Atmospheric Pressure

By Paul Koch

I was at a meeting with a group of my colleagues the other day in which we had a lengthy discussion on worship trends and practices in our various congregations. This conversation moved (as it usually does) to a critique of practices that are not inherit in our particular tradition but have been borrowed and adapted from other theological confessions. We were discussing how we weigh and analyze their worth and impact and how they have influenced the expectations of those who gather together for worship on a Sunday morning. 

Towards the end of our ultimately cyclical argument, an interesting phrase was offered by one of my brothers in the ministry. After I had carelessly dismissed the strange (and in my opinion feminine) phenomena of singing for a half hour or more before anything is actual proclaimed in the service, he said that what they were doing is cultivating an atmosphere of the Gospel. In various traditions, the gathering of God’s people around praise songs and eventually the reading of the Word puts the people in a place where the Gospel is heavy in the air and ready to fall upon the people when and where the Spirit chooses.

Now, in my unsophisticated way, I immediately began to bristle at this language of creating a “Gospel atmosphere.” But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if he is correct. Is this what we do in the Church? With praise bands and hands lifted on one side and chanting and incense on the other, do we cultivate a Gospel atmosphere rich for the forgiveness of sins to happen at any moment? Is this what we try to do? Is this what church is about?

My short answer is “no,” and my full answer is “no, for this is exactly what is plaguing our churches today. Why the hell would we ever buy into this notion?!”

But why?

I think the answer comes from a very old and important distinction regarding how we talk about the Gospel. In the Formula of Concord, as the confessors worked through the distinction between Law and Gospel, what they called “a particularly glorious light,” they made a careful distinction between the two ways in which we speak about the Gospel. They delineated between the Gospel in the wide sense and the Gospel in the narrow or strict sense.

The wide sense is used in “such a way to mean the entire teaching of Christ, our Lord, which is his own ministry on earth and in the New Testament he commanded to be carried out.” (4) The Gospel here is the proclamation of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.

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The narrow sense is used “when it includes not the proclamation of repentance but only the proclamation of the grace of God.” (6) This is the that freeing Word of forgiveness declared to those who have been crushed and are repentant.

If the Gospel is the entire teaching of Christ, then I can certainly see how worship can create an atmosphere of the Gospel. For whether we are chanting the Psalms or singing along with the praise leader, we can be emotionally caught up in the great deeds and teachings of our Lord. We can be brought to a place where we are ready for the proclamation to pounce upon us at any time. In fact, if a sermon stays with this wide sense of the Gospel, it will carry the hearers along through stories and remembrances of God’s great works, and we may very well be surprised how the Spirit will use such a word to stir a sinner to repentance or awaken a dormant faith.

However, this seems to be a fairly weak way to engage. Everyone is standing around working on the atmosphere or twiddling their thumbs like a bunch of Quakers awaiting the Spirit’s move. Instead of spending so much time and energy cultivating the atmosphere for the Gospel, why not just do the Gospel? Why not make it the focus and purpose of the sermon to move intentionally from the wide to the strict sense of the Gospel? We are not sent to create an atmosphere but to do the work, to actually hand over the gifts of Christ to the sinners that gather together. We don’t wait for the Gospel to fall from above like rain from developing storm clouds. No, we do the Gospel. We speak it into the ears of those who are crushed under their sins.

As the confessors wrote, “Everything that provides comfort—everything that offers the favor and grace of God to those who have transgressed the law—is and is called the gospel in the strict sense. It is good news, joyous news, that God does not want to punish sin but to forgive it for Christ’s sake.” (21)

Let’s make it a clear path to the narrowly defined and rare gift, and then we can play around with the atmosphere.

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6 thoughts on “Atmospheric Pressure

  1. Dear Brother, Thanks for your words and sharing your collegial discussion. However, I lean more toward the side of your brother in that I take great care in the hymns/songs that I choose for worship. I wrestle with the hymn texts so that they all carry the theme of the proclamation for the day’s readings. In that sense, they do create a gospel atmosphere, readying the hearer for that proclamation of the Word which is the thing that does the work, as you describe. In addition, as I read through the wording of these hymns/songs so chosen, there is a profound sense of the Word in their texts.

