Lenten frustration

If you’ve read these scribblings for any length of time, you know that the author is not a fan of the Contemporary Praise and Worship craze that swept the nation in the last two decades and has firmly embedded itself in the LCMS.

My disdain for the style is really not personal, and it’s not about style, per se. It is, and always has been, about substance. My contention is that, while I don’t believe it is entirely out of the realm of possibility for it to be done in a doctrinally sound and reverent way, I have yet to see it. That doesn’t even mean it’s never been done, but simply that I haven’t witnessed it.

The contemporary craze tends to demonstrate a wanton abandonment of traditional worship elements and practice without much in the way of legitimate justification for it. Among those things that have been abandoned, of course, are the rich hymn texts that the Church has generated over the centuries (including some very fine contributions from the last 40 years–yes, these are contemporary texts, but since “style” drives the bus these are not considered because they are hymnic in style). Cast aside as well is any notion of a transcendent liturgy, the theology that confesses that God is indeed doing something in the Divine Service, as a whole and in the several elements of it.

What strikes me at the moment is the surrender of the church year. I’m not aware of much in the way of seasonal contemporary music. Christmas and Easter are certainly represented. Yet I’ve not heard much contemporary praise and worship music germane to the seasons of preparation–Advent and Lent. I don’t know that much exists (there is, of course, the couple of songs I’ve heard about the Advent wreath, singing about the lighting of the candles and how each one means that Christmas is nearer; they’re pretty lame, in my view). What’s more, then, the contemporary style worship during these seasons, even if the congregation breaks out the violet paraments, is really no different than the rest of the year. The same songs are sung. The same generic praises of the greatness of God are extolled. The difference is restricted to the colors draped over the furniture and the pastor, should he choose to vest.

This first hit me some years ago when I served as a guest preacher to a congregation. It was Advent I. The texts were intensely eschatological. My sermon was as well. The service? Not a bit. It was a medley of the same praise choruses you would expect to find during the ordinary time. I remember thinking as the service went on what a shame this was. After all, as Christians we are an eschatological people. We look for the culmination of all things. We wait expectantly for it, praying for God to bring things to completion and make all things new. The church calendar would have us intentionally focus on that hope that Sunday. And yet the contemporary agenda, whether intentionally or not, prevented it.

I had a similar, albeit more pointed, experience this past Sunday. This congregation has a contemporary service that predates my call to serve them. I get no input into its planning. In my sermon I would remind the people that Lent is a penitential season. In part that means that our worship is different for this time. We omit the hymn of praise; we “bury” the alleluia.

My sermon was bookended by songs in which multiple “alleluias” were prominent in the refrains. I wonder if anyone caught the disconnect. I wonder if anyone cared.

The church year did not drop to us from heaven, yet it serves a very real purpose. It serves the proclamation of the Gospel. It points us to Christ and his life and work. It teaches and reinforces to us our sinfulness, our need for Christ to save us, and the fact that he has accomplished that salvation and will one day return to give us resurrection and usher us into his new creation.

I’m really still working on my thoughts about this, but at the moment they’re running somewhere along the line of, “Better no church year at all than trite lip service to it.” That is, if you really don’t care to follow the church calendar, then don’t. Either it’s important or it’s not. Either you do it or you don’t. Don’t just play at it. Don’t simply go half way. Embrace it or don’t, but be honest about it.


6 Responses to Lenten frustration

  1. Brian says:

    Interesting comments re: the church year.

    I certainly agree regarding churches needing to have a more firmer liturgical conscience. When the narrative that sets the rythmn of the church worship is jettisoned, you get replacement feasts and festivals such as Mother’s Day and Pastor Appreciation Day, etc. and that’s no replacement at all.

    Regarding the all or nothing, well, I think it would depend on how you define “all of the church year”. Even as a Lutheran myself, I’m more worried about the Seasons (and then the minor fesitvals) being lost than if a congregation corporately remembers May 7th, the commemoration of CFW Walther, for instance.

    By the way, I ran across your blog in the wordpress “tag” referrer section. Anyway, good comments.

  2. OSC says:

    Thanks, that’s a helpful distinction. I don’t think every saint’s day needs to be commemorated. I am talking mostly about the liturgical seasons, the major feasts and festivals, and then whichever among the minors a congregation might find edifying. My contention is if you “do” Lent, then really do it. Don’t just play at it. If Advent, then do Advent. And if we “do” the liturgical calendar, then let’s really embrace it. The practices each season entails (indeed, even the lectionary, the verses, the collects, etc.) serve to point to Christ in a different way.

