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Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Friday, August 18, 2006

Ministers and Music in the Reformed Tradition

I was recently discussing with some friends the subject of music in the church. These particular friends came into Reformed circles through one of the few Reformed churches that is more liturgical in practice than Reformed churches have historically been. Unfortunately, through the circumstances that came about, they have found themselves in a more traditional American Reformed setting – little liturgy, little music. Providential circumstances, no doubt - but difficult nontheless. We were lamenting how little occasion the typical Reformed believer is given to sing in church. Here are a couple of my own thoughts as to why that might be.

First of all, the Calvinist tradition in the context of the 16th century Reformation is clearly the more Rationalistic tradition. The Church of England maintained a closer link to the traditional liturgy as it had been handed down. This was of necessity due to the fact that England and its leaders, both church and state, never found an overwhelming consensus in favor of the Reformation. This maintenance of a high level of liturgy, I would maintain, served as a preventative against the more Rationalistic lean of the Continental Reformed tradition. This Rationalism carried over into the British Isles through the Puritan and Scottish Calvinistic traditions and this is why it is found in Presbyterianism today. In the Lutheran tradition, reformation of music was a far more important matter. Luther himself was a musician and wrote many hymns, encouraging the restoration of congregational singing. Now it needs to be pointed out that Calvin encouraged the restoration of congregational singing as well. But the music of Geneva was limited to metrical Psalmody and the singing of Scripture passages set in meter. While I like metrical Psalms, they are too simple and predictable, and they grow boring rather quickly. This approach, I would suggest, limits the creativity that musicians can have and suppresses the writing of new music. Calvin certainly did a better job than did Zwingli, who didn’t believe any singing should take place in worship. But although Calvin wasn’t as infected with Rationalism as Zwingli was, he was infected nonetheless. This has been worsened in the Reformation tradition since.

Another reason that there is so little singing in Reformed churches, I believe, is because most Reformed ministers are so musically inept. Due to the Reformed tradition's rationalism, music as a worthy pastime is engaged in and promoted little. Almost no time is given to music in seminary education. And in my experience – however limited it might be – most ministers couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. One can understand why they don’t care for much singing in worship.

The third reason has to do with participation in worship. In traditional Reformed churches, the minister tends to do just about everything. In some churches, there is the recitation of the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer by the congregation. Sometimes there is a confession of sin by the congregation – though in Calvin’s liturgy the congregational confession was simply a prayer prayed by the pastor alone, and this is practiced by some Reformed churches today. Then there are two or three hymns or Psalms, and that is about all the vocal participation the congregation has. The pastor, on the other hand, has the Call to Worship and the Benediction. He alone reads the Scripture text(s). He prays a fifteen minute prayer. There are a number of other ways that he might be vocal in the liturgy. And even when there is a highly structured liturgy, the pastor manages to have something “spiritual” to say in between every element of the service – a series of sermonettes apart from the main sermon, if you will. He has a whole separate sermonette in addition to the main sermon on the Sundays that Communion is observed. Then, of course, there is the sermon proper, which is usually between 45 minutes and an hour in length. The point here is that the pastor gets this huge chunk of time every worship service to praise God vocally. He’s satisfied. Why wouldn’t the congregation be? He can’t understand that there is a dissatisfaction among the congregation because they don’t get enough of an opportunity to praise God corporately and vocally, and the reason he doesn’t understand is because he has all the time to praise God aloud in worship that a man could want. Besides, in the Reformed tradition it’s really all about preaching anyway. All the other stuff is just superfluous. That’s why Reformed ministers spend all their time talking about preaching. Heck, they even preach sermon series about preaching. When was the last time you heard a Reformed minister preach a sermon series about music?

I think there is a right desire in faithful Christians to praise God vocally and corporately in worship. And I think the Reformed tradition stifles that. No wonder the Reformed and Presbyterian churches are moving rapidly toward contemporary worship forms. Even if the music is immature in its form and content, at least there is more of an opportunity for the people to talk to God themselves.

I also think that when a minister encourages vocal and physical passivity in corporate worship, he also encourages passivity in the rest of the believer’s life. We shouldn’t be surprised when the members of a congregation find themselves giving up quickly in the face of temptation if the pastor discourages a proper zeal in worship. It’s just a theory, but I think it’s true.

Maybe it’s just my experience. But it’s been rather suspicious to me that for most of the Reformed ministers I’ve known, they can only carry on one way conversations, with themselves doing all the talking. I think there’s a connection here.

I like what a Lutheran minister said to me one time – “sometimes I just get tired of hearing myself talking up there.” I wish more Reformed ministers would have such a viewpoint.


Those interested in considering further the subject of music in the Reformation traditions might consult the following resources:

Reforming Our Worship Music by Leonard R. Payton

Luther on Music: Paradigms of Praise by Carl F. Schalk

“Music and Singing in the Liturgy” by J. Gelineau SJ and “Hymnody in Christian Worship” by Alan Dunstan, both found in The Study of Liturgy, edited by Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, Edward Yarnold SJ, and Paul Bradshaw

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