What's my problem with the idea of my Lutheran church adopting "contemporary worship"?
1. Do we trust its power?
2. Has it taken our thoughts captive?
3. Is that what we are committed to passing along?
4. Are we receiving its full counsel?
5. Is receiving God's gifts our primary goal in worship?
6. Where does the content of the historic liturgy come from? What purpose does it serve?
7. Does contemporary worship take more, the same amount, or less of its content from God's Word?
1. Does "passing doctrinal review" mean the same thing as "approved by the church"? What makes a creed a creed? Likewise a confession of sins, a prayer of the church, words of sacramental consecration -- all things that tend to be rewrritten from scratch for every contemporary service. Do these represent the hearts of all the faithful?
2. How can we be certain that our worship is valid, God-pleasing, and faithful to His Word? Which worship form offers more certainty on this?
3. By what form of worship will we be most easily recognized by those who share our confessional identity?
4. Does our worship form strengthen our fellowship with Christians (especially Lutherans) around the world, particularly those who use the historic liturgy?
5. Does it unite us with, or separate us from, the fellowship of the faithful of past generations? Does it benefit from their "collective wisdom" and centuries of tried & tested use?
6. Does our form of worship unite or divide our congregation? Does it promote a party spirit or feelings of superiority of one group over another?
7. Does our worship form promote elitism on the part of performers/leaders? hierarchical tendencies? secularization? a passive role for parishioners? Or does it promote pastoral care & teaching? Does it encourage every member to take an active role in the congregation's work and worship?
1. Is the message we want to convey man-centered (me-centered) or Christ-centered?
2. Is our liturgy's message based on feelings & experience? Or on the power of Word and Sacrament?
3. Does the message of our confession, creed, prayers, etc. apply to all?
4. Is it "cute" and "relevant"? Or is it Law and Gospel?
5. Does it reflect the whims & preoccupations of the author/presenter? Or does it proclaim the full counsel of God? On this and the above questions, do the answers change as we move from historic liturgy to contemporary worship?
6. There are so many "isms" to watch out for! Which worship form can best help us avoid slipping into one of them?
7. Is there pressure to keep the message "fresh" and "alive" and "sincere" in order to pack the pews? What if our spiritual see-saw tips toward fatigue, disillusionment?
8. Is it about popularity or faithfulness? Entertainment or discipleship? Mammon or God?
9. Does it apply equally to all generations & cultural backgrounds? Or does it specifically target one group?
10. Does it promote care of the afflicted? Or does it offer a recipe for prosperity, health, and happiness?
11. Does it promote the faith once delivered? Or is it influenced by decision-theology? experiential religion? quack psychology? Pentecostalism & the charismatic movement? rationalism? pietism?
1. Which best promotes long-term learning: hearing & singing new stuff every week, or having a consistent structure that we can follow, sing, and reflect on?
2. Does formal structure or informal creativity better serve: (a) children; (b) the aged; (c) people with limited language or reading skills; (d) the mentally infirm or disabled; (e) the hearing- or vision-impaired? (f) adults new to the faith; (g) those returning after straying from the faith; (h) visitors from other countries / synods / congregations not familiar with our local customs; (i) the spiritually struggling in need of support, and the weak in faith?
3. What form of worship best serves as an aid to memory?
4. If "the first thing in is the last thing out," what worship form will bring you more comfort in your old age or on your deathbed? When & how must you learn it? Who else would you like to share the same blessing?
5. How much importance do you think visitors place on being able to follow along? Will structured, printed liturgy or informal, creative liturgy better serve them?
1. Does our worship reflect the beauty of God and His gifts? Do we return the very best to Him?
2. What form of worship shows more reverence to God?
3. What is a disciple? What aspects of worship are more closely involved with making disciples and being disciples? What worship form comes out strongest in those areas?
4. Who is central in our worship? Whose gifts, toward whom, matter the most? Whose power is at work?
5. What is the ultimate goal of worship, and who carries out that goal? Who chooses whom? Who does the work of our salvation? How much of it is ours vs. His?
