The Gospel according to Bach

by Rev. David L. Mahsman

Everyone has heard of Johann Sebastian Bach, perhaps the greatest composer who ever lived. But not everyone knows he was a Lutheran or that today Lutherans are using Bach and other classical composers to reach people with the Gospel in Russia and throughout Eurasia.

LCMS World Mission, LCMS partner churches in Europe and Concordia University System schools have had a hand in this musical approach to Gospel outreach.

“We use classical music to speak to people about the Bible, the faith and the basics of the Lutheran confession,” says Darya Shkurlyatyeva, a conservatory-trained musician and the musical project coordinator for LCMS World Mission in Russia.

She is not alone. Pastors Sergey Tatarenko and Sergey Nezhdanov host concerts at St. Michael the Archangel Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg, Russia, as well. In the first three months of this year alone, nearly 10,000 people attended the church’s 34 outreach music concerts and discussions. Probably 90 percent of them are either not Christian or only nominally so, the pastors report.

In neighboring Latvia, nearly 20,000 people attended organ concerts organized last year by the Riga Lutheran Cathedral. It’s an effective way to get the unchurched into church, said the cathedral dean, Rev. Elijs Godins. “We hope that one who has had a positive experience with our concert life would be moved to come also for the essence of the church of Christ—the worship—and so would come to know Christ Himself more personally.”

In St. Petersburg, Pastor Nezhdanov cites specific examples of people who have been moved to be baptized or confirmed after attending one of the concerts. One of those is Yelena Kochetkova, a student at the state arts academy in St. Petersburg.

“Arts such as painting, sculpture, architecture have often been used to attract people to religion,” Kochetkova said. “However, music is the kind of art that is closest to the person’s heart, as it is intangible and is hard to perceive by analytical thinking.”

Dr. Brent Smith, regional director for Eurasia with LCMS World Mission, says that classical music is an appropriate tool in his part of the world.

“In Eurasia, we reconnect people to their Christian heritage by introducing them to the person and teaching of Jesus Christ,” Smith said, refer­ring to a region-wide mission strategy. “It’s a wonderful way for us to tell people the Good News about Jesus Christ.”

Darya Shkurlyatyeva, who does much of her work around Moscow, is quick to point out that not just any concert—even of sacred music—is an “evangelistic concert.”

“We make sure that he or she gives some history of the Reformation, reads outloud passages from the Catechism and, most importantly, from the Bible, such verses as
proclaim the Gospel most clearly,” she explains.

Not just any music will do. “Here a big thank-you goes to Luther and Bach,” Shkurlyatyeva said. “Martin Luther left for us his invaluable six chorales on the Catechism, and Bach wrote excellent organ set­tings for them.”  The music of Bach, she noted, is “well known and much loved in Russia.”

Concordia Universities

When Sarah Cusson, a graduate of Concordia University Irvine, found out that her alma mater’s handbell program was planning a European tour last year, she stepped in to help organize it.

“Before I even began this endeavor, David Fiala and I spoke to the directors, asking if this tour would be or could be a platform for proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The directors were eager for this to happen,” said Cusson, an LCMS missionary and educator who teaches English in Gyor, Hungary. Fiala, a director of Christian education, also is an LCMS missionary and Cusson’s supervisor. The university’s hand­bell tour included Hungary, Slovakia (where Fiala serves), and Austria.

In 2008, the choir from Concordia University Wisconsin, toured in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. “Each formal concert gave us opportunities to make remarks about the musical selections and their texts,” said Dr. Kenneth Kosche, retired professor of music and director on the 2008 tour. “But I think the informal settings provided the best opportunities . . . for the people we met and our students to connect. And that is what the church does—connects people to people and people to the Lord.”

The power of the Word

LCMS World Mission’s Brent Smith recalls his first experience with outreach through classical music. It was 16 years ago when he was serving in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

“A number of times I watched the crowds listen over and over to music such as Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Often the people knew the music, but it appeared that a number of people were reading the words for the first time,” Smith said. “As they listened and read the biblical text printed in their program, it was clear to me that classical music is still a very effective way to give witness to the Word of God.”

> Did you know? Bach is the German word for “brook.”

> “For Bach, God is never a theological abstraction, but always the God-Man, Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Mary” (CTQ).

> To read some of Luther’s chorales in English, see Lutheran Service Book 406, 581, 607, 627, 766 and 954.

About the Author: Rev. David L. Mahsman is director, special assignments, Eurasia, with LCMS World Mission.

August 2011

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