“Blended Worship That Works” or

Cuisinart Worship That Sucks

a critique by Craig Parton

The fundamental “worship issue” of our day is the loss of a distinctive Lutheran ethos. The laity (whether WisconsinMissouri, or ELCA) is largely uninstructed in either biblical theology or liturgics. Relevance thus easily becomes more important than reverence, innovation trumps fidelity, catering to individual tastes is superior to the care of the whole communion of the saints. Instead of our liturgical practices transforming us and our culture, culture is transforming our Sunday mornings. When one is naive about the power of modernity, and simultaneously arrogant in thinking that their Synod alone can sanctify modern cultural forms spawned by secularism, trouble is a’ brewin’.


Thus, after reading Prof. James Tiefel’s article in WELS’ January 2004 Forward in Christ magazine entitled “Blended Worship That Works”, I am reminded of the notation by the physicist Wolfgang Pauley on the margin of a colleague’s paper.  Said Pauley, “This isn’t right, it isn’t even wrong.” There are some efforts that miss the real issue and instead focus us on the immediate symptom instead of the fundamental disease. Treatment of the symptoms never penetrates to a depth level of what is simmering underneath the pressing and superficial issue of the moment.  So, let’s first lance the oh-so controversial boil at the front end – yes, one could use a guitar (folk, classical or electric) in the Divine Service and not violate Scripture and the confessions of the Church of the Augsburg Confession. It might be noted that we can also take communion while seated in our pews, collect the offering in a Huggies box, eliminate the lectern and pulpit, and see to it that the Pastor wears a leisure suit instead of vestments. In fact, neither Scripture nor the Confessions say the Pastor must wear any clothes at all while preaching, which could arguably be an improvement over the leisure suit.


Luther, Lutes and Liturgy


But no semi-theologically literate person can seriously think that the use of guitars and modern “upbeat” music in a Lutheran service is really the theological or cultural equivalent of what Luther was doing in arranging the German Mass from the Latin Missa.  Luther once kept the liturgical hymnologist Johann Walter in Wittenberg for three weeks in order “to note down properly the chants of the Gospels and the Epistles, until the first mass was sung in Wittenberg” (“Liturgy and Hymns”, Luther’s Works 53, 58-59). While Luther played the lute, he never imposed it on people in the Divine Service.  Why not?  Because a lute was/is superb for around-the-table folk music and for lite and airy subject matter.  It does not, however, carry the sobriety and range of the pipe organ nor of the basic instruments of the classical orchestral repertoire (all gifts to the church).  It also had a cultural association with the Renaissance dance form – nothing wrong with that in the slightest either, mind you.  But it had its cultural place.....


Luther recognized that the liturgy had a Christocentric genius embedded in it from stem to stern and that one toyed with it at one’s peril because generally none of us is bright enough to improve it.  Form and content are not two isolated categories.  Content determines form, and form carries content.  A French red wine (say a nice Chateauneuf du Pape) is incalculably enhanced when served in Reidel stemware rather than in a Styrofoam cup.  Anyone seriously arguing that the Divine Service is improved with guitars needs to spend some serious time listening to modern culture. As my dear friend I will call “Joe”, a convert to Lutheranism, told his WELS pastor recently when this poor pastor asked him to play guitar on Sunday - pursuant perhaps to rumor in the congregation that Joe formerly sported purple hair and piercings and had a substantial evangelical history in “Christian Rock” to the extent of recording and doing concerts, “I will never play the guitar in the Divine Service and you really have no business asking me to.”  As the Scripture says, “from the mouth of former Christian rock banders.....” Oh that well-meaning Lutherans would stop putting millstones around the necks of converts to our ranks....


When the good thinkers who are former evangelicals (Os Guiness, Robert Webber, Michael Horton et al.) are all writing about how to adorn the liturgy they have discovered with processional crosses, incense, chanting, liturgical art, better altar space, Latin, etc. – a Synod that is perhaps in the best formal theological shape to lead the way is enamored with discussing “Blended Worship”? Talk about missing our liturgical moment....


Think about the cultural venues where guitars stand supreme.  Would guitars be appropriate, for example, at the investiture of the Queen of England at Westminster Abbey?  How about during “Hail to the Chief” before the State of the Union speech before Congress?  Or why not “upbeating” it prior to someone like a Mother Teresa speaking?  Ask yourself why not.....Guitarist extraordinaire Eric Clapton will tell you – electric guitars breathe secularity within their narrow range, that’s why, and have developed a very clear cultural association and message within pop performance culture.  In addition, the nature and formality of the occasion and the person being honored are central to the selection criteria for the type of instruments to be used (the world even gets that).....But it is ok to use them for adorning the real presence of Jesus Christ, the Lord of Glory, in the Divine Service?  Let’s all read Leonard Payton as to what the technical issues are with guitars and why they are so linked to modernity.  Guitars (unlike accordions) are not evil by definition, but they have their place and their clear cultural association with what Os Guiness calls “modernity”.


