Lutheran Songwriters Conference
I had the privilege of being one of the songwriters chosen to participate in the recent Lutheran Songwriters Conference on April 21-23. This event, co-sponsored by the LCMS Commission on Worship and Concordia Publishing House was hosted by St. John Lutheran Church in Ellisville, MO. A recent article in the Reporter provides an overview of the conference as well as reactions from some of the participants. (To view the article click here.) I offer the following as my review of the conference, especially as it pertains to the objectives of WorshipConcord.
First, a bit of background.
There has been a need for a conference of this type for many years. Much of the contention in our worship discussion and debates, especially in the eyes of many lay people, is centered on the songs we sing in worship. Although there are substantive theological issues in play that lie behind music choice, as is illustrated in the discussions on this blog, for many the issue is reduced to that of music. Do we use hymns or contemporary songs? One of the chief criticisms levied against the use of the contemporary worship songs has been the weak or errant theology in many songs, the shallow biblical content, the confusion of law and gospel, and the lack of sacramental awareness. These issues are part of what has led me to write worship songs for my congregation and to share them with others. I write songs because I must (other songwriters and artists will understand), but I write songs specifically addressing these issues because there is great need.
There have been many over the years that have invited, encouraged, and challenged the Commission on Worship and CPH to address this situation positively. On numerous occasions I have voiced a plea to shine a light instead of merely cursing the darkness. Instead of only criticizing the quality of contemporary worship songs, why not take the lead in the commissioning and creating of worship songs with authentic confessional theology? This concern led my congregation, along with other congregations, to submit overtures to the 2007 Synodical convention calling on the Commission on Worship to take such a leadership role.
The purpose of this conference was to address that need. The intent was to gather Lutheran songwriters, to encourage and equip them in their craft, to engage in substantive discussion about theology as it pertains to worship songwriting, and then to challenge them to apply their art to blessing the church with Lutheran worship songs. Although the aftermath of the conference is still being played out, I would say at this point that the conference was an incredible success.
What made this a successful conference?
Validation of Lutheran Worship Songwriters – This conference was a long overdue validation of the ministry of the worship songwriter in the Lutheran church. I must admit that I experienced moments of utter disbelief, especially early in the conference, that this was actually happening: The Commission on Worship and Concordia Publishing House blessing the contemporary songwriters. It was validating and affirming to have the entire COW in attendance throughout the conference, as well as a number of CPH staffers. This conference was not about throwing a bone or patronizing or placating those pesky artists. It was genuine and sincere, as was the apology from the Commission on Worship for ignoring songwriters for the past 30 years. It was nothing short of emotionally moving to see the church I love validating the gifts God has given me and others so that together we can praise and glorify God.
The only downside of this point is that so few were able to attend the conference. I certainly understand and agree with the decision to limit the size of this initial event. But I did find myself thinking of numerous Lutheran songwriters I know who were not able to attend who would have benefited from this encouragement, as well as the other aspects of the conference. I hope that future events targeting songwriters will be able to accommodate more participants.
Theological Direction. The first session in the main body of the conference was the presentation by Jeff Gibbs in his session “Songs in the Sacraments.” He provided an excellent exposition of Colossians 3:16, pointing to the role of song as a means of Christ dwelling within His people. Song teaches the people of God, as well as provides opportunity for thanksgiving. His presentation then moved toward applying that specifically to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Gibbs provided a helpful and concise understanding of the place of the sacraments, and their role in the story of God. Through the sacraments, Christ comes down as a present gift that draws us toward the future. Unfortunately, the allotted time was not adequate for Gibbs to fully complete his presentation, and so his remarks on the Lord’s Supper were somewhat rushed. I don’t know whether he simply prepared too much material for the time allotment or lost track of the time passing, but what he communicated was excellent and helpful. I would have liked to have seen more time devoted this topic, as well as opportunities for guided group discussion reacting to some of the points that he raised. It would also have been helpful to look at some specific examples of contemporary worship songs that reflect sacramental theology in a helpful way. Be that as it may, it was an excellent presentation, and started the conference on a solid theological footing.
Matt Boswell, coming from a non-Lutheran perspective, gave a helpful presentation on the importance of writing songs-that are gospel-centered, and that are rich in biblical content. He represents a growing stream in contemporary worship songwriting that some are calling “modern hymnody.” Such modern hymns, such as his “Jesus Died My Soul To Save” do not shy away from dealing with substantive theology and biblical content. Think of “In Christ Alone” (Townend and Getty) or “Christ Has Conquered All” (Braselton).
Tony Cook, also of Concordia Seminary, led a break-out session on Ancient-Future or “Emergent” Worship, and then provided a helpful demonstration as our opening devotion on the last day of the conference. This service of baptismal reflection and remembrance drew upon wedding imagery, as Cook referred to the ritual cleansing of the Jewish bride before the wedding, tying that to the cleansing of the Bride of Christ, the Church.
The Craft of Songwriting: The conference also provided opportunity for growth in the craft of worship songwriting. The conference staff presenters provided helpful sessions on various aspects of songwriting. The “Making Connections” breakout sessions provided opportunity for participants to seek feedback from the conference presenters, or to simply engage in question and answer dialogue about any aspect of songwriting. This is where the limited size of the conference was truly beneficial. I commend the Commission on Worship for the panel of presenters that they gathered for this conference, including the non-Lutheran presenters. The presenters were fully engaged in the conference and truly made themselves available to the participants.
Networking Opportunities: I was struck by the diversity of the participants. Although they were mostly lay people, there were also a handful of pastors, seminarians, DCEs and other church workers. There were men and women, college students and recent graduates as well as those approaching retirement. The largest congregation in the synod was represented, as well as several mission congregations, schools, and other small churches. There were published professional songwriters, as well as those who have only written a handful of songs, which had never been heard outside of their congregation.
But what was even more striking for me, as a veteran of many synodical and district events, was the consistent positive, harmonious tone of the conference. I can honestly say this was by far the most positive encouraging event sponsored by our church body that I have ever attended. There was such a spirit of helpfulness, friendliness, cooperation and encouragement, that I was sad to see the event close so quickly.
I had the opportunity to meet many of the participants and have continued to be in contact with after the conference. The Worship Arts Leadership Institute website (WaliWorld) has also provided opportunity to cultivate the connections made at the conference. I would have liked to have seen more time devoted to hearing songs of other participants. The “open mic” times were rather brief compared to other songwriting conferences that I have attended.
Forward Focus: The Invitation and Challenge. The conference concluded with an invitation and challenge from the Commission on Worship and Concordia Publishing House. They asked for the submission of sacramental worship songs from the participants, worship songs that were congregational (“we” not “I”). These songs would need to be submitted for doctrinal review, and then would be considered for inclusion on a CD which is to be sent to every congregation in the LCMS. This is part of the kick-off of the Concordia Songwriters Cooperative, modeled after the new Concordia Writers Cooperative. This will be a place for songwriters to make their (doctrinally reviewed) songs available to the church.
An email from David Johnson of the Commission on Worship last week indicated that 45 songs have been submitted for doctrinal review for this project, for the 10-12 slots on the CD. Certainly, I’m hoping that my song will be one of those chosen, but regardless, I am overjoyed at these numbers. This illustrates the power and importance of synodical leadership. A very simple invitation is given, and just like that 45 new sacramental worship songs are being made available to the church. Now, I’ve heard none of these songs (except the one I’m submitting!), and I can’t vouch for their quality, but I am confident that this invitation will result in blessing for the church and its worship life.
I hope that this project would be followed up with similar requests for submissions. There could be calls for songs on justification, songs for Advent, songs for Lent, songs for confirmation, songs about the Word, and so forth. I would like to see the COW and CPH intentionally and systematically address those thematic gaps in contemporary worship songs, and invite, encourage and facilitate the writing of songs to address them. This would not only be a great service to our church body, but I believe that songs on these topics would be a blessing to the church at large.
Future Conferences? It was announced at the conference that the intention is to include songwriting as part of next year’s “Institute on Liturgy, Preaching, and Church Music” to be held July 25-29, 2001 at Concordia Nebraska. This could potentially be a very positive development. It could also be a rather tense development, intentionally inviting contemporary music and worship leaders to be part of what has been a predominantly traditional worship event. I would love to see this happen, especially if it would be blessed by the same positive, harmonious, encouraging spirit that marked this Songwriters Conference.
Michael A. Schmid
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