“Music is an outstanding gift of God and next to theology. It is an endowment and a gift of God, not a gift of men. It makes people cheerful; one forgets all anger, unchasteness, pride, and other vices. I place music next to theology and give it the highest praise.” So observed Martin Luther.
Music is a gift of God. So is the Holy Spirit, who produces fruit in the believer, like love, joy, peace, and patience. Luther observed, “He makes people cheerful and helps them overcome pride.” Count those outcomes among the Spirit’s fruit. Spirit-shaped ministries will want to give music a central role in worship services.
I had the privilege of preaching in the castle church of Wittenberg. Luther’s tomb was about twenty-five feet from me on the left and the door on which the 95 these were nailed about 25 feet to my right. What a thrill! In that setting where Luther led worship services, it dawned on me that he made the revolutionary change of introducing hymn singing by the congregation. Before then, the music was Psalms sung or chanted for the people, not by the people.
Luther himself wrote many hymns, chief of which was “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” He also composed “Come Holy Ghost, God and Lord” as well as “To God the Holy Spirit Let Us Pray.” The Holy Spirit was central to his thinking before many commoners revolted in 1525 because, they claimed, the Spirit told them to. The result was about 300,000 dead at the hands of the Prince’s knights. After that catastrophe, Luther was much more subdued about the Spirit.
Participating in a teaching mission, I was told I would be on “after the worship.’ I thought they had put me in last place. But they meant after forty-five minutes of praise and worship singing and the beginning of the teaching part of the service. I have participated several times in such extended singing. It is very engaging and moving. One theory is that it takes about twenty minutes for the brain to cycle from one half to the other and back again. Call it full-brain worship. The Spirit was moving mightily.
Among the many transitions going on in current church life is the move from traditional hymn singing with an organ to contemporary singing with popular instruments of our times, especially drums and guitars. I usually attend the contemporary service to keep track of innovations. But I enjoy singing hymns I grew up on in the traditional service.
Consider two kinds of contemporary music. Call one Presentation Worship in Song. Call the other Bow Down Worship. The first presents the Gospel sung by the worship team, in songs that often have a Nashville style. Often these are songs heard on Christian radio. It is natural for a worship team to want to present the latest in contemporary songs. But there are three limitations. One is that this music is sung by professionals and have rhythms and vocal range that are not easily sung by ordinary worshippers. Another is that the amplification is so loud the worshippers can’t hear each other singing. The third is that contemporary means constant change to keep up with the newest contemporary. The result of all three is that we are back to singing done for the people and not by the people.
Bow down singing is done by worshippers emphasizing their submission to God—they praise him, they love him, he is their all in all. This singing emphasizes a personal relation of first and second person, I and You, God. After establishing the submission to God, a sequence might move on to loud praise of this God whom I love. The first part is quiet leading to loud praise. A sequence is usually at least three songs but often four to six.
Consider this principle. How good a worship team is can be measured by how well the congregation sings. The first step toward meeting that outcome is that the congregation has to hear and reinforce each other singing. This usually means turning down the amplification. It also might involve the worship team not playing for a verse or two.
Bow-down worship involves the worship team seeing themselves as a servant to the worshippers and not the center of their attention.
If the Holy Spirit is expected to move people through music, the approach of Bow-Down worship moving from submission to praise is much more productive for that purpose.
When are you moved best by music in church? What kind of church music turns you off? What is your attitude toward contemporary church music vs traditional hymns?
Corbie Cross says
I enjoyed your analysis of how music is worship and even though I prefer the old hymns i am beginning to enjoy music that isn’t so loud that I have to have ear plugs. The church we attended virtually Sunday and attend with our family is working on a project of singing through the Psalms. The talented music pastor does a very good job of putting these together. I have included a link to Sunday’s portion of Psalm 119.
It was very meaningful to us
David Luecke says
The Psalms have been the basics of worship since the very beginning of Christianity. You are blessed with such a talented music pastor. My wife and I have been watching Call the Midwives on Netflix. The midwives work out of a church building which also houses convent. It is wonderful to hear the nuns chant Psalm phrases in the background as the difficulty of the day is being worked out.
