Monday, January 18, 2010

Contemporary Worship and the Gospel of Relationship

I recently had the opportunity to attend the LCMS Model Theological Conference on Worship. During the conference there were a schedule of worship services that were intended to be examples of different styles of worship; the first was entirely traditional, the second was traditional liturgy accompanied by a praise band, the others began to rearrange portions of the liturgy, substitute custom elements for those prescribed by the hymnal combined with a greater array of contemporary worship songs.

As I was observing the different worship options, one thing that was pointed out (ironically by one who practices contemporary worship) was that during the traditional worship service the pastor was impersonal. The man and his personality were divested from the service. And, sure enough, as the contemporary worship forms were in use the personality of the pastor was on greater display.

This alerted me to an interesting reality; in classical Christian worship (ie. “traditional worship”) the personality of the pastor is muted. The man is there, but the personality of the man is inconsequential and it is unnecessary. What is important is that the man is present mainly to be the one who points the worshipers to Jesus. Who he is, how funny or clever he is, is ultimately of no effect. The thing that makes the worship service work has nothing to do with the man. It does have every thing to do with the Word. The man speaks the words and promises of Jesus. The man holds out the forgiveness of sins given by Jesus. The man is merely a vessel, empty and worthless except for the words given him by the Gospel.

Contrast this to contemporary worship. There is of course a continuum in place here, there are extremes. Let's consider Lakewood Christian in Houston an extreme. The thing that makes that worship work is the personality of the pastor. Joel Osteen's personality is fully on display. He is clever. He is witty. He tells stories from his own life, about his relationship with his wife, his children, his parents. His jokes and his stories draw the people in so that they are included in his life. Thus the effectiveness of the worship is directly connected to his personal life. The personality of Joel is the key for making the whole experience work.

In former posts I have mentioned what has been termed a “gospel of relationship”. As I have defined this “gospel”, one thing it does is reduce the Christian life to a relationship. The gospel takes on less of the character of forgiveness and instead is defined according to relational categories. It is emotive (a feeling), it is subjective, it is personal to an extreme. Jesus is discussed as a friend or even a lover, God is a daddy, the Holy Spirit is sensory.

If the gospel is truly reducible to "having a relationship with Jesus", it is then only subjective and relational. Therefore the entire worship service must be structured around those things that are subjective and relational. Take, for example the music. The music style is akin to the genre of the rock ballad, a genre that communicates feelings and ideas of love to the listener. The lyrics of the songs fall in step so that they carry the freight of a love songs to Jesus. (I could swap out the name “Jesus” for the name of my wife in many of the songs and sing it to her without changing anything else). Often during times of prayer there is “mood music” softly playing in the background. Many of the sermon topics have to do with either your “relationship” to Jesus or you relationship to your spouse or to someone else (eg. “Making Your Marriage Work", "Christians and Sex", etc.).

Very often, the pastor and his personality is the lynch pin. If the pastor is clever, funny, if he knows how to work the crowd, then the service works. People are attracted, seekers come to check it out and then come back in the following weeks. It is not enough for the pastor to simply point the way to Jesus and His objective means of forgiveness, the pastor has to be a performer and an entertainer.

Perhaps this is why there is so often an awkwardness to Lutheran contemporary worship. The forms don't fit together. In Classical Lutheran worship the pastor is a vehicle. The personality of the pastor can get lost in the liturgy because Christians haven't come to see the pastor. They have come to see Jesus. Granted, Jesus is hidden. He hides himself in the Word. He hides himself in, with, and under the bread and the wine. He hides himself in the proclamation of the absolution. But that is where Jesus is. Evangelical worship denies that Jesus actually and physically arrives when Christians gather to worship, so there is the need to conjure him up. Ambiance created through the right music, the quick wit and appropriately timed jokes of a clever pastor provides just the right stuff to set the mood for the romance with Jesus to begin.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Baptism vs Pietistic Self Delusions

I recently learned of the infidelity of a former colleague. I am troubled by the news - both out of heartfelt love and concern for my friend, and also because of the dishonor done to Christ and His preaching office. The damage on both counts is great and I mourn the loss.

When we learn of such infidelity, there is always the temptation for judgment. We pretend that we know better. We tell ourselves we would never do that. We pretentiously select the character flaw that we assume contributed to their demise. This is naive and unrealistic. Sinners fall into sin because they are sinners. And we are all sinners. Any one of us could just as easily fall into the same sin at a given moment. After all, who among us has not felt in some moment of weakness the bitterness of life and its great pressures weighing heavily on us? Who among us might not have fallen at that moment had the opportunity presented itself? It is only the grace and mercy of God that preserves any one of us from duplicating these sins. Such occasion calls each of us to repent and beg the Lord for mercy.

While we are foolish to pretend to offer explanations, what is of concern is that there often seems to be an influence of pietism on such situations. Pietism has at its heart the notion that the individual is and can be better than they are. Pietism promotes a self-delusion of personal righteousness that one must hold on to at all costs. Because pietism is built on your moral improvement you have to hold out for your own goodness, you have to pretend on the surface that you are "pulling it off", that you are living the Christian life, that you are an example for everyone else to follow. As a result, pietism forces us to overlook the sin that lurks within.

Pretending we are righteous doesn't make the Old Adam go away. He's still there, still lurking in the shadows. Still waiting for his opportunity to get out and do exactly the sin he has been scheming. Pietism overlooks that Old Adam. It pretends he isn't' there, that he has gone, that we have wrestled him away. But then, when the moment of weakness arrives, the old man is provided with just the opportunity he needs to sneak out and surprise us with what we should have seen coming.

The only antidote against sin is the gospel. Confession and absolution. Daily drownings in the waters of baptism. Paul commands us to shine the light of God's Word into the deep, dark places of our hearts and walk as children of light (Ephesians 5). Covering up the sin in a pietistic self delusion won't due. Only turning the bright light of God's Word into our hearts can expose that sin so that we acknowledge it, confess it, and are absolved from it. The sinner does not have the strength to overcome his sin. The sinner needs Jesus!

The only confidence we can have is in the grace and mercy of Jesus. For all those who have fallen, there is the promise that He will not hold their sins against them. "Though their sins be as scarlet, yet they will be whiter than snow." For those of us who have been preserved from such a fall, the only confidence is Jesus - in turning our hearts in confession and repentance to Him and daily living in the forgiveness that He provides in His means of grace.

Lord Jesus, may the New Man of my baptism spring to life again today as I confess my sin to you. Amen.