I was a brand new pastor. I was holding my first adult instruction class. After appropriate greetings, we sat down to start the class, and I asked, “You know, I realize our worship service may be a little strange to you. Would you like me to explain it to you before we jump into the catechism?” Big mistake. You see, I found myself referring to the catechism—the summary of our church’s teachings that we had not yet studied—as I explained the worship service. The invocation—and right away baptism came to mind. “We’ll come back to that,” I said. Then confession and absolution—and there was the fifth chief part. “We’ll come back to that too.” So it went as we made our way through the worship service.
Reflecting on that mistake, I realized that worship forms give expression to particular theologies. The worship forms in the hymnal my church uses are deeply rooted in the theology expressed in Luther’s Small Catechism. Worship forms at the Assemblies of God church around the corner are deeply rooted in the theology of that church’s Pentecostal tradition. What a church does in worship is never theologically neutral.
In planning worship, then, it is important to ask what theological presuppositions are lurking within the worship forms being considered.
I. Theology and Practice
Worship does not “just happen.” Texts and themes are chosen. Music is identified. Decisions are made about who will sing or perform what. An order for the various elements is worked out (even among those who “follow the book”—because a commission worked out the order for the elements in that book). These choices reflect a variety of considerations: who is likely to attend (“seekers” or “saved”), the cultural milieu (formal or informal), the church’s favored musical forms (song or hymns, major keys or minor keys), the desired effect (say, joy on Easter as opposed to the somber tone of Good Friday), and so on. Pastors and worship leaders make these choices with more or less intentionality, but they always make choices.
Theological considerations come into play as well. An Assemblies of God church structures worship in a manner consistent with the Pentecostal roots of its denomination. Full body expressions of the Spirit’s work are acceptable, even expected, and the music and the message are intended to facilitate such expressions. Why? Because Pentecostals believe that Christians ought to experience the Spirit’s presence in an ecstatic experience, and that this experience will likely (but not necessarily) occur in the public gathering. Most Lutheran churches include the creed in (just about) every service. Why? Because the creed proclaims the Gospel, and Lutherans believe that the Holy Spirit works faith through the proclamation of the Gospel.
I am suggesting that every worship form enacts particular understandings of what God desires to accomplish through worship.
It puts doctrine into action. We can analyze worship services in terms of their pragmatics (what they intend to accomplish in/for/with the worshipper), and we can analyze the pragmatics in terms of doctrine. In the Lutheran service, the Gospel is proclaimed through the creed and other elements (doctrine: faith comes through hearing) in order to work faith in the hearer (pragmatics: creating and strengthening faith in Jesus Christ). Because of this link between theology and worship,
we can evaluate any worship form by asking, “Does this form embody our theology?”
II. Embodying Theology in Worship
How would a pastor or worship leader go about evaluating a worship service for its theological presuppositions? To answer that question, I want to return to the Small Catechism and show how it provides a theological framework for those working in Lutheran churches. Readers from other traditions can follow a similar procedure using their own confessions or belief statements. The Small Catechism summarizes from Scripture how our gracious God works in the world to forgive sinners. Jesus redeemed us by his death and resurrection (second article of the creed). The Spirit now convicts us of our sins through the law (Ten Commandments), delivers the forgiveness that Jesus won (third article of the Creed), and opens our mouths in prayer to the Father (Lord’s Prayer). The Spirit delivers forgiveness through baptism, the office of the keys (specifically absolution), and the sacrament of the altar, which work faith in the sacrifice of Jesus.
If that is how God works, then worship forms should be evaluated for the extent to which they make use of these means of forgiveness. Scripture does not prescribe a specific worship form that Christians must use. Nevertheless, some worship forms will more fully embody the theology expressed in the Small Catechism, and others will embody it less fully. Take, for example, a service with a large number of elements that emphasize our response to God but few elements that proclaim God’s forgiveness. In terms of its pragmatics (what it does), the service is more focused on eliciting a response from worshipers than on proclaiming what God has done for them in Christ. As such, it gives short shrift to the doctrine that faith comes by hearing the good news about Jesus. On the other hand, a service that leaves little room for worshipers to respond in prayer and praise shortchanges the doctrine that the Spirit opens the mouths of his people in faithful response to the good news about Jesus.
The same analysis should be conducted on the pattern of services over a longer period of time in a congregation. It may be that a given worship service focuses more on Christians’ response than another, whether because of the occasion or the readings or the chosen theme. However, if a large majority of services in a given time period show the same pragmatic tendency toward emphasizing our response, then the individual planning worship should examine the services carefully to see whether they are shortchanging the proclamation of the Gospel. A Lutheran congregation in which absolution is never practiced in any form, for example, needs to consider carefully whether it is doing in worship what its theology says is important.
Worship does something. It accomplishes something. But what it accomplishes depends on the form it takes. Those who plan worship must therefore ask whether there is a criterion they can use to evaluate worship forms which, at first glance, are neither forbidden nor commanded by Scripture. I have argued that a theological analysis of the pragmatics of a given service provides just this criterion. Worship forms that accomplish something different than Scripture says God wants to accomplish in worship should be rejected. At the same time, more than one worship form will prove acceptable under this kind of theological analysis.
In worship, we are free, yet in worship, not anything goes.