Worship Practices and Context

Some proponents of contemporary worship suggest that how best to deal with issues over differences about worship, is to first understand that worship practices, such as those found in the liturgy, are products of contextualization.

“Contextualization” is a word having a meaning that isn’t at once apparent.  We want to ask, “What does that mean?” In general, contextualization refers to what is sometimes called “cultural bias.” A cultural bias is the subjective dimension to human conduct found in a community.  For example, a sociologist will look for patterns, traits, and practices that express this subjective dimension in a given culture.

What I have just waved at isn’t terribly problematic by itself. What becomes a real issue is when it is claimed that the subjective dimension to a community, while it can be expressed through behavior, can’t be really known by outsiders until they are immersed in the given culture under observation. In short, one must become part of the cultural context in order to have any practical understanding of it. What this means is that our practices have meaning not because they signify anything on their own, but the practices are given meaning through their cultural context.

The proponent of contemporary worship, embracing ideas of contextualization, will assert that the disparity of understanding such worship amongst those practicing a traditional liturgy is the cause of the worship wars.

In this postmodernist view, the community of worshipers and their cultures is the context, or cultural bias, as explained above. Without this context, a worship practice has no meaning. Why? The practice can’t be understood objectively. One must practice within the community (aka “practitioner”) in order to grasp the meaning of the worship practices. And, because such a context is particular to the community of worshipers, i.e. subjective, the worship practices in the given context are considered to be neutral, neither good nor bad, to an outsider looking in.

What is rejected in such a view is that worship practices have any universal meaning in and of themselves; that is to say they can’t be understood and known by an outside observer from any other context. For instance, the raising of the host above one’s head during a worship service, all things considered, doesn’t signify or convey anything, per se. Instead, a meaning must be given to the “raising of the host” event by observers. The “true” meaning of the event is only understood by those who are in the context of the worship community.

What this postmodernist view of contextualization, applied to worship practice, does is several things. It pushes the boundaries of meaning in worship, turning worship practices into descriptions about what we do, which can only be meaningful to our own worship community. In other words, worship practices are hopelessly stuck in conclaves.  Only the practitioner really knows what is going on and those “outside” the context can’t have such knowledge until they are brought into the community. If anything can be said by someone “outside,” what shouldn’t be said against the practices of a worship community are judgmental statements. This view of contextualization attempts to divorce practice from doctrine and insulate it from sound criticism.

There are many problems with such a view, but foremost of all is the rejection that practices are inseparable from doctrine. Doctrine gives practices their meaning. Doctrine informs practices and because of that there is no such thing as a valueless worship practice, as the postmodernist would like us to think. Some doctrines are false, and the resulting practices point at the false teaching. When we observe someone praying to the saints, we understand the reason why the person prays in that way is due to false teaching. The lines of inference from the practice to the teaching may not always be clear, but they are there if we look for them.

Exploring the above points in a little more depth, it has been argued that Luther, in his letter to Prince George of Anhalt (source), lends support to contextualization in worship. Bluntly, that is the furthest from the truth of the matter. In that letter, Luther writes concerning ceremonies,

“The one thing that needs to be done is this: the Word must be preached often and purely, and competent and learned ministers must be secured who are concerned above all else that they be of one heart and one mind in the Lord. If this is achieved, it will undoubtedly be easy to secure uniformity in ceremonies, or at least to tolerate differences.”

Luther is not suggesting that differences in our ceremonies are alright. He is not even arguing that the differences are a result of contextualization. In fact, he is telling us that ceremonies are the product of doctrine, not a cultural bias. What Luther says in that letter is, if we have unity around pure doctrine, then it follows that we will “undoubtedly… secure uniformity in ceremonies.” Without sound teaching and instruction in pure doctrine, then ceremonies are up for grabs to anyone who wants to institute one practice over another.

