Resisting the Influence of Evangelicalism, Part VII – The Second of Evangelicalism’s Faulty Practices: Praise Worship Services, by Pr. Klemet Preus

(These posts are adapted from a presentation Pastor Preus made in Sweden for the North European Luther Academy in 2006 and which was republished in the recent edition of Logia, A Journal of Lutheran Theology. We recommend both groups to the Brothers of John the Steadfast. The other posts in this series are archived in the Brothers’ Cafe under Klemet’s name.)


With its understanding of faith as a conscious “heartfelt” experience American Evangelicalism views the function and practice of the Divine Service in a manner completely different from Lutherans. Martin Luther saw the function of the Divine Service primarily as God serving us his word and sacrament for the forgiveness of sins. Certainly we responded with thanksgiving and confession but the service was primarily a gift of God to us. We are primarily hearers and receivers in the Divine Service. That’s what worship is.


Faith is that worship which receives God’s offered blessings. It is by faith that God wants to be worshiped, namely, that we receive from him what he promises and offers.


The woman [who washed Jesus feet] came, believing that she should seek the forgiveness of sins from Christ. This is the highest way of worshiping Christ. Nothing greater could she ascribe to him. By looking for the forgiveness of sins from him she truly acknowledged him as the Messiah. Truly to believe means to think of Christ in this way, and it this way to worship and take hold of him.


The service and worship of the Gospel is to receive good things from God. The highest worship in the Gospel is the desire to receive the forgiveness of sins, grace and righteousness. [1]


With this understanding of worship the Lutheran Church concentrated on preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments. It did not worry the early Lutherans that the Word and Sacrament were communicated in forms that varied little from place to place and week to week. One American Lutheran theologian of the early 20th century put it this way:


It is folly for the servants of the Word to cast about how to reach men’s hearts, how to fill the pews, how to bring people to the fear of the Lord; it is folly to suppose they must discover new power, find a new content for their sermons or try this or that new method. The hammer that breaks the rock in pieces has not been cast aside, it needs only servants to carry it among men. [2]


In fact, it was the sameness of the liturgy which often was extolled by the Lutherans as the proper vehicle for the Holy Spirit.


American Evangelicalism, on the other hand, since it has defined faith as primarily a heartfelt emotional experience must view the Sunday service as that event which brings about the active personal experience. “The emphasis was on a concrete personal conversion experience and the revival [worship service] was the means employed to bring about the experience.” [3] George Barna, “Church Growth” advocate, prolific church pollster and analyst, stresses the importance of the Worship Service in “bringing people to Christ.” But he warns that “half of all regular church-going adults admit that they have not experienced God’s presence at any time during the past year.” [4] This lack, it is claimed, can be remedied when people are “moved physically, emotionally or intellectually by the worship experience and when they encounter God and have an undeniable sense of his presence.” [5] So what can a church do to make sure that the Worship Services effectively move people to encounter God? Barna answers this question. “The people who attend a worship service should be ushered into His presence through an intentional effort to make God’s presence palpable.” [6] Notice that it is not unbelievers who lack the experience Barna desires. It is church goers. Countless Christian people may be hearing the gospel and receiving the sacrament on a regular basis and still lack the presence of God according to Barna.


Since the function of the service is to make God palpably and experientially present it simply will not do for the divine service to be the same week after week. “Unpredictability” is what generates the excitement necessary for conversion. So there is a strong movement across all churches in American to vary the service radically from week to week. One of the most significant “novelties” is the practice of singing praise songs for about 20 minutes at the beginning of the service. [7] “Easy listening” music allows people “to find a means of expression to God without having that flow disturbed by other forms of activity.” “It is a mistake to assume that people are ready and prepared to worship when they first arrive on Sunday morning. Usually, they need to ‘wake up’ first. We believe you wake up the Body by waking up the bodies! So we intentionally choose a song with a strong fast beat and a bright melody that people can move to.” [8] Once the worship leader “reads the congregation” and surmises that the people are integrated into worship, he then “transitions from the music to the next part of the worship experience.” [9] The Lutheran practice of preparation through being “examined and absolved” is out. The Evangelical practice of “strong fast beat and bright melody” that “wakes us up” is in.  


Another worship practice advocated by many within the Evangelical community is that the language of the service must be in the “heart language of the people who are there.” Traditional church language is to be avoided since those who are estranged from the church, often called “dechurched,” and those who have never been in a church will hardly know the Christian jargon. Kent Hunter, prolific church growth author and writer for the magazine Jesus First, puts it like this. “To bring the Gospel to Americans on their level, the communication path will have to take the form of the country-western culture, including country-western songs with Christian content.” [10] Since surveys show that almost 70% of Americans enjoy soft rock or country music, the worship service should employ this style of music. The theory is that if you want to convert Willie Nelson you’ve got to get Willie to listen and that means playing Willie’s music. What is popular in the world should be used by the church. Observe that these practices have nothing to do with receiving the word and sacrament and everything to do with creating the mood necessary for the inducement of a religious experience.


