All right, Worship Wars. You've squeezed enough theory out of me. It's time for some applied snarkiness. Here are the remarks that came to my mind as I reviewed several examples of contemporary/blended worship, taken from the bulletins of Missouri Synod churches in and around St. Louis.
You'll notice that I make no complaints about the music. Why? Partly because I haven't heard it - all I have is the text, and in the few cases a melody line, to work with. More importantly, I think the text is where the real problem lies. Though I won't disguise the fact that the style of music I expect to find in these songs is completely foreign to my aesthetic principles, personality, and understanding of historic Lutheran spirituality, MY CONCERN IS WHAT THE TEXT SAYS (or fails to say).
...Opened their service for the Fourth Sunday in Advent with an "African processional" that goes like this: "Praise, praise, praise God./Praise God's holy name, Alleluia." That, plus two more repeats of the second line, makes Stanza 1. Stanzas 2-5 follow the same pattern. Their complete text, barring repeats and Alleluias, is: "We have seen your glory/Streaming from the clouds. We have felt your power/Rising from the earth. God, who spins the planets,/lead us in the dance. God, who fills the oceans,/Fill our hearts with love." After all that you repeat verse one. This is an absolutely typical praise song: light on content, experience-centered, and theologically questionable. Exactly when and how have we seen His glory streaming, felt His power rising?
Next comes the Confession and Absolution, which are custom-written for this service. The responsive confession owns up to some very specific sins, such as: "Our care has too often been limited to the 'holiday season' and to charitable donations. We have failed to be God's hands and feet to visit and relieve the plight of the hungry and forgotten around us..." Is this really a sin? And is everybody necessarily guilty of it? Should we ask people to confess a sin that isn't theirs? Shouldn't a corporate confession of sins be more general and all-inclusive? And then each petition of the confession of sins ends, not with a plea for forgiveness, but with a request for help to do better in the future. Hmmm.
The next musical number was a setting of Psalm 80, chanted by the choir with a refrain sung by the congregation. My congregation has done some psalms and biblical canticles this way. I see no problem with it. The liturgy continues with unfamiliar settings of the Alleluia and the Magnificat, which is evidently inserted because the Gospel for the day was the Annunciation (sung as a solo, BTW). Hmm. If it's OK for a soloist (in this case female) to sing the Gospel lesson in a contemporary service, I wonder if it would be equally OK for the pastor to chant the Gospel per Luther's instructions in his reform of the Mass. As for Church X's setting of Magnificat, the only thing that would prevent us from using it is the trouble involved in teaching the music to the congregation.
The sermon hymn was "I waited" by Richie Furay. The congregation only sang the refrain: "I waited for the Lord on high./I waited and He heard my cry," and repeat. A soloist sang both verses, each followed by two more repeats of the refrain: "He pulled me out of my despair/And showed me where to walk/From fear into security/From quicksand to a Rock...I will sing to let the people know/That I have been restored./They shall hear and understand/To return and trust the Lord." It's not perfect prosody, but I suppose it's all right. My only question is, what does this song teach? Even most psalm paraphrases go farther than this song in offering specific comfort and assurance.
After the sermon, the offertory was "We will worship you" by Scott Wesley Brown. Verse 1: "Lord, we come before Your throne humbled and amazed. Your greatness overshadows ev'ry idol of this age. For all the treasures of this world, Lord, cannot replace, the greatest joy of knowing you and walking in your grace." Refrain: "We will worship You. There is none beside You," repeat, repeat, "Lord." Verse two: "Lord, we come with thankful hearts into Your courts with praise, rejoicing in Your favor, delighting in Your ways. For all we've lost cannot compare, Lord, to what we've gained. For there is none like You, O God, name above all names!" Refrain. Question: What, specifically, does God give us in this song? Does it say anything beyond "We REALLY praise you, God"?
The prayers of the church include a sung refrain, first sung by the praise team, then by the congregation and repeated after each prayer. Our hymnal has a similar setting for chanting the prayers. It's not clear from the service folder whether the choir, or the cantor, or the pastor read/sung the petitions. Assuming they were sung (so as to flow together with the musical refrain), I wonder: What, essentially, is the difference between doing this and letting the pastor chant the prayers? If all that "high church" stuff is unacceptable, why is this OK? Is there something about the pastor having a vocal solo that magically transforms it into popery?
During the distribution, the praise team (which, by the way, is named Maranatha) sings the first refrain and the verses of a hymn called "Await the Lord with Hope" by Bob Hurd. It looks like another psalm setting with a refrain-like antiphon. Again, what is the essential difference between this and chanting the psalms responsively out of the hymnal, or singing one of those choir/congregation canticles?
