Misplacing Theology: Why style matters

Gene Veith points out an interesting article by Matthew Sigler, a “ThD candidate in liturgical studies at Boston University where his work has focused on the history of Methodist worship as well as lyrical theology. In addition to being a student, he has served for the past twelve years as a music minister in the church.”

In the article, Sigler – a charismatic – bemoans the loss of the connection between charismatic theology and the music in mainline protestantism. He examines its roots and why “praise and worship music” exists.

This is interesting for a confessional Lutheran as well. Some key sections from the article:

Many forget (or don’t know) that “contemporary” worship was inextricably linked to the Charismatic Movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. This connection forged a musical style that was rooted in a particular understanding of the Spirit in worship. Specifically, the singing of praise and worship songs was understood sacramentally. God was uniquely encountered, by the Spirit, in congregational singing.

I find this statement interesting, as we so adamantly try to make the assertion that contemporary worship can be removed from its heterodox context and welded to our orthodox theology. This reminds me of the metaphor from “The Fire and the Staff” where Klemet Preus describes contemporary worship as serving wine of the highest quality in foam cups. Contemporary worship is designed to replace the sacraments of the altar and font with the sacrament of “experience”.

…a premium was placed on intimacy with Jesus in congregational singing. This emphasis was largely due to the influence of John Wimber and the Vineyard movement of the late 1970’s and 1980’s. Though he was not the first to say so, Wimber emphasized that the Church needed to sing songs “to God” and not “about God.” Lyrically, this was manifest in the frequent use of the personal pronoun, “I.” Just scan through the catalogue of songs published by Vineyard Music during the 1980’s and see how many of them emphasize the importance of the individual engaging the second Person of the Trinity in the lyrics. While the intimacy motif wasn’t new in the Church, it was an important development in what would become known as “contemporary worship.”

The use of “I” and a focus on intimacy is usually not criticized except in its most egregious forms, usually as a “love song to Jesus”. However, it has theological implications. Singing songs “to God” instead of “about God” is a concise way of expressing the difference. Look at the core Lutheran hymns, “A mighty fortress is our God”, “Thy strong Word did cleave the darkness”, et cetera. The vast majority of them are talking about God. Lutheran theology describes a God who works through means to bring us salvation. He works through bread and wine and water to deliver salvation to us. He proclaims the Gospel in His Word. So, in a way, we also view music sacramentally, however it is God’s Word proclaimed that works faith, not our experience toward God that saves.

During the 1990’s many mainline congregations began to import the songs, sounds, and some of the sights (like hand raising and clapping) of the praise and worship style. In many cases, what got lost was the robust pneumatology behind this approach to worship. In other words, many mainline churches brought the form, but didn’t bring the theology of praise and worship into their congregations. This is a gross generalization, but I think it explains some of the dislocation that occurred during the “worship wars” of the 1990’s. The result was that the songs themselves and the style itself became the focus. Particularly in mainline congregations influenced by the Church Growth Movement, “contemporary worship” was a technique for reaching out—the concept of “praise and worship” as sacramental/encounter was diluted at best.

Thank goodness for that. Although we seem to be short-sighted in some ways, so sacramental/encounter theology creeps in unexpectedly on occasion. Especially when our parishioners are constantly exposed to the sacramental/encounter theology in the rest of life alongside the contemporary music, we shouldn’t be surprised when they import that into Lutheran worship seeing that the music is the same.

Contemporary-styled congregations would do well to examine their own understanding of the Spirit’s activity in each part of the service. Regardless of how local congregations understand the role of the Spirit in worship, all congregations can benefit from a perspective that considers every facet of the service as part of our worship to God.

This has a different meaning for the Lutheran. If we are in a congregation which is pursuing “contemporary” worship, we should think hard about what we are doing. We are importing musical style which have clear heterodox theological roots and trying to shoehorn them into an orthodox theological framework. But why bother? We have a beautiful heritage of music, texts, and an approach to musical expression which has arisen from our theology. Let’s use that!

At a bare minimum, we should take from this article another nail in the coffin of the belief that there is no or little relationship between style and doctrine. There are very clear links, and we should be very attune to this. When a practices arises from a doctrine and we import the practice, we should expect confusion in our doctrine at best and increasing resemblance to the originating doctrine at worst.

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