Worship Wars: A New Hope…

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) 

As such, given our “worship wars” context, care should be taken when speaking about liturgy, so that presumptions and assumptions do not make out of us, what we tell our children they will.

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.


Rev. Woodford


8 responses to “Worship Wars: A New Hope…

  1. Pastor Kevin Jennings

    Hi, Pastor Woodford! You have my admiration for addressing such a hot-button issue. Haven’t read Waddell’s book…yet.

    You said:

    There are a lot of things that fit under the heading you propose, but the questions generated are all valid. The elimination of elements that do not flow from our confession as Lutherans is not a new idea, since I believe this was the practice of the reformers.

    I do believe, however, that the question you propose uncovers a bunch of issues that need to be addressed. First and foremost is the issue of teaching. As a life-long Lutheran, I probably knew less about the rationale behind the liturgy than many who were newer Lutherans. It wasn’t until seminary, and really beyond, that I began to understand the theology of the liturgy and what it is we confess by it. I suspect many my age (I’m 50) are in the same boat. The problem isn’t flaming heretics but bad teaching, or absent teaching.

    Teaching our young ‘uns about the rich theology of the liturgy is a good thing and, I believe, needs to be done. I’ve heard way too many stories of young people who’ve been brought up under the instruction of a man who’s not a pastor who have all kinds of crazy ideas about worship, the Sacraments, and the like because of bad, or even empty, teaching.

    What did Simon and Garfunkel sing? Teach your children well? That’s especially true for worship and the Christian faith from which it comes.

    God bless!
    Pastor Kevin Jennings

  2. I didn’t realize it was still a war… 🙂

    Why is the assumption that contemporary means non-liturgical? Is that a fair dichotomy? Or for that matter that traditional (using for example LSB, copyright 2006) isn’t contemporary in the grand scheme of how long God’s people have been worshiping. What really is the heart of the issue?

    I don’t believe the real issue is when something was written. I don’t believe the real issue is musical style either (although good luck getting me to a country music worship service…)

    The issue is the what. And in order to have a meaningful conversation about the what, you need to look at the specifics of the worship service/divine service/liturgy. I have yet to see someone actually do that. Everyone seems to come in with their pre-determined outcome (I hate traditional, I hate contemporary, I like both) and justify why. I have never seen anyone say, “Let’s look at this particular service on this particular Sunday. And then this one. And this one. Why do we do a gradual? Why did the worship team pick this song? Why this particular Kyrie? Why is the choir standing there? Why is the worship team standing there? What is essential and what is good to have and what shouldn’t be there at all? What does Jesus mean when He quotes Isaiah saying that these people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me (because both sides will use that)?”

    And what does it mean for the Body of Christ to be at “war” with itself – over worship?

    • Dear Ondabrink,

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply. You raise some excellence questions that deserve attention. In that light, I appreciate the above encouragement from Pastor Jennings that pastors teach, teach, teach about worship/liturgy. Why do we do what we do? Why do we worship the way we worship?

      Disclosure: at the congregation I serve, our new member class is actually called “Welcome to Worship,” where we bring all new members through the class and discuss the life we live as shaped by, and as it flows out of, the way that we worship, wherein we unpack the nature of the Divine Service. In our case, we have two liturgical services, one utilizes LSB and the organ, while the other service utilizes the liturgical order and movements, but with some varying versicles, all in a printed service folder and accompanied by instruments other than the organ.

      Perhaps the question for us to consider would be, is there a necessary Lutheran ethos to worship? In other words, does the subscription to the Lutheran identity and confession of faith necessarily imply, ask for, or require any particular elements or forms in order to be considered Lutheran? Said another way, is there a manner of worship that, to a degree, is theologically obligatory by all Lutherans, but also, where adiaphora permits it, and where love asks it, affords both degrees of freedom and consistency?


      Rev. Woodford

  3. Disclosure: Sunday morning for us is two worship services from LW, and two worship services that follow the flow from LW but would be characterized as “contemporary”. Our non-organ services though always have invocation, confession/absolution, Scripture readings, creed, sermon, offering, prayers (including the Lord’s prayer), benediction, communion 2-3 times per month, and a baptism most non-communion weeks – which is why I object to the assertion that contemporary means non-liturgical. And I’ll put the songs from those services against the songs from the hymnal for doctrinal content any day (remind me to tell you about my past work for the CoW). All services are projected (we border a large retirement community – far more effective to do this than print large print bulletins and buy large print hymnals).

    I agree on the teach, teach, teach. In addition to Bible Classes, I do it in worship as appropriate, and do it frequently. It’s not just the young who can benefit.

    The question about Lutheran ethos isn’t a bad one, although I’m not sure it would be rightly answered in the way either “side” would want it answered. I suppose a Lutheran ethos would look at worship and ask questions about things like Means of Grace. Law and Gospel. Justification. Not “Bach was Lutheran, therefore the organ is Lutheran” or “the organ was contemporary worship at one point in time, what’s the big deal with doing contemporary worship now?”

    But I don’t know that rightly answering those questions will lead toward the kind of uniformity/consistency that some want (that sounds like a heaping on of law where law isn’t heaped on in Scripture, which goes against the Lutheran law-Gospel ethos, right?) Or complete removal of all accountability (which my Bible talks about as well).

    And then there are the deeper question that no one asks, and that’s what the other side afraid of (mutual fear seems to underlie most conflict). How does our Baptismal identity address that fear? What does God’s Word say about that fear? (Means of Grace) How do God’s Law and Gospel fit into that fear and speak to that fear and change that fear? And if there’s a war, again I come back to, how is it that the Body of Christ, those who’ve been declared righteous because of Christ’s work (Justification), can be at war with each other and I hear no calls for reconciliation?

