Saturday, October 24, 2009

Finding the Lutheran Church

The other day I met with a young woman (20 something) who had been attending a Lutheran congregation, was deployed to the Middle East, came back after a year away, and found that this Lutheran congregation had changed. The organ was replayed by a praise band, the hymns had been replaced with praise choruses, the sermon had become a "life talk" and the liturgy had largely disappeared. It was the same building, mostly the same people in the pews, but suddenly, she said, she no longer felt like it was home. More importantly, this young woman felt it was no longer Lutheran.

What happens on Sunday morning is the public face of a Lutheran congregation -- any congregation for that matter. We identify who we are by what happens there. This is a young woman who is not the typical poster child of traditional worship drawn by advocates of worship that reflects culture -- she is a rough and tumble person who has been well out in the world. What she was looking for was a Lutheran congregation. Where she had been had more or less fit that estimation but now, a year later, things were different.

I am sure that things like this happen all the time. My point is this. This young woman with only her catechism and basic instruction in the faith knew that the changes that had taken place were changes in substance and not just in style. Her confusion lie in that it was the same address and name but not the same faith that she come to know and believe. She could not articulate it like a theologian, she was not a classical musical enthusiast, she was looking for the liturgical practice that was the counterpart to the faith confessed.

Because I do not know the congregation she came from or exactly what happens there on Sunday morning, I am not making them the focus of this comment. What I am turning our attention to is the fact that our Lutheran Confessional identity has a counter part in our liturgical practice. While many might make this about musical tastes, I believe this is about the Word and the seriousness with which we take this Word that has the power to do what it promises. While many might make it about personal taste or likes and dislikes, I believe this is about a vibrant sacramental identity in which the Table is central to what happens (not some trap set surrounded by a Plexiglas sound partition that occupies the prime spot down front). While many might complain that there are also people who like this stuff and are attracted to it, I believe this is about worship that is at odds with our identity as Lutheran Christians.

Longer ago than most of you can remember, the Kennedy Evangelism Explosion model was being Lutheranized for use through out congregations of the LCMS. My objection then is the same objection now to so much that goes on during Sunday morning -- forms are not neutral, they have values and communicate identities. We cannot use this "form" of evangelism outreach without giving up some of the values and identity we have as Lutheran Christians. We cannot borrow from what is happening in non-denominational churches and other "contemporary worship" congregations without giving up some of the values and identity we have as Lutheran Christians. That is what this young woman was saying to me. If she can recognize this, why is it so difficult to get Lutheran Pastors and musicians to agree on the trade offs that this requires.

If you are willing to make the trade offs, if you are comfortable giving up some of the values and identity intrinsic to our Lutheran Confessions and litugical history, why keep up appearances by holding on to the name "Lutheran?" If you go into a Roman Catholic Mass, you get the Mass (whether in Latin or English, with Marty Haugen or Gregorian Chant -- it is still the Mass). When you go to an Eastern Orthodox liturgy, you get incense, Chrysostom or Basil, et al, icons, and a cappela singing (whether under a Byzantine dome or a modern A-frame -- it is still the Liturgy). If you go into a Lutheran Divine Service, you get the Divine Service (whether the Pastor faces the people or not, whether chanted or spoken, whether Lutheran hymnody or generic hymns and song -- it is recognizable as the Divine Service).

Liturgical identity and Confessional identity connect, they are parallel, they reflect each other... but some Lutherans insist that what they do on Sunday mornings and what they believe, teach, and confess are separate -- as separate as style and substance (as one author has put it). Even a young woman in the pew knows that they are connected. She is an independent, modern woman, but she expects to find a Lutheran liturgy in a Lutheran congregation. Is that too much to ask?


Anonymous said...

The Gospel is the center of our faith, as our Confessions testify. I suspect that most problems within the greater church are caused by the fact that the essence of the Gospel has somehow passed by our people. Otherwise they would know that our worship should be an “objective” one, concentrating on who God is, and what He has done for us, even as the Mother of our Lord worshipped Him with the words, “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” That is what the Liturgy does. When we begin to focus on ourselves and our feelings, then the liturgy is replaced with praise bands and “sincere” ex promptu prayers are said, which repeatedly make use of the phrase, “we just want to,” followed by whatever it is “we want to,” and whatever might raise the emotional pitch.

When we learn to appreciate the Gospel properly, we learn that our standing in the Kingdom does not depend on how deeply we feel, but on the objective, immutable promises of God through His Son. Then we can hardly wait to hear the words, “the Lord be with you,” even if we have heard them hundreds of times before.

