Derek Johnson Muses

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Productive Lutheran Worship Discussion?

After reading Pastor Todd Wilken’s Worship Wars article in the Fall Issues Etc. Journal, I would like to examine  the choices that lead a congregation to worship the way it does. While I agree that doctrine is inevitably at the center of worship controversy, looking across our synod and making a sweeping judgment that a return to doctrine is going to automatically going to cure worship-related-anxieties is not the only answer that everyone will accept. It starts with doctrine, but it doesn’t just end there.

As I’ve traveled around our Synod, I’ve been many different congregations, some who use the liturgy in its fullness, and some that use some or all contemporary. One thing I’ve found that’s a bit surprising is that the churches who use the liturgy (and keep closed communion) are more friendly and outgoing than the churches who use contemporary worship. I suspect this in large part because the liturgical churches know that they are asking more of people, and they are okay with that. Some people may find their worship dense and confusing, but the liturgical church uses this as an opportunity to present the gospel. Meanwhile, the non-liturgical churches often have greeters with authenticity and zeal of a car salesman.

As I’ve heard the stories of the advocates of alternative worship, they all follow the same narrative. Dying church, no young people are coming, older adults panic, so contemporary worship gets instituted. Visitors come in and don’t understand the liturgy. Instead of explaining it, the pastor says “Lord have mercy on me” and runs for his guitar. Notice how all these methods are reactionary, presumptuous, and don’t even involve discussion with the people they are trying to reach.

So, in some sense, the difference in our synod between those who use the liturgy and those who use the praise band can come down to “Inner Scoreboard”, as Warren Buffett would say. If your congregation is a middling 150 people, how do you feel about it? Are you okay with consistent attendance by a select few who give and who do a lot of the work, or do you want more? To put it within the context of Wilken’s post, are you okay with worshiping in the way that best reflects the doctrine you believe, or do you have to go chasing people? I will say this: while it’s admirable to try to reach more people, if a congregation holds steadfast to its doctrinally principals, even the most worldly people will admire that.

But of course, none of this deals with the primal issue in our synod, namely we are divided on the nature of what worship should be, going down multiple generations, and don’t have a platform to discuss these issues. In my CUW class, there was a per-seminary student whose father was the pastor of a LCMS parish who embraced contemporary worship and church growth practices. His senior seminar tried to justify contemporary worship’s place in our synod, but it lacked any opening for anyone from the opposing side to come in and engage him on the topic. Even the moderate students didn’t respect it.

So how do we create a platform to have meaningful conversations about worship in our synod? Doctrine is a huge part of the worship wars and at the center, but to find a real solution to the worship wars, we have to talk about practice within the context of doctrine. First, we talk about what we believe and why we are part of this synod (given how we are slaves to tradition at times, such self-examination). Then, let’s move beyond that and talk about what’s essential to teach our churches through worship and preaching. Then, move on to circumstance. If people are leaving our church, what’s the solution? Is changing the worship style the real solution? What about the churches that are taking in more people with alternate worship? Do we want to do everything that they do and believe what they want to believe?

So, there are two parts to this discussion, first doctrine (in the pastor’s study and in the sanctuary) and then practice. The way to have a productive discussion about worship is starting with doctrine, working through this issues, clear through to practice. But it’s important that as we move the discussion from doctrine to practice, we don’t suddenly stop talking about doctrine and jump to practice, because these things are inevitably connected. And even if they aren’t we should weigh them to be sure.

The LCMS is divided on this issue, and working through it is probably going to take another generation. Be honest about what you’re doing and consistent in doing it. Don’t sit on the differences you have with your brother; instead, bring them to the front, and share them openly. Even if we don’t come to a consensus, maybe we can at least move forward.

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