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There hasn’t always been contemporary worship music

I’ve heard it said many times, often by people I love and respect: “Christians have always used contemporary music in their worship.”

Or, it might go something like this: “Using pop music today is no different than what Luther or Watts did in their day.”

What’s the point behind statements like these? Their purpose is to deflect criticism of using contemporary pop music in worship today. If Christians have always done this, the argument goes, why shouldn’t we? We should not, these people claim, object to the use of contemporary music because Christians have always done so.

Now, of course, if by “contemporary” what is meant is new, current, and sounds like music in the broader culture, then yes, Christian hymnody has always been that. And this is exactly what those who make these claims want their listeners to think. Christians have always used current music, the music of the church has always sounded similar to music in the broader society, so why is today any different?

The problem is that this is actually a straw man argument. Those who object to the use of contemporary music in worship (most anyway) do so, not because they are against using “current” music. They object to contemporary pop music because they do not believe that the intrinsic characteristics of such music is able to carry the weight of biblical truth and that much of it actually runs contrary to holy, reverent worship.

In other words, “contemporary” for those who object to its use in worship does not refer to music that is new or current. It refers to a quality of music that is born of commercialism, sexual revolution, and irreverence.

Defined this way, the fact of the matter is that there has not always been contemporary worship music.

Take Martin Luther as an example. Did Luther advocate both borrowing music from German folk culture and writing new music that mimicked folk tunes? Absolutely. Soon after the birth of the Reformation, Luther brought German Leisen (religious folk songs) into the church because they were in the vernacular and they were easy for congregations to sing. He even borrowed two tunes from secular folk love songs and put Christian words to them and modeled other Lutheran hymn tunes off of such folk sources. Luther wanted a hymnody that fit the German language and was easy for average people to sing, and he found in German folk culture the perfect model for that.

However, it is irresponsible and factually incorrect to claim that these songs were, then, “contemporary worship songs” in the same sense we use the terms today.

Here’s why: there was no such thing as pop culture in Luther’s day. In fact, there wasn’t even such a thing as “secular” culture, as in cultural forms that flow from beliefs and values that are divorced from any belief or respect for God. As Friedrich Blume notes, such a distinction did not even exist in the early 1500s:

In view of this, it was not important, at least in the first half of the 16th century, whether the text generally associated with the music was sacred or secular. In contrast to the humanistic thought affecting the educated classes ever more strongly in the course of the 16th century, Protestantism preserved the medieval classification of the world, with secular art subjected to an intellectual discipline characterized by piety and churchliness. Under these conditions the disparity between sacred and secular music could at first hardly become a problem.1

Indeed, up until the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the Church most significantly influenced folk culture, not visa versa. Gustave Reese explains this with the example of the French troubadours, the basis for the folk music:

The music of the Church was doubtless enriched by the music of the people; but it was very likely more influential than influenced. For the troubadour to model his songs directly on ecclesiastical melodies was both natural and easy. He heard music in the churches, and he attended churches frequently. . . . As we have noted . . . there was no sharp line of demarcation between sacred and secular music.2

In other words, the music of the Church and the music of the folk culture sounded very similar because the Church dominated the culture of the West. Secular culture did not emerge until the Enlightenment dethroned the Chruch as the dominant force in Western culture. Thus, the folk culture borrowed from the Church, not the other way around. Consider the following diverse scholars’ comments on this matter:

“Such a free use and adaptation of secular melodies for sacred purposes was made possible in part because the distinction between sacred and secular musical styles as we think of it today was for most practical purposes nonexistent.”3

“Those who taught and those who studied [music] were associated with the work of the church, and many melodies written for secular texts were produced by the same men who wrote melodies for church use.”4

“In Luther’s time, the dichotomy between secular/sacred and popular/classical music was not as wide as it is today.”5

“Stylistically there is very little difference between a German popular song in the sixteenth century, a sacred Protestant chorale and a Leise.”6

“The fluid boundary between the sacred and secular spheres made popular music welcome in the Christian churches of Germany, either as part of the liturgy or in paraliturgical religious activities. Religious song was also at home in the non-sacred world, sung as devotion or as entertainment in the same homes and streets where secular pieces predominated.”7

