Germany: expressing Lutheranism through music and song

Voices from the Communion: Uwe Steinmetz, jazz musician and composer

(LWI) – Music is “a holistic expression of faith,” says Dr. Uwe Steinmetz. He works internationally as a jazz musician and composer, and since 2015 also for the Liturgical Institute of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany (VELKD).

Steinmetz also contributes to the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Lutheran Identities Study Process and is a member of the International Worship Planning Committee (IWPC) preparing for the Thirteenth Assembly in 2023.

In this interview, he talks about the power of music, its influence on the formation of Lutheran identities, and a project combining the two.

As part of the LWF’s Lutheran Identities Study process, you are focusing on liturgy and musical aspects of Lutheran identity, and have initiated a research project on global Lutheran music. Tell us about this project.

The project will not end until mid-2024. But I can already say that one of Martin Luther’s most important ideas – that “after the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world” – also rings true today. Being a Lutheran means I can express my faith through song and music. And this music can be a soundtrack to my spiritual life, an extension of prayer beyond words.

Music in Lutheran congregations is not just an aspect of worship. It is a holistic expression of faith in everyday life and encompasses lamentation, joy, hope and resistance to injustice and the desire for freedom. I can see this in my own country during the peaceful revolution of 1989 in the German Democratic Republic. Lutheran churches have been catalysts for societal change and created their distinctive soundtrack along the way. People needed new songs and old hymns to sustain community spirit and help proclaim hope in a secular environment beyond theological doctrine and religious vocabulary.

As I learn from Lutherans in other parts of the world, I find that music is often seen as a compass for a society’s sensibilities, visions and dreams. Therefore, the search for new songs that make sense from a Christian point of view is uninterrupted. This of course goes hand in hand with the rediscovery of traditional hymns and their timeless qualities of expressing a common faith through the centuries. We can frequently see how hymns and spiritual songs of the 16th and 17th centuries become popular again in new arrangements and adaptations. For me, this is a particular Lutheran musical and liturgical quality: to provide the space for a fruitful interaction between tradition and contemporary life in songs and words that go beyond the walls of the church and manifest themselves in daily life. .

How will you share the results of the project?

Through a collection of eight songs previously printed as pamphlets, Martin Luther’s so-called Achtliederbuch of 1524 uniquely documented the Reformation movement. It is a snapshot of Reformation ideas in the form of songs.

Following this inspiration 500 years later, the project will conclude with the publication of a “Global Achtliederbuch 2024”. It will be a mosaic of Christian expressions in contemporary language and sound across the cultures and churches of the seven LWF regions. The eighth instance is replete with today’s common historical heritage of Luther’s hymns.

The book is therefore not a traditional hymn. Instead, it brings together modern arrangements of traditional and new songs that address current topics of our time as seen from different cultural traditions. I have called the spectrum of these songs “pilgrimage, freedom and belonging” because these three aspects seem to be central to the identity of Christians in the Lutheran tradition today. The Lutheran Rites and Hymns 2024 site gives an impression of this project and will share some of the music in the coming months.

The contributors to this hymnal are all engaged in Lutheran churches in the seven regions of the LWF. In addition, many write songs that are also widely known outside of churches, and I wanted to draw attention to this dimension. From a historical point of view, many songs or spiritual hymns have become part of the world of contemporary music in general, starting with Bach’s cantatas, spirituals, gospels and songs of protest which had religious roots. – for example, the protest song “We shall winner” in the United States.

How will the Thirteenth Assembly in Krakow benefit from this work?

I am very grateful to be part of the International Worship Planning Committee (IWPC) team that serves the Assembly by providing music for worship – a wonderfully dedicated international group.

Some of the songs from the “Global Achtliederbuch 2024” will undoubtedly be sung in the Assembly as part of the common services. However, the Assembly will also remind us, as Lutherans, that singing and listening to one another is at the heart of our religious practice when we come together. Engaging musically as a community has a unique quality for me: it is a natural extension of prayer and helps provide transformative worship experiences. Thus, the Assembly will be a cornerstone in emphasizing the importance of music in the expression of the faith and life of the Lutheran communion and will also provide the final inspiration for the “Global Achtliederbuch 2024”.

What is the connection between jazz and blues and the Lutheran liturgy for you on a personal level?

I grew up in northern Germany and became a Christian in the Lutheran churches in India and North America while studying there. I also had important liturgical experiences in Lutheran churches in Ethiopia, Brazil, and Northern and Eastern Europe.

In many of these contexts, I experienced liturgies where jazz and blues had found their place for decades; church music actively sought a dialogue with the contemporary musical world. I felt welcomed. I was often invited to participate in these services, either with an orchestra or with an organist. It encouraged me to look for connections between my musical practice and my way of worshiping through music. I am convinced that liturgies must have an “integrative quality” welcoming contemporary songs and words. Looking back to Luther’s day, I think this might be a more important feature of Lutheranism today – and it’s worth working for.

Regarding my musical background: Jazz and blues as musical genres have become an integral part of many cultures around the world. Ethiopian jazz sounds different from Japanese, Scandinavian or New Orleans jazz. Nonetheless, jazz musicians feel united in our approach to music across cultural boundaries. For me personally, this can also be said about how I view the idea of ​​global Lutheran identities: we all sound different, but we belong to the one body of Christ – harmony in diversity.

As a musician and composer, you have dedicated the decade 2020 to 2030 to the beauty of nature. What is your hope for humanity, our world and God’s creation?

As a minor part of the immense wealth of creation, humans pose a significant threat to it. We are destroying our planet and in doing so we are killing much of the inspiration and joy we need to be creative ourselves. I hope that we will achieve increased awareness about this and that this will lead to a new spiritual awakening on a global scale that will ultimately foster new connections between cultures and religions.

What does it mean to you to be part of the worldwide Lutheran communion?

I am part of a global mosaic of people graciously learning together and from each other to be a constructive part of God’s creation with their gifts in their local communities.

By LWF/A. Weyermuller

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The Lutheran World Federation is a worldwide organization that shares the work and love of Christ in the world. In this series, we feature church leaders and staff as they discuss current issues and present ideas for building peace and justice in the world, ensuring that churches and communion grow in testimony and strength.

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