In the same letter, Luther expresses recognition that “…observances are subject to places, times, persons, and circumstances” being “…by their very nature changeable.” The point Luther is making isn’t terribly surprising to read, or to understand. He isn’t arguing that observances differ greatly from one context to another. Luther undoubtedly has in mind the fact that pure doctrine doesn’t change, but our practices should as they conform to the truth of God’s Holy Word. The Triune God and His Word don’t change, but the reality of change in the temporal world is often seen by how we sinful beings deviate from the unchangeable, heavenly, doctrine given to us by God. Hence, by “their very nature” the things in the temporal world are changeable. Luther isn’t encouraging change for the sake of change. Neither is he telling us that practice isn’t chained to doctrine.  Again, the change he does point to is that change which removes ceremonies not conforming to pure doctrine. Where we may differ in practices which are adiaphora, we humbly tolerate the diversity out of love one for another.

Finally, Luther is not suggesting that ceremonies (and worship practices) are the products of a worship community which gives the ceremonies their meaning. In Luther’s letter, he expresses concern that practices should neither add to, nor detract from, the pure teaching of the Gospel. Indeed, that is the litmus test of whether or not a ceremony should be practiced in our churches.  Since the litmus test is whether or not a ceremony (or practice) detracts from the pure teaching of the Gospel, we then know that the talk of “contextualization,” as I have explained it is postmodernist, philosophical, gobbledygook.  How do we know this? The truth of the Gospel transcends all cultures. Indeed, it is what the postmodernist really hates, a story that comprehensively explains (a metanarrative) the nature of humankind and why we all need a savior in Jesus Christ, who is the only way to God, being the way, the truth, and the life.

We can’t ignore the worship wars, or make them go away with a philosophical sleight of hand trick that cripples the universality of the truth of the Gospel while at the same time attempts to divorce practice from doctrine. No, if we want to see an end to worship wars, we must do as LCMS synod president Matt Harrison has said many times over and that is repent and seek Godly unity in pure doctrine. Then, then, we will “undoubtedly… secure uniformity in ceremonies.”


Worship Practices and Context — 31 Comments

  1. The irony: The proponents of “contextualization” impose their postmodern ideas on Luther, reading him as though he were a 21st century postmodern. Now that’s funny.

    Proof that this isn’t about culture, context or contextualization at all.


  2. Pastor Wilken has it correct. In another place he wisely counsels,”What does it confess?” Too often in contemporary worship the confession is not historic, Biblical Christianity. Evangelicalism is fast becoming the new liberalism.

  3. There is absolutely NO cultural context in which the Divine Service is an impediment to the Gospel. It is the most clear articulation of it, which is why it has been used through the centuries around the world. Sure, you can find creative ways to present it. But usually “contextualization” is a coverup for reinventing the wheel because you think you are smarter than the historical church. And it is also a lame justification for thoughtless surrender to shallow ecclesial trends in order to appeal to a lowest common denominator and acquire numerical strength. If people are coming to your church because the show is awesome, your fog machine has probably become the impediment to the Gospel which you accused the traditional liturgy of being.

    Those quoting Luther to promote variety in liturgical rites need to answer these questions: What new rites are you suggesting? Why should we abandon the historic rites in favor of these newer ones produced by other traditions? Where did these new rites come from? What do these rites teach us about the nature of worship and the message of scripture? You can NOT duck these questions in the name of “preference.” There is way too much at stake.

  4. Excellently put, Miguel.

    I once took a class in contextualizing the Gospel for Muslims from a well-known “evangelical” seminary. The professor once suggested that perhaps instead of water baptism (too dangerous) the new convert could enter into a coffin, close the coffin, then have him/her rise up and get out. He said maybe that would be more meaningful to the Muslim convert (and less dangerous) than the water baptism.

  5. @Miguel #4

    Matthew Mills: “My question to the innovators is still: What advantage are you gaining from unlovingly breaking public harmony and refusing to observe adiaphora w/ the rest of us? What advantage trumps love and public harmony for you?”

    Todd Wilken: “It is the continuous assault on historic worship in congregation after congregation for the last 50 years that has so divided us.”

    Miguel: “If people are coming to your church because the show is awesome, your fog machine has probably become the impediment to the Gospel which you accused the traditional liturgy of being.”

