Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Diversity in Lutheran Worship

I attended the convention of the Southern District of our church body this past week. I could write a tome about it, but sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. However, I do want to address an interesting debate about worship. For my non-Lutheran friends, we Lutherans disagree with each other pretty vehemently about what should go on Sunday morning in our churches. Here's a brief overview of the controversy.

Traditionalists vs. Non-Traditionalists

Traditionalists advocate a liturgical form of worship that is nearly identical to the Roman Catholic Mass. In fact, many traditional Lutherans maintain practices that the Roman Church has abandoned since the 1960s (such as the altar that faces the wall and a kneeling rail for Holy Communion). Traditionalists do not approve of things like guitars, drums, dramas, dancers, casual attire, themed services (such as polka and cowboy services), big screens, etc. They see worship as very orderly, with pastors wearing Catholic vestments, an altar with candles, with music consisting of hymns, chants, and chorales, typically accompanied by an organ. Some traditionalists even use incense. Traditionalists typically adhere to the liturgy as found in one of our synodically-approved hymnals. Traditionalist preaching is anchored in an assigned Scripture reading for the day and is done from a pulpit.

Non-traditionalists, on the other hand, have a diversity of worship practices. Some retain the litugical form, while incorporating what is known as contemporary Christian music (CCM). Others take a more radical approach, using large screens instead of hymn books, and having no liturgical order at all. Some use clowns, dramas, dancers, puppets, and rock music. Instead of wooden pews, one may find theater seats with cup holders. Instead of chorales and chants, one will find syncopated upbeat modern music that tends to be repetative. Pastors typically avoid vestments in favor of casual garb, and instead of standing in a pulpit, may stroll around the audience with a microphone.

Worship in Today's Missouri Synod

In the modern Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS), one can find both extremes. There is a church in Detroit, for example, that looks like it came right out of the middle ages, with votive candles surrounding statues of Jesus and Mary, in which women cover their heads with veils, the pastor is addressed as "Father," the service is called "Holy Mass," and incense, chanting, and genuflecting are part and parcel of the Sunday service. There are also LCMS churches (many in the South) that have pulsing rock music, a pastor clad in khakis (who is addressed by his first name), in which women are dressed in low-slung midriff-baring jeans, people spontaneously give their testimony, hands are waved around in the air, and dancers interpret biblical texts.

There are obviously different understandings of worship competing here.

Needless to say, those who are comfortable with Gregorian chant don't approve of hip-hop and heavy metal in the church. They find this distasteful and undignified - more entertainment than worship of the living God in our midst. On the other hand, non-traditionalists accuse the traditionalists of being narrow-minded and unconcerned with bringing new people into the church by being more concerned with staid tradition than reaching out to the lost in their own culture.

This is, our worship war, in a nutshell.

The Lutheran Confessions on Worship

One might be tempted to say: "Why not just let everyone do what is right in his own eyes?" This is the 21st century American way, after all. Give the consumer what he wants, and don't criticize what others are doing. Above all, don't be divisive. Can't we all just get along?

Part of the problem is that we Lutherans have all pledged to abide by a set of documents contained in a book called the Book of Concord. "Concord" means harmony. This mutual confession assures that we Lutherans all believe the same thing - and that belief is expressed in our worship.

So what do these Lutheran confessions in the Book of Concord say about worship? This brings me back to last week's Southern District Convention debate.

One proposed resolution quoted a passage from our Lutheran confessions:

"among us nothing in doctrine or ceremonies has been accepted that would contradict either Holy Scripture or the universal Christian Church" and that "no novelty has been introduced that did not exist in the Church in the days of old (for) no noticeable change has occurred in the public liturgy of the Mass" (Augsburg Confession XXIV).

The reason this passage appears in the Augsburg Confession of 1530 is that the Lutheran reformers were being lumped in with many different, more radical reformers. The Lutherans are making the argument that one of the reasons our churches are orthodox is that our worship is traditional. We avoid "novelty" and retain biblical and Catholic "doctrine and ceremonies." In other words, Lutheran worship is, by definition, liturgical and traditional.

Keep in mind that every Lutheran pastor has sworn that all of his preaching and teaching would reflect these confessions - not merely for the sake of convenience or unity - but because they are a correct exposition of Scripture.

