Christian Worship Lectionary

When the Church gathers around Word and sacrament, it does so in the freedom of the Gospel. A congregation can choose worship forms from anywhere on the continuum that lies between what is commanded and what is forbidden in worship.

The commanded elements are: “that the Word be proclaimed; that the Sacraments be administered rightly; that the gatherings be done in Jesus’ name.”1 At the same time any word or action that is inconsistent with the Gospel must be barred from worship. Simple enough, right? “The peculiar problem in the formation of the worship service is posed by the wide area that remains between the two boundary lines of the absolutely forbidden and the absolutely commanded.”2

So while we enjoy great freedom in our worship, we also seek to be wise in our use of that freedom. How can we order our services to provide the best culture of the means of grace? How can we plan our public worship so that the congregation is fed by God, encourages fellow believers, and witnesses to the world in the best way we can?

For many centuries the Church exercised such wisdom by ordering its public worship around a tool we inherited from millions of other Christians across time, culture, and geography: the lectionary. These readings, prayers, and psalms appointed for Sundays and seasons are called the Propers. While the ordinary of the service remains stable, the lectionary provides the moving parts. Along with the Christian calendar, the lectionary provides the basis for the Church’s proclamation and the foundation on which its services, seasons, and songs are built.

When the development work on the new Christian Worship hymnal began, our church body was provided the opportunity to review and revise the lectionary from CW93. While many Christian denominations make use of a three-year lectionary, and while they share many common elements, there is no single three-year lectionary that is shared by a majority of Christians. The three-year lectionaries in use across Christendom often share the same Gospel reading, but after that they have become increasingly divergent.

So without a standard three-year lectionary to follow, the Scripture Committee set out to propose a revision. The goals for the CW lectionary were to be:

  • Historical. We wanted to respect the wisdom of the Church that has gone before us.
  • Ecumenical. Where we could share readings and seasons with the wider church, we would. If we had to choose between faith traditions, we would choose confessional Lutheran traditions.
  • Gospel centered. The Gospel for each day would set the theme for worship.
  • Thematic. All the proper appointments would thematically match the Gospel.

The results that CW offers to the Church are a revised calendar, a historic one-year lectionary, a three-year lectionary, a lectionary for minor festivals and occasions, and three volumes of Commentary on the Propers.

Three-year lectionary

The vast majority of WELS congregations use a three-year lectionary. This provides a set of readings for each liturgical year (A, B, C). Each year presents the Gospel in the voice of a different evangelist. Year A features Matthew; Year B, Mark; Year C, Luke. John’s voice is heard in Year B and in the Time of Easter in all three years. Christian Worship’s publication date means that the first liturgical year of its use will be Year C.

Calendars years divisible by 3 are always the beginning of Year A. So Advent of 2019 was the beginning of Year A; Advent 2020, Year B; and in November of 2021 Advent begins Year C.

Thematic Sundays are a chief feature of the new lectionary. In CW93 continual readings in the epistles meant that often there was no connection between the Second Reading and the theme for the Sunday. In the new lectionary, the second reading was selected to fit the theme for each Sunday. But what about all the other appointments? In the CW93 lectionary, especially in the Season after Pentecost, the Prayer of the Day, the Verse of the Day, and the Psalm of the Day often lacked connections to each other or the appointed readings. In the new lectionary all the following appointments will match theme of the day:

  • Readings 1, 2, Gospel
  • Prayer of the Day
  • Psalm of the Day
  • Gospel Acclamation
  • Hymn of the Day

The new lectionary largely retains the Gospels as they exist in the CW93 lectionary for historical and ecumenical reasons. The readings from the Gospels have the most correspondence to other lectionaries in use in wider Christianity. For example, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter in Year A, the same Good Shepherd Gospel (John 10:1-10) will be read in WELS, LCMS, ELS, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Anglican, Episcopalian, and other liturgical churches. Such commonality is a good reminder that while there are proper reasons for denominations to be divided now, all who call on Christ as Lord are united in the Holy Christian Church and will one day worship undivided before the throne.

The Gospel sets the theme for the Sunday, and every other appointment seeks to undergird that theme. The result is a lectionary that uses both the old and the new: While the Gospels didn’t change much, the rest of the appointments did. Of the over 400+ appointments in Year A, 45% differ from CW93.

While the Gospels didn’t change much, the rest of the appointments did. Of the over 400+ appointments in Year A, 45% differ from CW93.

Compared to the current lectionary, the First Reading in CW will offer more narrative in balance with prophecy. Many of the important Old Testament stories provide great preaching texts, and they will be found on Sundays where they support the theme of the Gospel. The First Reading will continue to feature readings from Acts during the Easter Season.

The Second Reading will no longer feature continual readings but will present the important content in a thematic context. While having a set of readings from a single book across several weeks provides an opportunity for preaching sermon series, this lectionary has gone away from that. Instead it seeks to provide a tightly coordinated set of propers for every Sunday. The central point of the Gospel will be reinforced by every appointment, lending a cohesiveness to the appointments that was often lacking in CW93. Of course, the Church is free to continue to use a lectio continua but this effort seeks to have series preaching based on the lectionary’s patterns (see Commentary on the Propers below).

The Prayer of the Day has a long history, and some of those prayers have been used by the Church for fifteen centuries. The new lectionary sought to preserve all the historic prayers, but to arrange them to ensure a thematic agreement with the Sunday. This is most noticeable in the Season after Pentecost. In the CW93 lectionary, the same prayer was appointed for each Sunday in years A, B, and C. Even though the readings were all different, the prayer was the same over all three years. This meant that if there was a connection between the Prayer of the Day and the readings it was serendipitous. The new lectionary features historic prayers, some newly translated ancient prayers, some newly written, but all in line with each Sunday’s theme.

The same is true of the Gospel Acclamation, which we used to call the Verse of the Day. This thematic statement from Scripture is meant to prepare the congregation to hear the reading of the Gospel. It is to be sung with alleluias, except during Lent. The hymnal provides easy to use congregational responses so you can sing a thematic, proper Gospel acclamation on any Sunday.

New items to note

While much of the new lectionary will feel familiar and comfortable, some changes to terminology, practice, and purpose did occur.

Some terminology changes are minor:

  • Readings instead of Lessons
  • Gospel Acclamation instead of Verse of the Day
  • Holy Thursday instead of Maundy Thursday
  • Season after Pentecost instead of Pentecost Season

More significant changes follow.

Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion

The lectionary retains traditional Palm Sunday readings. However, it reintroduces the 500-year-old practice of appointing the Triumphal Entry as a choice for the Gospel on Advent 1. This corresponds to historic practice, restores the Palm Sunday connection to many Advent hymns, and allows for a new practice called the Sunday of the Passion.

The idea comes from the fact that some of the most significant portions of the Gospels—the parts that tell the sufferings and death of our Lord—are not appointed to be read on Sundays. Certainly, they are read during Lenten midweek and Holy Week services. But what percentage of your congregation attends those? Could it be that for a majority of your worshipers, their Holy Week worship takes them from waving palm branches on Palm Sunday to shouting “Christ is risen,” on Easter without hearing a word about the sufferings and death of Jesus?

The Sunday of the Passion places the entire Passion History in front of God’s people on Palm Sunday. For example, the reading appointed for Year A is Matthew 26:1-27:66. Some congregations preach a sermon; others use a responsive reading of the Gospel in place of the sermon. In our congregation, the service begins with the procession of palms, then the reading of the Palm Sunday Gospel, and then the service continues with a responsive reading of the Passion History as appointed. This means that every Sunday worshiper hears the whole account of Holy Week annually in the voice of the evangelist for that year.

Pentecost and the Season after Pentecost

The Christian Church year has three divisions: the Time of Christmas (Advent to Transfiguration), the Time of Easter (Ash Wednesday to Pentecost), and the Time of the Church (Trinity to Last Sunday). The 1993 lectionary ended the Time of Easter with Easter 7 and began the Time of Pentecost with the festival of Pentecost. The new lectionary moves more in line with wider Christianity and puts Pentecost as the end and culmination of the seven weeks of Easter, as the last festival of the festival half of the Church Year.

The Time of the Church begins with the festival of the Holy Trinity on the first Sunday after Pentecost. So the name of the season changes. It’s not called the Pentecost Season, but instead the Season after Pentecost. In the Season after Pentecost there are 27 Sundays and the Last Sunday of the Church Year.

Proper system

The lectionary makes a major change by using the proper system to determine readings for the Sundays after Pentecost. The benefits of using this system include ties to wider Christianity, and the ease of determining the propers for the Sundays after Pentecost simply by their calendar date.

Here’s how it works. After the First Sunday after Pentecost (Holy Trinity), the assigned readings are determined not by a Sunday’s distance from Pentecost but by the calendar date on which it falls. The set of Sunday propers run from Proper 3 to Proper 28. (Propers 1 and 2 are used on weekdays, and so are not appointed in this lectionary.) If there are any propers that are not used because of the date of Easter, they come at the beginning of the season rather than at the end. Often, Propers 3-4 will not be used unless Easter is very early.

Each proper is assigned a range of dates by which it is paired with the Sunday on which it is used. For example, in the year 2021, the date of Pentecost is May 23, the date of Holy Trinity is May 30, so the next Sunday after Pentecost happens on June 6. This date falls in the range for “Proper 5— Sundays on June 5-11.” You would use Proper 5 readings on June 6, and then the Proper 6 readings on June 13, and so on.

Please note: Don’t call the Sunday “Proper 5” in the service folder. That’s just a reference to the set of readings. Definitely save or file your service folders and resources according to their Proper reference. It’s just not the name of the Sunday. In my congregation our service folder simply refers to them by their date in the Season after Pentecost. So next year the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost is July 17, 2022. We’ll list it in the service folder as “Sunday, July 17, in the Season after Pentecost.” But when we save a copy of the service folder it will be named “C-Proper11-2022-07-17.”

If this seems confusing, take heart. We will produce annual lectionary calendars that do all this work for you. It will look like the example shown here.

End times without End Time

The End Time Season was unique to WELS. Introduced in the 1993 hymnal, it was meant to create a fitting end to the Church Year with an eschatological focus. The new lectionary’s goals of historicity and ecumenicity led us to drop that uniquely WELS season. We want our church year to be ecumenical in the best sense of the word.

There is no End Time Season in the new lectionary. We definitely still remember the end times, just in ways that correspond to the wider church. The trajectory of each set of Gospel readings inevitably leads the Church to a focus on the coming judgment during the closing weeks of the Church Year. We recommend observing Reformation on the last Sunday in October and the Festival of All Saints on the first Sunday in November. The last Sunday of the Church year has two options: Last Sunday or Christ the King. The worship planner’s choice on the Last Sunday will dictate the choice of options for the following week on Advent 1. So on Last Sunday if the primary proper is used (Christ’s second coming), the primary proper is also used for Advent 1 (Christ’s triumphal entry). If the alternate proper is used (Christ the King), the alternate proper is also used for Advent 1 (Christ’s second coming).

Historic, Minors, and Occasions

The historic one-year lectionary in Christian Worship restores features that had been removed in our last hymnal. The pre-Lent –gesimas are back. So, too, the Latin Sundays of Easter. Quasimodo Geniti lives again. The Trinity season ends with Trinity 26 and Last Sunday.

Newly appointed occasions include Sanctity of Life, Military Service, Witness, Marriage and Family.

The minor festivals and occasions are fully resourced. The occasions that are frequently celebrated are given three sets of readings (Reformation, All Saints, Christian Education, Confirmation, Father’s Day, Missions, Mother’s Day, New Year’s Eve, Stewardship, Thanksgiving) to provide ample variety. Newly appointed occasions include Sanctity of Life, Military Service, Witness, Marriage and Family.

Commentary on the Propers

Worship planners performing long range, seasonal, or weekly planning benefit from having an understanding of the whole lectionary, the liturgical seasons, the direction of upcoming readings, and special features of each of the appointments. The Commentary on the Propers provides the tools needed.

This set of three books provides commentary on the propers assigned to each Sunday or festival. Designed to be the first resource pulled off the shelf when planning worship, each season, Sunday, and festival is treated in terms of its connection to the theme of the day and its place within the Church Year. This resource helps the worship planner know where they are, where they’re going, and what it all means.

Many pastors like to preach sermon series. These commentary volumes show that you don’t need to abandon the lectionary to do it. Special attention is given to the natural series that occur in the lectionary. In fact, there are sermon series provided for the entire Church year.

Logos Bible Software

The new lectionary will be available natively on Logos Bible Software. Simply search for Christian Worship and you will see two new options: Christian Worship One-Year Lectionary and Christian Worship Three-Year Lectionary.

 

By Jonathan E. Schroeder

Pastor Schroeder serves Faith, Sharpsburg, GA, a suburb of Atlanta. His duties beyond the parish are numerous: member of the Synodical Council, moderator of the Institute for Worship and Outreach, consultant for Schools of Outreach and for Schools of Worship Enrichment, and WELS Hymnal Project Executive Committee. He chaired the committee that produced the new lectionary.


1 Peter Brunner, Worship in the Name of Jesus, 221.
2 Brunner, 225.


See also FIC

See another article by Jon Schroeder in the August Forward in Christ. The FIC article focuses on the benefits of the new lectionary; this WTL article focuses also on understanding the design of the new lectionary and other propers.

Planning Advent through Epiphany

To assist those who do long range planning in summer, the Hymnal Introduction Committee has posted a planning tool for Advent through Epiphany. This tool includes far more than the new lectionary. It also contains:

  • Series themes and themes of the day (with explanations)
  • Hymn suggestions
  • Notes on new hymns that might benefit from advance planning
  • Two plans for introducing new musical settings of various canticles, one “conservative,” the other “ambitious”

Please note that no new canticle settings are suggested until Epiphany, giving musicians ample time to learn new settings.

Find this planning tool, Year C Advent through Epiphany, in the Look Inside section under the Resources tab at christianworship.com. At this location see also comments from Jon Hein about forthcoming resources from WELS Congregational Services that capitalize on this planning tool and new hymnal resources.

Supporting musical arrangements

At NPH (online.nph.net) search on ‘cw21choral’ to find arrangements of new hymns. Future information will assist with finding piano and organ service music settings.


 

 

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Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

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Preach the Word – Movements in Sermon Writing

I find that writing isn’t difficult. Sitting down to write—that’s difficult. The good lurking within my procrastination, fueling the fear at the edges of my work, is that it matters to me profoundly, this business of writing Word-saturated, Christ-obsessed sermons.

At last, I dare to step past the basics of preaching1 and to take up the writing task itself. As a message begins to emerge from the scribbles on my legal pad, the essential question becomes one of movement. Where to begin? Where am I heading? How will I get there?

As I take up these questions with you, I find myself entwined in the great homiletical debate between deductive and inductive styles. To tease out the differences, let’s consider two sermons based on Hebrew 5:7-10.

Sermon Introduction #1

What if I told you a story about a young pastor, early in his days of planting a church, carrying the weight of the world? He answers the phone, listens for a few moments, hangs up, walks down the basement stairs, closes the door behind him…and cries. What if I cried a little just telling you about it?

I can imagine two reactions. One: you’re embarrassed for me, put off by the show of weakness, rolling your eyes. You think, “Man, keep it together.”

But I can imagine another reaction. You think, “Of all the times I’ve heard him speak, now he has my attention. Maybe he’s like me. Maybe I could tell him things. I think he’d understand. Maybe he could help.”

The very thing that repels one person draws another. You might even wonder what was going on down there? What do they mean, those sounds coming up through the basement door?

It is just this way with Jesus. He scandalizes many—this weakness of God on display in the lowly Jesus carrying the weight of the world, God the Son crying and crying in the Garden. It is the very thing that has our attention and draws us in.

What’s going on, not down the basement stairs, but a stone’s throw away? What is the meaning of the “loud cries and tears” of Gethsemane.

Answer? The Son of God is being qualified to be the Savior of the world and the saving of you.

Deductive Preaching – Arguing from a Conclusion

A message that starts that way is on the deductive end of the continuum between deductive and inductive movement. I reached a conclusion in solitude about the telic note of Hebrews 5:7-10. My 60-second introduction was designed to prepare a compelling announcement of that day’s whole point. I left no one in suspense about what it was. In the “loud cries and tears” our Jesus is being qualified to be our Savior. I would not have hesitated to announce this theme in advance.

By “arguing from a conclusion” I only mean that it was a joy to spend the remainder and bulk of my time playing on my theme and sharing the rewards of my study, unpacking the big thought and establishing it by means of the assigned Word.

It seemed to me at the time to be the way that particular text was asking to be treated. I elected to offer that sort of clarity right up front given that there was plenty left to challenge my listeners. Our Jesus “learned obedience?” When was he ever not obedient? “Once made perfect?” Was he ever anything but perfect? I pulled out all the homiletical stops I know of in the form of illustration—of willingness made complete in the act—and application—we are being qualified by suffering, too, you know. Lord, we are learning, too.

And I dare to hope, under the blessing of Christ, that people walked away appropriating the deep beauty and consolation of that text.

There is no one who understands you like the lowly Jesus. No one who knows you the way he knows you. No one cares the way he cares. No one who could ever have saved you the way this one has saved you. That’s what you’re hearing from a stone’s throw away.

