Thursday, January 18, 2007

To Liturgy, or not to Liturgy

Last month a reader asked this question on my post about conversion:

"Do you mind clarifying that distinction you make between "historic" and "praise" worship in the context of the Lutheran Church? Why choose the term "praise worship" to refer to it?"

Since I never did get to answer the reader, and since the ELCA is using a new book of worship, and since the adult education hour at my church is spending some time going over said book, I thought it might be an appropriate time to answer this question.

By way of introduction, I submit the following for the readers edification from the Apology of the Augsburg Confessions, [XXIV] The Mass:

"At the outset it is again necessary, by way of preface, to point out that we do not abolish the Mass but religiously retain and defend it. Among us the Mass is celebrated every Lord's day and on other festivals, when the sacrament is made available to those who wish to partake of it..... We also also keep traditional liturgical forms, such as the order of readings, prayers, vestments, and other similar things." [italics mine]

So Lutherans, by definition/confession, keep the traditional worship forms of the church, which in this context means the Roman Mass as handed down from the church fathers.

I will define praise worship as: any worship that does not use the traditional forms, does not offer the sacrament of Holy Communion regularly, uses no vestments, order of readings, and uses contemporary pop ("praise") music which is generally accompanied by a four part band (bass, guitar, drums, keyboard). Praise worship also tends to have a singular emphasis on scriptural reading which can, and often is, augmented by some form of video projection to a large screen/scrim at the front of the church.

As the reader might gather, I don't much care for the praise worship style. I find it completely denuded of any solemnity. It doesn't seem, to me at least, edifying or authentic (more on that in a moment). And I have even less stomach for it in any Lutheran church (whether ELCA or LCMS). Other traditions (Pentecostal/Charismatic for example) have no foundation in the Roman church, no liturgical tradition, and therefore have no requirement for using liturgical worship. But all Lutheran churches do and should.

The praise worship places too much emphasizes about a personal relationship with God and what he can do for us in this world (mostly personal wealth, happiness, or success), not about what we should do for God and His creation because of the gift of grace through Jesus Christ. It places emphasis on personal relations with God and Jesus at the expense of a more theological (transformational) understanding of what God did (and does) for us through Jesus. It's non-sacramental; it skips the Eucharist which to my mind is the focal point of the worship. Praise style has taken (and has been co-opted by) secular trappings (pop music, self-help philosophy among others) and incorporated them into their ministry and worship.

But aren't these the very things that separate us from God and are precisely what we need to resist. I mean, do we really need more trappings of secular society?

This does not mean that I feel worship must be stuck in the 16th century. On the contrary! I'm all for renewal and change provided its done with an eye towards continuity. The Reformation, arguably the biggest change in Christendom, created an explosion of hymns in the vernacular of the people, most of which we sing today. Name any Christmas hymn or carol and chances are it's post Reformation. And yet these changes happened within the context of a received heritage and so were an augment to what was already there. Change can be good.

Modern liturgical worship (say the last 25 years) has kept liturgical forms but adds modern hymns, tone settings and text that give it a greater relevance without striping it of its lineage. One example; two weeks ago on the First Sunday of Epiphany - Baptism of Our Lord, my congregation sang two decidedly un-Lutheran hymns, one a was a hymn from the Sacred Harp tradition and the other was a African American spiritual. These, obviously, are not traditional to the time of the Reformation, but they were both edifying, dignified, and authentic. They fit the liturgy of the day even though they were not "Lutheran" per se. This shows that even in a liturgical setting there is freedom to express our faith in more divers ways.

Please forgive me if this sounds like a bitter screed. It's not meant to be. But I feel strongly that if the Lutheran church is to be relevant at all, it must stick to its heritage as a liturgical church. (Do we really think we can compete against nondenominational mega-churches?) Liturgical worship has stood the test of time and will continue to do so. We should do what we do best. I'm absolutely convinced that there is a large number of post-modern Christians who crave liturgical worship because this type of worship has a point of reference that is not us but God; because it's solemn and dignified in a society that is neither; because it's authentic in an age of complete artificiality; because it's sacramental; because it's flexible and adaptable to culture without pandering to that culture.

Here is a quote by theologian Robert Jenson I read over at Pontifications -- on another subject -- but which I feel is apropos (Danger! Theology ahead!):

"Justification by my own righteousness is overcome only by a word that both declares my justification and is clearly and permanently not my own word. Justification by faith can only be opened by a word addressed to me, from outside of me. The gospel is intrinsically an "external" word; it is a word with a home out there in the world that stands against my subjectivity, and that is to say, out there in the world of objects, of bodies and places for bodies. It is, therefore, intrinsically a word "with" a body, with an undetachable nonverbal or more-then-verbal manifestation: a word "with" a bath or a meal or a finger-sign..."

"Words that are mere words, that could in principle get along without objects and bodily performances, are too mental to open the righteousness of faith. If all the word of promise does is convey the information that, let us say, Jesus lives, then once that information is in my head, I can forget the way I learned it. Then the bit of knowledge becomes my knowledge, that I can henceforth tell myself -- and if hearing it justifies, I can justify myself. Thus the word that Jesus lives does not occur as a mere conveyance of information, but as a word that includes such addresses as, "This piece of bread is the living Jesus, take it," thereby pinning me each time anew to what does not come from me, but is out there in the world and comes to me from it." (Lutheranism [1976], pp. 81-82)

And there, in two paragraphs, is why liturgical worship, with all of its physical and sacramental richness, is so important. Especially in today's world, and especially for Lutherans.

P.S. Dash had an interesting post (So, how come I'm not dying?) that I think touches on this subject. Why is my church growing? I think one reason is that we are liturgical. And there are not many liturgical Lutheran churches left.

P.P.S. One more thought: liturgy is not enough. It will only be effective and true if done with the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. If we get too smug about liturgy and forget its purpose we will have a slow, sad, but inexorable demise. Liturgy is the means; God through Christ Jesus is, and always should be, the ends.


  1. You're right, brother Steve. Liturgy in itself is not enough. It is worship (done best though the liturgy) that creates our "to do" list. The liturgy always ends by sending us away to go out and serve. Well, I suppose you could consider the service we do during the week as a part of that liturgy ... interesting thought, eh?

  2. Thank you for this post which sums up my feelings better than I can. I love the liturgy--a reverent, awe-inspiring, God-directed liturgy--in which we speak to God as community. My home church has decided liturgies are dead in the water. They've installed a screen for Powerpoint presentations, dumped the confession and creed because they are not 'seeker-friendly' and sing a lot of praise choruses about how good/blessed we are because God is on our side. Blech! Give me the humility, worship and reverence of a liturgy anytime.

  3. I love liturgy too, but it sure helps when the people participate like they mean it. Ever been to a church with draggy liturgy? Or is it that they have draggy people? Sometimes it seems as if they are just going through the motions.

    Fortunately, the church I am a member of has spirited participation. But I visit a Lutheran church of a family member that leaves me cold.

    I wonder how God feels?