(Editor’s Note: This is part three of a five part series on worship in the LCMS.)
What is this trend in our synod where churches are following the liturgy sort of? They have most of the parts but they substitute contemporary praise for the ordinaries in the service, use praise songs instead of hymns, put a band in the chancel and call it “blended worship?” It seems to dominate the liturgical landscape of our church. I’m going to explain this to you in less than 700 words when, justly, it should require about 700 pages.
The primary purpose of both hymns and the liturgy of the Divine Service, in Lutheran thinking, is to accompany the rich theological texts of the Gospel which permeate both our Lutheran hymns and the historic liturgy. The direction of the communication is primarily from God to us. In American Evangelicalism the primary purpose of the songs and worship is to help move the worshipper to have the type of experience which provides the assurance that God loves them. Lutherans are less interested in emotion and more in Gospel content, while Evangelicals tend to show more interest in the emotive capabilities of music and lyrics than in their use as vehicles to teach the word of the gospel. So the worship wars are deeply theological as I have shown in my previous two blogs.
Three things have happened in the LCMS over the last three decades. Some have shamelessly adopted the mindset of American Evangelicals and have discarded the liturgy – lock, stock and barrel. Others have become ardent disciples of traditional hymnody and liturgy convinced that a return to these treasures is necessary if the church is to become healthy. I suppose I tend to be in this category. Both of these groups are found to be a bit annoying to the third group. This is the basic down to earth liturgical middle of the LCMS which wants both to use the historic liturgy but also enjoys the upbeat, happy style of many of the contemporary songs which have been produced by the hundreds of thousands over the last couple of decades.
This third group has arisen for a few understandable and often legitimate reasons. First, Lutherans value freedom under the gospel and unless something is overtly sinful or wrong it is difficult for pastors to say “No” to musical, hymnic or liturgical innovations. Second, while in past generations the pastors typically chose the hymns, these days committees are formed, or individual people pressure pastors to include certain songs in the church. At funerals and weddings, for example, I have a very difficult time teaching the people that it is not one of their inalienable rights to choose their own hymns. The same seeps into our view of the Sunday service. Consequently the service becomes a reflection of current popular trends more than the historic, considered, theological position of the church. Third, we are in greater contact between congregations than in the past. People from one church move to another in our transient society and bring with them a desire to open up the service to certain new forms. Fourth, these songs and liturgical innovations are often pretty, simple, and easy to sing. The rhythm and cadence are things we are used to having heard them on the radio while growing up. The music of some traditional hymns, on the other hand, is often a bit foreign to our ears. Chanting is also perceived to be difficult by many people. People, particularly visitors from other church bodies, often sing more lustily with a good praise song than with our traditional hymnody. Fifth, the strong theological content of traditionally Lutheran Hymnody and the liturgy is a turn off to many people. Many were impatient with the doctrinal controversy which plagued our church in the sixties and seventies and they simply want to avoid strong doctrinal assertions for fear that these will rekindle strong feelings or open deep and painful wounds. Sixth, this middle group of our synod is by far the largest. Their vastness tends to justify their worship predilections and their habits are difficult to adjust or change.
So this middle group in our church dominates. And that explains the pervasive use of “blended” worship in our circles. But is it a good thing?