Sermon Introduction #2

Hebrews 5 has challenged me. I have feared that something is lost on me, whatever it was that caused Psalm 110 to be the most often quoted Psalm in the New Testament. The writer to the Hebrews thrills at the thought of Jesus as “priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.” To think that we have a king who is also a priest.

Um. Okay.

I have heard of priests and I know what kings are, but for most of my life I have felt no heart connection. The thrill doesn’t easily reach me.

I find I can’t go directly for the heart when I handle Hebrews 5. I need to drill down toward the heart through the head. There are things to study and grapple with, things to understand though they elude us until the Spirit lights them up.

To begin, let’s imagine the skyline of ancient Jerusalem dominated by two structures. The royal palace where the king sat amidst the trappings of royalty, power, and providence—here is one worthy of all your hopes. The holy temple where the priest serves in the aura of mystery, grace, and sacrifice—when he smiles at you, unworthy though you are, it is the smile of God.

The thing is, a man could be one or the other. Not both.

Was King David reflecting on that as he read the story of father Abraham and Melchizedek in the Torah? Did he think, “I can’t be both…but there was one once. There was a king who was also priest. There was a priest who was also a king.” Then the Spirit fell. Then true inspiration hit: “And there will be again!”

Inductive Preaching – Arguing to a Conclusion

I was, of course, just getting warmed up. There was more work to be done in Genesis 14 and Psalm 110. There was further still to go in the “uphill climb of understanding” before we could arrive at the “smooth downhill of revealing.”

That’s one way to think of inductive preaching, simplistic though it may be. Inductive movement may involve communicating both the challenge of the text as it first confronted us, as well as the way that challenge resolves, one way or another, in a fresh view of Christ crucified and raised. We share the part that perplexed or disturbed us on our way to a conclusion in which all that was dark is light, questions find answers, and the restless may rest.

That sense of missing something in the name Melchizedek—something that ought to have me leaping—is absolutely what challenged me about that portion of Hebrews 5. And because it was real, it was what I found most interesting.

It sounds cliché, but inductive preaching is intentional about leading hearers on a journey of discovery. I create an itch that needs scratching. I propose an honest dilemma, and then, well, I write my way out.

Inductive preaching is intentional about leading hearers on a journey of discovery.

Why Not Go Full-on Inductive?

The extreme arguments you encounter for inductive preaching would have us take a risk we are not willing to take, namely, that for all our cleverness, our listeners may not arrive at the truth at all. There is a radical position that smacks of Erasmus in his debate with Luther, namely, in his preferring questions over answers. To this Luther insisted that the Christian heart loves and lives off the assertions of God’s Word and its crystal-clear propositions. The predictableness of preaching that always comes around to Christ and him crucified is a good thing. No, it is the best thing.

Early in my days as a preacher, there is no doubt that when I ditched deductive preaching, I turned instead to a method I must now refer to as the “hot mess.”

Ultimately, the extreme version of the argument that takes inductive preaching to be the only preaching that shows respect for a modern audience does not honestly account for the deductive style of some of the most gifted and influential preachers of our time.

Settle on Deductive Preaching and Call It a Day?

An extreme argument for deductive preaching will be hard pressed to justify why it takes so few cues from the communication in the Bible itself with its absolutely stunning array of communication forms. There is a wildness to biblical revelation that we would only domesticate and diminish when room is not given for its prophets and poets to speak the way they speak—in love song and rescue story, smoky ritual and visions by the river. There is nothing obvious about a Burning Bush.

The exaggerated “deductive-only” rant could cause a preacher to deliver a theological treatise and say contentedly within himself, “I told them, so now they know.” He may give so much away in his published theme and parts that people feel little reason to listen.

He may casually assume that all come hungry to hear what he has to say. That hunger may need to be awakened, such as by that itch that begs for scratching, a puzzle that needs solving, a story that demands an ending, a song that disturbs for the way you hold back the final note.

A radical position prefers questions over answers.

A False Dichotomy

We need not huddle on the two ends of the continuum. Combining deductive and inductive elements keeps preaching fresh. Any time we aren’t saying something in the most straightforward way we possibly could—by penetrating questions, in narratives we don’t immediately explain, through images we hope to hang in the basement gallery of people’s hearts—we are being inductive. We’re leaving room for our listeners to complete the meanings we intend and be part of their own persuasion, making things more fully their own.

There can be entangling moments of induction within a deductive style that has no lack of clarity or authority. There can be resolution at the end of a measured time of disorientation.

None of us want our preaching to be vanilla. There is a sweet spot between numbing ambiguity and spoon-feeding. Perhaps we are not helping people on toward further outposts in Christian thinking and living when they know what we’re going to say before we say it.

The challenge, then, is that audiences are diverse with the need for both straightforwardness and discovery, what is unambiguous blended with what makes for that interesting car ride home.

There is a sweet spot between numbing ambiguity and spoon-feeding.

Genre Can Help

If my sermon text is a gorgeous psalm, I try to write elements of beauty into my message. Like a novel by Flannery O’Connor, my preaching may set grace against the blood and dead bodies of the Old Testament such as to make evil recognizable. If my text is an ancient story, I might bring it into conversation with a story of now. A provocative text asks for a provocative sermon. To say nothing of a visual text. A somber text. An ironic one.

If, on the other hand, my text is theologically dense and tightly constructed, an expository approach has wonderful possibilities. Why deconstruct and then reconstruct a text like that? Instead, set the context. Walk through verse by verse. Draw law and gospel to the surface and Christ into the frame, if he isn’t there already. Insert pictures and encouragements as the moment requires. Why not adhere to the agenda the Spirit has set?

Combining deductive and inductive elements keeps preaching fresh.

Might as Well Preach It

A kind reader of Preach the Word offered me this advice. I was unsure of where to go next on the topic of sermon writing. He suggested I include a longer excerpt of a sermon as a way to communicate indirectly what I’ve been trying to say all along.

So, if you’ll indulge me, where were we? Ah.

Melchizedek.

We were drilling down through the head and toward the heart.

I can be as foolish as the pagans for whom it’s all about the question: what do I have to do to get the deity to care? I can carry the weight of the world, but the Word reaches me again: “Cast all your care on him.” Toss ‘em like a backpack tossed across your dorm room. Throw them on the one with the scars in his palms.

He cares for you.

Or think of Isaiah mocking the pagans for the gods they fashioned from wood and stone and then had to carry around on their own backs—heavy things hunching them over. I can be that foolish and that exhausted, trusting in things I have to carry around myself. But the News reaches me again.

There is one who carries me.

We haven’t seen the last of anxiety and shame. But I can welcome them when I see how strongly they play in my bondedness to Jesus—in the fact that I will always need him.

What I need is a king.

I require a king to adore, a king who can subdue me, carry on his rule of peace in this busy mind and this troubled heart. I need the king who will consummate his kingdom, the new Jerusalem descending from the sky.

What I need is a priest.

I am capable of so much shame, the great self-inflicted wounding. Sometimes I don’t want to show my face. It is just then he shows me his. He smiles on me with the smile of God, honors me, clothes me in beauty, covers my disgrace with a righteousness that is all him and none of me. I see it now.

I need a king who is also a priest. I need my priest to also be my king.

I need to know that wherever I am and whatever I am doing, the one who prays for me is the one at the center of all things, holding all things together by his powerful Word. And when I stand before him on that day, the King of the universe, the Lord of all there is, I will be standing before the one who laid his body down.

(Long pause.)

This will sound strange, but I walked through the cemetery near my house early this morning and threw a rock as far as I could. I actually did that. That was me naively wondering just exactly how far is “a stone’s throw away.” I don’t have a great arm…but it’s pretty far. I wanted to see for myself.

Can you picture it? Have you ever been able to hear someone not only crying from that far away, but you were even able to make out the words? Imagine. The loud cries and tears go on and on. At last it gets quiet. For the moment, he’s all prayed out.

Abba, your will be done.”

Here prays a king for all your fears, a priest for all your shame. A lone cross juts up from the landscape of human history. It dominates our horizon. Here the blood of royalty mingles with the tears of a priest.

Melchizedek! (I say this with a fist against my chest. You see it, right?)

Melchizedek!

Here is the name for the heart’s greatest affection. There is no one who understands you like the lowly Jesus. No one who knows you the way he knows. No one who cares the way he cares. None other could have saved you the way he has saved you. Blessed be the name. Amen.

The Moment the Preacher Dies

Guru of adult education, Jane Vella, steals a thought from Paolo Freire about “the moment the teacher dies.” They disagree only about whether both student and teacher recognize it when it arrives. It’s about what happens when the teacher truly joins those she means to serve in the task of learning, a student among students.

By “the moment the preacher dies,” I mean something else. Someone asked me what I pray for as I bow my head before reading my text. There are several variations on the theme. But whatever else I say to my God in that moment, I always also say what I learned in a garden:

“Not my will but yours be done.”

I know what I want to happen next. What do you want to happen, Abba? Honestly, preaching you still thoroughly humbles me. And so, because ultimately there’s my way and there’s your way, let it go your way.

As for me, let me die in this moment to all self-concern and to every doomed identity. Let me die outright to the hunger to be well thought of. But this—this preaching Christ crucified—it still scares me because of how much it matters.

I am willing to be disturbed, yearning, and unfinished until you, Lord, release the final note.

Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

As I lift my head, as I stand here, it is enough to take a good long look at the faces turned toward me and love them, even as I am loved. It is enough to be forgiven and to be, even now, on my way home.

Written by Mark Paustian

Dr. Paustian is a professor of communication and biblical Hebrew at Martin Luther College where he teaches “Advanced Christian Rhetoric” which combines an introduction to homiletics and an introduction to apologetics in one course. He holds a PhD in Communication from Regent University.

1 The previous five articles in this series were titled “Joy and Confidence from the Basics.”


WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

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Preach the Word – Joy and Confidence from the Basics – Part 5

You’ve heard that communication is 93% nonverbal. What does this say about sermon delivery? Clearly, we ought to spend way more time than we do in front of our mirrors, and we ought to endure way more agony watching recordings of ourselves. We ought to stop fussing so much over the careful crafting of words.

Why? Because everybody knows that only 7% of communication is verbal, while 38% is vocal, and 55% is facial—this famous breakdown still appears in graduate-level communication textbooks.

Nonsense!

Albert Mehrabian’s study from over fifty years ago was about the interpretation of the emotional state of other people. That’s a crucial distinction. “How are you?” I ask, and in that moment, the language of groans or laughter takes over. If I mean to communicate caring, what I say has to make sense within the total richness of my nonverbal display. Of course.

Our words will not tend to be convincing when our nonverbal cues are pulling in a different direction entirely. Do you believe someone who shouts, “Alright! I’m sorry!” as he slams the door? Not a chance. How about a friend who sighs, “I’m fine,” with her wet eyes glued to the floor?

Somewhere within these commonsense observations hides the fact that sermon delivery is not irrelevant. My preaching is not all it can be if I say that there is joy in knowing Jesus but you never see it in me. Surely, we want to avoid the “performative contradiction” of speaking vital things while the entirety of our person is loudly saying something else. By the help of God, we can do better than that.

Ideals of Sermon Delivery

I once conducted an experiment in which I quoted John 3:16 in six straight sermons. There wasn’t much premeditation. I was just wondering how many Sundays it would take for the words to start to feel tired and overworked. How long before someone would comment, “Really, pastor? Again with John 3:16?” That day never came.

It was something I read in The Normal Christian Life, by Watchman Nee1 and which I have seen since in Kierkegaard’s notion of an “existence communication.” The idea is simply to “be in the words as you say them”—to exist in them. No going on automatic pilot. No having the words just sort of roll off the tongue in a thoughtless recitation. Speak slowly and think deeply about what you are saying.

“For God…so loved…the world…”

This takes a little practice, that is, handling something so familiar in this way. So practice I did.

“…his One and Only Son…that whoever believes in him…will not perish…”

It turns out I overdid it. On Sunday #6, I tried to speak but was completely overwhelmed.

“…but will have eternal life.”

That wasn’t the point. We aren’t going for drama here, nor are we trying to manufacture an affecting display of feeling. All the sincerity in the world adds nothing to the inherent power of the Spirit married to his Word. No, all we are after is simply a genuine communication. I find that being in the words as I say them, for the most part, lets delivery take care of itself.

Being in the words as I say them, for the most part, lets delivery take care of itself.

About sermon delivery in general, Bryan Chapell writes, “Congregations ask no more and expect no less of a preacher than truth expressed in a manner consistent with the personality of the preacher and reflective of the import of the message.”2 Let’s unpack that.

Chapell argues that the “elocution movement,” with its standards for how every speaker should gesture, stand, and sound, has been dead for over a century. The rhetorical style that has long won the day is to “sound like ourselves when we are deeply interested in a subject.”3

I agree. As you deliver your message, work within your own personality—“you do you”—but show us the man who is captivated by the cross. Show us that version of you, the one who is entirely invested in what you are saying, transparently affected by it. It means the world to you. As I wrote earlier, we can tell that you are being put back together by the News you deliver.

“For God…so loved…the world…”

I tell my eager students in their introduction to homiletics: “Show me that guy!” And they do. Brothers, you would be delighted to see it.

I remember one of my favorite preachers, a beloved seminary professor, who would scarcely move a muscle when he preached. He worked within a personality that was both brilliant and unassuming. He quite simply let the words do all the work. There is much to commend that.

However, that may be overstated. Just as you “cannot not communicate,”4 a preacher cannot not have a delivery. The content of his sermons was so rich and pitched so steeply that it required expert inflection to make his meaning transparently clear and the pausing of a seasoned veteran to give his words room to play on our minds. If you knew the man, you would not want him to do it any other way.

The best delivery calls little attention to itself. What we hope for is that, as the power of Christ rests on faithful proclamation, people are hanging on the words. Whatever spell we may cast in our preaching can be broken by a distracting mannerism or unnatural modulation as people wake up to the fact that, “Oh that’s right, I’m listening to a sermon.” Pray God they hardly notice us at all.

The best delivery calls little attention to itself.

“Working within our own personalities” will have as many looks as there are preachers, and I can think of plenty of good men for whom “not moving a muscle” in their delivery would itself be a strange attention-arresting choice.

At any rate, the small attention we are here paying to issues in communication can, I hope, be justified by an observation our fathers made. People don’t only receive the Word of God spiritually, that is, through the ministrations of the Spirit working through his Word. People also receive the Word of God psychologically. That is to say: a whole array of human processes is involved with all communication, and those don’t somehow cease to function because we happen to be communicating God’s Word.5

Our preaching needs to be heard, understood, attended to, and held. And we can certainly stand in the way by violating the expectations of the moment or by contradicting the what of our communication by our how.

People also receive the Word of God psychologically.

After all, the fact that we “cannot not communicate” means that our nonverbal communication flows in a steady, unstoppable stream, one you cannot be thinking about all the time. We make more or less constant commentary on who and what matters, and it is mostly unintentional. This means that “communication leakage” is likely happening. In other words, we may need to do a gut check. What do we actually feel about the people we speak to, about the undeserved privilege of the moment, and about the things that we trying to put into words? Because, so goes the theory, all this will leak out of us.

People will see us. In the long run, people will know.

I hope that one humble article in Preach the Word is not too much emphasis to place on striving to have our delivery pulling in the same direction as our content—“For God so loved the world…”—and to have our whole person contribute a loud “Amen!”

So say my face, my eyes, my voice, my very body:

“This matters! And so, people of God, do you.”

How to Read the Written Word

The Church has a stewardship of the spoken Word. We Christians still attend to sacred words on a page that are allowed to animate a human voice and are given room to charge with holiness the physical spaces in which we gather. It is a seminal moment, this opening of a Bible, this “Hear, now, the Word of the Lord.” It is one of those key features in the life of a congregation when our hard-won means of grace theology becomes actual in our midst.

That happens as we bring our whole selves to the act, and when we linger over the assigned readings for the day. The thought and care we give to the public reading of the Scriptures—or don’t—is revealing us.

If people are pretty sure they are seeing us read a biblical excerpt for the first time as we stand before them, what does that say? What communication would be leaking out of us if we start our sermons by reading our text out of a Bible and then ceremoniously tuck the thing away? Holy Scripture was the prelude; now for the main event? Here’s another gut check: how, in our heart of hearts, do we really feel about the words of God versus our own? Are our words—are we?—the bright star on the homiletical stage? God forbid. What a humble, glorious activity it is:

“Devote yourselves to the public reading of Scripture…” (1 Timothy 4:13).

Be in the words as you read them, and you will not say without inflection or pause: “Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many people” (Matthew 24:5). Have a downward sentence-ending inflection on the word “Christ” and then a healthy pause, or you risk distorting the meaning entirely.6

Be in the words as you say them, and you will perhaps not emphasize the word “and” when you speak the invocation—“…AND of the Son, AND of the Holy Spirit”—but instead the thrice-holy name of the Triune God.7

Think of what you are saying—here’s a pet peeve—and we won’t suffer the annoyance of, “On the third day, Christ rose AGAIN.”

Let’s return to the positive, better, to the joy. Take a closer look at that gorgeous paragraph from Jesus that begins, “In my Father’s house are many rooms…” (John 14:2) Sense the fresh way it can strike the heart when, on the basis of close reading and a robust understanding, you realize you want to change up the inflection and pace in ways you haven’t heard done before.

