Why Contemporary Worship is Less than Biblical – an Introduction

Bible-on-a-pulpitThere have historically been two dominant approaches to the determination of worship forms and substance within Protestantism, known as the “normative principle of worship,” and the “regulative principle of worship.”  Summarized briefly, the normative principle states that whatever the Scriptures do not forbid in worship may be permitted, and the regulative principle states that only that which is directly prescribed by the Scriptures may be allowed into a Christian worship service.  The “regulative” camp has typically been comprised of the Reformed, Presbyterians, and the Puritans.  They retain strong “anti-Catholic” sentiments which usually causes the rejection of anything smelling of Rome on the basis that since Scripture didn’t require it, it must therefore be tainted by or the product of Roman err.  Lutherans have always been considered followers of the normative principle.  We include many things in our worship services that aren’t directly required by Scripture, and we have maintained continuity with catholic tradition, so far as it rightly confesses Christ, for many reasons:  It shows our solidarity with the historic church, leads to unity of expression, and these methods of tenacious Christo-centricity, Scripture saturation, and Gospel centeredness have proven their mettle over time by successfully transitioning the faith down through numerous generations.

However, for a salutary practice of the normative principle, it must be recognized that two things do not necessarily follow:  First, no dancing bears.  All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial.  It is not a sin to have a dancing bear in your worship service.  It is just stupid.  Inexcusably stupid.  Second, it does not follow that just because we allow what Scripture does not explicitly forbid, that therefore what Scripture actually does prescribe has become irrelevant.  A true “normative-ist” is free to add to the Biblical stipulations on worship, but he is not free to ignore what the Scriptures say when they do address the issue.

Therefore, in normative worship, we must use all that the “regulative-ists” apply (that what Scripture requires), and in addition we are free to go beyond that and incorporate other things, so long as they are beneficial.  As adherents to the normative principle, Lutherans have been reluctant to prescribe specific laws dictating what every Sunday service must look like.  But this does not give us the freedom to ignore what the Bible does in fact require.

This is why, as a vocational church musician, I have a hard time taking what most people describe as “contemporary worship” very seriously, either as a faithful expression of Lutheran worship, or as something that is good for the church.  The Bible doesn’t often speak directly to the specific details of what we should be doing on Sunday mornings, but when it does, “contemporary worship” usually ignores, or at least minimizes these instructions.


Before you write this off as a one-sided rant, consider that I currently lead what many would describe as “contemporary worship” on most weekends.  President Harrison was, in my opinion, dead right when he said that instrumentation is NOT the problem.  I have a background in Evangelicalism with a Charismatic approach to worship, and have participated in leadership for contemporary worship at Lutheran and Evangelical congregations large and small, from blended to traditional to “contemporvant”.  I know from whence I speak when I say that a wholesale endorsement of these things is most certainly not good, right, or salutary for the church today.  These are some of the reasons I have left most of that circus behind.  I’m not talking about a black/white distinction where all traditional stuff is automatically good, and all new stuff is automatically bad.  I recognize exceptions to every rule, and will give examples of them as I am able. 

The purpose of this series is to examine the overarching tendencies of contemporary worship through the lens of scripture in order to determine from the Word of God whether the common practice of it is indeed something good for the church.  In the following articles, we will examine that which God has instructed us to do in worship, to consider what obedience to this looks like, and examine whether particular approaches to worship are faithful in this regard in a way that benefits the church, that we may be steadfast in worship.

About Miguel Ruiz

Miguel Ruiz is a post-Evangelical adult convert to confessional Lutheranism and a vocational church musician. He is a commissioned Minister of Religion in the LCMS, serving Our Savior Lutheran Church and School in Centereach, New York, as the director of parish music and music teacher. His journey down the Wittenberg trail began when he was roused from his dogmatic slumber by the writings of Michael Spencer and Robbert Webber. After a period of Cartesian doubt seeking a confessional identity, he finally found his home in the Lutheran church. When he isn’t busy running upwards of 12 rehearsals a week, he loves writing as a way to interact with other perspectives and to pontificate on his doxological agenda. He enjoys exploring the treasury of 2000 years of sacred music, and has found his life’s calling as a cantor, with a mission to “put the Gospel on the lips of the people of God through song, that the Word might dwell in their hearts through faith.”


