What is Lutheran Church Music?

by Michael Krentz

Around the church we can hear things like “that song is not very Lutheran!” Or “why don’t we sing any good Lutheran hymns?” Or “Lutheran church music is _____ (fill in the blank: beautiful, boring, diverse, dying, etc.).” Any such things pre-suppose that there are Lutheran songs or that there is Lutheran church music. So then quickly we ask “what is Lutheran church music?”

We could say “the music of J. S. Bach is Lutheran church music.” Or we could say “any song used by Lutherans is Lutheran church music.” But what if a community choir is singing the Bach, and the singers are Lutherans, and Roman Catholics, and Presbyterians, and Jews, and atheists? What if a Lutheran assembly sings a song written by a Methodist – how often would they have to sing it to make it Lutheran? What if a Lutheran wrote a song for a Presbyterian assembly to sing – is it Lutheran or Presbyterian?

Finally, it is difficult to say what Lutheran church music is. And, it may not be that useful to debate the question. More useful is the “why” question: “why do Lutherans sing?”[1]

There are three answers to the question. First, Lutherans sing because we can. We are created with the capacity to sing and make music. Music is a part of God’s good creation. This is a fundamental Lutheran understanding of the “why we sing.” Luther himself wrote concerning music:

“From the beginning of the world it has been instilled and implanted in all creatures, individually and collectively. For nothing is without sound and harmony. . . . Let this noble, wholesome, and cheerful creation of God be commended to you. . . . At the same time you may by this creation accustom yourself to recognize and praise the Creator.”[2]

And there’s the important (and sometimes overlooked) part of this music as gift from God: when we sing, we recognize that God is the creator, and we are the creatures. In singing, we take our proper place in the created order. As a hymn puts it: “adoration leaves no room for pride.”[3]

“Why do we sing?” The second reason is: because there is good news! Luther again:

“For God has cheered our hearts and minds through His dear Son, whom he gave for us to redeem us from sin, death, and the devil. He who believes this earnestly cannot be quiet about it. But he must gladly and willingly sing. . . .”[4]

Or, to paraphrase 1 Corinthians: “we sing Christ crucified . . . the power of God and the wisdom of God.” So for us our singing is no different than our preaching: we preach Christ crucified. And we live Christ crucified. So our song is directly connected to our life.

“Why do we sing?” The third reason is: in order to build faith and community. Our singing forms, nurtures, and strengthens individuals in the faith. From the Principles:

“The assembly’s song contributes to the spiritual formation of the assembly itself and its individual members. Used carefully and consistently over time, the song forms communal and individual memory and serves to nurture the faith from one generation to another.”[5]

If our singing is part of faith formation, then what we sing matters. Not just any words will do. In addition, in order to build community, we sing each other’s songs. To build community we also sing on behalf of those who cannot sing. In this way our singing is connected to our praying.

The “what” question is not unimportant. It is worthwhile to ask “what is Lutheran church music?” But we can only attempt to answer that question if we can clearly answer the question “why do Lutherans sing?” Lutherans sing because we can. Lutherans sing because we have good news. Lutherans sing in order to build faith and community.

[1] For more on this topic, see Principles for Worship: Music and the Christian Assembly, prepared by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002).

[2] Martin Luther, “Preface to Georg Rhau’s Symphoniae iucundae,” in Luther’s Works, Volume 53 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965), 321, 322, 324.

[3] Fred Pratt Green, When in Our Music God Is Glorified (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 850, 851)

[4] Martin Luther, “Preface to the Babst Hymnal, 1545”, in Luther’s Works, Volume 53, 333.

[5] Principles for Worship, Principle M-5.

Posted on Jun 25, 2012 9:08:48 AM
Filed Under: Potpourri, Filed Under: review-prelude,

Michael Krentz

Written by Michael Krentz

Michael Krentz is Director of Music Ministries/Seminary Cantor at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, where he coordinates music in the Chapel, directs the Seminary Choir, and teaches courses in church music. In addition Michael is Director of Music and Organist at Christ Lutheran Church, Allentown, Pennsylvania.