Which word or words will you inflect in the phrase, “In my Father’s house?” A weighty question, don’t you think? Can you make a good decision on the fly? I don’t think so. With a little preparation you will know to have Jesus answer the question of Thomas, “How can we follow when we do not know the way?” with a well-inflected “I” as in, “I am the Way (long pause) and the TRUTH (inflect this as a new thought and pause) and the LIFE (inflect and pause)” (John 14:6).

Which words will we inflect? Well, which words are being contrasted, such as “flesh” and “spirit” in Romans 8? What new thought is being introduced? What wordings, such as “and IF I go and prepare a place for you,” are a repetition and therefore can be read more quickly so as to get to the reason for the sentence?

I. Will. Come. Back.

Think about those words as you lock eyes with the weary and the anxious. I dare you.

The Particulars

I mentioned earlier that delivery can, for the most part, take care of itself. When we are in command of our message, preaching can be an authentic communication that is to die for. If the first time we preached we saw before us only that unpleasant phenomenon of a sea of “resting faces,” you have learned with experience how much more than that is going on. Beautiful, honest, urgent things pass between the under-shepherd and his flock if he can only be enough in the moment to receive them.

The reason I say “for the most part” is that a little further study of sermon delivery may reveal areas in which our instincts are not perfectly informed. We can still grow.

I recently had Jason Teteak, author of Rule the Room, in the class in which I introduce homiletics to future pastors. To say the least, he raised the bar. I recommend his book. It emerged out of his analysis of thousands of speeches. Having given little thought to my own delivery for decades, the experience was good for me.

Can you make a good decision on the fly? I don’t think so.

I learned that I need to close my mouth when not speaking. Didn’t know that. I learned that to raise my voice to unnatural levels is not as effective as speaking with quiet intensity (as much as a sound system allows). I learned that inflecting upward conveys excitement, but at the end of a sentence, it can convey far less credibility and conviction than a downward inflection does. I’ve learned that the whole range of vocal variety—thoughtful changes in tone, pace, volume, inflection—can be part of the ways I hold attention or regain it for the highest moments in my sermon. These are non-discursive symbols that do not translate into words but, instead, are felt as qualities. I’m learning not to fill in my pregnant pauses with vocal noises—I’m trying to empty them of “ums” and “ahs.” Again, good things happen in the silent spaces we create.

I learned that there are four rhetorical styles that can characterize a preacher—his sweet spot—and that there are risks involved with emulating someone if it’s just not who we are.8

I’ve learned to ask myself, “What do I want my listeners to feel in this moment?” Rather than merely perform that emotion, the thing is to actually feel and display that very thing on my face. I’ve learned what to do with my hands if I am not a “hand talker.” I’ll find a comfortable default position in which to rest my hands, and then I’ll scour my manuscript to create a few meaningful gestures to go with various wordings and which will enhance a few of my most important thoughts. Less is more.

I’ll scour my manuscript to create a few meaningful gestures to go with various wordings.

I’ve learned about “targeted” movements, gestures, and facial expressions that are an additional way to bring attention to specific words or phrases. I’ve learned about dividing the space into which I’m speaking into a grid of nine quadrants and randomly spread my attention around with a few seconds in each at a time. I try not to leave any part of the room out so that I am not saying, ‘The love of God is for all of you…especially those of you on my right where I am always turned.” I’m learning to meet eyes in a Goldilocks moment of a little under a second—not too little, not too much.

I think about these things a bit as I write and prepare. Then I set them aside.

Lord, help me forget myself.

A Rare Both/And

Some of us are gentle. Some of us are bold. We tend to lean one way or another. In a term from Timothy Keller’s book, Preaching, we strive to preach with “warmth and force” as qualities that combine uniquely in the character of Jesus.

We do not hide that we are weak or decorate our jars of clay. We have taken the disappointing journey inside. This informs our gentle humility and fuels all our compassion. We know what sin is—people can tell that, too. We can dare to be sinners.

And we rise with power and authority on loan from God. We stand up with things to say before which queens and kings ought to bend their knees. We pour our treasure out.

Conclusion

I am fascinated by the way nonverbals cues and channels intersect with spoken words. What if we heard Jesus say, “No servant is greater than his Master,” but never saw him on his knees washing the feet of his friends? Would we understand? John comments, “He now showed them the full extent of his love” (John 13:2).

He showed them.

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me!” (Luke 22:42) What if you only heard the words but did not see him fall. Meanings leak out of him like great drops of blood.

Later on, he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe” (John 20:27).

My Lord, how you speak with your hands! My God, the body language of the Word made flesh!

The Gospel writers saw significance in dozens of nonverbal cues in the life of Christ: the touching of the leper, the drawing in the sand, the loud cry from the cross, the frying of fish on the shore—all the beautiful ways he delivers his lines. He came to join with us in the full richness of human connection and to fully share in our human stuff.

These cues accumulate in a thing we find convincing, by the grace of God. They accent the words that overwhelm.

“For God so loved the world…”

 

Written by Mark Paustian

Dr. Paustian is a professor of communication and biblical Hebrew at Martin Luther College where he teaches “Advanced Christian Rhetoric” which combines an introduction to homiletics and an introduction to apologetics in one course. He holds a PhD in Communication from Regent University.

1 Watchman Nee was a prominent figure in the house-church movement in China.
2 Christ-Centered Preaching. Baker, 2005, 329.
3 ibid.
4 This is a famous contribution from Paul Watzlawick.
5 On this point see Jon Hein, “Treasures in Jars of Clay: The Synergy Between the Instrumental and Ministerial Causes in God’s Plan of Salvation” at essays.wisluthsem.org.
6 See How to Speak the Written Word by Nedra Newkirk Lamar (Revell, 1967) for guidance on pause and inflection as an aid to understanding the spoken Word.
7 This is a soft example. It is not to suggest that the “and” is not meaningful. Try it both ways and see if you don’t agree.
8 See Jason Teteak’s Rule the Room (Morgan James, 2014) for more information.


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Earliest New Hymnal Adopters

As I write this article in the last days of March, at least 50 congregations have already preordered the new hymnal (or decided to do so), sometimes also with a quantity of the psalter. In contrast, a few people have asked how they can be expected to consider purchasing something they haven’t yet had a chance to thoroughly review. I’ll speak to that a bit later. But first some thoughts about my assumptions and some comments from the earliest adopters.

Not every congregation

Pressure and anticipation for a new hymnal in 2021 is simply not as high as it was in 1993. So leaders from both the hymnal project and NPH recognize that adoption will likely be at a different pace than the rapid and almost universal adoption of CW93 in the mid-1990s. And that’s perfectly fine. No one is saying that all good synodical team players should quickly jump on board.

Further complicating decisions is a year of pandemic. So here, again, is a comment from the September 2020 WTL: “Hymnal project leaders recognize that not every congregation will want to or be able to adopt the new hymnal in 2021. Reasons include COVID uncertainties, tightened budgets, and uncertain futures. This article isn’t meant to ignore those realities but only to encourage review and planning in whatever way seems appropriate.”

But as many as possible

Granting that not every congregation will adopt the new hymnal in 2021, there still is benefit in many doing so—benefit to the congregations, not merely to the success of the project.

A few years ago, the Commission on Worship and its consultants were busy with Schools of Worship Enrichment. Over 12 years we served 291 congregations, coast to coast, large and small, young and old, growing and declining. Those who served these weekend events noticed two contrasting challenges to implementing a vision of creative, flexible, and satisfying liturgical worship. The obvious challenge came from some who wondered if we needed to abandon a liturgical format and heritage hymns to reach or retain the people we want to serve. The less obvious challenge came from those who seemed content with varying degrees of uncreative and inflexible implementations of liturgical worship. It’s not surprising that some would want “something more” than that approach to worship.

The resources were always there for enriching Lutheran worship with alternate canticles and new hymns in varied musical styles accompanied by instruments far more diverse than the solo organ that commonly led worship. But many pastors and musicians didn’t have the vision or ability to implement this “enriched Lutheran worship.”1

Now the new hymnal suite richly provides options that can help both of the challenges described above—as well as support congregations without either challenge. The church that prefers an ensemble to an organ (or both in rotation on different weekends) will find the music they need for two musical settings of the primary Sunday service. Same for many hymns. A church that formerly relied mostly on organ, whose musicians lacked time or ability to involve other instruments, will find a wealth of resources.

Such options reinforce a healthy bias that project director Michael Schultz mentioned in the previous article in this series: “I am strongly biased toward having the congregation predominantly (not exclusively) sing the hymns, psalms, and ritual songs that have been curated and published by our church body.”2 In the past such a bias might have been heard to support a narrow musical bandwidth that wouldn’t be labeled flexible and creative. That was never the intent. But now the new hymnal suite makes it far easier to implement goals of flexibility and creativity.

So I urge “as many as possible” with conviction that it’s good for congregations across a synod to share a worship philosophy and core worship resources.

It’s good for congregations across a synod to share a worship philosophy and core worship resources.

NPH and the Commission on Worship

These two synodical entities have different if complementary roles. NPH is a business and a ministry, your ministry partner. From them you have received promotional materials and a preorder option. They sell products at price points that enable them to continue serving in their role.

The Commission on Worship is not a business but only a ministry partner concerned with many aspects of worship enrichment. One of the biggest opportunities for worship enrichment comes along only every 30-40 years: the release of a new hymnal. So communications from the C/W will share introductory resources and urge adoption of the new hymnal. We do this not from a business perspective but purely from a ministry perspective.

Comments from earliest adopters

To assist congregations that have not yet ordered the new hymnal, I polled some that have already ordered and asked three questions. Various answers are included below with the hope that they might be helpful to other congregations. The congregations represented are from all over the country and range in average attendance from 38 to 560. State abbreviations follow most comments.

How did you build consensus to make an early decision, long before able to review the pew edition and other volumes?

We started early singing songs we understood would be included and made a point of telling people the song would be part of the new hymnal. We talked about it in our leadership meetings and with the congregation that this was just what we do: new hymnal comes out, and so we will be using the new hymnal. People were looking forward to new songs and sounds, so it was a fairly easy sell. ~SC

There wasn’t much of a debate as to whether we would adopt the new hymnal. We participated in multiple field tests for the hymnal, plus the congregation was aware of the work I was doing on the Scripture Committee. We already have ordered hymnals and psalters to put in the pew racks (enough to make sure we meet the minimum for the Service Builder discount). We also plan to subscribe to the Service Builder. The only item that caused some discussion was the number of physical hymnals to order, since we have for a long time printed the entire service (hymns included) in the service folder. However, the combination of needing to purchase a certain number for the Service Builder discount and the understanding that having physical hymnals in pews for people to look at and use in addition to the service folder is valuable for members and guests alike made that discussion rather brief. ~KY

How much longer do we need to wait?

Our two pastors and staff minister decided early on they wanted to purchase the whole shebang, and took it to our elders, and it was easily approved. We are paying for it mostly with memorial money that was donated specifically for this purpose. As I’m sure is the case with many congregations, we removed all our old hymnals from the pews for COVID-related reasons, which will make the physical transition even easier! We’re also going to open it up to any members who want to personally purchase anything, and add their orders to our one big church order. I feel everyone at our church has been really open to the switch! ~WI

The process for building a consensus to make an early decision began more than ten years ago. We are liturgical in our worship style but have adopted any number of songs and services over the years to introduce new formats. For Advent and Lenten services, for example, we started with Compline 2, found a version of Psalm 91 that we liked better, and mixed and matched a couple of other elements and/or changed pieces for one year along the way. The people like these services, so it isn’t hard for them to be excited about a new hymnal which will facilitate trying some additional new services. ~MI

Our decision was never really a struggle. The congregation has a long history of making use of the musical resources that the synod makes available. Our people here have embraced many of the hymns and liturgies from the supplement, and are already familiar with many of the Getty tunes that will appear in the new hymnal. For our congregation, it wasn’t ever really a question of “Will we choose to get the new hymnal?” but “How much longer do we need to wait?” ~GA

What was your funding process? Budgetary over two years, plus special gifts, or what?

Purchasing the new hymnal was part of our five-year plan. We had little discussion. 47 out of 100 hymnals are paid for as of early March with the methodology pictured above. Strictly special gifts. Many of the other books have also been purchased for the church. ~IL

We started at least two years in advance by setting aside $2000 in our ministry plan and then made it part of our special projects list. (We share this list with people who want to make a special donation or give a memorial.) We had planned to use a special “buy a hymnal” drive this year, but a member gave a large gift as a memorial and covered the cost. Another member recently contacted me to offer to pay for the new hymnal and other volumes. So in our case, it was just something people were drawn to support. Blessed! ~SC

We were going to do “combination of budget/congregational gifts” over this year. But someone was very blessed in the recent stock market run-up and came in wanting to make a gift and paid for the first batch of hymnals/psalter/resources in one shot. So, I was able to say at elders, “Well, this is the cost I’d ask you to approve…and please know that it is already paid for…” which made the decision easier. They would have said yes anyway, but they also simply assume (as I think our council does) that our synod is putting out a new hymnal and a) we’ve been using some of those resources already and b) we’d of course just go along and adopt it. ~WI

Please know that it is already paid for.

We had talked about “every member buy two,” one for them and one for the pew. Decided not to go that route as we’ve received gifts already of $9,000 for it without it even being advertised outside of Elders/Council. We are all in to the tune of about $12,000. ~WI

A few years ago a member left a gift to the congregation in his estate. He had a deep love for worship music. We used a portion of his estate to purchase a grand piano. When the hymnal’s budget planning worksheet was made available, the council realized that the remaining portion of the gift would cover the cost of the new hymnals. At the same time, we do plan on inviting people to use the offering envelopes to make a special gift to the hymnals in the expectation that we can stretch our worship budget a bit further yet. ~GA

Are you ordering the psalter? If so, for pews or just choir?

We are ordering 25 copies to start for choir and small group use. We plan on purchasing 300 hymnals for the sanctuary and choir. We will subscribe to Service Builder and purchase multiple copies of the hymn and liturgy accompaniment books. We will purchase 30 copies of the psalter for the choir. ~MN

Any other unique stories that would provide interest for the article or quotes from members?

Nothing really unique, except our people are very excited. ~TX

Our worship committee was very excited to see the wealth of materials available at a substantially lower cost than first anticipated. We had committed early on to books in the pews for a number of reasons; the pricing structure made that a no-brainer from an economic standpoint, as well. ~WI

There is a bit of frustration expressed in that there are a number of TBD items and details connected with the new Christian Worship. Yet, I know the project is very ambitious in its scope and timetable for publication.3 ~MN

The pricing structure made books in the pews a no-brainer.

The National Conference on Lutheran Leadership [January 2020] was an incredible help. We were able to bring five members of the congregation, including our office administrator and two council members. We all left the conference deeply impressed with every aspect of the hymnal showcased there: the support volumes, the Service Builder, and above all, the worship services. It allowed those members to be strong early advocates for the hymnal. ~GA

It’s been decided we will gift all our organists/pianists with their own copies of all the accompaniment books (we have six accompanists), which I thought was super generous of the leadership. ~WI

We all left the conference deeply impressed with every aspect of the hymnal showcased there.

We look forward to many instrumental parts already prepared. I play trumpet, we have an occasional violinist, a couple of guitar players, some hand drums, a flute, a penny-whistle player, if you can believe that, and some other people we are trying to get involved with occasionally playing a piece. Pre-transposed pieces and other various options are exciting to the special music people who are looking forward to getting their hands on these resources.4 ~MI

At Trinity, Waukesha, we are at an advantage since we’ve been almost exclusively using new service music, hymns, psalms, etc. for all our services since Advent (Year C, one year ahead of other WELS congregations to help prepare planning resources for other churches next year).5 There have been many positive comments on the new hymns, revised texts, and service music. ~WI

Confidence in the project

Now, back to a question posed in the first paragraph: how can a congregation consider purchasing something they haven’t yet had a chance to thoroughly review? Perhaps the comments above from diverse congregations around the country can help to answer the question.

Another confidence-building factor is the caliber of those serving on the hymnal project’s Executive Committee. It has been a highlight of my almost 40 years in the ministry to work with these men, people with both sound theological grounding and practical parish experience. It is a testimony to the confidence that our synod can rightly have in this committee that one member was a seminary professor, two others accepted calls to the seminary during the project, two others have declined calls to the seminary, and two others have served as professors or administrators at synodical schools. Furthermore, every word in the new hymnal has been scrutinized by a doctrinal review process.

In closing I emphasize again that the hymnal project recognizes that congregations are in different places as far as decisions and timelines. This article doesn’t intend to lobby but to provide perspectives from the congregations cited. Still, whether you preorder soon or don’t even think about the new hymnal this year, we hope that eventually the vast majority of congregations will adopt the new hymnal just as we did in the years following 1993.

By Bryan Gerlach

Pastor Gerlach, a member of the hymnal project Executive Committee, has served as Director of the Commission on Worship since 1996. Previously he served parishes in El Paso, TX, and Citrus Heights, CA. He regularly plays organ and piano in two Milwaukee-area churches.

