Contemporary Praise & Worship and AC VII

Wednesday, 29 March 2006

…It is not necessary that human traditions, rites, or ceremonies instituted by human beings be alike everywhere. (AC VII.iii, Latin Text)
…It is not necessary for the true unity of the Christian church that uniform ceremonies, instituted by human beings, be observed everywhere. (AC VII.iii, German Text)

Lutheran proponents of contemporary praise and worship (hereafter CPW) tend to latch onto this little line in AC VII. This, they tend to argue, vilifies traditional hymnody and liturgy and justifies the more contemporary approach. To them the liturgy consists of one human-instituted rite after another, serving as a hurdle for worship that touches the affective—worship that is regularly described with terms like “authentic,” “relevant,” and “Spirit-filled,” to name only a few. Unfortunately for the CPW crowd, this line does not say what they tend to want it to say. What follow are some observations and some further citations from the Lutheran Confessions on this topic.

So who are they? What’s the demographic? This one’s a little hard for me to wrap my arms around. My experience (and most observations I’ve read) shows the typical CPW praise band to be mainly comprised of boomers. I’m not going to psychologize them at all; it’s merely an observation. Some younger persons are involved as well—many times these are children of boomers. These aren’t surprising. What’s more telling to me, however, is that the CPW folks are pretty white. Although I have spent some significant time in areas with Asian, Latin, and Black majorities, I have not observed CPW among these cultures. It may well be present among them, but I have not seen it. My experience shows CPW to be a primarily white phenomenon. CPW practitioners tout it as “relevant,” but is it universally relevant, or is it generally confined to Caucasian American experience?

CPW seems to be universally ensconced in the affective realm. The goal seems to be anthropocentric and anthropological: manipulation of the dynamic of the group. In fact, in places where CPW services are coordinated well, the crowd dynamic is manipulated by several stimuli: music underscoring prayer/speech; the emoting of the song leader; lighting; and spontaneity; just to name a few. The work of the Holy Spirit is measured by the success of the group manipulation. The greater the emotional experience, the greater the presence and work of the Holy Spirit.

Yet at its heart, CPW is not a corporate experience, but one of the individual. The subject of the majority of the verbs in the songs and choruses that one finds in such services is the individual. The group may be an object of manipulation, but it also serves as a primary subject of manipulation—of the individuals. Individuals in CPW experiences tend to feed off of one another emotionally, resulting in a heightened emotional experience. The individual focus is often supported by references to a “personal relationship with Jesus,” or to Jesus as one’s “personal Lord and Savior,” and the like.

The individual affective experience may often be observed to be quite sensual, even borderline erotic. I have observed postures and stances during CPW choruses that I would hesitate to term otherwise. The experience of God becomes something almost sexual. To describe one that I recently observed, a young woman was singing in the row in front of me. She stood on tiptoes, her chest thrust forward, her arms thrust back, and her face tipped upward, eyes closed. The American male (and certainly females as well) generally terms such a pose the “take-me-now” stance. This is not the only such worship posture I’ve witnessed in the context of CPW.

In CPW, style unfortunately drives substance. “Relevant” is the word of the day, but the question is, “Relevant to what?” Snappy bubblegum music tends to contain and produce bubblegum theology. Theology gives way to anthropology. Popular music which is deemed to be non-offensive (think All-American Rejects “Dirty Little Secret,” for example) makes its way into the worship life of the church. The transcendent work of God gives way to a cookie-cutter human experience of the Divine, centered on human activity and feelings. Law gives way to “principles for living.” Gospel gives way to “purpose” and other such notions seated in the human existential quest. Eschatological hope gives way to sociological/psychological solutions for the immediate human predicament. And worship becomes human action, seeking to meet God on a spiritual mountaintop.

So what of the Lutheran Confessions? It is my contention that the Augustana is not seeking to throw wide the doors on Christian worship practice. “The question is whether or not the observances of human traditions are religious worship necessary for righteousness before God” (Apol. VII-VIII.xxxiv). Clearly not. Righteousness before God is the work of God, a gift of His grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and for the sake of Christ’s death and resurrection (Romans 3).