    (worth repeating)

  6. The real context of every worship service is that
    sinners gather around Word and Sacrament.
    As they confess their sins they hear the words
    of absolution. As they hear the Law and Gospel
    from the pulpit they are renewed in Christ.
    As they receive the Body and Blood of Christ
    in the Sacrament they are nourished in their
    faith and forgiven of their sins.

    This is the genuine context of every worship
    service in every century. The traditional liturgy
    has stood the test of time to nurture Christians
    who continue to come to God’s House each

  7. “Contextual” is the rebranding of “Contemporary” from the “Missional” camp I was able to figure that one out almost immediately, in part because it was our liberal friends who were/are using the term to death. And then when you hear it half explained, well… There is nothing new under the sun.

  8. @Jason #8
    What gets forgotten is how easily one falls into contextualization. It only takes a few members who leave due to the liturgy. It only take a few new members to suggest that the liturgy is not contextual enough. The changes come on gradually.

  9. [T]he subjective dimension to a community, while it can be expressed through behavior, can’t be really known by outsiders until they are immersed in the given culture under observation.

    I can agree with this statement, IF you recognize the context/culture of the Church in this way: the Church is the gathering in faith of believers around Word and Sacrament. Restating the above thesis with that understanding would look something like this:

    The [Gospel given “for you”], while it can be expressed through [certain outward ritual acts in the traditional liturgy], can’t be really known by [unbelievers] until they [receive faith by the Holy Spirit through the Word proclaimed].

    This would seem to be supported by John 4:47 – “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”

    The problem I see with “contextualization” is when you forget that the Church is a unique culture defined by faith, Word and Sacrament rather than the secular customs and trappings outside of the community of faith.

  10. @PPPadre #10

    You make a good point. However, what you are describing is actually the sinful condition of all of humankind, which is not a “context” in the problematic sense I have provided above. ALL sinners can’t “really know” the truth of God’s Word except they first be given faith. Truth is a revelation. This is true across all cultural contexts. Again, you make a good point, but you aren’t really describing a cultural bias in its problematic, postmodernist, sense.

  11. @Andrew #9
    It only takes a few members who leave due to the liturgy.

    I’d be interested in knowing how often “members leave due to the liturgy”.
    In my experience, members leave due to tinkering with the liturgy and open communion, (and are told not to let the door hit them on their way out).

    Odd thing about one congregation, a year later, the most ardent contemporary innovators were themselves going somewhere else. They didn’t say why….

  12. @Andrew #9
    And it only takes one pastor to agree with them and say, “Yep. Let’s start by changing the creed this Sunday and see if we can’t get more people in here.”

  13. @Jim Pierce #11 :
    @PPPadre #10
    Again, you make a good point, but you aren’t really describing a cultural bias in its problematic, postmodernist, sense.

    But that was the point. When God is at the center, i.e. that which defines and delineates what the culture is, then the statement is acceptable. When man is at the center, i.e. that which defines and delineates what the culture is, then the statement is problematic. When the Church is defined by the God who is there, we are “of one heart and one mind in the Lord,” regardless of our Sitz im Leben. When the church is defined by the people who are there, we are fractured into our sinful, problematic, postmodernist conclaves because of our Sitz im Leben.

  14. @helen #14
    That is the point. A few members who leave due to the liturgy can lead to the speculation that one should try to fix it. I’ve been one of those guys. What you say is true, make the liturgy into something else and people will still not stay because someone else will certainly be doing it better.

    @Rev. McCall #15
    That is true, once the tinkering begins the temptation to keep tinkering grows.

  15. @PPPadre #16

    The point I am making is your restatement is not the view I presented. So your agreement is with your restatement and not with the problematic, postmodernist, view of contextualization I present above. That is all I was getting at. Again, you are making a great point with Christ centered-ness. I make the same point in the last two paragraphs of my essay.

  16. @helen #14
    I’m leaving my congregation because of liturgy — its deteriorating liturgy [I think the Kyrie was the first thing to go] and its use of non-Lutheran programs and materials. Its constitution SAYS the “right” things, but the congregation’s practice is much different. I am fortunate to be able to transfer to an LCMS congregation nearby who wants to be Lutheran in doctrine and practice. Others are not so fortunate.

