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.”