Why the Praise Band & I Are Never, Ever, Ever Getting Back Together

Breakup1Please note: This post is a response to Pastor Kent Reeders’ response to my post, “Why I Quit the Praise Band.” If you haven’t read those two articles already, please do so as it will provide you with the necessary context for this discussion.The purpose of this response to a response is to highlight how the contemporary approach to worship which Pastor Reeder has articulated in his article (and is practiced widely throughout the Christian Church today) is fundamentally opposed to the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments.

If you’d prefer to listen to this post read aloud, you’ll have to ask your mother to do that for you.

How do you know what somebody believes? Look at what they do. Faith is manifest in works; doctrine is manifest in practice. If you pour the blood of Christ down the toilet, that says something about your doctrine of the Sacrament. If you don’t believe the Divine Service is holy ground, you either don’t believe that Jesus is holy or that He is present in the Divine Service. The denial that we are on holy ground in the Divine Service is a key component of the false theology that undergirds much of what is often called “contemporary worship.”

Consider the following quotation from Pastor Reeder’s article:

“When we’re at church, we’re on regular ground. Regular people come and hear a universal message, and ever since the temple curtain tore in two there is no such thing as designated, particularly holy ground.”

Ironically enough, even Christopher Beatty, author of the contemporary praise song, “Holy Ground” understands that when Jesus is present, we’re on holy ground.

This is holy ground
We’re standing on holy ground
For the Lord is present
And where He is is holy
This is holy ground
We’re standing on holy ground
For the Lord is present
And where He is is holy

The wildly contrasting approaches to worship we see in the Church today aren’t the result of minor differences over human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men (as is often claimed by proponents of contemporary worship). There’s no way around it: if the Divine Service isn’t holy ground, then Jesus either isn’t present or He isn’t holy. I suspect many in the CoWo crowd would insist that the church is holy ground, but in actual practice it nevertheless remains that any regard for the holiness of God (and therefore the presence of Jesus) is absent in many of their services. This is an approach to the Divine Service which is fundamentally opposed to the pure doctrine of the Gospel and the right administration of the Sacraments (AC VII). Our practices reflect our doctrine. When our practices are radically different, odds are, so is our doctrine.

The tearing of the temple curtain did not, as Pastor Reeder claims, render all ground “regular”, least of all the church. Jesus remains holy, even after the tearing of the temple curtain, and wherever He is present is holy ground. To call the place where the Lord Jesus comes to serve us “regular ground” borders on the blasphemous. As Holy Scripture says, we have access into the holy places by the blood of Jesus (Hebrews 10:19).

Where the blood of Jesus is, there is holy ground. The Divine Service is not “regular ground,” where “regular people come and hear a universal message.” We are on holy ground, where Jesus comes not merely to speak some generic, universal message, but comes to make you, a sinner, holy.

We shouldn’t enter into the presence of Jesus irreverently or lightly. After all, we worship the same God who burned Nadab and Abihu alive for offering unauthorized fire before Him (Leviticus 10:1–2), and who struck Uzzah dead for doing nothing more than trying to prevent the ark from hitting the floor when the oxen stumbled (2 Samuel 6:6-7). One can’t help but wonder whether or not the general irreverence that David displayed surrounding this incident (his merry making and exposing himself to women; cf. 2 Samuel 6:5, 20–22) encouraged a casual approach to God among the people, which, in Uzzah’s case, proved fatal. As Hebrews 12:28–29 says, “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”

Those who understand that the Divine Service is holy ground understand why what is often called “contemporary worship” doesn’t belong there. Pastor Reeder’s article nicely illustrates a point I made in my original post, that there is usually a deficient understanding of holiness among those who advocate for “contempoary” worship, a style of worship which serves to promote a secular mentality among those who participate in it:

Over vicarage, when I was down in the gym leading the “incredible, postmodern, multimedia-driven, mind-blowing, set your heart on fire for Jesus, burn me alive, extreme worship-experience extravaganza™” (the real name wasn’t much different), I was told not to include a confession of sins, a benediction, or the like, because they are too “churchy.” The goal of this service was to resemble church as little as possible while still being a worship service (!). The keyboard player even left the stage crying one Sunday when we prayed the Lord’s Prayer. “How dare you!”, her husband said reproachfully, “we come here because we don’t want to go to church!”

Granted this may be a somewhat extreme example, but the fact remains that this is the sort of mentality contemporary worship fosters, intentionally or not. Everything has to be common, comfortable, ordinary. Having spent a good deal of time immersed in contemporary worship, it is my experience that most contemporary congregations and pastors have a somewhat deficient understanding of holiness. Holy ground calls for reverence. Praise music may be a lot of things, but one thing it is not is reverent (emphasis added).