Nancy Niemi says
To answer your question, I love old hymns with emotion and theology in them, such as How Great Thou Art, and A Mighty Fortress. What turns me off is the repetitive lyrics in some of the contemporary Christian songs. My feeling is they have “dumbed down” these songs for the younger folks who don’t have much theology to begin with and try to capture them with a form of “mass emotionalism.” You see your neighbor raising hands, closing eyes, swaying, even dancing, so you do too. Whether it evokes passion for God in some people, maybe, but without the theology it’s empty emotionalism, in my opinion.
David Luecke says
Yes, contemporary often does not fit with people who know and appreciate the depth of biblical theology. To them (us) contemporary can seem dumbed down. But there are fewer of us every years.
What’s wrong with expressing emotions in worship, not only by words but also by bodily involvement. What’s wrong with simple theology? That’s where new believers start. A good congregation then works out ways to get them deeper into the Word and appreciating its rich theology.
Frank Janzow says
I agree. If the question is how to provide worship experiences that best facilitate a worshiper’s communion with God from their world, then providing effective, quality contemporary worship is actually “wising up”, not dumbing down. I get that some more traditional worship planners complain that simple praise choruses that repeat over and over are just too simplistic. My question, though, is how do feel about Taize. I’m guessing most would embrace that worship music – which is very simple, repeated over and over. The point of that repetition of simple texts, I’m told, is to allow the words to go deep into one’s heart and soul. Similarly, repeated contemporary choruses are meant to go deep and then circle back outward toward God in a more fully heartfelt expression of sheer adoration. Who are we to question the validity of someone’s worship because what works for them wouldn’t for us. In my experience, no one from that group would ever question the validity of the worship that we treasure. Don’t we owe them the same respect?
David Luecke says
Thanks for your wisdom. I have participated a few times in charismatic worship and experienced that deeper relationship with God. What is shallow to the head can be deep to the heart.
Carol Albright says
Great reply, Pastor Luecke….. If it attracts people without a biblical back ground, they will still hear the sermon, where the Holy Spirit can plant more seeds, then before communion, the scriptures & the meaning of communion is said….. God works all kinds of ways. Then we have(at least when we didn’t have covid rules) a opportunity if any one has an area, a private area that you can come up & ask ?’s or prayer requests…
Frank Janzow says
During my recent prolonged illness I was surprised to find the spoken word of little comfort but music such a sweet comfort to my spirit, while waiting for healing to slowly come. I found myself singing myself to sleep with hymns like Abide With Me, Beautiful Savior, and I Am Trusting Thee, Lord Jesus. In the morning I loved Cat Steven’s singing Morning Has Broken, followed by Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos or music by Handel. This is interesting to me because I’m much into contemporary worship music. I’ve written a Jazz Liturgy called Rise Up!, as well as many songs. Finally, I liked your way of categorizing two kinds of contemporary worship, but would offer one thought about congregational singing. Worship is most inspiring when everyone’s reading singing, agreed. But for many people new to church, group singing is weird. They do participate but it’s more like singing along with a band or with the radio. This too, when from the heart, is deeply moving to these worshippers, and I believe is quite pleasing in the ear of God.
David Luecke says
What a rich background you bring to the issue of ways to worship. I myself love classical music and surround myself with it whenever possible. I am too old to have emotions connected to all but the best contemporary. But as a church leader, what I like is not what’s most important. The goal is to engage younger and newer believers to the ways of God. within good taste, I am for whatever works for that purpose.
Allen Hellwege says
Thanks for the helpful description of the difference of at least two styles of music!
Carol Constien Hemwall says
It’s all traditional for me! I love how the gospel is presented over and over again in hymns with verses that tell the story – whether the hymns be Lenten or Easter or Advent or Christmas. Repeating three words 12 times turns me off, as does too many decibels! Entering a traditional sanctuary gives me the “bow down” feeling that God is present. We once visited a church with auditorium seats looking forward at a full drum set and oscillating colored lights – I turned to my husband and asked if he’d get me a large popcorn 🍿 and it only went downhill from there!
David Luecke says
I appreciate where you are coming from. I can handle repetition four or five times, but not 10 or more. Special sanctuaries are financially out of reach for most new congregations. The seating capacity of movie theaters is one of the few realistic options. But it is better when the drums are keep off to the side