Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Worship War


This week I'm going to talk about something controversial. It's not controversial at St. John, and for that I'm glad. But at the same time I'm not sure we always understand the why of what we do and the why of why we don't.

What am I talking about? I'm talking about what is commonly called “worship” in America. Perhaps the liturgy we receive at St. John is all you've ever known. But, believe it or not, it is not the norm for most churches in America – and one might even say it is quickly becoming “unnormal” for churches in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.

There's no way we can talk about all the factors of these “worship wars” (as they've come to be called) in a short afternoon email. It is a deep issue, with much pain caused on many sides, much zeal, much sincerity, much fear, much truth ... and many lies. Today I want to make it simple. I want to shows us clearly why, if we desire to be Lutherans, we need to be very careful about “worship.” To do this, I'm going to quote a few passages from our Lutheran Confessions.

Shortly after Luther's death, the Lutheran princes lost a field battle to the Emperor, who was a staunch Roman Catholic. He then imposed on the Lutheran territories a church-mandate called the “Augsburg Interim.” It forced the Lutherans and their pastors to return to Roman Catholic “worship styles,” such as the sacrifice of the mass – a ritual which treated the Lord's Supper as an act of sacrifice by the priest, crucifying Christ again.

Responses varied. Some Lutherans said, “Well, we're still allowed to preach. This is just a matter of worship style. Its neutral. We can do this and it won't hurt our faith in Jesus.” They called this "adiaphora," or “things neither commanded nor forbidden” by Scripture. Many other Lutherans were highly disturbed, both by the false religion they were being compelled to participate in, and by the fact some of their dear brethren were so casually adopting practices which gave the appearance that the Pope and his teachings were perfectly acceptable.

When the Formula of Concord was signed by many Lutheran churches, and the Book of Concord was published to bring unity to the Lutherans in their stand against the world, the devil and the flesh, the teachers of the day made a clear statement about this controversy. In the tenth Article, called “Church Practices” or “Adiaphora,” they draw a line right to the heart of the matter, leaving all Lutherans a once for all answer to both avoiding needless pain and working together in the mission of preaching a clear Gospel about Jesus' death and resurrection for us. We confess:

We must not include among the truly free adiaphora or indifferent matters ceremonies that give the appearance or are designed to give the impression that our religion does not differ greatly from the papist religion, or that their religion is not completely contrary to ours.

It couldn't really be more clear. We have no right as the Church to try to look like other churches in order to convince those churches or their members that we are not diametrically opposed to them on their teaching of salvation.

What ought to strike us as terrifying today is that the most common answer given for the use of so-called “contemporary” or revivalistic worship practices in Lutheran churches is precisely because the pastors and people believe that others who have been raised in either Protestantism or American secular culture need to be convinced that the differences between Biblical Lutheranism and other churches simply isn't that big a deal. More so, the revival-music movements were developed by groups who wanted to convince the people that the differences between the Church and the world isn't that big a deal.

But the knife cuts even deeper. The teachers of our Formula saw what we have completely lost sight of: In regard to true adiaphora or indifferent things we believe, teach and confess that such ceremonies, in and of themselves, are no worship of God or any part of it.

That is, if we are ever going to call anything we do in our Churches, “adiaphora – something neither commanded nor forbidden,” then we also must say, “It's not worship.” We cannot honestly say, “It's worship style. It's adiaphora.” To do so is to ignore Jesus' own words, “In vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrine.”

What does this mean? It means that true worship is not what we do. Where there is something in the Church that is true worship, we are not allowed to change it. True worship is received. It is the Word of God coming to us. It is the Sacrament of the Altar, given to us. It is our prayers which are only the Word of God spoken again. It is our praise which comes only from faith in the Word, and which again proclaims the same Words – the deeds of the Christ who brought us out of darkness and into his marvelous light. It is this misunderstanding that lies at the very heart of all our “worship wars.”

Worship has nothing to do with singing, with enjoying what is sung, with having warm feelings about God, or with anything else that relies on us. True worship is faith created in us by the Word, and that Word then drives and gives and leads us to all the the places where God serves us: Gottesdienst, as the Lutherans used to say: Divine Service.

In this way, there is no such thing as a worship “style.” There is belief and there is unbelief. There are God's gifts, and there is us. What about so-called “contemporary worship” and so-called “traditional worship”?

First, confessional Lutherans do not “do” traditional worship in the same way that more revivalistic groups “do” contemporary worship. What we do at St. John is we rely on the common Divine Service or Divine “Liturgy” which has been gradually formed by two thousand years of history in the western churches – from the Jerusalem Church we read of in Acts, to the medieval Roman Christians, to the Reformation and into our own day. We rely on it because it is simply a pattern of sound words for hearing the Word and receiving the Sacraments. In this way, we do not even have “traditional worship” at St. John. We have the Divine Service. We also use an organ and have a choir – but that is not what makes us “traditional” in the Lutheran sense of the word. What makes us traditional is that we gather around the Word for the sake of hearing about who Jesus is, what Jesus has done, and what he is coming again to do.

As we meet, we meet in the midst of a context of teachers who support a movement they call “contemporary” which truly teaches that our way of receiving Jesus is really just a style that we prefer and nothing more. To make matters worse, the movement also teaches that our “style” of receiving Jesus won't work for mission or to convert the world. What we need more is to look less like Church, to look less like Lutherans, and to look more like anything that will attract people to sit in the pews. This should sound familiar. Here we have a movement that actually considers the adiaphora – the song, the feelings, the style – to be the worship.

We must not include among the truly free adiaphora or indifferent matters ceremonies which give the appearance or are designed to give the impression that our religion does not differ greatly....We believe, teach and confess that such ceremonies are no worship of God or any part of it.

It makes me sad that so many Lutherans have thought so little about this matter. Our confessions have rarely served us as a guide, which is what they are there for! The Book of Concord is not just a book of answers, but a norm for settling controversies about new ideas that we come face to face with. Our confessions are a pattern of thought about Words which can help our little ship navigate how to be the best Biblical Church it can in the midst of raging times, as we confesss, Particularly when the opponents [of the Gospel] are striving either through violence or coercion or through craft and deceit to suppress pure teaching and subtly to slip their false teaching back into our churches – such things, even indifferent things, may in no way be permitted with a clear conscience and without damaging the divine Truth.

What then, shall we do? We begin by rejoicing that as of yet the fleece has not been slipped over our eyes. The Blessed Gift of the Word and Sacrament are still given in our midst, and they are not obscured by the uncommanded things – not yet. We become disciples of this Church and this Way which is the Church. We must learn from Jesus how to believe, teach and confess, for the sake of growing a new harmony out of the current disorder. This harmony will be founded on the proclamation of the doctrine which unites us. We must also pray for those, Lutheran and otherwise, who are spending all their time on the indifferent things, putting their hopes in these works of men, treating them as if they were the mission of the Church, and teaching them as if they were God's concern. We also pray for conversion and we pray for reconversion for ourselves. We pray for the Light of Christ to be a City on a hill for all of us – that together, the Lamb at the Center is our sun and moon and stars. Finally, we pray that we would not be afraid to speak of this Mystery, but that his discipling of us would make us bold to speak the Truth in love, as we confess, without frivolity or offense, as seems most useful, beneficial, and best for good order, Christian discipline, evangelical decorum, and the building up of the Church.

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