“All types of [folk] music were monophonic . . . composed of four to eight lines of poetry, and based on simple musical structures such as the German Bar form (AAB).”8

The character of even secular tunes in Luther’s day was “marked by devotional earnestness and great dignity. . . . The emotional element in music was yet developed, and even the love song of Luther’s time was a serious and weighty affair.”9

Additionally, a recognition of Luther’s discernment and conservatism in his mixing church music with folk forms is important. Clearly, Luther was quite selective in his choices of music idioms. Despite the plethora of more debase musical forms such as dance songs and drinking songs, Luther was careful to reject those with rhythms too intense for use in the church. As Robert Harell Explains,

Strongly rhythmic dance music also existed in Luther’s day. The rhythms from these songs do not appear in Luther’s music; rather, the rhythmic basis of the chorales lies in the word accents instead of dance rhythms.10

Ulrich Leupold maintains this observation:

Rollicking drinking songs were available in the 16th century too. Luther steered clear of them. He never considered music a mere tool that could be employed regardless of its original association but was careful to match text and tune, so that each text would have its own proper tune and so that both would complement each other.11

An additional proof that Luther believed in a distinction between spiritual music and carnal music is that he thought that his music, which he considered intrinsically good, could actually “wean [young people] way from carnal and lascivious songs, and interest them in what is good and wholesome. Only thus will they learn, as they should, to love and appreciate what is intrinsically good.”12

The cultural climate of Luther’s day couldn’t be more different than ours is today; the Church dominated culture then, whereas secular values dominate today. The folk songs of Luther’s day were serious and weighty, whereas today most pop songs are flippant and trite (if not downright banal). It is therefore illegitimate to compare Luther’s practice to ours.

Or take Isaac Watts as an example, another oft-cited figure for those who want to insist that contemporary worship songs have always been in worship. Watts certainly was unique in England in that he advocated the singing of hymns instead of psalms only, an argument he (like Benjamin Keach before him) based on the fact that the Bible clearly commands us to sing hymns. But the debate was not over musical style, and what Watts was doing was hardly the same as mimicking pop culture in worship music today.

In fact, although secular culture was just beginning to emerge as the Enlightenment gained more influence, there wasn’t even such a thing as “pop music” in Watts’ day yet either. “A new wave of music had hit the popular scene” (as one writer described Watts’ “controversial worship music innovations”) makes sense only in an age of Pop culture, which did not exist during Watts’ lifetime.

Pop culture exists only with mass media, which did not exist then. The only forms of culture that existed were high culture (the culture of the concert hall) and folk culture (the culture of common people). Most hymn tunes (then and now) are written in folk traditions. So even when people did compose new tunes, they were still in the same tradition of tunes that came before.

It is only after about the 1830s, when pop culture began gaining steam in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, and Christian theology shifted to the degree that immediate gratification was the desired effect in corporate gatherings of the church, that Christians began intentionally adopting pop culture into their body of song. It is only then and after that some music of the church can rightly be called “contemporary” in the sense that those who object to it today mean.

Let’s have healthy discussion over whether contemporary pop music is appropriate for use in today’s worship. But it is unhelpful to set up straw men and make incorrect comparisons with past church history in order to stifle such discussions.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Friedrich Blume, et al, Protestant Church Music: A History (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1974), 29. []
  2. Gustave Reese, Music in the Middle Ages (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1940), 218. []
  3. Carl Schalk, “German Hymnody,” in Marilyn Kay Stulken, Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 21. []
  4. Edwin Liemohn, The Choral (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1963), 12-13. []
  5. David W. Music, “Getting Luther out of the Barroom” in The Hymn, July 1994, 51. []
  6. Rebecca Wagner Oettinger, Music as Propaganda in the German Reformation (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), 21. []
  7. Ibid. []
  8. Ibid. []
  9. Peter Christian Lutkin, Music in the Church (New York: AMS, 1970), 14. []
  10. Harrell, 36. []
  11. Ulrich S. Leupold, “Learning from Luther? Some Observations on Luther’s Hymns,” Journal of Church Music 8 (July-August 1966): 5. []
  12. George W. Forell, et al, Luther and Culture, (Decorah, IA: Luther College, 1960), 167. []