Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Yes, It IS About the Music, Too

I've been no stranger to the ongoing "worship wars" among Lutherans.  I've been in the trenches fully engaged in the "wars" for many years now.  And, believe it or not, there was a time, many, many moons ago, when I fought for the other side, believing that we Lutherans needed to ditch the historic liturgy and get with the times.  I was young and naive - and very ignorant about what Christian worship is.  But, then I read and studied the entire Bible, from beginning to end.  I had done that several times before, but this time I paid special attention to every reference to worship I found in the Bible.  I jotted down those references, along with some notes about each.  I came across those notes in an old file cabinet some time back.  They're in rough shape, and much of what I wrote down back then shows forth how ignorant I was at the time, especially considering that I completely missed a plethora of worship references, and I wonder now how I could have possibly done so.  But, even back then, as ignorant as I was, what this exercise of reading through Holy Scripture and noting the references to worship taught me was that my ideas about the need to make worship entertaining, fun, and more appealing to the lost were way off base.  I simply couldn't find any basis for that anywhere in Scripture.  I still can't.  What I did find was that Biblical worship is always a holy and reverent encounter between God and His people.  I also found that Biblical worship simply knows not a thing about mimicking the surrounding culture for the purpose of outreach, something I was told time and time again was the main purpose and end-all, be-all of Christian worship.

Noting the discrepancy between what I found in Holy Scripture and what was passing itself off as Christian worship in the LCMS congregation I was attending at the time, I was encouraged to read many of the classic "Church Growth Movement" text books and assured by my pastor, who had been convinced by these himself, that these books would set me straight about what Christian worship is really all about.  It didn't work.  What I read in those books was not consistent with what I read in Holy Scripture.  Instead, what I found was that the authors of these books began with a series of self-conceived assumptions, developed these assumptions into a detailed set of principles, and then read those assumptions-turned-principles into the Biblical text.  In other words, it was pretty obvious that they were not beginning with the Word of God, but with their own ideas, which they forced upon the Word of God.  Plus, it was vividly clear to me that the authors of these books adhered to a theology wholly inconsistent with Lutheran theology, and I found it odd that, as a Lutheran, I was supposed to be learning from non-Lutherans.  But, that's precisely the thing that made this a fruitful exercise for me, since it led me to dig deeper into what Lutherans actually believed.  Prior to this, the only thing I knew of Lutheranism was what I read in the Small Catechism and what I was taught in Confirmation/New Member Classes.  But, this led me to actually pick up, read, and study the Lutheran Confessions, which, in turn, led me to hunger for more, and I began to read the writings of our Lutheran fathers.  Suffice to say that the more I read and studied what Lutherans believe, teach, confess, and practice, the more convinced I was that the "seeker-sensitive, outreach-focused, fun, entertaining" worship being done in my congregation stood in stark contrast to our Lutheran theology of worship.  It was also at this time that the desire to pursue the Office of the Holy Ministry began in me, a desire I did my best to suppress, but one that the Lord would confirm several years later by calling and ordaining me into this Office.

Anyway, this little autobiographical sketch and trip down memory lane is simply meant to reveal that I know much about, and have been engaged in, the "worship wars" among Lutherans.  What I really want to talk about is the concern I have about the repeated mantra I've been hearing from brothers on my side of the "worship wars," namely, "It's not about the music."

I am concerned about this because it seems to give the impression that music is neutral and that, all other things being equal, it doesn't matter what music is used in the Divine Service.  Knowing many of the brothers I've heard saying this, I cannot bring myself to believe that this is at all what they believe, but it begs the question:  Why say it and give that impression?

