Encouraging Your Choir...Dare to be Lutheran

by The Rev. Kantor Richard C. Resch

Unfortunately, in Christendom the church choir is often seen as a democracy, but for Lutherans - this cannot be! And if this is not understood by all up front, a degree of chaos could be the weekly result. Why? Because when it comes to matters of music in the church, everyone not only has an opinion, everyone believes the subject is only about opinions and tastes. Therefore the flock looks for opportunities to voice what they want. Ponder this; it is the formula for chaos.

However, if you Dare to Be Lutheran with your choir, you need to take the lead and guide them into a very different way of thinking about how music decisions are made in your Lutheran congregation. Tastes and opinions do not govern what your pastor says in his sermon, in his catechesis with youth, and his adult Bible class. And since Lutherans believe that music is preaching and teaching the faith, tastes and opinions should not govern the decisions made concerning musical proclamation. The sung confession as it appears in congregational hymns, liturgy and choral responses is part of that day’s preaching –so it better be right! If it is not, it could be preaching something different from the rest of the day, and such preaching may fit another church on the block better than yours.

Such a daring view reveals A HIGH VIEW OF MUSIC, a view that not a one of us possessed at birth. It took decades for me to come to this. The high view always requires gentle catechesis to make one a Lutheran “musically.” For no other church body has such a high view! Therefore these ideas will be foreign to young and old -- without catechesis.

So if you are still waiting for the answer to why your Lutheran choir director is not running a democracy, here it is. Your director has made some very important decisions concerning every word and note chosen. Those decisions were made based on the readings of that day. It is an enormous job to get those choices right. In fact, it is the hardest part of my positions at the Concordia Theological Seminary and St. Paul’s Lutheran Church/Fort Wayne – the choices.

I work to faithfully base those choices on what will add to the proclamation of that specific day. As an aside, my wife said to me after a recent Divine Service --that just happened to be my birthday, “What a faithful Kantor you are. I know you certainly did not choose your favorite hymns today even though it was your birthday.” She was right, for she knew that only one out of seven did I dearly love.

That is how it goes in faithful Lutheran church music. The pastor works closely with the musician and together they plan everything to flow from the chosen theme from the day’s readings. The result: a Divine Service that is a glorious feast from beginning to end as it proclaims in every word and note a unified preaching of that day’s Gospel.

A second part in the choral decision-making process has to do with musical periods, composers and styles. I try to draw on that wealth of music that has been written over the centuries for Lutherans by Lutherans and their Divine Service. It only makes sense to look there first at some of the biggest names in all of music: Schuetz, Praetorious, Bach, Pachelbel, Buxtehude, Mendelssohn, Distler, Wienhorst, Manz. If I do not find something there that is appropriate for the day and that choir can do well, I continue the search with music from all periods by less famous names; nevertheless, it is music that serves the text well and has the same standards used by the greats. I am happy to report that there are many today writing well-crafted, faithful liturgical music for our use in this time.

A third part in daring to make your choir Lutheran has to do with being able to honestly evaluate what your choir can do well on a given Sunday. Often our goals and expectations are too grand for the few singers before us. No one enjoys singing or listening to music offered that is beyond what the singers and instrumentalists can bring off. As directors, we mean well, but in the end such choices may make the singers uncomfortable, possibly even embarrassed, and the listeners are less than edified. As director I work very hard to choose music that even the smallest group can bring off well. If this is done consistently, it is the kind of choral program that begins to build. But remember, church choral programs take years to blossom and flourish. What I have given you here are only the first steps.

Think about musical choices in this light, and I hope it will change everything –for the better! It is the daring Lutheran approach.

The Rev. Kantor Richard Resch is Kantor for Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN and St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Fort Wayne, IN.   He also serves as the FOR YOU Conferences Music/Worship Coordinator.