The Synod of My Sophomore Year


I would expect such an article from  poor Pastor Plotz of Poughkeepsie who just discovered contemporary Christian music, who for the first time has an “excited” 35 year old wanting to “lead worship” with his guitar, who hasn’t seen an adult convert to Lutheranism in years, and whose congregation lives in a John Updike novel of perennial depression.  What I did not expect was such an article from one I understand is largely entrusted with training the next generation of Pastors in the mysteries of the holy liturgy and clearly looked to by some in the Wisconsin Synod as perhaps the only one trained well enough at the WELS Seminary to take WELS from C- liturgics to maybe, just maybe B or even B+.  “Upbeat” music may be the most important entrée for the baby-boomer generation fixated on modernity and who seek to maintain in the Church an atmosphere just like their sophomore year in high school – shockingly, it is not at the head of the menu for the aged, the infirm, the disabled, the informed on the actual cutting edge of pop culture (like Joe), or the saints weighed down with their sins who each week desperately want to hear how their failure to be “upbeat” has also been placed on the Lamb of God.  Spare me and mine at least the artificial “upbeat” music of the modern and purgatorial “Praise Band à la WELS” – the liturgy gives it to me in droves as a justified sinner in the Gloria and the hymnody we have been blessed with unlike no other body of Christians in the Church Militant. 


We would all be better off if carefully documented articles were written for the laity teaching us of the already “blended” and transcultural nature of the Divine Service – of its roots in Jewish, North African and Western European culture. Arthur Just, Arthur Carl Piepkorn, Luther Reed et al. have already carefully and brilliantly ploughed this important path.


We’d all be better off if there was more teaching that advanced us as Lutherans in better and fuller liturgics (carefully executed) so that the form of our services truly reflect the sacramental substance we teach and confess.


Finally, we’d all be better off as a Synod if we spent less time on defending the use of guitars to an already liturgically ambivalent - and often untrained and confused - laity and clergy inclined to be both utterly provincial, isolated, naive, liturgically minimalistic and arrogant all at the same time.


The Liturgy as Transcendent Gastronomy


As the French learned at least as far back as the Avignon Papacy during the late Middle Ages and as is well-documented in any decent culinary history, the key to fine cuisine is harmonizing presentation with ingredients–i.e. seeing the deeply interwoven nature of substance and aesthetics. Truly great meals, on the highest level, harmonize science and art, thus bringing heaven to earth.  One secret to great French cooking is said to be in the sauces (and, of course, starting with superb ingredients), which enhance, not dilute, the culinary experience.  It is why it is also said that the French peasant of the late Baroque period ate better than anyone else in the world at that time. 


Similarly, with the glorious ingredients of the liturgy available to us each Sunday, we like those French peasants of the past can hardly go wrong, especially if we learn to see even our selection of instruments as the theological equivalent of the adorning sauces selected by all the great Michelin Guide chefs in France.  Let the Jamba Juice outlets play with the blenders.


Upon the Baptism of Our Lord. §



Craig Parton is a trial lawyer in California. He also teaches at the International Academy of Apologetics, StrasbourgFrance and is the author of the recently published (CPH) “The Defense Never Rests: A Lawyer’s Quest for the Gospel” a critique of American Christianity. Like the editors of the MM, who invited this critique, he enjoys some of the finer pleasures of life.




Letters to the Editor 

Ray Klatt among other things wrote,


[Editor] Christine [Marks] mentioned that this issue [Vol II:1] contained exceptional material.  It certain does.  I suspect that most of southeastern Wisconsin might take exception to the exceptional.  Too bad.


I like Mr. Parton's contribution to the fray. (I have and have read his book.) As I see it, the problem in Milwaukee is that no one ventured to push the 'ON' button before the blender's picture appeared on the cover.  Had they done that, they would have found that the mix would contain a hodge-podge of tiny, now-colorless particles of what remained of W-o-r-s-h-i-p, an impotable product.  In partial defense of Prof. Tiefel, his part two of the series (in FIC nee NWL) put some blame on 'OK' as a barrier.  That's correct, but I would not elevate 'OK' so far as to make it an idol as did he.  The blame is not that 'OK' hinders a rush to impotability, which would be okay, but that it hinders attaining the depth of faith and therefore of worship that you folks advocate.


Continue to fight the good fight. 


8MM  It was good to hear from you again. Thank you for your gracious approval of our work. I wholeheartedly agree with you. If only someone in Milwaukee had pushed the "ON" button on that blender pictured in a recent issue of "Forward in Christ." However, one would be hard pressed to find a blender big enough to accommodate all the ingredients which are mixed into the strange brew which passes for worship in some places in the WELS and elsewhere today.


I think that the root problem is more than hinted at in the two articles, which you referenced, by Prof. Tiefel (the piece on "blended worship" and the "OK" article). I agree with Prof. Tiefel that shoddy worship preparation is not OK. However, it seems that those charged with oversight when it comes to worship in the WELS have given the OK imprimatur to worship practices which are not OK no matter how well they are presented. Gospel music, Christian contemporary worship, rites made up by people without liturgical discernment, lady lectors, etc. are not acceptable "alternate" forms of worship, but forms which breathe a spirit which is alien to confessional Lutheranism. In short, they are another Gospel. The issue is much more than being better prepared for the Lord's Day. The issue is the failure of those in the position of oversight to call a spade a spade.


As I look back upon my old synod, and gaze forward to a new association, I have to say, with deep regret, that things are very much not OK everywhere I look. But isn't that what Jesus told us to expect? (PMB)  §