(Cantor Magness writes a regular column for the Steadfast Quarterly. This is his article from Volume 1, #3, which we thought would be timely for the Brothers as many of us may have been on the road visiting extended family this weekend and so may have experienced a ‘less than steadfast’ Divine Service. His posts are also archived on the Regular Columns page.)
During my travels this past year I participated in worship in Texas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Ohio, and several places in Illinois. I sought out parishes that offered different “styles” of worship so that I could see what things were valued as essential by a parish and what things were considered “adiaphora” (essentially indifferent to the Gospel and therefore optional). While one cannot fully ascertain a congregation’s position on everything from just one Sunday experience, the liturgy does give a significant and profound confession of what a congregation believes. Conversations with congregational members at these locations reinforced my belief that the conclusions I drew from worshiping with these fellow Lutherans were indeed correct: how they pray does confess what they believe.
This quarter’s article is about a moderately large exurban church. This parish was recommended to me as a place where there was “excellence” in three current styles of worship: traditional, blended, and contemporary. I eventually plan on writing about the various “traditional” and “contemporary” services I observed, but for now I want to focus on the “blended” service. This “style” is probably the most difficult to pin down of the three, as it varies the most from parish to parish. I have defined the traditional service as “the tradition that preserves the customs that were followed by a particular parish before they embarked on offering alternative services.” Similarly, the contemporary service can be explained as “what the new associate pastor and/or church consultants brought in after convincing the congregation that a new way of worship was needed for the sake of church growth.” But the “blended” service can be pretty much anything the locals make up as they go along, and so they are like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: one never knows what to expect!
This blended service began as the pastor came out in a golf shirt and made a series of announcements about “mission and ministry opportunities.” He then sat down and let the band take over. As is typical in contemporary services, the band leader introduced the songs and functioned as an assisting minister. The people were supposed to sing along with the band, but few did on the verses of the first song. They were in a solo vocal style with a range and syncopation that did not invite communal singing. The second piece was a nice Celtic melody which was sung well by everyone. I found out later it was a staple at this church and so it is sort of a liturgy for them. This often happens in Protestant churches: losing an understanding of the liturgy as the singing and praying of God’s Word, they pick favorite melodies and repeat them for the sake of the experience of singing favorite songs together rather than for the experience of magnifying God’s Word in song. This song led into a time of prayer, after which people were seated for the readings of the day.
The front-loading of the prayers in this service was illustrative of a theological emphasis on sanctification that came through loud and clear in the sermon, in which sanctification did not flow from our justification (i.e. the Gospel), but rather was a ‘purpose-driven’ exhortation to follow the “life lessons” offered to the hearers in God’s Word. Similarly, the prayers of the faithful to live according to God’s love were not offered after the reading and preaching of God’s Word (as is done in the Divine Service and in the daily offices), but came before the reading and preaching. This seems to be a natural order of service for Third Use of the Law orientation: rather than hearing the Gospel and then asking the Lord to grant us His good and gracious will according to the mercy He gives us through the forgiveness of sins, this order of service gathers people into the Lord’s presence where they then ask for His guidance and blessing and receive instruction on how they are to get their needs met. This is a big burden to place upon the people. No wonder they need to pray first!
One thing that did follow the sermon (entitled “Life Lesson”) was a confession of faith. However, they did not confess one of the three ecumenical creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, or Athanasian) as we bind ourselves to do in the Lutheran Confessions but instead had their own. To get around this obvious affront to confessional sensibilities, they took the postmodern approach of redefining what they were doing by simply calling the newfangled creed an “affirmation of faith.” I could tell from the zealous way in which the lady behind me was confessing this creed that this particular set of words was a habit for this congregation. At this I was greatly distressed, not just at the breach of fellowship with their fellow Lutherans, but also at the tone of the worshipers around me: this was THEIR creed. They were “with it”–apparently not like those Christians who cling to those old-fashioned creeds. This was when I knew that I simply could not commune at this church, even though it was in my own synod.
As the service continued, my sadness turned to nausea. As is common in contemporary churches, “Confession & Absolution” took place as a prelude to the Lord’s Supper. There is nothing inherently wrong in this; Walther had this custom. But the confession did not confess anything more than “falling short of the mark” in our desires to have “better relationships.” And the absolution was not an objective declaration of forgiveness but merely an affirmation of God’s goodness. Then, before communion, worshipers were told: “If you are guests here this morning, we simply ask that you take a look at your own life. If you are repentant and desire this blessing of the Lord here today, we invite you to join with us for communion.”
So there it was. Heterodox creed and open communion in a one-two punch. I became literally sick to my stomach with remorse over the spectacle of all this happening in a Missouri Synod church. These aren’t mere customs here, but actual bad practices. Say what you want about a screen, banter between band leader & pastor, informal attire, mood music during the prayers, contemporary music, and even the jumbled order of service. There are ranges of opinion on such things as to how desirable or undesirable they are. But about the practices of the church we have objective confessional standards, and these were being broken at every turn.
This is not the only place where this is happening. And, yes, I have brought this to the attention of the appropriate District President (DP). Perhaps in this case the DP will convince this parish of the wrongness of what they are doing and the need to return to a more Lutheran piety. Let us all pray this be so! (Update: The DP has now demurred on three appeals for him to investigate this.)
So why bring this to the church-at-large if the DP is aware of this? Because laymen need to hear the testimony of what is really happening in our churches. Most of us worship in our own congregations or in the congregations of family members who attend churches similar to ours. It is easy therefore to dismiss concerns about others’ worship practices as conservative over-reaction to a guitar or an unfamiliar setting of the liturgy. Certainly some confessional Lutherans are repristinators at heart, and so their complaints aren’t taken very seriously by average churchgoers who simply don’t share their passion for the culture of 1950’s Wisconsin or 1580’s Wittenberg. But these articles are written so that you may know indeed that today’s LCMS is not your grandfathers’ church, and that it is going to take the work of some truly courageous leaders to restore unity to our communion. Whether these things are going on in your church or not, you, the laymen of the evangelical Lutheran Church, can provide the leadership we need. “Ecclesiastical Supervision” is everyone’s responsibility! We need change from above and from below–and lay leadership is key.
Certainly nobody can put a stop to a congregation doing whatever it wants to do. But we can appeal to their consciences to return to the fold. And, if they refuse, we can and should stop them from hanging the LCMS sign outside their door. We did not create this conflict, but our decision as to whether we will confront it or avoid it will determine whether or not this synod prevails. Think about it: how long would Subway last if they allowed hundreds of their stores to stop selling sandwiches and offered only pastries instead?