For your consideration as we hopefully move Toward Concordia in Christ at Worship…
Mother spends quite a bit of time preparing nutritious and well-balanced meals for her family. Perhaps she maps out her weekly meals in advance. One night the main course for dinner happens to be beef stew. She sets the dinner table and calls the family into the kitchen to sit down. And then it starts.
"Beef stew again? Didn't we have that, like, two weeks ago? I'm not going to eat that. I want pizza!" So whines the teenage son.
The daughter in middle school follows suit. "Mommy, we haven't had macaroni and cheese in a while. Let's have that instead."
"Honey, I know you put a lot of effort into this meal, but I've been thinking about steak all day. Why don't I fire up the grill and make something different?" So much for a supportive husband.
Finally, the son in elementary school blurts out, "I want a hot dog!"
Imagine how the wife and mother who endured such requests must feel! How much more unappreciative could her family be? She's not shown the respect that a loving wife and mother should receive; she's being treated like a short order cook! And if she actually gave in to these requests, there goes the valuable — and even symbolic — family practice of sharing a meal together around the dinner table!
Sadly, this scenario plays itself out in the church on an all-too-frequent basis. Many congregations, no doubt with the best of intentions in mind, have treated weekly worship as if there's a short-order cook in charge, ready to cater a service that fits the desires of every want and whim within the congregation. One of America's fastest growing churches, Saddleback Community Church, offers services in nearly every flavor imaginable at its Lake Forest campus. Its main worship center hosts the main services with contemporary music six times over the course of a weekend. Then there's a service for 20- and 30-somethings called "Fuel," held three different times on Sunday evenings. A service called "Overdrive" is offered three times each weekend and features guitar-driven rock that's meant to feel like a live concert. "Praise" is a service with gospel music held twice on Sunday mornings. The "Tarrace Cafe" service invites you to bring your coffee and relax in an outdoor venue during one of six possible service times. Finally, there is (you guessed it) one lone service each Sunday morning called "Traditions" that offers a small church feel with traditional hymns and choruses.
And it's not just the megachurches that engage in this kind of thinking. Even substantially smaller churches feel the pressure to cater to differing preferences from different demographic groups. A few months ago, I asked my friends on Facebook to check out their local phone book and share any unusual names that churches gave to their weekly services. Among the examples cited, one Lutheran church (of another denomination) advertised three weekly services, called "Contemporary," "Praise and Worship," and "Alternative/Edgy." Much more common is the congregation that describes one or more of its weekend services as "traditional" and the rest as "contemporary."
A common assumption among many churches and Christians today is that people's personal preferences should play a major role in determining worship, even if it means that a congregation offers significantly different styles of worship at different times to accommodate those preferences. In fact, it is so common that the idea of dividing a congregation by stylistic preferences – e.g. a "traditional" service and "contemporary" service – is hardly challenged anymore. I recall a conversation several years ago with another WELS pastor about this very issue. When I asked if he was concerned that his church's two styles of worship might be dividing his people into two "congregations," he said, "They're already divided, so it really isn't a problem."
I know that my brothers in the ministry who use more than one type of service on any given weekend do so with the best of intentions. But, if I may be honest with my concerns, good intentions do not necessarily translate into wise practices. The same apostle Paul who (likely quoting a motto among the Corinthians) said, "Everything is permissible," also went on to say, "But not everything is beneficial," and, "Not everything is constructive" (1 Corinthians 10:23).
The whole matter of "contemporary worship" and styles of worship in general is a multi-faceted discussion. The terminology itself is quite vague. What are "traditional worship" and "contemporary worship"? Is a liturgical service with piano, guitar, woodwinds and percussion "contemporary"? To some, yes, and to others, no. If the typical Protestant praise service outline would be done with organ and standard Christian hymnody, is that "traditional"? Again, depending on whom you're talking to, the answer could be yes or no. An even greater consideration is that forms of worship are built around theology; we cannot simply assume that every form will be a good vehicle for Lutheran worship. We must also consider that styles of music are not neutral; some styles will carry law and gospel texts well, while others will get in the way of the text.
All of the preceding concerns deserve further discussion and consideration. But the factor I want to consider in this post is the practice of offering multiple services that intentionally differ in style in order to appeal to the preferences of worshippers. To be sure, there are other reasons why worship styles change: the season of the church year (I hope your Christmas Day service doesn't feel like your Good Friday service!), the culture being served (e.g. is it "high context" or "low context"), the time of day (Matins and Vespers come from the same roots but have deliberately distinct tones from one another), or the particular musicians available at a specific congregation on a given Sunday. All of these have the potential to affect worship, but none of them are matters of personal preference.
So if other factors allow for a variety of styles within worship, why all the concern about personal preference? My concern is that the practice of dividing a congregation based on personal preferences such as musical styles does not reflect the spirit of unity that Scripture calls us to have. Personal preferences were a serious problem among the ancient Corinthians. Their preferences were not musical, but pastoral. They took pride in the pastors they identified themselves with, and their sinful pride was dividing them rather than uniting them.
I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, "I follow Paul"; another, "I follow Apollos"; another, "I follow Cephas"; still another, "I follow Christ."
Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don't remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power (1 Corinthians 1:10-17).
No doubt Peter, Paul, and Apollos had different personalities and other distinguishing traits that caused some people to identify with one man more than another. But that was no reason for public divisions within the congregation. Paul wanted the Corinthians to be a united church, not a divided church. He didn't suggest, for example, that the Peter fan club meet at 8:00 a.m., the Apollosites meet at 9:30 a.m., and the followers of Paul at 11:00 a.m. I suppose he could have divided them into groups to accommodate their preferences, and that would have solved the problem on the surface. But it would not have solved the real problem. In fact, it would have made the real problem more prevalent. Publicly dividing them by personal preferences would hardly reflect the spirit of unity Paul mentions elsewhere in the same letter.
The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body (1 Corinthians 12:12-20).
Christians were never meant to be "cookie cutters" of one another. Paul describes the church as a body. We have many members with different backgrounds, abilities, contributions, and perspectives. That's as it should be. So it should come as no surprise that people will have different likes and dislikes. And that's fine—unless we allow it to divide us.
I have already mentioned that not every form of worship is built on Lutheran theology, and not every musical style is equipped to carry the freight of a law-and-gospel message. That's an important discussion that we need to consider and not ignore. But if there are forms and styles that are equally suitable, why would we use them to divide a congregation? Why not offer a service that brings together the best of historic and modern music, the best cultural contributions among ethnic groups, the best of traditional liturgical patterns along with new developments that properly proclaim our theology—in other words, a service that unites believers together rather than divides them by preferences? Wouldn't that kind of service avoid the public divisions based on personal preferences that Saint Paul found so disturbing? Wouldn't such a service exemplify the kind of unity that he wanted his congregations to exhibit? And wouldn't such a service teach us to appreciate the wide array of contributions from saints past and present, from around the globe and in our own midst?
Sometimes we can become so used to something that we aren't inclined to challenge it or see it as a problem. Offering multiple worship styles within a congregation has become so commonplace that it is hardly challenged anymore. But maybe it's time we challenge that conventional wisdom. And maybe it's time we stop dividing our people by personal preferences and start uniting them, with all their differences, together as one body, perfectly united by "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Ephesians 4:5).