The Augsburg theologians were not primarily making an argument about style but about substance. “[The] church is not only an association of external ties and rites like other civic organizations, but it is principally an association of faith and the Holy Spirit in the hearts of persons. It nevertheless has its external marks so that it can be recognized, namely, the pure teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments in harmony with the gospel of Christ” (Apol. VII-VIII.v). The substance is of vital concern. Where style dictates a poverty of substance, that style must go. Where style distracts from true substance, that style must go. Where style diminishes the pure teaching of the gospel and the right administration of the sacraments in the smallest degree, style must be modified (even as I grant that perfection cannot be attained in this age).

The question of style ought always be, “Does this serve the proclamation of God’s Law and Gospel?” The Apology affirms this: “With a very grateful spirit we cherish the useful and ancient ordinances, especially when they contain a discipline by which it is profitable to educate and teach common folk and ignorant” (Apol. VII-VIII.xxxiii). For example, observance of the church calendar teaches the life of Christ; the invocation calls baptism to mind; the Kyrie reminds us that our lives are lived by God’s rich mercy; etc. (Certainly musical settings and instrumental arrangements are not articles of faith. Yet how does one quantify the distraction factor? Certainly this is up for debate. Perhaps it is a personal question. Yet worship is a corporate act (and it would seem even this is up for debate). What does one make of this?)

These thoughts are not exhaustive, though perhaps exhausting. Admittedly, they do ignore the obvious differences between competing theologies of worship. As always, your comments are welcome.


The Good Book–Can You Make It Better?

Friday, 24 March 2006

Anyone else read The Purpose Driven ™ Life and have some questions about some of the Scripture quotations? They come from Eugene H. Peterson’s version called The Message. For the curious, here are a couple notable passages not quoted in the book:

Matthew 6: 9-13

“Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.'” (ESV)

“With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply. Like this:
“‘Our Father in heaven,
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right;
Do what’s best—
as above, so below.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
You’re in charge!
You can do anything you want!
You’re ablaze in beauty!
Yes. Yes. Yes.'” (The Message)

Ephesians 2: 8-10

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (ESV)

“Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we did the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.” (The Message)

Romans 1:17

“For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.'” (ESV)

“God’s way of putting people right shows up in the acts of faith, confirming what Scripture has said all along: ‘The person in right standing before God by trusting him really lives.'” (The Message)

Critics of the NIV can probably ease up on it a little bit.

There and Back Again…A Pastor’s story

Thursday, 23 March 2006

Chapter XII: Inside Information

If I could make something of an observation, I would say that Saddleback has really got their act together. They’ve got a phenomenal marketing program. I need to back up.

Intentionality. It’s a good thing. We should be intentional in ministry. Ministry isn’t simply a “what.” It’s also a “how” and a “why.” And so intentionality is called for. We do this all the time in the choices that we make when we preach. For example, a given illustration will either help or hinder us in the proclamation of Law and Gospel according to a given text in Scripture. And so I am intentional about the illustrations I choose to implement, considering theological implications and considering the hearers. Certainly intentionality is not limited to preaching, but the example serves.

Relationships. These are also important. Ministry is relational. There is a sociological aspect to ministry. The church is comprised of human beings, each of whom is a social creature. So there are going to be social implications and considerations in a congregation. Those are important.

I don’t think I fully appreciated the push behind the Purpose Driven ™ machine before I experienced the Purpose Driven ™ immersion that I’m in currently. It’s deep. It’s very, very purposeful. And it’s frankly a little scary to me.

I don’t want to mischaracterize it, so I will speak in terms of my own visceral reaction. That said, in my last post I wrote about the sheer vastness of the campus here. It’s representative of the machine. To look at a shelf in a bookstore and see Purpose Driven ™ this and that, it’s easy to write it all off after a fashion; kind of a, “Yeah, this stuff is bad theology, and now look at the different vehicles they’re using to milk this goldmine theme for every penny they can get.” At least, this is what I found myself doing. And I watched it sweeping through churches, thinking that it was just the churches that were latching onto the next big trend in Evangelical America. I missed it. This is a push—a purposeful push. This is a movement. And it’s bigger than I had originally appreciated.

This conference is billed as a youth ministry conference, but at the end of the day it’s about marketing and moving the Purpose Driven ™ purposes into your youth group. It’s about recreating the Saddleback culture in your setting and mine. And it’s spreading.

