Great Stuff — Word and Music or Word and Sacrament: Which Ministry is it?

Another great post found on This We Confess by Pastor Woodford:


The argument that often continues among Lutheran brother pastors is the nature of our worship. In my own district there remains a distinct divide among the brothers regarding various perspectives on worship and the way that worship shapes ministry. Contemporary or traditional, vestments or jeans, paraments or video screens, formal or informal—which one is best, which way is right? Some feel one can attract more people. Others feel one is more proper.

Sadly, the divides have become so significant that various parties have been formed, labels have been given, names have been distributed, closed meetings take place, and animosity only grows. Though not formally affiliated with any group, I have been labeled one way by one group, and another way by a different group. But the only label I desire is the one given me at my baptism—redeemed.

Nonetheless, I realize this often happens when political movements are afoot. Our district is nearing a convention. Elections will be taking place. Troops need to be rallied. Propaganda needs to be distributed. Allies need to be forged. Both sides do it. Power is at stake. The thought is, “If our guy is elected our problemswill be solved.” However, “power” does not create theology. Not if we are being honest. That belongs to God’s Word alone. Power simply creates the illusion of control. And when we crave it too much, it becomes dangerously intoxicating.

Certainly the church needs solid, compassionate, pastoral leaders. My prayer is that they will stand on the power of the Word and not their position of power as they lead. But back to the topic at hand.

As of late, the worship debates seem to surround one central subject—the issue of music. Contemporary advocates feel that a “contemporary” form of worship provides a greater appeal and attraction to the people of our contemporary world. Therefore the use of a less formal, less ordered, contemporary music based worship setting is employed. This often includes higher volumes of music produced by electronic pianos, guitars, and drums.

Traditional advocates argue that bringing too much of secular sounding music into the realm of the sacred distorts and disorders the means of grace being given in worship. In short, the argument is that the musical setting and the emotional atmosphere it creates becomes the central element of worship rather than the truth of God’s Word and Sacraments alone.

This is an interesting development for Lutherans. The debates about music in the church are a curious one. Historically Lutherans have understood the central elements of worship and ministry to flow out of Word and Sacrament, where they were ordered and celebrated in a formal manner:“The Church is the assembly of saints in which the Gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly.” (Augsburg Confession VII).

In short, music was not a central identifying mark to the Church. But it seems to becoming one today. Churches are evaluated and critiqued not so much upon the objective presence of the Word and Sacraments being purely taught and rightly administered, but on the subjective appeal and presence of musical forms. To be sure, musical excellence and quality should be a concern in our worship services. But it will be alarming if music becomes the defining element of Lutheran worship.

Do you see the potential shift that would take place? “Word and Sacrament” ministry would become “Word and Music” ministry. The theological and practical implications would be significant. If the sacraments become second to music how would such ministry shape the beliefs of our people? Will the sound of music now be the manner in which people believe they encounter the love of Christ? Will the emotional appeal of a particular instrument or song be the manner in which people believe God comes to us?

Please note I’m including all instruments here. The reality is that music, whatever the instrument, whether organ, violin, trumpet, French horn, guitar, piano, or drums, cannot, does not, and will not ever forgive sins! But the Water and the Word of baptism does, likewise with the body and blood of Jesus Christ in the Lord’s Supper. If music has become more prominent than the sacraments, I believe we have a problem. And if music has become more desirable than the sacraments, I know we have a problem.

In my book, Great Commission, Great Confusion, Great Confession I argue that the Church would be well served to emphasize Word and Sacrament ministry by a return to the historic liturgy of the church. However, I am amazed at how some people think this means I am simultaneously advocating the use of a specific musical instrument. I believe this to be evidence of just how conditioned or uninformed people (on both sides) are about the liturgy.

As I express it in my book, “there is flexibility, within limits, where uniformity cannot be legislatively imposed, but where there are indeed non-negotiables (both theological and structural) to Lutheran liturgy”(p.182). But no where do I advocate for any particular instrument. In fact, I offer the following in a footnote on p.179:

Lutheran Worship has room for use of multiple different instruments. However, music, whatever the instrument, is always meant to be in service to the liturgy and is to never displace or surpass in prominence the means of grace given in the Divine Service. Thus the following description remains helpful for any musical use in the worship setting: “Music in the Lutheran tradition is noted by the following adjectives: doxological (it focuses on praising the Trinity),scriptural (the texts are rooted in God’s Word), liturgical (it fits into the ordered Divine Service within the pattern of the Church Year), proclamational (it communicates the Gospel of Jesus Christ), participatory (the congregation actively sings), pedagogical (it teaches the truth of God’s love and forgiveness in Christ), traditional (it is built on the best of the past), eclectic (it employs styles and practices from various sources that aid the Gospel), creative (it eagerly explores new expressions), and it aspires to excellence (it desires and seeks to give God the best).” Maschke, Gathered Guests, 265.

My point is that our worship must, above all, be preoccupied with the Word and Sacraments. If our fascination with music and its various forms supersedes this in anyway, then I believe we will have indeed changed the marks of the Church from “Word and Sacrament” to “Word and Music.” If this happens, it is sure to lead us down a very hazardous and foreign theological road. What do you think?

As always, this blog aims to move past partisanship and demonizing of those who disagree, and endeavors to thoughtfully, honestly, and collegially, foster the goal of talking about the mission of the Holy Christian Church and what it means to be authentically Lutheran, while “discipling all nations” in the 21st century. For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts and reactions.


Rev. Woodford


Rev. Woodford has published the book Great Commission, Great Confusion, or Great Confession? and was interviewed on Issues Etc a couple of weeks ago.


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