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Musical Theology: Past lessons, present perspectives

Music shapes belief. Even people who've lost other memories or speech often remember songs. That's why it's important to choose worship music that fully expresses your church's theology. A feature story exploring the importance of music theology.

When Calvin College religion professor Richard "Rick" Plantinga starts talking about musical theology, he knows he's up against a plausibility structure problem. Plausibility structure, a term coined by sociologist Peter Berger and applied by missiologist Lesslie Newbigin, refers to what is believable in a given culture at a given time.

"It's sort of a cultural prejudice that theology doesn't matter. Many people in churches today are theologically uninterested and illiterate. So a lot of us have derived our plausibility structure and identity from contemporary culture, not the Christian church and tradition," Plantinga explains.

But church musicians in a week-long workshop came away convinced that theology does matter-and that reconnecting music with theology can make a profound difference. Understanding and applying musical theology deepens worshipers' experience of God and better prepares them to share God's Word in the world.

Look deeper

Plantinga and Clay Schmit, a Lutheran minister and Fuller Theological Seminary professor, trace the sweep from medieval plain chant through contemporary modes of worship music, mining meaning from both notes and text.

"There's a grand tradition in church music that too many of us are not in conversation with," Plantinga says.

The work of Johann Sebastian Bach overflows with examples of how to express theology musically. Bach was Lutheran, well-versed in Martin Luther's theology of the cross. Luther advised people to find God by looking not to heaven, human reason, or spiritual experience but to the cross, where Christ's saving act reveals our sin and God's love.

Bach was cantor (music director) at St. Thomas, a Lutheran church in Leipzig, Germany, when he wrote his St. Matthew Passion for a Good Friday service. He wrote it in the key of E minor, which has one sharp. The German word for sharp is kreuz, which also means cross. The Gospel of Matthew is packed with numerical symbolism, and Bach embedded biblically significant numbers (two, three, five, seven, and twelve) in his score.

He also used music to emphasize key ideas in the text. His notes ascend for the word heaven. A melisma (multi-noted syllable) highlights the words love, die, wept, and forever. Those drawn out notes help worshipers experience how God's love forced Christ's death so that sorrowfully sinful people like Peter, who three times denied knowing Jesus, can live with God forever.

After a week of exploring similar examples, workshop participant LuAnn Steiner vowed to pay special attention to "the theology of hymns selected for a particular service."

Steiner, who is music assistant and children's choir director at First Mennonite Church in Bluffton, Ohio, adds, "As the songs of the gathered body of Christ, hymns are internalized uniquely by worshipers. Unlike other service music, such as organ, piano, or choir selections, and unlike the Scripture or sermon, hymns receive their incarnation in the corporate breathing and singing of the faith community."

Are you separating music and theology?

Workshop participants discussed the gap between the ideal-coordinating music with every other service element-and what really happens in local churches.

"When the music does not support the Scripture of the day, then it can be viewed as a commodity whose value can too easily be reduced to 'I like that song' or 'I dislike that song.' But the value and function of music in worship is much greater.

"When Scripture, visuals, music, and movement all work toward the service theme, there's a greater chance for worship that praises the Creator and nourishes and sustains the people," Steiner says.

Greg Peters, associate pastor of Fair Havens Community Church in Beaverton, Ontario, laments music directors who can't recognize trite or theologically unsophisticated songs.

"Music should be a medium used to teach key theological truths and should be theologically acute itself. Separating music and theology leads to the view that music is only something done before getting to the 'real' part of worship-the preaching of the Word," he says.

Joan Averett, organist and music director at Sandersville United Methodist Church in Sandersville, Georgia, explains how music affects discipleship. She says a disconnect between music and theology results in churches that "tend to 'entertain' the person in the pew rather than equip him for a deeper understanding of the gospels. These worshipers lack the skills to go out and proclaim the Word throughout the world."

Learn from the past

Asking a church to pay more attention to musical theology may produce conflict. But recognizing that church musicians have struggled over worship issues for centuries can help congregations put their discussions in perspective.

Averett says she finds comfort in the controversy raised by the Council of Trent (1545-1563). These leaders charged that music within the Roman Catholic Church had become too lavish, was too hard to sing, and interfered with the liturgy.

"But the musicians felt the Council was trying to stifle their creativity and control their compositions. The composer Palestrina was a calming force during this time of unrest. His beautiful works served as a bridge," Averett explains.

