Thursday, October 20, 2016

Mark's thoughts: A myth of "contemporary worship"

We are frequently told that the rite of the Divine Service and the hymns of the Lutheran hymnal are not welcoming to visitors.  Instead, if the Lutheran church is to be “missional,” something different is needed.  Almost always this something turns out to be some form of “contemporary worship” in which the texts and even the basic ordering of the Lutheran church’s rite are abandoned for an order of service that has been created by the worship planner and contains little connection to the catholic character of worship in the Lutheran church.  Lutheran hymns are cast aside for various praise songs which, like the order of service, are projected onto large screens.  Leading all of this is the ubiquitous “worship team” displayed prominently in the chancel/stage area in front of the congregation.

Now it is true that the rite of the Divine Service is often new and foreign to people who visit.  This is not surprising.  In fact, it is a good thing.  Christ has called the Church out of the world and made her his own.  Lutherans confess that we know the Church is present when the Means of Grace are being administered.  The Church is most herself when she is in worship, and therefore she looks very different from the world when this is occurring.

The Church has her own catholic culture – her own ways of speaking and acting – that separates the Church from the world and marks her off as God’s people. In the rite of the Divine Service these ways are made up of verses and phrases taken from Holy Scripture. The rite of the Divine Service is made up of Scripture and it has been built around the reading and proclamation of God's Word and the celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar.  It highlights and emphasizes the sacramental ways in which God comes to us and is therefore the best and most natural setting for these Gospel gifts.  The rite of the Divine Service is a very important part of this culture that marks off the Church as God’s own people who have been called out of the world and continue to receive his gifts.  As visitors encounter the rite of the Divine Service, they will often experience something that they find to be different and foreign to them.  This is not surprising because they are encountering a different way of doing the world – God’s Gospel way.  However in this recognition there is an invitation to learn more about God’s way of doing the world and to join the culture of God’s people.

Setting this point aside, the assertion remains that Lutheran worship using rite and hymns from the hymnal is less user friendly than “contemporary worship.”  Yet this is a myth that does not correspond to reality.  I was struck by this again recently when I was present at a service that incorporated elements of contemporary worship.  There was a song that the congregation was to sing in alternation with the worship team.  I immediately recognized that this was not something I had ever sung or even heard before.  All I had before me were the words of the text.  There was no musical notation of any kind.

The worship team performed their part in a manner that was done flawlessly.  The expressions on their faces clearly indicated that they were deeply involved in the music.  Yet when it was time for the congregation to sing, I realized that I had no idea how to sing it. I flailed uncomfortably in my attempt.  The bare words provided no assistance in how the piece was to be sung. There was nothing “user friendly” about it.

The music for the the rite of the Divine Service and hymns in the Lutheran hymnal may be new to a visitor.  But the hymnal carries a distinct advantage over contemporary worship: It provides music that helps guide the user.  Proponents of contemporary worship will argue that in the twenty-first century this is no longer really a factor.  They will claim that declining music literacy in our culture means that neither the presence nor the absence of music is a significant feature.

But this argument is overplayed.  True, music literacy has declined.  But if you add up all of the individuals who are or have been in grade school, middle school and high school band, orchestra and choir programs the result is a very large body of people with at least a rudimentary knowledge of music. At the very least you have people who know that the dots go up and down in ways that tell them the tune is getting higher and lower.  It may be new and different to them.  But the presence of musical notation makes the settings and hymns of the Lutheran hymnal easier for the visitor to use.


  1. Mark, excellent point. I have seen a similar problem in congregations which use the liturgy but print it, text only, in the bulletin. This is done with the intention of being more welcoming, thinking the hymnal is too big and daunting for visitors. However, it assumes that anyone who wants to participate already knows the melodies. The end result is a service format which is less, not more, welcoming to visitors.

  2. Excellent post. Especially as we have congregations that use different settings of the liturgy. I have my great-grandmother's German hymn book. It has only the text of the hymns. But that was a time when the Divine Service was more homogeneous.