 


As far as the funding process goes, this is the announcement we’ve been running in our bulletin.

Pass on the Legacy with Our New Hymnal

If you could make an investment that would positively impact someone for at least 30 years, wouldn’t you want to do that? You have that opportunity with the release of our new hymnal. Christian Worship will be released for the fall of 2021. This new hymnal will be the staple of Eastside’s worship for the next generation. Combining the best from past traditions with the best from current resources, Christian Worship keeps the gospel at the heart of our worship, kindling the joy of worship on every page. To fit our congregation’s needs, we need 400 hymnals. That’s a $9600 investment. We’ve enjoyed the benefits of our hymnal for the past 30 years. Wouldn’t you like to be part of this new 30-year investment? Could you prayerfully consider donating one hymnal to Eastside for each member of your family? Think of the impact you can make! If you have any questions, please speak with Pastor Berg.

By early March, we’ve raised over $8000 of $9600. That’s without any special drive. Those are just individual gifts above and beyond regular offerings. As of right now, we are only ordering a few copies of the psalter. But if we receive more than $9600, we will order copies of the psalter for choir use. ~WI


1 This is not a careless and unfounded generalization. Survey data from those 291 SoWE congregations clearly supports the observation.
2 “A Wealth of Accompaniment Options,” March 2021. Back issues are available at worship.welsrc.net.
3 Most of 20 resources are coming out at the same time in the fall of 2021. Compare that to the years following 1993 when only the hymnal and manual were released. The Handbook came out in 1997, the Altar Book in 1999, Occasional Services and Pastor’s Companion in 2004.
4 Instrumental parts with transpositions will be provided by CW: Musician’s Resource.
5 The hymnal project director is a member of this church. The planning resource mentioned will be released in summer. For a detailed analysis of this church’s needs, see “Trinity Hymnals,” a supplemental online doc at the link in note 2.


New at christianworship.com

“Why a New Hymnal?” This bulletin insert is newly added to a ZIP of other bulletin inserts. It came about from a pastor’s request for something very simple as opposed to “visit the website.” It may be useful to share before a decision-making group meets or simply to build interest for the arrival of the new hymnal. Find it in the Publicity Toolkit link under Resources.

The Wedding Rite in the New Christian Worship” – an article by Prof. Jonathan Micheel from the Spring 2021 issue of Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly.

Coming later this year: a variety of introductory videos useful not only for evaluating and understanding hymnal project choices but also for exploring and using various resources.


 

 

 

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Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

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WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

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A Wealth of Accompaniment Options

Church acoustics consultant Scott Riedel is in the habit of saying that an ideal geometric shape for a worship space looks like a shoe box turned on its side. Horizontally it has a definite long and short axis, and vertically it has enough ceiling height to provide a proper reverberation. Carpet is minimal, if not absent. If newer, the floor might be tile or finished concrete; if older, it likely is hardwood planks. I’ve been in a few sanctuaries like that, including the one I first frequented as a young child. Today, when I take a seat in a live acoustic space like that, I look forward to enjoying one thing in particular—you can hear the people sing.

Liturgical ensembles

These days, more often than was the case a decade or longer ago, the seat I take in the worship space is occasionally a 24” high, four-legged stool. A guitar is on my lap and a music stand in front of me. Nearby are an amp, a piano, and a mic stand or two for the cantor(s). I occasionally play with the ensemble at Trinity Lutheran in Waukesha, WI, or I’m on the road for a conference or Bible class, sampling psalms, hymns, and ritual music from the new hymnal resources.

Years ago, it was rare for me to participate from my four-legged stool. While serving as a parish pastor for 24 years, my guitars and amp most often stayed at home. Part of that was for personal reasons. I had no desire to “feature myself” as far as playing guitar for worship. Nor were either of the two congregations I served necessarily ready for that kind of instrumentation. They had been in “organ-only” mode for virtually all of their existence. Piano was not used for congregational singing, and I would still say that, in most cases, a single acoustic guitar, even when amplified, is not well-suited to lead congregational singing.

But there was another issue, one that Don Chapman (hymncharts.com) wrote about: “In 2002, as a new music director at a church plant, people in my congregation were complaining that I wasn’t including hymns in my praise sets. I wasn’t including them because back in those days, there weren’t any! So I started arranging my own.” I don’t have raw data to cite, but anecdotally, I get the impression that two to three decades ago, Lutheran musicians who played instruments other than the organ were in some cases channeled toward commercial Christian arrangements, in great part because those were the only arrangements available for their instruments. There were, of course, a few hymns found in Lutheran hymnals, known by Lutheran worshipers, sung across a broader swath of Christianity, and arranged for ensemble instruments. But twenty years ago, just a few.

The scope of this article does not cover the difference between commercial worship songs and familiar hymns. But if it did, a key point would be the difference between songs that are more suited to trained singers and hymns that can be sung by the whole assembly. I, of course, have a bias, and it’s not just against worship songs that tend to be more soloistic and in favor of hymns that are familiar and were written for group singing. I am strongly biased toward having the congregation predominantly (not exclusively) sing the hymns, psalms, and ritual songs that have been curated and published by our church body.

I am strongly biased toward having the congregation predominantly (not exclusively) sing the hymns, psalms, and ritual songs that have been curated and published by our church body.

In recent decades, that’s where the rub has been. Liturgical ensemble arrangements of “our” materials have not been available in any kind of abundance at all. By no fault of its own, our publishing house has not published individual hymns arranged for a liturgical ensemble. In the past, the few resources in this genre were typically found in collections in which some titles would not be found in our hymnal. Such a small supply of resources can, of course, result in the same kind of overboard repetition that some Lutheran congregations have run into with non-Lutheran arrangements—twenty songs that get repeated every six or seven weeks. I hope that’s not an inaccurate caricature; it’s what I have heard that some of our congregations have discovered. Oddly enough, it’s the very same thing that congregations can run into when using liturgical ensemble arrangements of our curated and published materials—there isn’t enough to go around, i.e., to go around a whole church year’s worth of worship planning.

The new hymnal project will change that. And that’s not just because we think it’s a good idea to balance organ-led services with piano/guitar/ensemble-led services. That’s not just to put to good use the skills of the pianist/guitarist/instrumentalist the Lord has brought into our membership (though we certainly want to be good stewards of such gifts). That’s not just because some think that the ensemble can sound more upbeat or because they subjectively prefer it over the organ (and why wouldn’t we want to keep them happy?). No, our plan to provide a wealth of curated materials for a liturgical ensemble is because God’s grace in Christ has made us want our sacrifice of praise to be the best it can be.

One element of “best” can be objectively defined. Can you hear the people sing?

With organ music, the servant on the bench needs a keen sensitivity toward the interrelated items of organ registration, worship space acoustics, number of people in the sanctuary, intended mood of the service, and worshipers’ familiarity with the materials that are on the musical docket. All of that and more will come under consideration as the organist goes about his or her task of supporting the song of the assembly. It’s no different when the liturgical ensemble is providing the worship music. Sufficient rehearsal, congregational cueing (especially for introductions or inter-stanza turnarounds), dynamics governed by number of worshipers present, attaining the proper mix through the soundboard, mic levels and overall volume level of amplified voices and instruments properly adjusted, small ensemble or large—there are plenty of things to look out for. But one consideration rises to the top of the list: can you hear the people sing? The Lord has good hearing. Be it barely audible or raising the roof, he will always hear the praise of his people. The question to ask is, “Can the people hear each other?”

Can the people hear each other?

Whether you bring together two musicians or ten in an ensemble, share with them that our goal is to let the people’s song be heard, because that’s where the general scripture truths and the specific gospel message reside—in the lyrics of the assembly’s song. Instrumentalists need sensitivity to volume control and willingness to be a team player (aka, trusting the sound tech to get the mix right). Cantors need to understand (and also the congregation by educating them on this point) that they are not singing primarily to the assembly or for the assembly but along with the assembly. Instrumentalists and vocalists serve to strengthen the assembly’s song.

So back to the opening paragraph of this article. I’m in a sacred space where music is going to lift the life-giving gospel around the room, direct it into ears, and anchor it in believing hearts. I look forward to hearing a room full of people singing the gospel. To pull this off with an organ, there are pallets and pallets of music to enliven the pipes and fill the room with the godly music of saints and angels. God be praised for that! Three volumes of our new hymnal products (Accompaniment for Hymns, Accompaniment for the Psalter, Accompaniment for Services) will bring together an abundance of those organ arrangements for the hymns, psalms, and rites we have compiled. By comparison, rather than pallets and pallets, it seems we may have not much more than a partial filing cabinet drawer of arrangements for the liturgical ensemble. Let’s see what we can do to address this situation.

Accompaniment Editions

As you may have noticed from mock-ups at christianworship.com, the accompaniment editions are 8.5×11, portrait orientation, spiral-bound. For the most part, they contain only keyboard arrangements. In a number of cases, however, there are both organ settings and piano settings. For a majority of the hymns that were originally written for piano, an idiomatic organ or general keyboard arrangement was added. For some of the hymns that are regularly played on organ, an idiomatic piano arrangement was added. (See below about many more piano arrangements, along with auxiliary instrument arrangements, available in CW: Musician’s Resource [CW:MR]).

In addition to upscaling and reformatting the pew edition hymns to fit on a letter-sized page (which, incidentally, make the music easier to read for some), many of the hymns in Accompaniment for Hymns have multiple keyboard settings: alternate key; alternate setting; modulation to a festive final stanza; soloed organ setting; alternate piano or organ arrangement. For a total of 683 hymns (656 in the pew edition and 27 appearing only in CW: Service Builder), Accompaniment for Hymns offers an additional 447 auxiliary keyboard settings of the various types just mentioned. Similarly, Christian Worship: Psalter includes 470 musical settings of the 150 psalms. The Accompaniment for the Psalter offers 93 additional keyboard settings. Some of the piano arrangements in these accompaniment editions will have corresponding instrument files in CW:MR.

Besides accompaniments for the lectionary psalms that appear in the front of the hymnal pew edition, Accompaniment for Services includes the keyboard scores for all of the ritual music. This includes The Service: Settings 1-3, Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline. Settings 2 and 3 of The Service and the Compline setting have both a complete organ setting and a complete piano setting. The piano arrangements of Setting 2 (Mass of Creation by Marty Haugen) are simplified piano arrangements, intended to make the piano setting accessible to the vast majority of pianists. More complex arrangements will be available in CW:MR. Auxiliary brass/timpani arrangements for the organ setting and auxiliary ensemble arrangements for the piano versions of Settings 2 and 3 will be available in CW:MR. Additional settings of The Service, available only in Service Builder, will be similarly resourced with organ and piano settings and auxiliary instrument files available in CW:MR.

Accompaniment for Hymns offers an additional 447 auxiliary keyboard settings of various types.

Additionally, a greatly expanded aspect of ritual music in the new hymnal suite of materials is the music of the Gospel Acclamation. (See a sample at christianworship.com/resources in the “look inside” section.) Formerly called the Verse of the Day, the Gospel Acclamation consists of an opening and closing alleluia refrain with a seasonal or proper verse of the day in the middle. Accompaniment for Services provides 230 pages of Gospel Acclamation music. Each of the three settings of The Service has its own Gospel Acclamation setting, and there are an additional 21 Gospel Acclamation settings for the entire church year. All of these acclamations are written for general keyboard (organ or piano). Some acclamations use additional instruments. For example, Irish Alleluia, published by GIA and arranged by Richard Proulx, has a version for organ, brass, and timpani, but it can be performed just as well with piano, guitar, and other instruments. A 7×10 spiral bound edition (Christian Worship: Gospel Acclamations—Cantor’s Edition) will be available for presiding ministers, cantors, choir members, and instrumentalists. (This edition allows users to avoid illegally copying the keyboard edition for singers and other musicians.)

Musician’s Resource

Most of the music for the liturgical ensemble will reside in Christian Worship: Musician’s Resource. The NPH website will add a section dedicated solely to searching for, reviewing, and purchasing auxiliary keyboard and instrumental music that supports the hymnal and psalter. Thousands of pages of music will be available at this location.

For example, the most basic liturgical ensemble is a piano accompaniment with another instrument playing the melody. If that other instrument is a clarinet or trumpet, additional music is needed since these are pitched at B-flat rather than C. To match keyboard music, trumpet music has to be raised a whole step. If the keyboard music is in F Major, the trumpet part must be in in G Major. We have already done the foundational work on over 500 hymns, so that the various instruments which play at different pitches have a musical score to work with the pew edition setting of the hymns. Each SATB hymn ends up with 16 pages of transpositions. That means we already have 8000 pages of instrument transpositions for the pew edition hymn settings.

But most of the Musician’s Resource is comprised of arrangements that go beyond the pew edition settings. Not always but most frequently, the liturgical ensemble is looking for music that has been arranged with other instruments in mind, not just “SATB hymnal versions.” The Musician’s Resource will include a variety of these resources: vocal descants; instrumental descants; lead sheets; alternate choral stanzas; alternate harmonizations; full modern arrangements; modulations (transitioning to a higher key for a festive final stanza; roughly 5% of the hymns in Accompaniment for Hymns have such an optional modulation).

More often than not, the liturgical ensemble is looking for full modern arrangements. One strong advantage of these arrangements is how they can fit almost any size ensemble. These arrangements may have parts for eight different instruments, but they also work if you have only piano and guitar. We are aiming to offer a full modern arrangement for every hymn, and eventually more than one. Since CW:MR will be a living resource, we can continue to add to it long after the hymnal has launched in the fall of 2021.

Christian Worship: Supplement (2008) included Divine Service II, a service that made use of metrical canticles. These are songs of the liturgy where the text has been recast as rhymed verse and the tune is that of a familiar hymn. Christian Worship: Service Builder will include several dozen metrical canticles for those who wish to build such a service. Our goal is to arrange also these metrical canticle hymn tunes for liturgical ensembles. Such arrangements can, of course, serve double duty for both a hymn text and a metrical canticle.

We use the term liturgical ensemble because the ensemble is supporting the congregation as the congregation participates in the liturgy.

Looking forward

Liturgical worship makes use of the church year with its appointed lectionary and propers, it has a regular celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar, and it follows a historic order which includes the ancient texts of several songs that tell the story of our deliverance through Christ. We use the term liturgical ensemble because the ensemble is supporting the congregation as the congregation participates in the liturgy. The ensemble may consist of anywhere from two to ten or more instrumentalists and anywhere from one to four or more cantors. So the term liturgical helps establish some healthy parameters: this is a group that assists the assembly in singing the ritual music (canticles), the Psalm of the Day, the Gospel Acclamation, the Hymn of the Day, and other selected hymns.

It would sadden me if I were writing this article solely because there might seem to be a trend toward piano/guitar/instrument ensembles and away from organ accompaniment. With a fitting registration, the organ does a magnificent job of supporting the song of the assembly. The many organ resources that are queued up for our new hymnal will continue this fine heritage. I wholeheartedly support both organ accompaniment and ensemble accompaniment. I also do not hesitate to say that we need and are preparing more resources for the latter. I look forward to having a six-stringed instrument on my lap and an abundance of music on the stand before me, composed for a liturgical ensemble. I look forward to accompaniment editions and a Musician’s Resource that put those ensemble scores in front of a host of WELS instrumentalists, affording them the high privilege of leading God’s people in song.

And soaring high above all that music, I most look forward to hearing assembled voices clearly singing that Jesus Christ is the LORD, Our Righteousness (Jer. 23:26).

By Michael Schultz

Pastor Schultz has served congregations in Flagstaff, AZ and Lawrenceville, GA. He chaired the hymns subcommittee for Christian Worship: Supplement, compiled its guitar edition, and currently serves as project director for the new WELS Hymnal Project. As a member of Trinity, Waukesha, WI, he plays guitar for worship and occasionally preaches.

A small liturgical ensemble (pictured above) provided music for a COVID-era Easter service recorded in the seminary chapel. That video is still available here: https://wels.net/together-at-the-empty-tomb-this-easter. The socially distanced musicians performed in an empty chapel without a congregation present.

Another excellent companion video to the topic of this issue is at welscongregationalservices.net/worship-led-by-a-modern-ensemble. Some of the new songs and arrangements in both videos are included in the new hymnal project.


Correction

The printed version of the previous issue, Worship and Outreach, was missing its second paragraph. Please reference the online version at worship.welsrc.net if this issue is used for group discussion or in a Bible class setting.


 

 

 

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Preach the Word – Joy and Confidence from the Basics – Part 4

A drill sergeant is giving an order to a cadet.

Sergeant: “There is no talking during drill.”

Cadet: “Yes, sir. The fellas were just explaining that to me.”

Sergeant: “Be quiet, cadet! There is no talking during drill!”

Cadet: “Sergeant. I know all about that. Like I was saying….”1

On it goes. The cadet takes the sergeant’s words as a communication of information. What is he missing? Only what the words have to do with him.

What we have here is a failure of application.

The Scriptures communicate the costliest information that can be thought of: preeminently who Jesus is and what he has done. But the Word is not a communication of information alone, but of capability as well—to repent, to speak, to persevere. As Paul instructed (Titus 2), the grace of God is teaching us how to live as we wait on Jesus’ return.

They hunger not to become walking encyclopedias of religious information.