Why Contemporary Worship is Less than Biblical – an Introduction — 37 Comments

  1. I think we can avoid contentious debates about the merits of regulative vs normative, and look at contemporary worship styles and music by examining each song individually. What do the lyrics say? Is the message pointing to Jesus, or just focusing on the “feelings” of the performer? Is the style too much like a secular concert, (as I have seen in some churches which go a bit overboard ), with stage lights, heavy bass, loud drums, jumping around, acting a bit silly? Is the music lacking in reverence? I have heard great, solid, contemporary Christian music, and some very tasteless stuff as well. To be fair, some of the traditional hymns are too stiff, archaic, and not linguistically relevant to common language, and as such….few churches sing them, and most Lutherans have no idea of the melodies or harmony of some outdated music. Remember…when even some of the old hymns were written, some people probably thought they were too “contemporary” for their times.

  2. To make the contemporary service more biblical, all you need to do is to insert into the service the rite called: “The Blessing of the Animals.” Seems like the eastern district finds no fault with this because it’s going to happen at St. Paul’s in Hilton NY on Nov. 8. I am going to bring my pet gerbil Barney. Actually, I think they are having a special service for this in the afternoon. I wonder if they are going to have a potluck. Hope they don’t serve meat at the potluck.

  3. Does not our present day “contemporary worship” find its historical roots in Pentecostalism and even American Evangelicalism, where it served the purpose of “ramping up” worshippers’ emotions with the goal of frenzy and, ugh, so-called “speaking in tongues”? Does not the “style” of worship communicate and/or reflect the theology embraced and confessed by the worshipping body? Do not worship externals (style) at least indicate and at most reveal and expose worship internals (theology)? How worship is done does not exist in a neutral vacuum. It seems to me that it’s the difference between sacrificial worship whereby emphasis is placed on the externals and sacramental worship whereby emphasis is placed on the internals. “Contemporary worship” (whatever that may mean) would fall into the former that is sociologically and culturally driven whereas “historic liturgical worship” (that which is composed of elements from throughout history and different cultures without being biased to any particular one, rather, Bible-based, Christ-centered, & cross-focused) falls into the latter that is theologically driven. Responses?

  4. @Tileman hesshusius #3

    But, but, but, they also have dramatic re-enactments of Scripture during the “family worship” contemporary service! Which of the apostles was a theatre actor again? The Apostle Thespis?

  5. Great start, but isn’t this approach sort of fighting w/ one hand tied behind our backs? As a denomination w/ a quia subscription to the BOC 1580 can’t we just boldly profess the conclusion to AP XV and be done w/ this issue?

    “… we teach that in these matters the use of liberty is to be so controlled that the inexperienced may not be offended, and, on account of the abuse of liberty, may not become more hostile to the true doctrine of the Gospel, or that without a reasonable cause nothing in customary rites be changed, but that, in order to cherish harmony, such old customs be observed as can be observed without sin or without great inconvenience. And in this very assembly we have shown sufficiently that for love’s sake we do not refuse to observe adiaphora with others, even though they should have some disadvantage; but we have judged that such public harmony as could indeed be produced without offense to consciences ought to be preferred to all other advantages.”

    Done, right? (What am I missing?)

    Pax Christi+,
    -Matt Mills

  6. Dear Miguel,

    Thanks for an excellent article! I look forward to more in this series. As a fellow DPM (Director of Parish Music; CU-RF, 1979), I appreciate you applying your practical excellence in this field to its theory.

    For the sake of BJS readers, which you also might find helpful, here are two articles I wrote over twenty years ago that really agree with what you are saying:

    http://www.logia.org/new-products/4-2-hermeneutics (pages 43-48, “The Christian Philosophy and the Christian Religion”).

    http://www.logia.org/new-products/6-3-office-offices (pages 67-69, “Order Promoting Tranquility”)

    The first article was basically my response to David Luecke’s “Evangelical Style and Lutheran Substance.” The second short article in LOGIA Forum was basically a series of relevant citations from the Lutheran confessions, with their proper interpretation, as well as Martin Chemnitz’s exposition on the notion of “tradition” as it applies to worship.

    Keep up the great work, Miguel! I appreciate all your articles and BJS comments!

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  7. @Matt Mills #7

    Lol, Matt, that’s exactly what this is like: Fighting with one hand tied behind our backs. The problem is that I’ve heard many people take a very liberal interpretation of the confessions. For example, your excerpt chose the unfortunate word “preferred,” to which many point and say, “See? It isn’t required.”

