Good Thoughts on Recent Worship Debates

Guest article by Pr. Willis McCall

Christ comes to you through the means of grace: Word and Sacrament. Every Lutheran with even the most modest of catechetical instruction confesses this. We believe, teach and confess that in the Divine Service we encounter the risen and living Christ through Word and Sacrament. Literally. He is present in those means of grace. This is why our whole worship service centers around those means of grace, because that is where Christ is to be found. When I read the posts on worship “styles” I have been struck by one thought: “Realizing what is going on, Christ coming to be with man, how did God’s people express this awesomeness of what was taking place in worship?”. How did they structure their adiaphora, if you will, to reflect and capture that in this place, by these means, God was coming to tabernacle with mankind? I believe this is the chief question Christians need to ponder over as we think about changes to the Divine Service. How we structure our service, the adiaphora we choose, all reflects what we believe is taking place.

When God comes to man it is an awesome and reverent thing in Scripture. Just skim through the Bible. When God’s people realize what is taking place when God comes to them, they reflect that awe and sacredness as best possible in their worship. So when Moses encounters God in the burning bush, he takes off his sandals and comes no further because he is on holy ground. When Jacob wrestles with God, he blesses the spot where the encounter took place. Abraham, when he arrives in the land God has promised, sets aside a place in it and builds an altar to the Lord. Later, God gives His people the blueprints for the tabernacle to more formalize worship. We see that it is a sacred place, set apart for worship, where God meets man, unlike any other tabernacle in Israel. Under King Solomon a temple to the Lord is built to reflect the glory of the Lord and what is taking place inside, God coming to man. God has the priests wear robes to show they are set apart and handling something holy and sacred. Even in the New Testament, Paul chastises the Corinthians for treating the Lord’s Supper as just some other meal and not the sacrament that it is. And post NT, when Christians are finally able to own property, they begin to purchase and build churches dedicated to the Lord. They develop rituals and practices and architecture for worship that reflect the humbling, awesome fact that Christ is coming to them through His Word and Sacraments. All the sights, smells, places, and sounds of worship in the Old Testament, New Testament, and through 2,000 years of Christianity were designed to point to one thing: Something awesome and different, something not of this world is going on here. Here, God is coming to tabernacle with man. Angels and archangels and all the company of heaven are joining you at the communion rail. Christ is truly present there in His Word and Sacraments, speaking you righteous and forgiven. I can’t convey how incredible that is, but I can try to show you and point you to it by how I conduct and order my worship service. So it goes without saying that what takes place in the Divine Service takes place nowhere else on earth. How we arrange our adiaphora is the sinners way, this side of heaven, to try to capture how different, how awesome, how amazing it is that Christ is coming to be with man. Traditional worship carries on that practice by striving to keep the adiaphora that captures what is taking place in the Divine Service.

But you see, this is where contemporary worship (CoWo) fails miserably. This is my bone of contention with changing and modifying “traditional” worship and the Divine Service. It loses and diminishes the sacredness and divine aspect of what is taking place. It just ignores Scripture and church history and practices. Instead of making all the adiaphora of worship point to the awesomeness of God coming to tabernacle with His people, CoWo uses adiaphora to mimic the world. CoWo literally and deliberately plays down the sacredness and awesomeness of what is going on in Word and Sacrament. So instead of a sacred space, more and more CoWo meets in bars or movie theaters or specially designed “worship centers”. The songs sound just like pop melodies you hear on the radio. The worship space looks like any high school stage or concert venue. The pastor dresses just like another guy on the street (or beach). The sacraments are just another item on the menu, right there next to your latte or Guinness pint. The focus isn’t on the sacredness or awesomeness of God and what He is doing, but on YOU and what makes you comfortable. Why, oh why, would someone do this?! Do we really believe people will understand and better appreciate what is going on in Word and Sacrament by making these means of grace seem like just some other worldly thing? Are people offended by all the adiaphora that points to the majesty of Christ coming to be with His people? Good! We should be! Again, Christ is coming to be with you in this place, at this time, by these means of grace! Why would we want that to appear to be something ordinary that is no more special than a coffee shop? Why would we want our pastor, who proclaims this Word in the stead and by the command of Christ, to look no more different than a guy we might bump into at the golf course? A professor of mine once said, “When everything becomes missions, nothing is missions.” His point was that when we treat everything as missions and downplay mission work, then the true mission work of spreading the Gospel loses its importance. It’s just another mission. It’s on par with mowing my lawn or donating food to the food bank. The same is true for worship. If we make worship look, sound, and smell like all the other things of this world, why would we truly expect people to see it as anything sacred or special?

None of the worship practices done in traditional worship are of my own invention. I don’t care where these traditional worship practices, hymns, and so on came from or if they are German, Jewish, or Roman in origin. (Heck, I’m Irish anyway, what do we know!) What I do care about is that they help me understand and appreciate what is taking place in the Divine Service. They remind me that what takes place is not like anything of the world. They help me remember that here, in this place, through these means of grace, Christ is coming to be with me. They remind me that I am a sinner in the presence of a Holy God, who through these means of grace lovingly forgives me and makes me acceptable in His sight. We need to be more thoughtful about the adiaphora we choose and what it says about what is taking place when we gather together to worship our Risen Lord.


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