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  2. Matthew 5:15. Oh how the LCMS exceeds in promoting this error. Such brilliance and clarity in theology perfectly diminished by fear and ignorance of the true nature of our being as forgiven and regenerate humans (speaking of authentic Christians), imagers of the one true God, made to fellowship with Him and radiate His glory in all things, to His glory and to our hope and joy. No wonder they have been and will continue be spit out of the mouth of those seeking both clarity in truth and passion in faith. Luke warm and joyless, they contribute to the growing exodus from “the church” apparently and consistently ignorant of the disservice this kind of thinking levels upon the children of God. Selah.

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  3. I’m with Paul on this. And I suppose with Dave, too. Singing hymns that proclaim and teach the Good News is not about atmosphere alone, although it may bring with it a winsome mood. It is the Good News in the mouth of the people of God, in worship and mutual encouragement of faith by the actual word of God. As for MT5:15, nobody said anything about covering up the light; just making sure it is the light and not an extra lava lamp to give atmosphere and feelings more play. I wouldn’t say that stuff is useless, and it is really good for singing around the campfire, but not hardly necessary. Selah (whatever that means, although it is a word found in the psalms that no one really understands, and therefore does nothing). Good example of no clarity or truth or passion or faith.’ That was probably too sarcastic – sorry, Jeff.

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  4. To me, it seems like Lutherans have created a false dichotomy when it comes to the “worship wars.” The typical argument goes something like this, “either we have traditional Lutheran hymns accompanied by an organ, or we have theologically bad (or theologically devoid) contemporary Christian music accompanied by a rock band.”

    Although I’m generally very critical of the New Calvinism, one thing that they’ve done successfully is that they’ve taken classic Christian hymns and set them to a more modern arrangement. They’ve also written some contemporary hymns that are consistent with their own theology (which isn’t ALL bad).

    Examples include: Sovereign Grace Music; Chris Rice, The Hymns Project; Fernando Ortega, Hymns and Meditations

    They may lapse into mysticism (both content and form) from time to time, but the basic idea is pretty solid.

    I think Lutherans would be wise to take their cue here. Why can’t we take the great hymns of the faith, set them to a more modern arrangement, and use simple and reverent instruments (like the acoustic electric guitar, or the piano)?

    I think this would be a great way to make the service more “contemporary” without loosing the rich theology of the hymns of the church. It would also maintain a reverence for God in the service, and the “sing-ability” of hymns that make it easy for the congregation to follow along.

    Even better still, I think this approach would encourage young musicians within the Lutheran Church to start writing their own hymns, as this has already happened in the Evangelical world.

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  5. Dave, Jeff, Don, and Ken I’m going to respectfully say your missing the point. His discussion is specifically on “setting the atmosphere for the Gospel.” There is only one “atmosphere” in which “sets the mood for the Gospel,” and that is when the sinner is convicted by the Law, and imprisoned with guilt. The Gospel is for those who have been convicted and killed by the Law and need to be set free with the free, so-stings-attached forgiveness of sins, and justification. The atmosphere isn’t about “alright, I’m in the mood now,” for that complete rejects Law and Gospel, not to mention forgiveness and justification, and reeks of pietism, mysticism, enthusiasm, and the list can probably go on.

    The Gospel isn’t for the righteous, but for the lost, condemned sinner in need of Christ’s salvation through His all atoning sacrifice for them, no matter the “atmosphere” – whatever that means to begin with.

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  6. I have to admit that when I attended non-denominational churches, the 30 minutes of singing designed to “cultivate an atmosphere for the gospel” was often seen and used by many, including myself, as bumper music allowing us to slip into the service late with little notice. But, not so late as to miss the “big event”- the 45 to 60-minute sermon. I really appreciate the Divine Service formats. So many meaningful elements- the confession and absolution, the readings, the prayers, the supper, etc. Even if the pastor torches the sermon, oh well, not as big a deal when he’s not the focus.

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