The next distribution hymn is Bob McGee's "Emmanuel." The whole text of the song is: "Emmanuel, Emmanuel, His name is called Emmanuel; God with us, revealed in us; His name is called Emmanuel," and repeat. Though I'm not sure whether "revealed in us" is strictly orthodox, I'll let it go and just ask: Why is this song more worthwhile than a richer (and more enriching) hymn like "O come, O come, Emmanuel"?
Next came "I wonder as I wander." That's not exactly contemporary, is it? Why would this tradition be more acceptable than the Lutheran one? And how well does this song apply the Gospel to us, compared to a hymn like "Lo, how a rose ere blooming"? Again, the congregation joined in Richard Horn's hymn "A Shoot Shall Come Forth." It has some nice biblical imagery and figurative language in it, but it doesn't come right out and make a clear, literal claim. How well does such a hymn apply the meaning of biblical imagery to our hearts and souls, compared to (say) "Once He came in blessing"?
The closing hymn was "The Trees of the Field" by Stewart Dauermann: "You shall go out with joy and be led forth with peace. The mountains and the hills will break forth before you. There'll be shouts of joy and all the trees of the field will clap their hands," and various repeats thereof. That's it. Based on these words, what do you really know? Who is talking to whom? What does it all mean? How does it apply to us? Where is the teaching, comfort, exhortation, etc.? So much for Church X.
...Opened worship on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany with the pre-service anthem "Instruments of your peace." Central to this song is what WE will do. What is God going for us in this song, except helping us to do our stuff? Next comes the opening song, "Give Us Clean Hands" ("We bow our hearts, we bend our knees..."). I suppose it's a nice preparation for worship, illustrating a humble attitude toward God. But does it give us anything substantive? Assurance? Comfort? Teaching?
After the confession and absolution comes the song of praise, "My Life Is In You, Lord." With only a handful of lines of text, and repetitive text at that, it's hard to see what this song gives us other than "Yay for God!" Later, after the creed, comes Children's Time with the song "Come, Let Us Worship Him." I could say the same thing for this piece of empty hoopla as I said about "My Life Is In You" - Is that all you've got?! Immediately following this is another song, "All Heaven Declares," which AT LAST gives us one line of specific proclamation: "I will proclaim the glory of the risen Lord, who once was slain to reconcile man to God." This atom of Gospel message is only one-eigthth of the text which otherwise plays variations on the theme "We praise you, God!"
The offertory is titled "We are an Offering." It says: "We lift our voices, we lift our hands, we lift our lives up to You, we are an offering, Lord, use our voices Lord, use our hands, Lord, use our lives, they are Yours, we are an offering. All that we have, all that we are, all that we hope to be, we give to You, we give to You," and repeat. Compare this statement with "Create in me a clean heart, O God." The difference is only WHO is giving gifts to whom!
In place of the Sanctus is a song titled "Chorus of the 'Revelation Song' Riddle." It begins in a familiar way: "Holy, Holy, Holy Is the Lord God Almighty, Who was, and is, and is to come. With all creation I sing: Praise to the King of Kings! You are my everything, and I will adore You..." Now wait a minute. What's missing from this Sanctus? Oh, yeah - the Benedictus! "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord." What difference would that make to the message of this hymn?
The first distribution song is "As Bread That Is Broken" ("Many hearts are hungry tonight..."). The first verse says: "O Lord, your wounded children need the power of Your cross" - but the song never explains how they will get it. The chorus says: "As bread that is broken use our lives. As wine that is poured out a willing sacrifice. Empower us, Father, to share the love of Christ..." Huh?! What about the Sacrament? What about the forgiveness of sins? What about God making us new people? What about Christ's body and blood? Shouldn't that be in there somewhere?
The next song is "Who Can Satisfy." Part of the lyrics say: "Living Water rain down Your life on me, cleansing me, refreshing me with life abundantly." How does this happen? When? Where? The song never says. The song ends: "Blessed Redeemer who reigns upon the throne." Where is that? How do we get to Him there? The song never says. I guess you're supposed to draw your own conclusion from the fact that the Lord's Supper is being distributed during this song.
The third distribution hymn is "You Are My King." It actually has a good opening verse: "I'm forgiven because You were forsaken. I'm accepted; You were condemned. I'm alive and well, Your Spirit is within me because You died and rose again." But what happened to the rest of the song? "Amazing love, how can it be that You, my King, would die for me?" and "In all I do I honor you. You are my King, You are my King," and repetitions thereof. One good, solid verse and then holy smoochies!
