Thesis I: The Main Purpose of Worship Is to Receive God's Gifts
If you were to ask what "worship" is, most people would probably respond, "Worship is praising the Lord"; or "Worship is what human beings do to express their thanks to God"; or "Worship is going to church"; or something like that. While there is some truth to each of these answers, they do not adequately describe the main purpose of worship, according to the Lutheran tradition. For we Lutherans believe that God's Word and his Sacraments-which are his precious gifts to us-are the tools the Holy Spirit uses to give us forgiveness, life, and salvation. Therefore, the main purpose of worship is to receive these gifts from God. (1)
Ido not believe this important truth has been sufficiently emphasized in American Christianity. God gives gifts; we receive them. This is why we gather. God acts as his Gospel is proclaimed, as his Word is read, as his forgiveness is announced and sinners are absolved, and as we receive our Lord's body and blood in Holy Communion. In these wonderful ways, God is present with us, his people, drawing us to himself and giving us what we need so desperately: his mercy, forgiveness, love, joy, peace, power, and comfort! The purpose of worship, therefore, is to be gathered by God around his gifts.
Having clearly established this important point, I need to say that it would be wrong, however, to assume that we are merely passive participants in the worship service. Listen to the beautiful introduction to our hymnal, Lutheran Worship:
Our Lord speaks and we listen. His Word bestows what it says. Faith that is born from what is heard acknowledges the gifts, received with eager thankfulness and praise…. Saying back to Him what he has said to us, we repeat what is most true and sure…. The rhythm of our worship is from him to us, and then from us back to him. He gives his gifts, and together we receive and extol them. We build one another up as we speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. (2)
How true! God speaks. We listen. Then we speak the great "amen" of faith, saying, "Yes, yes, this is true!" Praise God for his mercy in permitting us to receive his gifts! Praise God for drawing us together around his gifts!
Thesis II: Worship Must Be Christ-Centered
If the main purpose of worship is to receive God's gifts, then it follows that worship must be Christ-centered, for Christ is the greatest gift to us. This fact should have effects all the way through our liturgical orders of service. We must hear Christ in the Word read and preached. The hymns sung in our services must give him the glory, honor, and praise. Consequently, Lutheranism insists that we should spend a great deal of time singing his praises, and less time singing about our own personal spiritual experiences. The service thus takes our eyes and sets them firmly on the cross of Jesus Christ, for there the Lord of the Universe suffered and died for the sins of the world. Christ-centered worship points us to the Resurrected Lord who lives and reigns to all eternity, and promises us everlasting life. Our place is in Christ's kingdom as his redeemed people.
Thus, again, to say that worship is Christ-centered is not to say that those who gather for worship are mere blocks of stone! Our worship focuses on Christ, who is present for us and with us in his Word and Sacraments. We are united to him as his people, and he is truly among us. We are not gathering to contemplate a far-off Christ, or to meditate on abstract ideas. This is not like going to a self-help group or a therapy session. Instead, it is a gathering initiated by God, and centering on the gifts he gives to us through Word and Sacrament.
We are worshiping the One who is very near, as close as the preaching of the Word. We are worshiping the One who is actually present under the bread and wine of Holy Communion. He promised, "I will be with you always." In our worship service he fulfills that wonderful promise. He is living and active among us, right here, right now, where he has promised to be: in his Word and Sacraments. Therefore, it is important to say that while our focus is on Christ, his focus is always on us!
Thesis III: A Church's Worship Reflects Her Theology
The ancient Church had a saying: "The law of prayer is the law of belief." In other words, how you pray reveals what you believe. Similarly, how a congregation conducts its worship service is a reflection of its theological convictions.