6. Where is Christ? Where is He normally vs. in the Divine Service? How do we find Him? How can we become certain that we have His favor, His forgiveness, and His gifts?
1. What is it that gets us out of bed on Sunday morning and brings us together? A social club? An entertainment spectacle? Or is it medicine to fight the "old man" in us, and nourishment to feed the "new"?
2. What happens to our assurance in God's Word if the minister is subject to pressure to change his message to please certain people?
3. What form of worship promotes faith formation of the family, vs. a sugarcoated "religious activity"?
4. Are we more interested in serving the faithful or attracting the unconverted? Who, then, sets the agenda for our church?
5. What if, in order to attract the people we want to come to our church, we must "tone down" key teachings of our Lutheran heritage? How long can afford we let that go on?
6. Do we accept the doctrines of the Lutheran confessions as the very teachings of Christ? How clearly do the new worship forms confess those same teachings? If there is any conflict between them, where must our loyalty lie?
7. Is our pastor a God-sent teacher, shepherd, overseer, comforter, and spiritual healer in Jesus' name? If he is each of these things, how should we behave toward him?
8. Should our pastor bring us objective certainty based on God's promises, or subjective, emotional experience? Should he give us what is shallow or deep? False or true? Exciting and relevant, or God-pleasing and faithful? Should he serve us with glitz and glitter, or sincerity and clarity? Should he tweak our heart-strings with shmaltz, or give us hope based on God's unconditional promises? In short, would you rather be deceived, and most likely robbed into the bargain? Or is it better to be served by God through your pastor?
9. Do you want a pastor who says "Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir" to every wish, whim, request, or demand by any member of the congregation? Or is he allowed to be true to his conscience in certain things? What if you disagree with him? Do his convictions deserve less respect than yours?
10. If your pastor counsels you on the basis of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, how many votes should it take to disregard his authority? Where is the line between disregarding our pastor's faithful advice and despising the voice of Christ? If we have reason to doubt our pastor's faithfulness, what is our duty? If not, what then is our duty?
It's NOT about...
No, it's about doctrine. Contemporary worship is a product of the Church Growth Movement, which builds on a foundation other than what we have received in Christ.
TRADITIONAL VS. CONTEMPORARY
I'm all for questioning traditions, and changing them -- if they no longer serve the Gospel. However, this rhetoric of calling the Divine Service "traditional worship" is rank propaganda. It suggests that those who insist on it are simply stuck on tradition. Frankly, that's just arrogant presumption. The historic liturgy has tradition in its favor, but more importantly, it's about the Word of God, etc., etc. As for the "contemporary" side of the scales, it's amazing how dated some of that stuff can sound within only a handful of years. By the time it trickles down into Lutheranism, it tends to be downright retro. The "traditional" stuff, at least, has a certain timelessness going for it.
CATHOLIC/ORTHODOX VS. PROTESTANT
Case #1: We sang the litany out of LSB* one year during Lent, and a lady had a fit because the church was becoming Eastern Orthodox. TLH** had a musical setting of the exact same words, in the style of Anglican Chant. If we had used that, would we be Episcopalians? I'm sure we've spoken those words in our church. Still Lutheran?
Case #2: Pastor chanted the words of institution. Somebody threw a fit because now we're becoming Roman Catholic. Are we Catholic because we're following a practice introduced by Martin Luther in his reform of the Divine Service? Isn't it the words in our liturgy that make our worship Lutheran, or Catholic, or Orthodox? In some cases we can share the same words (and music!) and still be Lutheran.
The folks in Reformation time who flinched away from everything that "smacked of Catholicism" were called the Calvinists, Zwinglians, Anabaptists... not Lutherans. When we start singing the stuff they invented to replace the sound form of words inherited from the pre-Reformation faithful, then maybe we should be concerned about becoming Reformed or Anabaptists. But I would worry more about the words that the music is selling, than the music that decorates the words.