Peace and Joy,
George A. Marquart

Steve said...

Your comments are spot on; my wife and I returned from two Iraqi deployments and one Korean tour to find that many don't value confessional Lutheranism as they should and are much like the Israelites who wanted a king. Liturgy, hymnody, and Godly prayers are rich gifts given to us by our Savior; they are truly irreplaceable, especially by the tripe of praise bands, "feel good" "itching ears" worship and shallow empty impromptu prayers by someone emotionally driven. We should go back and remind ourselves what happened to Israel and what our God had to say about it in His Scriptures.

God Bless you Pastor,

Anonymous said...

So, are you saying that the Divine Service is a formal position of LCMS, and any congregation that does not perform the Divine Service should no be LCMS? If not, are you saying that should be the LCMS position? Are you saying that any other format of worship other than the Divine Service is a problem (it's pretty clear you are)? If yes, why are other forms a problem?

It seems that you are saying that any change is by defintion a bad thing, without giving much substance to why it would be bad. I agree that some approaches to worship may not be consistent with the Gospel, but I would hardly say that the Divine Service is definitely the one, best format of worship! Sure, there can be significance to the format of worship, and people can get comfortable in a particular format, but it seems like you're painting the Holy Spirit into a very small box. It seems that at times the Spirit needs to make us a bit uncomfortable as part of making us more like Jesus and moving more consistent with God's call.

Great clarification would be greatly appreciated.

Anonymous said...

I am fortunate to belong to an LCMS congregation that benefits from having people of many talents who are able to contribute to a rich variety of music and singing while at the same time preserving the Divine Service liturgy in its traditional sense. It is not uncommon to hear a variety of musical styles used is a single Sunday.

Our congregation has not compromised in its preaching of Law and Gospel, nor have we compromised in our teaching or administration of the sacraments. We do not particpate in open communion, nor are we a part of any heterodox activities. Confession and absolution are a part of every service, as are the creeds and the Lords Prayer. We have not compromised in the theological content of our hymns and songs. Sermons contain both Law and Gospel, salvation by grace through faith alone.

Yes, we use overhead projection to make it easy for visitors and members alike to follow the liturgy and hymns. Yes, some of our singing is in praise to our God. We greet all as if they were already members of our congregation in the hope that those who do not yet know Christ will finally receive Him.

Everything we do is LCMS to the bone. Yet our congregation is often viewed by the hyper-confessionals as one of "them" - a congregation that does not fit the correct mold.

I am at a loss to understand why. I grew up in a faithful, confessional congregation. I know one when I experience one. I am part of one today. Yet some would say otherwise. I can only conclude that much of the hyper-confessional push has nothing to do with the Divine Service at all, but has everything to do with power and who holds it, both in the Synod and in the individual congregations.

If that is truly the case, then God help us.

Anonymous said...

It seems that at times the Spirit needs to make us a bit uncomfortable as part of making us more like Jesus and moving more consistent with God's call.

Ah, nothing like a little decision theology.


Anonymous said...


Again, clarification would be greatly appreciated. You threw out the phrase "decision theology" as part of a criticism of a post, but then failed to explain yourself.

The comment was that at times we need to be made a little uncomfortable to get to where we need to be. Are you saying that there is no truth in that? Are you saying that God never disciplines us (which would make us uncomfortable)? Spending a little more than seven words to critique a comment would go a long way to coming to a common understanding.

Pastor Peters said...

Dear Anonymous (or Anonymii if they are not the same person),

The use of the Divine Service is not MY personal opinion. It is the statement of the Confessions who insist that we Lutherans have not abolished the Mass, hold to it with greater devotion than our opponents, hold it every Lord's day (at least), and keep the ceremonies of the Mass (omitting only those that contradict the Gospel). The "dry" mass or non-eucharistic services are not to replace the Mass or Divine Service. That is our Confessional position (whether we have varied from it or not, that is what it says).

The specific form of that Divine Service is not specified but, I would venture, the Confessions would say that the Divine Service (Mass) is recognizable in form and content (and in ceremony) and it is also recognizable when it is not the Divine Service (Mass).

We did not put the Spirit into a box, the Lord has made Himself accessible in the Word and Sacraments and this Service of Word and Sacrament (Divine Service, Mass) has a form that is historic and recognizable, which Luther and his cohorts affirmed. While I personally might like more uniformity in actual language, I am perfectly comfortable with any of the forms our church body has authorized (TLH, WS, LW, HS98, LSB). These are the doctrinally pure liturgies and hymnals that the Synod has commended and to which our constitutions require us to use (most congregational constitutions says this).

