What makes music Lutheran?

You want to try a fun experiment?  Try running an online search using the keywords “Lutheran music.”  If you’re like me, you got hits from images like the one above, or pictures of organs or robed choirs, or even a charming graphic that says “choose a century.”

Now try running a search using “Christian music.”  Behold!  A dazzling array of images that usually feature colored lights, dark backgrounds, raised hands, and people (usually men, actually) singing passionately into microphones.

Is there some sort of disconnect here?  Isn’t Lutheran music Christian music?  Well, sure.  But Christian rock has been redefining what most people think of when they hear the phrase “Christian music,” and as it grows more popular on the airwaves it grows more popular in church, too.  Lutherans, along with plenty of other mainline Protestant denominations, have been slow to jump on this trend. We are not trendy people.  We like traditions, not trends.  We wouldn’t eat lutefisk if we didn’t.

But the resistance of the average Lutheran to the average CCM (contemporary Christian music) song is about more than a dislike of the fickle wind of trending.  It’s about serious questions about how we know a song is good for singing in our church. “What makes a song Lutheran?”  Many cradle Lutherans, like myself, have a very distinctive idea of what Lutheran music should sound like.  Johann Bach, William Dix, Isaac Watts…these are the composers whose music we have heard from our bouncing baby baptisms; highly melodic, often complex musical structures.  (Not to mention Martin Luther.  Talk about yer complex melodic structures…just try ELW 411/ LBW 374…or try it in German.  Either way, enjoy the octave leap and the part where you sing a single syllable across 11 notes.)  But times, they are a-changin’, as Bob Dylan croons, and with the emphasis on incorporating new musical styles into our liturgies—not just contemporary music with pop rhythmic structures, but music of diverse ethnic, cultural, and chronological origins—Lutherans are being challenged to identify Lutheran music not by how it sounds, but by what it says.

Hymns are important not only for the sake of praising God, but for the sake of teaching, preaching, and sharing our faith with each other within the congregation.  Paul Jacobs writes: “Historically, church music has been used not only to feed the soul, and lift the heart, but also to educate the mind. Great songs of the past have played a significant role in our understanding of basic theology and biblical content.”[1]  And the genre of contemporary worship music in particular has borne a great deal of criticism for failing to present good theology in song.

So really, the answer to “What makes a song Lutheran?” lies inside another question: “What makes for good Lutheran theology?”  For a great start in answering this question, turn to a publication called Sound Decisions.  Written in 1997 by Dori Collins and Scott C. Weidler, it was developed by the Division for Congregation Ministries of the ELCA, and published by the self-same entity.  Sound Decisions lays out five principles for gauging the integrity of song texts.

“Texts to be sung in Lutheran worship should:

  • Speak the gospel clearly, pointing to the crucified and risen Christ.
  • Express the necessary relationship between law and gospel; embrace justification by grace through faith; and acknowledge God’s presence in Word and Sacrament.
  • Express both the lament and the glory of the Christian journey.
  • Acknowledge worship as a communal act of proclamation.
  • Employ the vast array of scriptural images for God and God’s people using language that is both literal and figurative.”[2]

This is an excellent foundation from which to consider which music to choose for a Lutheran contemporary service.  It also addresses the concerns Lutherans frequently raise about CCM: It’s too much theology of glory and not enough theology of the cross; it seldom attempts gender-neutral language for God or gender-inclusive language for God’s people; it focuses on us, how we feel, and our works rather than on God and God’s action; it usually talks about “me” instead of about “us.”  (Whew.  Did I miss any?)

However, not all songs need to bear out every letter of the guidelines in order to qualify as good worship material.  Paul Jacobs, for example, lifts up some excellent questions regarding what makes good worship music:

“As we examine the theological and biblical content of contemporary Christian music there are several questions that must be addressed: First, can music be Christian without biblical references to Christ?… Secondly, can music be considered Christian when it fails to proclaim sound Christian doctrine?… Thirdly, can music be considered Christian music when it is decidedly anthropocentric and not theocentric?”[3]

While Jacobs provides his own well-thought-out answers to these questions, I turned to Mark Oldenberg, Dean of the Chapel at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, for the Lutheran perspective.[4]  In answer to the first question, Dr. Oldenburg claims that yes, music can be Christian without specific mention of Christ.  Dr. Oldenburg points out that Isaac Watts was actually the first lyricist to mention Christ at all, since before Watts all hymns were paraphrases of the Psalms.  In answer to Jacobs’ second question, Dr. Oldenburg draws a distinction between not proclaiming Christian doctrine and proclaiming it badly.  As an illustration he points to hymns based on Old Testament texts that are solidly part of the Christian tradition, contrasting such hymns with songs that proclaim salvation through works-righteousness (i.e.: “Jesus will save you if you behave yourself”).  The first we could certainly use in a Lutheran service, but not the second (’cause Jesus has already done gone and saved us even though we couldn’t behave ourselves).  As for Jacobs’ third question, Dr. Oldenburg answers that lyrics could certainly be about us more than they’re about God, and could still be used in worship, but he urges caution: such songs should be used in balance with music that definitely talks more about God than about us.