The effect of the expectations this style of worship has created among Lutherans is tragic. Recently a couple stopped by my church and identified themselves as Lutherans who had just moved into the area. They wondered what types of church services we have. I responded. “We have the type of worship services where every single Sunday you are given the forgiveness of sins since every Sunday you hear the absolution, hear the gospel in the readings and sermon, receive the body and blood of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper and are sent home with the gracious peace of Jesus Christ through the benediction.” Their faces fell, “we were hoping you had some praise music.” Apparently the forgiveness of sins through the means of grace was not their heart language. This is the expectation of church going people who have been influenced by American Evangelicalism. If we think worship style is not a fundamental soteriological question we do so at the peril of souls.


Obviously, every culture will use language, idiom and musical forms which are understandable to that culture. That is not the issue. What is at issue is whether popular culture, which is by definition popular and liked by the people and determined by the people, should determine the content and forms of the divine service.


The conversionism making its way into Lutheran circles is probably seen most obviously in the hymns that are sung. I speak anecdotally hear. Recently I was talking with an organist at a Lutheran Church. During the upcoming service we were going to sing, “Dear Christians One and All Rejoice.” She commented that she was unfamiliar with the hymn – a Luther hymn which is arguably the greatest didactic hymn ever produced and has been included in virtually every Lutheran hymnal ever written. It is unequalled in teaching the way of salvation. Yet a young Lutheran organist had never played it. At the same time many polls indicate that Lutheran laypeople in America constantly list “Amazing Grace” as one of their favorite hymns. Consider the lyrics of this hymn. It mentions nothing of the cross of Christ, the Sacraments, the forgiveness of sins, or even the name of Jesus. It does, however, contain that quintessential American sentiment. “How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.” [11] This is the type of hymnody which will always be preferred in a system which stresses the conversion experience over confidence in the word and sacrament. Look at the two songs below. They are typical of the “praise songs” employed by many American churches. Observe how the focus is not upon the grace of God in Christ. We hear nothing of sacraments, word or cross. Instead the intense feelings of New Evangelicalism are extolled.


When we’re gathered in His name, we will never leave the same.

Love surrounds, joy abounds;

We can know the Spirit came, in each heart He lights a flame

When we’re gathered in His name. [12]


I can almost see your Holiness

As I look around this place,

With our hands raised up to receive Your love,

I can see you on each face.

Spirit of God, lift me up, Spirit of God, lift me up,

Fill me again with Your love,

Sweet Spirit of God, Spirit of Love, Sweet Spirit of God. [13]


These songs are not merely vacuous. They promote an understanding of the Christian religion which maintains that you do not identify the Spirit in the Word   but on the faces of people, that the Spirit’s “lighting a flame in the heart,” or “lifting me up,” or “filling me with Your love,” is the experience which identifies me as a Christian.  


What is remarkable is that Lutherans seem attracted to the practices of their Evangelical friends. The constant battle of most confessional Lutheran pastors in America is either to wean their parishioners from the practices of American Evangelicalism or to inoculate them. So I, as a pastor in America, am constantly at odds with many in my own church who want to introduce worship innovations which will “excite the people” or hymns which “will turn us on.” I am forced to guard my people against themselves as they want me to stop asking the young people to memorize the catechism and instead to give them a memorable experience of Jesus. More than once I have had to take aside a member of my congregation and explain to them why we do not use the text books of American revivalists such as Rick Warren and Joel Osteen no matter how many other Lutherans do. I am forever having to justify my refusal to sing Amazing Grace in my congregation even though it is simply not a Christian hymn. These are the practices of American Evangelicalism and I am convinced that if I employ them, then I, or at least my people, will soon accept their aberrant theology as well. For the practices of Evangelicalism promote the soteriological understanding of that system of theology just as Word and Sacrament promote Lutheran soteriology.


[1] AC Ap IV 49, 154, 310, Kolb pp. 128, 144

[2] M. Reu, Homiletics (Chicago: Wartburg Publishing House, 1924) p. 48.  

[3] David Gustafson, Lutherans in Crisis, The question of identity in the American Republic (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) p. 16.

[4] George Barna, The Habits of Highly Effective Churches (Ventura CA: Regal Books, 1999) p. 83.

[5] Ibid. 87-88.

[6] Ibid. p. 87.

[7] Ibid. p. 99.

[8] Daniel Zager, “Popular Music and Music for the Church,” Lutheran Forum, Volume 36, Number 3 (Fall 2002) p. 24.

[9] Barna, p. 99.

[10] Kent Hunter, Confessions of a Church Growth Enthusiast (Corunna IN: Kent Hunter, 1997) p. 175.

[11] Lutheran Worship (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1982) 509

[12] Walt Harrah, The Greatest Hymns and Praise Choruses of Yesterday and Today, (Maranatha Music, 1987) #9.

[13] Hanneke Jacobs, Ibid. #181.

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