13 February 2008

"Soul Winning" Worship?

I am constrained to put the best construction on things. Which is good and right and as it should be, because I am not omniscient but finite; and not only that, but I am sinful and unclean in my own thoughts, words and deeds. Yet, I am hard-pressed to know how to put any "best construction" on a proposition of the new LCMS Commission on Worship.

Set aside for the time being that — despite the beautiful opportunity which the Lutheran Service Book has provided for a restoration of unity in practice — the Commisson on Worship is now pursuing its mandate "to provide guidance and direction for use of diverse/contemporary worship resources" (2007 Res. 2-02A). I simply hope and pray that the criteria for doctrinal review of "the top 100 CCLI songs most commonly used in LCMS congregations" will be truly Christological, evangelical and catholic. For surely anything that would be sung in a Christian congregation ought to be, not only "Scriptural," but a proper dividing of the Law and the Gospel, finally focused and centered in Christ Jesus, and thus confessing the external Word and Sacraments as the only means by which the grace of God in Christ is bestowed. If the Commission will have the intestinal fortitude and loving integrity to admonish, correct, exhort and reprove those congregations that have utilized less than salutary "CCLI songs," well then, praise God. Until I see evidence to the contrary, I'll assume that is the goal. (I don't like it when people make presumptions about me, nor when they judge me on the basis of their presuppositions; so I prefer not to proceed in such a fashion with others. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, even if they don't.)

But the proposition of a "worship survey of the top 5 percent of LCMS 'soul winning' congregations," is offensive right out of the blocks. I frankly don't know how to interpret it otherwise. I'll readily grant that it surely stems from some kind of well-intentioned zeal, but to say that it is misguided would already be stretching the limits of charity.

Here is what the Commission on Worship's Reporter insert says: "The commission is working on developing a survey of the top 5 percent of LCMS 'soul winning' congregations, defined as those congregations with the greatest number of adult baptisms, adult confirmations, and professions of faith. This survey is to determine what happens during the most visible hour of a congregation's week that helps them be the soul winners that they are."

I suppose I can figure out what is intended by this "soul winning" terminology, but that doesn't make such a grotesque use of language right or salutary. The Scriptures do on occasion speak of "winning a brother," by which they refer to the calling of a sinner to repentance, and especially of reconciliation between Christians. Over such things the angels in heaven rejoice, and so do I. But here this "soul winning" is defined with quite different parameters. Not only is "adult baptism" distinguished from infant baptism, in a way that ought to make any Lutheran blush with shame, but the man-made rite of confirmation is set on par with the God-given Sacrament of Holy Baptism, and "professions of faith," presumably by those who are already baptized Christians, are evidently interpeted as though they were conversions (unless "winning souls" refers to some kind of inter-denominational contest). All of this is sloppy and unbecoming, but it is not the worst aspect of this undertaking.

Since when do Lutherans need a survey to determine how souls are won? Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ. In order to obtain such faith, God has instituted the Office of the Ministry for the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Through these means of grace, the Holy Spirit works faith, where and when it pleases Him, in those who hear the Gospel. One servant of the Word may plant the seed; another may water; but it is God the Lord who gives the growth (or not, as the case may be). He adds daily to the number of those being saved, but with the Gospel comes the cross and persecution and rejection. The implicit notion of some further tricks or techniques, programs or propaganda, which are supposedly making the Word more effective (sic) in some congregations, as measured by outward numerical growth, is contrary to the Word of God. It may be Methodistic or Revivalistic, but it is certainly not Lutheran. Souls are won by Christ and His Spirt, by the ways and means of the Gospel, and not by any of the clever machinations of man. It is likewise the Word and Spirit of Christ by which pastors preach faithfully, and by which the people of God receive the gifts Christ freely gives in faith and with thanksgiving. And where that is happening, by God's grace, look for the Cross and suffering, not impressive statistics.

How is it that well-meaning Lutherans can wander so far afield from the Holy Scriptures? It certainly hasn't helped that "we" insist on using this word, "worship," as the comprehensive term for "what happens during the most visible hour of a congregation's week." There is a place for this word, as there is certainly a central place for worship in the Christian life. But as the chief worship is faith, and all other true Christian worship is by faith, it is ever and always contingent on that which is prior and primary, namely, the Word and work of God in Christ: His speaking of His Gospel, His giving of His gifts. "Worship" refers to that which we do and say to honor God. A term that our Lutheran Confessions use to speak of that which God says and does for us is "Liturgy," which accords with the Ministry of the Gospel. I've been told that we maybe ought to avoid this confessional, Christocentric term and stick with "worship," because of popular opinion and usage. But I don't buy it. I'm all in favor of pastoral sensitivity, and I recognize that terms can be somewhat plastic, but so long as "worship" is allowed to function as the key word, I don't believe that we'll ever be able to avoid the false assumptions and conclusions that everything hinges upon man's doing of stuff for God.

And here's what happens then: Not only is "worship" approached as the congregation's work for God, but it is also then bastardized into a malleable evangelistic tool. Not only is God dethroned from being the One who works for us to give us Sabbath Rest in Christ; He's also then required to share our attentions with outsiders. Does no one detect the idolatry in this? That the Church's "worship" should be aimed, not at glorifying God, but at "winning" over pagans to our side?

