August 1, 2009 · 18 Comments
The Importance of Integrating the Gospel and the Sacraments in Lutheran Worship
This month’s post follows up on Alan Sommer’s fine article last month: “Meeting the Resurrected Jesus: Rejoicing in the Sacraments.” Alan concluded his article by making a few points regarding the connection of Lutheran sacramental theology to our worship practice. I want to take that a bit further this month with a few comments on the importance of integrating the Word and the Sacraments in the worship service.
One of the distinctives of liturgical worship is that there is a narrative. The liturgical service is not merely a program of disparate elements that happen to occur one after another. (Now we’ll have some singing. Now we’ll have some preaching. Now we’ll pray). There is a flow that is shaped by the biblical narrative, theological truth, and pastoral care.
The Worship Narrative
What is this narrative?
- We come from our daily lives into the presence of the Triune God with praise.
- But in that presence we are aware of our utter unworthiness because of our sin, leading us to confess our sin and our sinfulness.
- God, however, answers our confession with His word of absolution, the verbal Gospel.
- We respond to this forgiveness and grace of our saving God by praising Him.
- Our relationship with God restored, He teaches us so that His Word might shape us more and more into His image. He teaches us through the Word of Scripture itself, and the Word of Scripture explained and applied in the sermon.
- We respond to this Word by confessing our faith in Him, lifting our prayers to Him and offering our lives to Him, represented in our financial offerings.
- Then He invites us in closer, through the veil, into the Holy of Holies, with a foot in heaven itself as we gather around the table. Here we are drawn into Christ’s own narrative, brought into the upper room as the narrative of the Last Supper is recited. And here the Gospel comes to us again, this time the Gospel as bread and wine, body and blood.
- Forgiven, renewed, and strengthened, we are blessed and sent back out into the world to bear His image as His disciples, to take His narrative into the narratives of our lives.
Delivering the Goods
This narrative liturgical service is not just talking or singing about the “goods,” but is a vehicle for delivering the “goods” to the worshipper. We don’t just hear about God’s forgiveness. The narrative leads us to confess our need for it, and then delivers the forgiveness itself through the Gospel: the verbal Gospel in the absolution and the sacramental Gospel in the Lord’s Supper. These are objective proclamations and gifts, anchoring the forgiveness of our sins in the cross and resurrection week after week.
The weekly rehearsing of this narrative shapes our relationship with our Savior. We are taught that we are unworthy to stand before the Lord in our own righteousness, but that His grace absolves us of all of our sins granting us access. We are taught that, although we might praise the Lord for countless things in our lives, we reserve our greatest praise for the salvation which is ours through the cross and resurrection and given to us in the Gospel. We are taught that, although our Lord is always with us, He has invited us especially to gather in His presence in the timeless Meal of the upper room. And as surely as we eat the bread which is His body and drink the wine which is His blood, so surely have we touched God Himself, or better, God Himself as touched us. The narrative teaches us that God does indeed send us into the world, but we don’t go into that world without having first been absolved, strengthened, and taking His very presence within. In this way the narrative not only delivers the Law and Gospel goods. It serves to shape the very way we think about our life in Christ.
Do we have to worship a certain way? Does Scripture explicitly require it? Of course not. But there is a richness to this narrative structure that is just not present in what we might call “programmatic” worship. It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with a service that is presented as a series of unconnected events. But there is something inherently right about shaping our worship so that it is an intersection of the salvation narrative and the narrative of our lives. And it is certainly right and proper to make sure that our worship becomes a vehicle for God to deliver the “goods.”
Narrative, Not Style
So perhaps instead of classifying worship as either “formal” or “informal,” or “traditional” or “contemporary,” we should instead talk about distinguishing between “narrative worship” and “programmatic worship.”
Liturgical narrative worship does not have to be “traditional” as that word is popularly used with regard to worship. The narrative and its key components (see The Struggle to Reclaim the Liturgy in the Lutheran Church, p. 284; or A Simplified Guide to Worshiping As Lutherans, p. 121) can be accompanied by band-led singing and informal ex corde worship leading. The point is not the liturgical trees, but rather the Word and Sacrament forest. The Gospel, delivered through the narrative, will be present regardless of whether the worship leaders are robed, or whether the congregation genuflects or puts its hands in the air.
The danger for contemporary narrative worship is an uncritical imitation of a worship format that is reading from a different worship narrative. Lutheran worship should reflect and flow from Lutheran Theology, which we confess flows from the Scriptures. Our worship flows from what we confess about Christ, His work, and His gifts to the church. We affirm the importance of the means of grace not merely as a Lutheran tribal peculiarity, but because we believe that this reflects Scriptural truth about how God wishes to bless His people.
Much contemporary evangelical and Pentecost worship today is programmatic. You might say that the opening time of singing has its own mini-narrative of coming into the presence of God. In its most crass form, the quality of the worship experience is the barometer of the presence of God and how much the singing time was a “means of grace.” (I have read and heard numerous evangelical leaders decry this view of worship, but it is still very much a part of the evangelical worship experience.)
This is not to say that an extended time of singing is in itself wrong. I have participated in and led such worship times. And I can say that the Lord has blessed me richly on some of these occasions by leading me to reflect on His Word and apply it deeply in my life. Music can serve as a powerful tool for meditating on the Word and the truths derived from it.
But we want to be careful that the singing time remains servant to the Word and Sacrament, and does not overshadow it. For instance this portion of the service can lead into the confession and absolution or even serve to frame it by incorporating songs of confession and songs of forgiveness. (My song “Confession” is my attempt to incorporate the confession and absolution into the opening singing itself. http://www.truevinemusic.com/confession.htm )
Integrating the Word and Sacrament in worship means planning the worship service with an awareness of the worship narrative. We don’t want to incorporate components and events that will distract from the narrative. Instead we want to choose songs and hymns that complement, support, and draw attention to the narrative.
And this is where there is a need for more contemporary worship songs. There are many contemporary praise songs, and quite a few that point to the cross and the empty tomb, but a meager few that really wrestle with Law and Gospel, that lead to or from the Font, or that plumb the depths of the Eucharist. I would love to see a forum for the commissioning and promotion of quality contemporary worship songs that fill these gaps. (Frankly I find it embarrassing that the Lutheran Church with its strong musical heritage is not leading the charge in the commissioning of such music. This would be a service and blessing not only to our own church body, but also to all of Christendom.)
Week after week the Lord gathers his people. He does so not merely to tell us about the rich treasures He has won for us by His cross and empty tomb. He gathers to deliver these treasures into the brokenness of our lives. By careful incorporation of Word and Sacrament into the Worship Service, as worship leaders we serve our Lord that He might serve His people.
Michael A. Schmid