In countless churches across America’s denominational landscape, contemporary worship practices have won the day in the name of cultural relevance and stylistic preference. But inherent in contemporary worship is a dangerous dichotomy of style and substance that if not remedied, can eviscerate the very heart of Christian orthodoxy.

Proponents of contemporary worship explain that they are not changing the substance, or content of Christian worship, but only updating the style, or form for modern tastes. Rock bands, production pop-tunes, TED Talk sermons, coffee-house vibes, and (fill-in-the latest worship trend here) are, the argument goes, just making Christianity relevant. While seeming harmless, this argument is built on a problematic divide between style and substance; a hidden transubstantiation of sorts that fosters a rejection of form and ritual in worship in favor of a supposed inner-substance, or feeling, induced by worship.

My contention is that this style-substance split is the real issue. To be sure, one could rightly critique the vague and vapid lyrics of some contemporary worship songs. But the problems go deeper into the messages communicated by the style, or form itself, which unintentionally drives Christians further curvatus in se (curved in on oneself) and away from the objective nature of Christian truth as extra nos (outside ourselves).

The style-substance division severs the deep ties between doctrine and practice recognized by the historic church. With worship practices now untethered, they easily end up running counter to the very content of the Christian faith that worship is meant to buttress. What must be recovered is the sense in which style is substance and how the Church has a distinct style and culture that transcend the tiresome debates over relevance and musical tastes.

While no Evangelical would readily admit to espousing the Roman Eucharistic position, practically the same principles are at work in their worship services as transubstantiation finds a new home not in the Lord’s Supper, but in their novel sacrament of “worship time.” In the Lord’s Supper, Rome says that the outward form of bread and wine remain the same while the inner substance change into the body and blood of Christ based on Aristotle’s philosophical categories of form (accidents) and content (substance).[1]

Contemporary worship proposes a similar separation between the outer form or style of worship and its inner content or substance. Worship leaders are the new priesthood who preside over not the Lord’s Table, but the Spirit’s Moving. The requisite praise band performs a mixture of songs leading the congregation through an emotional progression assumed to be the work of the Holy Spirit. The induced emotions are interpreted as evidence of the Spirit with the subjective inner feelings of the worshiper being the substance of worship that matters, while the outer style of music, words said, and rituals enacted are the incidental forms.

And herein lies the latent transubstantiation: the outward form of worship does not matter, as long as the substance, i.e. inner content of the heart feels right. In other words, low-church Protestants think that the outward form and style of worship does not affect the content and substance of what actually is communicated in worship. The same philosophical separation of form and substance used by Rome in transubstantiation is used by advocates of contemporary worship as justification for “relevant” styles and techniques in worship, while claiming to retain the historic substance of Christianity. Consider the following quotes:

Styles will always be controversial because they reflect personal preferences…. I believe that the answer to this conflict is to keep the substance central, and the styles secondary…. Worship…seems to me to be a heart question, not something tied to a style of worship.[2]

Or:

The substance of our worship is more important than the style or form of worship. …When we gather together, of course, one of the things that has been so problematic and has divided the churches so much are these so called worship wars — wars over organ or guitar; hymnal or overhead projection; quiet, still, cognitive, contemplative or loud, expressive, jubilant. God is concerned more about the heart of the worship, the substance of our worship, the heart of the worshiper, the content of our worship than He is about the style or the particular format or approach of our worship.[3]

Much of American Protestantism has uncritically accepted this reasoning, as a quick tour of their sanctuaries reveals. Out goes the anchoring presence of Christ’s altar, in comes the pulsating drum set. Out goes the logocentric pulpit, in comes the ephemeral plexi-glass podium. Out goes the preacher covering his own sinfulness with vestments, in comes the stylish pop-star wannabe. Out goes the communal permanent pew, in comes the individualistic stadium seating. Out goes the sensual tangibility of candles and incense, in comes the fantastical spotlights and fog machine. Out goes the pipe organ designed to accompany theologically rich congregational singing, in comes the color-coded mic stands for the performers. Out goes the memory-facilitating physical hymnal, in comes the transience of words projected on the screen. All of these changes are much more than just a style-swap.