LIBERAL VS. CONSERVATIVE
Not all that is "conservative" is faithful to the Lutheran Confessions. Some members of the Lutheran Church would be regarded as "conservative" on issues such as the inspiration of the Bible, salvation through faith alone, creationism, moral values, etc., but they would not support many of the key Biblical teachings set forth in the Book of Concord, such as the divine, lifegiving power of baptism, Lord's Supper, absolution, and preaching. And while some of the "high church" crowd in our synod are also dubious in their commitment to the Lutheran confession - as their scandalous defections to other church bodies bear witness - those who love the Lutheran church's liturgical heritage are not confined to the extreme right or left. And among those who advocate changing our church's worship life are people from both ends of the spectrum - left-wingers who despise the Missouri Synod's doctrinal and sacramental traditions, as well as right-wingers who have imbibed the culture of Christian fundamentalism and set its teachings above Lutheranism.
OUTREACH VS. INREACH
No, the "worship question" isn't about this either. You've often heard it said that Contemporary Worship brings in more people from outside the church. This claim is based on a highly selective and biased interpretation of the actual data. The truth is, one of the founders of the "worship evangelism" movement has publicly admitted that the movement is a failure.† Those often-quoted growth claims focused on the successes of a few big churches that, at least for a while, benefited from the economic and population growth in their area, and from the charismatic appeal and competitive spirit of a few leaders. When the leadership changed or slowed down, when the demographic pendulum swung the other way, or when people became disillusioned with shallow, insincere, and often corrupt ministries, those same churches trended in the opposite direction -- but nobody pays attention to those statistics. The fact is, these fast-growing ministries succeed by drawing members away from other churches, and do not actually reach a significant number of unchurched. And because they do not provide responsible, pastoral care, the size of their membership roster tends to overshadow the "revolving door" effect of people passing through from a more liturgical church to no church at all.
When contemporary worship's growth statistics are cited, the inference is sometimes drawn, or sometimes left for us to draw, that the alternative ("traditional" worship) is more focused on care of members than on reaching the lost. But this is more propaganda. Everyone needs to be evangelized, all the time. Even rostered members of the church need to be called to repentance, and to have faith preached into them, all the time. If the church can't even reach its own members, how is it going to save anybody else?
CHANGE VS. STAGNATION
The choice between contemporary worship and the hymnal liturgy has also been described as a choice between change and stagnation. This is another red herring. The historic liturgy is actually so structured as to ensure an equlibrium, or balance, between "stuff that changes weekly" and "stuff that always stays the same." Every week of the church year has its own set of lessons, prayers, and responses, called the Propers. Combined with the parts of the liturgy that stay the same (the Ordinary), the cycle of Propers is like seeing a different jewel in the same setting every week. The changing bits allow us to see the unchanging bits in a new light. And each time the cycle of Propers goes around, they hit us in a different way - perhaps because the pastor has grown and learned during the year, and can draw different points out of them in his sermon; perhaps because of a different combination of hymns; or perhaps because of what we as individuals and a group have learned and experienced. The Propers furnish us with infinite variety while also instilling their lessons in our hearts through repetition. The historic liturgy provides soil and nutrients for our spiritual growth. If we change to a different worship form, can we be so certain that it will help us grow spiritually?
EDIT: On the other side of this issue, I hear tell of a certain LCMS church right here in St. Louis that, in the 1970s, jumped on the "contemporary worship" bandwagon. Today, this congregation is still small, struggling, and quite possibly on the verge of closing its doors. And their worship is still full of the distinctive sound of 1970s pop. As a friend of mine pointed out, even with "contemporary" worship, it's all about what people are used to. Look at what that church is doing, then tell me our choice is between stagnation and change!
SUCCESS VS. DEATH
It's not about this alternative either. I can name for you some very successful churches that follow the historic liturgy. I also know of some happy-clappy church plants that have withered. I know of people who changed their worship form in hope of staving off their congregation's decline - but it died anyway. Ultimately the "success" or life-cycle of the congregation is out of our hands. The Holy Spirit goes where He pleases; the Lord's Word does not return to Him without accomplishing what He wills. From God's perspective, a congregation is successful that abides in His Word. The only reason a congregation should die is that its members no longer want the Word-and-Sacrament food and medicine that it provides.