A local pastor objected to this resolution, and quoted another part of the Book of Concord to make his point:

"We further believe, teach, and confess that the community of God in every place and at every time has the right, authority, and power to change, to reduce, or to increase ceremonies according to its circumstances." (Formula of Concord [Solid Declaration] X)

Wow. You can see where the traditionalists would rally 'round the Augsburg Confession, while the non-traditionalists would hoist the banner of the Formula of Concord. What's a good Lutheran to do? Is this a contradiction? The Augsburg Confession says (in 1530) that we Lutherans are orthodox because we have retained the Catholic Mass and all its ceremonies. The Formula of Concord (in 1580) says that any church anywhere has the right to change the cermonies according to its needs.

Solving the Paradox

There are a couple of ways to look at this paradox.

1) Maybe the Formula of Concord takes precedence because it was written fifty years later. In this case, Lutherans are free to increase or decrease, alter, or abolish ceremonies per its circumstances. If High Mass and "smells and bells" works in the midwest, fine. But if blue jeans, clapping, and "Shine, Jesus, Shine" works in the South, that's fine too. This interpretation seems to preserve the peace, allows for diversity, and avoids the problem of making our church leaders decide that some are right and others are wrong. It seems to be a win-win situation.

And yet, there is another viewpoint...

2) Maybe both statements have to be accepted together - that there is room for variation in cermony from congregation to congregation, and at different times and places - and yet, that variation is limited to traditional and ancient churchly rites. This interpretation is borne out in history, as the Church has always had diversity within a traditional framework. For centuries, the Church has had Eastern liturgies (St. James, St. John Chrysostom, etc.) alongside of various Western liturgies (Roman, Sarum, Gallican, etc.). And yet, these are all traditional liturgical forms that have a great deal in common with each other. Nothing in the ancient worship of the Church resembles today's "contemporary services" as seen in much of mainline Protestantism.

I believe that the only way to accept the Book of Concord in its entirety - without cherry-picking the parts we like and ignoring those that seem to speak against what we like - is to accept the latter interpretation. Variation is fitting and proper - but within traditional limitations. The Formula of Concord is in no way a license to do anything we want (puppets, dancing girls, plays, rock concerts, etc.) within the Sunday worship service. These things truly violate the spirit of the Augsburg Confession - in which faithful Lutheran laymen were making the point to the emperor that they were not radicals, but rather conservative, faithful Catholics who sought badly-needed reforms. These brave princes stuck their necks out and invited the emperor to cut off their heads before they would take back what was written in that confession. Do we dare dishonor their memory (not to mention the faith we have sworn to uphold) by simply ridding ourselves of the confession they made? Can we ignore the Augsburg Confession, or strive to override it by making one confession appear to undermine another?

Unfortunately, the hierarchy of our church (as well as the democratic process of the convention) overwhelmingly supports ignoring the Augsburg Confession's clear statement that Lutheran worship is, by definition, traditional and liturgical. They are taking the broad road that affirms everyone, instead of the narrow road that may upset those who no longer see the confessions as binding.

Just in case you're still not convinced, let me give you a few more words from the Formula of Concord, Article X, that makes the point. While it indeed reads:

"We further believe, teach, and confess that the community of God in every place and at every time has the right, authority, and power to change, to reduce, or to increase ceremonies according to its circumstances,"

The very next words read:

"as long as it does so without frivolity and offense, but in an orderly and appropriate way, as at any time may seem to be most profitable, beneficial, and salutary for good order, Christian discipline, evangelical decorum, and the edificiation of the church." [emphasis added]


The advocates of "contemporary worship" always seem to stop short of this part. While advocating Christian liberty in matters of worship, this confession also realizes the necessity of being very conservative in using that freedom. In other words, the Formula affirms the traditionalism of the Augsburg Confession - it does not contradict or override it.

Let me ask those of you Lutherans who advocate non-traditional worship a question. Do these things: entertainment-based pop music, dancing girls, puppet shows, chancel dramas, balloons, wise-cracking walkabout preachers, blue jeans, bare midriffs, and Starbuck's Coffee fit with concepts like: "without frivolity or offense," orderly, appropriate, salutary, order, discipline, and decorum? Can you honestly stand with the Lutheran laymen at Augsburg who bared their necks before the emperor and swore that Lutheran worship is that which has been received (via tradition) from Scripture and the universal (Catholic) Church, that it is not rooted in novelty, and in fact, no major change has been made from the medieval Catholic Mass?

