If you were to visit 5 different LCMS congregations, there’s a good chance you’d witness 5 very different approaches to worship. Hopefully you would come across at least one Divine Service, but you would almost certainly come across blended services, contemporary services, postmodern multi-media driven worship services, and even breakthrough healing services.
Despite the endless variety of options in the Missouri Synod today, there is such a thing as genuinely Lutheran worship. Not everything that claims to be Lutheran is actually Lutheran. Well-intentioned Lutheran laypersons often assume that if an LCMS congregation is doing something, it must be orthodox. They assume our congregations are accountable for what they teach and do. This has not always been the case. Some congregations that worship in a distinctly unLutheran way have had the integrity to remove the word “Lutheran” from their name. But it begs the question: if you don’t want to be called Lutheran or worship like a Lutheran, why remain in the Synod?
In order to be genuinely Lutheran we must be willing to give up a degree of our creative freedom “in order that it might be understood that in doctrine and ceremonies nothing has been received on our part against Scripture or the Church Catholic,” (Conclusion to the Augsburg Confession, 5).
Many congregations fail to recognize that Judges 21:25 is a critical statement about the faith of Israel during the time of the Judges, not a liturgical rubric. We are not free to institute whatever liturgical practices are right in our own eyes, according to the Apology:
This topic about traditions contains many and difficult controversial questions. … The repeal of ceremonies has its own evils and its own questions. … Still, we teach that freedom should be so controlled that the inexperienced may not be offended and, because of freedom’s abuse [Romans 14: 13–23], may not become more opposed to the true doctrine of the Gospel. Nothing in customary rites should be changed without a reasonable cause. So to nurture unity, old customs that can be kept without sin or great inconvenience should be kept. In this very assembly we have shown well enough that for love’s sake we do not refuse to keep adiaphora with others, even though they may be burdensome. We have judged that such public unity, which could indeed be produced without offending consciences, should be preferred (Apology XV, 49-52).
One WELS pastor defended contemporary worship by comparing the liturgy to Apple’s iOS and contemporary worship to Google’s Android, suggesting that it doesn’t matter what option we choose so long as we’re all using some sort of mobile operating system (i.e., worshiping the Triune God). The idea is to “be together, not the same.”
So much for controlling freedom, preserving the customary rites, or keeping adiaphora with others. The moment the liturgy becomes burdensome or boring, it’s time to ditch it. We have our freedom in the Gospel, after all.
But the differences between the liturgy and contemporary worship are not merely a matter of taste or personal preference. They are two different operating systems based on different coding. They do not speak the same language; they are programmed using different doctrine.
Genuflecting, for example, isn’t required (as if the Sacrament were somehow incomplete without it). However, such a practice would be very out of place in many Lutheran congregations, which may call into question their belief in the Real Presence. Anyone who has a problem with showing such reverence for the Body of Christ almost certainly doesn’t believe in the Real Presence.
If you want to know what sort of doctrine you’ll find at a given service, the language used to describe it will usually tell you. When you hear “Divine Service” or “liturgy”, you’re usually on safe ground. You’re less likely to find Lutheran doctrine at services that go by the unmodified label “worship”, as that particular term fails to communicate that the primary reason we go to church is to be served by God, not primarily to give thanks and praise. However, when additional modifiers are added to the term “worship” (e.g., “contemporary”, “joyful”, “praise”, “Spirit-filled”, “postmodern”, “worship experiences”, etc.), those services will almost certainly be filled with unLutheran worship and doctrine. Novel worship demands novel language.
At what point are we, as a Synod, going to quit talking about our differences and expect Lutheran congregations to act like they are Lutheran? We ought to be patient with pastors who are committed to moving their congregations along in the right direction. But those who have no desire to be Lutheran should be shown the door if they don’t have enough integrity to walk through it themselves.