September 2, 2013

The Liturgy as Soundtrack

Many of you probably don't know this about me, but I am a soundtrack lover. At some point in high school I was so moved by a John Williams score that I just had to own the soundtrack. From that point on, I have collected a moderate library of movie scores and soundtracks by some of the most prolific composers of our time—Ennio Morricone, Jerry Goldsmith, Michael Kamen, James Horner, and of course, John Williams. If you listen often enough to movie scores without the movie, it really improves your ear for musical story telling. I think it also makes you more consciously aware of that thing that most people think of as "background music," but which has an uncanny ability to manipulate your emotions and make you feel what the composer wants you to feel.

As much as I love good movie scores, and as much as I love Lutheran worship, I have no desire for the two to mix. Whenever the sphere of entertainment bleeds into the sphere of Christian worship, it subverts true worship. And I will be so bold as to say that it does so as a rule. The more we try to make worship like a night at the movies or a pop concert, the less our minds are drawn to Christ through Word and Sacrament. I've talked about contemporary Christian music before, but today, I am referring to something else. Specifically, I have in mind two liturgies from Northwestern Publishing House, published in the Christian Worship Supplement (CWS), called "Gathering Rite on Holy Baptism" and "Gathering Rite on the Word of God."

(On a side note: I have no clue what the historical significance of a gathering rite is, if indeed there is any. I have a hunch that it is a relatively recent product of Vatican II. Five bucks to the first person who can cite a source.)

I first experienced the gathering rites in Georgia, when our church was using the CWS quite often. (In fact, it seemed like we exclusively used liturgies from the Supplement, and never from the hymnal. My wife and I had to be very persistent with our pastor in order to get the Common Service back into the rotation.) The texts are quite good, and the hymn verses are appropriate. But musically, they are utter failures. If you have never been made to participate in the CWS gathering rites, count yourself lucky. I will try to recreate the experience for you.

Start by imagining that you are not in worship, but in a Hallmark movie, which happens to be set in a Lutheran church. (Alternatively, imagine you're in a WELS Connection video.) Instead of the pastor and the congregation reading and singing responsively, they are speaking over the top of choreographed music, which transitions into a hymn verse between each section of the response. The congregation awkwardly fades in, because the only one who knows when to start singing is the pastor—and only because he has rehearsed it dozens of times. But sometimes the pastor's timing will be a little slow in speaking the absolution, and then the MIDI player will have started the refrain already. The gathering rites completely frustrated a life-long Lutheran such as myself, and I can only imagine the total resignation of a first-time visitor.

Of course, what might have gone more smoothly with a live organist who can constantly adjust tempo and volume was sabotaged completely by a mindless computer. But that's another topic. The point is that even if there had been an organist and a pastor who had rehearsed the liturgy to perfection, and even if life was like a Rogers and Hammerstein musical where everyone knew exactly when to sing, you still have demoted the liturgy to the role of soundtrack. Now I'll explain why that's a bad thing.

First, the liturgy is designed to bear the texts of Scripture. It is not there just to sound beautiful, or to fill dead space with sound. If that was the case, we could just insert our favorite Bach CD and proceed as normal, with the confidence that our worship is being adorned with the best music mortal man has to offer. But problems always result from people thinking that music and the arts serve only a superficial purpose—that of pleasing the senses. Such an approach naturally causes confusion between worship that employs the arts, and entertainment, which also pleases the senses.

Second, someone who would plan for "quiet keyboard music" to be played while people are engaged in spoken liturgical responses has no real appreciation for the power and art of music. Luther wrote,
It was not without reason that the fathers and prophets wanted nothing else to be associated as closely with the Word of God as music. Therefore, we have so many hymns and Psalms where message and music join to move the listener's soul. ... After all, the gift of language combined with the gift of song was only given to man to let him know that he should praise God with both words and music, namely, by proclaiming [the Word of God] through music and by providing sweet melodies with words.1
Music is just so much emotional sensation without the addition of human language in the form of song. So the composer of these gathering rites is not using music for the purpose God gifted it for—that of elevating the truths of scripture. Instead, he is striving for "ambiance," making it the musical equivalent of wallpaper.

