Friday, December 26, 2014

Contemporary or Liturgical Worship?

Zion Lutheran Church of Tomball, TX., the church I've been serving during this past year, is committed to the historic liturgy that has been a part of the Lutheran church since before the sixteenth century Reformation. The reformers insisted on keeping that liturgy even while making some much needed corrections. 

Undoubtedly, the question of "worship styles" will continue to be near the forefront of Zion's work in the coming years—especially since several Lutheran churches in the area continue to push the "contemporary" button. 

I found an article from Christianity Today that talks about the "deeper relevance" of liturgy:

The article's author suggests how churches that promote so-called "contemporary" worship may view liturgical churches like Zion . . .

Liturgical worship leaders wear medieval robes and guide the congregation through a ritual that is anything but spontaneous. They lead music that is hundreds of years old, prayers that are scripted and a sermon based on a 2,000 year old book. The high point of the service seems to be the Lord's Supper—all of which seems irrelevant to what's really going on in the world.

Here's a description from the article of an Ybor City, FLA church called Relevant Christian Church:
"Our service is designed specifically for college students, urban professionals and young families. At Relevant, we feel that it's our responsibility to "clear the way" for you to come to church. We want you to be able to experience the great music, encouraging messages, friendly people and enjoyable atmosphere that are a part of Relevant."
Is that what our neighboring "contemporary" churches are saying? It seems to be.

In turn, Liturgical churches, says the article, force us all to rethink some very important things: 
  • what is meant by relevant?
  • that the liturgy transcends our time and place and connects us to the church catholic
  • that the liturgy separates us from the world's culture
  • keeps us from becoming distracted by that culture
  • invites us into the culture of the Triune God and His kingdom
  • that the pattern of the liturgy—its rhythm—Word followed by Sacrament is a holy pattern 
  • that the world's culture must not be allowed to reshape the form and meaning of our worship
  • yet the people in a given culture have freedom and variety within the basic structure of that liturgy. 

I've read a number of the sainted Robert E Webber's books. He took his ThD from Concordia Sem., St. Louis, but was never a Lutheran. Nevertheless, he has much to teach. 

One book of his that I have in my Kindle library is Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God's Narrative. 

He calls for "Evangelicals" to take seriously the visible character of the church. He calls for them to turn away from an individualism that makes the Church a mere addendum to God's redemptive plan.
 "Individualistic Evangelicalism has contributed to the current problems of churchless Christianity, redefinitions of the Church according to business models, separatist ecclesiologies and judgmental attitudes toward the Church. Therefore we call Evangelicals to recover their place in the community of the Church catholic."
He also criticizes "the self as the source of worship." Such worship, he writes, has resulted in lecture-oriented, music-driven, performance-centered and program-controlled models that do not adequately proclaim God's cosmic redemption. 

Read the book. It is not difficult, but hits the target much of the time. 


  1. Might I suggest that you can celebrate liturgical service without denigrating "contemporary" services? Why do you see the two as inimical? If we think of the great sweep of worshipping Christians around the world, with all their various styles and cultures, we must recognize that some liturgical churches, at times and in places, must be truly God-honoring, and that some liturgical churches, at times and in places, must fail to honor God, even in their practice of liturgy. An African service full of dance and song may honor God, or may fail to honor God: God judges the heart. A contemporary American service designed to offer what is frankly a cold, distracted culture its best chance to approach the church may, likewise, fail to honor God or succeed in honoring God. Surely the form of worship is coincidental: love of God, holy living, and true belief should be our concern. You seem to think that liturgical worship is the one true style, and that "contemporary" is somehow un-Christian? Did David believe that when he danced before the ark? Did the early Christians believe it when they broke bread in the temple courts? Why would you express animosity over a style of worship, when that expression of animosity is, itself, far more dangerous and un-Christian than any particular congregation or "style" it might attack?

  2. Christians around the world will worship in a style consistent with their culture. Whether liturgical churches at times honor or dishonor God is not the issue. David dancing before the Lord is often used by people who support contemporary service. It's not a bonafide argument since David was dancing prophetically and not liturgically. Furthermore, it was not a routine within the Jewish tradition, so David didn't intend it to become a part of worship in the temple.
    The crux of the matter can be distilled down to this: shall LCMS retain its identity as a confessional church with a focus on what God does for us—his gift in his son, Jesus Christ, and his promise of new life? Or will we lose our identity and get lost in the modern progressive church 'movement' with a focus on 'me'?
    I've really simplified the issue and I am certain that Lutheran pastors would bring more issues to the forefront. For a far better presentation, view the video:

    1. Joyce, thanks for the thoughtful reply. I actually think your first sentence summarizes the agreement between you and me: "Christians around the world will worship in a style consistent with their culture." Absolutely. And we can move from there quickly to a sensible conclusion. In the America of today there are many cultures. A relatively small proportion of Americans can readily make sense of a liturgical service. It is counter-cultural for them. Therefore, those who can worship liturgically should do so. Those who cannot should not. I assume, based on your first sentence, that you agree?

      If so, then a liturgical or contemporary style of worship is immaterial. Doctrine is certainly crucial—as you mention, the gift of Jesus Christ as God's promise of new life. But I see no reason to equate liturgical worship with that doctrinal stance. I see no reason to see a "progressive" church culture as undermining that doctrinal stance.

      Perhaps what you're concerned about are those specific congregations that have up till now practiced a liturgical service. If an existing congregation were tempted to change their familiar, ongoing style of worship entirely as a means to become more "acceptable" or "popular", then I agree that that would be cause for caution on their part. There would be the serious danger of giving up their own culture, in effect, in the name of expediency or mere numeric growth. But a new congregation, such as a church plant, even within the LCMS must certainly be free, under submission to God, to discern the form of worship most appropriate for their situation and community. If that means becoming a "progressive" church in some sense, or one that does not practice liturgy, or practices it in a modified way, then what is the harm? What Scripture would this violate?

      As for David before the ark, I agree that his manner of worship doesn't ipso facto establish the validity of any particular form of worship. What it shows, however, is that God isn't particular. People worship in many ways; so long as it is true worship, God accepts it. The story also takes pains to show that those who criticize unconventional, even chaotic, forms of worship may earn God's disfavor—as Michal seems to have done (2 Sam 6:23)—much more deservedly than those they criticize.

      In summary, if those who love liturgy address their love of liturgy to those who also practice liturgy, and work to amplify the practice of liturgy among congregations for whom it is culturally appropriate, then all is good. But if they turn it into an attack on other forms and styles of worship, then they overstep their bounds, and do more harm than those they fear and criticize.


So what do you think? I would love to see a few words from you.