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.