I fully acknowledge that there are faithful Christians who worship without the liturgy. They just aren't Lutherans. Those who are pushing the envelope away from traditional and liturgical forms cannot be committed to our mutual Lutheran confession. The honest thing for them to do would be to leave our communion and stop promising a vow that they have no intention of keeping. Those in our synodical and district offices should cease holding their moist fingers to the wind in a desire to be popular, but rather repent, and join our fathers in the faith in baring their necks before the emperor of public opinion, holding to our confession of the evangelical Catholic faith without regard to popularity or coziness with the secular culture.


Greg said...

But, why do we support the Lutheran Confessions? As we say, because they are a "correct exposition of the scriptures". There must be something biblical in the practice of liturgical worship...hmmm. Perhaps the orthody lies in that liturgy provides a biblical road map for drawing near to God in worship. More importantly, how his gifts draw us near to him.

It's no coincidence that we invoke the Trinitarian God--as opposed to the unitarian "god". We don't approach God with hands stained by sin, but we confess our sins and are cleansed. Indispensible biblical principles are at work here.I think this is all implicit in your argument for the second option.

If the liturgical structure presents a scriptural way of coming before God, recieving his gifts, and being sent back into the world to be salt and light--which I beleive it does--then, how can we discard it?

I appreciated your comments immensely!

Father Hollywood said...


Thanks for your kind words and wise reflections. We are increasingly replacing the traditional confessions with pragmatic marketing. We seem to put more faith in slogans, jingles, and trinkets than the work of the Holy Spirit.

Steven G. said...

What amazes me is the complete lack of a historical literacy in the LCMS today!

Santayana said:

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Pastor Beisel said...

Absolutely stunning remarks. Traditionalists are often marked as unevangelical, and yet, we believe in preserving the historic forms and vestments and orders precisely FOR THE SAKE OF THE GOSPEL. While the folks on the opposite side of the arena are cheering, "Christian freedom! Christian Freedom!" the Gospel is being thrown right out the window along with the liturgy and is being replaced by worship that is completely unevangelical due to its insistence on novelty.

Michael said...

This is a well-put defense for fidelity to tradition.Thank you.
Michaelk Borussia

Petersen said...

Well said.


Father Rich said...

I am enjoying your blog. I was an inquirer to ordained ministry in the ELCA. I left the ELCA IN 1986 to be recieved by the Charismatic Episcopal Church. I haved been a priest for 5 years. Most of our churchs attempt a prayerful balance of ultra traditional and contemporary worship. Christ truly is being glorified in this blended type of worship.
Doesn't the LCMS have a standard liturgy or at least follow the some ancient quidelines as to what constitutes Eucharistic Liturgy ?
Fr Rich Maciejewski (CEC)

Father Hollywood said...

Thanks, y'all, for your generous encouragement - especially to Pr. Beisel for pointing out that our traditionalism is not for the sake of tradition in a vacuum, but rather for the sake of the holy gospel that has been "traditioned" (handed over) to us.

This crucial observation often gets lost in the debate, and I appreciate Paul's insights.

Father Hollywood said...

Father Rich:

Thanks for dropping by!

We used to have a "standard liturgy" as late as the 1970s when the 1941 TLH ("The Lutheran Hymnal") was the only English-language hymnal in wide use in our synod. This hymnal was rather similar liturgically to the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.

By the time our 1982 LW ("Lutheran Worship") came out, we had been experimenting with liturgical changes.

Thus, we ended up with congregations that clung to TLH, and others who used the LW setting of the Mass that corresponds to the ELCA's LBW ("Lutheran Book of Worship") - and still others who use LW's revision of TLH.

Confused yet?

The upshot is that we now have several "official" liturgies in the LCMS: TLH, LW1, LW2, LW3 (an approximation of Luther's Choral Mass), plus a setting from the 1970(?) Worship Suppliment, and a setting from the 1998 Hymnal Suppliment. Additionally, the upcoming hymnal contains 4 settings of the Divine Service.