To be sure, the world is often watching what we do on Sunday morning. Let us then hold fast to our confession of the faith. Let us find our Sabbath Rest in Christ. Let us set aside our own works and efforts, our own reason and strength, and be served by the Word and Spirit of God, who calls us by the Gospel, enlightens us with His gifts, sanctifies and keeps us in the one true faith. Let us set an example of giving our utmost attention to His Word and the preaching of it. Let us not be ashamed of the Gospel, which is alone the power of God unto salvation to all who believe. Let us find our hope, and stake our lives, and risk our necks on the simple, outward, foolishly cruciform means of grace, on words and water, bread and wine. Let every word we dare to speak in the presence of God be a confession of His speaking to us by His Son. Let us worship the Lord our God, and serve Him only, by receiving His Liturgy of forgiveness.


Moria said...

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: you should promote Emmaus among the LCMS higher-ups as one of the top soul-winning congregations; at least as a percentage of total membership. Emmaus must have grown by 50% in the past twelve years that you've served there.

Genuine Lustre said...

This recent issue of The Reporter was just loaded with questionable material.

Anan said...

You mean... Children (who might have even been Baptised as infants *before* joining Emmaus) count as new members?!?!?!?! Outrage!

Jonathan said...

Hello Pastor... your post is excellent and I enjoyed reading it. The direction the Commission on Worship has been heading has bothered me recently, and I was gladdened by what you had to say. I have a question, however, regarding what you say is the potential for a "restoration of unity in practice." I was under the impression that there has never really been a unity in practice. From the earliest days of the Church there have been varying rites that express the Faith. Even in the history of the Lutheran church, there has been great variance in liturgical practice (the various Kirchenordnungen, for example). What exactly do you mean by "unity in practice," and is it something we should work for? I certainly have no use for contemporary liturgies that obscure the Gospel and have something other than Christ at their center. However, I am concerned that requiring uniformity in liturgical practice is to lean toward the Law rather than the Gospel.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thanks for your comments, Jonathan. You've put your finger on one of the most important and compelling questions in our day, and I've been mulling over how best to respond. I think that I will need to save most of what I might want to say for a regular blog post at some point, but for the time being I'll offer a brief response.

When I speak of unity, I don't have in mind a lockstep uniformity. You are correct that there has never really been any such uniformity across the Church, neither from one age to the next, nor in all places at any one time. I don't believe that such uniformity is possibe, nor even desirable. There are too many factors that differ, all sorts of circumstances that have to be taken into account. That's one of the reasons that there needs to be pastoral discernment and discretion, for the sake of genuine pastoral care of the Church.

Unity in practice does not imply uniformity; nor does uniformity necessarily mean that there is true unity. The unity of the Church is really rooted in Christ, in His Gospel, in His Means of Grace. We are all one Body in Christ, because we all partake of His one Body and drink from His Cup. Of this one Body, there is one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all.

While this true unity does not depend upon, nor require, a rigid uniformity in practice, it surely can be (and ought to be) expressed and supported by a continunity and consistency of practice, from age to age, and from place to place. It fits the character of the Gospel as a free gift of God's grace to be administered and received in traditional orders and forms of service, with traditional rites and ceremonies, which have themselves been received from those who have gone before us in the faith. So also, it is in harmony with Christian love and our common confession of the one faith, that churches in fellowship with one another make use of common practices. Not as a matter of necessity, but as being appropriate and beneficial.

Historically, it has generally been the case that the churches of a given territory made use of the same orders and forms, rites and ceremonies, even if there may be local customs that emerge differently in the details. Now, what a "territory" looks like in our modern day and age, I'm not sure; that's up for debate, I suppose; but I would suggest that transportation and communication technologies have reconfigured the contours by which a "territory" is defined. And I would like to believe that part of what it means to be in fellowship with other pastors and congregations, is to share in common a way of prayer and confession, with which we hear and receive the Means of Grace in faith and with thanksgiving. This is particularly helpful as a people move or visit from place to place. It removes the temptation of the pastor (or anyone else) to reinvent "the wheel" in his (or their) own image. It provides a sense of confidence to the people of God, that what their pastor and church are using to administer the things of God is in faithful accord with the church catholic, even if not identical in all its particulars. Using a common and consistent order of service, not only confesses and supports the Church's unity in the Gospel, but also enables every member of the Church (young and old, literate and illiterate, etc.) to participate together in the Church's praying and confessing.

There is always going to be a measure of disimilarity from one place to another; and again, that is as it should be (as a matter of both pastoral care and practicality). But the local variations can yet be implemented within a context that is recognizably similar to what the entire Church is doing, each pastor and congregation in their own loci. The preaching is perhaps a case in point: sermons will differ from pulpit to pulpit, obviously enough, but they may yet be preached from the same Holy Gospel of the Day. So also, the same order of service can be celebrated with a considerable variation in ceremony.

I suppose there is a continuum involved, along which one may move between extremes: lockstep uniformity on the one hand (which is probably not even possible), and idiosyncratic diversity on the other hand (which is, I think, far more commonly approximated). In the midst of those extremes, there is the inviting possibility of a common set of liturgical orders and a common body of hymnody, such as we have in the LSB, which all of those pastors and congregations belonging to the same fellowship may use (in faith and love) within their own respective contexts. It is to that sort of unity in practice that I was referring.

I hope this is somewhat helpful as a preliminary answer to your questions.

Jonathan said...

It certainly does; thank you much!

Frank Gillespie said...


Randy Asburry said...

Pr. Stuckwish,

Thank you very much for your post on the grotesque "soul winning" and "worship" language! You express quite well what many of us, your brothers, think and how we evaluate the current American Evangelical trends infecting the Lutheran Church, especially the Missouri Synod. Keep up the good work!