In the Lutheran tradition, in order to emphasize continuity with the Church across time and place, this has meant that great care must always be taken before discarding any of the treasures of the Christian liturgical tradition. For we recognize that these are good forms that transcend time and culture. We learn this from Martin Luther, who sought to reform-not to re-create-the Church. Thus, he would not throw out the historic liturgical worship of the Church, but instead sought carefully to remove the errors that had crept into Roman Catholic practice. He brought the Gospel to the forefront of the service and got rid of what conflicted with the Gospel. To this day, our tradition retains a strong emphasis on the proclamation of God's Word, in both spoken and sung form. We also take seriously our Lord's presence in his Sacraments, with a particularly high regard for the Lord's Supper. Lutheran worship is shaped and molded by our firm belief that God the Holy Spirit is present and active in Word and Sacrament, creating a people for God and continually renewing the people of God.
While it is certainly true that we can and should borrow what is good from many traditions, Lutheran worship reflects the historic patterns of worship the Church has known for thousands of years. Sometimes we hear people say that because the Reformation occurred in Germany, Lutheran worship is "German." This is really not true. Our Lutheran worship reflects traditions that are Palestinian, African, East Asian, Greek, Italian, French, Spanish, German, and more. This historic worship service is rooted in thousands of years of tradition and reflects the contributions of many ethnic groups. In this way, Lutheran worship transcends contemporary culture and does not bind us to any one culture.
No one should be surprised then if Lutherans are hesitant to begin conducting worship services in a manner similar to a Pentecostal church or a non-denominational evangelical church. For if Lutherans worship like such groups, how long will it be before we embrace the doctrine and practices of such movements-which obviously inform their services? As Christians evaluate their services, and all proposed changes to them, it is essential to recognize that worship reflects theology.
Thesis IV: Worship Must Be Characterized by Reverence and Dignity
Building on our first three theses, I am troubled when I see some pastors conducting the liturgy as if they were entertaining friends in their home, with little quips and humorous asides sprinkled throughout the service. This conduct robs the people of the opportunity to focus their thoughts on Jesus Christ. Such self-indulgence has no place in a worship service. A sense of reverent awe and dignity needs to permeate public gatherings for worship.
Worship services should be known as truly sacred events, marked by a deep sense of the holiness and majesty of God. We need to realize that when we attend the worship service, truly holy things are going on. God is with us. He is present among us through Word and Sacrament. The great struggle of God against Satan is taking place as life and salvation are given out. These are serious matters. The angels in heaven sing, "Holy, holy, holy is God the Lord of Sabaoth!" and cover their faces at the sight of the holy God. Dare we behave in a manner that clearly conflicts with this wonderful sense of reverence and dignity?
Thesis V: Worship Transcends Culture
It is very tempting for the Christian Church to do whatever is popular for the moment in the culture around us. We need to recognize that worship transcends culture. I am not saying that Church is an "escape" from the world. This can never happen. I am saying that our worship services need to help us see clearly that when we gather as God's people, we have stepped out of our own human opinion and passing fads, and have moved into God's world.
We need to take great care in our worship practices that we not allow our Church to be caught up in the latest trends that come along in our culture. We also need to take care that what we do in worship does genuinely communicate God's truths to God's people today. A recent article in a journal for church musicians made the point very well:
Today's culture tells us that we deserve whatever we want whenever we want it. This mentality is rapidly invading the church. The ultimate blasphemy of a consumer culture is its desire to consume God. Though not church-growth advocated, televangelism has turned religion into magic, instead of the mystery we may all need. If the church roots itself in marketing and consumerism, it will always seek to please the customer. Worship planners will seek to use the "immediately familiar." The result will be the "tyranny of the familiar" that changes every few years even while we ignore our own traditions. The long-term implication will be that we can cut ourselves off from deeper and longer-lasting Christian roots and even our own unique denominational roots…. In a "get and go" culture, and in one which says, "Don't worry, be happy," how are we to proclaim that we depend on God, rather than having God depend upon our ceaseless activities that may masquerade as gospel? (3)
These are strong words, but we need to consider them carefully. As we seek to reach out boldly with the Gospel, let us take care always to remember that our worship services are not merely one more way people can be amused or entertained. We need to be gathered by God to receive his gifts, and to hear his Word applied to our lives. Then we are equipped to go out into our world to serve him who so wonderfully serves us with his Gospel. We gather in worship to be strengthened for service to our Lord in our daily callings in life, whatever they may be, wherever they may be. If our worship only reflects what we find in our world, then something has gone seriously wrong. If our worship services become only slightly different from what we might experience at a rousing musical concert or an exciting sporting event, haven't we missed the mark?