    The same will assert that their new traditions are just as Biblical as the historical and confessional ones they replace. I’m gonna show how that claim, insufficient as it would be, is simply false in most cases. The argument does not stand on their terms.

  8. @Martin R. Noland #8

    Thank you, Dr. Noland. I didn’t realize you were a DPM! Yeah, I have Luecke’s other book sitting on my desk (“The Other Story of Lutherans At Worship”), found it lying around. I may go through it for quotes if I have time. Hopefully I won’t steal too many of your ideas from those articles.

  9. @Rev. Thomas Handrick, Sr. #4

    I think that all worship forms are necessarily biased towards the current generation. And the current generation is always necessarily the worst, no matter when you live, because only the current generation gets its disposable repertoire sung. This is regardless of style, because the previous generation’s junk has been forgotten. The idea is that historical, liturgical worship tempers this tendency tremendously, for the benefit of the church. It doesn’t quite eliminate a pronounced focus on the culture of “now,” but it keeps it in healthy perspective by blending it with the cultural contributions of the last 2000 years. Our “chronological eclecticism” will never be perfectly balanced, but we should at least not be leaning entirely to one side.

  10. Dear Miguel,

    Steal all the ideas you want from my articles! I begged, borrowed, and stole those ideas from the Lutheran Confessions, Martin Chemnitz, books found in the footnotes,from articles in the Concordia Journal and Concordia Theological Quarterly, and many of my professors at Concordia Teacher’s College, River Forest and CTS, Fort Wayne. (Though if you quote something directly, you should point to the source by link or citation)

    I can still see Dr. Carl Schalk throwing up his hands in class at River Forest one day, about how the guitar-strumming and vocal quality of John Denver was going to ruin the music abilities of all the young Lutherans who were trying to ape John Denver–in church no less!

    I can’t think of any of the music faculty there in my day (late 1970s) who took anything but a dim view of “pop contemporary worship,” for both musical and theological reasons. That didn’t mean they weren’t trying new liturgies, new hymns, and new harmonizations, as found e.g. in the Lutheran Book of Worship and the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship. Those productions (LBW and ILCW materials) were still recognizably Lutheran and liturgical, though they had a few theological problems here and there.

    There are 12 years of free quarterly issues (50 total) of LOGIA in PDF with articles galore on the topics of worship, church music, and liturgy here: http://www.logia.org/new-products/ Those free articles are on the web for people like you to read and learn, and to pass on to future generations of pastors, teachers, and church musicians.

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  11. I will put my two cents in.

    Praise and worship are both in Scripture, but as you know, I refuse to say contemporary or regular, or confessional worship.

    There is only one way to worship in the Bible, bow down to the Lord! Be fed by Him alone, Word and Sacrament, etc.

    Then go have a blow-out praise service, rejoice and make merry.

    But I live in a different way of looking at worship, and some of my most staunch views on worship come from my Wheaton College brothers.

    Do them both, but one CANNOT replace the other.

  12. @Pastor Prentice #15

    The vast majority of people attending churches who do both stick with their preference and do not do both. I’ve learned a good deal from Webber, too, but he was not a fan of split service styles. Having read a good half dozen of his books, I see a consistent advocacy for integration, not separation.

    You do not need a separate service to rejoice and make merry. There is plenty of space for that in the Divine Service. You also need to mourn with those who mourn. And it can all be done together, as a family, because the other option is to bring all the merry to one place and ostracize those who aren’t feeling it. That is not inclusive, it is not compassionate.

    “Praise” and “worship” are not styles or service options. They are both things that happen in the Divine Service. There is no better place to sing praise to God than as we gather to receive his good gifts, remember the best gift He has sent us in His son, and after receiving Christ’s body and blood in the supper. The “traditional” service does this exceptionally well, every time.

  13. @Miguel Ruiz #16
    As a fellow musician and theologian, I do understand both are involved in an LSB setting let us say. But, worship which is “from” the Lord is of utmost importance, it cannot be left off. The praise that we do in any setting, is not required, but flows.

    Take for example the morning Eucharist service from St. John’s Wheaton. It is all you need.

    You can sing praise later, or begin the sanctification walk.

    Once again, and I agree, in our LSB settings, both occur, but in levels that always keep worship as the dominant.