    Too often it seems to be the case that the liturgical year merely means changing the paraments and changing little else. We gear up for Christmas and Easter without their respective preparatory seasons. And we miss out.

    In the same way that Preus’ Just Words identifies different facets of the same proclamation of Christ, so the liturgical calendar helps to focus us on the different facets of the person and work of Christ and our relationship to God as his baptized people. We should be shamelessly using such helpful tools to proclaim the whole counsel of God.

  3. anokihaish says:

    A culture that has lost any meaningful narrative and throws together whatever steams of consciousness that happen to run that day? No. [/sarcasm]

    The best that postmodernity offers is the opportunity for a community to have a compelling metanarrative. Perhaps a Lenten discipline would be to call out the disjunction in action and point at why it violates any compelling narrative for life. Repent and all that. You wanna sing “happy” stuff? Hammer on the law. And POINT OUT the fact the music seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the text. And that faith without the text of Scripture is dumb. Go bowling. Join the Unitarians. Do something else. I mean, you, at that point in the service, have all the power (humanly speaking) to bring up the disjointed nature of CPW, that Jesus didn’t die to make me happy, he died that I might die to sin and rose that I might live. That’s our metanarrative. Not Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord (um, cause, um, he did stuff). Call it out, since you’re not scripting, call it out. Repent. At most, you’re going to piss people off. Most people don’t like to have their gods die in the face.

  4. Brian says:

    OSC, you said, “Too often it seems to be the case that the liturgical year merely means changing the paraments and changing little else. We gear up for Christmas and Easter without their respective preparatory seasons. And we miss out.

    Precisely. And no make things worse, the individual service often seems just as disjointed and fragmented.

    Anokihaish, I’m not sure exactly what your getting at here. Cab you help me out? What do you mean by “the best that postmodernity offers is the opportunity for a community to have a compelling metanarrative” and how a Lenten discipline would “call out the disjunction in action and point at why it violates any compelling narrative for life“?

  5. anokihaish says:

    I had diarrhea of the fingers earlier.

    How about that?

    The postmodern movement as centered on the community gives what/whichever community the “right” as it were to determine the story that controls the community’s behavior. The story of a “Christian” / Lutheran Church is supposedly centered on the birth/life/death/resurrection/resurrected life of Jesus. How does that story in it’s ongoing nature mean/shape/guide/direct anything when it is stuck on a particular part of the story? (i.e. a bad misapplication of Calvin for example – expressing the sovereignty of God in singing alleluia a million times). The baby boom is still a thoroughly modern mindset, with no compelling narrative directing anything, just the lust of (self)discovery. And CPW is still baby boom phenomena, even if it has jumped a generation.

    The point then being OSC gets to preach. PREACH.The lenten discipline would instead of coming up with crafty means of explicating the text for the sake of some textual exposition that’s sandwiched as a non sequitor between the high carb dough of CPW, you take the text and ask whether Scripture is saying something else than what the music does – here is the meat. Especially in a lent that doesn’t seem very lentil (or lent like, if you prefer). Now, of course, the point where I part ways is that “same saying” by the same verba, even if it communicates nothing to the hearer of the day. That means taking on the liturgy you like as much as the liturgy you don’t. (e.g. I am sinful and unclean well, sure, of course I am because that’s what I say every week, but, no, actually, I’m a decent chap who bathed – give me more than that, a real service that engages me as a whole human being in repentance, not just my lips). Preach. Call it out. That would be the Lenten discipline. Don’t engage me for 30 seconds with a trite confession to mumble through, and a nice declarative statement that while true and necessary and good and proper and yadda yadda, does not actually deal with either the nature of my rebellion or the consequence it has had on the lives of those around me (or myself). Sorry, that was a run on sentence, but I’m tired and not going to correct it.

    Put back kneelers in churches. Walk out of church to the man who beats his wife and tell him that Jesus loves him and you as a church won’t let him do that anymore. Bow heads to beg mercy, and then go do mercy. As a church. Not just little bits and pieces… sigh… I have my own blog, sorry to blogjack.

  6. Brian Davis says:

    How does that story in it’s ongoing nature mean/shape/guide/direct anything when it is stuck on a particular part of the story?

    I promised myself I wouldn’t say that this is one of Lutheranism’s big hang-ups so I won’t say it.

    I think I get the rest of you comment(s).

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