Each change communicates theologically, but in the wrong direction as such changes tend to undercut historic orthodox doctrine about God, man and salvation. In the midst of the confusing messages sent by these practical changes, Christianity’s core content easily gets lost, until one is left to wonder what these church-goers are being catechized into in the long run. Perhaps it should not be a surprise that people leave the church if all they find there is an impotent imitation of the world with a vaguely religious second-rate rock concert and an “oh-by-the way” self-help pep-talk.

But the biggest swap of all, and the one that most uncovers the hidden transubstantiation, is the elevation of praise and worship to near sacramental status as evidenced in the large segment of the church service it consumes, and in the emotional crescendo it creates. This has not always been so; for the vast majority of church history, the climax of Christian worship was the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

But when this practice is jettisoned, something fills the vacuum, and for many churches contemporary worship has done exactly that. And so, in the most consequential trade-off, out goes Jesus’ objective and firm forgiveness of sins in the breaking of the bread, in comes the subjective and fleeting feelings conjured up with yet another repeat of some praise chorus. Not only do the liturgical practices of contemporary worship communicate this sacramental shift, but also the lyrics of many worship songs make this replacement crystal clear. One of CCLI’s top ranked worship songs, Pat Barrett’s “Build My Life”, includes a prayer of sorts:

Open up my eyes in wonder
Show me who You are and fill me
With Your heart and lead me (x4)

Where do Jesus’ disciples say their eyes were opened in wonder after the Resurrection? In the breaking of the bread.[4] Where does Christ show who he is and fill Christians with his heart? In the Eucharist. But not so in contemporary worship. Instead, that all takes place in the noumenal realm of the spirit during the emotional singing of songs. Take as another instance the “bridge” lyrics from Hillsong’s recent hit entitled “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)”:

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior (x3)

Where is this “presence of the Savior” to be found? Is it in the emotions of the heart? One is left to assume exactly that based on the song lyrics which give no sure word of where Christ is to be found. And so, instead of actually experiencing the Savior’s promised presence and having one’s faith “made stronger” through Christ’s forgiveness in the Lord’s Supper, it all becomes an abstract, disembodied, spiritual thing to emote about through song and experience ethereally in the mind, if one is lucky. What a disappointing replacement. The exchange is costly, and when held up to scrutiny, contemporary worship’s style-substance model breaks down in even more fundamental ways.

For one, the attempt to be “relevant” very quickly becomes irrelevant with rapid changes in cultural tastes. By the time something new makes its way into worship practices, it’s already old in the eyes of pop culture. Also, this paradigm is problematic in the subtle ways it spurns physicality and community. Focusing on the inner substance of worship encourages an individualistic “me and Jesus” attitude with each worshiper purportedly experiencing God in their own way, in a sort of back-door cultural relativism. By focusing exclusively on the “inner-mind” or “heart” in worship, a mind-body dualism emerges that runs counter to Christianity’s holistic view of the human person.

In his excellent book, Disruptive Witness, Alan Noble summarizes: “we have made communion with God a thing that happens inside our heads, not with our whole selves, including our bodies.”[5] The contemporary worship model also neglects the communio sanctorum that is the body of Christ, and replaces a community confessing the faith together in Word, Sacrament and song with atomistic hearts expressing their feelings.

The whole paradigm of style and substance presents a false dichotomy. To translate Marshall McCluhan’s famous phrase “the medium is the message” into the categories of worship, the style of worship is the substance of worship, or, the form of worship is the content of worship. Perhaps to nuance it slightly, the style and form that worship takes defines the boundaries of intended or unintended meaning communicated via that form. This perspective transcends the whole contemporary versus traditional “worship wars.” If form is content, then the real question is not stylistic preferences, but theology. And theology is not a matter of preference. This takes us above and beyond such superficial style arguments.

In McLuhanesque fashion then, the Church should acknowledge that current cultural styles and tastes easily distort the message of the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.”[6] Every word, act, style and gesture used in worship speaks theologically about the nature of God and humanity. Worship also sends messages about how one reaches God; who is active and who is passive in the process. The question for any form or style then is, does it intentionally and subliminally communicate historic, orthodox theology about God, man and salvation? Both traditional and contemporary styles come up lacking here as they are bound to a specific time and place and see humanity as the main actor in worship, and God as the recipient of worship.

