Have you ever asked yourself why your church worships the way it does? Would you call the worship style contemporary or traditional? Some might say it’s possible that the method or medium of worship is neutral, but I would fancy to say that at the heart of every form of worship, there is a theology driving it. If that is true, then the real question is what is the theology that drives it? My background as a fundamentalist, then evangelical, and now Lutheran has given me a deeper look into many and varied forms of christian worship. There are parts about them all that I think have some redeeming qualities, but I have never been challenged to think as much about the mode of worship and its implications as I have since becoming Lutheran. I thank my pastor and IssuesEtc. for that. There was a recent segment on Issues, which you can listen to here that seemed to sum it up so well. This segment was based on a article written by Bill Cwirla titled 10 Reasons Why We Use the Liturgy which you can read here. I’ll just give you the cliff notes but I highly recommend you listen to the very informative discussion.
1. We have handed down to us a tradition that is 2,000 years old with elements dating back even to Jewish worship in the synagogue. As Pastor Cwirla points out, ‘we are not the first christians to walk the face of the earth’—and those things handed down to us, which do not obscure the pure gospel of Christ, should be preserved. This is why the Lutheran church ‘looks’ so Roman Catholic. The conservative reformation only did away with elements of the worship that obscured the gospel. Every thing else stayed.
2. The liturgy (historic form of worship) is Christ-centered. From beginning to end, it is filled with direct passages of scripture, songs and hymns that are either directly from scripture or paraphrases of scripture (the creeds), with the culmination being the Lord giving us His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. It might be possible to have a contemporary style service that is Christ-centered, but I’ve rarely seen it done. The focus tends to be more on the people–the singers, the pastor—rather than on Christ. Often the focus of the sermons are man-centered instead of focusing on the objective work of Christ for us. In most Lutheran churches, everything from the placement of the pulpit off to the side to the central location of the cross and the Lord’s table, teaches us that Christ is the focus of our worship.
3. “The liturgy teaches the whole counsel of God – creation, redemption, sanctification, Christ’s incarnation, passion, resurrection, and reign, the Spirit’s outpouring and the new life of faith. Every liturgical year cycles through these themes so that the hearer receives the “whole counsel of God” on a regular basis.” This seems like such an important point to me–moving stepwise through scripture, so that by the end of the cycle, all of scripture has been covered in some form. Otherwise, it seems that our own chosen ‘themes’ seem to become the focus—-a 10 week study on ‘the family’ or ‘ 12 weeks to a better marriage’ . It seems strange that we have a wonderful, inspired Word of God, chocked full of stories of redemption pointing us toward Christ, and yet we think we somehow know better or can do better than that. His word is sharp and active and never returns to Him void; it is the perfect template for how to order our worship and how to systematically instruct believers.
4. “It is repetitive in a good way. Repetition is, after all, the mother of learning. Fixed texts and annual cycles of readings lend to deep learning. Obviously, mindless repetition does not accomplish anything; nor does endless variety. ” This is probably the number one complaint I here about liturgical worship. But I can tell you that with two little ones learning the liturgy along beside me, there is something so special about your children being able to sing and say the liturgy by heart. And because most of the liturgy is taken directly from scripture, they are ‘hiding God’s word in their hearts’. C.S. Lewis compared the liturgy to a dance. Only after memorizing the steps is one able to truly dance and enjoy it; those things which we memorize or learn ‘by heart’ are usually those things which we really know in a deep and lasting way.
5. “It rescues us from the here and now”. Following the historical liturgy removes us from following the headlines of the news in our church life. We follow Christ’s word instead, which never changes, and is always pertinent to our lives.
“In the liturgy, the Word sets the agenda, defining our needs and shaping our questions. The temptation is for us to turn stones into bread to satisfy an immediate hunger and scratch a nagging spiritual itch, but the liturgy teaches us to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
6. “It is external and objective.” We are given God’s word and His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. We come empty-handed to His table, receive the gifts He gives and then we give Him thanks for those gifts. None of it depends on us or how we ‘feel’ about the worship service. And what a relief; to know that know matter what pitiful unspiritual state we are in, we leave church with God’s greatest gifts, poured out to us freely, for the sake of Christ alone. We don’t have to gin up any super-spirituality. We are completely on the receiving end of life and forgiveness. It changes how we look at our whole life of faith. We are beggars at His table. All of us. We never leave saying, “I didn’t get much out of it.” We leave the Lord’s house and His table satisfied with what He has provided, lacking and wanting for nothing; the blessed recipients of His very life poured into us.
I hope Pastor Cwirla forgives me for butchering his list a little, but I think it behooves us to see the theology behind what we do. If we think we come to worship to ‘give something to God’, then the worship style will reflect that. If we come knowing that He is the giver of all good gifts, then we come ready to receive the wonderful redemption He has bought for us in Christ; given to us in Word and Sacrament. Going from contemporary to liturgical worship is a bit like learning to listen to Bach after spending twenty years singing catchy praise songs. It does not appeal instantly to the emotions. You can’t ‘get it all’ in one or years, let alone one or two visits. It is deep and layered and will certainly take a while to seep into your soul. Eventually, you will find yourself spoiled. Ten verses of “I Surrender All” won’t hold a candle to “A Mighty Fortress is our God”. You will find yourself asking the question, “Am I really the one who surrenders all…..or is it Christ…..who surrenders all for me?”
I realize that in this postmodern world where church growth is king, posts like this will not be very popular. But it does give us cause to think. The methods we use are not neutral—they carry with them an implied message. We should at least ponder the ramifications of that message. I would love to hear your thoughts.