Saddened by Exciting Styles 

            I doubt that there is a single reasonably active member of a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation that has not been asked for an opinion on the “style of worship” issue.  I am not a pastor, a “worship planner”, or a church musician. However, as an elder and adult Bible class leader, I am asked for my opinion or thoughts on this controversy almost weekly. 

             Almost before I begin to respond, I am confronted with an uninterrupted string of challenges:  “The people are excited”, or “The people like this style”, or “The numbers support the contemporary style.”.  I answer all of those observations and others just like them with a simple question, “So what?” I am willing to acknowledge the sincerity and good intent of those advocating various contemporary styles of worship.  At the same time I also state that a great deal of what has been loosely labeled as “contemporary worship” has done nothing but fill me with a great sadness.  This article is my attempt to state briefly my reasons for that sadness.

             In the end, it all comes down to the essential question “Do they know whom they worship?”  At first glance I do not know if there is simpler question, nor is there a question more easily confused.  This is not a mere academic question.  More importantly, it is a question that concerns the people for whom Christ died and rose again.  They are the people God desires to serve in His grace by Word and Sacrament. 

 Worship is first and foremost “Divine Service”.  It is the Servant Lord coming to serve His people.  As His people assemble by His call, they hear His frightening word condemning their sinfulness.  They encounter the great chasm that separates them, as sinners, from the Righteousness One.  We gather as people in terror of His wrath which we so justly deserve.  We gather as those standing for, naked, empty and helpless before Him.  But, He then speaks to us His words of complete forgiveness in the person and work of His only begotten Son, our Lord and Savior, Christ Jesus.  He continues to serve His people as He imparts, strengthens, and preserves a saving faith within them that makes them one with Him and each other.  If these people in the pews are being in any way harmed or misled by improper decisions concerning worship style, then, by definition, the issue is critical.   

            There is nothing new about questions of style of worship.  Look again at the story of the Israelites and the Golden Calf in Exodus 32:1-8.  So often I hear this story presented in a manner that implies that the people, knowingly, consciously, and with full intent, told themselves that they were completely putting aside the “God of Moses”, and replacing that God with a different god or gods.  I do not question that they ended up turning away from the true God.  What I question is how they got there. 

 Could it not be that the wandering Israelites and their leaders were telling themselves that they desired to worship their God in a manner that satisfied their senses, their feelings, their culture and their life experiences?  If that is so, they became idol worshippers by a man-centered process.  They replaced the worship of God with the worship of self.  The chose to measure their relationship with God by their own standards.  They wanted a god they could see to go before them rather than to be led by the unseen God.  Did this worship style give them a false sense of being happy?  Did it not correspond to their life experiences?  Had not the Egyptian style of worship been successful and satisfying to their senses?  Did it not seem reasonable that their leaders should give the people what they wanted?  It would certainly appear so but, the critical question remains.  Was that approach to worship consistent with the worship of the true God?  Moses writes that God wanted to destroy them.  They had turned away from the true God and were reveling in the worship of idols.

             In the New Testament, in John 4:7-26, we have the story of Christ Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.  So often we focus upon the number of her husbands instead of the living water that is Jesus.  Jesus’ response to this woman rings particularly loud.  He said, “You worship what you do not know….” verse 22.  How could that be?  The Samaritans at least had the Pentateuch, though revised to fit with their situation as a people separated from the temple.  Had they not done what was appropriate to adapt to the separateness of their culture, the separateness of their geographical location, and their felt needs?  What could be wrong with that?  Nothing, if you consider tampering with the revealed Word a minor issue.  Such tempering led them to the worship of a god that they did not know.  As a result they were on the path to eternal separation from God.

             The last section of Scripture that I turned to in examining my sadness over various contemporary styles of worship is Matthew 16.  This chapter begins with the Pharisees and Sadducees demanding a sign from heaven so as to test Christ Jesus.  This demand for things according to man’s measurements is then treated as the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees that threatens saving faith.  Matthew next provides us with that wonderful confession of Peter upon which Christ builds His church. 

 “He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  And Jesus answered him, Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.  And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”” Matthew 16:15-19 (N.R.S.V.)

 It is the confession, that knowledge of the true God, that trust in the promises of the true God, particularly redemption, and that personal appropriation of those promises inwardly and then outwardly professed by the believer that the LORD commends.  But look at the rebuke of Peter that quickly follows. 

“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.  And Peter took his aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord!  This must never happen to you.’  But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”  Matthew 16:21-23 (N.R.S.V.)

 After such a bold confession, Peter quickly began to substitute his own thinking, his own standards of measurement, his own emotions, i.e. himself, for the God who had revealed Himself in the person and work of the Lord Christ Jesus, known to us only through the Scriptures.  Had not Peter begun the walk of worshipping God falsely?  Is not that the basis of Christ’s rebuke?

             When I consider the Scriptures and look at any particular style of worship, I have to ask myself whether or not such a “style of worship” leads people to any particular focus or central thought in their worship.  The answer is undoubtedly “yes” to me.  The question then is “Where is the contemporary style leading them?” 

             In most of what I have seen identified as the contemporary styles of worship I find an overall effort to lead people back into themselves.  There seems to be an intentional focus upon man’s emotional response.  That response is the way to measure Christ’s work in the worshipper.  Further if the worshipper’s temporal circumstances have improved, then we supposedly have another observable sign of being reconciled to God.  Man’s senses are made the standard of measuring God’s work.  And this is done in a manner satisfactory to man’s reason, as visibly identified by improvements in earthly circumstances. 

