The dichotomy between traditional and contemporary worship is false and a horrible distinction! Worship is first about the gifts God gives his people in Word and Sacrament, and secondly, our thanksgiving for such amazing gifts. Content influences context, and thereby drives the conduct of worship. Put another way, God’s Word is the foundation of worship. Worship style is to be reflective of God’s Word, and mindful of the available context. Mission start ups with only a piano or guitar are just as faithful as a massive congregation with an amazing organ.
“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. …. If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? – 1 Corinthians 10:23-29
Christians are free to do anything, but not all things are helpful or build up. That is, since we are forgiven in Christ nothing can separate us from him except unbelief. And that is what St. Paul is warning against, “all things are lawful” and therefore your conscience is free from legalistic chains. Yet, for the sake of another’s conscience, you are also free to be helpful and build up a weaker Christian whose faith is fragile or whose sensitivities, even in things lawful, are debilitating.
Can style (or conduct) of worship be offensive? Is the text, the substance (or content) more important? Or, is it that both matter?
In the next chapter of 1 Corinthians (Cf. 11:17-34) the Lord’s Supper is being abused. The Corinthians would share a meal prior to the sacrament but they disregarded particular persons/groups within the community of faith. This abuse carried over into the participation of the Lord’s Supper.
So, from the text, was the Lord’s Supper being abused substantively? Yes, because St. Paul reminds them of the way the consecration was to be done. Was the Lord’s Supper being abused in regards to the style, manner, or its conduct? Yes! Their impatience for others carried over into divisions and even drunkenness prior to the distribution of the sacrament.
Substance matters. Style matters.
Want examples? Consider Kidz Bop, you’ve seen their commercials where young children sing and dance to today’s popular hits –only they’re edited to age appropriate lyrics and no twerking is allowed. But we know the truth. Some of those songs, while cleaned up, still carry the stigma of its unedited version at least in our minds. Is it too much to say that these songs are a gateway to more mature songs? I’m inclined to think so. And I’m sure the music industry would agree to that, for better or worse.
Yeah, but what’s really important is the substance of those kid’s songs! The text is the most important, if worship music has a good text, and is doctrinally sound then it’s fine! Right?
How about ridiculous analogies. Consider a boy whose pants are below his boxers. If we imagine pants as the substance, the text, and their place below the boxers as the style, what does that say about the relationship between the two? Does the placement of the pants matter? Suppose there were a woman whose shirt revealed too much but said, “Lutheran Chick” on it. Is the fact that it’s offensive outweighed by the message that she’s proud to be a Lutheran? Or does how she wear her shirt matter to the message of what it means to be Lutheran?
Here’s the point. You’ve probably complained yourself, “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it!” We all can relate to this, and the practice of worship is oddly no different! Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you said, it’s how you said something that altered its meaning entirely.
Here’s the kicker. Style is not only about music! Yes, style in worship applies to everything from the worship space to what is worn during worship. Now before you assume that I’m referring to a pipe organ and white robes only, I’m not!
And what about non-musical style examples? How about the chalice or patten, or liturgical garb such as those white robes (albs)? What would you think if your pastor drank punch from the chalice and ate his meal off the patten during a potluck dinner, is this inappropriate? Would you be shocked to see him cutting his lawn with his alb and stole on? If the answer was yes, ask yourself why. It’s probably because altar-ware and liturgical clothes were created and are set aside for particular purposes and to elevate particular theological practices. If your music, liturgical vessels, garb, and doctrine is faithful you will have a liturgy and worship that is faithful. Don’t be like the Corinthians and abuse your freedom. Be faithful in Christ; be helpful and build up your neighbor!
If nothing else remember this, Jesus (the Word made flesh) died on a cross for your sins. If you take away his style, that is, the crucifixtion, his conduct on the cross, and resurrection from the dead, you have a Jesus whose substance is no longer crucified and risen. You have no Savior.
Style matters. Substance matters. All because Jesus matters!
Jesus died on a cross and rose from a tomb. Without Jesus there is no faith nor our faithfulness to him. Thanks be to God, Jesus was faithful in all things. Shouldn’t our worship be faithful in all things?