Dr. Oldenburg’s last condition—balance—rings particularly true in the case of contemporary Christian music.  The CCM industry has done what mainline Protestant churches are increasingly anxious to do: become relevant and popular to a large, mainstream audience.  (For proof of this, I need look no farther than the radio stations I am able to get in my Gettysburg apartment: two country stations and one Christian rock station.)  Mark Allan Powell points out an increasing problem with such popularity, though:

Many ccm artists perform songs that are neither profound now subtle, some of which are dismissed by critics as “happy-in-Jesus songs.”  Defenders say such music stands in the grand tradition of summer camp songs…pleasurable ditties that are simply expressive of Christian joy without any pretense of addressing life’s complexities.  The problem with that argument is that Christian music often occupies a major, even defining role in the lives of its more ardent listeners.  The music is not just material for a campfire sing-a-long; it becomes a soundtrack for people’s lives.  Individualistic piety and crass sentimentalism can be innocent enough in small doses, but some fans and performers seem to think that faith consists of little else.[5]

The same holds true not just for individualistic piety or crass sentimentalism, but for any theme that takes on too much weight and becomes a narrow lens through which we come to view all of faith or theology.

St. Paul urges in Romans 12 not to be conformed to the world but instead to the will of God.  And again, in 1 Corinthians he advocates imitation of his ministry, in which he is all things to all people, that by all means he might save some. As a Lutheran who will be planning worship, I am called to remain in tension to both of these guiding principles.  Contemporary worship music, despite many grumblings in the Lutheran camp, is certainly not inherently bad, and can be very good indeed.  Through laying out guidelines such as those proposed in Sound Decisions, joining the discussions started by people like Jacobs and Powell, and seeking out resources of Lutherans who are already successfully writing, planning, and worshipping with music that reflects theological integrity, we can and should equip ourselves to enter into  ministry with a mind open to music of all kinds that help do our work as worshippers: proclaiming the gospel, listening for God, and making meaning in our rituals.[6]

Bibliography

Baker-Wright, Michelle K.  “Intimacy and Orthodoxy: evaluating existing paradigms of contemporary worship music.”Missiology, 35 no 2 Ap 2007, p 169-178.

Erwin Collins, Dori and Scott C. Weidler.  Sound Decisions: evaluating contemporary music for Lutheran worship.  Chicago: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 1997.

Hartje, Gesa F.  “Keeping in Tune with the Times—Praise & Worship Music as Today’s Evangelical

Hymnody.”  Dialog: A Journal of Theology, Winter 2009, Vol. 48 Issue 4, p364-373, 10p

Jacobs, Paul D.  “Sing unto the Lord a new song: an examination of the theological orthodoxy and biblical content of the top 20 contemporary songs of 2006.”  Source: Criswell Theological Review, ns 5 no 1 Fall 2007, p 97-106.

Powell, Mark Allan.  “Jesus climbs the charts.” Christian Century, 12/18/2002, Vol. 119 Issue 26, p20.

Wren, Brian A. “”Sing it, preacher”! thoughts about contemporary worship music.” Journal for Preachers, 24 no 1 Advent 2000, p 45-53.


[1] Paul D. Jacobs.  “Sing unto the Lord a new song: an examination of the theological orthodoxy and biblical content of the top 20 contemporary songs of 2006.”  Source: Criswell Theological Review, ns 5 no 1 Fall 2007, p 97-106.

[2] Dori Erwin Collins and Scott C. Weidler.  Sound Decisions: evaluating contemporary music for Lutheran worship.  Page 6.  Chicago: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 1997.

[3] Paul D. Jacobs.  “Sing unto the Lord a new song.”

[4] All references to Dr. Oldenberg came from an interview between myself and him, Feb 20 2012.

[5] Mark Allan Powell.  “Jesus climbs the charts.” Christian Century, 12/18/2002, Vol. 119 Issue 26, p20.

[6] Another paraphrase from the interview with Dr. Oldenberg.

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