The Lutheran Church of the Triune God

Contemporary Music: A Confessional Perspective

Author: Rev. James Judson

In today’s LCMS a struggle is taking place concerning music within the Divine Service. This is not a debate over whether or not music belongs in the Divine Service but rather a debate about what kind of music is proper for a Lutheran church body to allow and indeed support and encourage congregations to make use of in the Divine Service. There has been much discussion among the clergy of the LCMS on this subject but many questions and concerns remain among the laity. These may include questions such as “What is wrong with contemporary music?” “Why does it matter what we sing in church?” “What’s the purpose of all this ‘fighting,’ can’t we just agree to disagree?” These questions and concerns deserve to be addressed. What follows is a relatively short treatment of the subject from a biblical and confessional stand point. I hope that what I have written helps to address the questions and concerns that you may have.

“Worship Service” or “Divine Service?”

The proper place to begin any consideration of music within the life of the Church, especially as it relates to the Divine Service, is to firmly establish an answer to the question “What is the Divine Service and what makes it different from a worship service?”

The Divine Service is a liturgy, a style of church service which the Christian Church has used since the earliest days of Christianity. Even though the form of the liturgy has changed over the centuries, the basic structure has remained the same. The liturgy is comprised of a set form with distinct parts which remain the same from service to service. This to allows the congregation to become familiar enough with the form to truly concentrate on and understand the words of prayer and scripture that are read, spoken, chanted and sung through the course of the service. Thus, the congregation is spiritually fed by the Word of God found in the liturgy and is taught by the repetition of key verses of Scripture which emphasize key points of doctrine.[1]

This is in keeping with the confessional Lutheran understanding of worship and in this we find the heart of the answer to the above question. While many other denominations look at a church service as a “worship service,” or an act that we the Christians do for God, confessional Lutherans view the church service as a divine service, or what God does for us, the Christians. We believe and understand that God serves us through the service of Word and Sacrament and that every part of the liturgy is part of that service. This is why confessional Lutherans have traditionally been extremely careful about what we allow to take root within our church services.

Every part of the liturgy is part of God’s service of Word and Sacrament to us. This includes music. Music is not simply a frilly “add-on” that serves no other purpose than a sort of window dressing that makes the service more interesting. Rather, it must be understood that music is a vital and vibrant part of the service that can, will and does teach, enlighten and serve for better or for worse. Richard Resch explains:

The true faith is not only expressed in the sermon but also prayed in the prayers and sung in the hymns of the Church...through the Church’s practice people learn without even knowing it. In this way the practice of the Church serves the Church as a holy weapon of defense and offense in the Lord’s battles.[i]

This is, of course, of particular importance given that a person’s resistance to persuasion is lowered when music and or other arts are used to promote a particular idea or teaching.II

Therefore, having established this understanding of a church service and the importance of music in the services of the Church, let us now turn our attention to understanding what determines whether or not a certain piece of music is appropriate for use in the Divine Service.

The Text of the Hymn/Song is Primary

When judging music to determine whether it is proper to be included in the Divine Service, the first and foremost rule that must be followed is that the text is primary. It is in the words of the hymns/songs in question that we find open theological and doctrinal messages. Therefore, when evaluating a piece of music, one must first consider what the text is saying. Any music that is to be considered appropriate to be included in a Divine service must stand up against a test of its doctrinal content. Any hymn/song which includes lyrics that teach poor or false doctrine must be rejected outright. The words of a hymn/song, as mentioned above, can and will teach the hearers/singers whether they are conscious of its teaching influence or not. As Dr. David Scaer, a professor of mine at the seminary, was fond of saying: “Gentlemen! Be careful of the hymns you choose, your people don’t leave humming the sermon!”

In order to be found proper for use in a Divine Service, confessional Lutherans believe and teach that the text of the hymn meet certain requirements. A summary of these requirements[2] is as follows: the hymn must be directed to God and be God centered, theologically sound, Scriptural, “truthful and clear in interpreting the Word,” and without double meaning, exaggeration, or being overly sentimental. Rejected, thus, are all hymns that include text that runs contrary to good Lutheran, hence Scriptural, theology, hymns that focus on the work of man over the work of God, hymns that are unclear in their meanings and thus lend themselves to false interpretation and hymns that find their sole purpose in pandering to human emotion rather than edifying the spirit with the Word of God.

What About the Music Itself?

Though the text of the given hymn or song is the first consideration in evaluating whether a hymn/song is fit to be included in the Divine Service, the tune, the melody and the arrangement of the piece also play a crucial part in the decision. This importance is derived for two reasons.