The people of God daily hunger for the external Word to come to them from the outside, telling them that they are sinners and telling them they are saved. And they hunger for this, too—not to become walking encyclopedias of religious information, but to take up into an actual life even the smallest part of what they know.

Appropriation and Application

Let’s distinguish appropriation and application.

Appropriation is about people not only having the truth, but being had by it. It is about taking to heart the things of God so as to be renewed and transformed by them. We want people to see some essential piece of divine revelation more clearly than when they first walked in the door. We would have them delight in some aspect of the grace of God as it is revealed in Jesus—the glory of his self-sacrifice and his astonishing resurrection. Appropriation grabs hold of the big facts and celebrates those two words Martin Luther held dear: For you.

Appropriation celebrates those two words Martin Luther held dear: For you.

Application depends entirely on appropriation. The “Now what?” follows on the heels of the “So what?” and draws on its strength. Application is about our changed situation—how life can now be lived, now that Christ is revealed to our hearts again by Word and Sacrament. Whether we include explicit directives for life depends on the telos of our text. If we say with John, “Little children, love one another,” but are a little short on the details, it is to leave intact the marvelous freedom of the Christian “to do or not do” (Luther).

An example

As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him (Psalm 103:13).

I was disciplining one of my daughters in her bedroom. Her spirit was a fist balled up. She was seeing a side of me she hadn’t seen before. I became gradually harsher, needing only to see some glimmer of sorrow over her sin.

I broke her. Contrition poured out in a wail: “I’m sorry! I can’t help it!”

Now I broke, too. I know a thing or two about that. Now everything changes.

“O, sweetheart…” I say and crush her to my chest, searching for words and taking my time, all to overwhelm her with God’s love and with mine.

I talked about this with my grown daughters the other day (to get permission to share). They didn’t remember the episode and demanded to know which of them was in the story. I’m not telling.

I talked to them about how a father’s heart goes out to a child, how it bursts from his chest. How he rushes to her side, chasing all the space away. It happened from the time they were little. It happened at first words and first steps, at sporting events and musical performances, at graduations and weddings, at times my God let them shine. But, as I tried to put into words, none of that can touch that day in my little girl’s bedroom.

Do you think you understand how a father runs to his child in her struggle against sin? How he is with her? How he is for her and on her side in the fight against this thing she hates? She has gotten to him. She is his. He is hers.

Let’s be in no hurry to move on. In your struggle with sin, think about this with me. Think about how a father loves a child.

You live all these decades in a room called grace only to discover that one of the walls is an accordion door. You push it back to discover there is more yet than you had seen. What is it like to be reconciled to God? What have I yet to grasp about this relationship, this love—how wide, how long, how high, how deep? I find that the furniture in my mind is still being rearranged.

“As a father has compassion on his children.”

This is application. We search out the implications of salvation—what it has to do with me and what can be different about today.

What do you notice?

You notice that what we are discussing takes time. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

You notice that my example is heavy on appropriation. It leaves the application mostly unstated. It wouldn’t need to be so. Application of the phrase “those who fear him” would fit nicely in my exposition of the text earlier in the sermon. But I take the accent here to be on something we are supposed to know in our bones about the sort of compassion God-fearers will always find in God.

Notice that this example has a modest goal. This is not “the whole counsel of God” packed into one sermon. I am not trying to do everything. Rather, I have concerned myself with a single thought that a child can know. You learn that to speak with understanding the first two words of the Lord’s Prayer is not so modest a goal after all.

Finally, the example above happens to blend illustration with application (a term that includes appropriation in its broad sense). Those components of preaching play well together, especially if I mean to go beyond conveying the information packed into that single verse, “As a father has compassion on his children,” costly as it is. I am taking pains to close the loop. Everything this magnificent psalm has ever meant—to its original hearers and all those across time—it means for you.

Appropriation in particular

One of the axioms of education is to take people from the known to the unknown. You understand the periodic table in basic chemistry? Good. Let’s see what happens when these elements combine.

Now think about taking people from the appropriated to the unappropriated. We address people who prize the death and resurrection of Jesus. They don’t doubt that they are reconciled to God. This is good. Why, then, are many of them so anxious? How do you close that loop? That’s a good question.

It helps to know our people as well as we can. Audience-centeredness is critical. Take the time to ask good questions, listen well, and reflect deeply on what you’ve heard. Perhaps recycled sermons fall flat not because they were poorly written but because we had entirely different faces before us as we wrote them.

Might we ever be content with appropriation alone and have no application at all? I think so.

The people you preach to are living lives no one has ever lived before or will again, with their particular gifts, confronted by the particular obligations of their vocations and the needs of their particular neighbors. This goes to the freedom of the Christian to look around, and in the peace of forgiveness, to do “whatever comes into their minds to do” (Luther).

The third use of the law slides so easily into the first. The voice of conscience wakes up as cruel as ever.

A colleague has said that “the law is no puppy that only does what you want it to do.” I may intend by the imperatives and cohortatives in my sermon to guide the grateful lives of people. “How can you express this thankfulness you feel, this wonder at so great a Savior? Here’s how.” But as we know, “lex semper accusat” (the law always accuses). The third use of the law slides so easily into the first. The voice of conscience wakes up as cruel as ever, though it was never our intention to leave people there.

With clarity about what the gospel alone does for people and what the law never can, I sometimes elect to emphasize appropriation and take care not to overwrite my applications. This I do to cultivate gospel predominance as C. F. W. Walther taught us.

Good Friday is one day I want “It is finished” to echo through every world there is and ring in every ear. Let this and only this carry them out the door. Not, “I’ve really got to do better!” Not, “I had better get my act together.” Just, “It is finished!”

This is about so much more than sinning less, to put it bluntly. The death and resurrection of Jesus into which we are baptized remains a matter of perpetual appropriation as we learn to daily die and rise with Jesus.

Application in particular

Sermon application takes careful thought.

Until the eternal gospel of our Lord is heard above the sound of a nagging conscience and the complaints of offended reason, we cannot ask in the right way what God would have us do. We risk either tying on burdens or waking up the pharisee if our applications are not built on a robust presentation of law and gospel.

I want my applications to be “aha moments.”

I want my applications to be “aha moments.” In the spirit of the law, we sweat and strain to produce the qualities of heart we know should be there—we should be more compassionate, more patient, more fearless. Good luck with that. Think instead of the good things that come to us simply because we see. Think of the fruit that grow spontaneously on our branches simply because we have taken in the person and work of our Savior with clearer sight. “In view of God’s mercy, offer your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1).

“In view of God’s mercy.” Aha!

And I hope that deeply rooted Christian optimism characterizes our applications.

When I preached Romans 12 not long ago— “Love must be sincere…” —I told a story of my best friend in high school. During a midnight heart-to-heart he confessed, “I don’t know if I’ve ever really loved anyone.” Next I looked into the faces of hundreds of college students and asked, “Do we love each other? I mean it. Do we?” I let the question hang in the air for some time. (Good things happen in the pauses, don’t you agree?) Students told me they talked about that all through lunch. They didn’t know what I would say next, and they wondered, “How could we not have known?”

Students told me they talked about that all through lunch.

In my message, I reminisced about the quality of the friendship that tenth grader offered me—it still takes my breath away. No, we do not love to our own satisfaction. We are not love’s definition. You don’t look at the likes of us to know what love is. But we do, indeed, love because God, in Christ, loved us first. We love because Jesus did not fail in his quest, not only to rescue us in every way a person can be rescued, but also to teach us brotherly love and to create a people eager to do what is good.

“And in fact, you do love all of God’s family…. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more” (1 Thessalonians 4:10). This is how we talk to the bride of Christ.

Given everything we are led to understand about this sinful flesh of ours, as good theology teaches us to call things as they are—given what we are led to expect of fallen people in a fallen world—is it not a wonder when God’s people love? What a few words and a little bit of water can do!

It goes to a question I often raise with my students: how does one properly speak to the bride of Christ? We can preach the law to powerful effect without needing to say things to the Church that are simply not true. For example, her works done in faith are not the “filthy rags” Isaiah spoke about. There are lifelong believers who think that! How refreshing it will be for them to find out that the smallest act of Christian love is the Lord Christ celebrating his victory over sin, death, and devil. The moment came from him, as did the impulse, and the strength. These acts are his even as they are ours, and in them, in grace, he positively delights.

Aha!

There is more we can teach our people as we depict the life of freedom that busts out in good works. For example, I love the picture a brother has offered: a father holds the hand of a toddler as she takes her first steps. She cannot walk a single step apart from his grip on her. But don’t think she is not the one doing the walking. Just watch those little feet go. Now take a look at his face—how a father loves a child.

Just look at his face as the people of God, his masks, offer up their holy vocations in service to their neighbor—a subject we will never tire of, nor will they. There’s an aha moment in the thought that my sanctification is for the people who experience me, those whom God wants loved.

Lastly, when we understand that we are nothing without Christ and can do nothing without him, our references in preaching to the means of grace will not be obligatory. We know no other way of sermonizing than that, in our applications, we perpetually call our people to remain in Christ. How? We drag ourselves in our poor half-heartedness to Word and sacrament in hopeful expectation of being wakened and warmed. We let the Word of Christ live richly within us, as God gives us the strength.

“Thinking must be turned a new direction; Christ must be thought of if you are to say Christ lives in you” (Luther).

The habitus practicus

In the twin arts of appropriation and application, our own credibility is implicated. By the earnestness of our appropriations and the realism of our applications, we demonstrate that we know what we are talking about. We show that we “share in human stuff” with the people in the pew. The pulpit is not our private confessional, but they can tell that we know something about living as sinner and saint in this actual world of simple pleasures and broken shoestrings—that our preaching is an extension of our very lives.

It will be obvious at the end of our lives that we did not become who we so badly wanted to become. Instead, we learned to never let the cross out of our sight. That cross is dear and what we learn through tentatio and Anfechtung (trial and struggle) we will teach to others and call it all blessed. Luther: “For as soon as God’s Word becomes known through you, the devil will inflict you, will make a real theologian of you.”

There is no escaping the struggle of Christian living. Instead, there is the promise of Jesus to meet us there by his Word. We display to our people what we have learned in the Spirit’s school: that God allows us to be battered by devil, world, and flesh so as to learn to hang on for dear life to the gospel. In the end, we wage everything on Jesus.

To grow in “the practical habit of the theologian” is not only the task of the pastor. He will urge on his people that gaining the knowledge of Christ is a way of life. It happens, for example, when some in the body of Christ are offended by others and are making motions of leaving. You plead, “The first time someone hurts you, you want to leave? Really? You will miss it. Now is when theology becomes life. Now is when we find out what all this has been about from the start, when you forgive freely from the heart for Jesus sake.” This is application.

God allows us to be battered by devil, world, and flesh so as to learn to hang on for dear life to the gospel.

We are not drill sergeants whipping cadets into shape. We are pastors seeing to the care of souls. They are not “brains on sticks” (James K. A. Smith), empty receptacles in which to pour Bible trivia (if there is such a thing). In a nod to C. S. Lewis (The Abolition of Man), they are people “with chests,” capable, in Christ, of responding to Christian truth in whole-hearted Christian living.

Their capability is Christ. By the Spirit, his every gospel imperative—to trust and not be troubled, to hope and be glad—will ring true in them.

What a pleasure to guide God’s people in what it means to linger and live in God’s thought—how a father loves a child.

Written by Mark Paustian

Dr. Paustian is a professor of communication and biblical Hebrew at Martin Luther College where he teaches “Advanced Christian Rhetoric” which combines an introduction to homiletics and an introduction to apologetics in one course. He holds a PhD in Communication from Regent University.

1 From The Parables of Kierkegaard.


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Worship and Outreach

“This hymnal won’t just benefit your congregation’s worship. It will also benefit your congregation’s outreach.” Without the ability to go back in time and scan every piece of publicity produced, I would imagine a claim like that was seldom made in advance of the 1993 publication of Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal. At the time, the latest iteration of the megachurch movement was just starting to pick up steam. Churches like Rick Warren’s Saddleback and Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek were still in their infancy. Andy Stanley’s Northpoint had not yet been founded. Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church and Sally Morgenthaler’s Worship Evangelism, both influential in the “worship as evangelism” movement, had not yet been published.

As our church body prepares to publish its next hymnal, I’m confident I’m not the first one to say this nor will I be the last: This hymnal won’t just benefit your congregation’s worship. It will also benefit your congregation’s outreach.

What I mean by that, however, might surprise you. The primary benefit this hymnal provides to a congregation’s outreach efforts has nothing to do with the time during which the hymnal is actually in use. It has nothing to do with what happens in that sacred space we call a sanctuary and that sacred hour we call a service. The primary way this worship resource will also benefit a congregation’s outreach has very little to do with worship, and that’s probably how it has to be. Let me explain.

From “Seekers” to “Nones”

There was a time when, due to various factors both spiritual and societal, a considerable portion of our country’s population could be described as “looking for a church.” They likely identified as religious, even Christian. They did not attend services regularly and/or had not committed to a specific church home, but they would be willing to do both assuming they found the right church. They have often been referred to as “seekers.”

To whatever degree and during whatever period of time that was true, most would agree that it is no longer true today. James Emery White has thoroughly chronicled the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, a group often referred to as “nones.”1 In 2020, “nones” comprise almost a quarter (22.8%) of the population according to the Pew Research Center.

Many of these religiously unaffiliated Americans are now raising members of Generation Z. Generation Z, also referred to as iGen, consists of people born between 1995 and 2010. As you might imagine, a generation raised by people who are increasingly religiously unaffiliated will be likely to have no strong connection to religion themselves. Jean Twenge points out that, while about a quarter of the overall population is religiously unaffiliated, a full third of young adults (ages 18-24) fell into that category already in 2015.2

A “none” is the opposite of a “seeker.” It’s not that they don’t believe in God. It’s not that they are hostile to religion. They simply have no strong feelings about either. In a May 2003 article in the Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch made famous a term to describe this mindset: apatheism. He wrote, “Apatheism—a disinclination to care all that much about one’s own religion, and an even stronger disinclination to care about other people’s.”

As one might imagine, the decline of “seekers” and the rise of “nones,” has had an impact on the way Christian churches view the connection between worship and outreach. In a world full of “seekers,” worship and outreach work together in services that are “seeker-friendly.” James K. A. Smith summarizes such an approach this way: “If the church was going to feel welcoming, it needed to feel familiar, accessible, and ‘cool,’ characterized by the sorts of professional experiences people associated with consumer transactions together with the thrilling enjoyment of a concert. The seeker-sensitive church would feel like the mall, the concert, and Starbucks all rolled into one—because those are places that people like, where they feel comfortable.”3

Jared Wilson calls these attractional churches. He points out the increasing naivete of such an approach in today’s world: “As cultural Christianity fades, so does the potential customer base for attractional churches.” Wilson predicts that the attractional church will “slowly grow further out of touch with the surrounding culture” by “assuming its neighborhoods are looking for church, but different; religion, but relevant; Christianity, but cool.…”4

As a result of this cultural shift, our weekly services will likely bring us into contact with fewer and fewer people for the first time. Whether that service is publicized as “casual, relevant, and engaging” or “rooted, reverent, and transcendent” will make little difference to an apatheist. Rather than designing our gatherings to bring people in, more and more we will need to disperse from those gatherings and seek people out. Pastors and laypeople will need to invest in relationships with the people around them, build trust by demonstrating genuine love and concern, and look for opportunities to share the gospel.

The tools and resources provided … allow pastors to get out of their offices to spend more time engaging people with the gospel and equipping their members to do the same.

That’s the primary reason I say what I’m saying: This hymnal won’t just benefit your congregation’s worship. It will also benefit your congregation’s outreach. The tools and resources provided don’t just allow congregations to do more in worship. They allow congregations to do it with less time and effort. They facilitate and streamline many of the time-consuming mechanics of worship planning and preparation. They allow pastors to get out of their offices to spend more time engaging people with the gospel and equipping their members to do the same.

In a world of “nones” rather than “seekers,” that’s inevitably where more and more gospel conversations will have to take place. In the end, that’s probably a good thing. When we are faithfully reaching out with the gospel the way our world needs us to, we won’t feel the burden of trying to design our worship to do outreach for us. As Wilson observes, “You don’t have to treat the worship services like a coffee shop conversation if you’re actually engaged in coffee shop conversations with unbelievers.”5

“You don’t have to treat the worship services like a coffee shop conversation if you’re actually engaged in coffee shop conversations with unbelievers.”

What If They Actually Show Up?

But what happens when someone actually shows up? We might be tempted to think that worship that follows a historic, liturgical structure will feel increasingly foreign in a world that continues to drift from any discernible Christian moorings. That might be true, but that might not be an entirely bad thing.