It’s the Macintosh method. Back in the day, the marketing wizards at Apple decided that they were going to get people hooked on Apple products. So what did they do? They made sure that as many elementary schools, as many middle schools as possible, were well and truly stocked with Apple IIc’s and Apple IIe’s and even the odd Macintosh. Kids grew up on a steady diet of Apple classics like “Oregon Trail” and “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?” And then what happened? These kids grew up and became adults who make choices about how to spend their money. And fifteen years later the groundwork that Apple laid in these schools began to pay off. And the rest is history.

It’s an effective plan. And it’s happening again through the Purpose Driven ™ machine (I’m a PC guy, but hey, I really have no moral or ethical problems with Mac). They’re selling youth workers a silver bullet secret to success. And while a great deal of it is a lesson in adolescent sociology, it comes with a healthy dose of Saddleback theology. I wish I had a dollar for every time I was exhorted to push “God’s purposes” or something very like that. They’ve taken Scripture and reduced it to these five purposes:

These are the diagrams that decorate the stage in the main worship center. The arrows tell the whole story. Which direction are they going? And as that’s the case, where’s the Gospel? It’s simply not there. And you can read the book and know enough about this theology from that book alone. It’s pretty transparently laid out there.

But here’s the thing. They understand the criticisms that people have with this stuff. Their answer? “If they’re criticizing us, all it means is that they don’t get it.” That’s the response. It’s the stock answer around here. If you’re not on board with this, all it means is that you’re not enlightened enough (Sound like Seminex, anyone?). Teach this to a room full of youth pastors (the common qualifications for such a title being desire and maybe a stint at a bible college) and you’ve got yourself movement.

The experience continues…

There and Back Again…A Pastor’s story

Tuesday, 21 March 2006

Chapter VI: Out of the Frying Pan – Into the Fire

I think I have fallen into a rut with the blog thing. I’ve often written what I’ve written with an eye for who might read it, writing more for the benefit of another than for myself. That’s my analysis anyway. This entry’s for me.

Anyone who knows me knows that I frankly can’t stand the contemporary praise and worship phenomenon. I have done my very best to keep an open mind about it—truly. I’ve had a stock answer for at least the last thirteen years: if style is limited to style and does not drive substance, I can accept contemporary worship. And truly, if I ever have the opportunity to see such a service, I will celebrate. I have yet to see it, and I’m honestly not holding my breath.

I don’t want to go into too many specifics, because I don’t feel like smearing anyone. I know the situation, but because I am indeed choosing to post this on my blog I will simply say here that I am an associate pastor in a very liberal context. You want proof? I’m currently in Lake Forest, CA. At a conference. The venue is Saddleback. It was determined by others that I should attend, so I’m here. My thoughts about it have certainly been mixed. I’ve gone from, “Why should I agree to this? Why take this money out of our budget to fund Purpose Driven ™ anything? Why simply enter a context that may only anger me?” to, “I can’t tell whether I’m entering the belly of the beast or taking a break from it,” to, “It will be sort of interesting to learn the other side firsthand. Perhaps this may give me some insights that I might more effectively answer these distracting teachings.”

Whatever actually comes of it, it’s certainly been interesting. My first and second observations have been unrelated to theology.

Observation one: this is a compound; a campus. This place is larger than many college campuses—and they’re apparently building. And honestly, more power to them. To be fair, they’ve got a huge income, a huge budget, and a huge operation. There are simply a lot of people working together on a lot of things, and that requires a lot of space. But this place is absolutely amazingly furnished. It’s a slick operation.

Turning onto the campus there is a simple sign on an ordinary office building proclaiming it to be Saddleback Church. You might miss it if you weren’t looking for it. The screens in the main worship center (as it’s named) rival those of a Jumbotron. Like I said, it’s a slick operation.