This doesn't count special "worship services" that are published by Concordia Publishing House, not to mention non-LCMS and non-Lutheran resources that are used by some of our congregations. We also have congregations that are aliturgical.

Heck, we now even have two official orders of Matins and two different orders of Vespers (with different words and music).

Thus, we went from one common service to a multiplicity within a generation.

Furthermore, we have no bishops to ensure uniformity (as do Lutherans in Scandinavia and Africa, as well as Anglicans). Our District Presidents and our Synodical President do not encourage uniformity, and in fact, are quite candid in their preference for diversity.

While at seminary, I met a young man who was considering attending seminary. He had never in his life even seen a liturgy! While some may find this "hip" and "edgy," I find it sad and disturbing. How will his pastor minister to him on his death bed decades from now?

As far as "blended" services go, it really doesn't fit within our confessional framework. Our confessions are incompatible with charismatic worship and theology. The confessions to which we subscribe take the tack that the Holy Spirit only works through Word and Sacrament. Hence, our traditionalism (which is rather an embarassment to those who don't feel the need to abide by our confessions).

Having said that, "blended" services are very common in the LCMS. It's often a stepping stone to full-blown "contemporary" services in such a way as to appease the lingering traditionalists until they all die off, just shut up, or simply accept incremental changes.

I have found that Missouri Lutherans are the worst at this kind of worship (contemporary and blended). It is so antithetical to our received tradition and confessional theology that when we try such innovations in worship, we stick out like Yo Yo Ma at an Ozzy Osbourne concert. One of my profs was fond of saying the LCMS always adopts what works worst, and does so 30 years after those things fall out of favor in the rest of the Church.

Obviously, your jurisdiction has a different confession than we do regarding charismatic gifts, and your worship reflects your theology. I respect the integrity shown by your church body. Lex credendi, lex orandi. If only confessional Lutherans shared your integrity by having our worship uniformly reflect our theology!

BTW, is your church body the one that puts out the NKJV Gospel book? I know several LCMS pastors who have bought it.

Whey Lay said...

Great post. I've read it several times now just to soak it in. I'm so starved for liturgy that I would gladly accept any of the aformentioned "official liturgies" if even just once in a while for a glimpse. This multiplicity that you mentioned is most likely our undoing though as a synod united in common practice. It is a short step from there to a full contemporary service.
Pastor Biesel makes a good observation about the liturgy being a good and useful vehicle to proclaim the Gospel. We should not forget that or shrink away when called unloving or unmission because of our defense of it. Make our detractors prove why it does not promote the Gospel. They will be unable to, but I would like to watch how they try mount that horse.

cheryl said...

"we pray what we believe and believe what we pray".

As was remarked above, the Gospel is precisely what is at stake. I've lived in the south all my life, and know exactly what you're talking about. It's not just the liturgy, it's our entire christian world-view down here. We are so incredibly ignorant as to our catholic identity, it isn't funny. Tossing the liturgy is just symptomatic of that.

It's really been difficult for me personally. I'm not aware of how lutheranism is fairing in the rest of the country, so it's hard for me to be able to essentially ignore what's going on down here as an aberration.

Even online I encounter it constantly. The more catholic-minded of us, get called orthofiles, (closet)romanists, ect. It's been really hard staying within lutheranism, when this kinda of silliness is going on.

Unfortunately (or fortunately) I don't have another church to go too, so I remain within lutheranism for the time being (and God knows, I'd like to stay permanently).

I still cling to lutheranism because of her confessions and it's claim to catholicity, despite the protestantization of the modern church.

I still remember the first time I read the confessions, and thought to myself as a catholic christian, this is the church I want to belong too. I was disenchanted by Rome at the time (and that hasn't changed) and my knowledge of the EO was so-so (it's still not an option), so I was very much in a state of flux. And I'll never forget that feeling (for the few brief months, before I came into contact with ahem the more protestant lutherans of the bunch), of finally finding a church.

I'd shake off their accusations and such, if I thought they weren't the norm, and go back to my catholic euphoria with the confessions. But from my perspective, it's the catholic christians which are the minority it seems. And that just tears me up.

William Weedon said...