As we become more aware of some of the effects of “life as we know it” in our modern, technology-driven world, many of the effects we are starting to observe are quite disturbing. On the one hand, our technology allows us to interact with people all over the world in staggering numbers. However, those virtual interactions are poor substitutes for the full, rich relationships God created us to enjoy. Our connections increase exponentially, but true intimacy is a scarce commodity. Loneliness and isolation are on the rise. Cal Newport makes this comparison: “Much in the same way that the ‘innovation’ of highly processed foods in the mid-twentieth century led to a global health crisis, the unintended side effects of digital communication tools—a sort of social fast food—are proving to be similarly worrisome.”6

In addition to connecting us to a staggering number of people, technology connects us to a staggering amount of information. As a result, however, the task of separating what is important from what is trivial, much less what is true from what is false, becomes staggeringly difficult. A single platform, YouTube, hosts both the pastor’s sermon from last Sunday and the “Charlie Bit My Finger” video (and the latter, not the former, briefly held the title of being YouTube’s most-watched video of all time). A single platform, Facebook or Twitter, delivers sourced, verified news from trusted media outlets and every conspiracy theory under the sun. A single pipeline, my email inbox, delivers announcements from my church and my children’s school and scam requests from Nigerian princes who need my bank account information. Alan Noble points out the effect that the information age can have on our ability to identify what is important: “Our frenetic and flattened culture is not conducive to wrestling with thick ideas, ideas with depth, complexity, and personal implications.”7

Finally, our device-driven world may be the greatest reflection and reinforcement of a post-Enlightenment, “brains on a stick,” view of humanity. Smith describes that view this way: “We view our bodies as (at best!) extraneous, temporary vehicles for trucking around our souls or ‘minds,’ which are where all the real action takes place.”8 We often operate as if every problem is caused by ignorance and solved by information. Content is king, and our devices deliver it in virtually limitless supply. The more time we spend with our screens and inside our own heads, the more detached we are from God’s physical creation around us.

It shouldn’t surprise us that these same problems can find their way into worship if it is designed to mirror “life as we know it.” The same forces that so easily isolate members of the human race even as they are superficially connected are quite good at atomizing the body of Christ. Noble argues: “Part of the challenge of contemporary services is that our focus is directed to the stage rather than to one another. Volume levels rarely allow us to hear ourselves clearly, and certainly not our neighbors. The result is that we experience worship much like we experience a concert. It becomes an individual, emotional, and spiritual exercise wherein I try my best to think about the words and praise God. But even though I am surrounded by the saints, I remain comfortably in my own head.”9

The same technologies that deliver limitless information, entertainment, and advertising to us can easily be used to deliver content to worshipers. When the same media and platforms that deliver the trivial and the untrue are also used to deliver the gospel, however, the difference between these things is flattened. Noble observes, “We’ve tried to communicate the gospel with cultural tools that are used to promote preferences, not transcendent, exclusive truths. We see [these trends] at work in high-production church services that feel more like a concert and a TED Talk than a sacred event.”10

It should not come as a surprise that the same young people who are most inundated by the content delivered by our devices are the most disinterested when similar media are used to deliver the gospel. Wilson observes, “From Gen Y on down, generally speaking, those interested in local expressions of Christian community are less and less interested in programmatic, consumeristic approaches to spirituality. This is somewhat counterintuitive, because younger generations tend to be the ones most readily embracing technology and innovation. But the issue is not the use of technology or innovating new ideas; it is the lack of authenticity they sense in an overproduced spirituality. They tend to respond negatively to pop-song covers, movie-clip illustrations, and cheeky sermon series titles.”11

Finally, when the same forms and media that pump endless information into our heads are utilized in worship, the same “brains on a stick” view of humanity reinforced by so much of life can also be reinforced by our worship. Worship can give the impression that every spiritual problem is caused by ignorance and every spiritual solution is information. Noble argues: “Our church services (especially in evangelicalism) involve less liturgy, less focus on bodily participation, and greater emphasis on disengaged reason…. We have made communion with God a thing that happens inside our heads, not with our whole selves, including our bodies.”12 The pandemic of 2020 has been a revealing experience in this regard. As churches were forced to close their doors and go exclusively online for a time, it became evident how many people concluded that a service delivered in their home through a screen was in no way inferior to one experienced in person with other Christians—and how many churches seem to have concluded the same thing.

Perhaps the real opportunity presented by modern life is to highlight and excel at the features of historic, liturgical worship that offer people respite from what is comfortable and familiar.

Rather than engaging people with the gospel using forms that mirror what people already find comfortable and familiar, perhaps the real opportunity presented by modern life is to highlight and excel at the features of historic, liturgical worship that offer people respite from what is comfortable and familiar. At its best, liturgical Lutheran worship is a truly communal exercise where the proclamation of the gospel is carried out not just by the experts or professionals up front but by the person sitting to my left and to my right. At its best, liturgical Lutheran worship conveys the fact that something important is going on during the hour between invocation and benediction. It delivers the palpable gravity the gospel deserves. First time guests may walk out our doors using a variety of words to describe a liturgical Lutheran service. “Trite” is not likely to be one of them. At its best, liturgical Lutheran worship takes disembodied minds and reorients them to the physical world God created, redeemed, and will one day glorify. It engages their senses and involves their bodies. It aims not just to fill their heads but to move their hearts with the flesh-and-blood saving acts of the Son of Man and the bathing-and-feasting sacred acts he instituted. Rather than trying to fill up the outward shell of “life as we know it” with the gospel, Lutheran liturgical worship delivers the gospel within a shell that can give people a taste of “life as it was meant to be.”

In other words, “strange” and “foreign” might actually be valuable features of Lutheran worship rather than flaws. Talking specifically about reaching today’s youth, Smith observes, “These strange historic rites of the church catholic serve to reenchant the world for those immersed in our secular, disenchanted age…. The very similarity we wanted in order to keep young people entertained is precisely what makes them suspicious that there’s nothing really transcendent going on here.”13

Historic, liturgical worship will not do a congregation’s outreach for it. In a world full of more “nones” and fewer “seekers,” no worship style will. However, a Lutheran congregation can be confident that Christ-centered, liturgical worship will support, not stunt, outreach efforts aimed at taking the gospel to the people of its community rather than waiting for them to come to it.

One Thing’s Still Needed

In the meantime, the realization that our worship can’t do our outreach for us will enable us to keep our eyes squarely on the bullseye we are aiming for in worship, namely, to let the gospel have center stage. If more and more people are living without the gospel, more and more people are living with the consequences of life without the gospel. More and more people are looking not just for a little help to improve some facet of their lives. They are looking for something that can adequately serve as the foundation for their lives. They are in search of an identity and a sense of worth. They are looking for unconditional approval and belonging. They are in desperate need of a solution for their guilt and shame. They need what the Bible calls righteousness. Even secular anthropologists are noting how much this search drives human behavior. Jonathan Haidt writes, “An obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition. It is a feature of our design, not a bug or error that crept into minds that would otherwise be objective and rational.”14

The gospel is not just what someone needs in order to go to heaven some day. The gospel is what someone needs in order to get through each day. “It is the chief article for a reason. Not only is this the chief article on which the Church stands or falls…, but this is also the chief article on which individuals stand or fall. Restless hearts and anxious minds find peace in justification. Frenetic lives of self-justification have rest in the salvation of Jesus Christ.”15

The gospel is the one thing people need most both for heaven and earth. It is the one thing needed by both the first-time worship guest and the lifelong Christian. And more than anything else, liturgical Lutheran worship is designed to proclaim the gospel. Our rites tell the basic gospel story weekly. Our calendar of readings puts tissue on that gospel skeleton by repeating the works and words of Jesus annually. Our heritage of hymns aims gospel truths and gospel events squarely at people’s hearts by setting them to poetry and music. Lutheran worship brims with the gospel. Lutheran worship is above all else Christian worship. It was Christian worship in 1993. It will remain Christian worship in 2021 and beyond.

By Jonathan Bauer

Since 2014 Pastor Bauer has served at Good News Lutheran Church in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin, a growing suburb of Madison. Good News is a mission congregation that was started in 2013. In addition to his service at Good News, he is a member of the Institute for Worship and Outreach and the WELS Hymnal Project’s Executive Committee.


More on Worship and Outreach

An interview at christianworship.com (under the link For Worshipers) offers additional thoughts on worship and outreach. The interview is moderated by Eric Roecker, WELS Director for Evangelism, and features Jon Bauer, Caleb Bassett, and Jon Schroeder. The interview and this article—along with other interviews, articles, and videos—can be recommended for advance viewing and reading for a leadership group or open forum that discusses the new hymnal.


1 See James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014).
2 Jean Twenge, iGen (New York: Atria, 2017), p. 121.
3 James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2015), p. 103.
4 Jared Wilson, The Gospel-Driven Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), p. 34.
5 Ibid, pp. 95-96
6 Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2019), p. 136.
7 Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2018), p. 24.
8 Smith, You Are What You Love, p. 3
9 Noble, Disruptive Witness, pp. 137-138.
10 Ibid, p. 122.
11 Wilson, The Gospel-Driven Church, p. 30.
12 Noble, Disruptive Witness, p. 130
13 Smith, You Are What You Love, p. 148.
14 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind (New York: Pantheon, 2012), xii.
15 Gene Edward Veith and A. Trevor Sutton, Authentic Christianity (St. Louis: Concordia, 2017), p. 98.


 

 

 

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Preach the Word – Joy and Confidence from the Basics – Part 3

I watch a pastor from three rows behind and a little to the left. He is celebrating 25 years in the ministry. He is listening to a sermon with his face in his hands. His bride puts her hand on his shoulder and steals a glance. A big thing is happening right beside her.

The preacher up front is performing a great kindness by the picture he paints. He is depicting the Lord Christ as he walks among the lampstands that are the Good News churches, keeping them lit. His saving face is revealed in their soft, flickering light. But there is more. See, he is holding the stars of the churches—their pastors—in the palms of his hands.

What greater kindness is there than to search all possible means of communication, beginning with the images that sparkle and the narratives that unfold within the sermon text itself, all to inscribe the thing deeper, deeper in the bottom of a soul.

Reconciled to God. Kept. Held.

Why illustrate?

The pastor longs to show his people things—not just to tell them—and to have the truths of any given Sunday bore down through the head and into the heart. He would have those truths be all the more available for life by means of that high homiletical art we call illustration.

A good story—the truth-telling that disturbs, the ending that makes it worthwhile—is like good art. It creates a conversation for the car ride home. It leaves you with more to say than just, “My, wasn’t that nice.” It gives you something memorable on which to hang that day’s whole point.

And so, having expounded the meaning of our text, having captured the truth in clear and dramatic doctrinal assertions, the sort that Christians love, now we want to let this truth get up and walk around. We want to give it a human face. We want to set things beside it to say, “This is what it’s like. This is how it looks. This is how it feels.”

Why tell stories?

The guru of narrative communication is named Walter Fisher (1931-2018). He happened to be a gentleman scholar of some Christian depth. He liked to say that people are fundamentally “storytelling creatures” [homo narrans] with brains hard-wired for narrative. Story is the form of communication that is most like life for the way it meets us in a steady sequence of events and ambiguities.

Fisher pushes back on what he calls the “rational world paradigm,” the view that the world meets us in a series of logical problems, and that being educated means being trained in the kind of critical thinking that can help us succeed in navigating such a world.

In contrast, children are enculturated from little on in what Fisher terms “narrative rationality,” the ability to think in stories. He saw all human communication as narration so that even greeting someone in the hallway is a story—it settles in our minds as an episode. Long after we may have forgotten every word our favorite teacher ever said to us—when all that content has long drained from our busy brains—what remains in episodic memory, perhaps for a lifetime, is how she made us feel. That we may take to our graves.

This goes to the profound “stickiness” of stories, especially those that draw on deep currents of feeling. Episodic memory—how we easily retain dozens of details in a well-told story—is vastly more powerful than eidetic memory—retrieving, say, a random seven-digit number.

Stories lodge like seeds in the soil of people’s thoughts.

Think of Jesus’ parables. Stories lodge like seeds in the soil of people’s thoughts—even if they do not immediately understand the meaning that hides curled up and green inside the shell, perhaps one day, by the Spirit, they will.

Incidentally, please don’t hear, “Once upon a time…” when I use the word “story” throughout this article. This is no small thing. At our insistence that the divinely inspired history recorded in the pages of the Bible is true, worlds hang in the balance.

And Fisher, too, was no postmodern. He had a correspondence view of truth—there are good stories and there are bad stories in terms of their claims on reality. He noticed competing stories about the way things are within the Bible itself—“‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14). Fisher understood that devil, world, and flesh persuade more by the slippery stories they tell than by anything remotely rational. He trusted the meta-narrative of Scripture, the grand story from garden to garden that reveals to us and to our children everything we really need to know: who God is, who we are, what’s wrong with everything, where our redemption and hope are found.

They are found in Christ. Nothing else will do.

What makes a story work—what explains its influence—is when it has “narrative fidelity” and “narrative coherence.” That is, it “rings true” and it “hangs together.” With these qualities in place, stories carry within them what Fisher calls “good reasons”—to trust, to serve, to wait, to hope. For a fuller accounting of these ideas, Walter Fisher’s groundbreaking book, Human Communication as Narration, is fascinating and accessible.

A good story doesn’t need to be explained. Doing so may only break the spell. Good stories heal the rift between mind and emotion. The best stories leave no part of the prodigal untouched. As C. S. Lewis believed, they lower our defenses and “sneak past those watchful dragons” to deliver truth home. Lewis described that the subsequent events in a narrative—this happened, then this, then this—are like a net in which something may be caught that “is not subsequent”—what grace is and, more ineffably, what it is like.

Good stories heal the rift between mind and emotion.

Of course the true story of Christ crucified and raised for us all is the soul of preaching. It is the soul of worship itself.

Where will our best stories come from?

“I will open my mouth in parables and utter things hidden from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 13:35). Our best stories are found within the Scriptures themselves and in the teaching of the Rabbi from Nazareth.

These are the stories to which the Spirit has married himself. Without needing to pry open the mind of the Spirit to know why he communicates as he does, his love for stories is evident across the entire scope of the Bible. The Word has the ultimate stamp of “narrative coherence”—it all hangs together in Christ—and “narrative fidelity”—by the Spirit it rings true. The “good reasons” it provides are to die for.

Let me mention two of the narrative strategies that the Scriptures model in particular. “Narrative transportation” names the way the Scriptures steal us away, for example, to a mountainside in the Sinai Peninsula where a bush burns but does not burn up. The whole atmosphere of the place is the infinitive qualitative difference between God and us.

“Identification” is the way we come to “share human stuff” with Moses on our knees, feeling with him the enormity of his calling and the overlap of our identities as men who some days want to cry out, “Who am I that I should lead these people?” Similarly, the inspired writer of the book of Ruth wrote high theology into the mouth of a woman who struggles with grief and loss.

In an earlier issue, I mentioned the “epidemiological approach” to the Scriptures, or, catching the mood of these texts like a contagion. When Alexander Pope wrote, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” he was commenting on the seldom recognized problem of talkativeness on the subject of God. He means those who prattle on about the deep mysteries of God with scholarly detachment as if talking about a strange bird or a shiny rock.

Not Naomi. We grieve with her so as to arrive where she does at the first mention of her redeemer, “Yahweh has not abandoned his loving kindness to me!” (Ruth 2:20)

We do not want to excavate the meaning of our text and then discard the form, as if the story itself didn’t matter, or as if there’s no compelling reason divine revelation has come to us in the way it has. We would do violence to the parables of Jesus by bogging down in an academic study of what sort of corn the prodigal fed to what sort of pigs. Let the story be the story.

One of our fathers, you may know, made it his practice to begin a sermon on a New Testament text by drawing on the well of inspired accounts found in the Old Testament, and vice versa. I can’t imagine your search would ever end in disappointment when you go looking for an account from the other testament, so to speak, that is asking to be brought into conversation with your text.

Is preaching to become story time?

To paraphrase E. M. Forster:

“The queen died. The king died. Those are facts.
The queen died, and the king died of a broken heart. That’s a story.

Notice from this example that we are not necessarily thinking of long, rambling narratives. Some people who study narrative communication advise us to think instead about the disproportionate power of a two-minute story wrapped around a compelling image.

The disproportionate power of a two-minute story wrapped around a compelling image.

The LORD speaks through Isaiah about a vineyard set on a fertile hill. He cleared the stones and built a tower. He planted it with choice vines. He hewed a winepress to hold the good grapes this vineyard would surely produce for him. But what he found was reason enough to destroy the whole thing outright. And then we find out.

“Israel is the vineyard.”

A two-minute story wrapped around an image.

If there’s any chance that Walter Fisher is right about our being “hard-wired for narrative,” I don’t think we need to resist what is palpable in preaching. It is natural that the attention of our listeners waxes and wanes across the span of twenty minutes. And we may need to risk taxing their ability to hang with us when crucial doctrinal content takes some time to expound. But when the first few words of a story leave our mouths—“So my dad used to take me fishing…”—we can feel our people perking up and coming back to us. Or is it just me? I don’t think so.

Rather than turning preaching into story time, we are not wrong to notice the features of the story form that allow it to do what it does as a communicative event, for example, the way a baked-in conflict or obstacle or tension entangle its hearers. We cannot not listen for how the thing can possibly be resolved. That observation about the structure of narrative can inform the way we introduce a sermon in an attention-arresting way without overtly using narrative at all.

No, preaching isn’t story time. But there is time for a good story. Whenever I divide my communication classroom into four corners according to four personalities that you’ll find in any group, I ask students in each corner, “What would you like to tell the rest of us about how to communicate with you?” Inevitably, one particular corner of the room will say, “Tell us a story. That’s how we get it.” Then another corner will chime in, “And it needs to touch our hearts. We won’t learn if you leave that part of us out.”

