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

Friday, August 7, 2009

Lutheran Identity in Worship

We hear a lot of criticism in our confessional Lutheran corners about contemporary worship trends–– and there is a lot to criticize! But I’d like to spend a moment talking about good old traditional Lutheran Worship practices and why, I, as a former evangelical protestant (essentially Baptist), ran away from those worship practices.
  • The Liturgy – The Liturgy speaks of Christ and gives us God’s own words that we might speak them back to Him. We learn the parlance of faith and the rhythm of our spiritual lives from the liturgy, i.e., remember our baptism, confess our sins, receive the gracious gifts of God in His absolution, His word and His holy supper. We repeat the words of the liturgy, without modifying them or making them more “relevant.” This is so that throughout our lives and the end of our days we will not forget them. We use ceremony, ritual and reverence in the Liturgy because our Lord comes to us in his veritable body and blood. This is not a figurative visitation. It’s not wishful thinking. It is real, bodily and spiritual at the same time. I wonder how many Christians, if they really understood this would find it necessary to alter their casual, cool, and cutting edge worship. Somehow reverence seems to be the natural response to “God with us.”
  • Hymns and music – Our hymns too, give us Christ and teach us about sin, grace, and the baptismal life. In Confessional Lutheranism, there are certain important doctrines that are not as readily focused upon in other denominations: the theology of the cross (as opposed to a theology of glory), original sin, a particularly Lutheran breed of Christology and a distinctively Lutheran sacramentology. We also have a very well honed understanding of justification and the role of works in the life of faith. These are doctrines that are found in every denomination but Lutherans have always understood them in very specific ways. Our hymns tend to reflect very well the historic, classical teaching of the faith. This is what Luther intended and it is what makes the Lutheran heritage unique amongst Christian expressions.
When I finally came to Lutheranism, I learned quickly that Lutherans read scripture differently than evangelical protestants. It took a little more time to understand the nuances of that and I am still learning. But I do know this: Our hymns express our heritage and reflect what the confessions teach. Using hymnody from other protestant sources, e.g. Watts, Wesley. etc. is fine, but we must recognize that these poets did not write with the same sacramental and Christological orientation of Luther, Gerhardt, Starke and a host of other Lutheran poets. Some of our Lutherans are interested in singing favorite old standards that come squarely from the protestant hymn repertoire. Fine, but if that diet is too heavy, we will miss the distinctively Lutheran sacramental, confessional, and Christological identity so richly present throughout the Lutheran hymn corpus.


IggyAntiochus said...

I once accompanied a German choir for a German mass. They sang, "Naeher mein Gott zu Dir" (Nearer My God to Thee).

It was hardly the heritage and confession I was looking for!


Papa Olson said...


Stephen R. Johnson said...

Yes, the protestant hymn repertoire has certainly infiltrated, hasn't it? It would not be so bad were not so many of our churches bent on downplaying their particularly Lutheran identity. They end up using protestant hymns to do it and now, in our day, protestant praise and worship choruses that are more a byproduct of the Nashville entertainment culture than the church.

Mark Peters said...

you hit the nail right on the head! (oh, perhaps that is a bad comparison...) Your Christology is a refreshing change from most church musicans.

Stephen R. Johnson said...

Thank you for your comments, Mark! I am constantly trying to put into words, both in conversation and in this blog, the differences between the nature of hymnody and worship between Lutherans and other protestant denominations. The challenge lies, not in trying to explain it to confessional Lutherans, but to those who have been sold on protestant forms and worship theology. They do not have the same categories, so it is difficult to explain it in terms with which they will resonate. Do protestant hymns that are not Lutheran touch on all the things I have mentioned? Well, sure. But do they explore them to the degree that our hymnody does? No. So, to be Lutheran in one's worship sensibilities is to adopt and explore all those doctrinal subjects that our confessions outline. One of them is a very high Christology and sacramental understanding, such as I have not witnessed in all my days as a protestant. Blessings in your work!