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?!”
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.
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.