“Lose the autobiography?”

I told a story of my Aunt Marie in a sermon one time. A colleague I revere complimented my message, but then said, “Preaching is proclamation. So lose the autobiography.”

I’ll admit that I struggle with that counsel when it comes to drawing on our own life experiences as preachers. I made that adjustment for more than a year and received the feedback from someone close to me, “You’ve changed what you do in the pulpit. And for me, something is missing.”

Episodic memory is vastly more powerful than eidetic memory.

There are some obvious pitfalls to avoid. The pulpit is not our personal confessional. On the other hand, God forbid we make ourselves the hero in our own stories, when that position belongs to another. And the truth is, our wives and children should not cringe or live in dread of what may come out of our mouths that is private and theirs alone.

How much we value transparency may be a generational thing. This is a generalization, but it seems to me that the college students I serve would say, “Show me some glimmer of understanding that life is hard, and that you know what struggle is. That’s when you have my attention.”

How we feel about our lives makes sense within the way we tell our story. So there’s something we can model as we tell our stories with more true Christian optimism and less of a grumble for having Jesus drawn into our frame, even as he has drawn us into his.

So, while I personally conclude that “less is more” when it comes to what we share from the pulpit, I have been blessed by those brief, scattered glimpses into the lives of the preachers who have served me well. I say this in the spirit of the letter to the Hebrews: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).

Why use imagery?

Illustration is not confined to the story form. Our use of images can be brief but impactful.

Jonathan Edwards once spoke of the futility of saving ourselves through good works. This he captured with the image of a spiderweb that cannot even slow a falling rock. He had a gift for tying a truth to a sensory experience as a way to impress it indelibly on his hearers.

The Scriptures themselves are a saturation of mental pictures.

That is an original image. But notice again that the Scriptures themselves are a saturation of mental pictures. Kenneth Burke relishes the “this-ness of that and the that-ness of this” to explain how images work. How is the mercy of God like an ocean? How is an ocean like the mercy of God? We are getting to the essence of things as we come to see the one in the light of the other.

What imagery has in common with story is that both are maieutic. That is, they leave work for the listener to do. We leave room for the listener to complete the meaning, such as when we pray, “Keep me as (literally) the little man of your eye” (Psalm 17:8). Look close into the eye of God. What do you see there? What does it mean? David doesn’t say.

Likewise, we want to allow people to linger over an image like that, to let it hang in the air a bit. Why? Because we know that truth can be made more fully one’s own for that moment we have prepared of, “Ooh! I get that!”

This doesn’t mean leaving things to chance. The listener’s effort must be rewarded. One approach would be that early in our message we let the story be the story, as I say, or let the image be the image, but then we can come back to it in the end to be sure we’ve left no one scratching their heads.

The apple of God’s eye. The beauty there is an aspect of the meaning. The incandescent moments in Scripture are not merely a way to say more impressively what could have just as well been said another way. They bring us into closer contact with what we already know. They help us not only to know what we know, but to love what we know as well.

The incandescent moments in Scripture … bring us into closer contact with what we already know.

Where do illustrations come from?

My Dad used to say, “You can tell a pastor who reads from one who does not.” He was referring to the quality of the man’s words and the freshness of his thoughts. They will not be what they could be if he impoverishes himself to the narrow confines of his own thinking or experience.

To “the pastor who reads” we can add: the pastor who tunes in to the world when it is telling its best stories, such as they are, revealing its rebellion, its idolatries, its hunger, and its need. We can add: the pastor who is curious—who engages in history and art, fiction and non-fiction, movies, music, and all the rest of popular culture. Out comes an introduction based on the Isak Dinesen’s story, “Babette’s Feast” or the poignant chorus of Jason Isbel’s, “If We Were Vampires.” Talk about packing a wallop.

Above all, to the pastor who reads, we add: the pastor who inhabits the biblical world, immersing in and absorbing its stories, images, poems, and songs.

What does it look like when Truth gets up and walks around? When it wears a human face? Look there. It is the Lord Christ strolling among the lampstands and holding their stars in the palms of his hands.

Written by Mark Paustian

Dr. Paustian is a professor of communication and biblical Hebrew at Martin Luther College where he teaches “Advanced Christian Rhetoric” which combines an introduction to homiletics and an introduction to apologetics in one course. He holds a PhD in Communication from Regent University.


 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

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There Is Room in the Choir

There Is Room in the Choir

Hymn selection criteria and variety

Every fall throughout my ministry, it has interested me to see who would come out of the woodwork to join the choir and who would continue to opt for a pew downstairs. A musician in my first parish was a National Endowment for the Arts scholar. He received that prestigious award to study jazz at New York City University. He never missed church, but his gigs often kept him up to the wee hours of the morning—ensuring a late service attendance. Consequently, the most musically gifted man in the parish never joined the choir.

A quiet, private woman with a thick Spanish accent from Guatemala did. Her background was not in jazz, but in costume design. She was never at the center of conversations in the commons. But in the soprano section, she sang Bach, Getty, and Gerhardt with all her heart. A man with a post-doctoral degree in organic chemistry joined too. He sang bass. His profession was pharmaceuticals. His passion was singing. A hard-working delivery driver usually sat next to him. The choir was always a fascinating blend of the family of believers—young and old, white and blue-collar, life-long WELS, and brand new to the faith. There is room in the choir for all of these people and more!

This cross-section of the faithful on earth is a miniscule, yet precious, sample of the heavenly choir. There, the music will always be in tune. There, the labor of long days and longer nights will not keep us away. There, the harmony will be perfection—a symphony of praise to the Savior: “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, forever and ever!” To quote the Christmas hymn, “Oh, that we were there!”

Do you ever wonder what that will sound like? Everyone dreams of heaven just a little differently. What will it look like? What will our reunion with loved ones be like? What will our bodies be like once they are unchained from the shackles of sin and decay? For me, I often dream about the sound. This comprehensive, heavenly music, what style will it be? Will we recognize it? Scripture obviously does not give us the answer. What it does give us, however, is a template—of sorts—for what the Church’s music can strive to be on earth: Comprehensive in scope, Christ-centered in content.

Comprehensive in scope, Christ-centered in content.

Think of our new hymnal as a “choir” of sorts. Specifically, a choir that has 683 members. Unlike an eager choir of musical novices, each and every member of this choir had to pass a rigorous tryout with at least six separate stages of text and tune analysis and development. 15,000 hymns tried out for a seat in the ensemble. 683 made the cut. Why such an exacting process? Because scriptural truth and stewardship of musical treasure demand a bar that is deliberately set high. This choir, after all, will sing, teach, and impart Christian truth to the Church! It will do so for hundreds of thousands of people, in thousands of weekly services, in dozens of countries, states, and territories, over the next thirty years.

15,000 hymns tried out for a seat in the ensemble. 683 made the cut.

These rigorous standards for membership in the choir were already embedded in the Hymnody Committee’s “Hymn Criteria List” that was unanimously adopted by the Executive Committee and guided hymn tryouts for the next five years. To be included, a hymn must…

1. be Christocentric.
2. be in harmony with the scriptural faith as confessed in the Lutheran Book of Concord. (Especially, but not restricted to, means of grace focus, justification centered, law/gospel dichotomy, receptive view of worship, proclamatory/didactic function of hymnody, etc.)
5. be superlative examples of their genre in regard to both textual content and musical craft.

An exceptional choir is made up of top-shelf talent. Many members of the choir may indeed be—in and of themselves—musical standouts. But a choir of musical standouts is a choir that will quickly standout as unpleasant to listen to! A choir is not a choir of soloists doing their own thing. A choir seeks blend and balance across all members and sections. The many seek to present themselves as a united voice.

Profound theologians who won’t wow you with esoteric knowledge.

So too, our hymnal is a book for the many—not just the standout musicians of the congregation who are usually called upon to sing the solos. It is meant not primarily for the members of a band, but for the band of believers that sit in the pews of the church, the desks of a classroom, and the comfy chairs of the living room. Many of the members of our new hymnal’s choir are profound theologians, but they won’t wow you with esoteric knowledge that is meaningless to most. Many of these hymns have sung in the grandest buildings of Christendom, but they will never refuse an opportunity to sing at bedsides and sickbeds too! The members of our new hymnal’s choir are not musical specialists. Their pictures are not hanging on the wall of a museum. Instead, they have been sung by multitudes of God’s people over the years and, therefore, the hymnody committee is convinced, will continue to be sung by multitudes for years to come. (This assumes, of course, leaders and parents willing to invest the effort to teach them to members and children!)

That’s why your hymnody committee spent six years of their lives painstakingly looking for hymns that would…

6. be accessible and meaningful for God’s people at worship in both public and private settings.
7. be useful for those who preach and teach the faith.
8. be part of a corpus that will find wide acceptance by the vast majority of our fellowship.

A good choir has a certain knack for singing a wide repertory of music—and does so convincingly. Thirty years ago, I had the experience of sitting in on a rehearsal for a community choir in Annweiler, Germany. They sang the songs of their homeland in a wonderful way. I smiled hard, however, when they began to sing a spiritual, “Hush. Hush. Somebody’s callin’ my name.” Buxtehude himself could not have sung it more squarely! But they tried. But as they sang, a little bit of our American experience was experienced in the rolling woods of the German Palatinate, and the audience loved it.

The choir of our new hymnal has been very deliberate in casting a wide net for members that are our very own from Lutheranism’s heartland and members that will become our very own from around the world. Looking back, several more of Paul Gerhardt’s children will be in the choir. Looking forward, many hymns by newer talents from Getty Music will sing as well. The new choir will sing the seasons of Christ’s life that are unfolded in the seasons of the church year with a distinct expertise. We will hear much that resonates with the various seasons of our lives. It is impossible for one book to be a one-stop resource for every ethnicity and culture. But the law of Christian love and the doctrine of the holy Christian church caused us to be deliberately inclusive of the nations, tribes, people, and languages with whom we will sing in the heavenly choir.

That’s why we invested thousands of hours of time and effort in recruiting choir members that would…

3. be rooted in the Church year with its emphases on the life of Christ and the Christian’s life in Christ.
4. be drawn from classic Lutheran sources and deliberately inclusive of the Church’s broader song (including so-called international or global music).

The choir in my first parish was a wonderful cross section of the congregation, which, in turn, was a good representation of our community. Demographics are of interest to church leaders as they make plans to find the lost and strengthen the found. What do the demographics of the hymnal choir look like? They look much like a church that is both deliberately rooted and reaching.

An important group of hymns that predate the Lutheran Reformation serve as an important reminder that we are no cult! We are a continuation of the one, holy Christian and apostolic Church. It may be of interest to know that the ancient hymn, “O, Come, O, Come, Emmanuel” was the most sung hymn in WELS in our data. Not surprisingly, a significant number of the members in the hymnal choir sing with a decidedly German accent. WELS members will be pleased to hear that we invested significant effort into helping our German friends improve their English by means of fresh translations! When appropriate, we also dressed some of them up in a tune that was a little less continental.

We invested significant effort into helping our German friends improve their English.

Germany fought two world wars with the English and Americans. But in the hymnal choir, they all get along wonderfully well. The hymns of England and America are well-represented. Almost 100 members come from the British Isles. They come from soaring cathedrals and pleasant meadows. Roughly 50 members sing not the Queen’s English but with an American accent. Our American experience—folk, revival, and spiritual—is well-represented.

Our hymnal choir is well-represented by the elderly members that we love and cherish! But what is different about this choir is the number of youth that have joined! The Hymns Committee gave tryouts to literally hundreds of hymns and contemporary songs with a fresh, modern sound. “Fresh,” “young,” “contemporary,” and “modern” are words that mean many different things to different people. No matter what your definition, as you page through the hymnal, you will notice about 10% of the faces will fall into those categories. They have not yet stood the test of time. But they have been properly vetted. Their talent holds promise for a long and fruitful future. It is our hope that Gerhardt and Getty will make beautiful harmony in the choir for years to come.

What is different about this choir is the number of youth that have joined!

Rounding out the membership in the choir, one sees faces from the Islands, Africa, and Latin America. They hold an important place in the choir. Their inclusion will help us all remember that vision of heaven’s choir—a vision that is desperately needed in an age where racial harmony has often spiraled into a sinful cacophony! We are all members of the body of Christ. If for only that reason, they need to be represented in this hymnbook.

This brief demographic survey shows that we have a hymnal that is decidedly rooted in the Lutheran tradition, but is certainly trending younger and younger. This has always been the Lutheran Church’s way!

Perhaps the best way, however, to get to know a choir is to stop talking about the different members and simply listen to them sing. We will get to know this choir best by attending a concert or two. So what’s on the program? A useful program has been compiled titled, Christian Worship: Hymn Preview. (See the sidebar.) This preview highlights 54 hymns. Each of these hymns illustrate the concepts that led to inclusion in the choir. It is a program that will be certain to impress, no matter what expectations you bring with you.

You became immersed in the gospel of Jesus Christ in all of its multifaceted beauty!

Take some quality time to read or even sing the preview in its entirety. You can’t judge a book by its cover, nor should you. You certainly shouldn’t judge a book based upon what other people have said. Experience the hymns for yourself, lots of them. Experience them with an open mind and open ears. Let your preview serve as a prelude to a renewed appreciation for, fascination with, and commitment to Christian hymnody. You might sit down at this concert thinking you will just experience a choir. Instead, you will become immersed in the gospel of Jesus Christ in all of its multifaceted beauty!

Page through the preview. Look at all the hymns—each of them is unique. “Lift Up Your Heads” has gone on a diet and looks lovely in her new tune. “Dawning Light of Our Salvation” is one of the younger members of the choir. Her composers were youth confirmation age when our current hymnal was published in 1993. “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” sings in a section with about 22 other American folk tunes. (Spoiler alert: “Thou” is not an accident in her title. A careful read will reveal a bit of bias in bringing back some thee’s and thou’s in the “new” hymnal. This choice reflects common usage among American Christians in 2020.) In the Christmas section, can you hear some familiar carols that weren’t part of the CW93 choir? The preview contains a carol from Poland (“Infant Holy, Infant Lowly”), one from England (“God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”), and one from France (“Love Has Come”). Finally, a member with a widely-recorded voice rounds out the Christmas section, “Joy Has Dawned” by Getty and Townend. In just these first several hymns, one already sees a Christ-centered cross-section of old and new from the Old World as well as the New.

A Christ-centered cross-section of old and new from the Old World as well as the New.

And WELS will be blessed. Grandmas and grandpas will be blessed as they continue to sing their old favorites and teach them to their children’s children. The children will be blessed by a gospel heritage in song that has now come to them. The 683 singers in CW21 will be with us for thirty years. How wonderful to know that they will gladly serve as they always have: spreading the good news, teaching the truth that sets us free, inviting the lost, strengthening the found, encouraging the living, and comforting the dying. Until…

Until we join the hosts that cry,
“Hosanna to the Lord most high.”
Then in the light of that blest place
We shall behold you face to face. (CW93 230:3)

 

By Aaron Christie

Aaron Christie began service this year at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary where he is Professor of Worship and Homiletics and Dean of Chapel. When he served as the chair of the hymnal project’s Hymnody Committee, he was pastor at Trinity, Waukesha, WI. In addition to his training as a pastor he holds the Master of Church Music degree from Concordia University Wisconsin. He has served the synod at large as a member of the Commission on Worship and the Institute for Worship and Outreach and as a presenter for the Schools of Worship Enrichment.


More New Hymnal Information

Several new items are available at christianworship.com. A new article under the Resources link, What’s New, gives quick access to all the new content. Christian Worship: Hymn Preview shares 54 of the approximately 200 new hymns planned for the new hymnal. Each hymn is accompanied by a brief comment on its origin, spiritual meaning, usage in the wider Christian church, or other interesting detail. Some samples from Christian Worship: Accompaniment for Hymns are included—options for both piano and organ. CW: Hymn Preview is available only as a viewable (not printable) PDF. This is due to restrictions placed by copyright holders.

The following chart shows the new items available.

CW: Hymn Preview54 hymns with comments, as described above.
Hymn listsA comprehensive list of 683 hymns and liturgical songs from both the pew edition and CW: Service Builder. Available in three formats: Excel, RTF, and PDF. The list is tentative, pending copyright permissions.
There is Room in the ChoirThis issue of Worship the Lord is also available online.
A Liturgical Philosophy for Christian WorshipThis article by Prof. James Tiefel is from the forthcoming Christian Worship: Foundations, a companion volume to the new hymnal. This volume is a pastor’s manual that provides rationale for the services in the new hymnal. It will appear in a forthcoming issue of Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly.
“For Us and for Our Salvation, … He Became Truly Human” (The Translation of the Nicene Creed in Christian Worship)In this article Pres. Earle Treptow offers an explanation for the wording of the Creed. This is a preliminary draft of an article that will appear in a forthcoming issue of Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly.

 

 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

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Preach the Word – Joy and Confidence from the Basics – Part 2

If there were such a thing as “Paustian’s Famous Home-Cooked Chili,” I imagine creating each new batch by some combination of habit, instinct, and muscle memory. A handful of this. A dash of that. But the messier and more ill-defined the process, the more I need to lift a ladle of the stuff to my mouth before serving it up for my friends. “Hmm. It’s missing something. But what?”