I think those who have been saying this need to stop.  People are hearing it in a way that I don't think those who are saying it mean.  In fact, what prompted me to finally write about this was an email I received yesterday from a lady named Anne, who stated:
Dear Pastor Messer,
I really enjoy reading your blog.  I also read the blogs of many other Lutheran pastors and enjoy them as well.  If you don't mind, I have a question for you.  First, I should let you know a little of why I'm asking about this.  I belong to a missouri synod congregation that has three worship services every Sunday, the early one is traditional and we use the hymnal and follow the liturgy in that one, the middle one is blended and has some of the liturgy and uses some hymns and some popular praise songs of today with the praise band leading us, and the third one is contemporary - actually it's titled "praise service" - and there really is no liturgy to speak of or hymns (well, on the rare occasion, the praise band might sing a hymn) and it is very informal and feels more like a rock concert than a worship service.  My question is would it be enough for this "praise service" to be Lutheran if they did the liturgy but kept the music the same?  The reason I ask is because I have been reading on other blogs of Lutheran pastors that the issue is not the music or musical instruments being used in worship, but when the liturgy is not used.  I am confused about this and wonder what you think about it.  Just to let you know, my husband and I have thought about finding another congregation to worship at, but it seems that all the Missouri congregations around us have these same kinds of different services at them.  So, for now, we stay put and attend the traditional service at our congregation.  But I think that even if the "praise service" at our congregation used the liturgy from beginning to end while using the music they use now, it would still feel more like a rock concert than a Lutheran worship service.  Am I wrong?  What do you think?

Thanks for listening,
As I told Anne in my response to her, I don't think she is wrong at all.  Our Lutheran theology of worship is about more than simply using our hymnal and following the liturgy.  I have actually been to Services in LCMS congregations where the entire liturgy was used, word for word, but left thinking that there was nothing Lutheran about what I had just experienced.  Why?  The music.  The liturgy was undone by the entertainment of the praise band and the songs they sung, filled with false doctrine as they were - false doctrine that grossly contradicted the doctrine being taught and delivered in the liturgy.  The liturgy couldn't save the Service from feeling far more like a Pentecostal "worship experience" (or rock concert) than a Lutheran Divine Service.

Now, I think the reason many of my brothers are heard saying that it's not about the music (or about specific musical instruments) is because they want to emphasize that the far greater issue at stake is theological.  Plus, I think they see how bad things are among us today in the realm of worship and would be thrilled if every congregation in our synod would at least employ the liturgy in all of their Services.  But, while that would definitely be a step in the right direction, it would be but a step and not an end to our "worship wars."  Music is a huge factor in these "wars" and ultimately needs to be addressed before we can truly become united in the theology of worship to which we all claim to adhere in our synod.  Thus, I think it would behoove those who are wont to say, "It's not about the music (or about specific musical instruments)" to stop saying this, for it most definitely IS about the music, too.

Lutherans have no business singing popular CCM songs which contain theology contrary to ours.  Likewise, Lutherans have no business employing praise bands and using rock and roll instruments to entertain the congregation.  Whenever the music used by Lutherans is the main thing, our theology of worship is lost.  Whenever the music used by Lutherans is presented in a performative and entertaining manner, our theology of worship is lost.  Whenever the music used by Lutherans does not remain a servant to the text, but overpowers it, our theology of worship is lost.  And, of course, as already mentioned, whenever the music used by Lutherans contradicts our theology, our theology of worship is lost.

The Divine Service, according to our Lutheran theology of worship, is a holy, reverent encounter with our Lord, who graciously and mercifully comes into our midst to Gift us with forgiveness, life, and salvation through His Holy Word and Sacraments.  It is, by definition, Christ-centered and Cross-focused.  It's focus is always on Christ and the work He does for us and among us.  It is ever mindful of the fact that our Lord is really, actually, and truly Present among us, and not "up there" in heaven waiting for us to reach Him with our praise.  Anything that detracts from that foremost and essential truth is inconsistent with our theology of worship.  And, certainly, one of the biggest detractors from that foremost and essential truth is the use of music which suggests otherwise.

The bottom line is that if it looks, sounds, and feels more like a rock concert than the Divine Service, it is not our Lutheran theology of worship at work.  It IS about the music, too, and we need to make sure that we are clear about this.  For to suggest otherwise is not only misleading, but it runs the risk of falling into the "style vs. substance" pit, as if we can employ the "worship style" of other Christians, who do not believe as we do, but somehow maintain our "Lutheran substance," which is quite impossible.

As an object lesson, here is an LCMS praise band singing a hymn which is near and dear the hearts of Lutherans, and a favorite among many, including myself - "Thy Strong Word."  It's a good test case to examine, for if it is true that music is not the issue, then surely a praise band singing a great hymn would be okey-dokey with our theology of worship.  But, you tell me:  Is the video of this praise band singing a solid Lutheran hymn reflective of our theology of worship?


Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Some of this comes back to what you mean by "music." There are other styles or forms of music, other instruments that could be used....

The question becomes why - why are these forms used?

If our music and instruments act as servants to the proclamation of the Gospel - great.

If our music and instruments are designed to mimic culture and "appeal" to people, then they are off.

Christians are to be in the world but not of the world. Is your music "of the world" - if so, it's off.

Bill Hillyer said...

I actually enjoyed listening to the hymn this way, but I was a teen in the 70's and it is my style rock & roll.

Would I enjoy it in worship? NO! I noticed that no one seemed to be singing - even most of the "praise team."

This style music (with drums, guitars, etc.) is entertainment. If only our brothers and sisters in Christ could see and acknowledge this!
Rev. Bill Hillyer

Rev. Thomas C. Messer, SSP said...

Pr. Brown,

Precisely. The "in the world, but not of the world" principle is an excellent diagnostic to determine whether or not the music being used in the Divine Service is appropriate.

Pr. Hillyer,

I'm with you. It's my style of rock & roll, too, but it has no place in the Divine Service.

Andrew said...

I have difficulty with this issue mainly because when an organist is pulling out all the stops or a trumpet descant it seems to be the same thing as a praise and worship team. I may just be clouding water for no reason.

Was the organ of the world at one time?

Certainly the "praise team" should never be in front, but in the back.

Would these kind of praise songs be better placed during the offertory as a response to the gift of God's Word and Sacrament?

Dennis Peskey said...

I'm having a bit of a problem with the rubrics of praise worship. Specifically, why is the congregation standing during this hymn? I do not recall a time when Thy Strong Word was used as an offertory. Our congregation will stand on the final, sixth verse which is doxological. Just trying to comprehend.

Rev. Thomas C. Messer, SSP said...


I'm sorry, but I simply do not see anything similar about an organist pulling out all the stops or a trumpet descant and and praise/worship team. They're as different in sound, purpose, and effect as they could be, in my not so humble opinion.

Yes, the organ was "of the world" at one time. And, for that reason, the Church didn't employ it for many centuries. The thing people don't realize is that the Church has always been very careful about what kind of music/instruments she used in worship. Well, until modern times, that is, at least in the West. It took a long time for the organ to become an acceptable instrument to be used in the liturgy and hymnody of the Church. And now, I doubt anyone would seriously argue that the organ belongs to the Church. What people need to remember in discussions like these is that the Church did not say, "Hmm, people really dig organ music; let's capitalize on its popularity and use it in worship!" It was a slow process, taken very seriously, precisely because the Church has always been careful to avoid music/instruments which carry heavy worldly baggage with them. Again, until recent times.

My argument is that these types of praise songs have no business in the Divine Service, so placement is of little consequence. I know my argument is radical, but here I stand. I'll keep my satellite radio tuned to "Hair Nation" and listen to the rock music I enjoy in my truck, but it has no business in the Divine Service. That Christians argue otherwise is completely beyond me. The idea that we need to make the Church more worldly is one that has zero Biblical or Confessional support.

Kenneth J. Bomberger said...

1) Franzmann would roll over.
2) How reverent is the laugh at "If we had a hymnal, I'd tell you to turn to page . . ."?

Rev. Thomas C. Messer, SSP said...


Rubrics of praise worship = whatever entertains the masses. Been there, done that - and, yes, got the t-shirt!


Yea, verily - on both points!

Andrew said...

Thank you pastor,

I think the larger issue is the placement of the singers, musicians.

Rev. Thomas C. Messer, SSP said...


Just to clarify, when I mentioned "placement" in my last post, I was referring to your inquiry about these kinds of praise songs being better placed during the offertory. I agree that the placement of the singers, musicians is a large issue. Certainly, having the praise band front and center draws the congregation's focus to them and screams of performance/entertainment. I'd say the same thing about having the choir up front, although I'm not willing to concede that this would be equally bad. The type of music and song content is the larger issue. I'd rather have a choir up front leading the congregation in the singing of solid hymns than a praise band in the back singing "pop rock" songs.