First of all, since the text and the message born in that text is the first consideration, the music should enhance the text and serve to help deliver that text to the congregation rather than take the place of prominence away from that text. I cannot help but think of a recent visit to the James Hill house in St. Paul, MN. The house was built in the late 1800's and, as was customary at the time, was built to include a number of servants. In particular I was struck by the dining room where hidden doors and decorative screens were used in such a way as to camouflage the actions of the servants and the tools and rooms that the waiters, busboys and chefs used to serve the guests. This architecture is a perfect demonstration of what it means to enhance rather than to distract. The waiters, busboys and chefs were there to enhance the dinner party by making sure that tasty, hot food was served on time, drinks were replenished as needed and that dirty dishes were cleared as soon as the guests were finished. However, the servants would have become a distraction had the guests had to endure the banging of pots and pans in the kitchen and other such service related activities. Such is it with music and text. If the music is drowning out the text with grand flourishing runs, loud percussion, an overwhelming beat or rhythm or an overbearing vocalist, the dinner party that is the service of Word and Sacrament is disturbed and the guests (the congregation) are unable to reap the full benefit of the Lord’s service to them.

In addition to simply being a distraction from the text of the particular hymn or song, the tune, melody or arrangement can distract from the service as a whole. It is certainly indisputable that human beings are easily distracted. This is particularly true when it comes to the spiritual realm. We Christians seek to minimize distraction in our services. For example, in our church architecture, we do our best to create a space that serves to focus our attention on God and spiritual matters during the church service, so as to gain the most benefit possible from having participated in the service. However, no matter how hard we try, no matter what method’s we use, we will still find our minds wandering to other subjects, subjects unrelated to and indeed even contrary and harmful to the task at hand. Since we are so easily distracted during the Divine Service we should seek to avoid anything that would encourage these distractions!

There is hardly one among us who does not listen to music through out the course of the week. Music surrounds us on television, radio, in our favorite night spots and in our favorite sports events. Often times, because of the context in which we listen to a particular type of music, that type of music or style of music carries with it psychological baggage for us. For example, if a Divine Service would start off in the style of popular sporting events, with an announcer “hyping up the crowd” by energetically addressing the assembly with “Let’s get ready to wooooooorship!” those in the assembled congregation would no longer be thinking about the spiritual matters at hand, but rather thinking about the main event fight on Showtime that afternoon. Likewise, if we use the same style of music in church on Sunday morning as we listen to at the bar on Friday night, or at the game Saturday night etc... it makes no difference what words we are singing, our minds will, beyond a doubt wander to things other than the service of Word and Sacrament. Who among us could remain focused on hearing the Word and receiving the Sacrament after singing an offertory set to the tune of “Roll Out the Barrel?” Face it! We get distracted enough in church on our own, we don’t need help from the music!

Confessional Lutherans believe that the music in church on Sunday morning should be different from what we encounter in the secular world that surrounds us the whole week through. We believe that the Church is called to work in the world but not be of the world. The proper understanding of this is that we, as the Church, must work in the world in such a way as we clearly preach and teach the Word of God in the world that surrounds us. However, we must not allow ourselves to become so overrun by the culture of the secular world that the Church loses its unique character and is indistinguishable from the sinful, unbelieving, Godless culture that surrounds it.

In the ceremonial laws that God gave Israel in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), we see an important model for us in this matter. God gave the ceremonial law to Israel in order to separate His chosen people from the pagan cultures which surrounded them as a witness to the world. Due to the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross we need not be subject to the ceremonial laws[3] of the Old Testament but as St. Paul points out in I Corinthians 10:23: “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.” In the freedom that we enjoy in Christ, it may be lawful for us to employ these secular tunes in our services just as it is now lawful for us to eat pork, but let us remember Paul’s words and keep in mind that just because it is allowable doesn’t mean that it is helpful. We would give up the freedom to eat pork if doing so was important to our efforts to witness to the world and build up the faith of existing believers. Likewise, we must be willing to give up the freedom to use certain music as needed and helpful to achieve these goals. Again we can look to St. Paul for an example when he advises believers in I Corinthians 8:9 “But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”

Confessional Lutherans believe and understand that the Church, should transform the secular culture that surrounds us through the preaching and teaching of the Gospel, not allow the secular culture that surrounds us to dictate to us what we should preach and teach, or in this case how we should conduct our services and what we should sing in them. To give in to the secular world on the point of music is to surrender a major aspect of our distinctiveness at a time in world and Church history when our distinctiveness is of great importance. This is especially true when looked at in light of Christ’s great commission: “Go forth, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). If there is no distinction between the secular, unbelieving world, and Christ’s Church, then we are certainly not living up to the commission that our Lord gave to us.