The way out of this is to understand that the Church doesn’t play the cultural relevance and style game. Instead, the Church creates and sustains its own culture as evidenced in the longest-standing practices of historic, orthodox Christian worship with their distinct, sacred musical styles and other-worldly, high liturgical forms all saturated with Scripture. What makes the Church relevant is the fact that it is timeless, and has an unchanging message of truth that applies to all eras and places. This timeless approach communicates that God meets with his people through Word and Sacrament to forgive them in Jesus Christ. In historic worship, God is the one doing the work, not humans. This older understanding of the term worship is retained by the Confessional Lutheran and Orthodox traditions who still refer to their worship as the Divine Service and the Divine Liturgy respectively.

This is a clear reminder that worship is not about what one can do for God. Rather, worship is God’s service to humanity through the giving of his gifts in Word and Sacrament to the whole human person in all five senses. We hear God’s forgiveness in the absolution and in the Word preached. We touch God’s forgiveness in the waters of baptism and taste and see it in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. We smell God’s forgiveness in the pungent wine and the aromatic incense. This is better than any slick multi-media worship presentation or praise and worship session because there is a resonance and unity of form and content given to us by the Lord himself.

This holistic understanding of the unity of style and substance and the importance of the complete human in worship is finding its way into some segments of Evangelicalism, perhaps signs of the contemporary worship paradigm crumbling. Christians from many denominations are encountering the problems created by dichotomizing worship style and substance, and are rediscovering the catechetical power and theological content of forms by way of the church year, liturgical worship, rites, creeds, and sacred art.

Consider the recent success of Every Moment Holy: New Liturgies for Daily Life,[7] published by Rabbit Room Press, located in the very heart of the Contemporary Christian Music scene, Nashville, TN. This is a beautiful book filled with liturgies and written prayers for all aspects of life accompanied by meaningful art, geared to Evangelicals. Consider also the recent movement among Evangelicals to use a structured lectionary to guide Bible reading with the re-emergence of Robert Murray McCheyne’s Plan from the 19th century.[8]

Or take another example of the rediscovery of liturgical forms in worship with Andrew Peterson’s recent song “Is He Worthywhich is mostly Scripture quotations about Christ as portrayed in Revelation in a call and response format between the congregation and the leader – one of the oldest forms of Christian ritual. All of these are signs worthy of celebration, and perhaps hints for the future.

What Evangelicals and other low-church Protestants are discovering for the first time, historic Christian orthodoxy has been practicing for millennia and can offer great treasures to those beginning their newfound journey. In the search for something more real, relevant and lasting, there is a risk that the replacements for contemporary worship might be just as problematic or might lead people even further afield from historic doctrine and practice.

To avoid this danger, those familiar with the great inheritance of historic Christian worship need to share the roadmap into the land of rich, mature and refined liturgical worship. Historic creeds and confessions forged in the crucible of persecution and heresy. Hymns and melodies from all times and places that transcend cultural style and preference. Prayers for all occasions used since time immemorial. Rites and liturgies passed down from the Ancient Church that echo God’s own words back to himself. This is real. This is relevant. This is lasting. This is true Christian doctrine in practice.

The Ancient Church had a succinct way to summarize the importance of this unity of doctrine and practice: lex orandi, lex credendi.[9] Literally, the law of praying is the law of believing, or more aptly put, how you worship is how you end up believing. They realized long before the contemporary worship debates that theology and practice have a symbiotic relationship, and Christians should be just as concerned about orthodoxy as orthopraxy, because if you destroy one, the other is likely to follow.

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  1. It is not the purpose of this essay to critique transubstantiation; Rome is right to see the real presence of Christ in the sacrament, but perhaps their philosophical explanations of it leave a bit to be desired. The point is that in drawing parallels between the philosophical categories used by Rome and by Evangelicals, perhaps the problems of the contemporary worship paradigm become more clear.
  2. Peter Horne, “Expanding Worship – Substance & Style,” July 23, 2012, https://ozziepete.wordpress.com/2012/07/23/expanding-worship-substance-style.
  3. “What is More Important in Worship, Substance or Style?” Biblical Training, April 12, 2012, https://www.biblicaltraining.org/blog/curious-christian/4-10-2012/what-more-important-worship-substance-or-style.
  4. Luke 24:35, ESV.
  5. Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 130.
  6. Jude 1:3, ESV.
  7. A whole website of resources is offered in conjunction with this book at: https://www.everymomentholy.com/.
  8. Paul Carter, “5 Good Reasons to Use the RMM Bible Reading Plan in 2018,” December 1, 2017, https://ca.thegospelcoalition.org/columns/ad-fontes/5-good-reasons-use-rmm-bible-reading-plan-2018/.
  9. The phrase most likely originates with St. Prosper of Aquitaine in 5th century AD during the semi-Pelagian controversy. Brother Andre’ Marie, “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi,” April 18, 2009, https://catholicism.org/lex-orandi-lex-credendi.html.