LEGALISM VS. CHRISTIAN FREEDOM
To say the choice between liturgical and "creative" worship is a matter of legalism vs. liberty is not just rude, it's backward. Creative Worship is the stepchild of an idea some Christians have held since the age of pietism - the idea that true worship must come from the heart, so it cannot be rehearsed or read from a book. This idea has led some churches to insist that their pastor preach without a manuscript, that he lead the congregation's prayers without written notes, and even that he dispense with liturgical texts like the Lord's Prayer and the Creed. This prejudice against prior preparation is nothing but legalism, and like every other kind of legalism, it has led to sad dilemmas - like a faithful pastor being driven out of the ministry because he had a bad memory and couldn't memorize his sermons.
"Creative Worship" bills itself as the bastion of Christian liberty, breaking down the legalism of the historic liturgy. But actually, "Creative Worship" comes with a lot of at least potentially legalistic strings attached. You've got to feel it. You've got to be sincere. You've got to be excited. You've got to push your praise up into heaven. You've got to give yourself to God. You've got to become worthy of His grace. Got to, got to, got to, until you can't take it anymore. And though creative worship often gets its foot in the door by appealing to Christian freedom - you can't say there's anything wrong with it, so you might as well let it happen - once it's got a toehold, it becomes the be-all and end-all. If you're really on fire spiritually, if you're really in love with Jesus, if you really care about saving the lost, you've got to keep doing this and, eventually, do nothing but this. It begins by begging a little corner of the church for itself, and ends by pushing everything else out the door.
I've already mentioned the word "elitism" above. In my previous posts on this thread, I've brought up the issue of Church Growth Movement and its strong ties to the contemporary worship movement. A third side of that triangle is the "Policy-Based Governance" movement. It's a new form of church administration that has swept through churches influenced by Church Growth and Contemporary Worship, and it has begun to push its way into the Missouri Synod. Policy-Based Governance (PBG) means the local congregation will have less of a voice in the district and national synod. PBG means that church members will have less of a voice in the running of their local congregation.
I'm not zealous or dogmatic about democracy or congregationalism as a form of church government - I have no deep philosophical objection to bishops and archbishops - but I respect that voters' assemblies and congregational autonomy reflect the Missouri Synod's historic structure. And I am concerned by I have seen happen when the triple-threat of church growth, contemporary worship, and policy-based governance take hold in a church. In effect, a small cadre of "visionaries" or "change agents" begins to walk all over the other church members, using threats of church discipline against anyone who stands in their way. I have seen lifelong members of a church pushed out by a new pastor and the group of followers he brought with him. I have heard and read champions of this movement boast that they did this, and advise other church leaders to do the same. It's evil. Even when you see it happening to a non-Lutheran church, it's revolting to see. Far more should we avoid it in our church.
SPIRITUAL VS. DOCTRINAIRE
The question of worship forms is often described as a choice between being "dogmatic," unbending, stuck in the past, or becoming more "spiritual." I submit that many people claim to be "spiritual" without meaning very much by it. And I imagine it must be very encouraging to be able to stick a label like "doctrinaire" or "dogmatic" on your opponents. Once that label is stuck to them, they're caught in it and can say or do nothing to get loose again. You can talk around them as if they're not there, because they're too sick, mentally and spiritually, to be taken seriously.
Well, I don't really care how sick or paralyzed you think I am. I wasn't born knowing what I know. The first thing I learned at the seminary was how little I knew. I am still learning new things, growing in my understanding, correcting my errors, reconsidering my assumptions every day. If I come across as rigid in my opinions, it may be because my beliefs have been tested by fire. I intend to fight for what I believe is true, as I would expect of anybody else. Maybe what the label "doctrinaire" reveals is that a person's faithfulness becomes a problem when you disagree with what they're faithful to.
I would rather not discuss my faithfulness. Instead, let's discuss the faith - that which I believe, Him in whom I trust. If we talk about what we believe and teach, instead of sticking labels on ourselves and others, such as "spiritual" and "doctrinaire," we may soon see the reason you like one worship form and I like the other. But I've already talked about that in my "Lex Orandi Lex Credendi" post.
It's NOT about...
