Some of us relish the activity of uncrating a new piece of furniture from IKEA and opening the materials to begin putting together the myriad of parts that make the final product.
It’s the act of assembling the furniture that gives us more investment in the ongoing use and care of the piece, whether it’s a chair or a table or a bed. When we participate in the creation of anything, we have a stake in its very identity.
It’s the same when Christians assemble for worship. We make and cultivate an investment in the ongoing life of the assembly and its relationship to all of the other assemblies meeting together. Christian assembly pulls us into our identity as body of Christ.
The church that Martin Luther was born and raised in had developed a worship life that was primarily acts done by a few to be viewed or heard by many.
The active and full participation of the gathered assembly at worship was not a primary value at the time, but instead, worshipers attended worship to watch or hear the mystery of God unfold before them.
In many cases, the sounds of worship were foreign to them. Often the language was not comprehensible to those sitting in the pews. And the music and ritual action was performed by choirs or ministers on behalf of the assembly, but did not involve them physically or audibly.
Assembly is necessary!
Luther longed for Christian faith to be embodied by the baptized — to be lived out and owned by each one of us. To that end, in his renewal of the church he sought to make the expressions of the Christian faith accessible so that all — lay people and clergy alike — could fully participate in the body of Christ.
He translated the Scriptures so that people could read and study for themselves. He made connections between what members did when they gathered with what members did when they were apart from each other.
And, he began a reform of worship accessible to all, inviting the full participation of the assembly. For Luther, “some assembly required” is an understatement. Lots of assembly is required in Lutheran worship!
In order to engage worshipers in the music of worship, Luther relied on the practice of the church in the past.
He knew of the hymns of Ambrose (340-397) that were sung by believers to combat the heresies of his time. He also knew many of the hymns of the faith had flowered and developed so much that their complexity meant that they were best sung by choirs. He knew that the book of Psalms was a collection of communal songs sung by the Hebrew people as they worshipped.
Something borrowed, something new
Luther was not really an innovator with music. Instead, he took traditional material, translated it, paraphrased it, learned from it, and out of what he learned crafted something new. He then made it singable by all the people, not just a few.
How did he make it singable? At the time, Luther enjoyed a culture where guilds of singing musicians traveled from town to town, organizing public singing festivals (contests?) of communally loved folk-art music.
The musical style of the songs was in the rugged syncopations of the renaissance motets that lingered in the ears of the listeners of the day.
The musical form of the songs had an opening section that repeated followed by new material at the end, often borrowing some material from the first section.
This musical form (AAB) is known in music history as a “bar form,” probably because a “bar” was included at the end of the first section, indicating a repeat.
We have no evidence that Luther used tavern songs in his renewal of assembly song. (Could someone have read the music history books and thought bar form was about taverns? Really?) Instead, this form and style was a communally accessible musical form already in the hearts and on the lips of all the people.
From community to individuality
Much has happened to music since Luther’s day. Probably the most significant developments since then have been the invention of opera (and later the concerto) in 1600 and the invention of the microphone in about 1900.
Both of these developments changed music from a largely communal endeavor, where each individual part was equal and dependent on the other, to musical expression where one voice or instrument is primary and others are secondary or designed to accompany.
Certainly the invention of the microphone has made it regularly possible for singular sounds to be amplified above all other sound. When music begins to be driven by an individual voice or instrument, and, therefore, can be more complex melodically and rhythmically, the communal character of music is often lost.
Some take Luther’s methods of reforming assembly song and apply them in our time. For instance, someone might attempt to take a popular melody from our culture today and create a scripturally based poem to be sung with it.
The problem with such an application is that much popular music in our culture today is expressly individual in construction and not designed to be sung communally.
The result of such an exercise is usually that the pop-song-transformed has to be sung by an individual or a small group for it to feel stylistically honest. When this happens with music in worship, the communal nature of the music is obscured, just as in Luther’s time, when music had flowered such that it was best left to the voices of the choir.
This is not to imply that we cannot create music for worship in our time with some of the instruments and styles present in our culture. But, we will often need to break the individual character of our current styles and make them communally accessible.
Communally accessible music the key to worship
A congregation cannot — and should not — try to sing popular (entertainment) music styles from our culture unbroken to communal possibility.
Every congregation should — and can — sing communal song from the widest possible array of places, times and peoples when it is crafted with care and expertise, lead with conviction and supported with love — all turned to and made accessible for the assembly. Christian assemblies gathered in song with communally accessible music are not unlike people who have assembled IKEA furniture.
Because some assembly is required to be Christian and to make Christian worship music (and especially Lutheran music in worship), we all participate in and have a stake in the ongoing life and care of the body of Christ.
When our breath joins the breath of the spirit of the resurrected Christ in making melody, we receive the gift God has meant for us — music, that all might hear the love and mercy of God for the world.
Mark Mummert is organist at Christ the King Evangelical Lutheran Church, Houston and is the organist for the Bach Society of Houston, an affiliate ministry of Christ the King. Mark is a composer of “Setting One of Holy Communion” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship and was general editor of Psalm Settings for the Church Year, published by Augsburg Fortress.