Friday, October 26, 2007

Feeling Foreign

I know there are people who are not Lutheran who read this blog, so I'm giving you a warning. I am going to show my confessional Lutheran roots here (they are brunette with streaks of gray...oh wait, wrong roots).

Fifteen years ago, if you'd told me I would be liturgical, I would've laughed in your face. I was raised with the liturgy, and found it drab compared to the contemporary services I'd attended. Even several years after I understood and agreed with why the liturgy should be used, I still struggled with the reality of it. But once I had kids and had it memorized so that I could concentrate on the words and what they were saying (believe it or not, like with meditation, memorization actually helps you dig into the meat of the service, it doesn't make it more rote), I really began to appreciate the beauty of it, and (gasp) sometimes it even provokes an emotional reaction, it is so beautiful or applies so readily to where I need God to speak to me.

I'd been in the contemporary worship scene. I'd loved it. But I had also been in situations where the law that is so often involved with it obscured the gospel and left me feeling condemned because I didn't feel anything, or I was aching for the gospel and it wasn't there - because it was so fixated on what I was doing for Christ. The liturgy gives me both, and it unites me with Christians who have been worshiping that way for almost 2000 years, and Jews had done so before that. Christ was liturgical. It takes everything away from me and instead, it becomes about Christ feeding me with His holy Word, line after beautiful line.

Last Sunday I was in an LCMS church that uses blended worship -- not really our choice, we were requested to be there by a friend. Blended worship is often utilized by Lutheran churches to give the service a liturgical "format" so that it feels vaguely familiar to Lutherans, but is supposedly relevant to strangers coming into the church. Anything that might be offensive was removed. The wording to the confession was mellowed, and the absolution, rather than being the pastor pronouncing absolution because he forgives us our sins, he merely assures of that we have been forgiven. There was no creed. Thankfully, there was no communion either at that service.

Since there is such a focus on what a stranger to the Lutheran church experiences when they come into that congregation, I thought I'd share what a person who embraces liturgical worship feels like in such situations. Because I too was a stranger there.

While the words were up on the wall because of the Power Point projector, I felt like an alien. The words which were committed in my heart were different. The musical responses were not the same. Rather than something that openly and richly in few words proclaimed the glory of Christ, instead, simple repeated chants like "Oh Christ you are glorious" were repeatedly sung. He is glorious, I'll grant that. The liturgy instead though, in as short a time explains WHO is glorious, WHAT He did that is glorious, WHY He is glorious, and even sometimes HOW He did something glorious and WHERE He is now...and that we will be with Him there, too (WHO, WHAT, WHY, WHEN, WHERE, and HOW....traits that my 7th grade English teacher taught me were necessary for judging whether a non-fiction piece was really doing its job in conveying important information).

During this service, I struggled with my sinful flesh more than I usually do in church. I didn't want to be snobby. I didn't want to just say "oh, this modern stuff is crud." I could believe that the liturgy is a superior vessel for proclaiming the gospel but still could try to focus on the Word of God that was there. But it was SO hard. Like I said, the substance of what was conveyed was so much less. But it was there. The Powerpoint presentation told us where we were in the service, but it seemed like it could just as easily stated "Kyrie - Lord Have Mercy" as it could've said "anthem" and then the strangers and members alike are educated. The gospel lines in the liturgy were replaced by lines that were about what I am doing for God. The sermon, while I do believe I was blessed and edified by it, again contained about 5 lines of gospel, and it was the token "Jesus does this in our hearts." I was exhausted by the end of the service, because I wanted so desperately to honor God in the service and not miss His Word because I resented how dumbed down the service was. Even the benediction was law. I went out knowing that I had struggled with myself, that I was partially fed, and while I do think these observations are accurate and good, I could not unmingle my sinful self from it, and the pastor's efforts to do His job were so confused that he did not make that task easier for me, instead he bound my conscience.

I am not writing this to offend anyone who uses contemporary worship or blended worship. I hope that it is clear that while I have no intention to embrace these types of worship, that I really tried to receive God's Word in the venue that was there before me that day. But there is a different purpose in contemporary/blended worship than there is in liturgical worship.

Contemporary is about individual experience. When I was in a Christian Contemporary church , you close your eyes, sway to the rhythm, raise your hands, and are open to where the music and the message take you (btw, the way you could tell this was Lutheran is that no one was raising their hands). It is also about what I am doing for God. Liturgy is a "we" experience. While you are still an individual, everything is God feeding His people, and His people's joint response to being fed. This is the same response through the ages right up to this time, and along with the saints in Heaven. I am there being fed by God along with the rest of the body of Christ, in heaven and on earth. The spiritual reality of that is a much greater sense of awe than I ever felt when I went to a really good contemporary service where my soul did not feel weighted down by my sin.