Non-theological observation two: there is an intentionally sociological agenda going on here. I don’t intend for that to carry judgment. It’s a valueless observation. They’ve got volunteers spread throughout the campus to greet and direct (a necessary function). You cannot enter the aforementioned worship center without being officially greeted by at least four persons (two of these, for me anyway, were the old ‘pull-you-inside’ handshake, more a people moving tool than a greeting on some level). The point, I’m sure, is to make you feel like the most important person in the room. This is a key aspect to it. The Purpose Driven ™ Life begins, “It’s not about you.” Yet just a couple pages later it reads, “It’s about becoming what God created you to be.” And I realize that Warren is trying to say that it’s not about you but about God’s purposes for your life, but just how many yous (and yours) can I use and still have it not be about, well, the first person you? (“You discover your identity and purpose through a relationship with Jesus Christ. If you don’t have such a relationship, I will later explain how to begin one…. God was thinking of you long before you ever thought about him. His purpose for your life predates your conception. He planned it before you existed, without your input! You may choose your career, your spouse, your hobbies, and many other parts of your life, but you don’t get to choose your purpose…. The purpose of your life fits into a much larger, cosmic purpose that God has designed for eternity. That’s what this book is about.” And then a whole chapter about how “you are not an accident.” (Italics are the author’s; bolds are mine))

The rest of the observations are indeed theological, and inspired by—but certainly not exclusive to—being in this place. It may become clear in a moment. It may not.

I enjoyed one piece of the music. I’m a sucker for a drum line. There were some kids who couldn’t have been in high school yet that performed a phenomenal percussion piece with ordinary household items—a la Stomp. That was cool.

Then the band came out and performed and also led some singing. And yes, it was the expected praise and worship music (prior to a revision this read “traditional praise and worship music,” but I thought it a mite confusing). And as expected, “I” was the subject of the majority of the verbs. There was a pressure to be more active as the band played. I hope it wasn’t too crushing to the guy, but when one asked me why I wasn’t singing and dancing I simply answered, “Because it’s Lent.” I don’t know if he knew what I was talking about or not. It certainly wasn’t the only reason. I was in many ways and for many reasons merely observing. I don’t think I need to go into the description so much at this point. It’s pretty standard stuff.

This is where it got interesting. The presentation was begun with a ministry horror story. The speaker on the video was relating a story about some early days of her husband’s ministry. “We were in a very small, very traditional church…” it began. She told of these horrors and how she just knew that God didn’t intend this to be for them, but that God wanted them to stick it out anyway. I’m relatively certain that I was one of a handful, if not the only person who was offended by that statement. It offended me less than hurt me. I don’t know if I was hurting because of a perceived slight against me or because of the implications it carried. This is still all background. One thing that was helpful to me, though, in that this did constitute something of an honesty about the tolerance for traditional or liturgical worship in these circles: that it’s wrong and not God-pleasing, and in fact might be like unto spiritual abuse or something like it by a different name. That was actually refreshing—not the opinion but the honesty. Perhaps it was due to the safe environment that such ideas could be voiced, because a proponent of traditional liturgical worship wouldn’t be found there, would one?

The speakers actually made some good points, in and around the anthropocentric theology (does this make it anthropology?) that serves as the foundation for the belief structure, as far as I can tell.

There was more music. At one point the chorus we were invited to repeat and repeat was something like, “It’s just you and me now, Lord.” Again, it really is all about you—er, me—you get the idea. I had to stop myself from the chuckle I had when I looked across the room. There were several people moved to raise a hand, palm facing the stage, as they sang these words. My first thought was, “Hey, Bob’s got a question.” Not charitable on my part, I’ll grant.
So this is the part that I’ve been avoiding writing for some time now. Where it gets personal for me. I’m resisting contemporary worship in my place. It’s here, but let’s just say it’s not my bag, baby. Both contemporary and traditional are offered in my place. I’m in charge of the traditional and my senior does the contemporary. There is something of a cold war being waged here over the issue—and I sense that the traditional service will eventually lose. The praise team grows and the service goes more and more over the top. My struggle with this issue is not just here but at home as well.

I was struck by the increasing similarity that the service at home bears to the one here. It saddens me, because there really is no substance. I thought about it for a bit. I wondered just how these musical pieces would go over were there no drums, no bass, no guitars at all—just an organ. Would they still be the beloved songs they are now? Change nothing else, really. Leave the meter, versification, repeats—leave it all. Just accompany it with an organ. Do these pieces retain their status among contemporary Christians? My guess is no, though I’m honestly willing to entertain an argument on this point. I wouldn’t have guessed it to be Lent by the lyrics or music. I wouldn’t have guessed it to be decidedly Christian by some of the lyrics. The context of the worship service was required for several—if not most—of the texts to determine that they had anything to do with the Christian faith. The Gospel had to be imported, or at least taken as understood. And unfortunately this is also the case too many times at home. It really does seem to be just about the style and instrumentation. It makes my heart sick.

