Way back in 1524 Martin Luther wrote to George Spalatin, “Our plan is to follow the example of the prophets and the ancient fathers of the church, and to compose psalms for the people [in the] vernacular, that is, spiritual songs, so that the Word of God may be among the people also in the form of music.”
How’s that for jumping into the hot-tub time machine to start things off…
Two things jump out with this quote for me:
One, Luther was reacting to the fact that music being used in houses of worship during his time did not adequately reach the needs of the people. Remember Luther was living at a time of great musical change – at the end of the medieval period going into the beginning to the Baroque period – and JS Bach would not be born until 1685. Just imagine walking into church and hearing CHANT – kind of like the mid 90s when folks became obsessed with chant and Enya… Seriously why were folks buying Chant albums in 1995?
All joking aside Luther was speaking to a real issue – the music the church was using was no longer was based in the emotional language of the times (composers discovered #4 and b7 would not open the gates of hell). So Luther decided to write songs with biblical integrity to help feed people in worship. We can surmise the music of the church during the time of good ol’ Marty Luther was not alive for the people of God. The music had become a dirge. It was dead. It had become rooted in the traditions of the church, rather than rooted in the needs of the people.
The second thing that jumped out at me was the last bit, about how they would write new songs so that the
“Word of God may be among the people also in the form of music.”
Whoooaaa….. What a powerful statement, dude.
Remember during Luther’s time most people were illiterate, so the word of God was something they only heard in church. The ability to sit around the table and read the Bible was rare – but everyone had the ability to sing songs heard in church. And singing is something greatly enjoyed in groups. Imagine people coming together during the week to enthusiastically sing the songs from that week’s worship. Singing as a meal is prepared. Singing as menial duties are performed. Singing while traveling. Singing songs for the Lord.
While the historical music of the church is awesome, and I absolutely love a fugue played well on the organ, there is a great deal of music out there using the vernacular of this time. Songs making use of today’s compositional and performance techniques.
Songs that have been written for our time.
Will they stand the test of time, who knows?
But if folks are fed by today’s songs for worship, should we not use those songs to the best of our abilities?
This is simply what I feel we are doing in contemporary worship today:
writing psalms in the vernacular of today for the Children of God.