The debate over music in our worship services is one that we’ve faced for quite a while now in the Lutheran Church. The debate usually focuses on whether we should be using “traditional” hymns or more “contemporary” ones. I’ll argue that those are bad categories and that they aren’t really helpful in our understanding of what music is for. So, instead of wading into that debate directly, I’ll talk a bit about why we have music in worship at all.
As I’ve said before, the liturgy is a teaching tool. It is there to draw us further into the life of Christ by helping to immerse us in what Christ has done and continues to do in our lives. It then gives us the opportunity to start putting what we’ve heard into action. If elements of the liturgy are not doing that, it is probably because either: the people don’t understand the purpose and message of a particular rite, or the rite really doesn’t connect with the people in your context. The answer to first possibility is to take the time to talk through the rite, what it does and what it’s trying to say. It may still not connect, but at least people will understand it. If a rite doesn’t connect at all, then it has gone from being a potentially useful teaching tool to a hindrance. It is now muddying things up and becomes something that is done just because it has always been done. In that instance, better to replace it with something that connects and teaches better.
Music, as a part of the liturgy, follows the same rules. Music is there primarily to teach. Some of that teaching may be in helping us to learn by doing, but nevertheless, teaching is what the liturgy and all of its constituent parts are about. Learning how to give praise and what kinds of things we should praise God for is one part of what the music in the liturgy helps us do. The music also helps learn about joy, peace, and the other gracious blessings our Lord gives us in this life.
However, if that is as far as we understand music, we are missing out on a great deal of what music is there to help us with. The season of Lent brings in aspects of peace, joy, praise and such, particularly on Palm Sunday and a bit on Maundy Thursday. However, as we see in Lent, Christian life contains much more than joy and peace. There is sorrow, strife, affliction, persecution, suffering, and death. To deny these experiences is to deny part of Christ’s own life, some of the most significant portions of it no less. Lent teaches us the meaning and purpose of suffering and the reality of death.
If our music doesn’t follow suit then it is working at odds with the purpose and structure of Lent. We lose the learning opportunity Lent presents to learn about suffering by looking to Christ to see how He deals with it and then learn how to apply His example to our own lives. Music has always been known to be a powerful way to give expression to the feelings and experiences we have and that is no less true in Lent. We might even say learning to express and carry our sorrow is even more important. Peace and joy are not promised in this life, but suffering and death are.
This Lenten season, immerse yourself in those hymns that lead you through Christ’s final days. Let yourself reflect and pray with Him in the garden. Hear again how the world turns against Him and condemns Him. Hear His tears and His final cry to heaven and know that, whatever sorrows you face in life, Christ has gone before you.