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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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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