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A Singing Church

Pastor James F. Wright
St John Lutheran Church  
Champaign, IL

Fri, Dec 1, 2006 

Since the ceramic floor was installed in the Sanctuary during the summer of 2005, people have commented that the service "sounds better."  I take it to mean that the sound carries better than it used to with carpet.  As I visited church after church in Italy, I couldn't find one that had carpeting.  That's because for centuries worship space has been a place to sing.  The more voices you can hear on Sunday morning, the braver you get to add your own voice to the singing. 

The trend in American churches has been to add amplified music and voices to worship.  It seems every church, even many Lutheran ones, have a service where instruments and voices are "plugged in".  I offer no theological argument here.  One instrument is as good as another.  Both acoustic and electronic instruments are man made and can be used to accompany the words of Holy Scripture when it is set to music. 

The difference I notice is in the singing.  When a trained organist plays church music, he or she knows how to play at just the right volume and tempo to get people to sing.  In amplified churches it seems that the people really don't have to sing, and, if they do, it isn't usually heard over the amplification.  I don't mean to speak for all "electric" churches, but for the ones I've visited and participated in the services, singing is optional.  There's a group of singers up front on microphones taking care of the vocals.  Participation is encouraged by clapping and other gestures.

How different it is in an acoustic church.  The congregation has to sing or there's something wrong!  Once in a while we see this when the organist gets ahead of the people and they don't start in at the beginning of the hymn.  You hear the music playing, but there's something missing! 

The organ is not the only instrument capable of leading Christian worship, but over the years it has proved to be the most effective.  Acoustic guitar, piano, and horns of all types are employed, but when the singing gets robust the instruments can be overwhelmed, while the organ is able to modulate its volume to support 300 plus people singing full throated. It is also sensitive enough to accompany twenty-five voices in a weeknight service.

There's also the tradition of offering the best we have.  That's one reason we avoid using recorded music in worship.  It's not that it would be somehow offend God to play a CD instead of an instrument.  This is done in some mission churches.  But as they get established they quickly progress to live musicians.  Some brides have asked the pastor if we can play a recording their favorite song during their wedding ceremony.  I answer these requests in two ways: one is that the service is not the time to play our favorite music.  It is a worship service devoted to Christ, and Christian music suiting the occasion should be used.  There are plenty of hymns that express a wide range of the Christian experience, most of which the congregation would love to have a chance to sing at a wedding or other occasion.  The wedding reception is the proper place to feature the couple's favorite song.  Secondly, we feel that live music is the best we have to offer God.  Just as we don't decorate the altar area with plastic flowers or electric candles, live music is more appropriate than recorded music.

I must emphasize that the difference between live and recorded music, amplified and acoustic instruments is not a doctrinal issue.  But a closer look at the purpose of music in Christian worship shows that music should not be evaluated on the basis of how much we like it personally.  This only leads us to division over personal styles and trends.  The purpose of all music in the worship service should be to support the words of the hymn, which we use to communicate the truth God has revealed in Holy Scripture. Our personal tastes and musical preferences are secondary to the task of the music carrying the meaning of the text in a way that does not overpower what the words are saying.  We should not underestimate the power of music alone.  Music is not neutral, but each style has a message of it's apart from the words say.

Don't think that the discussion over the style of music in church is a new one.  At the time of the Reformation some radical reformers adopted the practice of using only instruments that are mentioned in the Bible, or banning instruments altogether from worship.  Some allowed only the singing of psalms without any accompaniment.

Lutherans reject such harsh prohibitions because we recognize the contributions of the music of many periods in the history of the church.  Various hymns and liturgical songs familiar to our congregation come to us from the fifth, tenth, fifteenth, and twentieth centuries and everywhere in between.  We draw from this rich tradition, seeing Christ through the eyes of those who have gone before us and left expressions that agree with our own faith and confession.

At Christmas we see churches of different musical traditions coming together as we sing the familiar English Christmas carols.  We even hear them on secular radio!  It seems everyone wants to get in on what we have going in the Christian expression of Christmas.  We can all rejoice in that.  It's a great time to share the faith by inviting friends and family to church.  They already know the music.

Copyright 1998-2011 James F. Wright. All rights reserved.

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