  17. @Gisela #20
    I’m leaving my congregation because of liturgy — its deteriorating liturgy [I think the Kyrie was the first thing to go] and its use of non-Lutheran programs and materials.

    Neither of us left because of the historic traditional Lutheran liturgy, but because of un Lutheran practices being introduced.
    In my first instance, it was Seminex influence… (possibly in the last, too, but they don’t call it that any more). :(

  18. Question from a LCMS member….

    Where I attend church, we have what is called a “blended”service. We have liturgy based on the Divine Service placed in a PowerPoint presentation. I feel we do have all the components of a liturgical service (Invocation, Creed, Confession/Absolution, Prayers, Lord’s Supper, Sermon, etc.), but it is not specifically tied to any particular divine setting from the hymnal. The place I feel our services differ from the tradition is the music/instrument choices. We do not use the organ (we use piano, guitars, etc.); and we do not have many traditional “hymnal” songs, and we use modern christian songs in worship (as heard on christian radio, casting crowns, etc.).

    In light of this conversation I do believe we need to stick to the traditions of the church as mentioned in this article. The question I have deals with whether what our church practices is in-line or out-of-bounds with what we teach and confess?

    Thank you for any help you can give on this matter.

  19. @rasera #22

    I think there are a number of good ways to answer your question, but I am going to proceed by quoting from the Augsburg Confession, XXVIII, 53-55:

    “What, then, are we to think of the Sunday and like rites in the house of God? To this we answer that it is lawful for bishops or pastors to make ordinances that things be done orderly in the Church, not that thereby we should merit grace or make satisfaction for sins, or that consciences be bound to judge them necessary services, and to think that it is a sin to break them 54] without offense to others. So Paul ordains, 1 Cor. 11:5, that women should cover their heads in the congregation, 1 Cor. 14:30, that interpreters be heard in order in the church, etc.

    55] It is proper that the churches should keep such ordinances for the sake of love and tranquillity, so far that one do not offend another, that all things be done in the churches in order, and without confusion, 1 Cor. 14:40; comp. Phil. 2:14 . ” (emphasis mine).

    As a synod, we agreed in convention that the Lutheran Service Book is our official hymnal to be used in all our congregations. We also agree in Article III, 7, of our constitution to “Encourage congregations to strive for uniformity in church practice….”

    I believe you can answer your question with your own observations that your congregation isn’t really using the LSB, but has a “blended service” where they have set their own direction as far as how the service is conducted. So, in this case, they aren’t, “for the sake of love and tranquility” and for the sake of good order, following the traditional liturgy.

    Here are a couple more questions for you to ask yourself, as asked by Matthew Mills in another thread here on BJS:

    “My question to the innovators is still: What advantage are you gaining from unlovingly breaking public harmony and refusing to observe adiaphora w/ the rest of us? What advantage trumps love and public harmony for you?”

    Indeed, those are good questions to be thinking about where the use of this “blended service” is concerned.

  20. I agree with what you are saying, and I looked up in the confessions the section you are referring to. What is your take in light of what it says in Article XXVIII #56.

    “It is proper to keep such ordinances just so long as consciences are not burdened to think that they are necessary to salvation, or to regard it as sin if they are changed without offending others. For instance no one will say that a woman sins who goes out in public with her head uncovered, as long as no offence is given.”

    Now I know that too far either way is a slippery slope. There are some I know in the LCMS who view churches that do not use the hymnal as sinning against God. The other way is to completely change everything in worship regardless of what the practice of the church is.

    I get confused on the meaning an motivation behind Synod/Pastors/Churches stress for uniformity in church practices. Does that mean we all have to be “McDonalds” type churches, or can there be some freedom as long as it does not stray from what we believe, teach and confess?

    I feel there is a culture out there which needs to be reached with the True Gospel, which I believe the LCMS church has. The issues is finding ways to reach them inside and outside of a worship service. I was raised in a traditional WELS church (TLH 5 and 15), and when I had the chance (High School), I ran as fast as I could (for the wrong reasons). I came into the LCMS church in my late 20’s because (probably for the wrong reason) the format/presentation of the service. It had the components of a Lutheran worship service (Confession/Absolution, Prayers, Sermon, Lord’s Supper, etc.) but with the blended style mentioned in the format/music. It was an answered prayer for me at the time. The more I am growing in my faith, the more I realize the strengths and the dangers in a “blended” style worship.