  3. Not only is CCM printed without music, the music is arguably quite more difficult than Lutheran chorales, since it typically has unusual syncopation, grace notes, large and unusual jumps up and down the scale, not to mention all the changeups in the last stanza. Thus, trying to learn CCM stuff without the music is much harder than learning a chorale without the music.

  4. Unusual syncopation? Large and unusual jumps? You aren't talking about worship songs;you're talking about CCM performance music. CCW/Urban Praise music is so simple, I can doggie out where it goes before I finish the first verse. You're confusing genres in your argument now. As far as that goes, I NEED the hymnal, because otherwise I would have NO idea what the rhythmic pattern of the melody is in a typical hymn.
    At the end of the day, you are comfortable with the familiar, and uncomfortable with the unfamiliar. Just admit it and let it go. There will always be hymns in the LCMS, so you have nothing to fear from other genres until other ethnicities impose their cultures on Lutheran worship, which, in all likelihood, would lead to a mass exodus similar to what happened in northern cities in the 1970s. As long as the current cultural balance holds, you will be fine.
    Ironically, I REALLY don't care for much of CCM, because it reminds me of 70s modern rock, and that is SO outside of my cultural matrix!

    1. You cite a particular subgenre of CCM, namely Urban Praise, and you may indeed have a point. But isn't that confusing genres on your part since I did not say anything about Urban Praise music in my comment? I am willing to grant that there are plenty of subgenres within the contemporary Christian music phenomenon that would be rather simple to learn. But that isn't the whole of the genre--or what I have typically encountered, either at my sister's church (a non-denominational mini-megachurch) or on those occasions that such music has been played at LCMS district functions. Since my sister occasionally plays in the band, I've had a chance to look at the sheet music, and I can tell you that what I have seen printed in black and white is musically more complicated than the typical chorale. So why wouldn't you want people singing those songs to have the notes that go with the lyrics?

      Your ad hominem attack is truly uncalled for. You don't know the first thing about me--I don't believe we've ever met--but you feel you can accuse me of being "uncomfortable with the unfamiliar" and being driven by fear, particularly of "other ethnicities imposing their culture" on me. That is quite an accusation. If you knew me, you would know that my musical tastes (like most of my tastes in life) are quite eclectic. I agree with whatever composer it was who said, "The only bad music is the boring kind." In general, I am fairly open to new experiences and never was one for the boring, lily white suburbs. All my adult life once I left school I've lived where Spanish was either the dominant language or close to it. I'm working now on learning Mandarin, my seventh modern foreign language (I won't mention the several ancient languages that I also know), mainly because I have a number of Chinese students in my class and I want to know more about their culture, and to know a culture you have to know the language. I routinely listen to foreign language radio (mainly news stations) on the internet and watch foreign language TV and movies--and find out all sorts of stuff I can't get from the parochial American news sources. So I'm supposed to be cowering in fear of hordes of "other ethnicities," saying something like "You can have my hymnal when you pry it from my cold, dead hands"? P-lease. Give me more credit than that.

      Even though I am more "by the book" when it comes to worship, I recognize that each generation and each culture will inevitably contribute to the liturgy. I appreciate some of the newer hymnody, including contributions that have come from what used to be called foreign mission fields. I expect their number to increase. So, no, it is not nostalgia or disdain for the new or unfamiliar that drives these comments, as you imagine.

  5. I whole heartedly agree with Mark's thoughts (not sure who Mark really is) but I agree with everything he says. For those who claim the music is not as important today,(people don't know the notation, or care about it)that is because those who should be teaching those things and putting important emphasis on it ARE NOT doing their job. Keep the Lutheran tradition alive, teach the kids, yes even the "difficult" hymns...if you teach them, they won't be difficult. I could go on, but will stop here. Never mind, I thought of more. I played organ for 42 years in our Lutheran churches. From that experience(and the 42 years teaching in our Lutheran schools) I know reality. Teach what we know and love and have. We don't NEED contemporary only because 'they' might not like the traditional. Soon it will be the Word. We don't like it, change it...we WON"T go down that road!!