The controversy over the liturgy in the LCMS has, unfortunately, been a long-standing one. To be sure, they are named “worship wars” for a reason. Nonetheless, I think it is fair to say that, historically speaking (and feel free to correct me if I am wrong), the advent of “contemporary” worship styles into the LCMS were the result of various Church Growth influences.
In short, the Church Growth movement sought to accommodate the worship service to the sensibilities of the culture in an effort to become relevant (i.e. user friendly, informal, easy to follow) and attractive (i.e. fun, emotive, edgy) to the participants. As a result, “contemporary” forms of worship were then introduced into Lutheran congregations, in the name of outreach, that had formerly never had such forms as a part of their worship life. It has divided and confused Lutherans ever since.
Consequently, we continue to have intense divides in our denomination today not only over preferred styles of worship (which, in the end, often simply have to do with musical tastes), but over the actual purpose of the worship service (is it for outreach or discipling?).
True, the worship wars have produced some thoughtful considerations at times, but it has also intensified battle lines. As James Alan Waddell observes in his helpful book, A Simplified Guide to Worshipping as Lutherans:
“The conversation about worship in the Lutheran Church has taken a bad turn. Battle lines have been drawn, and the warfare has been engaged for some time now. For the sake of the Gospel in the church, for the sake of the church’s mission and her ministry, it is time for us to move beyond the worship wars. It is time for us to reconsider the ways that we think about worship, and the ways that we speak to each other about worship. This is the direction in which we need to go, for the sake of the church and for the sake of the Gospel in the church.” (11)
To that end, Waddell offers a very thoughtful approach for Lutherans to consider the adiaphora (things neither commanded, nor forbidden) of worship. I think it worthwhile to make note of it here, where perhaps, it might also spur on more healthy and collegial dialogue among us.
In short, Waddell is careful to remain faithful to the norming means of worship, which he clearly identifies as the “Gospel,” the “scripture,” the “creeds,” and the “Lutheran Confessions.” Simultaneously, he is equally careful to honor the local congregation’s “confessional authority and freedom to order its own rites and ceremonies in worship” (77, 79). Putting it simply, he notes that for Lutherans uniformity in worship is salutary but it cannot be made to be mandatory.
Now, with that said, it is recognized that within the Lutheran “worship wars” context, the word “liturgy” has positive and negative associations with it. Some esteem it and some despise it, pastors and laypeople alike.
For many, the word liturgy means a stuffy, outdated, formalized, impersonal, organ-music way of having a church service that doesn’t speak the language of the culture. For them, it detracts from worship because they feel the form gets in the way of the expression of worship they wish to give to God. In other words, they have a particular definition of worship.
However, theologically speaking, Lutherans have a very distinct understanding of worship: “Worship is God speaking. It is our listening. Worship begins with God’s Word. He is the content. Evangelical Lutheran worship begins with God giving us his Word. It comes to us and we respond in faith and devotion. It is God’s action, not ours. He is the mover, the doer. Faith comes as the gift from God, not from our own doing or action. Such an understanding of worship is quite different from the dictionary definition of the word. It is for that reason that the Evangelical Lutheran Church has shown a preference for the word service. The chief gathering of Christians on Sunday morning is called the divine service. In the Divine Service, God serves us. He gives us his Word and sacraments. Only after we have received the Word and the gifts that he offers do we respond in our sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise.” (From Lutheran Worship: History and Practice, 45).
Thus, the liturgy has historically framed this back-and-forth, ensuring that God’s gifts are given and that God’s people can respond in thanks and praise, all within the Gospel narrative the liturgy proclaims. Nonetheless, it does need to be recognized that Lutheran liturgy has had different orders with various elements in it. Waddell draws this out:
What does it mean that the sacraments are to be given in accordance with God’s Word? Is this an implied reference to ‘the liturgy that the Lutheran confessions assume,” as some have said? Or do they refer to ‘the meaning and the intention of the Lutheran Confessions’ comments about worship,’ with the preconceived conclusion that the Confessions are referring to a specific liturgical form. Here I would simply ask of those who say this, which liturgy is that? Would it be Luther’s Latin Mass (1523) or Luther’s German Mass (1526)? (27)
Regardless, Waddell goes on to offer a thoughtful evaluation of the liturgy. He objectively assesses the “Liturgical-Repristination” movement and “the Church Growth” movement, and their imperatives on the worship service, in light of the confessions.
First, he notes that “the ‘Litugical-Repristination’ point of view insists that we may use only historic liturgical forms. It is characterized by slogans like, ‘Litourgia divina adiaphora nonest,’ a Latin phrase that means ‘The Divine liturgy is not adiaphora.’ This point of view follows a model of confession that seeks to correct an error by confessing (or promoting) the error’s opposite.” (p.13)
Second, he asserts that it “is also inappropriate for anyone to insist that, if we want the church to grow, a congregation must adopt contemporary forms of worship. This argument is based on the flawed premise that external forms, rather than the Holy Spirit working through the Gospel and the sacraments, are what makes the church grow.” (80-81).
On the whole, he considers them both illegitimate mandates based upon the scriptural and confessional standards adhered to by the LCMS. His aim is to help the Lutheran church have an honest dialogue about worship in terms of what our own confessions actually confess and what the integrity of Lutheran worship looks like, all within the historic understanding and practice of the liturgy.
In the end, he notes there is flexibility, within limits, where uniformity cannot be legislatively imposed, but where there are indeed non-negotiables (both theological and structural) to Lutheran liturgy. Summing it up, Waddell puts it this way, “Lutheran theology for Lutheran Worship.”
Thus, would it be fair (or helpful) to say that any element, which does not lift up or flow out of Lutheran theology, is therefore subject to exclusion from Lutheran worship services? Is that going too far? Not far enough? What would be your theological rationale?
As always, this blog aims to move past partisanship and demonizing of those who disagree, and endeavors to thoughtfully, honestly, and collegially, foster the goal of talking about the mission of the Holy Christian Church and what it means to be authentically Lutheran, while “discipling all nations” in the 21st century. For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts and reactions.