    I know there is no “answer” to this, but I struggle with wanting to stay true to what we believe, and reaching those (like I was) who truly need to hear the truth of God’s Word.

    Any further insights would be greatly appreciated. God Bless

  21. @rasera #24

    I don’t think we have to pit “wanting to stay true to what we believe” against “reaching those… who truly need to hear the truth of God’s Word.” We can, do, and must, spread the Gospel as Christ instituted. What we do not want to do is to turn the divine service, where Christ comes to serve us, into an evangelism machine. Too many Lutherans have fallen for the Finney-ism of today found predominately among the evangelicals. The divine service is both Gospel proclamation and where the Lord’s sheep are being fed. It is not the place for a “bait-n-switch” type event geared towards driving the “unChurched” into making a decision for Christ. One of the severe problems with Church Growth strategies is that they are designed from the perspective of those who embrace decision theology. As such, worship services aren’t about Christ coming to us with the forgiveness of sins, but are about creating an atmosphere which will attract “unChurch” into the church doors where they can then be ripened up through mood music, ambiance, and exhortations, for the plucking.

    No. “reaching those… who truly need to hear the truth of God’s Word” begins with proclaiming the pure Gospel to sinners, like you and me, and feeding them with the Sacraments. Then, as we go along in the world, working in our various vocations, we get to tell others about the mercy and love Jesus has shown to us. All the time we remember that it is the Holy Spirit who works through His Word to bring people to faith. Meaning, it isn’t some fanciful program, or some clever one on one evangelism scheme, that creates saving faith.

    We are already in the culture that needs to be reached. The traditional liturgy didn’t drop out of the sky from Mars. If we understand it and practice it, then so can others. The whole idea that we have to adopt the techniques of the decision theology adherents in order to reach our culture is sheer mythology. As one who was an atheist for 18 years, I just don’t buy into the whole line that the Church must be permeable to the culture or it will die. That has never been true, as far as I can tell. Indeed, we have something to show the culture around us, something brilliant and which isn’t of them. It is the resurrected Christ given to you for the forgiveness of sins.

  22. “My question to the innovators is still: What advantage are you gaining from unlovingly breaking public harmony and refusing to observe adiaphora w/ the rest of us? What advantage trumps love and public harmony for you?”

    Whether or not you agree, Rasera (comments 22 and 24) articulates very well what could often be the advantage.  Many thousands of LCMS folks agree with Rasera. 

  23. @John Rixe #28

    Thanks John, but you’ve lost me. I can’t think of “unlovingly breaking public harmony” as an “advantage” but a detriment. I don’t want to call bad, good and vice versa.

  24. @Jim Pierce #29

    The greater good to reach the lost…..by the way: your comments and Rasera’s comments have the most clarity and respect regarding the worship wars that I’ve seen in a long time.

  25. @Pastor Ted Crandall #6

    Pastor Crandall,

    I would agree with your assessment. However, as long as there continues to be “updating” of the LWB every twenty years or so, as well as more that one liturgy to pick and choose from, there will never be uniformity amongst the parishes. I think it is easily overlooked that style affects content just as capricious liturgies necessarily will affect doctrine. I often wonder if the LCMS approved one uniform liturgy to be used in all parishes if the problem of Pietism and other Evangelical influences would begin to atrophy? I’m not saying I have the answer to this problem, but I do know that an historical formal liturgy was on e of the main things that brought me into the LCMS. Unfortunately, the ever changing liturgies is what prompted me to begin to look elsewhere for worship consistency. I only say this, because frankly I think this is one of the major reasons why the LCMS is loosing members as well as not growing. I have found–anecdotally speaking– that people are hungry for something where what they see is what they get. In other words a growing number of Christians want to have familiarity when they gather in word and sacrament. I think it would be great for our children to hear the same liturgy every week and have the opportunity to memorize it. Again, I don’t have all the answers but this is something that needs to be thought through a little better within the LCMS.

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