Sunday, February 12, 2012

Where are the artists? - or why our church is dying

I cut my Lutheran rock teeth on the anthems of great Lutheran song writers (Jay Beach, John Ylvisaker, Lost & Found, Peder Eide and Ray Makeever) while at summer camp and national youth conventions.

As an adult, I have had the pleasure of singing the songs of great Lutheran rockers who are approximately my age (Jonathan Rundman, Nate Houge, Kent Gustavson, Richard Bruxvoort Colligan, David Scherer, and Rachel Kurtz).

These are great musicians. They have added to the rich musical heritage of the Lutheran tradition. They write beautiful music that is also faithful to the liturgical and theological sensibilities of our church.

So here's the question.

Where are the up and coming artists? 

When I watch for new music written by Lutheran rockers, it's always still stuff coming out of the artists I mentioned above. And I like it, don't get me wrong.

I just don't know where the 20-somethings are. I assume they are around, but they aren't putting out albums, they're not playing at our youth gatherings and synodical events. Maybe there are secret societies of 20-something Lutheran rockers I'm not privy to, printing tapes and LPs in a neo-hip disconnected media modality.

Or maybe I live in some weird silo. I'd be happy to be proven wrong.

But I wonder, is this the canary in the mine shaft? No artists means no church. Dave Ferguson in his book Exponential says,

"If you asked me to give you the absolute essentials for spreading a missional movement of reproducing churches, I would narrow it down to two things:

1. Reproduce more and better leaders.
2. Reproduce more and better artists."

Ferguson poaches an idea from Richard Florida's important research on The Rise of the Creative Class, that there is a direct correlation between the size and concentration of the creative class and the vitality of the community.

How do you attract creatives? They don't tend to look for the traditional markers when they move around, like sports stadiums, malls, etc. What they want, above all else, is the opportunity to validate their identities as creative people."

I can still remember sitting in a class in seminary and Rollie Martinson, a professor of youth ministry, standing up and talking about how important Jonathan Rundman was in the new movement of Lutheran church, celebrating his innovation and creativity. People were cheering Jonathan on, and giving him space.

What musicians are we mentoring, equipping, freeing, and validating now?

If you know 20-something, or even teen musicians, who are working intentionally as Lutheran musicians crafting music for our churches, would you please tell me about them? If you don't, will you begin now to work for the kind of church that does encourage creatives?

What are the cultural keys that attract artists? (here are the ones Ferguson suggests)

1. Take risks: space to try stuff out, float balloons.
2. Develop relationships: open mics, recitals, networking.
3. Give artists a role: Ask them to share their gifts.
4. Plan to reproduce: mentor new artists.
5. Rock it out: In the words of Dewey Finn (played by Jack Black in School of Rock), "Dude, I service society by rocking, okay? I'm out there on the front lines liberating people with my music."

One final note: I've borrowed from Ferguson here because I think he gets the process of developing artists in Christian community spot on. We can learn from him. The part that is missing is the weird particularity of being Lutheran. There's something about the Lutheran artists I've listed above that makes them unique. They don't sound like Nashville. They may never play on Christian radio. And I love them for that.

So the other part here, are we developing in our artists that mysterious quality that helps them, in their own peculiar ways, to match the Lutheran voice to a suitable artistic medium. And are we inviting them to consider that quest as worthy, exciting, and life-giving?


  1. Anonymous5:13 AM

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  2. Anonymous11:10 AM

    One question might be, "what happened to the Lutheran training grounds that bore this group of musicians?" When I look at that list I see a number of folks with ties to (Lutheran) Youth Encounter in one way or another. Is that no longer a conduit for raising up musicians of the church? What about Bible Camps? I recall Jay Beech being an "artist in residence" when I attended Green Lake Bible Camp during my confirmation years.

    I've had many conversations with church musicians and Worship Arts pastors who lament the fact that we do a fine job of raising up pastors and have a formalized way of doing that, but when it comes to raising up creative people in the church we don't know how to do it. I think part of the reason is that we haven't properly valued their contributions.

    I think the question you're asking is a valid one: What if a church were willing to support and train artists from in their midst? Offering art classes, music lessons, and supporting the creative mind?

    1. molhagbrew9:40 AM

      I think I would take it a step further and say how are we transforming worship to incorporate and invite the artist (of all medium) into the ministry? So how can we equip pastors to embrace and engage in this way of praise and worship? It should not just stay in the woods and events outside of the church should be oozing from the brick and mortar so that we don't loose youth and young adults but rather include and invite them to led us in this post modern celebration of ministry!

