National Magazine of the Lutheran Church of Australia

Music key to heart of service

June 2016

by  Alan Collyer

In Lutheran circles, dating back even to Luther’s time, there is a strong music tradition. Our denomination is known for its love of singing.

And yet we could put even more emphasis on this tradition, and more effort into reinvigorating this history, says one of the LCA’s longest-serving
and most-qualified musicians.

It is 6.30 am on a typically cold and rainy Sunday morning in Melbourne. It is still dark and wish I could go back to bed. But I am the rostered musician for the 8.00 am and 9.00 am services, so I had better get organised.

I wonder why I put myself through this. But we get to church and immediately a positive transformation takes place as I am greeted warmly by so many. They look at me confident I am going to support and lead them with music for the service.

After the essential Confession of Sins and Absolution, we are ready to sing the first hymn. They usually sing it quite well (although I often lower the pitch for this early morning congregation, allowing their unwarmed voices to sing more heartily).

By the end of the service we have sung a number of hymns and the liturgy, confessed our faith, listened to God’s word, prayed for the world and said the Lord’s Prayer, received the body and blood of our Lord, then been blessed and sent out to our communities nourished and strengthened for another week.

Musicians have one of the most exciting tasks in worship, because we assist in proclaiming Christ through our music. We help the congregation sing heartily and with meaning, and we help interpret hymns, songs and liturgy.

While things seem to go well in my congregation, for others things are not so happy musically. Strong congregational singing seems on the decline and churchgoers can be left floundering. Communal singing is also waning. Regrettably, many schools have dropped singing from music programs and, in our Lutheran secondary schools, many no longer sing in chapel!

And then we have the influence of some of the larger evangelical churches, particularly with praise and worship-style songs. I am not suggesting these are bad or unsingable. However, the tendency for the band to be up front, sometimes taking over rather than leading the singing, can rob the congregation of full participation.

So how can we involve congregations more enthusiastically in singing and liturgy? It is an excellent time to think seriously about this as we approach the 500th anniversary of the nailing of the 95 Theses
on the church door at Wittenberg.

To me there are a number of parallels between 16th century and 21st century worship. In Luther’s time – before he brought in changes to worship which included having hymns written or translated into German so that people could sing them – the Sunday mass was conducted up front by clergy and choir, with the congregation at the back with little or no involvement.

This sounds familiar in some of today’s ‘mega-churches’ – those in which the worship leader/preacher is on stage supported by an entertaining but often excessively loud band with visual and lighting gimmicks, while the congregation spectates from padded theatre-style seats. In many of these churches, members have lost their voice and this is a concern for many evangelical pastors and leaders.

Worship bands can accompany many Christian songs well and can take a traditional hymn and give it new life. But congregations need to assess how well they sing with the band and, if need be, make adjustments to allow the congregation to own the song. This applies to organists as well!

So where should we be heading with music and worship in the LCA?

There has been a vast amount of Lutheran choral music written over the past 500 years, yet we don’t access it. Did you know that there are only two choirs in our whole church that sing weekly?

What about the magnificent Lutheran hymns in which there is a wonderful balance between head and heart, law and gospel, faith and doctrine? Have we forgotten about these treasures, many of which are available in modernised form on the LCA worship webpage?

And what about training for our musicians? They are essential to our worship and yet they are neglected, with little or no structured advocacy or support. Did
you know that fewer than 1 per cent of our accredited lay workers work in the area of music and worship?

There are so many possibilities for our musicians, who faithfully give of their time and talents most Sundays, particularly if we believe congregational singing is at the heart of Lutheran worship.

For Lutherans, music is the most honoured servant to the word – so
we need to give it a high priority.

A pleasing development is the proposed introduction of a VET type Certificate Level 4 course in worship through Australian Lutheran College. Another is the fledgling New Song Café, encouraging Christian songwriters in Adelaide (see story page 25). These are a great start but only two of many things that the church needs to do to support its musicians.