Conversation and information about music and liturgy from a confessional Lutheran perspective.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Very WEL Done!

I am at the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s Conference on Worship hosted by their Commission on Worship. Bryan Gerlach and his team have put together a real extravaganza, food for the soul, ears and mind. There is much I could say about all the goings on here after a mere day and a half, but I’ll start with this morning.

There was a lovely Divine Service introducing all kinds of new music, hymnody, canticles and psalm settings that are found in their newly released Christian Worship Supplement. More on the Supplement in another post, but safe to say it is a lovely compilation of hymnody and liturgical music, old and new. As with every volume any synod releases, it will receive its share of critique, but as a volume of for worship it appears to be fit for the task.

Following the Divine Service we heard our first plenary address given by Rev. Jon F. Zabell, pastor of St. Paul Lutheran in Green Bay WI. Zabell’s address was nothing less than astounding. His talent as an orator could well be described as virtuostic, with an command over the subject matter that was natural, pastoral, extremely balanced and good natured. One could not help be drawn into his speech and captivated by his careful yet accessible analysis of the subject.

He basically discussed the formulation of hymnals in the WELS, but used it to address how the church grows in its understanding of why we worship the way we do. He referenced the highly pietistic and rationalistic bent within WELS from its earliest days in the U.S. and showed how those influences kept the church from true Lutheran orthodoxy in the hymns they sang. Pietism sang about the emotions of the faithful, while rationalism concentrated on singing about morality. So the hymnody was about how well we love Jesus and how to be a good neighbor. Not that either of those things should be ignored, but rather how they need to be informed by a pure and simple confession of faith in our worship – a confession that by its nature is doctrinal.

He illustrated this quite wonderfully by taking us back to Eden. Adam and Eve really only had one act of worship they were required to perform (other than just living their lives in the presence of God). That act was simple: “Do not eat of the tree.” By not eating of the tree, Adam and Eve were making their confession. “We believe God," was the confession they made. But Satan, as he always does, offered them another confession: that they might be like God. In eating of the tree, which was “good for food” and no doubt tasted good too, our first parents supplanted the objective “we believe God” for a subjective experience of being like God. Satan played the card that the end game in their worship was to feel good. And he still does so today.

In the WELS as well as in the LCMS we are toying with just how far to go in utilizing “contemporary” worship and “alternative” services. All things are permissible, but not all things are profitable, so says the scripture. What is behind our yearning to look into these things? Could it be a dissatisfaction with things old (like our post-reformation heritage hymnody of the 16th and 17th centuries)? Could it be a desire to spice up the service so it is more appealing? That it make people feel better in the worship setting? Could it be that we think we can assist the Holy Spirit in growing his church even when Augsburg says that he creates faith in the heart when and where it pleases him? Whatever reasons we are using to assess this matter, these do not seem to reflect the understanding of worship bequeathed to us by Luther as he took his cue from Holy Scripture.

Zabell discussed many things in his hour long presentation that I cannot begin to cover here. But one thing he did mention that hit home with me, was the need for the church to set itself apart as Lutheran worshipers – apart from the world, that is. We do not seek to entertain, or just touch the emotions as an end in itself, nor do we seek to aid the Holy Spirit who would otherwise be impotent without our efforts to spice up the service a little. No, we worship that we might receive Christ. That Word and Sacrament might be lifted up as Christ is present in them. We do this through the employment of the liturgy, hymns old and new, and songs by the choir, old and new. Music that fleshes out our confession, draws us to the work of our Savior and focuses us upon him. More later.


Phillip Magness said...

Glad to hear things are going well, Stephen. I look forward to meeting up with you in St. Peter tomorrow evening. Pastor Zabell's returning us all to Eden was a masterstroke! I expect you will continue to hear great preaching at this conference. The WELS conference I attended three years ago in St. Peter was similarly stellar. Too bad more musicians can't make time to attend both conferences. (Make me wish they weren't both the same year every time!)

Orianna Laun said...

It sounds as if it is another wonderful conference.
It is important to remember that Christ is the center. It is interesting how Christ continues to get pushed out of worship in many churches.
I hope your week at Gustavus is a good one.

Cindy R. said...

My family and I are blessed to be members of Pastor Zabell's congregation. St. Paul in Green Bay is a fine confessional Lutheran church. I have read the written form of his keynote presentation and thought it was excellent, but I was not at the conference to observe how it was received. I'm glad to hear that you appreciated it. The whole conference sounds so good that I really must get myself there some year!