I honestly don't know why I am writing this. Maybe just to let those of you Lutherans who embrace blended worship that in your appeal to be more "relevant" or to "reach out to the community," your rejection of a common manner of worship actually does cause pain to some who come in and sit in the pews. When we walk out at the end and never come back, it isn't because we are snooty. It is because your rejection of something so precious to me and to the history of our church breaks my heart (the liturgy does not alienate those who are young in the faith, by the way. often, it gives them a clearly different culture than the one that they are leaving, and it is a blessing). When I see that LCMS cross on your sign, I should be able to go in and feel at home. I should receive proof that every Sunday we are raising our voices together, even in different locales. The expression of your congregational personality should be in your handshake and your smile, maybe in the flourishes of your church musician, in the manner of your pastor, and how you show love the love of Christ.

The best way that I know how to explain it is this:

I had a good friend in school who for various reasons decided that she was going to change her first and last name to try to give herself a fresh start in life. Whatever the reason why she wanted to do this, and she chose to look at it optimistically, a fresh start and all that -- her family was really hurt. Her father considered his name to be a gift to her...and she was rejecting the name they gave her at her birth. The new name made her seem like a stranger. She didn't understand why her family would struggle with this or see this as a rejection of them. No matter how much they tried to understand, they still felt rejected, and she saw this rejection as a lack of support for her. This wasn't a situation where she was walking away from cruel, domineering parents. I couldn't help but look at what she was doing and because of the price, see it as extreme...she was attempting to throw away her whole identity -- including a lot of things that were good, in favor of something that was nebulous and undefined. Yet she didn't see that she could be a great person (and in fact was a great person) and still hold on to the things that tied her to her roots. She was (and she would admit this) too scared to dig deep to find the person she really was within that context.

That is how I see contemporary and blended worship in the LCMS. Throwing away the liturgy is throwing away precious gifts that unite us all together. With that, often comes a simpler - but a shallower form of worship...and also along with that, other things are lost, too. Soon, the Lutheran understanding of communion fellowship, the office of the ministry, and sometimes even Scripture itself is lost, and while the name Lutheran might be there, all the parts that make the name Lutheran mean something are gone.

Rather than throwing out our all the traditions and rituals of our "family," it would be wiser to find the definition of who we are back in our family tree. It gives a context.

I just know, sitting in that pew last Sunday, I became painfully aware not of the shallowness of the service...but of what has been lost to this congregation...and so many others.


Polly said...

I heard our DP speak this summer and he encouraged "seeker services."
I, of course, think that is insane.
Churches need to just proclaim the truth, offer that word and sacrament - and then be fully prepared to be rejected instead of popular. Jesus and his message weren't popular either.

Dan @ Necessary Roughness said...

RPW, thanks.

I cannot say enough how instrumental regular liturgy has been in teaching my four-year-olds the faith, though NR often tries. :) The current contemporary "service" restricts kids to just moving to the beat or singing a simple chorus because they can't read the PowerPoint. Give them a consistent liturgy, and they remember the words as well as the music.

The Rebellious Pastor's Wife said...

Honestly, in most contemporary worship settings that I have seen, children are not welcome. Children's church/nursery are at the same time. They learn their Bible stories, but not that they should be in God's presence where He promises to meet and feed us.

I find this sad.

Jani said...

I'm live in a place where the liturgy is basically dying. And I regret that because it a such a rich, Christ-centered way to worship. I would much rather sing the words, "Paschal Lamb Your offering finished Once for all when You were slain, In its fullness undiminished Shall forever more remain. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! Cleansing souls from every stain...." than "Shine Jesus shine."

I liked your point about contemporary worship being me-centered. It's true. I hear my friends talking about worship as a way to feel good, but often those feelings are manufactured by mood music and even mood lighting! I like to feel good, too, but it's so much better when those feelings are grounding in something real like when I hear I am forgiven, despite my great sin. Thanks for your thoughts.

Julie Fink said...

I'm a Baptist Pastor's Wife and I love our "traditional, focus on the Word of God and be challenged to live a life that glorifies God" kind of service too. Praise God that there are still local churches whose emphasis is still on pleasing God rather than motivating self.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

elephantschild said...

Words (nearly) fail me.

Just a month ago I watched an elderly couple struggle valiantly through the praise choruses in a contemporary (Lutheran) service. It nearly broke my heart. There was no confession & absolution before communion.

I tried to put the "best construction" on it all, and to remember that I was still hearing the Word - but the sermon was all law, and ra-ra let's be better Christians. Like you, I struggled. The music was too loud, the songs too schmaltzy, and the sound equipment kept popping & squealing.

I too was exhausted by the end, and went home feeling like I was physically craving the Gospel.

Jane said...

What you describe is exactly what I go through each time I need to attend my brother's church.

Bosco said...

I think you have articulated this well - the problem is liturgy is so often done badly - the issue is not liturgy - it is the doing it badly. As with all truly powerful things we can use them for such great good AND for such impoverishment.


Dr. Luther in the 21st Century said...

