Can rock music be used in Lutheran worship?


 from WELS Topical Q&A

Q: Before I became Lutheran, I attended an Evangelical Free Church that used a lot of “contemporary” music — it got to the point that I could not take it any more, and I’m a high school senior, the group they thought they were “targeting.” The music polluted the gospel message so badly — I refused to sing “Jesus Freak” one Sunday morning, and decided I’d had it with “contemporary worship.” I’ve been attending an Lutheran church that has preserved the historic Christian liturgy, and has a beautiful, more powerful service, sans drums, electric guitars, loud or overemotional soloists. Instead, I am humbled to meet the Lord at His level, by not bringing the rest of the world and culture into the church doors with me. Most everyone at my new parish feels this way too. What I have noticed though is that some other Lutheran churches are offering “contemporary worship” services. I can’t understand why any church would want to move from such a beautiful form of worship that the Church has embraced for 2,000 years to schlitzy, over-emotionalized, pop-culturized fakeness where the only things worshipped are personal preferences and emotions. Perhaps I am confusing what the Lutheran church calls “contemporary” with what I found in my old church. If by contemporary you mean songs written in recent years, like new hymns or psalm settings, than I would say that is fine. Our parish makes good use of those things. Or by “contemporary” do you mean using the new “praise choruses” that use rock music and emphasize a “personal feeling” of the divine? Why would Lutherans be drawn to such a form of worship? I read your response to another person with a similar question on the web page. You said that some WELS congregations use a “variety of music.” To what extent is that variety? Because in the next paragraph you said that “contemporary Christian music” often misses the mark in proclaiming the gospel and instead draws attention to itself and its performers. What other forms of music besides “pop, rock, and rap” would be considered contemporary and acceptable for church use? I’m just trying to allay my fears that the Lutheran church will go the way many of the “evangelical” Protestant churches are. I am also trying to dispel a myth that teenagers want to have the same music in church that they listen to at home. It’s simply not true. None of my friends at the Lutheran parish I attend wish that there was contemporary music. Please help me out — what is considered “contemporary” by Lutheran churches, and why is there a felt need by some Lutherans to “modernize” their worship?

A: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, faithfulness, peace…” When St. Paul wrote these words to the Christians in Galatia he wanted them to rejoice in their life in the Holy Spirit, for where the Spirit dwells, there the fruits of faith abound. Lutherans believe this, and so do Evangelicals.The difference between Lutherans and Evangelicals is that Lutherans believe the Spirit works only through the Gospel in Word and Sacrament and the Evangelicals believe that the Spirit works without means–without the Word and the Sacraments. Lutherans encourage the fruit of the Spirit by proclaiming law and gospel and by using the Sacraments. The Evangelicals look for some other tool to prompt the fruit of the Spirit.This major difference between Lutheran theology and Evangelical theology is also apparent in conversion. Lutherans believe the Spirit works faith only through the Word and Baptism; Evangelicals believe that faith is a decision made freely and completely by an individual. The church’s task, in Evangelical theology, is to prompt the individual to make a decision to believe. The usual ways in which Evangelicals encourage people to choose Jesus are three:

  • make faith seem to be the only “intelligent” decision;
  • point to the financial and physical success that will come to people who choose to believe; and
  • raise the emotions to a level that leads to a choice for Jesus.

All three of these Evangelical “tools” have influence over the kind of music used in Evangelical worship. You are correct in your observation that most of this music is contemporary. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that most Evangelical music imitates whatever is the most popular music of the day, i.e., the music people listen to on their car radios and buy on CDs. If Christianity comes at me via the music I think is best, then Christianity commends itself as being “intelligent.” If Christianity can be clothed in music that makes billions of dollars, I’ll buy into that “success story.” If Christianity comes at me in the kind of music that always thrills me and gives me a kick, then I can be thrilled and kicked into living for Jesus, too.

The words of most of the music used in Evangelical worship are really not all that important; what’s important is the style, the ambiance, and the feel of the music and how it matches the successful popular music of the day. Evangelicals had this same concept of music in worship 25 years ago, but notice they are not using the same kind of music today. Why? Because the mode of popular music has changed, and so has the music of Evangelicalism.

Lutherans approach music from their means of grace perspective: by means of music the church proclaims the message of the gospel of Jesus. In Lutheran worship it is not the task of music to make the message seem respectable, successful, or thrilling. Those tasks belong to the gospel. The gospel creates respect for itself when the Holy Spirit works faith. The gospel generates its own successes, and these successes are not always similar to what the world calls success. The gospel thrills because it carries the message of the forgiveness of sins; it gives me a “kick” because of its Spirit-worked power. Music is simply the cradle in which the message lies. This is the Lutheran teaching of the use of music in worship.

All generalizations limp, but I’ll summarize this way: in Lutheran teaching, the message comes first and the music comes second; the message is served by the music. In Evangelical teaching the music is the message and it is also the means.

Because of their theology of music, responsible Lutheran theologians and musicians (I say it that way because not all Lutheran musicians are responsible theologians!) have always been careful to choose music for worship that allows the message to be heard and understood. They wanted music that accentuated and promoted the gospel, not music that hid the gospel. Lutherans have placed parameters around music for the sake of the message. If you have time, read St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14. He’s talking about speaking in tongues, but what he says could just as well apply to music. Notice how he puts the emphasis on the message especially in verses 15-17.

When it comes to the subject of music, we must begin with theology. It stands to reason that Lutherans will come to a different perspective than Evangelicals. The question is: can Lutherans with their theology of music adopt the music that is born in the musical theology of Evangelicals? This is a very difficult question to answer.

Permit several observations:

1. Musical tastes vary also among Lutherans. Some like Bach, some like alternative rock. Some hate Bach, some hate rock. Some like classical, some like contemporary. Some hate classical and some hate contemporary. But individual musical tastes must play second fiddle to the principle: music for worship must be music that allows the message to be heard by all.

Not all Lutheran church members understand or are convinced of a Lutheran theology of music. Some hold to a concept that is more like that of the Evangelicals. Even many Wisconsin Synod Lutherans are unaware and unsure of many of the Bible’s difficult theological positions. It does not surprise me that Lutherans reach for Evangelical music when they don’t understand Lutheran theology.

Sadly, much of the music in Lutheran churches is done badly. The music itself is good enough, it carries the gospel, it can touch the hearts of the people, but it is played and sung so badly on bad instruments in bad acoustical spaces that people become convinced this “Lutheran music” is just bad stuff. Lutherans need to take music in worship more seriously. The need to plan it, practice it, and perform with a commitment to excellence. I am convinced that good Lutheran church music, done well by faithful church musicians, will always commend itself to Lutheran Christians (also teenage Lutheran Christians!). But Lutheran music done poorly is an offense to the gospel and often drives people into the arms of music that, while more “fun,” is inappropriate for the gospel and harmful to faith.

You wonder what kinds of contemporary music are fitting for Lutheran worship. I attend a musically sophisticated congregation in downtown Milwaukee. We use classical music for organ and brass as well as contemporary music for piano, flute, and percussion. At my church rock, pop, and rap would be totally out of place. I could not answer that question for you, however, or for your congregation or your neighboring congregations. But I do know this: before you or I or any other Lutheran answers that question about appropriate music, he or she must begin with a proper understanding of Lutheran and Biblical teaching about the gospel and the means of grace and how this theology is different from that of the Evangelicals. Where this teaching and its implications are clearly understood, people will make right and fitting choices in music.


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