  3. Check out Starboarders

    1. Whoops, sorry, this should have all been one reply...

      Anyway, #1 is the cause of #2. The lack of artists is a symptom of the real problem- a lack of Lutheran pastors are not trained to lead, they don't know how to lead, and as a result we have poor leadership. Fix the leadership issue and artists will start popping up all over.

  4. Anonymous8:06 PM

    Another question to ask is who were the "mentors" for the list of 30-40-something musicians that you listed?

    John Ylvisaker is definitely one of them, but I can't think of a lot of "Lutheran" voices that would now be in their 50's or 60's (these would be Lutheran contemporaries of the "Jesus Movement" folks, I guess) I don't admit to knowing all of the musicians, but when I think of previous generations, I'm not thinking "rockers" or even "folk musicians"

    Who are the last "Lutheran contemporary musicians" supported in some way by the church that we can think of? Do we have to go back to the days of Bach being supported by the church?

  5. Good reflections, and thanks for the Starboarders link. I'll be collating a list of band suggestions and posting them as a new blog post later in the week.

  6. I am keenly interested in Christian art of all varieties, and promote creative expression however I can. Without being terribly confrontational, why does it have to be Lutherans? Excepting that this is, obviously, a thoroughly Lutheran blog, I'd maintain that we are all the body of Christ, worshiping the same Father, working under the promptings of the same Holy Spirit. Why not extend the scope of your search for creativity instead of keeping yourself separate from others who also love Jesus?

  7. Kathy, you make a valid point, and I don't deny that fostering creativity and culture in the entire Christian ecumene is worthwhile. I do happen to think that the Lutheran witness brings some unique gifts to the wider ecumenical conversation and community, and artistic expression within that particular faith lens and tradition is worth nurturing. I think of it not so much as "keeping separate" as I do in terms of nurturing and sharing our unique gifts. Does that make sense?

  8. Agapedave2:21 PM

    Many of the young "creative types" that I know all got gobbled up by evangelical megachurches that were willing to foster their creativity and give them a viable platform to explore their gifts. This used to be the role of the Lutheran Church (which is I think what you were saying, Clint), but because of the Lutheran aversion to CCM that is pretty prevalent, young people looking for an expressive outlet found it elsewhere, even if they weren't down with every shred of theology being preached.

    Add that to the fact that CCM is a much more powerful industry than it was 20 years ago when Echelon and Jonathan were coming up and you have what exists now. People used to want to be Lost And Found, but why be LAF when you could be David Crowder. Chances are your Lutheran contemporary service is playing a lot more Crowder than LAF anyway. Thus our current pickle.

    Side note: When our Churchnoise group was started 10 years ago, most of the young artists in attendance didn't want to know how to be successful independent Lutheran artists, they wanted to know how to get on Christian radio. I think the potential "mentors" got sick of this phenomenon and moved on to where their advice would be better appreciated. It was a shame!

    1. Growing up, I attended an ELCA church that had 3 identical services all morning long. They went as far as making sure that any Senior Pastor who was called there would not push for a 'Contemporary' service. I got confirmed and fled.

      A few years later, I was coaxed back into the church. My gateway? Music. However, it wasn't a Lutheran church. I church hopped around- enjoying the chance to share my God given gifts with others.

      In college, I had the desire to serve in Camp Ministry, and thought the best place for me to go would be the Bible Camp I grew up at- an ELCA camp in Wisconsin. Welcome back, Tay! Being musical, I had ideas of enhancing the worship opportunities that the camp offered. Not changing... Enhancing. Being on Leadership Staff, my ideas were met with great resistance by the returning staff. "Why are you trying to change the music?", "This isn't how we worship here", "We sing it THIS way- learn it THIS way." Etc. Etc. Etc.

      Even in the free spirited world of Bible Camp, I was eerily reminded of my frustrated upbringing. This is the image that many camps, churches, and people are reflecting- even today.

      Dave is right- many of the creative types have been lured into other churches- not for their theology, but for their opportunity. What does opportunity look like? I've tasted it, but it's few and far between; hard to continually recognize. What should an up and coming artist be looking for? What is the church looking for? Is there an over lap? Or are we heading in different directions?

  9. Dave, I think you are totally spot on. And of course, since you are one of the creatives of the generation I'm situation in, I trust your perceptions.

    In a certain sense, then, the solution is somewhat financial. If we were to fund awesome radio stations that played "indie" Christian rock (here I'm thinking of Lutheran rock, but also stuff like the Asthmatic Kitty label, and so on), and if churches really funded musicians (full-time salaries), that would go a long way towards addressing the issue.

