Saturday, December 16, 2017

So which is better?

We live in an age intent upon separating form from content, style from substance, and rite from belief.  Books have been written on that subjects with some of those words in their titles.  Plenty of toner and ink has been spent on papers devoted to passionately pleading for one or the other and more digital ink than can be counted (is my own blog an exception?). 

On one hand we have churches like the Church of England or the Anglicans, as they are wont to be called, who have more faithfully preserved the form but not so much the content.  Go into any Anglican Church of any jurisdiction or theological bent and you will generally find the liturgy done well, whether high, broad, or low church.  Ceremonies matter, if at least in form if not content, and, like the royal weddings and funerals and coronations, the Anglicans have fully mastered the art of the form.  Yet we often complain that the form is just form.  That these same Anglicans seem intent upon doing things in conflict with how they pray.  Having preserved a catholic liturgical tradition and having bishops seems not to have slowed their detour into heresy and apostasy.  It is downright painful to see them unable to condemn, much less discipline, those who stick it in the eye of Christian orthodoxy.

On the other hand, Lutherans of the Missouri stripe love to talk about how they are free to craft forms however they choose for Sunday morning while claiming to maintain a higher loyalty to content.  In Missouri there are those who act, speak, and sing like evangelicals and the big box non-denominational churches on Sunday morning and yet who claim with equal vigor to believe, confess, and teach as real Lutherans.  Part of this real Lutheranism is the refusal to be told what they must do and with it is the false etymology of adiaphora which has come to mean "anything goes."  Officially and unofficially we are told that Missourians retain a higher degree of doctrinal homogeneity than nearly any other branch of Lutheranism and the key to this is knowing how to walk the narrow line between form and content, evangelical style and Lutheran substance.  Of course, we know that this is hardly the case.  The harsh reality is that Missouri has virtual fellowships within the fellowship -- people who would not think of going to one of those anything goes congregations and those who would die rather than open a hymnal in one of the other kind of congregations.  Yet on paper we are all happily loving each other while each is doing what seems right in his or her own eyes.

A few months ago I was at a wedding reception gabbing with my favorite curmudgeon (the Rev. Dr. 
David Scaer) and the topic was about just this subject.  Which IS better?  Is it better hold onto content while failing to have an identifiable form to orthodoxy or is it better to hold on to liturgical integrity even when some of the people (or, in some cases, most) leading that rite cannot speak the words (or sing them) and believe them?  For the early part of my pastoral ministry I had thought that the Missourian compromise of free form with established content was as good as it was going to get.  After all, this same landscape made it impossible for someone to come into the parish I served and say "no chasuble, no chanting, no bowing, no elevation, etc... Mr. Peters."  However, I have been uncomfortable with what the outcome of our so-called preservation of content within the context of free form has got us.  Dr. Scaer is certainly not so sure about that conventional wisdom.  And therein lies the rub.  Which IS better?

I suppose it is better from the leaders point of view to have the pastors and those who lead Sunday morning fully invested in what they are doing, believing and practicing consistently.  But I am not at all sure this is the best for the people in the pew or for the children growing up in our churches.  In fact, I am more and more of the opinion that our indifference to form and our slavish investment in content (more theory than practice) has left us a church confused, divided, and suspicious.  You can go nearly everywhere you want and an Anglican congregation will worship like an Anglican church (even though the sermon may very well make you wince).  Yet the people in the pews have the faith preserved in the rite if not in the mind of the priest leading it and that is not a bad thing.  The faith is always there in the hymnal or prayerbook and does not need to reinvented.  It just needs to be used. 

In contrast, go into a Lutheran congregation which has had a praise band, screens, contemporary Christian music, and not used the hymnal or the historic liturgy for some time and it means reinventing that parish to return to sacred hymnody, the liturgy, and the book.  Changing them back means starting over, literally. And so most parishes never go back.  They end up having too much invested in what they are doing now.  To tell you the truth, I am about sick and tired of hearing pastors tell me that they personally are edified by the great hymns of the faith and the liturgy but they must put their personal preference on the back burner for the sake of winning the masses to Jesus with forms that are, in effect, at odds with our Confessional identity.