Father Beane,

Superbulous! At a pastoral conference, I pointed out the AC XV passage to a neighboring pastor and asked him how he taught that to his parish. He looked confused, but a friend helped him out: "That descriptive not prescriptive." A friend of mine, Fr. Jeffrey Gross, pipped up: "That's right: it's descriptive of what it means to be Lutheran."

Father Hollywood said...


I know exactly where you're coming from. I was raised nominally Baptist, and attended a Roman Catholic High School run by the Jesuit order (where I was exposed to the sacraments and the liturgy). At 17 years old, I visited a local LCMS church, and began to ask the pastor some questions. That blessed father in the faith, Rev. Alvin Boehlke, gave me the Augsburg Confession. I was baptized at 18.

Of course, over the years, it has been disappointing, no, worse than that: disheartening, disturbing, distressing, and depressing - to see what goes on in "Lutheran" churches. In both doctrine and practice, we have lost our way.

I know of many faithful and confessional Lutheran pastors and laymen who have left, or are considering leaving, our communion due to this dissonance between what we confess and what we practice. I know many fine pastors who have been eaten up and spit out by their congregations and by our hierarchy - and are leaving the holy ministry entirely. Men gifted with the Holy Spirit and sent to proclaim the Gospel treated like garbage and thrown to the curb.

I would not blame you or anyone else for leaving, but I would encourage you to stay and fight the good fight of faith and make the good confession of our fathers.

I believe at some point, there will be a split, and it will likely involve more than just the LCMS. It seems almost inevitable that there will be a huge reordering of American Lutheranism, as the ELCA becomes ever-more ecumenically entangled and doctrinally ambiguous, while the LCMS entrenches into a business-approach to church administration and a happy-clappy approach to worship. The other larger Lutheran communions in America have similar issues.

Please remember your brothers and sisters of the Augsburg Confession around the world - from Bishop Andrew Elise and his flock of martyrs in Sudan, as well as Bishop Obare and his intrepid souls in Kenya who suffer for their bishop's courage and integrity, to the persecuted Bishop Olsson of the Mission Province of Sweden, and all the faithful shepherds and sheep in North America who struggle to be true to the confessions.

You are part of something much bigger, an evangelical movement of five centuries within the New Testament Church Catholic of two millennia. Let us bear this cross together as brothers and sisters, and let us support one another earnestly in prayer.

The fate of our synod, of our confession, of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church is in the hands of our Lord. We all have a part to play as soldiers of the cross. Be brave, and do not become embittered. We are called to be faithful and to love - even our enemies.

Synods come and go, but the Bride of Christ and the Lamb endure forever. Blessings to you!

Father Hollywood said...

Fr. Weedon:

Article XV is certainly a hidden treasure to the Church and our confession. Fr. Gross' quip is profound - as the Augsburg Confession is indeed descriptive of what it means to be Lutheran. To parse the confessions into "descriptive" and "proscriptive" parts is to pick and choose what parts we want to follow - a way to claim to be a "quia guy" but to be able to look upon them with a "quatenus eye."

Such quibbling is dishonest. It is a way to wiggle out of what is the most uncomfortable element of the Christian faith: submission. Wives do not want to submit to husbands, children do not want to submit to parents, and we humans do not want to submit to God - especially not through his gift of Scripture, the Church, and her tradition (the latter of which is where our confessions lie).

If some parts of our confessions are to be dismissed as merely descriptive (but not of us) vs. proscriptive, who decides which is which? Do we really have concord when the Book of Concord may be interpreted in many ways?

Another equally dishonest workaround includes: "That's only in the Latin, we're only pledged to the German." Of course, nobody can explain why this is so, or why they think the Latin texts are wrong or inferior, or why the Book of Concord has always included both Latin and German texts.

There are certainly Christians who do not confess the Book of Concord - some 2 billion of them! If parishes, pastors, district and synodical presidents, or laymen in our communion cannot in good conscience confess and submit to what the now-sainted Rev. Dr. Kenneth Korby called "our Catholic Book of Concord," they should consider a church body that is not bound by these confessions - instead of looking for a higher-critical approach to circumventing them.

Without the Book of Concord, we have no concord - merely a common label that is rendered meaningless by the lack of a common confession.