Virtual Voices

Understanding the "worship wars"

Religion

A recent Religion News Service dispatch caught my attention. Under the headline "Missouri Synod Leaders Declare Worship Wars 'Sinful'" came an article (subscription required) announcing the conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod's eight-page "Theses on Worship." The document was adopted unanimously in September by the denomination's Council of Presidents, which includes its top officials and leaders of its 35 regional districts.

The Theses on Worship took two years to complete, and---according to the RNS report---"describes worship as a command of God but says the Scriptures and doctrinal statements permit 'considerable freedom' in choosing the rites and ceremonies used for worship."

The document itself declares: "The polarization that is affecting the church concerning the issue of forms, rites and ceremonies is sinful and hinders the proclamation of the gospel."

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True enough. These intramural conflicts consume a lot of energy, and to the outside world they can often appear to be irrelevant to the point of silliness. Jesus Himself, near the end of his earthly ministry and during one of his most impassioned and emotional moments, prayed that we, his followers, would "be one," as he was indeed one with God. Elsewhere in Scripture, we read that it is "good and pleasant" for believers to "dwell in unity."

But it is important to be clear about one point: A dwelling of unity that is not built on a foundation of truth is nothing more than a house of straw that will blow over with the first strong wind. That's why it's important that we realize that many of us on the "traditional" side of the so-called "worship wars" understand that much more is at stake than what style of music we'll sing on Sunday morning. The worship wars, properly understood, are not about taste, but about theology---and about protecting the core doctrines of the faith.

To get a glimpse into what I mean, consider how modern worship songs make their way into contemporary worship services. The songs generally are first heard and popularized on contemporary Christian radio stations. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, except that survey after survey shows that at least a third of Christian radio listeners are not Christians. They are overwhelmingly female, and they are mostly in their middle 30s. Again, nothing wrong with any of that; I'm glad there is a radio station for these people.

But what happens next? The popular songs are then promoted relentlessly to "worship leaders," with sheet music and instrumental tracks pushed in a steady stream of catalogues and advertisements in magazines with titles like Worship Leader. Are the songs theologically solid? Do they teach the core doctrines of the Christian faith, or the specific distinctives of your denomination? Are they the highest and best our generation has to contribute to the great musical tradition of the church? But none of that seems to matter: If they're a hit on Christian radio this week, they get performed in church the next.

Contrast that to the way music has historically been chosen for the church. The process has involved some of the greatest theologians and musicologists of our denominations who carefully deliberate matters of theology and discipleship. They ask: Does this song reflect our beliefs? Does this song deepen our understanding of poorly understood doctrines? Does this song unite old and young, black and white, or is it so stylistically specific that its attempt to be "relevant" to some alienates everyone else?

Certainly there are limitations to the slow-changing, sometimes bureaucratic way new music has historically made its way into Psalters and hymnals. And I want to be clear that I'm not advocating tradition for tradition's sake. But let's get to the point: Christianity is a religion based on history and tradition. The Resurrection is not an idea; it was an historical event. Jesus was not just a great teacher; He was God Incarnate. He chose to reveal Himself to us in history. That's why when we throw over the highest and best traditions and practices of our faith in the never-ending pursuit of what's new, what's relevant, what's "hip" or "cool," we inadvertently but no less certainly erode core doctrines of the faith. We say to ourselves and to our children: History doesn't matter. The testimony of the faithful men and women who came before us doesn't matter. The highest and best thinking of our greatest minds---well, what was so great about them anyway?

This is cultural arrogance of the worst kind. And, as everyone from the author of Hebrews to George Orwell has made clear, when we cut ourselves off from the lessons of history, we quickly become victims of the worst kinds of intellectual and spiritual fascism.

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