Dr. Scaer knows it only too well.  The kinds of choices we are making are not wise and they are not without consequence.  Surrendering the Divine Service and the great hymns of the faith on Sunday morning means changing what is believed in the pews.  So, if you ask me, I would rather keep the faith of those in the pews consistent through our use of the catholic forms preserved in our hymnal (even with added ceremonial optional to that liturgical minimum) rather settle for a theoretical faith that has no real orthodox practice.  For the sake of the people in the pew and the faith preserved to the baptized, it is better to use the right rite than it is to discard the rite for our right to do what we deem preferable or effective.  It is easier to reclaim a lost Lutheranism by reminding them of what we have said and sung on Sunday morning for as long as anyone can remember than it is to take down the screens, ditch the pop Gospel music, put on vestments, and haul out the hymnals and then say, "Hey folks, this is really who we were all the time."


Anonymous said...

Isn't necessary to make choices. Just stick to the Bible, the Book of Concord, and Lutheran Service Book. Too many choices already. The LCMS needs more unity in these, of course. Thanks for raising these matters for our awareness and consideration as we faithfully adhere to our doctrine and practice in the church.

Anonymous said...

“It is easier to reclaim a lost Lutheranism by reminding them of what we have said and sung on Sunday morning for as long as anyone can remember than it is to take down the screens, ditch the pop Gospel music, put on vestments, and haul out the hymnals and then say, "Hey folks, this is really who we were all the time."
Pastor Peters, what does that look like? How would you go about reminding people in the pew of their Lutheran heritage (other than from the pulpit)? I know it must be a gradual process, but where do you start? Our church has been split into two congregations under one roof and has invested in audio-visual equipment to enhance contemporary worship. The old-school folks who make it to the not-so-convenient start time of the traditional service patiently tolerate the mostly younger folks who indulge their need to lead worship with a praise ensemble/band and forego the formalities of the liturgy. We have turned our worship service into a honeypot to attract those on which good liturgy would only be wasted, including a later more convenient start time. Originally, our congregation was making a sacrifice to attract the un/de-churched. But we discovered that the un/de-churched have a choice of a myriad big box churches and it gets to be about competition of production value – and we can’t complete. Never mind all that, we continue with a vision for ministry that is unsustainable with a dissociative disorder that confuses who we are. Are we Lutherans? Are we evangelicals? Should we be in a denomination? Alas, some are having too much fun to be concerned about such concerns.

Ed Ahlsen-Girard said...

Full disclosure: I'm RC.

To ask this question is miss the point. Lex orandi, lex credendi. It is true that there are high-church people on various sides of the Tiber, Channel, Rhine, etc. who go off moral and theological rails. But looking at the fissisparousness of "low church" generally, they're going off the moral/theological rails too. Perhaps more slowly, but they'll get there. E.g., a gentleman I know who no longer attends any service at all, because he keeps Christian rock playing all the live long day, so he's always in church, according to him.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article from a WELS perspective in 2015. 20% think there's too much contemporary worship in the hymnal already (though the author notes there technically is no "Christian Contemporary Music" in the WELS hymnal), 40% think there's not enough, and presumably the other 40% have no problems. So you could conclude that 40% support contemporary worship vs. 60% traditional. Traditionalists are concerned with doctrinal purity and clear gospel proclamation. Contemporary worshipers value joyful worship and active participation. This group is simply too large to "turn around" to traditional worship. In addition, these contemporary worshipers are rooted in the South and Midwest, where Evangelical style worship is seen as the norm. The usual "complaints" against traditional Lutheran worship: that it's too stuffy and funereal, are solved for the 40% of Lutherans who cannot meaningfully engage with tradition but who do embrace a contemporary Christian worship style. It seems that the both/and approach of the LCMS may just be a blessing in disguise.

While the Episcopal Church has declined in membership 16% since 2000, it still shows growth in the South. This area has shown the greatest resistance to the cultural trend away from churchgoing of any kind.

William Tighe said...

"While the Episcopal Church has declined in membership 16% since 2000, it still shows growth in the South."

I'd wager the source of this growth is largely refugees from more conservative "brands" of Christianity who are either (a) liberalizing - but are not yet ready to become outright Unitarian Universalists (and why bother to do that, when you can be just as doctrinally and morally "revisionist" as UUs, and have good liturgy to boot), or (b) seeking a more liturgically "traditional" form of Christianity - but cannot envisage the thought of swimming either the Tiber or the Bosphorus, and cannot find a Lutheran church whose practice is much different from what they are fleeing.

Anonymous said...

The non-denominational mega churches are usually generic Protestant.
They rely on a dynamic preacher who gives a 40 minute sermon which is
usually a verse by verse exposition of Holy Scripture. The other 20
to 25 minutes is devoting to singing and prayer. There is no confession
and absolution of sin, no Apostle's Creed, no liturgy, no Eucharist.
This type of service appeals to large audiences sitting in theater seats.