Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Contemporary Worship: Not Fit for Lutheran Consumption - Part 2

For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:18-24).

The idea that worship is where God serves us, rather than where we serve God, is probably one of the two biggest differences between Confessional Lutheranism and American Evangelicalism[1]. Confessional Lutherans view worship as God’s service toward man for some simple and obvious reasons, which come from Holy Scripture. Scripture teaches that faith is a gift of God, which He gives out of His grace, through means of His Word. Since He has chosen to deal with us through the means of His Word, rather than spontaneously in other ways, we need to gather around the means He has provided so He can give us His gifts. Thomas Maschke writes in his book, Gathered Guests, the following:

“Worship is God’s service to us as His gathered guests and our faith-full response to Him in Christ. Worship is also an opportunity to grow and develop as a community and for the community to be empowered to go out into the world. Therefore, Lutheran worship can be described as being upward, downward, outward, and inward…Lutheran worship is encounter, expression, education, and evangelism[2].”

Confessional Lutheranism also teaches that man is converted by God, and not by an act of man's will, i.e., making a decision to repent and believe. American Evangelicalism, influenced heavily by revivalism beginning with the Second Great Awakening, generally teaches that conversion is an act of man's will – we decide to believe. What you believe about conversion has a great impact on how you worship. If you believe that conversion happens because you decide to be converted and that God speaks to you directly through your thoughts and feelings, rather than by the external word, then you will worship accordingly. Rather than focusing on delivering God’s Word to the people, as God has called His servants to do, so that God can do His work through that Word, the focus will be on man and what he is supposed to do. The service of Word and Sacrament becomes a service of emotion and decision. It must; there is no way around such a change. In American Evangelicalism, the worship space, the music, the actions of the “worship team,” the message delivered, are all geared toward moving the hearer emotionally so that they make the proper decision to accept Christ as their Lord and Savior, by the power of their will. 

I wouldn’t expect American Evangelicals, who have differing beliefs about conversion, the will, worship and the church gathering, to worship in a traditional, liturgical way. To do so would cause friction between what they believe and how those beliefs are manifest through worship; to do so would undermine their theological teachings, and be ineffective in eliciting the desired emotional response. 

Why do so many Confessional Lutherans, then, want to abandon their Christian heritage – the liturgy, which has been preserved and handed down to us through many centuries – and worship in a way that undermines their confession of faith? I suspect that the reason is perceived success.

The reason so many Lutheran congregations subjected themselves to such theological dreck as 40 Days of Purpose is that it looks like it works. If you measure success in terms of backsides in the stadium-style seats, then I suppose it does work. All you have to do is search "Willow Creek" on the internet. The sleek, professionally-produced, website of Willow Creek Community Church showcases all of the fruits of the American Evangelical style of worship and evangelism. The first image presented to the visitor is an enormous crowd in what appears to be some type of arena. The arena, which is actually the worship space (what Christians from a by-gone era would have called the sanctuary), is filled to capacity and has a stage with a rock band in the center as it's focal point. 

Compare this exciting scene, charged with emotion, to the worship service of the average Confessional Lutheran Church. 30 or 40 people (if we are generous) gather inside a church building and sit in long, semi-comfortable wooden pews. Hymns are sung, prayers are recited, and a man in a dress gives a lecture. The people shuffle to the front, and the man in the dress feeds them a cracker and a bit of wine. There is more singing and reciting. Finally, the people are dismissed in an orderly fashion by ushers, and that's all there is until next week. There is no emotion, no excitement. There is no experience to excite the senses and give the feeling that the worshipper has had an encounter with the Almighty. 

This view, of course, is not true; the ancient liturgical worship is not as many perceive it. From a worldly perspective, this type of worship appears foolish and worthless. This seems to be how many of my Evangelical friends see liturgical worship. If man is converted by an act of his own will, if he must be convinced to make a decision, then this is, indeed, all liturgical worship is. But, here we have no continuing city, and God uses the foolish things of this world to make this world’s wise into fools. Christ comes to us, as he has promised, in his Word and Sacraments. In the Lord's Supper, He gives us His very body and blood to eat and to drink for the forgiveness of our sins. His Word, which is living and active, permeates every part of the divine service. It is read. It is in the music we sing, in every portion of the liturgy we recite, in the words of the sermon preached by our faithful pastor, in the furniture and decorations of the sanctuary around us. We come to gather around Word and Sacrament, not to do some good work for God, or to be convinced to dedicate (or rededicate) our lives to Christ but to receive what he has promised to give us – the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

Many Confessional Lutherans, however, look at the large numbers of people attending megachurches, such as Willow Creek, and compare their "success" with the numerical failure of their own modest congregation. Something must be done. Have they a band? Let's get a band. Have they abandoned the liturgy? Let's get rid of it too. The problem is, it takes a lot of resources to “do worship” the way a place like Willow Creek does. The emotional manipulation can only work if the show is produced properly. Willow Creek, with a budget of hundreds of thousands of dollars, can put on what amounts to a rock concert every week. St. Nobody's Evangelical Lutheran Church, which has 150 parishioners, cannot. In the end, the Confessional Lutheran congregation that abandons the liturgy for contemporary worship ends up not being able to do it as well as the Evangelical megachurch down the road. Now, in addition to undermining their confession of faith, they have a "worship experience" that is awful and uncomfortable for the parishioners. Those who want the emotional manipulation will move on to a place where their “felt needs” can be met. Those who remain may return to the liturgy, but the congregation will have been divided and weakened, and it will be that much harder for them, from an economic standpoint, to remain in operation. 

This is not merely a disagreement over a style of worship. How we worship expresses and effects what we believe, and vice versa. Confessional Lutherans must realize this. The sanctioning of contemporary worship practices by those in leadership positions in the LCMS indicates their departure from their confession of faith, not simply a disagreement over style (such as should we chant the liturgy or speak it). Peter Hitchens, in his book “The Rage Against God,” describes, in part, his return to the Christian Church. In one section, Mr. Hitchens writes about his search for what could be described as traditional, or liturgical worship, unspoiled by modern liberal influences. He, as many faithful and well-meaning churchmen of the Church of England had before him, thought that the stuffy Elizabethan language was the main problem people had with the worship of the church. He was to come to a different realization:

"I bicycled from place to place in search of citadels of the old worship. In one particularly lovely Oxfordshire church, I enquired of a priest – a cozy-looking, well-padded old gentleman – if they ever used the Prayer Book. He stared at me, his eyes hot with dislike. "Never!" he pronounced, and then almost spat out the words "I hate Cranmer's theology of penitence." This was one of those moments of abrupt realization…when the truth suddenly became clear to me. It was not the language they disliked (though they probably did dislike it too). It was what the words meant. The new, denatured, committee-designed prayers and services were not just ugly, but contained a different message, which was not strong enough or hard enough to satisfy my need to atone[3].”

Similarly, it isn’t simply the organ, or the hymns, or the vestments, or the language and structure of the liturgy that many proponents of contemporary worship dislike. It is what those things mean. 

End Notes

[1] I would say, just as a side note, that the other glaring difference between these two theologies is their view of the Sacraments and the place of the Sacraments within worship. Of course, all of these things are inter-related, and one's understanding of conversion, repentance, faith, and good works and obedience to God, etc. will have a significant influence on worship and the Sacraments.

[2] Thomas Maschke, Gathered Guests: A Guide to Worship in the Lutheran Church. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2003. 20.

[3] Hitchens, Peter. The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me To Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.