 The problem is that all of us are totally depraved in and of ourselves by the corruption of inherited sin.  When the Service is looked at as a whole, I see an attempt to encounter a sovereign God on a path that goes around and avoids the cross.  I hear the Father, as creator, ruler, sovereign almighty one.  I hear a Son that is a friend, teacher, example, model, or the like.  And I hear a Spirit that is an uplifter, comforter, and above all things, “fixer of this life”.  I hear a God defined by man’s perspective of condition and need. 

     But where is the God of grace revealed in the Scriptures?  Where then is the true Gospel?

             When I approach corporate worship, personal meditation, prayer, or any aspect of my life in Christ, it is imperative that I remember that I need to die to self.  I can not receive new life in Christ and be made into the new creature promised in the Gospel if I hold onto my life as I would want to define it.  I need to live in my baptism, dying as a sinner in Christ’s death and receiving new life, as a saint, in His resurrection.  That new creature is what truly counts, not some repaired or satisfied sinful creature.  Most of what I have encountered in the contemporary styles of worship avoids that death.  Accordingly, my real needs, as set forth by Divine diagnosis, are not addressed.  The avoidance of His diagnosis and the cure He offers in Christ alone, by faith alone, known by the Gospel alone, leads to a perversion of the essence of the new life offered in Christ.  My real new identity is one filled by Him, new flesh by His flesh, with a heart and mind changed by His grace as is truly necessary.

             God’s Law kills.  It clearly shows man’s condition before Him, but, by His grace, I place my trust in the Gospel.  By means of the Gospel the Spirit works newness in me.  He works the strength and desire to withstand temptation, endure struggle, see my life under God’s grace and trust in my LORD.  His grace through the Gospel, seen only through faith, gives me new life.  I must not trust my senses, my reason, my feelings, or anything else that has been corrupted by sin, but rather His love for me revealed most clearly in Christ Crucified. 

            With all that, why sadness in the midst of people so happy to be a part of the contemporary styles of worship?  I know those people in two ways.  One way that I know them is by being a part of their lives.  I have been blessed with the opportunity to work with many families in struggles, grief, affliction and turmoil.  I have had an opportunity to see their doubts, their pains, their fears, their complete inability ever to satisfy their own consciences by their own power. 

 Secondly, I know them through God’s Word.  Even if I could not see it by my knowledge of them as individuals, God’s Word makes it very clear what their condition is under His law.  They are sinners, like me.  No matter how much behavior modification occurs, how many steps are followed to be better citizens, parents, children, families, employees, employers, or the like, there is no hope for them except through the cross. No worship leader dare knowingly ever shift any part of their minds and hearts away from that cross. 

             The way of the cross is not a way natural to man, or pleasing to man in his natural condition.  In fact, except by God’s grace, man hates God all the more as he encounters the Word in all of its truth and purity.  The way of man sees no benefit in being joined into the people of all ages and times set apart by God as His people, wherever located, whenever living.

             I am sure that almost all, if not all, contemporary Services occurring in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod contain at least parts that clearly point to Christ Crucified such as the sermon or the absolution.  But if those parts are surrounded by other portions of the service, such as “praise songs”, or if other portions have been deleted, what central thought should we anticipate actually being heard and celebrated by the people in the pews?  This is particularly true if we have made the decisions based upon the preferences of unbelievers, people who do not even know the true Christ.  “Praise songs” present a particularly difficult challenge since they have such a high emotional impact on people.  It is not sufficient to simply test the words sung against the Scripture, although many would not even pass that test, in that even correct, but simple, forms of the Gospel encapsulated with popular melodies, pop culture instruments, praise band leadership, and the like may still place the focus on the emotional fervor generated above everything else.  Are praise songs being measured by whether they get people to clap, raise their hands, rock their bodies in place or the like or whether they serve to connect people to the cross?  If the Old Testament reading is omitted, are not people being told that the Old Testament contains only law, or history, or some lesser message than the New Testament?  Will that omission by itself not speak against the Gospel message of the Old Testament?  Will the omission of a creed not lead people away from the church of the prophets and the apostles, the church of the ages?  Will the omission of the invocation not lead people away from the understanding that the Service is truly the public assembly of believers celebrating their unity in Christ?  Does not the omission of time-tested liturgy diminish the importance of doctrine, the sound teachings of the Scriptures?  Do bulletins that type out only the confession spoken by the congregation, without printing out the absolution not diminish the true Gospel’s message of by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ’s vicarious atonement alone?  All the portions of the Service separately must be examined and the whole of the Service must be tested to truly identify the intended focus of the assembly.                       

We know that sinful man desires only to worship himself, prefers darkness over light, death over life, falsehood over the truth.  As we decide about the style of worship, we must be mindful of all the temptations to sin that are at work in the gathering of people who remain sinners and saints.  True worship requires continued true teaching and testing against the one source and norm for all our teachings and practices, the Holy Scriptures.  Does the entire Service lead worshippers into Christ Crucified?  If not, then the Service should make us sad, however “exciting” its appearance or how good the intent. We must always be asking “Do they know whom they worship?”

                                                             Larry D. Harvey

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