Toward a Theology of Worship That Is…

by Rev. Timothy J. Mech

On 11–13 January 2010, a model theological conference entitled “Toward a Theology of Worship That Is…” took place at Concordia Lutheran Church in Kirkwood, Missouri. The Commission on Worship and the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) sponsored this conference as a result of a resolution of the 2007 convention of the LCMS. It was resolved that these commissions “organize a model theological conference, including representation of pastors and laity from each district as well as representation from each of our schools of higher learning, in order to ‘build greater understanding of our theology of worship and foster further discussion of worship practices that are consistent with that theology.’”

The location of this conference was appropriate, given that Concordia has two different worship spaces within its own congregation, namely, the Concordia Sanctuary and the Concordia Center. This is the case because at Concordia, as in our entire synod, there are diverse viewpoints concerning worship. The goal of the conference was to talk about those diverse viewpoints in order to begin easing tensions and uniting our synod in its theology of worship.

Ted Kober, President of Ambassadors of Reconciliation, “an international ministry founded to serve Lutherans in peacemaking,” moderated the conference. His presentation, entitled “Addressing Theological Conflicts,” dealt with separating sin issues from theological issues, reconciliation through forgiveness, and how to work through substantive theological issues, even if participants end up agreeing to disagree. Areas of discussion included working toward a theology that is…scriptural and confessional, pastoral and sacramental, personal and contextual, missional and vocational, and practical and theological. The entire group worshipped together several times each day, being exposed to different worship styles throughout the conference. The group also met together for presentations and panel discussions that represented diverse viewpoints on worship. After each presentation and panel discussion conference participants went to assigned tables to talk in small groups made up of those who differ in their understanding of worship. This table talk, led by a facilitator, dealt with answering questions pertaining to each presentation and panel discussion.

Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs, professor of exegetical theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, led off with his presentation entitled “Laying the First Shingle.” He talked about corporate worship being set in the right story. This story is not a personalized, consumer-driven or escapist story, but rather God coming down in Christ for the world. This is the grand story of the Scripture and Confessions. He said that the corporate worship of the congregation must be shaped by tradition. Worship is the event when God becomes present with his people who are part of his great story.

The Rev. Larry M. Vogel, Associate Executive Director of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations for the LCMS, spoke on worship being both pastoral and sacramental. The presence of Christ is central to worship and “where Christ is, there is Word and Sacrament.” He focused on pastoral priorities being mission, doctrine, and the vernacular principle, meaning using forms that enable people to believe and worship. He said, “While the word service individualizes us, the Table is communal.” We are sacramental to be communal. As Christ gives us his very body and blood “we don’t just take communion, we become a communion.”

The Rev. Dien Ashley Taylor, pastor of Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Bronx, spoke on dimensions of worship. He said that there are four dimensions, namely, personal, communal, contextual, and catholic. The personal dimension has to do with the profound “for you,” while the communal the profound “for us.” The contextual dimension takes into consideration the time and place while the catholic dimension connects worship with all times and places.

The Rev. Mason T. Beecroft, senior pastor of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, spoke on a theology of worship that is missional and vocational. He defined missional as “Christ’s mission of salvation accomplished by his incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension delivered through his body, the church, in the preaching of his gospel and the administration of his sacraments.” He defined vocational as “God’s gift of placing people in various stations of life as the context for their good works.” He said, “The sacramental language, life, rituals, ceremonies and liturgies of the Lutheran Church are incomprehensible to the denizens of our insane post-Christian world. This unfamiliarity, however, provides an authentic opportunity to evangelize the lost wayfarer and to recover the bored consumer through meaningful signs of Christ and the gospel revealed in the mysterious, biblical, evangelical, confessional, catholic, and apocalyptic world of the Lutheran divine service…or mass…or divine liturgy.”

The Rev. Jeff Cloeter, associate pastor of Christ Memorial Lutheran Church in St. Louis, Missouri, also spoke on a theology of worship that is missional and vocational. He described worship as our theology. and in quoting the introduction to Lutheran Worship said, “Our Lord speaks, we listen. His word bestows what it says.…The rhythm of our worship is from him to us, and then from us back to him.” He said that the sacramental and sacrificial nature of worship is the paradigm, that worship can be seen as the Christian life in miniature. “The worship service on one day invites a life of worship on every day. While worship is missional, it is not attractional. It is God encountering his Church, the missionaries. Worship is about ‘making disciples,’ those who have encountered Jesus.” In speaking on the vocational aspect of worship he said, “The sacramental nature of worship invites the sacrificial. Divine worship makes good husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, children, employees, students, etc.”

The Rev. Dr. Charles P. Arand, chairman of the department of systematic theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, used the metaphor of a bicycle in talking about adiaphora and a theology of worship that is both practical and theological. He said that four principles need to be respected, namely, the Evangelical Principle (the marks of the church), the Contextual Principle (the expansion of the church), the Catholic Principle (the unity of the church), and the Collegiality Principle (the walking together of the church).

In addition to the presenters, panel members and respondents at the conference included the Rev. Dr. Steve Arnold, professor emeritus of Education and Chaplain at Concordia University, St. Paul, Minnesota; the Rev. Dr. Paul Grime, dean of the chapel and associate professor at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana; the Rev. Dr. Arthur A. Just Jr., professor of exegetical theology, director of deaconess studies, and co-director of the Good Shepherd Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana; and the Rev. Dr. James Alan Waddell, graduate instructor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan.

The goal of this conference was to begin a respectful conversation within the LCMS about worship. This goal was accomplished as the speakers, panel, and various small groups of people listened and spoke to each other in a way that sought first to understand and then to be understood. It is clear, however, that there is a vast divide in the LCMS regarding its theology of worship. Like the culture in which we live, many within our church body are simply doing their own thing when it comes to worship. It is not due to a lack of sincerity, but out of a sense that the culture around us is indeed becoming a post-Christian culture. Many are trying different things in regard to how they worship, in some cases, anything that sticks, in an attempt to reach the lost. This has led to many questions. Is worship the Lord’s service, or ours to do with as we please? Do we offer what the Lord gives or what the world wants? How do we lead the lost into the presence of God to receive his gifts?

At our tables there was much discussion but little agreement. For example, questions like do you need to offer General Confession and Absolution, say the Lord’s Prayer or the Creed every week, or how often to celebrate the Lord’s Supper lacked any kind of consensus. The attempt made at contemporary worship at the conference was said by some not to go far enough while others thought it went too far. It was also disturbing to talk about the real presence of Christ in worship and the “holy ground” of worship, only to be distracted by someone texting during worship a few minutes later. Is nothing sacred?

In the end, I believe this issue of worship is about trusting the efficacy of the gospel of Jesus Christ and holding each other accountable to God’s word. This is really about faithfully delivering the Lord’s gifts of salvation. The introduction to Lutheran Worship says it well. “How best to do this we may learn from his Word and from the way his Word has prompted his worship through the centuries. We are heirs of an astonishingly rich tradition. Each generation receives from those who went before and, in making that tradition of the Divine Service its own, adds what best may serve in its own day—the living heritage and something new.”

I learned a lot from all of the presenters, as well as the panel and table talk discussions. It was good to meet face to face with fellow members of the body of Christ. The discussions should, and will, continue in our LCMS districts across the country. May God grant us a spirit of unity so that with one heart and mouth we glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!

Rev. Timothy J. Mech
Sheboygan, Wisconsin