 

Posted by Josh Pauling

Joshua Pauling teaches high school history, was educated at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University, and has written for Modern Reformation, Front Porch Republic, FORMA Journal, and Salvo Magazine. He is also head elder at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina. He and his wife Kristi have two children who are being classically homeschooled.

  • I’m sympathetic to the argument here, and I too think the pendulum should be swung back to more objective (and extra nos) forms of worship.

    But given the worldwide success of charismatic and pentecostal movements, I think the author could have afforded to be more charitable toward more overt emotional expression in worship. In addition to that, robust sermons, liturgical call-and-response, and the weekly culmination of worship in the Eucharist do not have to exist outside of the usage of contemporary worship music (provided the theology is good- some of the examples above were too easy to pick on). Indeed, we do all these very things at my church.

    A wider imagination and charity should cause us to ask: “are there any redeemable or even godly elements with respect to emotional expression in Christian worship? Are there aspects of charismatic churches that capture the heart of God that are not captured in the Divine Liturgy?” I think the answer to these questions is an easy ‘yes.’ Worship is first and foremost God’s Word to us in Christ, AND it is also our response to Him. The Reformers did not just recover the weekly Eucharist; they also recovered routine congregational and heart-felt singing.

    • Dave,
      Thank you for engaging with the article and for your kind and charitable reply. I offer a response in the same spirit of charity and learning from one another. I am sympathetic to your points, because I spent the first 20 years of my life in Evangelicalism and then a few years in the charismatic movement. I was a youth worship leader and played a role in bringing contemporary worship into the churches I attended. God certainly can use such things, and I am ever grateful to my wonderful parents for teaching and modeling a life of Christian faith and service and instilling in me so much of the Scriptures. I would not trade that upbringing for anything.

      You are correct, that contemporary worship can be coupled with liturgical elements. But my main thesis in the article is that such things are inherently going to clash with each other, even if the theology of the praise songs is good. They will inherently clash because of the style-substance split that is being assumed in incorporating such styles. Style is not neutral. I hesitated to even use the quotes from the praise songs I did because I was concerned that they would be dismissed as “low hanging fruit.” That is why I stated in the introduction to the piece, that my critique goes deeper than such “vague and vapid” lyrics, to the actual messages communicated by the style itself. Even when the theological content of worship songs is orthodox, there are competing messages being sent by the style itself that might actually be unintentionally undercutting the theological commitments. To your question of “are there any redeemable/godly elements with respect to emotional expression in Christian worship?” I would say two things.

      First, emotional expression is an integral part of liturgical worship as we use our bodies to express worship in more ways than usually even seen in an Evangelical/Charismatic worship service. Liturgical worship includes bowing, genuflecting, using the sign of the cross, standing or kneeling in reverence at appropriate times, praying, praising, etc. Perhaps one might say this is a bit more “refined” or “restrained” way of expressing emotions, but we must avoid the connotation that liturgical worship is emotionless. I would suggest that liturgical worship might be more likely to produce proper emotions based on truth because there is theological unity between the style and the substance of worship. In looking across the congregation on any given Sunday, I see a deep emotion being expressed throughout the liturgy: in confessing sins during absolution, in congregational singing with tears streaming down one’s face, or eyes closed while blaring out songs known by heart, or bowing at the name of blessed Trinity, or genuflecting before receiving the Eucharist. It is my personal opinion that a liturgical service provides just as many, if not more varied outlets for a theological expression of emotion than contemporary worship because a liturgical service is so participatory from beginning to end, and provides a unified and coherent message of doctrine and practice.

