June 5, 2020

A Brief Lutheran Statement on the Arts

Here is another statement on the use of music (and other arts) in worship, this from the Evangelical Lutheran Church. We present this as yet another example of how churches and Christian traditions are thinking about these matters.

This brief summary is taken from the ELCA publication, The Use of the Means of Grace. You can download and read the entire statement HERE, and there is also a discussion guide available on the same page.

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Music, the visual arts, and the environment of our worship spaces embody the proclamation of the Word in Lutheran churches.

Application A:
Music is a servant of the Gospel and a principal means of worshiping God in Lutheran churches. Congregational song gathers the whole people to proclaim God’s mercy, to worship God, and to pray, in response to the readings of the day and in preparation for the Lord’s Supper.

Application B:
In similar ways the other arts also are called to serve the purposes of the Christian assembly. The visual arts and the spaces for worship assist the congregation to participate in worship, to focus on the essentials, and to embody the Gospel.

Application C:
In these times of deeper contact among cultures, our congregations do well to make respectful and hospitable use of the music, arts, and furnishings of many peoples. The Spirit of God calls people from every nation, all tribes, peoples, and languages to gather around the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

A few observations:

  • The use of music in worship is not an end in itself. It is a servant of the Gospel and is one way by which the congregation proclaims God’s Word.
  • It is, however, a principal means by which the entire congregation participates in the service of the Word and prepares for the Table.
  • Church music works in harmony with the other arts, including the architecture of and visual arts displayed in our worship spaces. These are designed to help the congregation participate, focus on the essentials, and become formed in faith.
  • Music and the arts must recognize the multicultural settings in which the church lives and worships. We should use these means with respect and hospitality as we call our neighbors to gather with us around the Gospel.

I like this concise statement. It says a great deal in a few well-chosen words. In conjunction with the other statements we have looked at so far (from the USCCB — Roman Catholic, and from Eric Wyse — Episcopal), it suggests a few principles that I’d like us to discuss.

  • Music in these historic traditions are understood in the context of the liturgy, and music is designed to serve the liturgy. It is the congregation’s practice of the liturgy in toto that is worship. In many congregations, particularly those of non-liturgical traditions, worship is virtually equated with the music portion of the service. What are your thoughts on this distinction?
  • The Lutheran tradition affirms that music is vitally important in Christian worship, primarily because it is one of the main practices that allows the entire congregation to participate in proclaiming the Gospel. This conviction comes directly from Martin Luther, who sought to restore congregational singing as a part of the Reformation. In your view, what helps a congregation more fully participate in and appreciate the music of the church? 
  • According to this statement, music does not stand alone but functions in cooperation with the other arts to enhance corporate worship. In your opinion, what do congregations need to think about when it comes to the visual aspects of their worship spaces?
  • Rather than using the term “relevant” to describe how congregations should think about the practice of music and the arts in their communities, this statement says that they should be “respectful” and “hospitable” to the various cultures around them. In your view, what should that look like?


  1. I don’t know what those (colorful) things are hanging from the ceiling of that church, but I wonder how they might help people focus on Christ and His promises for them.

    If they do that, then fine. If they distract or bring people back into themselves or into the culture…then maybe not so much.

    That goes for any visual or audible art in the church.

    Merely my opinion.


    • petrushka1611 says

      They look like contrails from the Trinity. I think they’re awesome.

    • Richard Hershberger says

      Normally this sort of gimmick, especially in what is obviously a fine old church with classic architecture, is just jarring. On the other hand, one of the aims of the architecture is to draw the congregants’ eyes upward. These ribbons, at least from the angle of the camera, do this as well. I would have to see it in person to say for sure, but as a first impression the ribbons aren’t bad, or at least not as bad as I might fear, and possibly are actually good (though the colors don’t go well with that interior: something a bit more earth-tony might work better).

      • They drew my eye to the stained glass window (which is gorgeous by the way), which presumably lays out the life of Jesus or the apostles or some such. Stained glass and altar carvings were so important back in the day before common literacy. And are still wonderful ways of imparting stories to pre-literate children.

    • Normally I’d say they’re coordinated with some theme or season from the church year, but then they’d all be the same color, I think.

      • I don’t believe yellow is a liturgical color. Nor blue for that matter. Usually it’s Green (ordinary), Red (feasts of martyrs and Pentecost), Purple (penitential lent/advent), black (all souls), white (funerals and I think a feast here and there) and Pink (Maundy Sunday).

