Worship is Preaching

Below is an email I sent to the WELS Hymnal Committee:

Thank you for your patient work on the new hymnal. You have one of those impossible tasks wherein you will displease perhaps the bulk of people regardless of the result. Yet, it is a good work, and God will bless faithful work.

I wanted to add some lay comments to the recent discussion of variety in worship (http://www.welshymnal.com/blog/feedback/rites-variety). It is a difficult thing to balance, but I would encourage you to lean towards consistency.

The practical concerns of the ability of young, old, and guests to grasp a consistent service have been beautifully expressed by Rev. Schroeder. I’d like to add a theological concern: worship is preaching.

One of the problems with Pop American Christianity is the search for that which is new and exciting. Everyone wants to find a new approach to scripture, a new and exciting way to read the bible. This is reflected in their theology, which all too often strays into the heresy of enthusiasm, and their practice, which is typified by driving rhythms and emotional appeals. Not a new problem, of course. Luther speaks of them as “the fickle and fastidious spirits who rush in like unclean swine without faith or reason, and who delight only in novelty and tire of it as quickly, when it has worn off. Such people are a nuisance even in other affairs, but in spiritual matters, they are absolutely unbearable.”

Yet with worship, we all too often fall in the same hole. We constantly look for new rites, new settings, new prayers, new lectionaries, et cetera. This can come dangerously close to being a search for novelty and innovation, and sometimes results in importing the practice — and unintentionally the theology — of those who are really good at novelty (and heresy).

I’ve heard it said that when one reads the sermons of Luther and the other Lutheran fathers, one can get frustrated by the lack of Gospel. Yet, the reason given for this is the amount of gospel in worship itself. Every collect, exhortation, and hymn — indeed, every part of the ordinary and propers — beautifully preach Christ crucified, for you.

When pastor so-and-so prays the collect, he doesn’t have to worry about the theological soundness of something he wrote last week. The congregation doesn’t have to spend time analyzing what he wrote. He and the congregation can simply pray, knowing that these beautiful words have withstood the test of time, that they have been vetted by generations before us. Pastor so-and-so ceases to be important. The liturgy places him back in his preaching office, wherein he teaches and expounds the Word as he is called. He doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel every service. He simply uses the beautiful wheel which has been passed down through the ages. Each generation adds a bit of polish to this wheel, one adding a little here, one removing a little there, keeping it fresh but still delivering God’s good gifts to us in need of them.

I once heard a pastor describe the liturgy as learning to die. That, as we get older and approach death, we remember the beautiful collects, hymns, and other poetry of worship, and this keeps us strong in our faith. Life isn’t variety. It is a simple walk through our daily callings, sometimes doing the same thing day in, day out for the rest of our lives. Worship reflects this.

During some periods of our lives, we find life exciting and exhilarating. Likewise, we sometimes find worship exciting, during the feast of Easter, or perhaps even just realizing the incredible beauty and awe of watching heaven and earth meet in the sacraments. However, during other times of our lives we get up in the morning and do the same things we did the day before and will do the next day. We do the same thing with worship. “Our father, who art in heaven…”. Same old words. Both times are equally blessed, and equally gifts from God. And frequently, the difference is merely perspective.

My state before God changed in baptism. I was there brought into his family, given new life, a new Adam, and a new deadly enemy. My state will change one more time, in death. Then, I will lose the old Adam and strife with the enemy. In between, what I need doesn’t change. I still need God’s strong Word which bespeaks me righteous, delivered to me via the mouth of the pastor and in bread and wine. The consistency of worship should reflect this.

I will submit that when we search for the new, we should repent and humbly rejoice in the old. God’s Word is not new.

Yes, there is a time for careful, thoughtful, prayerful consideration of changes to our liturgies. They are indeed adiaphora. Change is not bad, as long as it is change for the better and not change for change.

I hope to see a return to much of the beauty of the past. I would personally love to see a rediscovery of the beautiful art of chant. I would love to see an emphasis on weekly communion. I would love to see the historic festival liturgies dusted off and used once again, the Tridium for example. I’d love to see the daily offices restored: Compline, Vespers, Evening Prayer, Matins, Morning Prayer (as distinct liturgies). I’d love to see a strong one year lectionary.

But ultimately, I hope to see a restoration of consistency in worship. Week in, week out, worshiping God with the same words and the same setting.

I’d suggest for serious consideration, dropping most of the divine service settings. Alternative service settings, Divine Services from the Supplement, Service of the Word, et cetera. Create one, consistent liturgy. Base it off of the Common Service. Call it Divine Service. Focus on one, beautiful, simple setting of this liturgy. Then, add variety in the propers, including restoring the propers which CW didn’t include. And focus on clear, complete rubrics.

Then work on variations on this for specific festivals. A liturgy for Easter with is used every year, for example. There are enough feast days and festivals in the church year that they do a splendid job of keeping monotony from setting in. Not large variations. But specific things which are special and saved for those days.

I think that this can result in a consistent worship which we can all grasp and learn. Where WELS laymen who travel will find familiar worship each Sunday. Where we are united around a common doctrine and practice which reflects this doctrine. Where every sinner can recall the words of confession and absolution. Where we are unified in doctrine and practice.

The result would hopefully be worship which consistently preaches Christ crucified without striving for novelty or entertainment.

I am but a young layman who is learning humility. Clearly I haven’t learned the lesson well enough to refrain from wanting input on this project. But I hope that at least some of this will spark some thought and discussion. Feel free to jettison the rest.

In Christ Alone,
~William Johnston

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