The Good Shepherd Institute: A look at the Elephant in the Room


This past November 1-3, my wife and I traveled up to the great white north to visit Concordia Theological Seminary for the annual Good Shepherd Institute (GSI).  This year’s conference was on the open topic of music in the church… a look at the elephant in the room.

First of all, I should say that I recommend the Good Shepherd Institute for all church workers – EVERY YEAR.  It is a great conference on what the church (as church) does.  There are discussions of liturgy (ordo), music, hymnody, and how these things have meaning and import in the lives of various church workers and lay people.  (A friend of mine likes to refer to catechesis and Bible study as “practice” and the divine service as “game day.”) I love these kinds of continuing education events.  Not only do you get to soak in the information coming from the plenary sessions, but then you get to engage various people in individual conversations containing specific application to your situation and the needs at your place.  This happens in the hallway, the bookstore, the cafeteria, and at chapel.  Not only that, but seeing various people and a plethora (one of my favorite words) of contacts face to face, can’t be beat.

I work in the youth ministry office of our church body’s headquarters.  Last year’s GSI was specifically targeted toward youth ministry, and at first glance you would think that this year’s conference had nothing to do with it, and you would be incorrect.  Last year’s conference set the stage for a conversation about the ordo (the liturgy of the church) and the hymnody and songs that we sing.  This year’s conference took up the difficult conversation of actually talking about those components in their context and identifying problems with a varied practice.  Of course, they wanted the conversation to be inclusive of the whole church… and it was.  However, it was very appropriate conversation to continue the stream of thought from last year’s conversations.  Also, the impact of having the whole church together in an intergenerational ministry situation is best for the youth, the children, and the adults (and the seniors).  So you didn’t have to a “youth ministry” shingle outside the door for this conference to take up these very important youth topics.

Rev. Dr. Thomas Winger of our sister seminary in Ontario, Canada (President of Concordia Theological Lutheran Seminary in Saint Catherine’s) opened the conference up with his plenary address titled, “What’s right for the rite?”  This was a great conversation about the liturgy itself and where music fits into it.  Dr. Winger did a fabulous job of illustrating the liturgical melting pot of what is divinely mandated and what turns out to be human decision (and everything in-between).  The gifts of God are wrapped and presented just like every other gift.  Dr. Winger identified the gifts as: Word and Sacrament, Absolution, Scripture Readings, Preaching, The Body and Blood of Christ, and the Benediction (I’m sure he did not mean this to be an exhaustive list).  What is the box for the gift?  That’s the setting or the order of service, a Law and Gospel Order to things, the biblical canticles, the lectionary, the church year, our hymn texts, and music (not a specific kind of music, but that we have music in our services).  We wrap the box with our own (human decision) paper and bow: specific music, vestments, posture, gestures, movement, locations, vessels, incense, and the like.  “The beauty of this is the person of Jesus.”  (Other parts of the discussion: Does “liturgy” mean the same thing to you as me?  How do the Lutheran Confessions address worship and music?  Does the history of the ancient church have anything to say about liturgy today?  There is a difference between what man creates and what the church is creating – in other words, the collective work of the church is quite different from the singular work of any one pastor alone.)

Can that relate to YOUTH?  How can the topic of liturgy and worship not be one of youth?  For me, this was an immensely important presentation because it broke apart the ordo and its components to show that it can’t just be dismissed in its entirety.  The liturgy has to be addressed in some way in every congregation.  This particular topic had parallels with Stephen Johnson’s presentation later, which I will get to in more detail soon.  But, even in our post-modern, millennial, nexter (mosaic) society there is and must be a Lutheran ethos to our worship and our song.  When we engage the youth of our church, we have to give them the distinctively incarnate God – Jesus Christ in the context of how he promises to be present among us.

As we plan youth events and continue to engage the youth of our church at various levels, it is important to have a thorough and serious conversation about why certain things make Lutheran worship and praise, Lutheran.  That means that regardless of whether we have a drum set or a timpani, electric guitar or an organ, there is a specific Lutheran backbone that is identifiable.

In order to specifically engage the topic of music itself and the theory behind it, Dr. Barbara Resch spoke on “Music for the Church.”  Dr. Resch is the music department chair at Indiana Purdue University Fort Wayne, Indiana.  This was very important because we talked about whether or not music is a universal language.  Ponder this for a minute, “Music from a style with which we are totally unfamiliar is meaningless.”  We rush past this in our everyday world and just assume that because we are familiar with something – then everyone is and it carries the same kind of meaning for others as it does for me.  That just isn’t the case.  We also need to be aware that bringing what is common from the world into that which is sacred may result in many people having a meaningless experience.  Here we might get into a conversation about what happens to the life long Lutheran when new forms of “modern” music are introduced for the sake of the young and the youth.

More from Dr. Resch included what emotion music drags into the scene and how music communicates across borders.  How does music’s appeal and power over emotion make it appealing across borders (or does it?).  Also, can music be used (even unawares) to manipulate emotions of church goers.  These are important topics because we are not the church of emotional heart strings (I’m not saying that we don’t have emotion in church, we do, it’s just they are not the focus – Jesus IS), but we are the church of the incarnate Lord, Jesus Christ.  He comes for the lost even if we don’t feel him there.

Does the music serve the Word? or Does the Word serve the music?  We have to keep these kind of questions in mind as we think about youth ministry and what we are preparing as we look for worship and praise opportunities.  Ultimately, the music serves the Word and must serve it so that Jesus is carried to the youth and even with them into their everyday life.

Now on to Stephen Johnson.  Stephen is a hymn tune writer.  He explained his fascinating journey from evangelicalism to Lutheranism and how his journey as a musician impacted him through it all.  The most important piece I took from his plenary was the discussion about Lutheran ethos in Spiritual Songs.  He introduced what he called, “Lutheran Signature Items.”  At least one of these items every Lutheran song should engage.  This is because of a fundamental characteristic of Christian song: it confesses the Christ.  Now, Lutherans are distinct about this Christ.  Certain characteristic are important for the ongoing conversation and life of the church within itself and without itself (with the world): Original sin, Justification, Christology, The Sacraments, Theology of the Cross, Law and Gospel distinction, the Holy Ministry, and the Church.

This whole thing reignited my love for catechesis and the ongoing work of the church to teach the faith to Christ’s flock.  We are a church of the incarnate Jesus and everything about us shows him.  Ordo and music have a profound stake in the formation of catechumens and for the ongoing life of the Christian.  We too often overlook how profound an impact this has on our church.

I give kudos to the seminary in Fort Wayne for a job well done.  There were many more aspects to the conference that I can’t go into detail here now, but I’m glad that our presenters and the seminary were willing to openly talk about difficult issues for the sake of the church.  I’m going to try to include some more posts on specific topics that have come up because of this conference.  Look for more soon.