  14. @Matt Mills #7


    I agree– between this, and a few other quotes in the Augustana and the Formula, I think we can say rather conclusively that traditional, historic, litugical worship (i.e., the refined western Mass) is authentically Lutheran worship, and all Confessional Lutherans are bound to it. Particularly for the pastor I’ll go a step further, and say this becomes a 2nd Commandment issue, relative to not taking the Lord’s Name in vain when he took those ordination vows to abide in those same Scriptures and Confessions.

    I look forward to Miguel’s examination of why the one is better than the other, and I think it may be useful for the many non-Lutherans we encounter every day in our ostensibly Lutheran churches. In this way, I think it functions like Apologetics… which plays a different role in Christian dialogue. Our common Confession of Holy Scripture is what we gather around and agree to abide by together, and defines our fellowship; i.e., Lutherans shouldn’t be arguing about this. But such Apologetics will be useful in how we engage the non-Lutheran world, and the many non-Lutherans we have in Lutheran congregations.

  15. @Pastor Prentice #15

    The problem with praise bands is that they are ones receiving the praise from the audience … errr congregation.

    The praise service is people focused not God focused. They take down the Altar and replace it with a set of drums. Praise band members perform like in a concert. If you doubt what I’m saying why not put the praise band in the back of the church away from the focus.

  16. @John Marquardt #22

    Agree completely, and like Miguel I spent a good chunk of time in CoWo.

    Even in something as simple as the physical placement of the musicians you get a subtle shift in atmosphere. In traditional liturgical worship, the musicians are placed BEHIND the congregation. Out of sight. They are not a focal point of attention, but rather serve to buttress the congregational singing in a “heard but not seen” capacity.

    Now, take those musicians and place them in the front, and they are simply no longer support. They become a visual point of focus as well. They begin to be viewed, no matter how slightly, as “performers” rather than simply support in worship. They become the center of attention not unlike the performers in a musical concert, even if that is not the intention behind placing them at the front. And believe me, there IS a difference in how its seen in the congregation. It may not be a huge one, but it is there nevertheless.

    If you want to measure a CoWo advocate’s dependence upon being central to the attention of the church, do this little experiment: propose that the worship band be moved to the back of the church. Don’t even propose changing from contemporary to traditional worship; simply put forth the idea that maybe the band’s visibility is not necessary for good worship. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts (glazed or cinnamon rolls) that they’ll balk at this suggestion. These same CoWo defenders who insist through lip-service that “they’re not the center of attention” will chafe and wince at the idea of not being the center of attention during the musical portion of the service. Why?

  17. @J. Dean #23
    Why? You ask? Because there is hardly no support from district presidents that traditional worship should take place and be the norm. Any of the districts touching the Atlantic push and promote CoWo. How do I know this? Been to enough pastorals conferences to see the type of music and style that sets the tone for their districts. 7-11 songs are the way to go, so they believe and how mistaken they are.

  18. Perhaps my final thoughts:

    01) At least NID is mostly solid on what is good and proper worship. We do vary in some liturgical styling, but worship is God focused TO the people.

    02) Yes, perhaps some congregations have lost the focus on God and want to focus on the feelings. Feeling is good, but it must be centered upon the cross and what God provides to His people.

    03) Yes, we can give praise, and should at times. I am going to have a praise focused Reformation Concert / Hymn Fest next week with a fellowship dinner. We will invite people to sing good hymns (Luther and I HAVE to toss in a Paul Gerhardt), hear good music from noted musicians (a cellist and violinist, and our
    noted worship director/organist), toss in a small choir.

    Oh my, we will rock the house with praise and song to the Lord for all He has done by Reforming the Church.

    04) Oh yes, Word and Sacrament Worship will occur earlier that day.

    05) Shameless plug all of you, get over to the Good Shepherd Institute in a few weeks at Fort Wayne, there many may learn of worship and praise.

  19. @Tileman hesshusius #24

    As someone in the Atlantic District, I haven’t attended many of the Pastor’s conferences and such, but I know for many of the district events the worship has tended to be very traditional, at least based on the bulletins my pastor usually brings me.