We do not want to give people the impression that there is one specific and distinct period of time we must emulate. That is why the Christian Church's worship has developed slowly and gradually down through the centuries and why, from culture to culture, there are differences in the style of music and the forms used. Underneath it all, at least in the historic traditions of which Lutheranism is certainly a part, there are common patterns and forms of worship that have come down through the ages. These forms have served the Church well, and will continue to serve us well as we move toward the year 2000 and beyond.
Thesis VI: Worship Seeks to Edify Christ's Holy People
There is a beautiful prayer that we say at the end of some of our services: "Grant, we implore you, almighty God, to your Church your Holy Spirit and the wisdom which comes down from above, that your Word may not be bound, but have free course and be preached to the joy and edifying of Christ's holy people." When it comes to worship, we could modify this prayer to conclude: "…which comes down from above, so that our worship services may be done for the joy and edifying of Christ's holy people."
In the Missouri Synod today (as nearly everywhere else!) there is a genuine tension between well-intentioned people who feel differently about worship. Some have referred to these debates as "worship wars." As we express our concerns about what are sometimes even dramatic novelties and shifts away from the Church's historic worship practices, we want to take great care that we do not trample underfoot those who may disagree with us. Nor do we need to pull out our six-guns and start blasting away.
In fact, those of us who are most concerned about these liturgical departures-which, as argued above, usually reveal theological departures-need to recognize that the greatest challenge is the need for catechesis, that is, teaching. As we struggle with questions of what is in the best interest of edifying Christ's people, we must be aware that many people have never had the opportunity to learn what worship is all about. And it is dangerous when a congregation just goes through the liturgy without ever knowing why. If a congregation's only explanation of why they worship the way they do is, "Because that's the way we've always done it," there is a great need for catechesis in that congregation. Ignorance about the liturgy is as great a danger as throwing out the Church's liturgical worship. As we move toward the year 2000 and beyond, we have before us an incredible opportunity to teach the faith, and all the good, wholesome, Gospel-centered traditions of our faith.
Just as the congregation must be patiently taught to respond with understanding, so pastors must be encouraged to be familiar with their parts of the liturgy and to do them excellently, at a lively pace. All we do in our worship services is a reflection of our love for God and a response to the tremendous gifts he gives us in the service. A well-done liturgical service is truly a joyful and edifying experience, drawing us away from the humdrum hype and hoopla of Madison Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard and bringing us into the "holy of Holies" of the Lord's presence where we receive his forgiveness through the Word and Sacraments.
Another important way to make sure worship is truly edifying is to be sensitive to the needs of visitors. But I believe it is overreacting to insist that our services must be designed for visitors. Hopefully, the person who visits one of our Synod's congregations will be impressed with the truth that something awesome is taking place. The visitor may not immediately understand everything going on in the worship service. This will take time and patient instruction. But isn't this the case with all significant events?
Even more casual events make this point. For instance, suppose you knew nothing about baseball, but were invited to a major league game. Do you suppose they would change what was happening down on the field just because you were a visitor who didn't know much about baseball? No, of course not. (And, frankly, you probably wouldn't think the game itself was very important if the entire event changed because of your presence.) They would play the game as it always has been played. But they would perhaps provide a scoreboard that would help you keep up with the game. Maybe someone would take you to the game, explain it to you, and talk about it with you afterwards to help you understand it even more. There would be books for you to read so you could learn more about baseball. I think you see the point I am making.
