917) Worship Music


     The father of a man in my previous parish had immigrated to America from Russia in the early 1900’s.  After the Russian Revolution his father lost contact with his brothers that still lived in what had then become the Soviet Union.  In the 1980’s communication with and travel to the Soviet Union became easier.  The father was long dead, but his son, my friend, got back in touch his family and then traveled to the old village.  There he introduced himself to all his Russian cousins.  He was warmly received and spent several wonderful days there.

     It was a remote and primitive village.  They had no electricity and no indoor plumbing and were still farming with horses.  Life was difficult by our standards, but the people had houses and clothing and food; and, my friend said, they were happiest people he had ever seen.  They loved to laugh and loved to sing.  Every evening he was there, villagers of all ages gathered around a big fire to tell old stories and sing old songs.  They said, “We all love to sing, especially the kids.”  Think about that.  The whole village, people of every age, singing and enjoying the same kind of music.

     I was talking to my confirmation class one time about worship.  I said to them, “I hear many complaints from you about the music in our worship services.  Our youth service is coming up, and this year I’m going to let you kids pick all the music.  We’ll do whatever you want, so what kind of music shall we have?”

     “Let’s have country-western music” said one of the boys.  “There are a lot of country western songs that are religious.”

     “Oh no, not country,” said one of the girls.  “Country music is the worst.  Even those old hymns the minister picks out would be better than country.  Let’s not have country, let’s have light rock.  I’m sure we can find some appropriate songs.”

     “Not light rock, hard rock,” said another.

     “If it can be rock music, it has to be from the 60’s,” said another.  “Music has been going downhill ever since.”  (I gave him an ‘A’ for the day for knowing so much about music.)

     “Well how about the 50’s” said another.  “Didn’t Elvis have some nice religious songs?”

     “Let’s have rap music,” said a boy with his cap on backwards, but no one else was in favor of that option.

     The confirmands never did agree on what kind of music to have for the service.

     Consider the vast difference between the two stories.  In the remote Russian village, people of all ages enjoyed the same music that had been enjoyed for generations.  It was all they knew and they all loved it.  But in the confirmation class, kids of the same age living in the same small town, could not agree on a few songs for a one hour worship service.  They all had access to every kind of music ever written, and they all had their preferences.  I do enjoy the wide variety of music that is available, but that variety does pose a challenge for worship.

     When Martin Luther was working to change the worship service, one of his suggestions was to have more music, and, to use the ‘music of the people.’  Luther’s time and place would be similar to that Russian village, where there were songs that all knew and shared.  There was indeed a ‘music of the people,’ and one of the main places people sang together was in the tavern.  Luther was a gifted musician.  He would take these tavern songs, which had words you would not sing in church, and write new words, words that praised God and taught the faith.  It is said that the melody of that most popular of all Luther’s hymns, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, was from an old tavern song.  Some people objected to Luther doing this.  Luther simply replied, “Why should we let the devil have all the best tunes?” and continued to write words to whatever music he could find.

     Today there is no such ‘music of the people.’  Rather, there is an endless array of options, and everyone has their individual favorites.  Did you ever hear of a radio station that promised to play everyone’s favorite music?  Of course not, because trying to please everyone would be a sure recipe for failure.  If your favorite music was jazz, the station might play one jazz tune every two hours, and the rest of the time they would be playing one of everyone else’s favorite tunes.  Before long you would be tuning in to some other station, one that played just what you wanted all the time.  Trying to please everyone pleases no one.

     So what should we do in church?  Some churches, with great success, use a specific style of music to reach out to a specific group of people.  Some, with no success, have tried a little of everything and have merely ended up making everyone mad.  Some large churches are able to offer several different services, each with its own style of music.  Music preferences have caused much conflict in many churches.

     Most of the congregations I served had traditional worship services, and usually sang the old hymns to organ music.  But to be honest, that is not my favorite music.  During the week I listen to the classic rock from the 1960’s– the Beach Boys, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, etc.  If I was like Martin Luther, I might try and write hymns to the tunes of songs like Proud Mary, Me and Bobby McGee, or Good Vibrations.  But even if I could do that, the songs would appeal to only a small percentage of worshipers.

     I do like the music from the 60’s, but I don’t go to church to hear to my favorite music.  I go to church to worship.  And I do prefer the old hymns in church, but I am willing to worship with whatever style of music that community of faith has decided to use for that service.  Worship is not the place to insist on our own personal preferences.  We have all week to listen to whatever kind of music we want.  Worship is the place to sing songs that thank and praise God, using whatever style of music is provided.

     Learning to live with our differences in worship provides a good opportunity to practice Christian charity and good will.  C. S. Lewis disliked organ music; he once described it as “one long roar.”  He was reluctant about even going to church at all.  But he went.  Why?  He went at first because he felt he ought to: the Scriptures that had won his reasoned assent commanded it.  He went later because he learned that it was good for him and necessary for his spiritual growth.  In an essay written many years after his conversion, Lewis recalls both his disgust at the services he attended and the grace that came through them:

When I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches…  I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music.  But as I went on I saw the great merit of it.  I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off.  I realized that the hymns (still sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew; and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots.  It gets you out of your solitary conceit.


Psalm 59:17  —  You are my strength, I sing praise to you; you, God, are my fortress, my God on whom I can rely.

Psalm 96:1-2  —  Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.  Sing to the Lord, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day.


Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee:
How great thou art! How great thou art!
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee:
How great thou art! How great thou art!

–Carl Boberg (1859-1940)


Just for fun:  jazz music works to gather this Wisconsin ‘congregation’: