Now, while all my confessional Lutheran friends are picking their jaws up off the floor, let me explain. By contemporary I don't mean that we had projection screens or rock music or dancing girls or heavily amplified and emotive songleaders or any of the things with which the word "contemporary" has come to be associated when speaking of worship.
What I mean instead is "happening, existing, living or coming into being during the same period of time" (source). And by that definition, all worship is inherently contemporary, happening at a given moment in time when a community comes together to hear the Word of God and receive His sacraments.
Now it just so happens that we did do some contemporary music last week. A lot of it. But contemporary music and "contemporary" worship (again, according to the common use of the term) are two different things. While the Church does well to draw from the great treasury of music that has been handed down to us in the form of historic hymns and settings of the liturgy, it also does well to avail itself of the excellent work being created by gifted hymnists and composers of our own time. And that is what we did--extensively--at my parish last week.
Of the six hymns sung during the two communion services offered last week, three were written--both text and tune--in the 20th century. Here are the hymns we sang last Sunday; numbers 1, 2, and 6 on the list pre-date the 20th century, while numbers 3, 4, and 5 were all published within the last 30 years.
"Open Now Thy Gates of Beauty" (LSB 901)
"Almighty God, Your Word is Cast" (LSB 577)
"The Tree of Life" (LSB 561)
"Your Kingdom, O God, Is My Glorious Treasure" (LSB 654)
"You Satisfy the Hungry Heart" (LSB 641)
"Father, We Thank Thee" (LSB 652)
In addition to the above hymns, we sang a recently completed setting of the Divine Service by my husband, the Cantor at our congregation. Much of it was composed several years ago when our church body, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, was putting together a new hymnal. At that time composers were invited to submit new settings of the liturgy, and although none was ultimately chosen for inclusion in the hymnal, our congregation served as something of a "guinea pig" for my husband's work and as a result learned much of the mass he had composed. Last year while taking a class in composing for the liturgy, he fine-tuned and added to what he had previously written, including not only ordinaries but propers for a selected day of the church year. So when that day rolled around this year, it seemed fitting for our congregation to sing his mass in its entirety. You can hear the result here. If you are able to listen to even a little, you will observe singing that is joyful and robust, in spite of the congregation's unfamiliarity with certain parts of this liturgy. That, in my opinion, is a testament to their strength as a singing body, their love for the liturgy, and their trust in the Cantor who has led them in song for over 8 years now. It was a special Sunday for everyone who took part.
Reflecting on the service, however, it occurs to me that a visitor might have felt a little off balance. Even if that visitor were a strong singing and music-reading Lutheran, he would have found himself singing a setting of the liturgy which he had never heard before. As a Lutheran who finds myself on occasion worshipping in another parish, I know how much I appreciate (and expect) a degree of familiarity with the worship at a sister congregation. After all, we are members of the same church body, right? And we share a hymnal, right? And a love for the historic liturgy?
Unfortunately, such is not always the case, and over the years I have too often found myself in a "Lutheran" church that seems to have very little about it that seems Lutheran. So if one of my Lutheran friends had been at Bethany last Sunday, I probably would have worried a little about the possibility of their not feeling completely at home. At the same time, as I think about the services where I have felt like a fish out of water, they have involved not a different setting of the liturgy, but a wholesale tossing of that liturgy and a replacing of it with something altogether different, including pastor-written creeds and confessions and contemporary Christian praise choruses instead of the words of the historic liturgy and theologically rich hymnody.
We had none of that last Sunday. We did have 20th and 21st-century hymns, and we did have some new music in the form of unfamiliar melodies. But those melodies were composed to accompany the Word of God as it is found in the liturgy, not the subjective thoughts and feelings of a Christian radio artist. So while visitors might have found themselves uncertain of some of the notes they were supposed to sing, they would have still been able to feast on the Word, soaking it in throughout the service as it was sung with gusto by the choir and congregation and with that strong leadership, even joining in themselves.
When it comes to music for the liturgy, cantors and pastors have a fine line to walk between the two extremes of "old" and "new." In that which is "old" there is familiarity and security and time-tested excellence. In the "new" there is the potential for fresh musical expressions of the faith that speak with particular effectiveness to the saints of God in a certain time and place. At Bethany last week we had both: the oldness of the historic liturgical texts combined with the newness of music written by Bethany's Cantor. And the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. I think we're going to sing this music again.
Speaking of "old" and "new," I think it is instructive to share this story: after one of the services last weekend, our pastor was approached by an older gentleman of the congregation. As any pastors or musicians reading well know, having a parishioner come up after the service can be good, or it can be bad. My husband has over the years had both, believe me, and is thus always prepared for either possibility. As it happens, this was by far in the category of "good." For this gentleman proceeded to tell the pastor that the liturgy he had just sung was the best one he had ever heard in his 70-plus years of attending Lutheran worship. It is an understatement to say that my husband was honored.
So yes, we did contemporary worship last week. But in the liturgy we also worshiped with the whole company of Heaven and all the saints who have gone before, and in so doing we experienced eternity.