Reflections on Contemporary/Alternative Worship

Monday, July 16th 2007
Nov/Dec 1999

By the Commission on Worship, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod

In Revelation 5 the apostle John records a wondrous vision of heaven in which the whole heavenly host is gathered around the throne of the triune God. (1) In joyous song they proclaim the work of salvation accomplished by the Lamb of God-our Lord Jesus Christ-and raise their voices in thanksgiving to Him who has made them to be a "kingdom of priests" to serve their God (Rev. 5:10).

Although we do not directly experience the splendor of St. John's vision, the worship of God's people in every age is no less profound. Where the Word of God is purely proclaimed and the sacraments faithfully administered according to Christ's command, there God is surely present to save. In worship we are in the throne room of the triune God to receive His gifts and respond to His grace. Our voices are joined to that heavenly host as we acknowledge our Savior and Lord: "To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!" (Rev. 5:13).

In recent years a significant debate has emerged in our Synod [as well as across Evangelicalism] concerning our way of worship. Partly out of a desire to communicate the Gospel more effectively both to members and to the unchurched, a number of congregations have altered the orders of service provided in our hymnals. For some this foray into what is commonly called "contemporary worship" entails substituting new materials for various parts of the liturgy. For others the services go well beyond altering existing worship patterns; rather, they have chosen to design services that clearly depart from the historic pattern of worship that has been handed down to succeeding generations of Christians for nearly 2,000 years.

A topic as crucial as worship demands careful thought and reflection, for the Church's worship is the place where God Himself distributes His life-giving Word and Sacraments. Certainly the Church has a great responsibility to act faithfully in its worship as God's gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation are bestowed on His people….

Reaching the Unchurched

…That there has been a renewed interest in recent years in reaching the unchurched is beyond dispute, and we thank God for it. There are billions of people who do not know Christ, meaning that they do not have a share in the life that He has won for them. Without faith in Christ they will be forever lost. This sad reality should rightly grieve us and fill us with the same compassion that Jesus had as He looked out over the shepherdless crowds (Matt. 9:36).

The Commission on Worship is keenly aware of the challenge of reaching the unchurched. It regrets any lack of evangelistic zeal among those who promote the use of the Church's rich liturgical heritage. But it also laments the unfortunate mind-set that has pitted the Church's worship against her task of taking the Gospel to the nations.

The Commission believes it is not helpful to ask whether the congregation's worship is for confessing Christians or for the unchurched. Inasmuch as the service is the place where God comes through Word and Sacrament to grant life to His people, it is obviously beneficial to both. To those who do not have faith, the service will be, in one sense, incomprehensible, since the things of the Spirit of God are only received by those who possess the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:14). Nevertheless, the reading, singing, and preaching of God's Word are clearly means whereby the unchurched may be edified (see Is. 55:10-11). Furthermore, the service demonstrates that God is in our midst, and may therefore lead the unchurched to further instruction, to Holy Baptism, and finally to admission to the Lord's Table (1 Cor. 14:24-25)….

The Liturgy Is a Teacher of the Faith

Changes in the Church's liturgy have always been made cautiously and, therefore, slowly. One factor that has contributed to this caution is the liturgy's role as a teacher of the faith. Modern technology has made it relatively easy for the Church's historic liturgy to be displaced by other forms, and this raises some important questions. Chief among them is the question of why the liturgy has been retained by the Church for centuries, despite dramatic changes in diverse human cultures. While there have been numerous additions and deletions to the historic liturgy over the years, there remains a basic structure-with standard texts [e.g., the Kyrie, Creed, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, common responses]-that has survived one reformation after another. What is to explain this preservation of the liturgy?

Over the centuries, the Church has recognized the vital role its worship plays in the formation of faith in the lives of God's people. Through weekly repetition of basic, Gospel-centered texts from Holy Scripture, the people of God are schooled in the fundamental teachings of the Christian faith. The liturgy and hymns serve as building blocks for a lifetime of receiving God's gifts through Word and Sacrament.

Inextricably joined to this concept of the liturgy as a teacher of the faith is the discipline of the lectionary. Each year the Church enters into the story of Christ and His work of salvation, beginning with the anticipation of His coming (Advent) and proceeding through His ascension and sending of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost). Here again the worshiper is schooled in the fundamentals of the faith by being linked to the life and work of Jesus.

One of the important blessings of the Church's liturgical heritage is repetition. Through repetition of basic, important truths, Christians learn by heart. With the heart we believe and with the mouth we confess (Rom. 10:9). By repeated confession in the Church's public prayer, the Christian faith is so grounded in the worshiper that it provides a foundation on which the person can build for a lifetime. When, on the other hand, the repetition of texts is abandoned in favor of new materials each week, the opportunity to impress unchanging truths onto the hearts and minds of God's people, especially children, is seriously compromised.

The benefit that is gained through repetition of crucial texts is the development of a common language. In every community and profession there is a unique vocabulary or a standard procedure that enables the work to be done as efficiently as possible. Architects have symbols that cause a blueprint to come to life with information. Carpenters learn how to drive a nail in as few hammer blows as possible. Bankers have formulas that make the compounding of interest a simple matter.

Likewise, the Church has a common language that speaks of sin and grace, repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, righteousness, etc. These expressions of the faith are taught in the sermon and Bible class, to be sure. But this common language is also imparted as the liturgy and hymns are sung week after week. Together with the Small Catechism, they develop within the Church a common way of speaking that equips us to be faithful witnesses as we confess the saving truth before this increasingly confused and darkened world.

One of the reasons often given for simplifying or discarding the liturgy is the concern that the Church's liturgy and hymnody contain elements and concepts that are not understandable, both to the unchurched and to the average church member. Obviously, the Church does not want to promote a liturgical order that confounds or confuses people. That does not mean, however, that whatever is done in worship must aim for the lowest common denominator. The genius of the liturgy is that even as it speaks a clear message of Gospel, it also continually invites us to further reflection and devotion.

As an example of this principle, consider the Lord's Prayer. None of us can count how many times we have prayed that model prayer. We even prayed it as children when its meaning was relatively obscure to us. But does that mean that we shouldn't teach this prayer, or other texts, to children? Or that once the meaning has been mastered, we needn't pray it anymore? Hardly. Instead, we learn the Lord's Prayer, the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, and other fundamental texts so well that we can spend the rest of our lives growing into them. Only after these texts have become a part of us can we be freed to appreciate the fullness of their message…. (2)

1 [ Back ] This sidebar is only an excerpt of the LCMS Commission on Worship statement. For the entire document, which first appeared as an insert in the January, 1998 edition of the LCMS Reporter, see
2 [ Back ] See footnote #1.
Monday, July 16th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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