Most advocates of so-called “contemporary worship” seem to think that those of us who find some of their methods questionable are stuck-in-the-mud old foggies who can’t stand hearing guitar music blaring in our aged ears. However, I for one am not an opponent of guitars. For that matter, I am not an opponent of contemporary (per the dictionary definition - that is, "of the present time; modern") music either. While I may find myself aligned with the traditionalist Lutheran camp, I’ll admit it: I listen to Koiné. And I certainly don’t spend my free time listening solely to the oldies or classical music.
what’s the beef? I like contemporary music. I don’t even mind
listening to some of the contemporary Christian stuff that is out there. So what’s wrong with
applying new forms to our worship music?
The simple answer is
that nothing is inherently wrong with new forms. The pipe organ was not ordained by God; other instruments are not by nature sinful. To this end, although it has its origins before the Birth of Christ,
the organ wasn’t always viewed favorably in worship either. Luther is said to
have called the organ an “ensign of Baal.” In fact, instrumentation of
any form was once forbidden by the Church Fathers. The use of these
implements, though centuries and millennia old, was once as frowned
upon as praise bands are today.
Am I saying that opposing praise
bands is just as absurd as opposing the pipe organ? Not at all. The
Fathers had good reason for rejecting the use of instrumentation in the
early days of the Church. The theological landscape of that era
did not favor a predominance of Christianity. Paganism and heresy
abounded. One of the hallmarks of pagan worship was the use of various
kinds of instrumentation, instruments which tended to be associated with
the secular world more than the religious. So the Fathers rejected the
use of these forms as secular innovations that would associate the
Church with something she is not. St. Clement of Alexandria captured
this ideology well when he wrote: “The Etruscans use the trumpet, the
Arcadians the pipe, the Sicilians the pectides, the Cretans the lyre,
the Lacedæmonians the flute, the Thracians the horn, the Egyptians the
drum, and the Arabians the cymbal. The one instrument of peace, the Word
alone by which we honor God, is what we employ. We no longer employ the
ancient psaltery, and trumpet, and timbrel, and flute, which those
expert in war and contemners of the fear of God were wont to make use of
also in the choruses at their festive assemblies” (HT: New Advent).
In short, the Fathers saw the use of instrumentation as an attempt to
profane the sacred, or clothe the sacred with the profane, if you will.
This highlights one of my major objections to “contemporary”
(or, more accurately, “sectarian”) music. It’s a matter of origin.
Simply put: it’s the music of the sects! The radical, protestant
sects utilize praise bands. It is where the practice originated. Their
use is associated with "evangelical" mega "churches." If there comes a day
when "evangelical," protestant ideology is no longer a major threat to
the Lutheran Church and praise bands are no longer associated with the
same, then their use in orthodox worship may be acceptable. In the mean
time, though, why on earth would we want to align ourselves with
sectarian brothels of heresy? The answer to that question may shed some
light on faulty motivations. Perhaps thinking as the sects do is to
blame. Perhaps thinking that the utilization of their seemingly productive methods will help attract young and
unsuspecting people into our midst is a factor.
This is another reason that mimicking the sects is so dangerous: The way one worships is reflective of what one believes. As I pointed out in an earlier post lauding the Divine Liturgy, the Latin dictum lex orandi, lex credendi is important to keep in mind when discussing the topic of worship. The sects utilize praise bands because they think that their man-made worship forms enhance or attract people to the Holy Gospel. It is reflective of a lack of faith in the efficacy of God's Word and His ability to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify the whole Christian Church on earth and keep it in the one true faith. And more often than not, it is reflective of anthropocentric worship paradigms that "seek to offer to God our merits" rather than "receive from Him those things which He promises and offers" (Apology IV:49).
"But," one might argue, "I make sure to carefully analyze sectarian material, using only that which is 'doctrinally pure.' I 'spoil the Egyptians,' as they say." This argument fails to address the points I raised above. Even if you weed out the elements that are obviously impure, the seemingly "doctrinally pure" remnants were still written from a sectarian frame of mind. One of the founders of the Synodical Conference, C. F. W. Walther, addressed this faulty logic well when he wrote:
"A preacher of our church also has the holy duty to give souls entrusted to his care pure spiritual food, indeed, the very best which he can possibly obtain. In Methodist songs there is much which is false, and which contains spiritual poison for the soul. Therefore, it is soul-murder to set before children such poisonous food. If the preacher claims, that he allows only 'correct' hymns to be sung, this does not excuse him. For, first of all, the true Lutheran spirit is found in none of them; second, our hymns are more powerful, more substantive, and more prosaic; third, those hymns which deal with the Holy Sacraments are completely in error; fourth, when these little sectarian hymnbooks come into the hands of our children, they openly read and sing false hymns" (HT: Intrepid Lutherans).
To be charitable, at this point it is worth acknowledging the fact that many people who turn to “contemporary” music do so
only to add variety to their worship life, rather than for any sectarian
reasons. Let me be the first to say that I am no opponent of variety. At the parish I'm playing the organ for this coming weekend, I have the opportunity to utilize a new
worship setting. We've only used it once before, and it's only been used at another parish once before that. Spoiler alert: when we used it in September, we made use of non-organ instrumentation. Piano, trumpet, and soloist/choral singers were
involved. And you know what? I wouldn’t have been opposed to using a
flute, percussion, strings, or other kinds of strategically placed
instrumentation either. In fact, I hope to use such in the future.
brings me to another major problem I have with sectarian worship: the
matter of words. Variety is okay, but what message are we conveying?
First and foremost, Scripture needs to be conveyed. Worship music
exists to glorify the Sacred text, not the other way around. This is
why the Fathers favored chant over instrumentation: chant is glorified
speaking. It glorifies the Word, rather than providing music for the
sake of music. So if the message we are conveying is 98 refrains of
“shine, Jesus shine,” we have a problem. If our message is borrowed
from the Calvinists, Arminians, or even the Papists, we have a big
But the issue of words goes even deeper. As Lutherans,
we confess to uphold and defend the Mass and celebrate it with more
reverence than anyone else (Augsburg Confession XXIV:1; Apology XXIV:1).
You know that new worship setting the parish I'm playing for this weekend is using? It is a setting
of the Common Service. It isn’t a sectarian innovation. It isn’t
something we conveniently borrowed from the Papists’ Second Vatican
Council. It is the liturgical heritage of the Evangelical Lutheran
Church - the Service that was Common to nearly all of American Lutheranism
prior to the advent of new liturgical rites in the 20th Century (many of which shamelessly mimic the fruits of Vatican II).
Why does that mater? Because we are not a sectarian church.
We do not bend our knee to the innovations of the pope. We are the
Lutheran Church - we are a liturgical church. The Liturgy most
certainly changes, evolves, and allows for variation - both regional and
over time. But the Liturgy does not allow for sectarian and papal
So you want to have variety in your worship life?
Fine! Just make sure you consider where the variety originated, what message it’s conveying, and that "frivolity and offense" are avoided for the sake of the weak. If your variety avoids mimicking the sects and expresses the Scriptures as
found in the Liturgy of the Church and orthodox hymnody (even new
hymnody!), then you’re okay in my book - even if the musical forms are different every single week.