Have recent changes to the Service followed the example of the Confessions of the Church? By Klemet Preus

President Al Barry is perhaps best known for his pithy aphorism: Keep the message straight Missouri, Get the message out Missouri.

These two imperatives were clearly seen as inseparable. Why keep the message straight if you don’t intend to speak it to anyone? And what is there to speak if not a clear message? I believe that the rank and file of the LCMS still holds to this aphorism and still strives for both orthodox expression and a vibrant missionary zeal.

While we cannot separate these two imperatives there is great value in distinguishing them. My biblical study as a pastor, my sermon or Bible class preparation, my insistence that my own doctrine be pure based on the Bible and the Confessions, even my seminary education – these tasks fulfill the imperative to keep the message straight. At the same time, my desire to make the sermon comprehensible and winsome, my training of my people to be capable and eager to confess the faith to others, my adamancy that my congregation generously and prayerful support responsible mission endeavors, my encouragement that my members invite their friends to Bible class – these tasks fulfill the imperative to get the message out.

So let me ask a question about the Sunday morning service. As we prepare the service – put it together by choosing hymns, composing prayers, working with the musicians, even deciding upon a hymnal or whether or not to use a hymnal – are we involved in a task whose criteria are primarily those of “keeping straight” or “getting out?”

What criteria do the Confessions of the church use as they anticipate or justify changing the worship of the church?

“We say that we should observe those ecclesiastical rites which can be observed without sin and which are conducive to tranquility and good order in the church.” [1]

In other words, even if a tradition or rite is of completely human origin, we keep it. We do not change traditions for any reason than that they cause sin or intranquility.      

 “People are drawn to Communion and to the Mass. At the same time they are also instructed about other false teaching concerning the sacrament. Moreover, no noticeable changes have been made in the public celebration of the Mass…For, after all, all ceremonies should serve the purpose of teaching the people what they need to know about Christ.” [2]

In other words, Lutherans don’t change ceremonies or liturgical rites unless they promote false doctrine. The criterion employed by Lutherans when it comes to worship is “Keep the message straight.”

Let’s ask another question. I think we could all agree that a generation ago there was a higher degree of uniformity between the congregations of our church body when it came to worship than there is today. Something changed. Some hail the changes in worship as good. Others deplore them. Were changes made in order that the Sunday Service communicate the gospel more clearly – keep the message straight? Or were changes made in order that the Sunday Service be a more effective tool of getting the message out?

Contrast what the confessions say with the criterion employed by some in the synod.

Kent Hunter says:

“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.” [3]

 “Our pastor started what some might identify as a contemporary worship service….It was the perception of our pastor that there were many people within the community who would feel intimidated and overpowered by the structure and formality of our sanctuary and the style of the more formal worship service in our church.” [4]

 Notice that the criterion employed by Kent Hunter is not “Keep the message straight” but “get the message out.”

Obviously Pastor Hunter’s motivation to get the message out to the community is praiseworthy and a motivation which every member of the synod shares. It is just not the proper criterion to apply to the worship service. Changes to the service should not be made based on this motivation laudable as it may be.

Or consider the words of another LCMS pastor as he discusses the question of who should be welcomed to the Sacrament. “Excluding guests will turn them off. It destroys the welcoming environment that the Church tried to create.” [5]  

Notice again that the criterion is not “keep the message straight” but “get the message out” even if it means changing the cherished and biblical practice of closed communion.          

Or consider the advocacy on the part of Pastor David Luecke to allow decision theology into the service so as to attract Americans to it.

One other ingredient (which formed Evangelicalism) was in the blend that shaped Evangelical style….Decision orientation is a good name for this style. Its distinctive flavor goes back to Dwight Moody, the dominant late-19th century influence in American Evangelicalism….Billy Graham epitomizes this orientation today, and he is known by many as Mr. Evangelical. His message is simple and basic, yet told in a way that engages the attention of millions a year. The style is focused on putting salvation within reach of those who can be moved to make a decision for Christ. The decision orientation is distinctly modern American. Graham keeps his approach centered on it by featuring the term in his “Hour of Decision” broadcast and Decision magazine. [6]

To David Luecke “style” in an adiaphoron [7] so the Baptistic worship style of Billy Graham is extolled as permissible provided outreach can be more effective.

Hunter and Luecke are the pioneers of liturgical change in our church body. The criterion which they use to determine what changes to worship should be advanced and extolled is not the criterion employed by the Confessions of the church.

Obviously most of the pastors and congregations in the synod who have changed the divine service are not as radical as the pastors cited above. But as changes are made to the way in which worship is done in our synod we need to ask whether the criteria of the Confessions are employed (“the message straight”) or if new criteria of “get the message out” are invoked.

Just as obviously the church needs to devise as many ways as possible to “get the message out” but changing the worship is done is simply not one of these ways.      

As we discuss the way in which we can end the worship wars we must acknowledge the criteria that Lutherans have historically employed as they determine the content of the Worship Service. We further must recognize that these criteria have been abandoned and replaced by those who advocate change in the church. This advocacy is the cause of the ongoing debate in the church. The worship wars cannot end until this change in criteria is recognized by all parties in the conflict.  

[1] Apology XV 1

[2] Augsburg Confession Article XXIV paragraph 1-3.

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

[4] Ibid.

[5] Sited by Ernie Lassman “The Church Growth Movement and Lutheran Worship,” Concordia Theological Monthly, Volume 62, Number 1 (January 1998) mp. 52.

[6] David Luecke, Evangelical Style and Lutheran Substance (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1988) 78.

[7] Ibid. 21

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