We need to take great care to help our visitors appreciate and understand what is happening without changing things just so that every point is perfectly clear to the visitor who is unacquainted with God's meeting with his people. Our Synod is attempting to provide both visitors and long-time members with tools ranging from bulletin inserts to books, to facilitate better understanding of-and appreciation for-the divine service. (4) "The joy and edifying of Christ's holy people" is one of the important goals we must continue to hold high before us as we discuss and work through these important issues. I commend to you the goal of careful catechesis, that is, teaching the people of our congregations what is involved in being a confessional church member in our world today.
Thesis VII: Uniformity in Worship Practices Is a Blessing
As we look ahead toward the year 2000 and beyond, there is one more important question we need to ask ourselves. It is this: "What is the value of uniformity in worship practices across a denomination?" This question is certainly one of the burning issues our denomination faces. I think there are two extremes to be avoided in answering it. The one extreme would be the view that every congregation should simply do whatever it wishes, however it wishes, without any regard for the other congregations of our fellowship. The opposite extreme would be the view that everyone in the Synod must do precisely the same thing every Sunday, with the same words, the same songs, the same liturgy, on the same page, from the same order of service, without any deviation, variety, or change. I believe that neither of these extremes is acceptable.
There are those in our Synod who propose that every congregation in the Synod should simply "do its own thing." They base this argument on the principle of adiaphora. In the Lutheran Church, the notion of adiaphora came up during a time when the Catholic rulers of portions of Germany attempted to force Lutherans to do certain things in their worship services, claiming that these things were part of the very Gospel itself. For instance, the Lutherans were told, "You must wear a certain kind of liturgical vestment or else you do not have a true worship service." The Lutherans responded, "If you tell us we must do this, then we cannot do it, for the Gospel does not depend on it." Adiaphora refers to things neither commanded nor forbidden by God.
But I would suggest to you that we have gone a bit wrong with the principle of adiaphora recently in our Synod. The principle of adiaphora has become more than a rejection of what is being legalistically imposed on us in place of the pure Gospel. Instead, it has been turned into a license to do whatever pleases anyone, anywhere, and anytime, without due regard for the benefit of the Church and the edification of the people of our Synod. Clearly, none of our Lutheran fathers anticipated a day when liturgical anarchy and near chaos would be viewed as helpful for the Church. The concern has always been, and must always be, on what best serves the need for good order in our Church, so that the Gospel can have "free course and be preached to the joy and edifying of Christ's holy people."
Martin Chemnitz, one of the most important early theologians of the Lutheran Church, had this to say about why uniformity in worship practices is important:
…it brings all sorts of benefits that in ceremonies, as much as possible, a uniformity be maintained, and that such ceremonies serve to maintain unity in doctrine, and the common, simple, weak consciences be all the less troubled…it is therefore viewed as good, that as much as possible a uniformity in ceremonies with neighboring reformation churches be effected and maintained. (5)
Our Synod has always been concerned that uniformity in liturgical practices be maintained, for the good of the Church. For without uniformity in practice, as I have mentioned earlier, how long will it be before we find ourselves no longer united in doctrine?
Looking ahead, I see many wonderful opportunities for the Church to teach her members about the beauty of meeting corporately with our God where he may be found-in Word and Sacrament. One could look at the liturgical chaos so prevalent around us, and at the lack of emphasis on the Gospel, and be overcome with fear and trembling. And indeed, even within our Synod, there is cause for concern.
But we must remember that it is not really our Church; it is the Lord's Church. He is and always will be very much in control. The gifts he gives are his gifts. It is his Word. They are his Sacraments. The children of the Church are his people. He promises to do what is best for us. He will continue to speak and we, by his grace, will continue to listen to him. For we do not yet see him face to face. But by his mercy, some day we too will join the countless number before his throne who worship him day and night. There the saints who are now on earth will join with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven in singing the praises of him who is the beginning and the end, the first and the last, the alpha and omega, even our Lord Jesus Christ, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit reigns as one God, world without end.
By A. L. Barry's permission, this article is an edited version of an address he delivered to the Real Life Worship Conference in Denver, Colorado, in February, 1998. (6)