When one spends his entire life in a FE bubble, there is an ignorance as to how the rest of Christendom worships. That was a big problem I had. I had read theological writings from traditions outside my own FE tradition, but I hadn’t really experienced worship outside of the FE bubble. As far as I knew, there were two types of worship: “traditional,” and “contemporary.” The former means that the worship service is a little more formal and the music is probably a little bit older (though these lines are being skewed with each passing year). The latter means that the formality of worship is decreased substantially and the music + instrumentation is more modern (perhaps even songs from the pop-Christian music scene are employed).
One of the anxieties I had before my wife and I attended a Confessional Lutheran church for the first time was the form of worship in these bodies. Confessional Lutherans typically employ a Liturgical form of worship. What this means is that we follow a standard form of worship. Neither of us had really ever experienced that with the intent of going back consistently.
In Lutheran liturgical worship, there are prescribed scriptural readings throughout the church year, with the goal being that the doctrine of the Bible is covered in its entirety each year. There are several church seasons, each accompanied with their own unique way to proclaim Law and Gospel. Truthfully, at some point I need to familiarize myself with the church year, as there is still so much I must learn. Pages like this help.
The standard of worship doesn’t end with the church year though. We also follow a standard worship whenever we gather corporately. Sunday mornings in our local body, we use Divine Service Setting III from our synod’s authorized hymnal (a modernization of the 1888 Common Service… check out the music from the service). That is, we follow a service from a book. Each week. Same words, each week. Same order, each week. There are spots throughout the year where parts may be omitted or added, but for the most part it is the same week by week. If we gather in the evenings, we follow a Vespers service in a similar regard. If we were to gather on a non-Sunday morning, we’d follow the Matins service. For weddings, there’s a service to follow. For funerals, there’s a service to follow. It’s highly structured.
When we first began attending Lutheran churches, I saw this as neither an asset nor a liability in and of itself. My anxiety was: “will I be bored?” Let me state bluntly; no I am not bored. But this thinking is a little bit skewed in at least two ways.
Firstly, I’ve never attended a church where there wasn’t a large degree of structure in each service, even in the so-called “contemporary” services I’ve attended. Each local body already has their defacto formal worship patterns. It doesn’t matter if the churchgoers are wearing jeans or suits, whether the lead speaker is barefoot or wearing vestments, whether the laity may freely speak back to the pastor during the service, or if it is expected to have solemn quiet. None of this matters in the sense that each body still has its own worship patterns.
For the Baptist churches I attended in my life, the pattern may have followed something like this:
- Organ prelude (over which everybody is talking, to the chagrin of every organist I’ve ever heard speak about it)
- Call to Worship
- Greeting Time
- Special Music (choral or solo)
- Offering Collection
- Postlude (again, over which everybody is talking)
And this is what it is, week in and week out. Same order, each week. Usually the same words are used each week to introduce each section. If not, something seems out of place. Other FE church or para-church bodies I’ve attended may not follow a service this extensive, but they have their own formal worship patterns all the same.
This leads into the second way that my anxieties concerning the Liturgical form of worship were skewed. To what end do these worship patterns exist?
It depends on who you ask. I have little doubt that if unprompted, my friends in various FE bodies would speak in terms of building services to worship God and to proclaim the Gospel. Lutherans would say the same concerning our worship. Yet there are big differences between each type of worship. Who’s correct? Is there a “correct?” Aren’t worship patterns and styles just a matter of personal and cultural preference?
R.C. Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries recently posted an article concerning worship. As always, while I’ve come to disagree with much of what Ligonier publishes (that last paragraph is a bit off, I think), they have great bits of truth in them as well. The article’s author correctly points out: there is a Christian way to worship God, and there’s a Postmodern way. The difficulty is in defining these terms in respect to worship. I’ll let the article explain this point. I think, from my own experience, that too much of FE worship focuses on the individuals in the congregation: trying to excite them, or put them in a certain mindset, to appeal to their emotions, or to motivate them to make a decision for Christ (I’ll spare my comments on these; I’ve written about them before).
I cannot say that I can find a verse in the Bible that says that Liturgical worship is the Biblically-prescribed way of Christian worship. Nor can I find one that denies the use of guitars or projectors in worship. Nor have I read any that describe an order of worship for a Sunday service. While liturgical worship is historically how the church has worshipped even back to the earliest writings in church history (and I’m quite content to be in such company), and I think there’s a compelling case to be made that this ought to be preserved, there is no 11th commandment stating that Christians must worship as I do each Sunday.
But to labor this is to miss the most important point of worship. How so?
Is this proper worship?
What about this?
How about this one?
While we argue about the age of the music in the services, the instrumentation, the decorations, the orders of worship, how sermon topics are chosen, and the Christian’s liberty in matters of worship (including expression of emotion), we cannot see the forest for the trees. We miss the point. The point is not what we put into the service, it’s what God through Christ offers us in the service (Word and Sacrament)! This is not the FE approach, and this is why FE worship looks so different from what the church has traditionally and historically done. But just because it’s new does that make it wrong?
