“The situation here can best be described in the phrase used at the head of this essay. We have liturgical chaos, a confusion which is not at the present time giving away to order and uniformity, but which is growing worse confounded” (“Our Liturgical Chaos” in The Problem of Lutheran Union and Other Essays, CPH, 1935, pg. 135). These words by my great-uncle, Theodore Graebner, came to mind recently as I spoke with a congregation member. He was expressing frustration about how difficult it was for his daughter to find a LCMS congregation whose worship service looked like what we have at Good Shepherd – a congregation that uses the settings of Lutheran Service Book as they appear in the hymnal.
The liturgical chaos that Graebner described was a relatively recent development. In the previous sentences he had noted: “At the present day our congregations still possess in their German order of worship a set form which is followed with only slight variations everywhere. It is otherwise with our English services” (pg. 135). When the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod was founded in 1847 there were two rites that were being used. Most Loehe associated congregations used his Agende für christliche Gemeinden des lutherischen Bekenntnisses (1844). The Saxon congregations associated with the immigrants who originally came to Perry County, MO used the 1812 Saxon Agenda (Kirchenbuch für den evanglischen Gottesdienst der Königlich Sächsischen Lande).
The original constitution of the LCMS said that the reasons for forming a synodical organization included: “6. The unified spread of the kingdom of God and to make possible the promotion of special church projects.(Seminary, agenda, hymnal, Book of Concord, schoolbooks,Bible distribution, mission projects within and outside the Church.).” It stated that the business of the synod included: “10. To strive after the greatest possible uniformity in ceremonies.” The LCMS immediately set to addressing both of these as in 1856 it published its first agenda containing services to be used (Kirchen-Agende für Evangelisch-Lutherische Gemeinden). The use of this single agenda provided the uniformity in German services to which Graebner could still refer in 1935.
However, the gradual shift to English created problems. In 1911 the English Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri became the English District of the LCMS. The LCMS received a manuscript from the English Synod which was published in 1912 as its first English hymnal, The Evangelical Lutheran Hymnal which included an order of service. In 1917 the LCMS published its first English agenda, Liturgy and Agenda. In April of that year, the United States entered World War I in order to fight against Germany. World War I and anti-German sentiment provided great impetus to the shift from German to English in the LCMS.
This played out in uneven and messy ways. Graebner provides the following description:
Some of our congregations have frankly repudiated not only the Common Service, but any kind of liturgical embellishment. The service is opened with a hymn. The pastor reads the collect, then the Epistle. A hymn, followed by the Gospel. After the sermon another collect and the benediction. The congregation sings three Amens as its contribution to the service. This is the extreme left. The number of such congregations is not large. The bulk of our churches have developed individuals a type of liturgy, the Common Service rearranged and condensed, with special original features added and no attempt made to conform to the standards or practices of any congregation, be it even in the same city (156).
The publication of The Lutheran Hymnal in 1941 soon transformed this. From 1941 to the publication of Lutheran Worship in 1982, if you went to a LCMS congregation you knew what you were going to find. It would be a rite from TLH. This is not to say everything was perfect. More often than not, the people were not taught about what the parts of the liturgy meant and eventually this contributed to the situation that exists today. But a LCMS member visiting a LCMS congregation for the first time would find something there they already knew. The LCMS had passed through the transition from German to English and again was accomplishing its business: “To strive after the greatest possible uniformity in ceremonies.”
Today, the LCMS is once again a place of “liturgical chaos.” A visitor may encounter “contemporary worship” in which the focus is music played by a band at the front of the church and there is almost nothing that resembles the liturgy of the Divine Service. A visitor may find a “liturgical service,” but one that uses texts he or she has never seen before because they come from sources like Creative Communications for the Parish. The individual texts of the liturgy may be ones a person knows, but it may still be a completely new and different rite because the pastor has used Lutheran Service Builder to mix and match parts from various settings in Lutheran Service Book to order make his own version (perhaps just his own version for that Sunday, before he makes another new one for the following Sunday). The ordering of the service may be completely different, with the sermon at the end of the service.
Certainly this does not reflect the synod’s original business: “To strive after the greatest possible uniformity in ceremonies.” However, the language in the LCMS constitution has been changed to legitimize the chaos. Objectives III.7 now states that the synod shall: “Encourage congregations to strive for uniformity in church practice, but also to develop and appreciation of a variety of responsible practices and customs which are in harmony with our common profession of faith.” This is contradictory and self-defeating. It represents an abandonment of one of the original goals of the synod as the LCMS has in fact become a different synod.