Where does “Contemporary Christian Music” Fit in?

The phenomenon of “Contemporary Christian Music,” to be referred to as CCM from now on, has swept American Christianity. Part and parcel with this sweeping has been the clamoring on the part of many to include this new popular genre of music into the corporate services of the Church. Among many denominations this has been embraced but Lutheranism has resisted abandoning its traditional roots. However, this is unfortunately changing. There are some within Lutheranism who seemingly have no problem pushing the liturgy, wholesale, out the car door and driving off without even a glance backward. Still others hold that they can maintain the historic liturgy while “updating it” and “improving it” by grafting into the historic liturgy, large chunks of contemporary culture, including CCM.

While confessional Lutherans recognize that the liturgy, over time, will be adapted to the particular culture in which it is being used, we object to the adoption of random chunks of secular cultural material that come and go according to the latest cultural fad. Dr. Kurt Marquart says this on the subject: just as it would be grotesque to “enrich” the human anatomy with implants of pieces of pork, beef, or celery- as distinct from absorption by natural metabolism at the minute, molecular level- so would it be equally absurd to insert into the Christian liturgy, undigested as it were, large chunks of alien cultural matterIII

While CCM’s lyrics, which will be discussed below, are admittedly far more religious in nature than the bulk of popular music we modern Americans listen to, CCM still has two feet firmly planted in the secular culture. As discussed in the previous section, there are issues to be considered when dealing with the style of music that we choose to be a part of our Divine Services. Much of CCM is presented in styles that carry with them the psychological baggage previously mentioned (see “What About the Music Itself,” p2).

In light of how easily we are distracted from the spiritual matters at hand when we attend a church service, do we really need to be helped down that path of distraction by a piece of music that sounds very similar to that Dave Matthews song we listened to at our friend’s party on Friday night? Does our attention really need to be split between the service of Word and Sacrament and a song that sounds The Bare Naked Ladies? Still other forms of CCM would be even more distracting than the mellow style just mentioned. The style of CCM runs the gamut from Bob Dylanesque folk music, to hard core Metallica-like hard rock, to Tim McGraw inspired country, to 50 Cent style southern rap. All of which are incredibly distracting from the true purpose of the Divine Service and none of which belong in the Divine Service.

Stylistic concerns aside, CCM lyrics pose an even greater concern. In his article “Contemporary Christian Music: An Evaluation,”VV Klemet Preus reviews the texts of CCM songs and finds them falling severely short of the theological strength needed for them to be considered for use in the Divine Service. Preus finds that CCM is characterized by Pentecostal theology,[4] Decision theology,[5] Theology of Glory,[6] Pietism,[7] Synergism,[8] Millenialism[9] and a lack of proper sacramental theology[10] and understanding of the power of the Word of God. He finds that CCM mixes faith and emotion, focuses on commitment and turns faith into only a first step on a road of progressive salvation and consistently contradicts Scripture with bad theology and doctrine.V Preus also notes that although Christ is mentioned frequently in CCM, the Christology is generally flawed. On that note he writes that CCM turns “Christ into the best love or the most faithful lover or the drug with the highest high or the quickest rush.”II

When viewed in light of the conclusions of the first section of this article, ‘Worship Service’ or ‘Divine Service?’” one must admit that including such music is a dangerous practice. Who among us would not condemn a pastor who preached false doctrine from the pulpit? Why should false doctrine in music be any different? Whether Satan’s attacks on the true faith are open and blatantly obvious or subtle and under the guise of innocence, such as is the case with so much of CCM, it should be resisted at every turn by Christ’s Church and its entrance into the corporate services of the Church should be especially resisted.

“Contemporary” vs. Contemporary

Unfortunately, in some circles, this condemnation of the music genre known as “Contemporary Christian Music” has lead to the belief that any music, if it has been written in recent times, needs to be dismissed and rejected off hand for use within the Church, particularly within the Divine Service. In all times and in all places Christians with musical talents have sought to express their faith, give praise and honor to God and enhance the practice of the Church by the creation of new musical pieces. One cannot judge the worthiness of these works of music based solely on their date of composition. Every era has seen its share of good additions to the hymnody and musicology of the Church as well as poor, and indeed even downright horrible additions.