Of course not, but again we miss the point.
As long as we ask “What is permissible?” we do not ask “What is commendable?” and when we ask “What should we do,” we do not ask “What has Christ done?”
When we ask Law questions, we will get Law answers. So much of my time and energy worshipping as an FE was spent in foolish endeavors to bring meaning to worship or to purify my heart before God to please Him with my worship, and so little time was spent hearing of what meaningful work that God through Christ has done for and apart from me in order to purify me!
In the churches I’ve been in, the typical problem isn’t the exact form of worship (because there’s rarely been anything outlandish), it’s what’s confessed in worship. As Ligonier’s article said, we may have purity in our confessions, but if we worship radically different than how we confess, our actions demonstrate what we believe more than our confessions do. And here we see why I am not bored hearing and participating the same service each week, and why I’m not afraid of such structure as exists in Lutheran worship, even the parts that I don’t understand the best yet.
I know that when I examine each part of the Liturgy and Lutheran worship, I find a confession of who Christ is and what he has done for us. I hear as a direct confession or else as a petition to God, in each and every part of a Lutheran service, what I would sometimes go weeks without hearing as a FE (even though I was in church each week).
One of the last weeks before my wife and I began regular attendance in Lutheran churches, we went to a Christian Missionary Alliance church. That Sunday, we sang a hymn I have sung from my youth, and one I have never been comfortable singing.
1. All to Jesus I surrender; all to him I freely give; I will ever love and trust him, in his presence daily live. Refrain: I surrender all, I surrender all, all to thee, my blessed Savior, I surrender all. 2. All to Jesus I surrender; humbly at his feet I bow, worldly pleasures all forsaken; take me, Jesus, take me now. (Refrain) 3. All to Jesus I surrender; make me, Savior, wholly thine; fill me with thy love and power; truly know that thou art mine. (Refrain) 4. All to Jesus I surrender; Lord, I give myself to thee; fill me with thy love and power; let thy blessing fall on me. (Refrain) 5. All to Jesus I surrender; now I feel the sacred flame. O the joy of full salvation! Glory, glory, to his name! (Refrain)
As the congregation sang this, I stood silent and fought off the desire to walk out. I’d had enough of this type of worship by that point. I could stomach little more. I couldn’t even sing the first line. The pastor had spent the entire sermon telling us in what manner we ought to live as Christians according to the new nature, and then had us sing this hymn. Honestly, I was a little bit angry.
Why be angry? Because to sing this hymn honestly requires one of two things, neither of which help the believer discover God as he’s revealed himself:
- Belief that God does not take offense at sin, often based on our own perceived magnitude of the sin. But the scriptures say that if we have violated any part of the Law, we have violated all of it!
- Belief that we have obtained sinless perfection. But if we say we have no sin, we are liars.
But even if we’re content to live in an happy inconsistency by denying these two items yet still sing the song, what is gained by doing so?
Which part of this hymn encourages the believer to turn from his own strength and effort and to rest wholly on Christ’s merit? Which part tells us of Christ’s righteous life, lived to earn us righteousness under the Law? Which part tells of his death, as a propitiation of God’s wrath? Which part tells us of his resurrection that is the defeat of death, which is the curse of sin in the flesh, and that we who bear Christ’s (the new Adam) image and have taken God’s name in Holy Baptism will also be resurrected? If it’s a hymn about sanctification, which part equips the believer to put to death the works of the flesh by the Spirit?
In short, where is the Gospel in this hymn? Don’t strain your eyes looking for it; it’s not there. This hymn is about me and what I have to offer God, not who Christ is and what he has done for me.
During that service, after we had sung this song, the pastor began to speak. He told us how we had not surrendered all to God. He told us that we had not lived daily in his presence. The pastor walked us through several parts of the song. It was a rather emotional experience, most of us standing with our eyes closed, remembering the words from this song. This pastor did half of what he was called to do. He preached the Law to us.
For one brief instant, I had a glimmer of hope. The pastor talked about how though we had failed God in this way, all was not lost. Was this man going to deliver the Gospel to us after we had learned of our sin before God?
The pastor didn’t tell us the good news. He doubled down on the Law. He told us that we had a second chance to please God, to really live the words of the song out… to make them true… all while neglecting to mention the Christ who has made them true and who has freed us to live holy lives! We were left to justify ourselves before God on the basis of the Law –our devotion to God.
For true confessional Lutherans, a service like this does not exist. So I’m thankful for what I have now. I’m thankful each week to confess my sin before God, to receive his absolution through my pastor, to sing praises in confession of the Triune God, to beg for mercy in Christ’s name, to be assured that the Lord is with us, to pray with my fellow believers for God’s blessing that day, to hear God’s word and to give God thanks for his word, to concisely confess the faith of Christians (my faith!), to sing a hymn, to hear God’s word rightly divided as Law | Gospel, to ask God to make me a new creation and uphold me, to make an offering to the Lord, to pray again for the church, and then to receive the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins (an entire service on its own!).
See? The Divine Service isn’t frightening after all!