  20. @Brad #21
    Thank you Pastor,
    It’s hard to overstate your ordination vows point; using non-liturgical worship forms breaks a pastor’s ordination vows, full stop.
    Miguel has done a great job here, and in the past, on questions of why CoWo isn’t Biblical, and the advantages of the historical forms. The danger lies in his piece being read as an answer to “why I should USE the liturgy” rather than “why we should LOVE the liturgy.” I do believe the Historical forms are the best, and most Biblical ways to worship, but Ap XV clearly says that we tie ourselves to the historical Western forms, not because they’re the best, or most Biblical, but “to cherish harmony,” and “for love’s sake,” “even though they should have some disadvantage.”
    The whole mindset of Ap XV is totally foreign to the CoWo approach.
    Pax Christi+,
    -Matt Mills

  21. ““Praise” and “worship” are not styles or service options. They are both things that happen in the Divine Service. There is no better place to sing praise to God than as we gather to receive his good gifts, remember the best gift He has sent us in His son, and after receiving Christ’s body and blood in the supper. The “traditional” service does this exceptionally well, every time.”

    *mic drop*

  22. It is interesting that the leftover seminexer liberals in the LCMS have added a defense of CoWo and church-growtherism to their usual hobbyhorses (women’s ordination, evolution, homosexuality), and the church-growthers have reciprocated this. Recently, LCMS hipster “pastor” Matt Popovits tweeted in support of Matthew Becker, after the latter had already been suspended: https://twitter.com/MattPopovits/status/623657288818102272


    Popovits, a rostered LCMS pastor, is involved with FiveTwo and the church he “pastors” doesn’t even have “Lutheran” in the name: http://oursaviournewyork.com/ Just like Bill Woolsey’s “church”.

  23. For those of you with a piqued interest, I would commend to your study “Theology of Worship in 17th Century Lutheranism” by Friedrich Kalb. While not attempting to preempt future editions in this series, Kalb’s analysis of the Orthodox Fathers’ summary of normative scriptural principles for worship is outstanding.

  24. I’m a newcomer to this thread but wanted to add a few thoughts to the mix. What if (I know this is a loaded question) we could do both? What if we as Lutherans could offer a contemporary worship service that also serves to instruct and build up the believer while also offering the laiety the opportunity to praise and worship their Lord and Savior in a way which touches them or resonates with them on an emotional as well as intellectual level? Gasp you say! And gasp you should! (Sorry, not being snarky, I just find humor is a good way to ease the tension.)

    A lot of times this conversation seems to be framed in either / or language. I don’t think it needs to be. I certainly do not believe that Luther felt that worship had to be an either / or choice. As one of the great innovators of the church, Luther almost single-handedly restructured the church service to remove elements of catholic practice that he felt detracted from the instructive nature of a liturgical service. But he also added things as innovative as congregation led hymns! We often forget this, but that basically didn’t exist in medieval catholic services. Music was essentially sung by the priest and/or by professional choir. The laeity did not understand or really participate in the service. It was Luther who made the worship service uniformly vernacular and included worship by the lay person into the structure of the liturgy. He almost single-handedly changed the face of the use of music within the church.

    So from that standpoint I don’t see why we can’t do the same using contemporary worship music, or traditional hymns set to more contemporary music tracks. Some argue that contemporary music isn’t as instructive or theologically deep. I would agree that SOME contemporary music isn’t, but some is quite deep and instructive. That’s why someone coordinating the music for a contemporary worship service needs to do so just as deliberately as the pastor who is structuring his sermon. But it can be done, and I have personally seen it done well. Another argument is that the band becomes the focus. Once again, this is a broad strokes argument. Yes, that can happen, but once again we can control how we do that. I once worked with a praise and worship pastor whose job it was to pick the music to correspond with the sermon. He ensured that no one person was the “Band leader”, they rotated so that the identity of the band was never the same. He also took great pains to instruct the members of the band about the make-up of the tabernacle, explaining to them in detail how you had the outer court, the sanctuary, and finally the inner sanctuary where the ark, which represented the presence of God rested. His idea is that it was the band’s job to help bring every member of the congregation into that inner sanctuary. It was absolutely sobering to them. So it can be done.

    Lastly, one can absolutely conduct a service that upholds both the catechetical elements of the traditional liturgical service and integrate it with a contemporary worship feel. I’ve seen it done incorrectly, but I have also seen it done very well.

    One of the things I love about the Lutheran faith history is that we possess both the connection to our apostolic roots while possessing the freedom through our adherence to scripture rather than tradition to innovate where we need and keep in step with the Holy Spirit and the Word. That’s kind of our thing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.