Editor’s note: Martin Luther famously said, “Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 53). The ELCA still holds tightly to Luther’s understanding. In this series, we’re exploring Lutheran music throughout history, the importance of music to the Lutheran faith and how that tradition continues today across styles and expressions.
Singing is in the marrow of the church. Songs have always coursed through its veins, and Spirit-filled words and melodies have reverberated in its spaces and in the hearts of its people.
Scripture not only names singers and song leaders—consider Miriam, the Levites, Hannah, Zechariah, Mary, Simeon, angel choirs, psalmists and even the morning stars—but also describes singing by gathered assemblies: Jesus and the disciples sang a hymn at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26), and Paul’s letters exhort the churches at Ephesus and Colossae to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16).
The Lutheran church has often been called the “singing church” for good reason: We are hardwired to sing because Martin Luther himself loved singing. Evidence of his musicianship and compositional skill is well-known, and his appreciation for music as a means of teaching, edification and community formation played a significant role in the spread of the Reformation. Luther didn’t “invent” assembly singing, but ascribed new importance to it: literally and figuratively, he gave the assembly a new voice.
And though singing assemblies may be led or assisted by cantors, choirs and instruments, the ELCA “Principles for Worship” reminds us that, ultimately, “the assembly is the primary musical ensemble, and its song is the core of all music in worship.”
Luther didn’t “invent” assembly singing, but ascribed new importance to it: literally and figuratively, he gave the assembly a new voice.
Singing together forms community: individual voices are joined into a single body that breathes as one, feels rhythm as one, even sways or dances together to a beat. There is power in communal singing that transcends occasion and purpose: hymns, folk music and protest songs possess the capacity to articulate and shape identities and collective memories of communities that sing them in their time and place.
For the church, communal singing proclaims God’s word and bears us along our baptismal journeys through the Sundays and seasons of the church year. We sing at gatherings and sendings, at baptisms and funerals, around tables, and we offer praises, prayers and laments through song. Assembly song is always voiced in new ways by changing communities and changing contexts. According to “Principles for Worship,” “the gathered assembly not only sings in one voice, but its song is added to the song of the church throughout the world and throughout the ages.”
And yet, assembly song is not without its challenges. The cultural glorification of the individual, the omnipresence of perfected recordings playing in stores or earbuds, and enterprises such as American Idol have fostered an environment in which singing is often seen as an entertainment to be observed, rather than a participatory act.
Sometimes the power of music itself gets in the way of assembly singing. Perhaps a keyboardist or choir focuses more on repertoire than on hymns, an ensemble plays so loud as to drown out the assembly’s voice, the favorites of a few are privileged over the needs of the many, or opportunities for assembly singing in worship—including the weekly singing of psalms—are trimmed to make way for other diversions.
There is power in communal singing that transcends occasion and purpose.
In the book Centripetal Worship: The Evangelical Heart of Lutheran Worship, Lutheran cantor Mark Mummert—composer of Evangelical Lutheran Worship 161, 223 and portions of Holy Communion, Setting One—reminds us that “like the powers of privilege that come from class, rank, gender, wealth or status, musical power must also yield to the purpose of the assembly.” Accordingly, assembly song deserves the best and firstfruits of our attention, preparation and participation.
The church possesses and yearns for texts that sing of central Christian ideas, for expansive images that transcend time and place, and for well-crafted and memorable melodies that can be sung with or without accompaniment in a variety of settings. Lutheran resources such as the ELCA worship page, the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians, and the Institute of Liturgical Studies continue to explore the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of assembly song that points to our common center: what the ELCA resource “The Use of the Means of Grace” names as “Jesus Christ proclaimed amidst participating assemblies of singing, serving, and praying people.”
Like Christ’s body broken and shared at eucharistic tables, assembly song is also broken and shared for the sake of the world. Texts and melodies are ordinary things with extraordinary properties: like bread and wine, even small morsels of song—short refrains or a snippet of a longer hymn—can nourish, sustain and form us to be that singing, serving and praying body of Christ in the world.
God, may our hearts be grateful,
And may our words be true.
May all our songs be noble
And draw us deep in you,
That singing holy stories,
More holy we become,
Transposed into like spirits
To be your loving home.
—Susan Palo Cherwien, “What Joyous Song Unfolding”