There is a seemingly never-ending and contentious discussion taking place in the church today. Some insist upon calling it a “worship war.” Others choose to speak in generic terms of preference— “traditional” worship versus “contemporary” worship. Relatively speaking, this particular contest may sometimes appear to be in a stage of infancy, but against the backdrop of the church’s history, the core of the argument has existed anciently, admittedly taking different forms and being trumpeted by different voices. Twenty-first century churches, voluntarily or involuntarily, show themselves by their public worship as having taken a stance in the discussion whether they realize it or not.
No matter the “style,” we must at least acknowledge the effects of history when it comes to words themselves. In other words, the term “style” is already a loaded one. One person’s definition of style may be very different from another’s definition. Likewise, the word “traditional” may provide only a bit of flavor for the conversation. But in the end, it too has contextual baggage—historical inconsistencies with its use. The same goes for the word “contemporary.” These words will not be parsed here because it is not the intent of this explanation to try to meet each and every subjective opinion they stir. If they are used, it will be according to the assumption that “traditional” means historic rites and ceremonies and “contemporary” equates to praise bands, projections systems, and the like.
Essentially, the is an effort to offer some practical commentary encouraging you to consider some fundamental dimensions of worship that are often left out of one’s calculation for choosing one particular church over another. And by this, the hope is that you will be better able to digest the Three Articles on Christian Worship document on our “Resources” tab. The Three Articles document is, in the end, the more important piece here. It is a concise statement that has arisen as a result of formal, long-term dialogue between two differing groups of LCMS pastors (one in which our own Pastor Emeritus, Rev. Dr. Frank J. Pies, and our associate pastor, Rodney Zwonitzer, participated) who engaged in deliberate conversations with a group of pastors discussing the “contemporary versus traditional” issue. Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church accepts Three Articles as an iteration of what we believe, teach, and confess with regard to holy worship, and therefore, we have made it our own.
By God’s grace, I pray that you will find the following commentary to be helpful. There’s a lot here. Take time with it. And as you do, if you have any questions, please feel free to contact me. I am your servant and will work to help you however I can.
God bless you as you consider what follows. It is meant to be thorough enough to serve you well.
THE LANGUAGE OF THE CHURCH AND THE LANGUAGE OF THE WORLD
When you read Three Articles, you’ll notice that the Word of God (verbal and visible—Word and Sacrament) sits at the center. This is essential. The Christian begins there. You’ll also notice that there is a sense and acknowledgment of the Word’s eternal character. In other words, the Word of God holds everything that is necessary to connect people of all times and in all places with God. It is for us today as it was for us in the beginning. In the most essential sense, this is true because our God—namely Jesus Christ—is the Word made flesh (John 1:14). He came to and connected with us. Stemming from this wonderfully certain truth, the Word of God is for the church the revealed voice and vernacular of God. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the church recognizes that it is the Word that builds, fills, and informs our very identity. The Word is perfect and beautiful, bursting with God’s salvific, life-giving, and sanctifying person and substance. So it goes without saying that the Word, the very language of God given to mortal man, becomes the language that the church learns to speak, thereby becoming her voice and dialect, not necessarily so that we as mortal creatures know and understand each other but so that we may know, understand, and dialogue with God as native speakers of His language. All of this accepts that the language of the church (as it grows out of and is shaped by the Word) is in distinction from the language of the world.
With this in mind while considering the larger history of holy worship, the church of all ages never appears to receive her language or put forth her prayer or practice apart from this language, God’s language, a language that is ultimately found embedded throughout that same history in a continued struggle with, and in distinction from, the language of the world.