        • Whoops it’s Maundy Thursday. I mixed it up with Gaudete Sunday, when the pink candle is lit.

    • I just realized: The church in the picture is Trinity Wall Street, I’m fairly certain. They’re Episcopal, so there’s really any number of things they could represent. But you should hear their choir! Mind blowing.

  2. Having gone from an evangelical entertainment center to the Lutheran Church one of the most healing aspects of that for me was the “visual”. The beautiful stained glass windows tell the gospel as you look around the sanctuary. The altar cloth and other seasonally changing items speak the seasons of life to me. And, having an awesome the procession which immediately focuses me on the cross. I also love that everyone participates in all aspects of the worship. Their are no “stars” and the music is up and behind us in the choir loft. No soloists or entertainers to pull my attention off Christ and his cross. At the evangelical center I was overwhelmed by the noise, the bright lighting, just too much stimulation giving me a sense of chaos. I could not center or find calm. I always consoled myself that I could worship quietly and focus when I got home. And learning the classical music and other great music of the church reminds me that I am not finding something new and cutting edge, rather that I am participating in a great, ongoing story. That I have been welcomed into the celebration that has been going on in history as well as in the heavens. I am not the story, Christ is.

  3. Matt Purdum says

    “Worship” is everything I do to honor God. Doesn’t matter if music is involved. To reduce worship to music alone is extremely narrow.
    A professional band and singers will cause people to become spectators rather than participants. Let everyone participate. Even a tone-deaf geezer like me can play tambourine. Amateurs may not sound so good to you and me, but they sound great to God.
    Visually? That’s a slam-dunk. Stop it with putting churches in malls and old WalMarts.
    Occasionally sponsoring community concerts featuring the music of local cultures is a great way to express respect and diversity. If people from other nations are a big part of your community, find out if they have musicians willing to play in church.
    I’m not real big on “rules” for worship. Sincerity, of course, is the thing. I’m not so sure we should “use” music for purposes other than music. God made it and said it was good, period. The church also needs to stop trying to produce stars. That’s the music industry’s job.

  4. I recognize that the statement is talking about the use of music and arts within the context of a worship service itself, but it still comes off as somewhat utilitarian to me. I would not go as far to say that art exists simply for art’s sake, but I think there’s something to be said for simply saying that art exists for the sake of bringing beauty and meaning to the world. It also seems to me that there is always going to be a significant amount of subjective interpretation involved in anything like this. If we’re talking about architectural elements, for example, there are people who say that a vaulted ceiling like the one pictured above helps to lift the congregation’s mind to heavenly things and the Gospel, but there are other who would simply say it’s a distraction.

    In many congregations, particularly those of non-liturgical traditions, worship is virtually equated with the music portion of the service.

    I hear this line of reasoning quite a bit. And to a degree I agree with it. Many times bulletins in these churches will list the musical portion of the service as “Praise and Worship” or “Worship”, but I think it’s discounting the fact that there are leaders in these traditions who realize that worship isn’t just singing. Actually, now that I think of it, I’ve often heard pastors get up and say something like “we worshiped God with our mouths, now it’s time to worship Him with our minds” or something like that. Overall, I think there is a tendency to equate worship with singing, but I think that might come down to the terminology we use.

    • I’ve often heard Evangelical pastors describe listening to the sermon as a part of the congregation’s worship. Sometimes the distinction that is made is between active (participatory) and passive (observational) aspects of the worship service. Perhaps the reason that the music portion sometimes becomes synonymous with the term “worship” is because is is often the only participatory portion involving the entire congregation at once. But I think at the end of the day most traditions would agree that the entirety of the service is an act of worship, with different persons playing different roles at different times.

  5. Susan Wells says

    I don’t need them to worship. All I need is the Spirit and Truth. I have both of those. Oh, and as long as I have a pair of knees. 🙂

  6. Steve Newell says

    Several thoughts:

    In the historic Christian liturgy, the congregation is a participant in the Divine Service through singing, responsive readings, chanting (sometimes), confession prayer and Holy Communion. Singing is done at all parts of the service.

    In my small Lutheran church, we have a traditional organ plus choir and hand bells. Also children participate through the various instruments they play such as violin, flute, trombone, etc. All members can participate in the music of the Church.

    Christian worship is to be corporate in nature and not sometime we do on own but with other believers.

