonymous said...

I've tried talking to my minister about this but talking to a brick wall would have been more productive. My child has been short-changed as have many children in my church. Sad when the members understand this but the minster doesn't. Seems backwards to me. Thanks for writing this so I know I'm not crazy or wrong.

Joe Herl said...

This evening I went to our daughter's school Christmas program and was pleased at how good the songs were. The youngest children sang "Now sing we, now rejoice," and the slightly older ones sang "O sing of Christ, whose birth made known" (LSB 362), and they sang well.

The children in our Lutheran school sing things of value. After the program the music teacher told me about one girl in the second grade with no religious background; apparently even "Jesus loves me" is (or was) unknown to her. But when there was extra time at the end of a lesson and she had a chance to pick something for her class to sing, her choice was—are you ready for this? Her choice was "One thing's needful; Lord, this treasure" (LSB 536). Not bad!

A few years ago I heard a visiting children's choir from another Lutheran church sing one morning, then I had lunch with a couple of the boys in the choir. Out of curiosity, I asked what their favorite hymn was. They didn't hesitate: right away they answered "Isaiah, mighty seer, in days of old." I told that story to their director the next time I saw her, and she replied "Yes, I know. They were singing it on the bus on the way home!" Of course I had to try it with my own children's choir. Guess what they kept requesting to sing for the rest of the year? :)


P.S. - Yes, I know it isn't Christmas yet. In a perfect world, I'd postpone the Christmas program until the Christmas season. But that's hard to do with an academic calendar, so I just adopt an old literary device: willing suspension of disbelief. For a couple of hours during Advent, it's Christmas. It goes back to Advent as soon as we get home.

Joe Herl said...

If you want to read an expanded version of the points in this post with lots of great anecdotes, try Carl Schalk's little book First Person Singular: Reflections on Worship, Liturgy, and Children, published by MorningStar Music. It is the best thing I have read on the subject and is well worth the $15.00 price.


Anonymous said...

In our Lutheran Grade School
we sang a Christmas Canata
each year. It was Luke 2 set
to beautiful music.

Phillip said...

Children like what they are taught - so long as it is taught with conviction. You are right that it is the leaders of the church and their own parents that are "selling the kids short." When the adults are co-opted by the world, their children are catechized by the culture as well.

It has always been this way, but there are two differences in today's culture that make things harder for us. First, we have child-driven parenting. So even some parents who themselves like good things simply do not discipline their children. And by discipline I mean both the teaching/discipling and also just good old-fashioned "sit here do that" discipline. Second, our education system has devalued grammar. So the memorization of texts and the use of music to aid in the acquisition of knowledge is no longer valued. This results in many other things taking priority in the curriculum and in school budgets.

The church can do little about the first problem. It is the age we live in. But we can address the second, and, in doing so, provide a valuable in loco parentis role for children whose parents fail in this area.