    Not sure I ever answered the call to arms, but if I did, I repent…

    Would love to grab a coffee next time I’m in the area!

  4. ondabrink,
    You said, “And I’ll put the songs from those services against the songs from the hymnal for doctrinal content any day…” Could you list the songs from your organ and non-organ services? Our church has a non-organ lead liturgical service, but the lack of doctrinal content of the songs has always bothered me so I’d like to be able to give some suggestions to our pastor.

    Brian Yamabe

  5. This topic is one of my favorites. I know that some people get hostile about it, but I’ve just always found worship to be an enjoyable thing, that employs hymns and spiritual songs to both praise God and teach us. We have one service/weekend, and it is liturgical…but, follows different forms. The congregation has embraced the diversity, the challenge and the intentionality of singing to melodies/lyrics that both inspire and instruct.
    What I’ve found is that some contemporary music is straight-up Scripture. Well, I don’t argue with that. Singing God’s own words is awesome…and, you can take it with you…
    And, there are some excellent anthemic contemporary songs like “In Christ Alone”…and, revamped old hymns like “Jesus Paid It All” or “I Am Not Skilled to Understand [My Savior, My God]” that are solid in their theology.
    I always thought that the argument for using “hymnal only” was really for the sake of not having to do more work each week to create a new service.

    Anyway, I look forward to reading more responses! Thanks, Lucas!

  6. Marcus Williams

    I believe the what needs to be looked at is the motives behind each type of worship and what each worship style says to the congregation. On one hand you have a liturgical service that contains nothing but God’s Word, which was designed for conversion, the ability to be reverent, it aids in understanding what we are doing when we come to the Divine Service, it is rich, and uniform. On the other you have the contemporary style, which may contain some of these elements, but is on the move to be viewed as less abrasive to incoming people, imitating a style of worship that doesn’t have the right understanding of what worship is. For all these new-age contemporary Churches worship is our work for God instead of the correct understanding, God’s work to and for us. For me it seems like this dispute shouldn’t exist and that the obvious conclusion is we adopt these practices in worship out of fear of decline. When changing our liturgical form we aren’t saying anything other than “This new style of worship speaks to the culture more so than our liturgical service.” We attempt to avoid the decline of youth membership by conforming to what they view as desirable I.E. a band and more contemporary music. And the fact that there is an idea that unless we change our style of worship our Church won’t grow is a direct offense against the means and the One who brings people to the knowledge of Christ, namely God’s Word and the Holy Spirit.

    In Article X on Church Practices it says:
    “Likewise, when there are useless, foolish spectacles that are not profitable for good order, Christian discipline, or evangelical decorum, these also are not genuine adiaphora, or matters of indifference.”

    Now some might say that a band is not a “foolish spectacle”, I would disagree. Now obviously there are extremes to how a Church chooses to display their contemporary worship style. In the case of ‘ondabrink’ it sounds like its a subtle approach but I have to wonder, if we begin to let certain things come into the church such as a band and contemporary worship songs how long is it before we decorate the arches with lights or hang a projection screen behind the alter? What is the limit that makes a church liturgical vs contemporary? Evidently for some a little bit of this and a little bit of that isn’t so bad, while others find it offensive. And if this encouragement of a contemporary style of worship is being set up to attract youth then what do people have to say about the elderly? I work at a grocery store and I had an older woman come in to mail some letters. The return address was “Mt. Zion Lutheran Church”. I hesitated telling her I was Lutheran for fear she may be ELCA and a debate ensuing but I took the chance. Turns out she is in the Wisconsin Synod. I asked her about her Church and proceeded to tell her that I belong to “Messiah Lutheran” Her response was “Oh Missouri-Synod! I attended First Lutheran Church(Missouri Synod) for twenty years” I asked her why she left and she said “One day I came into the service late and a man was playing his electric guitar in a way that would impress Jimi Hendrix so i turned around walked out and never went back.” Now this is an example of someone being turned away by this form of “outreach”. She proceeded to tell me that she believed that to be a distraction from Christ.

    So at what point are these new elements okay? Or is there a limit? Its not popular to say that contemporary styles of worship need to stay out of the LCMS but thats where I’m taking my stand. I am 22 years old and have spent time in a non-denominational church and I despised the Lutheran Liturgy(My mom is Missouri Synod so she would take me to church on occasion) and now I am in the LCMS and have been for 3 years. I wasn’t surrounded by this debate growing up, in fact had I been I would have wanted the Liturgy gone and now I want nothing more then to be an advocate for the liturgy. I also have a blog called missoulalutheran.blogspot.com and I wrote an article called “The Power of the Word:Defending the Liturgy” which anyone is welcome to read and comment on. All in all I see no good reason for moving away from a traditional liturgical service.

  7. Marcus, thank you for bringing up a few different topics. Maybe my congregation is an anomaly, but age has very little to do with who likes what. Many of our 25-45 year olds like the liturgy. Many of our 75+ members like contemporary music, and complain when we don’t have percussion with it. There is not a single person who has issues with the screen that we use on occasion, because it a) keeps photocopying costs lower, b) allows us to use new hymns/songs without stuffing the bulletin full of paper, and c) is easier to read (our older members say so, at least).

    I will read your blog. That article sounds interesting. Defend the liturgy. It’s powerful. But, please be careful. I have found that for some, liturgy-worship (people paying homage to the form itself) gets in the way of Christ-worship, much like the guitar-playing got in the way of Christ for the woman in your story.

    That might seem crazy, but when their hearts are wrong (in attitude) coming in…very often, they are still wrong going out, instead of being changed by God’s convicting, condemning, forgiving, absolving, encouraging, and inspiring Word.

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