Except that to call it musical wallpaper is being overly charitable. Because wallpaper can be pretty, or it can be distracting. But it could never so actively compete with the liturgy as does the musical accompaniment to the CWS gathering rites. Ask any film composer what he would do when there is important dialogue, and he'll say that the music has to get out of the way—there are plenty of other opportunities for a composer to show his skill. Experienced composers know that if the music is not supporting the dialogue by way of song, it is competing with it. But it is also common sense; two signals that are not in harmony result in noise. And when you have something as important as confession and absolution happening, it should not have to compete with anything.

For the above reasons, the CWS gathering rites do not show the high respect for music in general, and the liturgy in particular, that Luther showed for them. Their existence reflects little more than our synod's general infatuation with variety. "Variety to enhance a sense of the season" is touted as the first useful feature of a gathering rite in the WELS worship resources for Advent. The trouble with this intended use is that when you use a single, poorly-written rite for a whole season, say, Easter, or Lent, you'll never want to hear it again by the end. It seems that the authors of the above resources must have been aware of this, commenting that one particular gathering rite may not have a "life span" of more than a few years.2

Is there anyone who needs variety so badly that he must push these piecemeal soundtrack liturgies over on his congregation? (Put your hands down; it was a rhetorical question.)

The (potentially) good news is that the WELS is asking for input on its new hymnal. Polling the public for advice on hymnal-making could be disastrous, or it could be good. Or it could mean that the person currently in charge of the hymnal project isn't really sure how to go about it. I'm not sure, either. So I encourage you to go and submit to him good, sensible, biblical advice as to which hymns and liturgies to continue using, and which to avoid.


1 LW 53:323-24, quoted in Carl F. Schalk, Luther on Music: Paradigms of Praise (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1988), 37.
2 "Gathering Preparation," WELS Connect (Oct. 24, 2011), (accessed September 2, 2013).


  1. Gathering Rites were brought into Lutheran circles by the ELCA (I believe it was in 1988 in their supplement...which looks remarkably similar to CWS). They borrowed it from the Anglican Church.

    In their defense, they followed the shape of the liturgy which Reed outlined in “The Lutheran Liturgy” (1947, Fortress Press), and introduced a four part shape of the liturgy. However Reed's book “The Lutheran Liturgy” completely distorted the direction and place of worship (not to mention categorizing things that never were categorized). This book unfortunately was the standard text book for Lutherans for is no wonder gathering rites ended up in CWS. It is a wonder that they actually remained OUT of the ELH...and for good reason.

    The shape of the liturgy, and especially the gathering rites fit very well with the ELCA theologically. It is no secret the ELCA emphasizes people over the Word (to be more inclusive, ecumenical, and "spiritual"). And while they claim to be a Sacramental church, most fit into the Higher Critic Catholic (Vatican II) view of the Lord’s Supper, that the Body of Christ is not the bread, but the people. As such, the Word and Sacraments are not their reason for gathering as a church, as it is ours.
    We gather to receive forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation through the means of grace. While the same elements are there for ELCA, their purpose is different. Thus the ELCA needs to justify their existence as a church, if the purpose is not to receive strength through the body and blood. So their service order removed or altered the ordinary parts of the service and grouped parts which were never intended to be grouped to emphasize people over the work of God. The four-fold shape is: 1. Gathering 2. Word 3. Meal 4. Sending

    The Gathering Rite replaced the normal confession and absolution, Kyrie, and Gloria with something meant to "gather" the people to make them feel inclusive (add in praise songs here). The second part, the Word, was the only "important thing" of the historic Lutheran liturgy anyway to the ELCA, so this allowed them to borrow the other parts from the Anglicans. The third part, the meal, is specifically and intentionally not called the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion. Instead it is simply a meal around which the people gather as a family; it is not receiving the forgiveness of sins, it is creating the presence of God. The Sending replaces the blessing, which has historically been just that (“You as a congregation, having received the forgiveness of sins, should go in peace. The end.”) and adds an evangelism guilt-trip ("You are you are now sent to go preach to others").