Of course, in a superficial sense, the world and the church exist side by side within a similar context of language, but in the fuller sense, the world and the church will never speak the same language. In fact, it may even be said that when the world and church begin to look and sound alike is quite often when trouble begins. The distinction between what is being compelled by the world and the Gospel truth being given by Christ is often dimmed and uncertain when the languages meld. Christians are not to be in uncertainty, but certainty! Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon offer an insightful view when they note that the church “need not feel caught between the false Niebuhrian dilemma of whether to be in or out of the world… The church is not out of the world. There is no other place for the church to be than here. In the sixties, it became fashionable to speak of the need for the church to be ‘in’ the world, serving the world. We think that we could argue that being in the world, serving the world, has never been a great problem for the church. Alas, our greatest tragedies occurred because the church was all too willing to serve the world. The church need not worry about whether to be in the world. The church’s only concern is how to be in the world, in what form, for what purpose.”(1)
What these men have discerned is that believers are sometimes slow-boiled into an inability to discern what is truly Godly and what is not based upon what they see as a “realistic” view of their current context, surroundings, needs for survival, and the like. Hauerwas and Willimon offer an even more amplified example when they suggest that in 1930s Germany “we experienced the ‘modern world,’ which we had so labored to understand and to become credible to, as the world, not only the Copernican world view, computers, and the dynamo, but also of the Nazis. Barth was horrified that his church lacked the theological resources to stand against Hitler. It was the theological liberals, those who spent their theological careers translating the faith into terms that could be understood by modern people and used in the creation of modern civilization, who were unable to say no. Some, like Emanuel Hirsch, even said yes to Hitler.”(2)
We’re in step with these thoughts here at Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hartland, Michigan. We believe that the language of the church and the language of the world must be kept and understood as distinct from one another. The divergent nature of the church’s character and language is most visible in her public worship. And we would suggest that it is, in fact, possible to cut through the rhetoric of “practicality,” “realism,” and “good intentions” to identify with certainty when in fact you are in Godly worship and when you are in an event which has at its core nothing more than the desire to entertain.
And so, by acknowledging the fact that the world will always be about the active work of molding and shaping us into creatures it can comprehend, we are no longer troubled by the constant endeavor of the world to portray the ways of the Christian and the church as misguided and less than adequate in her historic worship. According to its own nature, the world will continue to demand that the voice of the church become like its own—that the church position herself for relevance. And here we discover another facet of the discussion. What is meant by “relevant”?
The church of our day, in her attempts to be “relevant,” just never seems to be able to catch up, does she? Anecdotally, I watched a brief clip from a particular show on TV where the main character spoke a bit of insightful truth as he complained to a contemporary Christian musician saying, “You aren’t making Christian music better, you are making rock music worse.”(4) Even better, one theologian said that “trying to make the gospel relevant to the contemporary age was like running after the train that has just left. ‘The World’ that we are supposed to address with the Gospel, that is, is a moving target. By the time we think we are finally getting to understand it, it is too late. It has moved on.”(5)
We, here at Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church, are comfortable in saying that the Gospel is already powerfully relevant for a world in need. It doesn’t need our help in this department. In fact, it is the only relevant invitation and power for enlightenment that truly exists in this world. With this, we see Christianity itself as “an invitation to be part of an alien people who make a difference because they see something that cannot otherwise be seen without Christ.”(6) The Christian, by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, actually sees the world for what it truly is and understands the world better than the world understands itself. In this, the Christian is enabled to get past his former self and admit that the world does not and cannot understand him because the world does not recognize and understand his Christ, the Word made flesh, the One who brought all things into being (John 1:5, 10-11; Mark 12:28-34; John 14:15-19; 15:18-24). The Christian’s logic now renders, “How then is the world even remotely qualified to advise the Christians on what is good and what is not?” It is, therefore, our job to turn the tables. We are to impose ourselves upon the world—to advise it, to bring and teach our language to it, and not the other way around.
This is not an easy job because as has been noted already, the world finds our ways curiously sensless and it works with the utmost diligence to encourage the church to be as the world is—to conform, to do that which is “practical,” that which actually sell. But the people of Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hartland are immovable in this regard because for more than six decades have we been so blessed to recognize that relevance is not decided “by what the hearer can and will hear, but what he needs to hear whether he wants to, and the latter may not be communicable in language he will naturally understand. The language can be bent only so far, till it is bent out of shape. The apostles of relevance do not see this problem, and hence toss away the truths they genuinely want to convey. Because the right word is often the unusual or technical or ‘outdated’ word, the preacher should not abandon a specifically Christian vocabulary even though the man in the pew may not understand it right away, and even though he may find it off-putting or even offensive. These words will be the language of the insider, and therefore almost by definition irrelevant to the outsider…”(7)
The words “kyrie eleison—Lord, have mercy” are strange. They are the words given by God, the creator of the world. And yet, He is the ultimate outsider in that it was necessary for Him to break into His creation to redeem it. He did this in Jesus Christ. These words are now the words of the ones whom God has made his “insiders” of faith. These words are the same expression of faith called out by so many throughout the ages, and even by those in the Gospel narratives themselves. Making the sign of the cross is weird, and yet the insiders do it as a visible expression of their native vocabulary. It is communicating a remembrance of Baptism. Kneeling during prayer is uncomfortable, and yet it is the prostrated position of humility in which those who know they need a Savior so naturally find themselves.
