Why do We have Worship Wars? by Pr. Klemet Preus

(Editor’s Note: This is part two of a five part series on worship in the LCMS.)


Have you every wondered why we have worship wars in the Missouri Synod? I’m going to explain to you why this is so in less than 500 words when, justly, it should require about 500 pages.


When C.F.W. Walther came to America in the late 1830s he brought with him the Biblical, Lutheran doctrine and the church practices, consistent with that doctrine. These had identified the Lutherans for the previous three centuries. One of the practices was a regular use of the historic liturgy and a desire to use this liturgy uniformly among the Lutheran congregations of these immigrant German Lutherans. These Lutherans found and formed fellowship bonds with other Lutherans and soon the LCMS was born. The new church possessed a strong desire to bring their doctrine and practice to those around them and this zealous missionary passion was blessed by God as the synod saw more growth over its first century than any other Lutheran body in America. The worship practices of the Lutheran churches emphasized word and sacrament as those means by which the Holy Spirit brought people into and kept them in the faith. So, as the synod moved into the latter part of the 20th century most leaders saw little need to adapt, adjust, modify, alter, tweak or otherwise change the basic structure of the Sunday service. Of course the service evolved as the language of the people changed from German to English and as new musicians and poets made contributions to the historic treasury of worship resources with which God has blessed the church.


As the Lutherans of the LCMS began to rub shoulders with the people around them they discovered that most protestants in America had little understanding and less use of the Word and Sacrament as the divinely appointed means by which the Holy Spirit grows his church. These Evangelicals believed that the assurance of salvation was not in the gospel but in the religious experience of the Christian. To them, the purpose of worship was to cause an emotional religious experience in the heart of the worshipper. I described this phenomenon in my most recent blog “Why do the Evangelicals Worship that Way?” Initially, most Lutherans trusted the words of Friedrich Carl Wyneken, a founding father of the LCMS who had described the worship life of a vibrant church: “everything takes its peaceful quiet course in accordance with the written word.” And initially the LCMS consciously resisted the influence of American Evangelicalism.


But things changed. There were so many American Evangelicals (Methodists, Baptist, Pentecostals etc.) that soon the LCMS could not help but suffer their influence. Additionally many within the synod began clamoring in defense of the idea that the LCMS should intentionally jettison its cherished traditions including a uniform use of the historic Liturgy. It was discovered, so they claimed, that you could do better mission work among Americans if you adopted the religious “heart language” which was uniquely American. This language included the notion that “the hour I first believed” when I felt the “Joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart” was the “critical event” upon which I based my “blessed assurance.” David Luecke, one of the advocates for intentional change in the worship patterns of the synod, encouraged, “I have found it productive to inquire about when they [Lutheran] felt closest to God or what they remember as a mountain-top spiritual experience, or when their faith means the most to them.”


Those who opposed the wholesale change of the liturgy claimed that such an action was not really mission work but a capitulation to the false doctrine of American Evangelicalism by adopting a worship style which promoted that doctrine. We were becoming American Evangelicals they claimed. And if congregations grew because of change in worship it was mostly because they were appealing to the wrong beliefs of those around them.    


So there are worship wars. These wars are not incidental or insignificant. They are not simply a matter of style. The changes advocated by many in leadership positions are not benign. And the outcome of these worship wars will determine whether or not the LCMS will continue to be a Lutheran church.


The problem is when congregations attempt to blend the liturgy of the historic church with the “Blessed Assurance” of American Evangelicalism. But that is another story.  





About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.


Why do We have Worship Wars? by Pr. Klemet Preus — 10 Comments

  1. Having come from a baptist background I would dearly love to know how we can stop the slide toward that type of “worship” experience. If I want a baptist church I know where they are. One throws certainty out the window when one throws Liturgy out the window.

  2. I read a book called Apostolic Style and Lutheran Substance. In that book, if I recall correctly, the author essentially claimed that those in the LCMS in favor of the liturgy, and the sacramentalists, were really starting a newer movement towards the Catholic Church. His support for this was that it was something that had really begun in the last 50 years in the synod. I had a hard time believing that.

    One of the questions, due to its emphasis on distinguishing between style and substance, raised to my mind by the book was:

    Can we wrap the theology of the cross in the dressings of the theology of glory and still be communicating the theology of the cross?

    It’s really a rhetorical question, isn’t it?

  3. I presume the following is the book referenced in comment#3:

    Apostolic Style and Lutheran Substance: Ten Years of Controversy Over What Can Change“, written in 2000 by David S. Luecke.

    Summary: “How much change can Lutheran churches make and still be faithful to Scripture and their Lutheran confession? Luecke encourages the adoption of communication and organizational styles found in effective, growing congregations — and, he notes, these style changes can be traced to the Apostles and their leadership of the early church.”

