Thursday, June 25, 2020

Sacred or secular. . . which is it?

Most of what passes for Christian music today is unsuitable for worship, at least for Lutheran worship.  While contemporary Christian music is certainly popular with some, popularity is not the criteria that should be used in choosing hymns or songs for the Divine Service.  The problem lies in a number of areas – both content and style are important but also the role of music and its appeal.

A few years ago Gallup found out that nearly half of all Protestants consider music and musical style as a factor in choosing a church.  The same poll said only 29% of Roman Catholics considered music and musical style when choosing which Mass to attend.  The reality is that some Lutherans might be closer to Protestants in thinking and other Lutherans might be closer to Roman Catholics.  As is typical, Lutherans tend to be all over the page.

The issue here is the music is not just music.  It is not generic or the same.  Sacred music is defined not simply by content (and then by more than the mere mention of God) but its role and place within the Divine Service.  It is first and foremost liturgical music.  Much of praise and worship music is designed to be performed and it is tuned for an emotional response.  In contrast to this, sacred music is, as Luther described, the servant of the Word.  It is distinctive because of its role and purpose uplifting but in a supportive role the Word of God.

In contrast to this, contemporary Christian music has a beat and a feel and an identity that is stolen right from pop music.  There is a seamless transition between the pop music that you hear on the secular play list to the contemporary Christian music you hear on a Christian play list.  While the words are certainly different, the words are part of an overall appeal that is larger than the message and have to do with the beat and sound of the music.

In addition, like all pop music, contemporary Christian music has a definite shelf life and the industry itself thrives on the production of new music more than the repetition of old music.  In some respects, we might even say that all contemporary music is tied to a moment in time and, in this respect, is meant to be disposable.  In contrast to this, sacred music is designed to transcend the moment and convey the eternal Gospel.

Contemporary Christian music is designed for the musician (player or singer) and exists to showcase the sound of the group.  It is performance music in which the music is performed by people for the benefit of others.  Of course, it is not only possible that people can and will sing along but they are singing along with the leaders and not in place of them.  In contrast to sacred music, the performers here tend to the background so that the voice is prominent and the voices that are prominent are the voices of the people and the Word of God. 

Because the instruments normally used to support contemporary Christian song are rhythmic and percussive and the instruments used for congregational song are melodic, the groups that lead the praise and worship music tend to be up-front and very visible while the organist and liturgical choirs tend to be behind the congregation.  It is entirely possible to never know what your organist or choir members look like and still to appreciate their leadership of hymn and chant while it is difficult to conceive of a praise band whose faces you do not see or the singer you do not know.

Some bands and worship leaders often speak of the ministry of music but this is largely a ministry of self-expression.  I do believe that music does have a ministry or service to the Word of God but it is not as self-expression (either as leaders or as people in the pew).  It is the servant of the Word whether it is in the hands of the organist or the mouths of the choir or the lips of the congregation.

Lutherans were once leaders in the area of church music.  All the big names of the past were Lutherans (from Luther to Pachelbel to Walther to Bach to Schütz and on and on and on).  Lately, however, Lutherans have been followers.  We are behind but trying to catch up with the cutting edge of things when it comes to worship and contemporary Christian music in worship is one of those areas where we have become borrowers of others instead of leaders in our own right.  This is a tragedy.  How is it that Lutherans may be more familiar with Chris Tomlin or Hillsong or Don Moen or Kari Jobe or a hundred other personalities in the contemporary Christian music industry than they are of their own tradition of sacred music from Bach to Manz?  Could it be that we have confused our people by forgetting that music supports the Word and by presuming that music either does not matter or that it matters mostly because of our preference?  If you don’t believe this is a problem, put a thousand Lutherans in one room and try to find one hymn that they know all the words to – and Amazing Grace does not count!

1 comment:

jwskud said...

"While contemporary Christian music is certainly popular with some, popularity is not the criteria that should be used in choosing hymns or songs for the Divine Service. The problem lies in a number of areas – both content and style are important but also the role of music and its appeal."

A wonderful resource for praise music evaluation can be had in Table Talk Radio's "Praise Song Cruncher," which seeks to catalog the theological content (or lack thereof) of contemporary Christian music, and make a distinction between songs which are suitable for worship (very, very few!) or those that are suitable for entertainment purposes (with decent theological content). Highly recommended: