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

Friday, July 23, 2010

What Makes Lutheran Worship Lutheran?

Part 2 in a series.

One of the most challenging things I faced as a former worship leader in the Evangelical Free Church was exactly how to define what worship was. One elder at the time quipped, “Ask 50 different people what worship is and you’ll get 50 different answers.” This was absolutely true and remains true today. One of the great things about Lutheranism is that it recaptures and explains a view of worship that is Biblical and objective–– not according to my whims, but according to what God says.

Worship is God gathering His church together so He might give to us His gifts. These are the gifts of His Word, Baptism, His Supper and His Holy Absolution. We are sustained through these things. Worship in essence calls us to get out of the way and let these things come to us, that we might receive them in gratitude and allow them to renew and shape our faith. As we hear the Word of God read and preached, we also share it together in our songs and hymns. Since we know that the Holy Spirit works through the Word of God, we do not wish to waste time singing things that are not the clear and well-explicated Word. Lutherans have always regarded our hymns as mini-sermons. This is because what we sing is just as important as what we hear preached. The Word of God present in our hymns sustains us in our faith.

The modern praise and worship craze that the Lutherans are now readily employing runs antithetical to our long held definition of worship. The songs do not proclaim God’s Word in any substantial manner. Rather than appealing to the objective Word of God and expounding upon it, CCM appeals to our subjective emotions, insists that it is us who serves God in our worship rather than God who bestows his gifts as we gather. In modern praise and worship practices, we are to ascend into God’s presence. I used several musical techniques used to accomplish this and it was all really emotional manipulation. But the impulse behind it was mysticism.

In Lutheran Worship, God descends to us, making His very presence real in the body and blood of his Son, Jesus Christ. This He does by the power of His Word and promise, and it is objective. Jesus’ body is present in the Holy Supper because He says it is. And what He says, He does. This is a far cry from the impulse in modern Protestantism to want to experience God as some kind of internal happening. I used to hear people say, “Wow, Jesus was sure present in our worship today.” As Lutherans we can be assured, by God’s own promise, that Jesus is present in His Holy Supper, and through his Word, every single week, every time we gather around those things, whether we feel it or not.

The Sandi Patti song, “Lord I praise you because of who you are; not for all the mighty things that you have done…” is not exactly a CCM hit. But it emerged out of a culture where Christian entertainment has become very popular (and unfortunately imported into church worship). Sandi Patti became a very popular Christian version of say, a Celine Dion, but even before her. As you can tell by the first line of the refrain of this song, it is meant to communicate this: “Of course it is easy to praise God when you get something out of it, or when He does something for you. You ought to really praise Him for who he is. Then you know you will be praising Him rightly.” As altruistic is this sounds, it is pure Gnosticism. Everywhere does Scripture praise God because of His actions. Look at song after song in Scripture. Start with the Psalms, look at the praises of Daniel, Moses, Mary the Mother of God and hosts of others. You don’t even have to go any further than Psalm 136 to see how God is perpetually praised for what he does. Indeed, the Incarnation is the supreme act of God coming amongst his people in a tangible, external, real way. Jesus’ life was a life of doing things: healing, teaching, serving, and ultimately, dying to forgive our sins–– an action on His part–– and then rising again, ascending, judging. This is the God who saves. Not the cosmic “who you are” that the song refers to. Folks, the modern praise and worship movement in all its manifestations is infested with Gnosticism. This runs thoroughly contrary to Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions and has been rejected in our historic worship since day one. We know who God is because of what He does!

Lutherans, ask yourselves the question: Is the music we are singing grounded in the objective, external word of God, or in Christian experience? Does it explicate scripture like a mini-sermon, or does it seek to create a mood, elicit an emotional response, or worse, “ascend” into a mystical experience with God?

Lutherans have always rejected a theology of glory in their worship. A theology of glory suggests that we contribute something to our salvation and growth. Everybody wants to feel as though we are gaining God’s favor by our own actions. So we seek the mystical experience. We expect that we can encounter God in some tangible way by using the right music, in the right style, perhaps with a little mood lighting. We want God to make us feel His presence. Take a look at this popular CCM chorus: “In the secret, in the quiet place, in the stillness you are there. In the secret in the quiet hour I wait, only for you, cause I want to know you more. I want to know you, I want to hear your voice, I want to know you more. I want to touch you, I want to see your face, I want to know you more.” Let me just say that one can sincerely believe everything this song says and still die in their sins.

Lutheran theology has always held that salvation comes to us as pure gift. We did not earn it and we do not deserve it. We merely receive in faith what God gives. And, by the way, that faith is a gift too. All of this is outside of ourselves. It is received by believing the promises; by grasping in faith that what God has said is true, not because it is validated through an “experience” with God. So, songs like that above, have no place in Lutheran worship.

Yet, amazingly, God in His grace has given us Himself to experience. He tells us, “taste and see.” His very presence comes into our lives as a pure gift to be received by undeserving sinners. Clamoring after the mystical encounter with God as we are so inclined to do these days amounts to nothing more than unbelief. It is a refusal to believe the words, “This is my body… This is my blood.” It is refusing to believe that those things are enough. We want more, so we must have our favorite music. We want more, so we insist on feeling something. We want more, so we must hear sermons that tell us what to do to be better people and contribute to our own justification. We’re not content with God’s gifts. We spurn His gifts by seeking after a more meaningful experience.

Check out a quote by a fellow named Mike Baker. I do not even know him, but am looking forward to remedying that. He, like me, is relatively new to Lutheranism. He, like me, was a worship leader in the praise band. He, like me, discovered great riches in the Lutheran Confessions. He has left some very inspiring comments in response to my previous blog which was highlighted at The Brothers of John the Steadfast site.

…By the grace of God, the Holy Spirit guides you–a broken desert hermit–to the Lutheran Confessions and you use that like a map to find this remote oasis where the waters of the Gospel flow in endless streams of beautiful, life-giving grace. And it’s free! Not only that, but the water is PURE and there are people in the church [pastors] who have the sole job of just handing it out to you ALL THE TIME. Shoot, if you don’t stick your hands out, they will put it in your mouth themselves! And the water isn’t just to lure in new folk. It’s for everybody! All the time! Did I mention it’s free?

…and the stiff-necked people who have been lounging in the shade the whole time you were out there being made into beef jerky by false doctrine don’t even know what they have. They don’t even teach their own kids about the water. They are too busy complaining about how boring the water is and how it would be better to put in a coffee shop or cut down a lot of these pesky trees to get a better view of the outside world.

Mike did not know he was talking about me and the relief I found in the clear waters of the Lutheran Confessions, but he was. His comments are also about Lutherans who have taken God’s gifts for granted and are seeking after things that will not provide what they think they will. Please consider our warning, not because we deserve to be listened to, but because we learned from our mistakes and observations, from many years of not realizing that God gave us worship so we might receive His gifts – and that is enough!

Monday, July 19, 2010

More Like the Baptists Every Day?

Part 1 in a series.

As a former church musician in the Evangelical Free Church, I was for years immersed in efforts to use music to create enthusiasm for and numerical growth in worship attendance. The LCMS is going where I was, and subsequently left, in favor of a truly Lutheran brand of worship. The LCMS is looking more and more like the Free Church; not everywhere, but in enough places to cause alarm. And it is not so much about who is doing what, as much as there is a consciousness pervading the LCMS that is bound to make us into a more and more mainline protestant church and a less and less Lutheran church. Lutheran theology and worship is distinctive and has certain hallmarks that make it what it is. If we want to preserve these things, we need to speak more clearly about how we are not.

When Jesus comes again in glory to judge both the living and the dead, nothing will be set ablaze more quickly than 21st Century popular culture. Yet, it appears that we cannot wait to befoul ourselves with it. And the 2010 LCMS Convention provided some very good examples as to how. It was disappointing to me to witness the egalitarian manner in which worship music styles were treated. The arguments about how differing musical styles communicate different messages are well established, yet we insist on acting as if they do not, as if differing musical expressions carry no implications, for better or worse, one way or the other. At very least, the music of the pop-culture is carnal and not churchly.

The mainstream evangelical protestant denominations have seen fit to make their worship music reflect the sounds and moods of the secular popular culture almost exclusively. This trend is steadily increasing in the LCMS. The more the music sounds like the world, the better. This usually involves a drum kit, electric bass, electric guitar, and some kind of keyboard. And this has become the essential accompanying entity for their services. Out goes the organ, and even a piano, and in come the trap set, electric bass, and guitar. And this core group of instruments, with the timbres they produce, is the sound that defines contemporary worship music–– and for supporters, it is a requirement. Any other manifestation of a contemporary sound is of little to no interest for congregations intent on going in this direction. This, no matter how much better other contemporary initiatives may serve to uphold and illuminate the texts of the music being sung or how creative and masterful other stylistic renderings may be. For supporters of this approach, there is only one kind of contemporary music: rock-n-roll (or maybe jazz). How many of our churches are moving in this same direction?

It seems apparent to me that the LCMS Convention was trying to model both repertoire and performance standards for this pop/rock style–– a style that was presented, this year more than ever, as a perfectly viable option for any of our LCMS parishes to employ. So, just like the evangelical protestant, we are incorporating into our services a pop-culture sound, some parishes to a significant degree, where the sound of the band becomes normative and essential for our worship music, or so it is thought.

Nowhere was this more dismally exemplified than during the Karaoke styled, congregational hymn singing, setting traditional hymns to prerecorded hymn accompaniment tracks, using this pop-band style. This practice quickly made its way into evangelicalism a couple decades ago. Apparently it is more satisfying to sing a traditional hymn with a back beat, electric guitar and trap set rather than with an organ, piano or both, or even with combinations of other instruments. I seriously question whether most people think this is all that cool to begin with. But even if they do, I am more confident in this: the rock band accompanying a traditional hymn forces its text into a mood or spirit provided by the music. It should be the reverse. The text should inform how the musical accompaniment is crafted. This time-tested, honored, and responsible approach to hymn accompanying is all but destroyed when using the pop-band approach to congregational singing. And the evangelicals who have employed it have essentially given up using traditional hymns in their worship. This is because it does not work! Are we Lutherans doing the same thing?

Like the evangelical, Lutherans in many areas are already closing themselves off to real variety and creativity in worship music, in that, if the service does not have the exact kind of instrumentation and style they want, it does not pass for being contemporary enough. Take away that trap set or remove the electric guitar and the music is not truly contemporary! Like me, those contemporary musicians and composers who resist this style, are open to almost any style of music that does not attempt to mirror or bend the knee to the pop-culture as it is manifest in our day. We are open to a great variety of musical styles, instrumentations, textures, harmonic, rhythmic, and ethnic vocabularies. These are the tools we use as musicians. Our goal is musical quality, as we are musicians. Our great priority is to retain and exalt our rich hymn tradition from ancient and post-Reformation repertoires. Our goal also is to cultivate a churchly, contemporary musical expression that sounds like something other than what the world reserves for it’s most licentious musical entertainments. Is this not a more responsible and creative approach than just simply engaging the pop-band?

Here’s my concern for the LCMS and earnest Lutherans everywhere: After a decade of an all but complete endorsement of pop-culture styled contemporary music (as evidenced by this recent convention) we are moving in exactly the same direction as our Protestant evangelical counterparts. It would be interesting to see how many of our own congregations have minimized the liturgy to the barest framework, altered it to barely recognizable, or jettisoned it entirely–– as the mainline protestants have done. The more of this music parishes employ the less it will be thought that careful adherence to the liturgy will be necessary. Same with our hymns. In evangelicalism, hymns have all but disappeared entirely. How close are some of our parishes to doing the same? How many of your young people are learning hymns? Which hymns? Does it matter? In modern Protestantism, it clearly does not. Insofar as these things are happening among us, we may expect to suffer the same theological fate as the watered down services of the evangelical protestant. It will affect the thrust of our preaching and the definition of our worship, taking us further and further from our confessional moorings.

Next post will discuss how, even in the face of vehement protestations to the contrary, the employment of pop-culture styled contemporary worship music serves to erode our confessional theological precision.