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Two items on contemporary church music

For the record I don’t really have a side in the so-called Worship Wars. I personally mostly dislike contemporary Christian music generally and praise choruses in particular; if I had to imagine the worst possible church service it would start with a half-hour or so of one guy on a stage with an electric guitar, playing repetitive music in two chords and praying connecting prayers dominated by repetitions of the name “Father God.” But by the same token I’ve sat through dismal hymn sandwiches too, and will admit that sometimes the sweetest words in the English language are “the second verse as the last.”

I’m willing to admit that there are good and bad praise choruses; and good and bad hymns. And I’d far and away prefer to attend a church that sang mostly good hymns (relatively short; pitched so I can sing along; with lyrical content I can understand and affirm), but that by itself isn’t a deal-maker or -breaker.

It is my understanding, however, that the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) is struggling with the introduction of contemporary music; as a result it ends up being discussed on Issues Etc. with host Todd Wilken from time to time. It’s important to remember when listening to the show that the LCMS is fairly conservative (they didn’t switch from German to English until about World War II) and Wilken is part of one of the more conservative elements within it. So it’s safe to assume when listening to him that the correct answer to any question will be “whatever the LCMS was doing twenty or thirty years go” and this will be characterized as being “historical Christianity” or “traditional Christianity” as surely as if e.g. Paul the Apostle wore a clerical collar, the disciples met in a church building dominated by not a cross but a crucifix, and Romans 10:9 was an explicit reference to the Augsburg Confession, or some such.

I say this so as to make it clear that it’s not Wilken’s conclusions that are necessarily interesting so much as his (and his guests’) arguments.

Which brings us to a couple of segments from shows last month:

  1. An appearance by Bryan Wolfmueller, during which he and Wilken dissect three “praise songs” [link]; the page I’ve linked to here includes a link to Wolfmueller’s “Criteria for Discerning the Usefulness of Praise Songs” [link]. Some of these are pretty good and some are weak; Yes, songs we sing in church should not include explicit false teaching; No, they don’t have to be comprised entirely and exclusively of complete sentences.
  2. An appearance by David Petersen [mp3] entitled “Style as Substance.” Here the arguments are weaker; put simply, style and substance are often related but it’s important to remember which is which and separate arguments against one from arguments against the other.

Petersen and others sound to my ears to be indulging in a false “objective vs. subjective” distinction here; music always plays on the emotions; that’s part of its job. And to suggest that older hymns don’t play on our emotions is to admit that they’re just failing to move us, rather than saying something about their intrinsic worth as part of a church service.

I’d offer an excerpt from this [link] to bolster my argument here:

In relation to the question of worship, it is important, in order for us to be Lutheran, that we determine what kind of worship is Lutheran. In essence, as Lutherans, we seek a worship that conforms to the Word of God and the Lutheran Confessions; which, in our understanding, is synonymous with Christian worship. (i.e. Lutheran worship and Biblical Christian worship are one and the same)

I’m not sure I could find a clearer statement of what’s wrong with the “the way we’ve always done it is the way it should always be done” school of thought. I don’t have a problem with Lutherans being Lutheran; but I resent the confusion here between what should be aspirational language (“we desire true Christian worship”) and self-satisfied language (see above).

Oh; and as an aside let me repeat what I should always say when I take the folks at Issues Etc to task: while I think they’re being silly at least I know what they think; I wish my own tradition(s) made more of a habit of discussing matters like this in a straightforward manner.

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