To conclude this portion, we believe that it is a step toward the church’s demise when she willingly forsakes her own language for the “relevance” offered by the world’s vernacular. We believe that this is an essential truth that is inevitably expressed through worship practice.
IS WORSHIP A TOOL OF EVANGELISM?
Perhaps another way to think of this question is to ask if a person who has no experience with Christian worship walks in off of the street and joins the congregation, will he be able to jump right in and go with it? If not, what can we do to make the service more accessible and comfortable?
These are good questions. But before we go anywhere, we should consider the purpose of worship.
The word worship can be a bit misleading when we consider its modern definition. Many would use it to describe something that we do to honor our God—a special time and place where we devote ourselves to “doing” for God. Because of this misuse and misunderstanding, many might affirm that the sole purpose of a church service is to simply offer thanks and praise. There is some truth to this. Indeed, these are to be present in worship, but alone they are not from God and can become a misguided, anthropocentric (man-centered) view of what is, by nature, a Christocentric (Christ-centered) action on God’s part to which we are simply recipients.
The word worship actually comes from the root words “worth” and “ship”. These two words are describing the Creator rather than the action of the creatures. In this, worship’s starting point is not from us, but rather something that proceeds from and relates to the character of God. Primarily, it is God doing to us and for us. Secondarily, it is about the praise we offer to Him in thanksgiving for His gifts. This means that worship practice throughout history has shown itself to be deliberate in its efforts to deny the gluttonous acts of “self” and to draw the community of gathered believers toward a spirit of faithful receptivity that responds with fruits of faith using the very language of God from the Scriptures.
In summary (and as can be found on our website): “We believe that holy worship is God’s action of gathering His believers together to receive from Him the gifts He has for them in Word and Sacrament. We respond to His merciful action by using the same language of the Holy Scriptures that He has given.”
Now, combining the previous section regarding the distinction between the languages of the church and world with this understanding of worship, perhaps we can attempt a fuller answer to the question which asks, “What can we do to make worship immediately accessible to the outsider?” The answer: Probably not a lot. Certainly we work to provide an Order of Service page that is helpful, but in the end, even there you are extremely limited. But that’s okay. God willing, there are plenty of friendly folks available to serve as translators.
Perhaps you could think of it this way.
Imagine that an English speaking person is suddenly dropped into a Chinese speaking society where he must find a job, understand and follow civil ordinances, and work within cultural dynamics while utilizing all the proper mannerisms. What a frightening experience that would be for most folks! Of course there may be some who have the ability to adjust rapidly in order to survive, but most people would probably be so overwhelmed that their only hope would be to escape the situation. How much better would it be to have the person meet a native first, and with this person’s help to learn bits of the language, to begin learning the culture, and to have this friend by his side until he was able to function on his own with fluency! There is evangelism taking place here (in the traditional sense of the word), but primarily, Lutherans refer to the process beyond the invitation as “catechesis,” or teaching.(8) Actually, it’s what is happening right now as you read this. Here at Our Savior we work diligently toward teaching the faith to our children, but we also provide this to our adults, not only in regular Bible study, but to those adults who desire to join the communicant membership.
As parents, we’d never knowingly place our children alone into unfamiliar situations where they’d be lost and confused, whether it is safe or unsafe. We’d want to be present to provide rescue or to encourage and reassure them. In the end, that which is good becomes familiar. We do not throw our children into the pool and hope they figure out how to swim. We bring them into the water, hold them close, and we help them to learn. Sometimes this happens with the child kicking and screaming. Fear of the water and the uneasy tension of something unfamiliar soon becomes part of their lives. It becomes familiar. It becomes something they look forward to enjoying with family and friends.”(9)
To clarify, “evangelism” is the actual reaching out from the believer to the unbeliever with the Good News of Jesus Christ. Evangelism is what believers leave a worship service strengthened to do, and it happens in various ways. Still, on the other hand, one could say that evangelism does happen in a worship service. It has to. The service has the Word of God which is the power to convict and convert the unbelieving heart. Still, and principally, worship is not evangelism as folks typically understand the term. Worship is about God meeting with those who are already His and giving them what they need for faith and life in this world and the world to come.
