Contemporary Praise & Worship and AC VII

…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.


4 Responses to Contemporary Praise & Worship and AC VII

  1. Joe Fremer says:

    Your third and fourth paragraphs seem to be heading in opposite directions, but I think you’re on target there. I mused on this a bit in my blog posts titled “Sociology Scares Me” and “The Semantics of Liturgy.” Yes, there is a mob-psychology at work, but it is pushing them to a shared individualism. Like the “parallel play” of preschoolers. We are together, and doing our own thing, but we are in a setting which encourages that, and are grooving on each other’s diversity, to put it in sort of a hippie-speak way.

    I think it was Helmut Thielicke who once wrote that he attended a Hitler rally, fully intending to sit through it in icy silence, too cool to fool; then suddenly he found himself on his feet with his arm raised, yelling “Sieg Heil!” It scared him profoundly, and it made him believe there was something truly demonic at work in the Nazi party. But he didn’t need demons. Social pressure in a group environment is extremely powerful. But it’s the flesh!

  2. Anonymous says:

    The point of AC VII is missed entirely by the CPW crowd. It was not giving carte blanche to parish worship planners. It was to point out that Rome was not right in trying to enforce its liturgy over all others, something it did before the Reformation, after it with Trent and the Tridentine Mass, and now with Vatican II and the novus ordo, as any priest who has tried to jump through the hoops necessary to still offer the Tridentine Mass can tell you. The other issue was justification itself, that the observance of proper rites designated by proper authorities was a justifying act. Our Confessions make clear that these passages are not an endorsement of liturgical diversity per se, they state that we indeed zealously guard and defend the mass, changing only that which is contrary to the Gospel, and that is legitimate for us to do so.

    CPW folks should consult AC XXIV and relevant (now there’s a word for you!) passages from the Apology to the AC before appropriating AC VII to a movement that in fact violates it.

  3. I’m happy to tell you that this post won an Aardie. Congratulations on a job well done, OSC.

  4. Idetrorce says:

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

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