Friday, May 10, 2019

Style goes out of style. . .

Too long ago to remember, our publishing house put out a book entitled Evangelical Style, Lutheran Substance.  In it the author maintained that the problems Lutherans were already encountering in retaining children and appealing to the unchurched revolved around the choice of high culture borrowed from the past that folks no longer understood or appreciated.  His thesis was that Lutheran substance (doctrine) could just as well be communicated in other styles and that they key to vitality in the church was translating this doctrine to the folks in the community through the use of a style which was appealing or relevant to them.  It was not our first foray into the unknown of trying to retain the theory while altering the practice but it gave legitimacy to those who not only wanted the change but felt it was the only path to survival.  Through it all the proponents claimed that they truly loved and appreciated the rich liturgical heritage of Lutheranism but they were willing to make the personal sacrifice for the sake of the greater good -- the appeal to those not Lutheran (or anything).

Strangely enough, there were those who looked at our then hymnals, The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) and then new Lutheran Worship (1982) and labeled these "high brow," that is, high culture, German culture, and the music high baroque.  The first point is that this judgment would come as a great surprise to those who put these worship books together, to musicologists, and the Bach family who was being yoked to the form of chant and hymns in both hymnals.  No one in their right mind who knew anything about liturgy and music would have said that the family LCMS form of the Common Service and its music were high brow or high culture or that they were German or Baroque.  Both TLH and LW were captive to their own times, included more English hymns than Lutheran chorales, and, outside of preserving the mass order, they were hardly a repristination of a golden era in Lutheranism.  Both books were ground breaking in their own ways but for different purposes and different outcomes.  Now, with Lutheran Service Book (2006), it is still a misnomer to label our worship forms, hymns, and music high brow, high culture, German, or Baroque.  Just because you might find a Thee or Thou somewhere in the text does not mean the whole thing resembles Bach and Leipzig in the 1700s.

What we too often forget is that the problem of style is that it goes out of style.  Sometimes it fades more quickly than others (think here some of the hymn accompaniments of LW) and sometimes it lingers around longer.  The worship books mentioned were deliberate attempts to be deliberate and not avant garde (though some refuse to believe this) and all of them succeeded in preserving as well as offering things new.  But that has never been enough for those who beat the drum of style divorced from substance.  Their pursuit of style is born of the conviction that style is neutral in value to embody the words and works of worship and equally suitable for the confession of doctrine and praying of that doctrine that is worship.  They would change forms much more rapidly than we change hymnals and make local changes that might make it hard for some from one area of the church to even recognize the forms used elsewhere -- all the while presuming that the people leading the worship and those in the pews are adept at recognizing, appreciating, and celebrating the doctrinal consistency (while it is largely retained outside the liturgical order and assembly) as enough to give unity to the churches.

Of course there will be change but the Church cannot be cleaning out her wardrobe of liturgical forms, hymn texts, and music the way people follow fashion or fill their closets to reflect the current taste (or size of their body).  We have no resources to constantly reinvent ourselves on Sunday morning and this would consume our energy and attention the way the evangelical style congregations consume budget with technology, worship staff, copyright fees, and a constant hunt for the new, different, and contemporary.  Yes, take a look at the budgets of those whose worship spaces are warehouses of screens, stages, audio and visual technology, and the liturgy of what is new.  These budgets consume many staff and much money trying to keep up with the pace of change.  In contrast, the so-called traditional churches find it hard to scrape together a few bucks to pay an organist, money for a decent instrument, and a new parament every generation or so.  Where will it end?  How current and how new is enough to be in style?  What happens when members of the same family or age group find different styles appealing?  In the end, style becomes a terrible burden upon those who must reinvent themselves for their ever elusive goal of relevance and friendship with culture.

Not to mention the fact that some styles are not simply styles but do carry their own baggage along with them.  It is not possible to embrace every style without adaptation to make it suitable for worship -- adaptation that would mask the style and make it unrecognizable to those to whom it is supposed to appeal!  What happens when the style around us grows increasingly vulgar or ugly or intolerant or personal?  What happens when we marry the spirit of the age and it turns out that the spouse we have chosen is opposed to or incapable of communicating the sacred mystery?  Again, where do we find the resources to accomplish such careful and judicious review of what is new and different, relevant and friendly?  And how does this work more than one parish and one pastor wide and deep?  Where is the episcope of ecclesiastical supervision supposed to play into this and how does this stretch the very fabric of our unity and common life as a church?

The very appealing thing about style is its weakness -- style goes out of style.  And that is one rather non-theological reason why it is a fool's errand to try and remake the church on Sunday morning to reflect the pace of change and what is in style now.


Anonymous said...

It must be a slow day in the Tennessee parish of Pastor Peters.
He continues to beat the dead horse of contemporary worship in
the LCMS. The Style and Substance debate peaked in the 1990's.

Anonymous said...

RE: Anonymous 8:30
The "Style and Substance debate peaked in the 1990"??? Slow day???
Lex orandi, lex credendi : loosely translated as "the law of what is to be prayed [is] the law of what is to be believed"
Saint Prosper of Aquitaine: Prosper Aquitanus; c. 390 – c. 455 AD)
If the Holy Spirit uses MEANS (Word Preached and Sung and the Sacraments) for the all important methods of planting saving faith in us poor weak sinners, discussing and explaining the importance of the Liturgy we confessional Lutherans use every Sunday will always be fresh and exciting. Understanding and believing in the importance of the Liturgy in hearing "what God really did say" is basic to understanding eternal truths.
Thank you Pastor Peters. God Bless the Preacher.
Timothy Carter, simple county Deacon.

Anonymous said...

"It must be a slow day in the Tennessee parish of Pastor Peters.
He continues to beat the dead horse of contemporary worship in
the LCMS. The Style and Substance debate peaked in the 1990's."

Are you really so daft?

LCMS congregations that have abandoned their Lutheran identity are NOT growing.

There is no "peak" to this only grows worse.

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