      Second, as you know, human emotions can be misleading and fluctuate from week to week and day to day. The question is where do we know Christ is for us? Can Christ be present in charismatic worship? Yes, of course God can use all sorts of means to accomplish his ends. But what about when I don’t “feel” him? This is the kicker, how do I know Christ is for me, even when I don’t feel him? This is why we must always look to the objective work of God outside ourselves (extra nos). We know Christ is for us in the ways he has promised; in the Word proclaimed, and in the Sacraments administered. This sustains us during the many ups and downs of life, and thus the church should devote itself to such objective means of grace, just as we see in Acts 2:42, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” This is liturgical worship in a nutshell – The Apostle’s Teaching = Word Proclaimed, The Fellowship = Koinonia/Communion Fellowship, The Breaking of Bread = Eucharist, The Prayers = liturgy.

      I could not agree more with your point about the Reformers recovery of congregational singing. Indeed this is a vital aspect of corporate worship, and is central to what happens in a liturgical worship service. Within the redemptive historical flow or structure of a liturgical service, there is ongoing congregational singing from beginning to end as it gives voice to our common confession and facilitates our proper responses to God’s gifts of Word and Sacrament throughout the service.Some songs used are nearly 2 millennia old, some are contemporary in the sense of being written during our lifetimes. But the key is the resonance between the style and the substance.

      Thank you again for engaging with the article and I very much appreciate this type of dialogue as it helps us all to learn from each other and be as charitable as possible. Pax Christi – JDP

    • Rev. Daniel Carlson

      The problem with CoWo is that the RESPONSE trumps the RECEPTION, and the reception is judged by how “spiritual” the response. So, theology and right doctrine have to be compromised because, according to Evangelicalism, doctrine is boring and dead and stifles the spirit. So, if the response has to be hyper-spiritual (who has the highest hands in the air and looks the most moved by the music), well then, sound theology has to take a back seat to cool cliches, punch lines, pastors who wear skinny jeans and strange choreography…all meant to get a…response.

      I’ve been to a church that is full-blown CoWo. I just stood there; didn’t wave my hands or shed tears or any of it, didn’t even really sing the music. I literally had people asking me if I was struggling with “my” faith or if I wanted to come up to the altar and give my life to Jesus…I told them I’m a lutheran pastor and I was immediately treated like I was demon possessed. Experiences…emotions…responses…we can’t judge the Spirit by these things and we can’t judge our faithfulness by them either. We don’t do it in matters of life (work, family, decisions about life, etc.) and we shouldn’t do it when it comes to the things of the Lord.

    • Dave,
      Thank you for engaging with the article and for your kind and charitable reply. I offer a response in the same spirit of charity and learning from one another. I am sympathetic to your points, because I spent the first 20 years of my life in Evangelicalism and then a few years in the charismatic movement. I was a youth worship leader and played a role in bringing contemporary worship into the churches I attended. God certainly can use such things, and I am ever grateful to my wonderful parents for teaching and modeling a life of Christian faith and service and instilling in me so much of the Scriptures. I would not trade that upbringing for anything.

      You are correct, that contemporary worship can be coupled with liturgical elements. But my main thesis in the article is that such things are inherently going to clash with each other, even if the theology of the praise songs is good. They will inherently clash because of the style-substance split that is being assumed in incorporating such styles. Style is not neutral. I hesitated to even use the quotes from the praise songs I did because I was concerned that they would be dismissed as “low hanging fruit.” That is why I stated in the introduction to the piece, that my critique goes deeper than such “vague and vapid” lyrics, to the actual messages communicated by the style itself. Even when the theological content of worship songs is orthodox, there are competing messages being sent by the style itself that might actually be unintentionally undercutting the theological commitments. To your question of “are there any redeemable/godly elements with respect to emotional expression in Christian worship?” I would say two things.

      First, emotional expression is an integral part of liturgical worship as we use our bodies to express worship in more ways than usually even seen in an Evangelical/Charismatic worship service. Liturgical worship includes bowing, genuflecting, using the sign of the cross, standing or kneeling in reverence at appropriate times, praying, praising, etc. Perhaps one might say this is a bit more “refined” or “restrained” way of expressing emotions, but we must avoid the connotation that liturgical worship is emotionless. I would suggest that liturgical worship might be more likely to produce proper emotions based on truth because there is theological unity between the style and the substance of worship. In looking across the congregation on any given Sunday, I see a deep emotion being expressed throughout the liturgy: in confessing sins during absolution, in congregational singing with tears streaming down one’s face, or eyes closed while blaring out songs known by heart, or bowing at the name of blessed Trinity, or genuflecting before receiving the Eucharist. It is my personal opinion that a liturgical service provides just as many, if not more varied outlets for a theological expression of emotion than contemporary worship because a liturgical service is so participatory from beginning to end, and provides a unified and coherent message of doctrine and practice.