I’ve really tried to do contemporary well. I was asked to put together a service that blended traditional and contemporary. I painstakingly arranged several hymns, all CPH resources, most from the 20th century, for guitars/drums/bass/keyboard. It went according to a synodically approved liturgy, but I ramped up the style to meet the stylistic wants of some worshipers. The praise team’s participation was cancelled in a unilateral decision because it wasn’t contemporary enough. And I’ll tell you what, that was like a knife in the back. Here I had the opportunity to blend substance with style and show how it might be, for those who crave such a style, and it got tanked. One person took a dive on the play and my opportunity was taken away. When I learned about that, several weeks after the fact, I was righteously angry. I had a chance to really offer something to the mix, but it didn’t fit with the contemporary agenda.

What else is there to say? Lots. I could talk about how contemporary worship is anti-community. It feels so emotional, sure, but at the end of the day what’s it about? Me ‘n’ Jesus. It’s anti-corporate-body-of-Christ. It’s all focused on the “you” or the “I” and the “me,” as the central figure in the world and as the subject of the majority of the verbs. It’s kind of like stepping into the Total Perspective Vortex into which Zaphod Beeblebrox stepped. That’s not good for anyone.

It’s late. I’ve rambled. So be it. But there were high points today. I slaked the In-N-Out Burger jones I’ve been having lately. That was nice.

I’d like to thank…

Wednesday, 15 March 2006

Wha? Who turned off the mic?!

I feel somehow that I’ve arrived. The Orycteropus Afer has awarded this humble blog a coveted AARDIE. I gratefully and humbly accept.

Original Sin? So what?

Thursday, 09 March 2006

For centuries the Roman Catholic Church has maintained their doctrine of Limbo, the place to which the “innocent” who perish prior to baptism are relegated, forever to live in perfect happiness yet apart from the presence of God. An essay in the 09 January 2006 issue of Time magazine (full essay available here) reports that the Vatican may be doing away with this doctrine:

“My idea of God is not a God who would condemn a baby to an imperfect life for eternity.” Many priests have downplayed limbo out of similar concerns, and [Rev. James] Martin [an editor at the Jesuit publication America] lauds the Vatican panel for “bringing theological development in line with pastoral application.”

The essay states that the big loser is baptism. Baptism. If only this were true.

“Pope Benedict XVI…will probably approve a document recognizing unbaptized babies’ full entrée into heaven.” So Anthony and Mary Elizabeth have been relieved of any sense of urgency in getting Tony, Jr., to the font. Why? Because the Holy Papa will declare that original sin isn’t a problem at all. Excepting the unlikely event that little Tony commits a “grievous personal sin,” he shall enjoy all the blessings of God’s salvation.

Toss Psalm 51; toss Ephesians 2.

The real loser isn’t baptism. The real losers are those whose parents, on the basis of this new Papal understanding, don’t take sin seriously and therefore don’t make use of God’s gift of baptism. The real losers are those whose morally righteous civil actions apart from faith in Jesus Christ are logically deemed meritorious unto salvation. They lose because they’re led to trust in the logic of a fallible man/council instead in the Word and promises of God.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not advocating a doctrine of Limbo, but at least this particular effort in rationalizing the acts of the Deus absconditus took original sin at least halfway seriously. And I’m really scraping for this. Half wasn’t enough.

“Bringing theological development in line with pastoral application.” Wow. Anyone else want to take this one? It’s just too easy.

This new development is just one more piece of evidence in favor of thus editing the title “Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman province, Sovereign of the State of the Vatican City, Servant of the Servants of God” and augmenting it with the title “Antichrist.”

Law and Gospel

Friday, 03 March 2006

“When Law and Gospel are improperly distinguished, both are undermined. Separated from the Law, the Gospel gets absorbed into an ideology of tolerance in which indiscriminateness is equated with grace. Separated from the Gospel, the Law becomes an insatiable demand hammering away at the conscience until it destroys a person.” (Emphasis mine.)

Dr. James A. Nestigen, “Distinguishing Law and Gospel: A Functional View.” Presented as a Wenchel Lecture at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO, 19 January 1994, published in Concordia Journal 22:1 (January 1996), 27.

Gospel reductionism: Grace becomes tolerance and Law must therefore be reduced to principles for Christian living.