Traditional or Contemporary?

One of the big, ongoing debates in the Lutheran church is over music.  Most everyone falls into one of these two camps and has strong opinions as to why their side is better.

The first problem with this debate is defining the terms.  Traditional music is generally considered the music from the hymnal, music that has been around for quite a while.  Traditional music is usually written to be sung in parts and typically has organ or piano accompaniment.  Contemporary music is usually from the last 20-30 years.  It is rarely written for parts and may be accompanied by any number of things, including guitars and drums.

Now, I’ll accept the distinction between two types of music that far.  But, both sides will accuse the other side things that are much more serious.  Fans of contemporary music accuse traditional music of being lifeless and dreary, of not connecting to modern listeners.  Lovers of traditional music accuse contemporary music of appealing to emotion and of having empty, repetitive lyrics.

I don’t care for either of these categories.  You can look at traditional hymns and find many examples that are slow and plodding to sing.  Many use language that is old and harder to follow.  There are some hymns I’ve sung that had lyrics I couldn’t understand at all.  Given my extensive seminary training, it says something when even I don’t understand it.  Contemporary music often has the very issues that it is accused of.  Many contemporary songs have one or two lines that are repeated over and over.  They tend to be peppy and upbeat.  Rarely do you find slow or contemplative. 

Before you can judge any of these arguments, you must first decide what the purpose of the music of the service is.  There are various views on this as well.  However, as a part of the liturgy, music in the service must be seen in the same context.  The service reinforces the Word and sacraments within it.  The liturgy helps understand God’s message given through Word and sacrament and helps put His will into practice.

With that in mind, neither category can be universally accepted.  If a traditional hymn is not able to communicate with the congregation anymore, then it’s purpose, however noble, has been lost.  If contemporary music has lyrics that are empty and do little to reinforce the work of God through Word and sacrament, then it is little better than music you’d hear on the radio.  There are examples I’ve found on each side that are as good or better than the usual representative of the other side. 

So what should we be doing instead?  We shouldn’t simply dismiss things out of hand without examining them for ourselves.  When preparing a church service, my overriding focus is on Word and sacrament and making sure every element of the service supports those two things above all else.  Certainly I have my musical preferences and there are places I will tend to stick to.  I enjoy traditional music and the Lutheran hymnals are generally fine for the needs of my congregation.  However, I won’t dismiss a contemporary song sight unseen.  I’ve discovered my favorite Christmas song is one that would usually be considered contemporary.  Yet, it expresses the theological implications of the Incarnation better than any other Christmas song I know.

To that end, I invite all of us to evaluate every song on its own merits.  Outside of the service, music can fill a variety of needs and those needs will be different for each of us.  Within the service, consider how well a particular song works to support God’s Word and the grace given through the sacraments. There are many details to consider when looking at how well a piece of music supports the Word and sacraments in the service. I don’t want to imply those details are unimportant. What I do want us to remember is what the music in the liturgy is for. Starting from the perspective of Word and sacrament will give us a much better set of criteria for evaluating the worth of the music we are considering.

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