Each piece, whether of recent or aged vintage must be individually evaluated. Those that make the cut can be rejoiced over and happily added to our Churchly repertoire, while those that fail to make the cut must, on principle, be rejected, regardless of our sentimental attachments to them. We must not confuse the genre of “Contemporary Christian Music” with Christian music that is of contemporary origins. To reject music simply because it was composed within the last 20 years or 50 year etc... is to do the Church a disservice. Much like we would not reject a theological book written by a contemporary author (such as Marquart, Scaer, Veith or Preus) simply due to its recent origins, we should not reject theological music based solely on its lack of age.

Confessional Lutherans, the members of The Lutheran Church of the Triune God among them, believe very strongly in preserving our Divine Services from the influences of bad theology and practice no matter what quarter they may come from. The Divine Service is where we as God’s people come to be served by God in His service of Word and Sacrament. As such, we strive to protect the Divine Service from all false teachings and to preserve its solemn, rich, deep character and meaning. If you are interested in learning more on this subject, I encourage you to make use of the “Works Consulted” section that I have provided. If you have any questions or comments about our understanding of the Divine Service and what is and is not proper to be included in it, please feel free to contact the church office and we will welcome the opportunity to discuss the matter with you.

Notes

[1]If a different service is used each week “the people are denied the ability to learn as much as possible from the liturgy because they must concentrate on what to do next etc...rather than on what they are saying.” Richard Resch, “Hymnody as Teacher of the Faith,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 57:3 (July 1993): p 167.
[2]These requirements are fully listed and explained in Table 6 of Alfred E. Fremder’s article “The Selection of Hymns,” and I would refer anyone interested in the subject to Fremder for a more detailed look at the criterion. However, for purposes of this article, a very brief summary will have to do.
[3]Note that this is only in reference to the ceremonial law, not the moral laws which are made up of the ten commandments. Even though we are freed from the demands of the ceremonial law, we are still subject to the moral law.
[4]Pentecostal theology is characterized by misunderstandings of the work of the Holy Spirit, including but not limited to, healings, speaking in tongues, holy laughter, violent body convulsions etc...
[5]Decision theology teaches that the unbeliever, in order to be saved, must make a decision to follow Jesus, must decide to leave his/her sinful life behind, decide to call on the name of the Lord for help before they are saved. Biblical teaching on the subject reveals that we can only call on Jesus and ask for his help AFTER the Spirit has already created faith within us.
[6]Theology of Glory teaches that those who are saved/those who are of strong enough faith will experience earthly glory and prosperity and that those who do not experience these things have been abandoned by God or punished by God. Lutheranism holds to the biblical Theology of the Cross which teaches that all of mankind, believers and unbelievers, strong in faith and weak in faith, etc...suffer because of the entrance of sin into the world and that God does not abandon us in our times of need but rather strengthens us so that we may endure our time of suffering.
[7]Pietism confuses faith and emotions. Pietists teach that feelings indicate to a person whether or not they are saved and look to a “mountain top experience,” an experience of intense emotion to prove their conversion, their salvation. The Lutheran response is simple; “faith alone.” If one believes in Christ as their savior from sin, he/she is saved regardless of his/her emotional state. Faith is not always accompanied by subjective and fickle human emotions and thus emotion is not a valid indicator of salvation.
[8]Synergism teaches that we humans cooperate with God in our conversion and salvation. This contradicts Scripture which plainly teaches that we are completely and totally dead in our sin when it comes to spiritual matters and completely incapable of cooperation with God in this matter because of our state of spiritual death.
[9]Millenialism is characterized by an overly literal translation of figurative language in the apocalyptic writings contained in the Bible, such as Revelation. Because of this overly literal translation of the figurative language of these writings, Millenialism promotes a multitude of false teachings concerning the end of the world and the second coming of Christ.
[10]A proper understanding of sacramental theology recognizes the sacraments (Baptism and Communion) as a Means of Grace, i.e. a means/method by which God distributes his forgiveness to believers. As such, Baptism and Communion are not mere symbols but are true and effective in creating, strengthening and preserving our faith.


[i]I. Richard Resch, “Hymnody as Teacher of the Faith,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 57:3 (July 1993): p 167.
II James L. Brauer, “The Role of Music in Seeker Services,” Concordia Journal 24:1 (January 1998): p 11.
III Kurt Marquart, “Liturgy and Evangelism” in Lutheran Worship: History and Practice, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1993) p 68.
VV Klemet Preus, “Contemporary Christian Music: An Evaluation,”Concordia Theological Quarterly 51:1 (January 1987): 1-18.
V Ibid, pp 8-13.
II Ibid, p 9.