Martin Luther: Use Music Teenagers Like!

Martin’s 9 Mottoes for Worship


Luther was fanatical about music. Why did he introduce pop music into worship? How would he guide worship planners today? He urged churches and parents against songs that “prostitute…art with their erotic rantings.” However, he called for music that could compete with teenagers’ interest in love songs. He may have seen that the quickest way to petrify a church is to disconnect musically from the emerging generation.

In regard to “music and other fine arts,” Martin Luther urged churches to choose songs that combine “the good with the pleasing,” especially for the sake of young people. This is important in order “to wean them away from love ballads and [sensuous] songs” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 53, Worship and Liturgy, p 316). Sometimes Luther feels awfully contemporary, doesn’t he?

“Good” Songs

Luther called for songs that combine “the good with the pleasing.” Among good songs he especially valued songs that implant God’s Word. He wanted “that the Word of God even by means of song may live among the people” (p 221). On the other hand, he warned against songs with immoral content: “Take special care to shun perverted minds who prostitute this lovely gift of nature and of art with their erotic rantings; and be quite assured that none but the devil goads them on to defy their very nature which would and should praise God its Maker with this gift, so that these bastards purloin the gift of God and use it to worship the foe of God, the enemy of nature and of this lovely art” (p 324).

“Pleasing” Songs (aka Pop Music)

Luther shows that he had a couple things in mind in regard to “pleasing” songs. He pushed for songs in people’s heart language rather than in Latin which they barely understood. “After the Gospel [passage is read in each service] the whole congregation sings the [Apostles’] Creed in German: ‘In One True God We All Believe.’” One German song was not enough for Luther. “I also wish that we had as many songs as possible in the vernacular which the people could sing during mass” (p. 36). In the vanguard of change, he conducted a German-language service in Wittenberg in 1525 and printed that order of service early the next year (p 60).

By his example, we learn that Luther also had musical style in mind when he called for “pleasing” songs. Everyone acknowledges that Luther wrote stately anthems such as “A Mighty Fortress” which have endured for centuries. However, he also borrowed all the elements of popular love songs for his hymn-writing. Picturing the Church as a lovely woman, he adopted the style of a popular love song: He used the meter of a love ballad. He borrowed, or wrote, a melody that sounded like popular love songs. He even penned lyrics that used double entendre in referring to love and the Church:
“To me she’s dear, the worthy maid,
“And I cannot forget her;
“I seek her good, And if I should
“Right evil fare, I do not care,
“She’ll make up for it to me,
“With love and truth that will not tire,
“Which she will ever show me;
“And do all my desire.”

This suggests that Luther would have enjoyed the popular songs that come and go decade by decade:
1960s “He Touched Me,” Bill Gaither; “The Savior Is Waiting,” Ralph Carmichael
1970s “Pass It On,” Kurt Kaiser; “Through It All,” Andre Crouch; “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” Larry Norman
1980s “Our God Is an Awesome God,” Rich Mullins; “Great Is the Lord,” Debbie and Michael W. Smith; “We Bow Down,” Twila Paris
1990s “Open the Eyes of My Heart,” Paul Baloche; “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” Delirious?; “Shout to the Lord,” Darlene Zschech
2000s “Hosanna (Praise is rising),” Brenton Brown; “Blessed Be Your Name,” Matt Redman; “How Great Is Our God,” Chris Tomlin

Luther’s “love song” hymn did not endure. These songs may not last either, but in their time they open people’s hearts to Jesus. As Luther recommended, they combine “the good with the pleasing.”

What are your church’s priorities in the songs that it chooses?
What age group is emphasized? What is the most common musical style?
Time to comment…

Martin’s 9 Mottoes for Worship:

About Ben Unseth

Executive Director at Project Understanding (2014-2017), social service agency in Ventura, CA
This entry was posted in Church, communication, culture, Uncategorized, worship and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Martin Luther: Use Music Teenagers Like!

  1. There is a fine line to walk here, because I’m afraid much Christian pop music is not very good. Teenagers are more sensitive to embarrassing situations than just about anyone else….and seeing 30-something (40-something?) musicians play bad pop music at church, while trying (and failing) to be cool and “relevant,” will have the exact opposite affect to the one intended. In a teenager’s world, trying too hard to be cool is a cardinal “sin.”

