By Charlotte Kroeker
Of course music and liturgy will not save the church. That is God’s bailiwick, hardly in our control no matter
how much we care about the church. However. . .
With every major positive shift in the church, music has been an important part of lasting change. For example, if we view a few high points in church history we see lasting theological and structural change and music that is still a treasured part of worship today.
• Worship in the Old Testament is rich with the Psalms and admonitions to “Sing to the Lord”
• Beginnings of the Christian church are accompanied by the canticles in the New Testament followed by early hymns such as the Phos Hilaron (c. 200) and “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” and “Of the Father’s
Love Begotten” from the 4th c.
• Central to the Reformation are the chorales of Martin Luther (A Mighty Fortress) and the practice of Psalm
singing with the Genevan tunes (OLD 100th for the Doxology). J.S. Bach’s music emerged from this context.
• In early 18th c. England, Isaac Watts invigorated worship by providing metric settings of the Psalms such as
Psalm 90, “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past.”
• Music was central to the work of the Wesleys who knew its power to change hearts (“Love Divine, All
• The Oxford Movement of the 1800’s brought back the inspiration, beauty, mystery and tradition of earlier
writers and musicians. Catherine Winkworth emerged as a translator for hymns like “Praise to the Lord, the
• Ralph Vaughn Williams compiled The English Hymnal, 1906, a hymnal with significant texts and singable
tunes, many based on folk music, prefacing the collection by saying, “Good taste is a moral rather than a
• The Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 inspired not only Catholic liturgists and musicians but also the liturgy and music of all Protestant denominations as well. From this time we are grateful for the practice of
responsorial Psalmody, pervasive across denominations for congregational song today.
• Spirituals originating from the lives of enslaved people are commonplace in contemporary worship.
That music could change the church is a concept articulated by J.S. Bach and the Wesleys:
• “To the honor of the most high God alone, to the neighbor, that he may learn from it.” J.S. Bach, on the title
page of the Orgelbüchlein.
• “That this part (i..e., the musical part) of Divine Worship may be the more acceptable to God, as well as the
more profitable to yourself and others. . .” Prefatory sentence to John Wesley’s Directions for Singing of
As Fr. Michael Ryan, steeped in the reforms of Vatican II, would say many years later, “. . .music is integral to everything we do as church: music forms us and shapes us, it uplifts and consoles us, it gladdens our hearts and revives our drooping spirits. (January 12, 2007, Dallas, Texas) It is no accident that great leaders of the church have understood the power of music as a vehicle to “love God with all our heart and mind and our neighbor as ourselves,” and motivate us to “do to others as we would have them do to us.”
It also is not surprising that the Biblical command “Sing to the Lord” is borne out in findings of neuroscience
that show we remember longer what we sing than what we hear or say. Nor should the results of a Chorus
America study surprise us: 80% of choirs in the U.S. are religious choirs and choral singers are better citizens
when measured by community service, frequency of voting, charitable giving, volunteer work. Remind you of
the fruits of the spirit of Philippians?
Recently, Rabbi Wolpe, emeritus of Sinai Temple in NYC, reflected on his years that taught him about the human condition and the essential place religion plays: “”Sometimes it seems, for those outside of faith communities, that religion is simply about a set of beliefs to which one assents. But I know that from the inside it is about relationships and shared vision. Where else do people sing together week after week? Where else does the past come alive to remind us how much has been learned before the sliver of time we are granted in this world?” (NYT, July 2, 2023)
Likewise, we have the example of Jesus who sang with his disciples and used the art of parables to communicate spiritual truths. Jesus knew the power of the arts to reveal deep spiritual truths. While music and liturgy may not “save” the church, lessons from scripture and history show us how transformative liturgy and music have accompanied great changes in the church. As we look forward to 2024, we can remember the words of Isaiah’s prayer, “Only the living can thank you, as I am doing today. Each generation tells the next about your faithfulness.” How will the music and worship of your congregation teach current generations and prepare the next?