As to the next anonymous comment, I did not indicate that a screen was prohibited (I personally may not like them but I said nothing about it). My own parish uses a huge variety of musical styles from a Mariachi sound for Holy Spirit the Dove Sent from Heaven to an Asian sound for Greet the Rising Sun. We use other instruments besides the organ. We use a rich ceremonial as well. I do not think I said anything in the post that would preclude what you described of your own congregation. I am not advocating hypo or hyper anyting -- simply worship authentice to who we are as Lutherans. If what is done on Sunday morning could be used by churches that do not confess the creeds, do not hold to the sacraments, do not distinguish Law and Gospel, do not believe in Christ's real presence in the bread and wine, etc..., then I would suggest that we probably should not look or sound or act like such. It is inconsistent with our confessional identity. Period.

Read the Confessions. Listen to them. I am not putting words into their mouth. They are the voices within our Church defining who we are, what should happen on Sunday morning, and the latitude or evangelical freedom that is consistent with that confession and that which is not. What are the marks of the Church? Can you see them and hear them on Sunday morning? If not, something is wrong.

I wonder if it is not because we have grown so distant from our Confessional documents which define us that we think such things are personal opinions of those trying to make us conform to their own ideas. I am not holding myself up as judge. You look in the mirror of the Lutheran Confessions and you let their words judge your practice. That is what I am asking...

Anonymous said...

the Spirit needs to make us a bit uncomfortable
decision theology

Criticism valid as to justification, not to sanctification

Jonathan said...

So then, one can really still have the Divine Service all moderned-up with power point slides, rock bands, 'praise teams,' maracas, marimbas, Afrikaans, Smooth Jazz, Hip-Hop, what-have-you-style-wize---but just so long as you keep the basic elements of the liturgy intact, and so long as the gospel-focus of the "hymnody" (as it were) 'gets it right.' And especially no 'altar calls' and 'holy rolling' caught up in the spirit stuff, right?

I mean, I get it about Lutheran liturgy, or at least I think I do: worship is not a thing of indifference. And, I get why the pieces/parts of our Divine Service liturgy look the way they do, and what it conveys in terms of our confession. But, are we so rigid that we have no flexibility in how Divine Service is carried out? As in, you gotta say it just this way or do it just this way in order to be an 'echt' Confessional?

I suspect that for most of us laity who also 'get it' about Lutheran liturgy and identify with it, the debate in synod over worship seems much more over a particular style than over substance, and we would probably agree with Anonymous(es) that it's a fight about who's 'in power' in the church governance. Sure, we don't want to see a wholesale sellout to generic protestant enthusiasm, but neither are we particularly wedded to the style of 'our grandfather's church' (a pastor who conducted the Mass in German, I might add.)

Can't we have 'unity in diversity' (to borrow a phrase from another Lutheran(?) body) when it comes to how we have the divine service, as long as that's what we really have? If the style doesn't suit you taste, that's one thing, (I'd take page 15 of the old red hymnal any day) but I have yet to experience the loss of the divine service within the style spectrum.

Pastor Peters said...

Although it may seem like I am repeating myself, you cannot have it your way and I cannot have it my way. It is God's way or no way. Furthermore, if we as Lutherans have identified form and content within our Confessions, then to be Lutheran it is not your way or my way but the way that is consistent with that Confession (and if you read those confessions you find that they do not speak in vague generalities as some suggest but specify particular ceremonies themselves that are continued.

I do have an honest question -- do we start from a form that has variation within it and use that form to the fullest OR do we start with what we want and try to adjust what we want to fit the minimums of the form?

I have been witness to some shameful things called contemporary worship -- I don't know where people are going who say it is just a matter of what hymns or songs are used. I find it shameful that we want to do as little as is identifiable as Lutheran and still get away with it... what does that say? BTW I say the same thing to those who would not use anything more contemporary than TLH page 5/15 but who choose that as a matter of taste and who insist upon NOT having the Lord's Supper every Sunday as an exercise in their evangelical freedom.

We Lutherans are who we are. If we do not like it, then maybe it is time to look for another church instead of trying to make the one we are in less Lutheran in content and practice.

Again, I am not talking about power plays by anyone -- except perhaps our Confessions. We do say in our church constitutions that this doctrinal standard rules our beliefs and our practices (not just informs but rules them)...