    Found at: http://www.amazon.com/Apostolic-Style-Lutheran-Substance-Controversy/dp/0788016237

  4. Klemet,

    Surely you are not suggested the LCMS had a “golden age” of liturgical practice and only good hymns? A examination of primary sources will show all kinds of junk being used (which Walther and others complained about from very early on). Their intentions are clear, but were they achieved? Not in many places in the Missouri Synod. In the same way Augsburg and Apology XXIV are quite clear, but how well do we carry out the intention there?

  5. “Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, ‘Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us LIKE ALL THE NATIONS.’ But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to judge us.’ And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds that they have done, form the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then, obey their voice, only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.’…But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, ‘No! But there shall be a king over, THAT WE ALSO MAY BE LIKE ALL THE NATIONS, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.'” I Samuel 8:4 – 9 & 20

    By all means, let’s be a church that has worship just “like everybody else…” Having the goal of being just like all of the nations around them worked really well for the children of Israel, didn’t it? They remained united under only three generations of kings before they were torn into two nations, and then eventually ended up with both kingdoms in exile. Their first king, Saul – who looked so impressive just like any other king – was such a disaster that his royal dynasty lasted for one generation, and his son never took the throne. David was a man after the Lord’s own heart. Then came Solomon who started off well, and then ended up having his own set of problems.

    It’s just amazing that we can’t get it through our heads that being “just like everyone else” isn’t a good thing when it comes to the things of God. We are supposed to influence and impact the culture, not the other way around. We are not supposed to be conformed to the ways of the world, but be transformed by the renewal of our minds. Romans 12:2

  6. Can the theology of the cross remain the theology of the cross when dressed in a “theology” of glory? No. Instead, it becomes what it looks like. That’s inevitable What is taught in the Church is going to influence the entire lump.

    When the dressing looks enticing, it does the teaching whether in the way of happy-clappy p p”praise” music or in principle-basedpreaching, or so forth. When those who wish to have the dressing of a theology of glory because the style of American evangelicals uses it to attract folks, well then American evangelicalism becomes the teacher

    Rather, when a congregation remains Christ-centered and cross-focused, to borrow Pr. Wilken’s phrase, it is taught and nourished by the Word. It is fed by the Lord’s body and blood. It is washed in truly administered Baptism. The Christ-centered congregation is and remains the student/recipient of the whole corpus of Holy Scripture. It doesn’t make the rules, or re-make them. Our Lord has already given His Law to show us our sin and His Gospel to declare His life, forgiveness, and salvation.

    Just look at the websites, weekly schedules, worship, and witness of congregations. Therein, we get to see a clear distinction. When Bible studies and services truly ground folks in the Word, they apply the very doctrine which gets preached. Unlike the emergents, we don’t rejoice in the free-thinking, up-for-grabs discussion that has no conclusion. Rather, every Bible study and sermon, etc. receives its worth from the Law and Gospel of Go Word.

    It is true that for those who suffer physical or mental illness, the continual groundingand comfort from Scripture is itself a sustaining medicine. Of course, we do not disdain the medical care. Yet, what refreshment the long-standing and enduring words of the liturgy provide for all who suffer. The divine service holds out our Lord’s promise straight from Scripture, often verbatim. You wat to talk about truly blessed assurance? There you have it, and it nowhere forces us to look within ourselves and our experiences to find it. Rather it lifts our eyes of trust to Jesus Christ whose joy is our salvation from sin, death, and hell.

    The purpose-driven cloak of Pietism often has an adult contemporary sounding siren song today. What deceptive and careless way for the hammer of the Law to be slammed down upon us! It happens in every evangelical altar call and every “praise” chorus that coos the things we “want to do” for Jesus.

    Yet, what wonder comes to us in the divine service. Not only does the Law convic! Not only do we confess our sin! More so, through the mouth of our pastor, Jesus declaes us forgiven. He laishes ous with His feast–His body and bood for us who, in concord, confess together all articles of Christian doctrine taught by Holy Scripture. How well Jesus Christ, the living bread from heaven, feeds us, His guests–and we don’t even deserve it! Thanks be to God!

    David Rosenkoetter
    Matthew 28:19-20

  7. Why does it seem like we are drawn so much to the ways of other denominations? Why do we hold “Bible studies” that study books about self improvement and finding our “purpose”? Why do we invite non-Lutherans to lead us, whether it be a youth gathering, or presentation at a pastor’s conference, or telling congregations how they can gain more members? Do Lutherans have an inferiority complex? As a church body we should be proud to stand apart from the others. Not only should we stand apart, but we should do a better job at pointing out differences between our beliefs and others. I think if more people really understood the errors in other denominations, they may not be so accepting of their worship styles.

  8. I left evangelicalism several years ago, and I’m not interested in going back. My current options among LCMS churches already scare me, and if the LCMS ceases to be Lutheran I’m not sure where I’ll go.

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