Since my ordination in May, I have been charged by the leadership of Christ’s Greenfield Lutheran Church (Gilbert, AZ) to explore ways that we might plant new works in the Valley of the Sun. This has led me to seek out pastors in our network to find out what they’re doing in mission, and to seek ways that we might be able to advance the gospel through collaborative projects. In getting to know our neighboring Lutheran churches, I’ve been greatly blessed! … but also discouraged.
One of the areas that creates tension between us is our approach to worship. Some churches have such a strong dedication to the classical forms of liturgy that they see contemporary expressions as inherently wrong – to the point that some of these traditional churches want nothing to do with partnering with the contemporary ones. Equally distressing are the churches that are so enamored with the positive reviews and growing numbers of contemporary churches that they have abandoned substantial principles and practices that are foundational to classical Christianity (and, therefore, Lutheranism). They look at churches dedicated to traditions as hopelessly out of date, and destined for a death-by-attrition, as the old-school believers eventually pass away, their churches and styles with them.
This isn’t just a Valley of the Sun issue. It is a huge issue for the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod denomination. Already this issue has divided us relationally. It threatens to divide us institutionally if we can’t find a way to lovingly coexist moving forward.
Worship at Christ’s Greenfield
Without patting ourselves on the back too briskly, I do want to point out that … well, we seem to be doing something right. I think it looks like this:
Traditional Worship: At our traditional worship services, there are some strong commitments to the most important principles of corporate, Christian worship. Yes, we sing mostly hymnody, and most often with organ accompaniment. Yes, we make much of the Lutheran Service Book (readings, chanting, sitting and standing).
But this isn’t the substance of our traditional worship. What is important is our emphasis on the Word (readings, preaching), our allegiance to the Lord’s Supper, our practice of Absolution, our commitment to shared prayer, and our understanding of the need for these things to be placed in their appropriate narrative order. Like the prophet’s experience in Isaiah 6, we see the Lord, are humbled to repent, hear the proclamation of forgiveness, are made ready for the hearing of the Word, and are given opportunity to offer ourselves to our God and His call.
Many traditional worship services I’ve visited recently remind me of this verse: These people approach me with their speeches to honor me with lip-service–yet their hearts are far from me, and human rules direct their worship of me.” (Isaiah 29:13). I’m sure this happens in pockets at CGLCS, but overall I believe we are a church of people whose hearts are close to the Lord, and that we are entering into worship not just by formula, but by deeply thankful intention.
Contemporary Worship: Over in the Life Center, there are also some strong commitments. We sing songs that are more representative of our cultural norms and context. There is more casualness in appearance (no robes, no altar) and actions (more clapping, hand-raising, laughter).
But this isn’t the substance of our contemporary worship. What is important is our emphasis on the Word (readings, preaching), our allegiance to the Lord’s Supper, our practice of Absolution, our commitment to shared prayer, and our understanding of the need for these things to be placed in their appropriate narrative order. Like the prophet’s experience in Isaiah 6, we see the Lord, are humbled to repent, hear the proclamation of forgiveness, are made ready for the hearing of the Word, and are given opportunity to offer ourselves to our God and His call. (See what I did there?)
Many contemporary worship services I’ve visited recently remind me of the story of Aaron, the people of Israel, and the golden calf. The people love what they love, and will clamor for it, even if it’s not appropriate. The measure of “good worship” becomes their enjoyment, not God’s prescriptions. “Confessing sins? Long scripture readings? Standing for prayer? These are uncomfortable, and bad theater!” I’m sure there are a few at CGLCS who hope that our contemporary services move away from our moorings, and become like the Jesus infomercials of modern Evangelicalism … but overall I believe we are a church of people whose hearts are close to the Lord, and that we are entering into worship not just out of personal preference, but out of thankful obedience to God, and a desire to please him in all that we do.
What CGLCS is getting right: Our traditional and contemporary services are the same in all the most important ways. This allows us to go back and forth, and still be a part of the same worshiping community. It also anchors
What CGLCS needs to be cautious about: We can never adopt an animosity toward what is going on in the other worship venue. Appreciate your preference, yes … but the day we start lobbying for our preference alone, and condemn the practices of our brothers and sisters across the courtyard, is the day we get infected with the poison that is crippling our denomination.
How CGLCS can help change the world! Rather than succumb to our propensity to divide, we need to shine as an example to the broader Christian and Lutheran communities of how alternative worship styles can remain grounded, compliment one another, and bear much fruit. If we can do it at 425 N. Greenfield Rd. in Gilbert, perhaps we can do it across the country? I believe so.
(This article was originally published via the Christ’s Greenfield Lutheran Church Blog.)