    • Ben Unseth says:

      I agree with you fully. In Southern California, where I am exiled, there are worship bands of 40-, 50-, and 60-year-olds “rocking out.” Sometimes they feel like a time warp from the ’70s or ’80s. Neither am I am endorsing a boycott on great hymns. But the quickest way to petrify a church is to disconnect musically from the emerging generation.

  2. John Seboldt says:

    Such an incredible stereotyping of “what the youth want” … I say: “Don’t generalize about youth, they all hate that”, to put it humorously.

    For the most part, youth ministry and outreach to youth is more a question of the relationships they can form with leaders and the community than about a specific style, and sometimes these stereotypes of “youth” music are part of that network, so that’s what the youth may appear to like in these contexts.

    Let’s not pass on the tired generalization about Luther pushing “pop” music. The answer is far more nuanced than that. It is also not fair to focus on the “German Mass” approach – he was just as passionate about the youth learning Latin and being educated and formed in the elements of the ancient tradition that were not contrary to the Gospel. As time went on after Luther, the spread of education in the urban middle class led to schools, choirs, and musical establishments that did a very sophisticated hybrid of old Latin music, new fancy concerted music, and vernacular hymns. History took the church much more in the “Formulae missae” direction (his clean-up of the Latin Mass) than in the “Deutsche Messe” (German hymn paraphrase mass) direction, which would be just for the village churches without much of a musical establishment.

    And how ludicrous to compare the theology in those worship songs of the “70’s, 80’s and today” to the vernacular hymns Luther promoted, both old and new (contrary to popular opinion, he didn’t reinvent vernacular singing out of whole cloth, but invigorated a long pre-Reformation tradition of popular singing at Mass that went on despite the official rite). Especially the “butt-whipping God” in “Awesome God” that seems to delight in handing out punishment on evildoers. OUCH! Where’s that God that saved us by grace and loves all people unconditionally, even Pharaoh!?

    As always, the answers are much more nuanced and complex. Our remnants of the kind of educational culture that forms youth in the tradition AND moves the tradition forward are our Lutheran colleges and their worship programs which form the real gifts of youth; high school music programs like Lutheran Summer Music; children’s and youth choirs and instrumental groups that do more than bad time-warp folk rock (but a little of that won’t hurt – after all, “God is bigger than the boogeyman” of cheap Veggie Tales-style theology); and Lutheran school and college graduates who remain active in their churches (okay, not consistently, I know!). And yes, campus ministries also bend a bit with some bad folk music in informal “Christian fellowships” even at the great schools like St. Olaf, but those little flashes in the pan generally don’t take enough root to last.

    • Ben Unseth says:

      As you say, relational ministry reaches youth, and generalizing always excludes some. I’ve taken my kids into children’s and youth gatherings where my kids begged me to leave because the music was TOO LOUD! We left.

      You are exactly right that Luther wanted young people to learn Latin and a broad range of music. It is worth noting that he pushed Latin partially for the purpose of training missionaries to work in non-German areas.
      I am not equating the theological depth of Luther’s hymnody to contemporary worship music in general. There are however, exemplary texts among recent popular songs. “Blessed Be Your Name,” by Matt Redman, is a great meditation on Job, as is “Indescribable,” by Chris Tomlin. As you noted, “Awesome God” lacks grace, but “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” by Stuart Townend, majors in grace. Not to mention, Law and Gospel are each worth singing.

      Another worthy factor besides depth is accessibility. Contemporary songs can be much more accessible to Joe 6-Pack than the rich but morose “Built on a Rock” or the theologically challenging “O Wondrous Type!”

      I certainly lacked nuance and complexity. When I perceive Luther valuing participation, impact and influence over tradition and sophistication, I simply seek to apply those values today.

  3. Read through the words of Luther’s own hymns and you’ll see that he was always a preacher and teacher, explaining doctrine to those mostly-illiterate worshipers in words that they would learn by heart. And keep in mind that Luther’s favorite composer was Josquin des Prez, the composer of some of the most artistic, learned, and complex music ever written. If music today can match the theological depth of Luther’s hymnody and occasionally aspire to the beauties of des Prez, that let’s have it!

    • Ben Unseth says:

      While Luther relished the erudite and complex himself, he wrote, composed and preached for the masses. While some monks may have bemoaned the decreasing usage of Gregorian chant, Martin Luther prioritized reaching and preaching to Joe 6-Pack (or the 16th-century equivalent thereof).

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