This change is a tragedy, not because it has abandoned the original orientation of an institution. Rather it is a tragedy because it means the LCMS has accepted the abandonment of what the Lutheran Confessions say about worship. The first Lutherans were very clear about how the Lutheran confession views worship. The Lutheran reformers were evangelical catholics. They were evangelical in that the Gospel stood at the center of their belief and practice. They were catholics because their goal was to be a continuation of what the Church had always believed and practiced.
The Lutherans recognized that there was no specific command from God about how to worship. They confessed: “And it is enough for the true unity of the church to agree concerning the teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments. It is not necessary that human traditions, rites, or ceremonies instituted by human beings be alike everywhere” (Augsburg Confession VII.2-4).
At the same time, the Lutherans said that they retained and used the traditions of the church because they promote good order, harmony and avoid giving offense:
Concerning church regulations made by human beings, it is taught to keep those that may be kept without sin and that serve to maintain peace and good order in the church, such as specific celebrations, festivals, etc. However, people are also instructed not to burden consciences with them as if such things were necessary for salvation. Moreover, it is taught that all rules and traditions made by human beings for the purpose of appeasing God and of earning grace are contrary to the gospel and the teaching concerning faith in Christ (AC XV.1-2).
We gladly keep the old traditions set up in the church because they are useful and promote tranquility, and we interpret them in an evangelical way, excluding the opinion which holds that they justify. Our enemies falsely accuse us of abolishing good ordinances and church discipline. We can truthfully claim that in our churches the public liturgy is more decent than theirs, and if you look at it correctly we are more faithful to the canons than our opponents are (Apology XV.38).
Nevertheless, we teach that liberty in these matters should be exercised moderately, so that the inexperienced may not take offense and, on account of an abuse of liberty, become more hostile to the true teaching of the gospel. Nothing in the customary rites may be changed without good reason. Instead, in order to foster harmony, those ancient customs should be observed that can be observed without sin or without proving to be a great burden. (Apology XV.51).This is a simple rule for interpreting traditions. We should know that they are not required acts of worship, and yet we should observe them in their place and without superstition in order to avoid offense. This is the way many great and learned men in the church have felt about it (Apology XXVIII. 17-18).
They continued to use them because they teach the faith to the people:
But as the different length of day and night doe s not harm the unity of the church, so we believe that the true unity of the church is not harmed by differences in rites instituted by men, although we like it when universal rites are observed for the sake of tranquility. So in our churches we willingly observe the order of the Mass, the Lord’s day, and the other more important feast days. With a very thankful spirit we cherish the useful and ancient ordinances, especially when they contain a discipline that serves to educate and instruct the people and the inexperienced (Apology VII/VIII.33-34).
“For after all, all ceremonies should serve the purpose of teaching the people what they need to know about Christ.” (AC XXIV.3).
“Ceremonies should be observed both so that people may learn the Scriptures and so that, admonished by the Word, they might experience faith and fear and finally even pray. For these are the purposes of the ceremonies.” (Apology XXIV.3).
For these reasons, the first Lutherans described their practice in the following manner:
Among us the Mass is celebrated every Lord’s day and on other festivals, when the sacrament is made available to those who wish to partake of it, after they have been examined and absolved. We also keep traditional liturgical forms, such as the order of readings, prayers, vestments, and other similar things. (Apology XXIV.1)
“Moreover, no noticeable changes have been made in the public celebration of the Mass, except that in certain places German hymns are sung alongside the Latin responses for the instruction and exercise of the people.” (AC XXIV.3)
In large segments of the LCMS it can no longer be claimed that worship is guided by these confessional commitments. In the liturgical chaos of the LCMS, there is no harmony and good order. Offense is being given. Often the people are being taught the theology of American evangelicalism as they worship like non-denominational Christians.
The liturgical chaos of Graebner’s time was caused by two factors. The obvious one was the shift from German to English. However, a second cause was the “desire to eliminate all liturgical features” (140; cf. 156). Revivalism is woven deep into the American religious psyche. There has always been, and will always be, a resistance to the liturgical worship that the Lutheran Confessions set forth. In our own day this plays a major role as well.
However, an equally important cause is the ego of pastors turned loose by technology. At the heart of every decision to use some rite or worship form other than those found in the synod’s hymnals is the arrogant belief: “I know better.” Technology now allows every pastor to implement his own vision of what worship should be. And so, “We have liturgical chaos, a confusion which is not at the present time giving away to order and uniformity, but which is growing worse confounded” (135).