  7. I have an artistic bent. As a Protestant, I find it frustrating that my place of worship is so sterile and generic. Liturgical art can aid in reflection and meditation and if the sermon is off, at least the story of the Gospel can still be found. I understand where the Reformers were coming from in terms of the icon controversy, but part of me thinks the result was silencing one of the voices of God — his visual voice.

    • Steve Newell says

      The Lutheran Reformers were never against the use of art in the worship space. It is the Reformed part of the Reformation that rejected art on the worship space. It is very interesting to go churches in Zurich Switzerland and see how “steril” the large churches are and were the art was.

      What bothers me is to go into a Church’s “worship space” and there are no signs that it is Christian such as the Cross. Many don’t even use the world “sanctuary” but “auditorium” to denote their “worship space”.

  8. Matt Purdum says

    When I hear a pastor talk about the auditorium and the stage rather than the sanctuary and the altar, I just go face-palm.

  9. I’ve attend church from street missions to the Catholic church and many in-between. There is a huge difference. I can see why the use of the ‘five steps’ mentioned in an earlier post is in part due to the surroundings that can be common, distracting, or have the feel of a multipurpose room-the atmosphere doesn’t lend itself well to a feeling of being someplace special, set aside for a specific purpose. It’s as if we have deliberately (or through manipulation, depending on your views) to put ourselves in the worship mindset.

    This article made me think of the song, “We’re standing on holy ground.” It speaks to me as to what a church needs to address in it’s presentation of art and music.

    When I walk through the doors I sensed His presence
    And I knew this was a place where love abounds
    For this is a temple the God we love abides here
    Oh we are standing in His presence on holy ground.

    Probably the best example I’ve seen of a church being hospitable and respectful to other cultural traditions in my area would be at the RCC. Besides the Spanish Mass, there is a statue of Our Lady Of Guadalupe in the sanctuary and many Spanish speaking folks are in leadership positions (more so than art and music, having minority representation in leadership is highly respectful in my book). But you know when you walk into the church, there’s more than one culture honored within it’s walls.

    • *its walls* I need a copy editor.

    • I’ve said this before, but it’s hard to consider one space more holy than others once you’ve vacuumed its floors, washed its windows, and cleaned its toilets. Maybe that’s my problem. I know how the sausage is made.

      I literally grew up in church. The living quarters for our church was attached to the church building. I can’t say I’ve ever really had the experience of walking into any church building and feeling that it was holier than anywhere else. And I’ve been in some beautiful church buildings. I have, however, had the experience of going into certain church buildings and immediately wanting to leave because of feeling a sense of spiritual darkness. I won’t say what those were here.

  10. Symbolism is important, even if the sanctuary is stripped clean. In my church the cross had a central place at the front of the church. It had to be moved to the side to make way for a large projection screen. To the visually sensitive it’s as though the symbol of every boardroom has pushed aside and crowded out the symbol of the cross. In Protestant churches the pulpit was figured prominently to emphasize the importance of the preaching of the Word. Now the giant screen looms overhead, the focus on preaching dwarfed by the ever-changing PowerPoint slides. Symbols are important and the use of them communicates powerfully, for good and ill.

    • Matt Purdum says

      PowerPoint is poison, whether for lyrics or scriptures. Instead of digging into their hymnals and Bibles, people become passive, PowerPoint is like watching television. Very quickly, people don’t know how to use their hymnals or Bibles.

      • I don’t think PowerPoint (or whatever software program churches use) is bad in and of itself. Sometimes, people do go overboard on it. I personally think that hymnals can be more trouble than they’re worth. That’s probably because growing up as a pastor’s kid, it was always part of my job to go and straighten the hymnals in the back of pews every week. But they can become a pain. Kids write inside them, pages get torn, etc. It’s just another thing that the church needs to worry about maintaining.

    • Steve Newell says

      I have been in churches that have put the screen in front of the Cross so that the screen would be the center.

      We can worship without a screen or PowerPoint, but we cannot worship without the Cross of Christ. We always need to be reminded that Jesus died on the cross for us and for the forgiveness of our sins.

      • What if there’s a picture of a cross on the screen? Not totally joking here. I guess I don’t see why you couldn’t incorporate imagery on the screen that would help serve the same purpose of the other architectural elements in the space.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          It gets worse in franchised megachurch campuses. Yeah, they might start out with a picture of a cross on the screen, but then the telepresenced sermon starts from the Celebrity Megapastor in the home megachurch and said Big Kahuna’s face replaces the cross like Big Brother’s face on a Telescreen.