How those who make the worship-related decisions for a congregation regard the Divine Service (is it holy ground or isn’t it?) is usually obvious upon entering a sanctuary. What is the architecture like? Is there an altar, pulpit, font, and crucifix? What sort of fabrics adorn the sanctuary? How does the pastor dress? Does it look like a movie theater or a concert venue? What sort of music is being played? How is the liturgy conducted? These things will speak volumes about the doctrine which is confessed at a congregation’s altar (if there is an altar). Just as faith is manifest in works, doctrine is manifest in practice.

Pastor Reeder relates a story about how a couple who once visited his vicarage congregation associated the organ music that was being played with horror movies (Dracula) to illustrate the point that not everyone will regard organ music as reverent. Quite frankly, that strikes me as a very unusual reaction to organ music. I would suspect that at least 90% of all people (if not more) would, if shown a picture of a pipe organ and asked what it brought to mind, would answer “church” without hesitation. Show them a picture of a rock band and you’re more likely to get “sex and drugs” than “church.” Nothing will escape cultural associations entirely, but the Church’s historic liturgy and hymnody have the greatest distance from the culture, since those things were born in the Church. They were created and refined over generations to provide the Church with the most ideal context for receiving Christ and His gifts. Just because Dracula may have tried to co-opt the organ doesn’t mean we should let him have it.

Lutherans, nor even Christians, for that matter, are supposed to “point all people to Christ by whatever means available.” If that were truly the case, there would be nothing wrong with “Blest is the Man Whose Bowels Move.” After all, the digestive system has been fearfully and wonderfully made, and those whose bowels have ceased to move properly would no doubt break forth into the Hallelujah Chorus if only they could relieve themselves.

As to the comment,

“If Lutherans, both pastors and laypeople alike, would stop rejecting diverse genres of worship-useful music wholesale, we would start to see our theologians, pastors, and other theologically trained individuals churn out Gerhardt-worthy (or nearly) texts in diverse and modern styles. Lutherans wrote the greatest Lutheran hymns, and it will be Lutherans who write the greatest contemporary songs. )And we could be 20 years further in this process if you’d stop holding our creative minds back with needless guilt over “acceptable” styles of the worship event.)

I’m not sure what a “worship event” is, but then again I suppose novel practices deserve novel language. As to the guilt that’s holding back the creative Lutheran minds out there from writing the greatest contemporary songs, guilt generally doesn’t exist where you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong. Great contemporary Lutheran music is being written. Steven Starke’s hymns are, in my opinion, some of the best in Lutheran Service Book. As I mentioned in my original article, caution is needed when straying from the hymnal (but do note that I suggest that it’s possible to do so while retaining a distinctly Lutheran identity), and I even commend the efforts of “contemporary” music director Miguel Ruiz as being an example of what faithful “contemporary” Lutheran worship might sound like:

There are admittedly some pastors/music directors that try to remain orthodox while using the praise band, though they are few and far between. Fellow BJS author Miguel Ruiz is a music director who makes every effort to utilize modern instrumentation and arrangements that are reverent and thoroughly Lutheran. But as he recently told me, he sometimes feels like he’s the only one trying to use the so-called “praise band” faithfully, and that usually the introduction of contemporary worship in LCMS congregations is “done for terrible reasons and is driven by even worse theology.”

Based on my own experience with praise & worship music, I would agree wholeheartedly with that observation. The fact remains that there’s so much garbage out there, you have to constantly be on guard when straying from orthodox hymns. Ideally, the music director would re-arrange the hymns for his musicians and not depart from the liturgy or hymnody at all. The praise & worship genre has so many pitfalls and nothing of substance to offer that isn’t already found in the historic liturgy or hymnody, it begs the question: why deviate from it?

Or, as Pastor Hans Fiene recently put it,

“This is a bit like arguing that if a film studio send their best people to spend twenty years working on a remake of “Casablanca,” they could make a remake that’s almost as good as the one they already made.”

The Divine Service is not about us pointing to Christ, much less doing so by any means available. The Divine Service is about receiving Christ in His appointed means of Word and Sacrament. There is no room in the Divine Service for shallow contemporary songs that are all about what we do for Jesus, nor is there room for the general irreverence that the praise and worship genre typically fosters. The Church exists to deliver Christ to His people, and nothing does that better than the liturgy. Sorry praise band, but we are never, ever, ever getting back together.

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