      Second, as you know, human emotions can be misleading and fluctuate from week to week and day to day. The question is where do we know Christ is for us? Can Christ be present in charismatic worship? Yes, of course God can use all sorts of means to accomplish his ends. But what about when I don’t “feel” him? This is the kicker, how do I know Christ is for me, even when I don’t feel him? This is why we must always look to the objective work of God outside ourselves (extra nos). We know Christ is for us in the ways he has promised; in the Word proclaimed, and in the Sacraments administered. This sustains us during the many ups and downs of life, and thus the church should devote itself to such objective means of grace, just as we see in Acts 2:42, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” This is liturgical worship in a nutshell – the Apostle’s teaching is the Word proclaimed), the fellowship is koinonia/communion fellowship), the breaking of bread is the eucharist, and the prayers is the liturgy.

      I could not agree more with your point about the Reformers recovery of congregational singing. Indeed this is a vital aspect of corporate worship, and is central to what happens in a liturgical worship service. Within the redemptive historical flow or structure of a liturgical service, there is ongoing congregational singing from beginning to end as it gives voice to our common confession and facilitates our proper responses to God’s gifts of Word and Sacrament throughout the service.Some songs used are nearly 2 millennia old, some are contemporary in the sense of being written during our lifetimes. But the key is the resonance between the style and the substance. Thank you again for engaging with the article and I very much appreciate this type of dialogue as it helps us all to learn from each other and be as charitable as possible.

    • Thank you for engaging with the article and for your kind and charitable reply. I offer a response in the same spirit of charity and learning from one another. I am sympathetic to your points, because I spent the first 20 years of my life in Evangelicalism and then a few years in the charismatic movement. I was a youth worship leader and played a role in bringing contemporary worship into the churches I attended. God certainly can use such things, and I am ever grateful to my wonderful parents for teaching and modeling a life of Christian faith and service and instilling in me so much of the Scriptures. I would not trade that upbringing for anything.

      You are correct, that contemporary worship can be coupled with liturgical elements. But my main thesis in the article is that such things are inherently going to clash with each other, even if the theology of the praise songs is good. They will inherently clash because of the style-substance split that is being assumed in incorporating such styles. Style is not neutral. I hesitated to even use the quotes from the praise songs I did because I was concerned that they would be dismissed as “low hanging fruit.” That is why I stated in the introduction to the piece, that my critique goes deeper than such “vague and vapid” lyrics, to the actual messages communicated by the style itself. Even when the theological content of worship songs is orthodox, there are competing messages being sent by the style itself that might actually be unintentionally undercutting the theological commitments. To your question of “are there any redeemable/godly elements with respect to emotional expression in Christian worship” I would say two things.

      First, emotional expression is an integral part of liturgical worship as we use our bodies to express worship in more ways than usually even seen in an Evangelical/Charismatic worship service. Liturgical worship includes bowing, genuflecting, using the sign of the cross, standing or kneeling in reverence at appropriate times, praying, praising, etc. Perhaps one might say this is a bit more “refined” or “restrained” way of expressing emotions, but we must avoid the connotation that liturgical worship is emotionless. I would suggest that liturgical worship might be more likely to produce proper emotions based on truth because there is theological unity between the style and the substance of worship. In looking across the congregation on any given Sunday, I see a deep emotion being expressed throughout the liturgy: in confessing sins during absolution, in congregational singing with tears streaming down one’s face, or eyes closed while blaring out songs known by heart, or bowing at the name of blessed Trinity, or genuflecting before receiving the Eucharist. It is my personal opinion that a liturgical service provides just as many, if not more varied outlets for a theological expression of emotion than contemporary worship because a liturgical service is so participatory from beginning to end, and provides a unified and coherent message of doctrine and practice.

