Sing to the Lord… an Old Song?

Why should the Church ever sound like the world? People don’t need more of the world; they need Jesus. Instead, the Church should sound unlike the world.

Part of our heritage as Lutherans is our rich hymnody: from Martin Luther to Paul Gerhardt to Thomas Kingo, and so many more, we have a vast family of hymn writers who have contributed to the Church’s song in praise to God. Some Christians, though, both past and present, have decided that old music of the Church is not helpful for us to use in church today. But why would someone reject the beautiful hymnody that we’ve inherited?

Well, historical Christian music has been set aside by many Christians for various theological reasons—bad reasons, to be sure, but also reasons that we can learn from in order to more clearly think about our own theology of music. One reason for setting aside old music comes from Pentecostalism. Over time, an idea spread throughout that denomination (and soon, to others) that music has the power to bring God’s presence into our midst, and that when music makes us feel the Spirit moving, we know God is present. Therefore, we need new music, not old, familiar music, to achieve that feeling and to make sure God comes to us during the service.

While this theology is obviously wrong, one can understand why some think of music this way: they don’t believe in the means of grace! It’s only natural for a physical person to want physical means for God to come to us—music is just not that means. Rather, the true means of grace given us by Christ fulfill that need. What does that mean for our music, since it doesn’t actually bring God to us? It points us to those means of grace, teaches us about God’s real works of salvation in our midst, and praises God for them. Our music isn’t the core of our worship. It builds upon the true core: the Word and Sacraments.

Another reason for setting aside historical music came from a desire to bring more people into the Church. During the Church Growth Movement, many denominations (including some Lutheran churches) decided to treat the Church as a business instead of as the gathering of sheep to hear the voice of their Shepherd. A major “business strategy” was to use music popular in the current day to attract people into churches; therefore, historical, solid hymnody was soundly rejected in favor of washed-out pop music that imitated the world.

Clearly, the Church is not a business, and to think that treating it like one helps it grow opposes Christ’s clear command. He grows the Church, once again, by His means of grace. Why should the Church ever sound like the world? People don’t need more of the world; they need Jesus. Instead, the Church should sound unlike the world. To discard our heritage of music is like a child trying to be different from his parents instead of imitating them. It separates us from the rest of the Church, as if we were no longer part of the Church of the past. This, too, is anti-communion.

Instead, we should treasure the Church’s song (which is our song). We harmonize with each other and with those who have gone before us. How amazing is it that we can sing the same words, the same tunes, and the same harmonies that Martin Luther, or Paul Gerhardt, or Thomas Kingo, or Saint Ambrose, or King David, sang with the Church? Of course, we can contribute new things to the Church’s music, but for the Church, new music is never really new. It’s only a continuation of the same song the Church has sung ever since Adam and Eve: the song that proclaims who our God is and what he has done (and still does!) for us.

In Christ,
Mr. Hahn

Musings in
your inbox:

Subscribe to receive the school newsletter articles when they publish