          • Right. Both a misplaced priority in masking the cross and a case of mistaken identity in digitally enlarging the celebrity’s image to match is supersized ego. This doesn’t seem to jive with Paul’s instruction to fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      In my church the cross had a central place at the front of the church. It had to be moved to the side to make way for a large projection screen. To the visually sensitive it’s as though the symbol of every boardroom has pushed aside and crowded out the symbol of the cross.

      The cross pushed aside by the Sign of the Dollar a la John Galt?

      (Report from the front lines: Los Angeles drive-time talk radio is heavy with ads for the Atlas Shrugged movie. It’s on almost as heavy rotation as all the political ads. And the Atlas Shrugged ad even has an Election/Prophetic tie-in!)

  11. I love a beautiful worship center of any religion. But I’ll have to say that when I was in college at Loyola U in Chicago, Fr Pacwa held mass in Campion Hall which was then a males only dorm (it’s since been sold to a seminary I believe and most likely still is a males only dorm!) It had a “chapel” in it. The chapel was a room. Four walls and a door. No chairs. No pews. No stained glass. No decorations. No organ, no pipes, et al. Fr. Pacwa brought a small gold crucifix with him and hanged it on the wall before mass, he called on 3 people who had gathered to do readings. He brought his mandolin to play tunes (wonderful gospel tunes, this is where my love of gospel comes from) and we would have the usual opening song, communion song, closing song. He brought a folding chair for himself to sit on and the rest of us sat on the floor (when not standing). Usually 20-30 students would gather. Arrangements were made with security for the women to attend. I found it a deeply spiritual mass. It was held at 9pm at night on Sundays which was a good time for me as I worked Sunday mornings.

    The room was spartan, but the community really did outshine the space it was given.

    Now of course LU had a beautiful church with all the art one would ever wish to look at and an incredible organ and baptismal font that looked like it flowed straight out of Lake Michigan (glass doors and the church was right on the lake front–made it chillingly cold to walk there in the winter). And this was on campus and also had convenient hours for college students (earliest was at 10:30am and latest was 10:45pm). And Iggy’s (St. Ignatius) was a parish church just a short walk off campus.

    But in my years at LU, I attended that spartan chapel most of the time.

    It’s funny, how after my years of disaffection from Catholicism, it’s only now I have taken root firmly in a new faith that I’m able to look back and treasure what was nice about that tradition and my time spent in it.

  12. In answer to your 2nd question, Chap. Mike, I think congregational participation & appreciation of church music arises from a blend of variety, balance & intentionality. It’s hard to appreciate a certain type of music, if it’s not presented or is presented poorly. It’s hard to participate if the sound of the worship leaders overpowers or is out of balance with the rest of the congregation. Ideally, the worship service is a reflection of the wonder of God’s creation, which is all about amazing diversity arising from one source. When music choices become too narrow or when the congregation is not called into the dance of worship, how can the spirit survive when it doesn’t fully reflect God’s design?

    With regards to intentionality, how much time is spent considering how to present new music, especially new liturgical melodies, to a congregation so that it can fully participate? In the end, if a service includes musical variety but the congregation can’t sing it, the balance is lost again. If worship leaders/planners don’t show basic respect or care for their congregation in this way, trust & the desire to participate is diminished.

  13. You asked four incredibly good questions, and I wish that I had the time to comment on them. As one who is “trapped” in the evangelical wilderness (for reasons situational and personal), public worship is a topic that occupies much of my thinking these days.

    The complaints of excess, worldliness, and abuse of showmanship are well-known and often lamented here. I hang my head in shame sometimes when I think of what it has come to in the last 20 years. While I appreciate beautiful art and music both in and out of the church, I don’t think I need these as much as I need the assurance that God Himself has shown up at the worship service to minister to us. He promises in His Word to meet us when we gather in His Name, but there seems to be so much to distract us from His presence that I wonder if He is there sometimes.

    More and more I miss the word “HOLY”. Not in a mean-spirited, fundamentalist way — but in the way that when we come to church something utterly unique is happening. God has come to visit His people. He has come to proclaim His Word to them, to bury them and raise them in baptism, to feed them at His Table, to minister grace to them with His Gospel. I can find beautiful art, beautiful music, rock music, country music, comedians, high culture, and low culture in many places, but if it is true that the barrier between Heaven and earth is most opaque at the gathering of His people, that ought to be the one thing that draws us to worship.