    FYI, we usually have no David Crowder songs in our contemporary service, but often one Chris Tomlin. However, the service is chock full of music by Jonathan Rundman and Nate Houge. :)

  10. Tom Schwolert11:25 AM

    Tay Wilson is a good example of a younger, quality artist. But you are right, where are the rest of them? I suspect as long as our seminaries only teach one way of worship leadership (organ, cranberry hymnal, etc.), it's going to be hard for us to raise up artists. Also, it is a different culture now then when the Rundmans and Echelons were in their hay day. I wonder if it is a symptom of a bigger issue of less loyalty to the institution these days("You Lost Me" book does well with talking about this). I suppose you and I could do a better job at seeing, naming and nurturing those gifts in our young people too. Thanks for your insight on this. I actually had a conversation with Rundman about this very topic a few years ago.

  11. Tom, thanks for your insights. I'm not sure the seminaries are really to blame. Last time I heard a report about how worship was being taught, it had been widened to include a lot of different approaches to and styles of worship. But it would be good if our seminaries had tracks for artists other than organists. :)

  12. Anonymous3:23 PM

    I just stumbled upon your blog. I don't usually comment on a blog that I'm not terribly familiar with, but today (i don't know) perhaps I'm moved by the spirit.

    There is truly a need for the Lutheran Church to nurture its artists and, even more so, its musicians. There is such a rich tradition of Lutheran music that I fear is being lost to the evangelical non-liturgical movement. It seems that some time in the early 1970s, the Lutheran Church (all synods) produced a group of pastors who were more interested in bringing the Church into the 20th Century rather than keeping the traditions by which we, as Lutherans, stand both in our worship and theology.

    Congregations added a contemporary service where people sat in a circle and played guitars. The Eucharist was celebrated with a loaf of bread and, later, with grape juice rather than wine. Now we have a hymnal where even the creed is adiaphora, and the colour (cranberry) is no longer liturgical.

    I look through Lutheran resources for worship and find settings by Marty Haugen, settings that reflect an overly sentimental and confessionally dubious perspective. I love contemporary music--it may even have a place in a Lutheran liturgy. If you're looking for people producing Lutheran music today I'd point you to Koiné. ( Although I find them overly earnest at times, and I don't necessarily like the LBW translations of the hymns they sing, they put an edge on tradition that is relevant and sometimes even challenging.

    I do think it's important to maintain our Lutheran heritage. The Anglicans do this through a three legged stool of scripture, reason, and tradition. We have the Book of Concord. As the ELCA is in communion with the Episcopal church perhaps we could learn a bit from them.

    So many children who were born from about 1968 on grew up in a world in which anything goes, even in church (if they went). there is an untapped youth (if 44 is still youth) who are starving for the traditions that the pastors ordained in the '70s left behind. When the ELCA produced the new hymnal I stopped going to a Lutheran church, except on Reformation Day and Christmas Eve. I started attending an Anglo-Catholic church and found that I heard more Lutheran music and more traditionally Lutheran sermons than I did in my old Lutheran church.

    The church I attend is one of the fastest growing churches in New York, especially with the under 30s. They understand that "as we pray so we believe." The traditions that our Lutheran priests/pastors had put aside are living in the liturgy in which I participate every Sunday. It may seem that I'm rambling on about something other than music, but music is so connected to the Church of the Augsburg Confession, and that music carries the gospel; it challenges as well as comforts; it does not pander nor molly coddle. It says "here I stand."

    I suppose all of this is to say that, yes, we need to nurture our musicians, but we need to give them a context in which they can grow. They need to know what it means to be a Lutheran, what we believe, and what our traditions actually are. There is a Presbyterian group doing this: Bifrost Arts ( is producing albums of traditional Christian music with a relevant edge, like Sufjan Stevens started out doing. In fact Sufjan has produced for them.

    I think the questions are: Why is this not a Lutheran venture? Is our tradition of hymnody so weak? Where are the hymn writers? We don't need another me-centered rock musician singing about Jesus. We do need true musicians who can move our traditions forward instead of jettisoning them at the first sign that the boat is taking on water.

    Look! It's not a ghost coming through the storm. It's Jesus.

    1. Wow ... I didn't realize that in order for a hymnal to be valid, its cover has to be a proper liturgical color. So, if the ELW were "scarlet" or just plain old "red" instead of "cranberry" it would be OK? And exactly what shade of green was the LBW? LOL

  13. Thanks for your eloquent argument for what creativity within your framework looks like. I'll definitely check out your links.