...WHAT THE CHURCH DOWN THE STREET IS DOING. Someone is bound to tell the committee, "I visited a church that happens to have a contemporary service. I didn't see anything wrong with it. The folks there seemed to enjoy it, and so did I." Forgive me, but so what? Would it mean anything to you if I mentioned how much I enjoyed visiting another church that practiced the historic liturgy? What if I mentioned that they did things even more reverently than we do - and as far as I could tell, the folks in the pews liked it that way. Would that carry any water? I doubt it. In fact, I would all but guarantee that someone would say, "What about it, Robbie? Just because they do it that way, that doesn't mean we should." How right that someone would be. And the knife cuts both ways.
Later, when I try to argue that contemporary worship deprives the church of the full counsel of God, even if it doesn't actually teach false doctrine, someone else is bound to chime in: "What about the church down the street? They're a member of our synod, in good standing. Who are you to say that what they're doing is wrong?" Now that's as loaded as a question can get. In a way, the questioner has a point. If I could substantiate a charge of false doctrine against Church X or its minister, I ought to do so; if not, I ought to keep my mouth shut. On the other hand, what kind of ministry are you wishing upon your church? Do you want a pastor who is incapable of distinguishing truth from error? Do you want a shepherd who cannot warn you against wolves in sheep's clothing? In a synod where everyone increasingly does whatever is right in his own eyes, your pastor would hardly be able to make any distinctions or truth claims without tripping over an Eighth-Commandment-related gag rule. Finally, it comes down to the question whether your faithful pastor or the pastor at Church X is called to teach you. If you're giving more credence to Rev. X than your own pastor, maybe you're going to the wrong church.
It's NOT about...
...THE KIND OF MUSIC I LIKE TO LISTEN TO. I like Classical music. That doesn't stop me from thinking it isn't a bright idea to turn the "Ode to Joy" theme from Beethoven's 9th, "Jupiter" from Holst's Planets, and a musical tag from Schumann's Dichterliebe into hymn tunes. I'm not in favor of playing wedding marches from Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream or Wagner's Tannhäuser in church either. I love those pieces and the larger art works they came from. But I can sense the difference between "music I like to listen to" and "music that I would expect to hear in church." They're not identical categories.
Dr. Barbara Resch once surveyed a good number of young people and learned that, by and large, whether they liked Country & Western or Rock & Roll, they also knew the difference between music they liked to hear and music that was appropriate for worship. I'm not going to judge you for liking a different style of music than I do. But I'm not getting up on Sunday morning to attend an R&B concert. When you make your worship form all about the style of music people like to listen to, you're going to end up with a different service, or a different church, for every musical preference. Either way the effect will be the same - each worshiping group will be like a separate congeregation. The church will divide along ethnic, educational, socio-economic, and generational lines. And you'll wonder why your kids never go to church with you....
It's NOT about...
...MY LIST OF FAVORITE HYMNS. One guy on our committee seems to think the problem is a poor selection of hymns for the congregation to sing. As the one who helps the pastor pick those hymns, I may not be the best person to answer this concern objectively. But I think favorite-hymns-guy may have some objectivity problems himself. Does he think everybody shares the same list of favorites? Even if a survey were taken, compiling and ranking every member's top 10 favorite hymns, what does that imply? That it would be wrong for the pastor and cantor to choose anything not on that list? What about teaching and learning, nurturing and growing? What about building confidence (and competence) in our Lutheran heritage? What about the content of the hymns and their relevance to the lessons? Would those factors ever justify an attempt to stretch the congregation's musical horizons? Like I said, every tradition needs to be examined, questioned, tested. What if the hymns you like simply aren't the best our confession has to offer? What if, as some popular favorites actually do, some of the hymns on your list slice against the grain of our Lutheran heritage, its doctrine and spirituality?
Any road, the question of worship form has nothing to do with this guy's beef about not hearing his old favorite hymns often enough. Chances are good that he'll hear them - and anything else he recognizes - even less often if the church changes its liturgical diet.
It's NOT about...