Plantinga and Schmit say that looking into church music history can help church musicians create three kinds of unity-within a given service, with a church's theological tradition, and with the church universal.

Speaking of his church, LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Plantinga says, "Each service is well crafted, designed to make a theological point. The anthem texts and hymns fit together. The postlude echoes the sermon theme. A Reformation Sunday service will likely include a Lutheran choral prelude."

Designing services that convey a church's theological tradition may be easiest in strongly liturgical denominations. "Sometimes the theology is more implicit. If you sing a lot of hymns written by the Wesleys, then ask what they wrote and why. Pic Onwochei, a participant from Nigeria, explained that in Pentecostal churches, theology is found more in commitment to freedom and spontaneity than in a body of music," Plantinga says.

Thoughtfully-chosen music can help worshipers see themselves as members of the church of all times and places, or, as the Nicene Creed puts it, "one holy catholic and apostolic church." That insight prompted Keith Scherer, director of worship ministry at Naperville Presbyterian Church in Naperville, Illinois, to see that contemporary worship music is not the only way to renewal.

"I was deeply moved by how Bach expressed deep theological truths. The workshop reminded me not to forget other streams of renewal, such as liturgical renewal, liberation perspectives, and the charismatic or Pentecostal movement," Scherer says.

Studying the theology of so many music traditions was freeing for Leonardo Espinosa, a worship team leader and violinist at Congregación León de Judá in Boston and instructor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

"There is no one kind of music that exclusively fits worship or conveys theology. My own posture is to be more spiritually confident, more theologically informed, less suspicious, and more adventurous. More can be done in composing new music arising from a particular church's spiritual and theological experiences," Espinosa says.

Renew your worship

Plantinga, Schmit, and workshop participants discussed how churches can use music more theologically.

Plantinga recommends that worship planners use a church year calendar to design services that unite music and theology.

Espinosa says it's essential for musicians and pastors to talk with each other. He suggests offering more theological education to musicians and asking pastors to see musicians as ministers who communicate important worship truths. Selecting suitable song texts works best when pastors and musicians cooperate.

As Scherer mentors volunteers who design and lead worship at his church, he will focus on the concept of absolute beauty. "Does it exist? If so, how do we access, name, and describe beauty? How is it to be present in corporate worship?" he asks.

Of course, just as the reluctantly appreciative eaters in the film Babette's Feast were oblivious to all that went into their magnificent meal, worshipers often miss out on the rich significance of what they are doing and hearing.

At Congregación León de Judá, the pastor sometimes repeats the words of a just-sung song in the sermon. Other times the pastor describes a biblical concept, such as an attribute of God, and then, right during the sermon, asks worshipers to join in a song about that concept or attribute. "Then people 'get it'-most of the time," Espinosa says.

Workshop participants plan to use announcements in the bulletin or before a song to explain, say, the history of a hymn tune or scriptural reference in an instrumental piece. Some want to offer church education classes on musical theology or sponsor events that combine concerts or recitals with a brief lecture and time for audience reflection.

"I hope to see a growing dynamic in our worship that pierces to the heart with the beauty of the Lord," Scherer concludes.

Start a Discussion

  • What musical metaphors can you use to describe the Christian life? Start your brainstorming by thinking about a chord-perhaps how a three-note chord can represent the Trinity or how in a complex chord, many voices are heard but none dominates.
  • To what degree does each element of your worship service fit with the rest to make a theological point? What changes might you like to make? What would be the first step?
  • In 2 Corinthians 14:15, Paul talks about the value of having someone to interpret the gift of tongues so that the whole church is edified. Who can help interpret music theologically so your congregation is blessed?
  • How aware is the average congregation member of your church's theological or music traditions? How might increased awareness deepen worship and discipleship?
  • Do the words music, praise, and worship all mean the same thing? What new understandings of worship and music would help your staff and congregation?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to help worshipers and music leaders explore your church's musically theological tradition and go beyond? 

  • Did you write a curriculum, perhaps with recorded samples or public songfests, to help your congregation understand your theological and musical tradition?
  • If you've produced a checklist to help worship planners integrate music with the rest of the service, have you shared it with other churches?
  • What have been the most (or least) helpful ways to let your congregation in on the richness of the music used in a particular service?
  • Did you find a good way to involve children and youth in expressing theological understanding through music?