  15. check out Jay Allen, the music guy and artist behind our Saturday Nite Alive Service (

    Hoping to get him connected to the National Gathering.

    Should be noted, he didn't grow up Lutheran, so that may have given him room to get started.

  16. A little behind, am I....

    Just now seeing this post on June 9, 2013. Wondering if there is enough buy-in to hold a small Friday-Saturday conference to address these issues. Something along the line of a round-table discussion of sorts. Maybe call on a few of these folks that we know are solid, and ask how they can help the young creatives (Lutheran and otherwise). I'm in the Nashville area, and I'd be happy to help coordinate. Just seeing if meeting face-to-face would be of some advantage...

    Pr. Michael Jannett,

  17. as I have said before, and with all due respect to the artists named above (I have known John Ylvisaker since I was a teenager), I don't think that we have EVER done a very good job of nurturing or welcoming our contemporary artists. My husband is a Lutheran musician and writer and has always found the church publishing houses to be extremely apathetic to the music he was offering (which is of a very high quality). Perhaps that's just finally coming home to roost. It's very disheartening.

    I think there are new musicians out there (I think, for example, of the people at Humble Walk Church in St. Paul, or Mercy Seat in Minneapolis), but you really have to look to find them.

    My husband likes to say that the worst thing you can have is a glorious past. I think this statement is true in many arenas, from congregations who are looking back to their glory days and aren't sure how to move into the future, to church bodies that can point to having (for example) Bach and other classical musicians, so have a hard time accepting the gifts of those who are being creative right now.

  18. So you think the ELCA is dying because it's not attracting enough rockers?!? Well, the Confessional Lutheran churches who actually CONFESS the Lutheran Confessions have plenty of rockers. (And frankly, you can have them all.) In order for the church to grow, you don't need to foster "creative expression." You need to preach the Word in its truth and purity. If and when you do, only then can the Holy Spirit do his work.

    I'm a "creative." I'm a liturgical artist. And while I agree that Lutheran churches in general haven't exactly encouraged the arts, I wouldn't touch the ELCA with a 10-foot-pole. Because even though I'm sure the ELCA would welcome my talent, I'd rather have a church that doesn't tear pages out of Scripture so that it can ordain women and gays and substitute "social justice" for the cross of Christ.

  19. You have come closer than ten feet by commenting on the blog of an ELCA pastor. :)

    1. I shouldn't be surprised that you think "great Lutheran song writers" means rock artists. For everyone else, it means Martin Luther, Paul Gerhardt, Philipp Nicolai, Michael Praetorius, J.S. Bach, G.F. Handel, and the like. There are good reasons why people of just about any denomination will always know these artists, but in 50 years, everyone will have forgotten yours.

    2. Jonathan, if you'd like to intentionally misread my post, that is your prerogative, but it reflects poorly on you. The post clearly talks about up and coming living artists. You even included yourself in your first post as a living Lutheran artist. Perhaps you are the next Paul Gerhardt. That would be great.

      Of course our tradition values the creative genius of Martin Luther, Paul Gerhardt, Philipp Nicolai, Michael Praetorius, and more. Just come to a service any Sunday in our church and you'll hear music from at least one if not more than one of them.

      But if you're going to engage the topic of the blog post, I wish you would engage it without implementing fallacious non-sequiters.

    3. This entire blog post is a non-sequitur. The Church is a hospital for souls. It takes a very deluded individual to say, "Why is no one coming to our hospital? I know—let's get more rockstars!" Or, put it another way. The Christian church is founded on Christ. When faced with the question of why people are leaving your nominally Christian church body, nowhere in the entire post did you mention Jesus Christ. Or God, the Holy Spirit, or the Bible. And that's your problem. It isn't the lack of 20-something Lutheran rock artists. It's the lack of Jesus.

      If people are looking for healing in Christ, they will either find him in your church, or not. The rock music makes no difference but to the most consumeristic of Christians.

    4. I have played a 12 string guitar and sang the 1970s Lutheran Camp Songs across America, 3x in the last 2 years. People Love the Praise!
      I pray that the people who learned these songs as children would dust off their guitars, warm up their voices and Share God's Praise with Everyone!
      Revive the Love, Peace and Understanding we learned while at camp.
      Don't forget the Joy you received when you first learned of God's Grace for You!
      Share the Gift of Jesus' Sacrifice with Everyone and
      Love Thy Neighbor AS THYSELF!

      (I am but a voice in the wilderness, singing God's Praise FOR GOD'S GLORY)