I am currently working my way through a fascinating book about Reformation-era music called Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism, written by Joseph Herl. It is a tightly-packed scholarly tome, but would be a great read for any pastor interested in musical reformation — as every pastor ought to be.
Church music can be divided into two broad categories. The first would be the music of trained musicians and choirs, at which the Lutherans excelled. They produced some of the greatest music that the human race has produced as of this point, and so we have to begin every discussion of this subject with that “where credit is due” acknowledgement.
But the other category is that of bringing congregations along. In this, the music of most churches in the Lutheran areas was atrocious. There were exceptions of grace — like Strassburg under Bucer, borderline not Lutheran, where the singing was good across the board. There were other exceptions in Lutheran areas, but in many places, the congregations sang very little, or anemically, or not at all. One of the reasons the Reformed areas did better in bringing congregations along is that their music was (deliberately) not as complicated.
Just a couple of examples should make the point. Services could be upwards of three hours long, with the middle hour occupied with the sermon. There were times when parishioners would hang around outside the church during the preliminaries, and when the sermon was going to start, somebody would give a signal to go in. And when the choirs were doing their complicated figural singing, sometimes the people would be given devotional material to read, in order to keep their minds on something spiritual. Most of the singing in most of the services was not done by the congregations. It was pretty bad.
Part of the reason it was bad is that some of it was so good. Bringing the people of God along is like hauling a ten-pound fish in on a five-pound line. Whatever you do, don’t yank. Church music ought to be overwhelmingly congregational music, but this means that the musically gifted have to be expected to bear with the weak, and not run on ahead.
It is easy enough to put this down on paper, but it is a hard balance to maintain. It seems that God has fashioned the world of church music in such a way that it seems you are going to be exasperating somebody. Reading this book has made me enormously grateful for what God has given us in our community. We really have it good.