Again, keeping in mind the previous section on the distinction between the languages of the church and world, if the worship style is principally driven by what people want as opposed to what is faithful to the One at work in worship, we are in big trouble. When we think this way, we move a step toward the world in order to make the experience more agreeable to the world. Here at Our Savior, we believe that when this happens, the church actually begins to hinder her efforts to genuinely express and teach the language of faith. And from that point forward, it may be perfectly legitimate to accuse the church of utilizing an untruthful sales pitch resulting in a “bait and switch” tactic. For example, consider the common “come as you are” slogans used by many churches. “Come as you are” infers that you may be able to stay as you are. Yes, you may come to Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church just as you are. But don’t expect to remain as you are. You are about to be incorporated into a completely different culture. You are about to be brought into something that the world doesn’t comprehend. You are about to be brought into what our Lutheran Confessions call the “mutual conversation of the brethren.”(10) You are joining a long-running and consistent relationship of the church throughout history to her God, a relationship where God will show you by His holy Law that you are a sinner, and by His wonderful Gospel will show you your salvation from sin!
This relationship now includes you, but it did not begin with you and will not end with you. You are being brought into a new Kingdom that is not disconnected from those who have gone before you.
Lutheran theologian Norman Nagel said it well when he wrote that worship (the historic liturgy) “is like a great tree. Some of the branches have been blown away or pruned off. A little bit more has grown here and there. But what we know of the liturgy, from as long as we know of the liturgy, is what’s gone on in the liturgy. With that, we confess a whole lot of things… it’s the Lord’s church, which He sees through to the end, and we know ourselves to be in the company of those who through the centuries called upon the name of the Lord. With them we are gathered in His name, are given the forgiveness of sins. With His Word, He delivers what His words say – Baptism, Holy Communion. And so the liturgy is one of the greatest treasures! It is where we live as His people, for we are His people only as we are gathered in His name.”(11)
It is the earnest prayer and devout hope of the people of God here at Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church that you will with an open heart and mind consider what has been offered here, and that you will be willing to join us and learn more. Lastly, as you grow in your knowledge of and appreciation for the historic rites and ceremonies of the church (because their purpose is to highlight Christ and His work), we are certain that you will see the value and be evermore appreciative of the careful and concise stance of Three Articles on Christian Worship.
God bless you in your prayerful study and consideration.
17 January A.D. 2011
(1) Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville: Abington Press, 1989), 43. Additionally, the use of the term “Niebuhrian” is an attempt to express the tendency people have to say that they are simply being “realists” in their efforts. Niebuhr was an American minister in the 20s and 30s who pressed the ideology of theological realism. Some may summarize this by simply saying that you cannot change things. You must accept them, incorporate them, and go forward.
(2) Hauerwas and Willimon, 24-5. Emmanuel Hirsch was a prominent reformed theologian and professor at Gottingen University. He was able to reason that it was for the good of the church to support the Nazi party.
(3) Fredrik Sidenvall, Women Pastors? The Ordination of Women in Biblical Lutheran Perspective, ed. Matthew C. Harrison and John T. Pless (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2008), 154, 160.
(4) “King of the Hill.” As a side note, I watch very little television. I heard of the comment and was able to locate it in audio form on the internet.
(5) Gerhard O. Forde, The Preached God: Proclamation in Word and Sacrament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 165.
(6) Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville: Abington Press, 1989.), 24.
(7) David Mills, “Preaching Without Reaching: The Irrelevance of Relevant Preaching,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity Volume 20, Number 6 (July/August, 2007): 26.
(8) The word “catechesis” (pronounced ka-teh-KEE-siss) comes the Greek word which means “to teach.”
(9) Christopher I. Thoma, Feeding the Lambs: A Worship Primer for Teachers of Children (Pleasant Word, 2008), 74.
(10) Smalcald Articles, III, IV.
(11) Norman Nagel, Whose Liturgy Is It?, p. 7.