Thursday, June 17, 2010
Reading Between the Lines
On another forum I have been following another long discussion of non-liturgical worship with the use of contemporary worship vs liturgical worship with the use of mostly hymns. It is so painful because this debate has been going on on different threads in that forum for, well, ever. It shows no signs of winding down and both sides are entrenched in their positions. One of the things I consider as someone who has both participated in this debate and someone who has stayed out of it for periods of time, is the remarkable way that we as Lutheran Pastors are personally connected to these positions. Especially those who write their own stuff for Sunday morning!
Those of us who use the liturgy and the great volume of the Church's hymnody (new and old) do so from a fairly secure position. In other words, it is less about our personal preference or choice than it is about the Church's confession, history and practice. In many respects this is a safe choice theologically. We do not have to pour through everything that is done on Sunday morning to see if it is reflective of our confessional identity, consistent with what we believe, teach, and confess as Lutherans, and consonant with what Lutherans have done through the ages. By using the hymnal and its rich body of hymnody and the liturgy and its deep historical identity with Christians assembled, we stand well within that evangelical and catholic tradition no matter which hymns are chosen or lectionary used.
For those who prepare an essentially new order each week, to talk about what they do is to speak personally about them, about their strengths and weaknesses, about their personalities and tastes, and about their "Lutheran-ness." When you presume to write what the Church will do when she gathers in worship, you presume a great responsibility that some do not fully comprehend. The Church's worship on Sunday morning is the Christian's faith on Monday morning. While those who do this are searching for relevance and culturally attractive and appropriate ways to use the Sunday morning experience as an entry point for those not yet in the Church, they often forget that they are also determining who the Church is, what she believes, and how she looks to the world. For the Church's identity in worship is the Christian's identity Monday through Saturday.
Often they point to numbers as affirmation of their practice and justification for their cause. I will not question or even deal with numbers but the very fact that they are looking for what works to fill the pews is itself an indication of the fragile foundation upon which some of these houses are built. When you choose to stand outside the Church's catholic and evangelical tradition and depart from the order that the Church has known from the earliest of days, then you must find support for and reason for such departure to explain and justify such a disconnect with the Church's identity and life. That is generally an appeal not to Scripture or to the Confessions or even to Luther but to the numbers -- the liturgy does not work and what I am doing does work.
Those who know me know that I have no shortage of ego. Yet I am extremely fearful of what would happen if I were left unconstrained by the path of the Church's tradition and practice. I know that I would love it on one hand and would believe that what I am doing would be better than what anyone else is doing, but it would be a terrible tyrrany upon the people to have them subject to Larry Peters or what Larry Peters thinks they want or need week after week after week. And if someone found fault with what I had prepared, it would not be a simple matter of the way a text were treated or which hymn were chosen, it would be a challenge to who I am and how well I know my people and what they want or need. If attendance wavered from week to week, I would be left with the soul searching question of what I did wrong the Sunday before or the Sunday before that and what I need to correct in order to correct the drop in attendance (if numbers is the primary definition of faithfulness).
All of this relates why such a discussion of contemporary music and non-liturgical worship vs liturgical worship and the music of the Church gets so personal, so heated, and so bitter.... for those who invest themselves and their identities and understandings of the people in determining what happens on Sunday morning, any question about their practice is a personal challenge. And that is exactly the weakness in all of this.... the worship of the Church is not personal to the Pastor or personal even to the congregation but to Jesus Christ, His Word and Sacraments, and the Church's confession and identity. That is the personal that ought to be front and center in our discussions.... and not ourselves.