The closing song was "Cry of My Heart." The entire text is: "It is the cry of my heart to follow You. It is the cry of my heart to be close to You. It is the cry of my heart to follow all the days of my life." Really? Why? How did that cry get in there? The song never says. And that's where Church Y leaves us.
...Began their service on the 24th Sunday after Pentecost with the opening song "Everyday." I quote in part: "What to say Lord? It's You who gave me life and I can't explain just how much You mean to me. Now that You have saved me, Lord, I give all that I am to You that everyday I can be a light that shines Your name..." The rest of it goes on in that vein. Verse 2 mentions "stand upon Your Word" and "know You more" and "guide me in every single step I take." The refrain says "Everyday it's You I'll live for," etc. There are lots of repeats. I can tell by looking at it that this song takes a LOT of time to say very little. If the opening hymn is like a spiritual breakfast to get you going, this is pretty thin gruel. What does God give us in this song? Does it teach anything? Does it provide any comfort?
Immediately following this is another opening song, "Famous One." It echoes lines from Psalms 8 and 19 - "Great is your name in all the earth, The heavens declare You're glorious...Desire of nations and ev'ry heart, You alone are God, You alone are God...The Morning Star is shining through and ev'ry eye is watching You. Revealed by nature and miracles You are beautiful, You are beautiful." OK, that's fine. But what does this song have that Psalms 8 and 19 don't have? More to the point, why does it leave out the best stuff in them?
The Song of Praise after the first lesson is "I See the Lord" by Chris Falson. It's basically a souped up Sanctus ("Holy, holy, holy..."). Between the Creed and the Children's Message is a heading that says "Songs from Word of Life." Can't speak to them, however, because the songs are not listed. This seems to have been a break from the liturgy for the praise team to do a set while the congregation sits back and listens. The praise team also sings a song called "You Are Holy" during the offering, but again the words are not printed. Then comes the Song of the Day, "Be lifted up": "As we bow down, be lifted up," and repeat, repeat, repeat. There isn't much going on in this song, except various parts of creation being called on to praise the Lord. This kind of thing is all right now and then, but I've seen so much of it in these services that I keep needing to ask: What does God give us in this song? Is it all from us to Him?
Oddly, after the sermon and prayers comes (in order) the Lord's Prayer, the Confession of Sins and Assurance of Forgiveness (which is, surprisingly, an actual absolution), and a Song of Faith titled "Agnus Dei (Lamb of God)" followed by the Words of Institution and Distribution. Now is not the place to nitpick this novel arrangement of the sacramental rite. Let me simply point out that "Agnus Dei" is actually NOT the Agnus Dei ("Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world..."), but the Dignus est Agnus ("Worthy is the Lamb"). If I hadn't gone through all this material, I might have thought this was a gaffe. But actually, such a substitution is completely typical of this worship form. Instead of the Agnus Dei's language of what Christ does for us (taking away sins, having mercy, giving peace), this service moves things in the other direction, from us to Him (praise & recognition that He is worthy to reign). All that's missing is the Gospel.
Finally, the closing song at Church Z was "Better is One Day." It's basically a paraphrase of Psalm 84 ("How lovely is Your dwelling place"). I wonder, though - if we adopt contemporary worship, how often will the New Testament come into the stuff we sing? Granted, Dignus est Agnus comes from the Book of Revelation - but it doesn't give us much, either. None of these songs give us much. Even this Psalm 84 paraphrase gives us much less than the original psalm. At least, in the last verse, God is shown giving us something: "Your Spirit's water to my soul," etc. But the rest is about what WE do for HIM. It's all response. But, as far as the hymns are concerned, there isn't much to respond to.
So what is worship about? The Lutheran answer is that, first and foremost, it is about God raining gifts down on us. Then we respond to what we have received. I suppose with the sermon and the Sacrament you can still get something from God worth responding to... though I can't personally vouch for the sermons preached at these three services. All you can really count on, then, is the Sacrament, provided it is offered every Sunday. And my congregation has so far balked at taking change that far. A non-communion Sunday with song lyrics like this could be a lose-lose situation if the pastor's preaching isn't up to snuff. It might not even be worth getting out of bed on those 2 or 3 Sundays per month.
Compared to this stuff, historic hymnody provides a much richer diet of comfort, assurance, Gospel proclamation, applied teaching and exhortation. It's top-quality fertilizer for cultivating spiritual growth. It makes better use of the worship hour. It provides, if I may be forgiven for saying it, more bang for your buck. And if the change we are considering will primarily affect the hymns, I think it's a no-brainer. Classic hymnody and historic liturgy are treasures I intend to cherish until my dying day. As they go, so go I.