Contemporary Worship i.e. Flanagan’s Conundrum

By Paul Koch

The other day, The Jagged Word received an email from our most persistent and longsuffering commenter, the one and only John J. Flanagan. He doesn’t always agree with what we write here. Hell, we don’t all agree with each other, but he has always been willing to be part of the conversation, and for that we are very thankful. For in many ways, that is the goal of our relatively agenda-free blog—to have conversations that matter.

Anyway, Mr. Flanagan wrote to us about an experience he had at a Lutheran church (LCMS) that he visited recently. In particular, it was about what transpired at their contemporary service which caused him to leave before it was finished. Mr. Flanagan is a senior member of the church militant, pushing toward 75 years old, but he is not just a reflexive and crotchety old man who is afraid of anything labeled “contemporary” in a church. He has been to such services in the past, and while they were not perhaps his cup of tea, he still found them to be reverent and uplifting moments in which the gifts of Christ were clearly given, and the focus remained upon the God who saves. Yet this particular experience was something different.

In his correspondence, he described something more akin to a concert than a worship service, something more focused on ourselves or even our emotions than the gifts of Christ. And he began to ponder some big questions: “Is this the direction of the LCMS?” “Am I still a Lutheran?” “Is the liturgy going out of style?” “Is this progress, or are we regressing instead?” Now, these are important questions, and they should not be dismissed without reflection. Too often worship gets reduced to a conversation about the felt needs of the individual or what is the best bang for your buck or simply replicating some distant form we no longer understand or appreciate. Yet those who establish the order and flow of a given service have a goal in mind. There is something they are intending to create or accomplish in that moment in time. And I’m pretty sure it wasn’t to have Mr. Flanagan second guess his confession of faith or the confession of the church he visited (then again, perhaps it could have been).

Having not been to this service and not knowing the intent of the leaders of such a service, I do think that there are some overarching things that we might consider to best engage this topic. To begin with, a given congregation will always have its own traditions, peculiar to that local. It will be receptive to the cultural milieu of its members and seek to do what it can to engage them where they are at so that they might know the Good News. So, we must not be too quick to judge if we are visiting and don’t share regularly in the fellowship of the brothers and sisters who gather there.

That being said, I do think we ought to be aware of mankind’s endless desire to be entertained. To be entertained is not necessarily spiritual or orthodox or really anything at all. Entertainment falls closer in line with consumerism that any spiritual discipline, closer to something of our own creating rather than a gift of our Creator. So, we ought to be motivated to make a distinction between what is entertainment or amusement and what is worship. The famous critic Neil Postman in his great work Amusing Ourselves To Death wrote:

Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.”

As a species, we drink deep of entertainment. In fact, we drink so deeply that we can drown ourselves in it, smiling the whole time. Individuals, congregations, even whole church bodies can begin to forget from whence they came. Their history, the clear distinctions that were paid for by the blood, sweat, and tears of those who have gone before them are beautifully plastered over by the glow of entertainment. This might be the source of the questions Mr. Flanagan asked concerning what he experienced. Did they remember what came before? Did it matter to them? Does it matter at all? Should it matter?

I think it would be helpful to reframe the discussion about worship styles into the language of entertainment. We might get a better understanding of the general flow of things if we understand what is driving the moment. Is this from God to me, or me to God? Is it both? Or perhaps, even worse, is it neither? Is it simply to be amused?

And if it is the latter, maybe we should join with Flanagan and simply leave.