Worship is one of those things that I tend to think a lot about and in some ways I am a rebel without a following. I love the liturgy but I realize people, for not always the best of reasons, are turned off by the liturgical service and I am willing to meet them part way. At the same time I am not satisfied with how most churches do contemporary services, they really are about me and not the Gospel. You know I don't go to the divine service to hear about me, I get enough of me during the week. Generally, I think our blended service does a decent job of remaining Law and Gospel.

I also do not buy into the old pastor's tale that seeker services really attract the unchurched or are even seeker friendly.

The Rebellious Pastor's Wife said...

Generally, I think our blended service does a decent job of remaining Law and Gospel.

See, that is a big part of my issue with blended worship and contemporary worship. I bet you the pastor that led the service I was in last week would've said the exact same thing. But even his homemade benediction was complete law. He also left out the Apostles Creed. They softened the language of the confession. And other than wearing an alb, he purposely minimized his role as an ordained minister. Rather than forgiving me my sins, he assured me they were forgiven. There were several places where he was putting himself with us rather than standing in the stead of Christ as he is called to do.

This is one of the areas where it should be a no-brainer for pastors. Yet every week, it is left up to one man (or at best two or three) to decide whether the law and the gospel are properly distinguished...when it has been done and has been done for 2000 years. Weekly, you reinvent the wheel. Worry about the sermon, the choice of hymn texts, the topics of the Bible study...etc. but to have the responsibility of the order of worship? Wow. That's a lot on one man's shoulders every week, especially when the Synod has three hymnals approved hymnals that all have strengths in these areas, and all are based on liturgies that can be traced back two millenia. To have to worry about measuring up to that every week I would find very daunting.

But the fact that you would take that on says something, too. It is still individualistic -- only congregationally. The LCMS is a group of congregations that are allied in practice. They have officially recognized three hymnals. I know blended worship materials have been put out by them, too. But not with the same sense of unity that a convention approval has. To say, Other LCMS churches are doing A, B, or C....but I want to do J because it is what my flock wants to do kind of goes against the unity that is supposed to be there. We are supposed to be united in practice, and proud of that fact.

If it doesn't mean that someone who is LCMS should find similar teachings and similar practice when they walk into another LCMS church, then what does that affiliation mean? Believe me, being LCMS and finding a good church is a huge struggle for anyone put in that position because that is no longer the norm in our synod. Everyone is looking for something different and something familiar, and often -- all they can find is something that might be close. The theology can be altered, the worship can be very different. So in the end, what is the point in having that alliance? That wonderfully affordable benefits plan?

So how do you judge whether it has a good balance of law and gospel? Does your blended service have an invocation? confession and absolution? Readings? Apostles or Nicene Creed? Sermon? Lord's Prayer? These are the things Luther said were necessary to every service. And if you have all these things, what is the difference between a blended service or a liturgical service to a different setting? If you are altering the wording, who besides you is judging whether it is an accurate and good conveyance?

I can't judge the quality of your blended service. I've never been to yours, but I've been to about 5 other LCMS ones, and haven't found one that REALLY measures up quality-wise. The very nature of them makes standard of quality relative to the judgement of the individual pastor, and that makes them vulnerable to their sinful human nature of being eager to please those who are in the pews. The liturgy provides protection from that, AND it conveys the gospel in a truly beautiful way, though to be fair, may take time, catechesis, and losing a few people (but are blended worship churches really aware of how many people that don't join because it doesn't feel right or just like the last blended worship church they last belonged to. There is a price for being particularly unique...and really, you are going to lose some no matter what you do, since we are in a "cafeteria plan" synod. My church isn't going to please someone looking for blended worship...but it will please most looking for the liturgy).

Also, the liturgy protects the flock. God's word is there, beautifully there. With a blended worship practice, YOU may be solid, and I am sure your theology is, but what if the next guy is not and he comes in and changes a few things here and there, and they are hard to notice because the flock is used to things being changed and has no norm to go from? That has happened REPEATEDLY.

Blended worship because of its ability to be changed so readily, its lack of depth in many cases, its nature as a reflection of the particular congregation, and its reliance on one man to do it well opens the door for liberalism. Maybe not from you...but possibly someday. And this has happened in our synod already so often.

The liturgy is good pastoral care. It provides scripture, even if the pastor doesn't. It provides consistency, so the flock knows when something is being changed, and it protects the pastor from the devil, the world, his limited intellect (and I am in no way saying you are not bright), and his own desire to please, to give everything to the service, and to think well of himself as well. It is as much a protection for you as it is for the flock. I've heard several pastors say that who used to do blended worship and decided to go back to the liturgy. One of my pastors in college said that he found he felt a little too good when someone said "good service today pastor" and felt a little too bad when no one said anything at all.

You are right about the seeker services - most churches that I know that have tried them have only managed to seek the people they already have in their congregation into one service or another.

Gunfighter said...

If my (ELCA) congregation ever abandons the liturgy, I'm going down the street to the Episcopalian church.

leah sophia said...

very well expressed and explained, thanks!