Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Why Do We Have Music in Church?

1. Because we can. In whatever measure God has given anyone the ability to hear, understand, and enjoy music, to sing, play musical instruments, or compose new music, that person is a steward of those gifts. As Christian stewards, we have an opportunity to devote a portion of all that God gives us to His glory and to holy use. This is fitting, since it all belongs to Him.

Because the officiating pastor's musical ability is also a gift of God (and because his singing voice may carry better than his speaking voice), this principle also applies to the pastor chanting his part of the liturgy.

2. Because we may. Music is part of God's good creation. As His beloved children, we are free to use every created thing, within the bounds of fitness and lawful order. There is no law against making appropriate use of music in worship. So it suits our Christian freedom to use worship music in a manner that shows love to God and our neighbor.

Again, there is room within this Christian freedom even for the pastor to chant his side of our liturgical dialogue.

3. Because we should. The church's cultural life, including music and other arts, is a reflection of its spiritual life. Only a church of the flesh can spare no room for an inner life, no time or resources for the pursuit of excellence. And if the church made no use of music or the arts, these wholesome gifts of God would become nothing but instruments of worldly concerns and desires. As Luther allegedly said: "Why should the devil have all the good tunes?"

In light of this principle, we put a high value on the heritage of hymns and sacred music bequeathed to us by the faithful of earlier generations -- especially where artistic excellence is married with a strong witness to our faith. On the other hand, this principle also enjoins us to appreciate and encourage the creative offerings of today's faithful.

4. Because we must. Hearts moved by God's Word cannot help but express themselves: their sorrow over sin, their joy in forgiveness, the comfort of their heavenly hope. Many religious texts have been born of the overflow of such feelings. The music that goes with them was born when Christians recognized that the words were too beautiful to be merely spoken; they must be sung.

Who hasn't felt ashamed, at times, to hear one's fellow parishioners reading a Psalm in a bored monotone? We need the music to remind us how to feel about the text, to tell us what the words mean.

5. Because music can instruct us. Music is a powerful aid to memory. We retain words combined with a tune far better than words alone. Good words set to well-written music can be a powerful tool for teaching the faith, both to children and to adults. Religious bodies - heretics included - as well as political parties and commercial firms have all recognized the propaganda power of a song that sticks in the head. A hymn learned in childhood may often be one of the last memories preserved in one's forgetful, old age. Experience says that churches with a well-learned core of worship music can get by, if they have to, without an organist or a hymnal. This is why it is so much easier to follow an order of service with music we know, than with strange music or even no music at all. We hear a familiar musical cue and we know exactly what to sing next, even where a spoken cue might leave us confused and uncertain.

It probably follows that the average congregation only needs to learn one setting of the Divine Service -- ever. It's OK if the hymnal has 3, 5, or even 11 settings. Those extra musical settings will add a dash of variety to a few, exceptional congregations that are good at sight-reading music. They also provide plenty of choices for a parish considering making the switch to traditional liturgy for the first time. But the proverbial Church of St. John-in-the-Cornfield should stick with the service they know. It is serving the "aid to memory" function of church music very well. A change to something unfamiliar will only get in the way.

6. Because music can identify us. A visitor to your church can quickly learn a lot about you, simply by listening to your hymns and liturgical music. In Lutheran circles, the type of worship music they hear can tell them which of several types of Lutheran church you are. There's the type that will do or say anything to be popular or relevant. There's the type that wallows in nostalgia for an old-time religion, without distinguishing between Lutheranism and any other type of Protestant doctrine. And there's the type of church where some effort to uphold the principles of the Lutheran Reformation can be heard in the liturgy and hymns.

Our worship music is a public confession of where we stand spiritually and theologically. Though any confession can leave some people feeling excluded, there are those looking for a faithful church home who will only know they have found it by your sung and spoken confession.

7. Because music can unite us. We share a heritage of church music with Lutherans throughout the U.S. and in other countries. So every hymn and canticle that we sing is an act of fellowship with our brethren across the country and abroad. It also puts us in fellowship with the saints in heaven who sang the same pieces when they were on earth.

By continuing to use the best hymns and liturgical music, we show good faith toward those who are struggling to build new, faithful Lutheran church bodies, or to turn troubled, old bodies back to the faith of their forefathers.

8. Because of the command of God. Particularly in the Book of Psalms, God's Word frequently calls upon the faithful to sing His praise. See 1 Chronicles 16; Psalms 30, 95, 96, 98, 147, and 149; Isaiah 12 and 42; and Jeremiah 20, for example. Certain musical instruments are also mentioned as being used to worship the Lord. Bearing our Christian freedom in mind, we are not to suppose that only those instruments, or the precise words of the Psalms, are to be heard in church, any more than the verse that reads "Sing to the Lord a new song" requires us to invent new hymns every week. But because of so many commands to "sing unto the Lord," we know at least that God does not hate or despise our songs of praise. In fact, He invites them, and when our songs focus on His marvelous deeds we can even be certain that He regards them favorably.

The God-inspired apostle Paul urges Christians to worship God in "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" (Ephesians 5; Colossians 3), both to honor God and to instruct one another in His Word.

9. Because of the examples of men. Jesus and His disciples sang hymns (Matthew 26; Mark 14). Paul and Silas sang while they were in prison for preaching the Gospel (Acts 16). The saints in heaven sing in praise of the Lamb in Revelation 5 and 14. Hymns, sequences, and canticles such as the Gloria in excelsis and Te Deum are among the earliest surviving literary works of the ancient Christian church. Much of the oldest notated music that can still be deciphered consists of Gregorian chant and the polyphonic church music based on it. The history of Christendom is crammed with faithful witnesses who, among other things, wrote hymns: including a certain Martin Luther of cherished memory. Putting together orders of worship (including chanted liturgy) and hymnals were among the first orders of business in the Reformation. When Siberian Lutherans, under the persecution of Soviet atheism, were stripped of their pastors and books, they kept the faith alive by circulating samizdat hymnals, handwritten from memory.

The great composer J. S. Bach devoted much of his career to serving the Lutheran church with sacred music for choir, orchestra, organ, and more. Others before, during, and since Bach's time have contributed musical offerings that bear witness to the spiritual and cultural treasure that glows within Lutheranism. We draw encouragement from their faithful witness each time we hear or perform their music -- and when we reflect on the fact that, in many instances, their witness was so powerfully faithful indeed. Bach, for example, has been called the "fifth evangelist," because the study of his music has led music lovers of many faiths (and none at all) to Christianity and, in many cases, to Lutheranism.

10. For the glory of God. Bach used to end his musical manuscripts with the letters "SDG," initials standing for a Latin phrase meaning, "To God alone be the glory." If you view music as a language, church music is language addressing worship to God. If you view music as an art or craft, church music is a vessel dedicated to God. It follows that we intentionally give Him our best, and that we seek to please Him rather than ourselves. Whatever touches on the mission of the church -- from making a confession to the stranger in our pews to instructing, nurturing, and comforting church members, from delivering God's Word to our hearts to carrying our praises back to Him -- church music is part of it.

All this is not to the credit of the composer, the publisher, or the performers. It is the work of God, who has both created music and yoked it so effectively to His living and powerful Word. So Bach's scribbled "SDG" is not merely a pious conceit. Church music really does work to the glory of God!

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