    Thankfully the CWS has not acknowledged a "meal" portion of the four-fold shape of the liturgy. Let us pray they never do. However the CWS has followed the ELCA in bringing back the Eucaristic Prayer (which was the VERY thing that was the lynchpin for Luther, since it reverses the direction of the Lord's Supper, and was removed by Luther himself from the Catholic Mass). It can be done correctly, and is in the CWS, but one must question motives for bringing it back in the first place.

    So in short, the Gathering Rites are a product both of Reed's Liturgy and Vatican II ELCA.
    How's that for $5?

    1. Well, I would say you earned it, Jeff. Thanks for the info, that was quite informative. As far as I could tell, the CWS gathering rites used the same confession and structure as the CW, but with the obvious omission of the Kyrie and Gloria. One of the rites on the website (the Advent one I linked to) had no confession, and there was a highlighted excuse from "Pastors" that said that the confession was "not essential." I'm not sure how that is even remotely defensible. But having some perspective on the history and shape of this monster helps quite a lot. Thanks again.

      Your moneys will be in the mail shortly.

  2. Great article. I simply loathe to play the Gathering Rites (which is nothing but a fancy title for innovative, large-scale "homemade liturgies"). The few times I've had to, I've neglected to play the background music and simply played the hymnal harmonizations when it came time for the congregation to sing the verses. This makes them more tolerable, but the omission of the already displaced Kyrie and Gloria is hard to swallow.

    To Mr. Hendrix: While I agree that the motive for DS 2's reintroduction of the the Eucharistic Prayer is probably less than salutary, I am happy that we have at least one official rite in which the Lord's Prayer is in its proper place as a consecratory prayer (the true Lutheran "Eucharistic Prayer," if you will).

    Also, I recently saw Reed's Liturgy book on a pastor's desk. I just assumed it would be a decent read given his lovely setting of the Propers. But now I'm thinking that I should invest in reading it so as to evaluate and properly equip myself to address any errors he may be promulgating to his readers.

    1. Interesting on the place of the Lord's Prayer. I had not known that before.
      Not having a CWS with me, what is the proper place of the Lord's Prayer? Have any other Lutheran Hymnals already placed it there?

      Reed's book, I'm sure, does have some good things, but I know there are some glaring problems.

    2. I apologize for neglecting to respond to this before now. In traditional Lutheran use, the Lord's Prayer occurs after the Sanctus. The papists also maintain it in their Eucharistic Prayer around this point (they just put it after the Verba rather than before).

      What's more, the Lutheran Fathers vehemently argued for accompanying the Verba with only the Lord's Prayer because of the famous statement from St. Gregory the Great (Book IX, Letter 12) to the effect that this was the historic practice of the Apostles themselves. Making it part of the General Prayer as we have it in CW/S not only removes its inherently consecratory overtones, but ostensibly breaks a line of nearly 2,000 years of Churchly practice, if this was truly the method employed by the Apostles as St. Gregory (6th-7th Century) asserts.

      To answer your second question, every other Confessional Lutheran hymnal that I know of places it before the Verba, including TLH, ELH, and LSB.

  3. Jonathon,
    You said, "One of the rites on the website (the Advent one I linked to) had no confession, and there was a highlighted excuse from "Pastors" that said that the confession was "not essential." I'm not sure how that is even remotely defensible."
    This actually has historic precedence, since the public confession of sins is relatively new (a couple hundred years or so). However, I would argue that it is a salutary addition since few among us regularly observe private confession. And to leave it out, I would hope, would be an obvious omission in the service and cause people to wonder why it was purposefully left out.

  4. Thank you to all of you for providing more information on a topic that is near and dear to my heart. I appreciate hearing in depth contemplation a research on the liturgy.