...WHAT WILL ATTRACT PEOPLE FROM AN UNCHURCHED OR NON-LUTHERAN BACKGROUND. After all, some of our visitors have been from a Lutheran background. A good number of them have joined the congregation lately, though I can't tell you how much our worship form had to do with it. In the past, quite a few people joined our church because it stood pat with the old hymnal, while other churches were switching to something newer. More recently, we lost some members when we introduced the new LCMS hymnal. I'm also aware that one couple declined to join our church because we don't celebrate the Sacrament every Sunday. Yet, though we have made no headway in discussing this potential change in our church custom, we are seriously discussing whether or not we should make a far more drastic change, based on no evidence that it will make any difference to our congregation's rate of growth.
As one member of the committee wisely pointed out, you can't argue from analogy to churches in the County, whither population and money is flowing - and where churches have grown regardless of their form of worship. You can't simply assert that following the example of a specific County church will have the same effect here in the City, where conditions are quite different. We don't know that people will come to our church in the City if & because we add a contemporary service. We're floating on a white, fluffy assumption. We're hypothesizing an unspecified number of unknown, possibly nonexistent, unchurched people who would not be comfortable in our liturgical tradition, but who would join our church if we had a contemporary service. Even supposing those people are out there, we're putting them ahead of known, Lutheran people we already have an opportunity to reach. We're letting unbelief and irreligion set the agenda for our witness and worship. And we're making no promises that, after they've been with us a while, they'll be any closer to being "from a Lutheran background." That's more than we can promise even for our own kids, if we bring them up going to a seeker-friendly service.
It's NOT about...
...WHETHER THE MUSIC IS "UPBEAT." I'm really just including this one so I can vent about the tactless person who interrogated me, while I was warming up the organ one Sunday morning, about why I insisted on playing such dreary, funeral-parlory music (like the hymn "Lord, keep us steadfast in Your Word") as opposed to something more "upbeat." At the time I couldn't wring an example of what he meant by "upbeat" out of the man, but later he allowed, when we opened Bible class with the hymn "Preach you the Word and plant it home," that "There's an upbeat song!" I can't begin to tell you how confusing I find the feedback this church's members give me on the music I play. Half the time I have no idea what they're trying to tell me, apart from hurtful reflections on my musical skill. I think it's a little silly to be contemplating a change to an entirely different repertoire of church music, when they can't even speak coherently about the music we already know. And (if I may speak as a typical, touchy church organist) if they always treat their talent with the sensitivity of a tin of mackerel, they might not get along with the type of musicians who live for audience feedback.
It's NOT about...
...HOW IT MAKES YOU FEEL. A worship form cannot be validated - or invalidated - by anyone's feelings. Your feelings may not be the same as the next person's. They may be influenced by weather, digestion, brain chemicals, stuff going on in your private life, and so on. Some preachers and songleaders are experts in manipulating people's emotions. If your worship service doesn't deliver anything but an emotional experience, you may be in trouble. How can you draw any certainty of God's love, or your salvation, from ephemeral feelings? Can you base your assurance on the charismatic utterances of a huckster whose words, if written down and read back in a calm tone of voice, would sound transparently silly? Divine Service must deliver a certainty that can withstand the changeable vapors of emotion. And because your emotions are a prime target of the devil, they can be deceived. So it's at least possible that something that makes you feel great is actually deadly, spiritual poison. Isn't that possible? By the same token, God's Word can be at work in you even when you don't feel anything.
It's NOT about...
...A MAJORITY VOTE. It is, after all, about Christ, His Word, His Church, His ministry, and His desire to make you His child and disciple. So if this question finally comes to a vote, I hope the members of my church, or its worship planning committee, or its Board of Elders, cast their ballots based on more than "what I want to do." Luther said that it is tempting God for any group of Christians to make decisions together without prayer. But I worry that it might also be tempting God if we assume that, once we have opened our meeting with prayer, whatever we pass by a majority vote is God's will. We can only hope that if our decision is based, not on "what I want," but on what best gives glory to God and transmits God's gifts to us.
*Lutheran Service Book (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006)
**The Lutheran Hymnal (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1941)
† Sally Morgenthaler, writing in REV, May/June 2007, pp. 48 ff.