      Second, as you know, human emotions can be misleading and fluctuate from week to week and day to day. The question is where do we know Christ is for us? Can Christ be present in charismatic worship? Yes, of course God can use all sorts of means to accomplish his ends. But what about when I don’t “feel” him? This is the kicker, how do I know Christ is for me, even when I don’t feel him? This is why we must always look to the objective work of God outside ourselves (extra nos). We know Christ is for us in the ways he has promised; in the Word proclaimed, and in the Sacraments administered. This sustains us during the many ups and downs of life, and thus the church should devote itself to such objective means of grace, just as we see in Acts 2:42, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” This is liturgical worship in a nutshell; the Apostle’s teaching is the Word proclaimed, the fellowship is koinonia/communion fellowship, the breaking of bread is the eucharist, and the prayers is the liturgy.

      I could not agree more with your point about the Reformers recovery of congregational singing. Indeed this is a vital aspect of corporate worship, and is central to what happens in a liturgical worship service. Within the redemptive historical flow or structure of a liturgical service, there is ongoing congregational singing from beginning to end as it gives voice to our common confession and facilitates our proper responses to God’s gifts of Word and Sacrament throughout the service.Some songs used are nearly 2 millennia old, some are contemporary in the sense of being written during our lifetimes. But the key is the resonance between the style and the substance. Thank you again for engaging with the article and I very much appreciate this type of dialogue as it helps us all to learn from each other and be as charitable as possible.

  • Pingback: Contemporary worship and substance | Thoughts from the Catholic Cave()

  • littlemas2

    I have to agree with Dave on his comments and add the question that always seemed to be missed when critiquing something new in favor of the old, namely, “Why did the new thing come about?”

    I actual do enjoy reviving some of the older traditions and using older liturgical forms in our worship, but when we do it, it is fresh and new and purposeful. Many of the churches that used the older forms have died or are dying. They are doing so because they have failed to give life to their congregants. I have met many people who have gone to church all their lives who do not know the Lord and do not know the meaning of any of the forms. I know a number of professional pastors who can lead a service really well but who do not seem to have any relationship with the Lord.
    I think many people rejected the old forms because they did not see any life in the churches where those forms were being practiced.

    Some newer churches were started by people who preached the gospel, lead people to Jesus, and started without ever even knowing the older forms of worship. God does this in amazing ways. These new churches and movements will eventually either form their own new liturgical traditions and they will be able to mine the rich traditions of the church to incorporate forms that have been used by many before them.

    Those churches old or new, traditional or contemporary, that don’t lead their congregants into meaningful and deep communion with God will not bear fruit.

    • Thank you for your reply and thoughtful reflections. I appreciate you engagement with the ideas contained in my article, and I am sympathetic to your points because I have been involved in several churches that use newer forms in worship throughout my life and was a worship leader during my college years. Can God use such things? Certainly! I’ve been a part of that. God can use all sorts of things to accomplish his purposes. My point though, is not which forms can God use, but which forms most faithfully line up theologically with how God works salvation for us. The main points I am trying to make in the article is that it is not ultimately about “old or new” or “traditional or contemporary.” It is not about what feels fresh or new or what my preference of music is. This is where the debate usually gets bogged down. All of those debates miss the deeper issue which is theology. The real question in worship is which forms communicate accurate, orthodox theology about God, man and salvation. My contention is that both contemporary and traditional worship come up lacking here as they inherently by the forms themselves, send messages that run up against historic Christian doctrine. Liturgical worship is a whole separate option that is timeless and from the Church’s own culture and tradition, not bound by any time or place. Liturgical worship uses ancient songs and new songs (meaning written by people still alive).

      I concur, that there are people in church that do not know the mean of any of the forms. The same could be said for many people who go to churches with contemporary worship forms. Many people just go to those churches as spectators who do not know the meaning of any of those forms either. That is my point; that we must reflect on the forms used in worship and consider which forms actually communicate the Gospel most faithfully. All worship forms communicate something inherently by their very use. Worship forms are not neutral. My contention is that liturgical worship is designed to do communicate the Gospel more faithfully because it is the inheritance of the Church that is saturated with God’s life-giving Word, and because it delivers to us God’s forgiveness in the means of grace. While other forms may seem fresh and exciting, the real question is where do I know God is present for me. Liturgical worship is designed to deliver God “for us” in Word and Sacrament objectively. This is life. Where is meaningful and deep communion with God to be found? How do churches lead their congregants into communion with God? By giving them the Word and the Lord’s Supper (communion). Liturgical worship keeps Christians connected to those life-giving, fruit-bearing means of grace each week.

      Thank you again for your charitable and thoughtful reply. I offer this in the same spirit of charity and respect.

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