What is my process, you wonder? If you watched me cooking up the next sermon, what would you see? I’m afraid I can only describe it in broad strokes as others have before me: I study myself full. I think myself empty. I write myself clear.

But the more ill-defined my procedure, the more important is that final tasting of the homiletical chili. Having written a sermon for my friends, these are the questions I ask as I preach to myself: “What have I missed? Is some element under-developed? Is something too overpowering? Is some quality lacking?”

With your indulgence, I’d like to plow some of the old ground from the last issue before pressing further down on my list of ingredients.

Is my sermon truly textual?

If every sermon text is like a town in England having a “Main Street” that is the inspired writer’s flow of thought, then we want to walk this street often in our preparation so as to know it intimately.

A thousand windows each have a clear view of Main Street.

I suppose when we think about the old cliché about the “thousand sermons in every text” we can extend the analogy to a thousand windows that each have a clear view of that Main Street. It is not as though we can ever speak the last decisive word about Psalm 23 or close down all the meanings at the Pool of Siloam. The waters are too deep.

But there’s an important caution here. We need to ask ourselves what the Spirit of God is intending to say and do in the lives of people by means of a given portion of his Word. What is the telos—the purpose—that throbs like a beating heart within our chosen Scripture? We answer this question on the basis of a robust study of our text which we undertake with every tool at our disposal.

A “thousand sermons” does not mean “anything goes.”

The point is that the “thousand sermons” bit does not mean “anything goes.” Simply put, when it comes to what we have casually taken to be the point of our text, we can be wrong.

We brought our own agenda or our minds missed a crucial element of context. On the basis of something that immediately caught our eye in the lesson, our thoughts ran ahead to a favorite story or clever insight…and the sermon starts to write itself. But we may have missed entirely the driving thought of Isaiah or John or Paul that caused them to write as they did. (I’ve often found that a good commentary can call me back.)

To multiply our analogies, we’ve been taught to “marry our text” in just the sort of intimate familiarity and steady commitment we’ve been describing. Personally, I’ve come to prefer the “arranged marriage” of preaching on a text that has been assigned to me or that I’ve chosen from the lectionary in a systematic way. I’ve come to appreciate that early period of warming up to a portion of Scripture I would never have chosen. I meet it as an awkward stranger. It resists me at first, then begins to release its secrets. An affection stirs. We become close. And I will need no reminder to keep in constant contact with my text as I write.

One more? I appreciate Kierkegaard’s “epidemiological approach” to the Bible. This is a call to catch the mood of the Scriptures like a contagion, like a disease, and to not be content with an exposition that gets the words right but that remains on the outside of the prodigal’s shame, the Father’s longing, or the joy of the Coming Home. I ask not only, “What does this Word teach?” but also, “What does it do to me?” for an engagement with the text that is not an intellectual one alone.

John 10 furnished our example of the tension in the room that you could cut with a knife as our Lord thundered—yes thundered—“I am the Good Shepherd!”

Does my text stand behind some touchstone of Lutheran theology?

This issue isn’t mentioned on my original list of criteria, and so it’s possible that in my early years in the pulpit I left this too much to chance. My practice now is to always check the index to Pieper’s Dogmatics to determine whether my text has served as a doctrinal sedes.

For example, I recently preached on Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares. It struck me how relevant the Donatist Controversy still is to both the flawed pastor and the watching flock and to any of us who have our radar tuned for hypocrisy, that is, if we are each still to thrill to our baptism or come eagerly to the Table.

“Master, should we pull up the weeds?”

“No. You’ll only get it wrong.”

In connection with John 10, we could reflect in our sermon about the person of Jesus or of the perichoresis of the Trinity in all of eternity, both of which inform and beautifully complicate that stunning moment: “The reason the Father loves me is that I lay down my life…”

Speaking of which, a recent study by Pew Research shows that 78% of evangelical Christians side with Arias in the Arian Controversy naming Jesus as the first of God’s creative acts. Millions of people are poorly served. Even having the Nicene Creed as a regular part of liturgical worship would rescue them—“light from light, true God from God.”

78% of evangelical Christians side with Arias in the Arian Controversy.

My point is that the lectionary provides people with a regular catechesis in the great doctrines of Scripture such as keep the soul alive to God. We do not want to emulate the doctrinal indifference of modern Christendom. Just imagine, for example, if you were 58 years old (like me) and it were 45 years since you last heard a serious treatment of the person of Jesus.

Imagine no longer being sharp on the truth that what happened to Jesus happened to God himself or the fact that Jesus, our true brother, is the very one who rules all things for the sake of his Church. What does Christian living become then?

The lectionary provides people with a regular catechesis in the great doctrines of Scripture.

I expect we would live under the common illusion in Christendom. We would think that the true heart and core of Christianity is our living for God, instead of what it really is, namely, that God, in Christ, lives for us.

Does the law in my hands disturb?

Good things happen to me when I take up residence in that textual town and walk its Main Street, not that they are easy. I am implicated, unmasked, revealed. Always. It no longer comes as a surprise. Like you, I have learned in the Spirit’s school to be suspicious of myself and to remain alert to the plank in my own eyes.

I am implicated, unmasked, revealed.

If the Scripture on which I will preach is nothing but a gush of Good News, there is likely to be something in the immediate context that confronts me with my fallenness. We may have to walk the side streets of our little textual “town” or even take a quick stroll in the countryside that is the wider context of the book.

Our example in John 10 was brutal. We were compelled to ask ourselves whether we are the “hired hands who care nothing for the sheep,” and we withered before a Savior who calls things as they are.

As far as just how harsh we will be, we will take our cues from the divinely inspired words in which we have immersed ourselves. It is, of course, no fun being the prophet, so to speak, the one who sees the maladies in our midst, all those impulses and qualities that have no place in family of God. There are a range of ways in which we may confront these things so as to make the Good News of Jesus, in a word, necessary.

We may draw people into that surgical light in which no sinner looks good.

We may hold up the mirror of God’s holy will or draw people into that surgical light in which no sinner looks good. Or we may take some seemingly trivial human foible or some common observation about the way we are or the things we do, and ask over and over, “But why?” so as to expose the ugliness at the root.

Ask that question often enough and what begins, for example, with the mundane fact that we lie or pretend may take us in the end to the way we worship at the altar of other people’s opinions. There the cruel deity howls, “You need me! Don’t you know what I can do to you!” There lies the bleeding idolatry, the blasphemy, the inward curve of soul, the thing fit for crucifixion.

The law is always present in our minds. That means that sometimes, as our text guides us, it is enough to peel back the bandage and expose the wound that is the sinner’s predicament, the problem of which we are in no way the solution, and to gently draw into conscious awareness that this need that is always with us—whatever it may seem to be—is our need for Jesus.

“Have you examined yourself and found yourself wanting? The Scriptures call you a sinner—have you proved it already today? Does unworthiness overwhelm you and put you on your knees? It is a good place to be. Let me tell you why….”

However we choose to apply the law, we do it in compassion over the common pain and familiar shame of the sinner. We know something about that, do we not? All struggles overlap. It is a kindness that we help people over and over to walk right up to Sinai, touch it, and die.

Good Lord, what a relief!

Did I gain a fresh hearing for the gospel?

If each sermon text is a town in England with its own Main Street, you will recall that there is also a “Road to Oxford” leading out from that little town. There is a natural, unforced path to our true subject, Christ crucified and raised for the world. We hope to find a road that we pray the Spirit would approve. To our robust understanding of the human condition and of the Word of God we have taken up in our private study, we add a robust understanding of Jesus and what he means in this moment. Right here. Right now.

Again we take our cues from the Word of God as we strive to gain a fresh hearing for this gospel, and to have it once again be heard above the nagging of a terrified conscience or the complaints of offended reason. A whole menu of ways to communicate the grace of God is already on extravagant display across the pages of our Bibles, its stories, poems, and images. There is a full repertoire for us to gain across a lifetime of scriptural study that is already there in the mouths of the biblical characters and still hot off the pens of the ancient writers.

Understandably, the “Road to Oxford” may be more difficult to spot when we preach on the Old Testament. Finding it has well been described as an instinct.

In the book of Ruth, for example, the character of Boaz is saying, “There is a Redeemer who shares your own flesh and blood, who takes your disaster and makes it his own. I am not him. I only point to him.” “There is an affection, a bond, and an enjoyment of Another,” so says the marriage of Ruth and Boaz and every Christian marriage, “But I am not it. I only point to it.” The ancestral land of Israel says, “There is a place for you that will not be taken from you, and a name that will not be cut off. I am not it. I only point to it.” There is a true and better Obed, the baby redeemer whose name means “Servant” and who, just by being born, revived the hopes of his whole human family.

There is more being said in that book than, “Be like Boaz. Be like Ruth.” There are Old Testament texts that, to borrow from Martin Luther, are true “John the Baptists” pointing beyond themselves.

Further, Christian eyes read the Old Testament as Luther did, always tuned in to the struggle between faith and unbelief including as they battle within a single heart. Witness the war on every page between the striving and calculations of men and the redeeming grace of God. There is a true Israel within Israel that waited in hope for Messiah to come, as does the true heart within my heart.

As to proclaiming Christ on the basis of the New Testament, our text might be a little “Oxford” itself, leaving no doubt what expression of the gospel will animate our sermon or what feature of the gospel we will wear on our faces.

What grace that among us there is no talk of “theories of the atonement!” We absolutely do not choose among supposedly competing ideas about this God on a cross. Is he our sacrifice of atonement? Is he the Second Adam in whom we hide ourselves in faith? Is this Christus Victor whose whole heart goes out to us poor victims of sin, death, and devil? Yes, yes, and yes. And more still than this.

When the devil stirred in the hearts of the “hired hands” to do their worst, death claimed a victim that did not deserve to die. So it was that sin, death, and devil fell right into his hands, our Noble Substitute, our Champion, our Real Life, and our So Much More.

Is my sermon coherent?

Prof. John Jeske taught my generation of preachers to ask, “What does the Spirit mean to accomplish in the hearts and lives of my listeners on the basis of this text?” We must have clarity about the “What?” and “So What?” and “Now What” of our text. Ideally, we get these down in words so as to guide the process of writing and inform the hard decisions about what to leave in and what to take out. This will have no one who heard our sermon wondering, “Why did he tell me all that?” And with God’s help and to his glory, we’ll leave no listener behind.

I strive to express in one unambiguous sentence the burden of my message. Let no one walk away unable to answer the question, “What was that all about?” Our example from a text in John 10: The Father prizes the act of the Son laying down his life, only to take it up again, and he prizes all those who prize it with him, by grace, through faith.

I am learning to thank God that writing doesn’t come easily to me. And this piece is as hard as it gets. But there’s a sermon in there. I can taste it. There’s a coherent message already taking shape, one I can write in the stream of this single grand idea.

My introduction involves the moments in life we prize or fail to. My exposition will observe how the “hired hands” missed the joy of the moment when a blind man received his sight. As a law application I could tease out the ugly reasons why according to Jesus’ own diagnosis. This prepares the moment lit up by the words of Jesus when I will give my coherent center (above) room to breathe and spread its wings. I’ll conclude with an echo of my introduction about the moments we prize, and ask: “Why not this one? Why not now, when Christ is again revealed to that ‘true heart within your heart?’”

I study myself full. I think myself empty. I write myself clear.

Yes, it takes time. We have two more matters to take up in the next issue: how to illustrate and how to apply the Word of God. For now, an encouragement.

There are sounds of birth pains coming from your private study. As August Pieper wrote long ago, for there to be a new Springtime of the Spirit among us, it must begin with a Pentecost in the “pastor’s little prayer cell.”

It puts a man on his knees before his Audience of One.

It is as high a privilege as can be thought of: to inhabit the Scriptures, to breathe deep the atmosphere of a particular text, to gather up its colors, to climb the steep hill of understanding, and to capture in writing the mind of Christ for the sake of people who arouse all your compassion. It puts a man on his knees before his Audience of One.

It is a good place to be.

Written by Mark Paustian

Dr. Paustian is a professor of communication and biblical Hebrew at Martin Luther College where he teaches “Advanced Christian Rhetoric” which combines an introduction to homiletics and an introduction to apologetics in one course. He holds a PhD in Communication from Regent University.


 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

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Anticipating a New Hymnal

Anticipating a New Hymnal

During a Pandemic

Worship looks different in a pandemic. From the middle of March through the middle of May, most churches were not permitted to meet publicly. Some were shuttered even longer. In their holy zeal to feed their flock with the Word, congregations took their worship online. Although most churches have reopened, only a fraction of people who were habitually in the house of the LORD have returned. Many who attend do so wearing a face covering. Those churches with robust choirs and diverse instruments have scaled back their programs; some musicians are not ready to return. Communion distribution has been adjusted, and bottles of Purell are now as common as Bibles and hymnals.

You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

Human nature will quickly lament what has been lost. Worshiping online lends itself well enough to the spoken word, but it has limitations. Singing is a challenge. It’s easier for dad’s clunker notes to be absorbed in the nave than the living room. When the pastor picks a less familiar hymn, family members glance uncomfortably at one another in silence while they wait for verse five to finish. And what about the sacraments? Technological distance makes the congregation’s promises at a baptism feel less personal and doesn’t enable Holy Communion at all.

Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Sure, worship looks different in a pandemic. But what has been gained? How about a noble yearning to be found in the house of the LORD? You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. How about a renewed sense of appreciation for the worshiping body of believers? One woman quipped to me, “I never realized how important these people are to me.” How about a new online presence for hundreds of our churches who are reaching souls they would never otherwise have reached? It’s as if God sent a pandemic with a memo: “When I told to you make disciples of all nations, I meant it! Get the Word to the world!”

No other parish ministry has the reach of public worship.

Pastors and congregations will always find hundreds of things to do, but they all serve the main goal of touching the Gospel of Christ to as many people as possible as often as possible. A church may have dozens of ministries that serve dozens of people, but no other parish ministry has the reach of public worship. Perhaps that is because worship skillfully weds the means of grace with oratory and music while joining believers from the past to the present in praise of God. God will bless every effort to spread his Gospel throughout the world. Since worship is a primary vehicle through which we proclaim God’s grace, we can count on him to bless our best efforts in worship.

For some time now, our best worship minds and most talented musicians have invested countless hours to produce a suite of worship materials tailored for all kinds of churches, from mission congregations to large congregations. Headlined by a new hymnal and comprehensive psalter, 20 unique products in this suite of worship tools are slated for release in fall of 2021.1 Like a movie preview, leaders gave a sneak peek of hymnal project content at the January 2020 WELS leadership conference. Copies of Christian Worship: Preview were distributed to every participant. Forward in Christ articles and the February WELS Connection generated enthusiasm. Near the end of February, copies of Christian Worship: Preview were mailed to every congregation. And then the pandemic hit. Public gatherings were suspended; schools and churches moved online; elders and church leaders scrambled to find alternative ways to serve the flock. Evaluating a new suite of worship products was relegated to the back burner.

If your “pandemic parish” looked anything like mine, Christian Worship: Preview found a cozy corner of the copy room to rest undisturbed. Let this article be an encouragement to wake them from slumber. Inside that 60-page booklet is a wonderful walk-through of the treasures you will find in the new suite of worship resources. Permit me to break those treasures down into the following four parts.

Treasures old

When you hear “hymnal suite of products” and “nearly 20 volumes of worship content,” are you intimidated? Don’t be. At the heart of the 2021 project is a hymnal that includes so many familiar treasures that you can use it with confidence immediately.2

So many familiar treasures that you can use it with confidence immediately.

Worship will continue to follow the time-tested pattern of the church year that has served well for centuries. The three-year lectionary has been retuned so that the readings and psalm support the thrust of Gospel. All readings unify around a central theme, making it easier for worshipers to see how the Scriptures are interconnected and to benefit from one central theme each Sunday.

Christian Worship (1993) offered two communion liturgies, “The Common Service” and “The Service of Word and Sacrament.” Those beloved services served the church well for years. However, certain texts, canticles, and even the logical flow were unique to each liturgy. Communion liturgies in Christian Worship (2021) will be unified by a familiar format and flow.3 Titled “The Service,” it will provide opportunity for us to invoke the presence of God, confess our sins and be absolved, hear the Word, confess the faith and pray together, and receive the Supper. Interspersed throughout we will sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to one another. Three musical settings of “The Service” will be included in the printed hymnal.4 Setting One makes use of music from “The Common Service” that Lutherans have been using since 1941, but with four-part harmony restored for the canticles.

It is difficult to describe the connection that people have to hymns. In adulthood, both men and women remember wistfully their grandmother singing “Abide with Me” as they put them to bed. As they wait to meet God in the ICU, pastors sing “Be Still My Soul” or “I Know that My Redeemer Lives.” Two thirds of the 2021 hymns are favorites that have served Lutherans for generations. Luther’s insistence that hymnody proclaim the Gospel is another old treasure that is retained. Christian Worship: Preview spends more than twenty pages (pp 32-52) detailing the kinds of hymns that will be included.5 Reviewing those pages will be time well spent.

Treasures new

Just because an 8-year-old boy likes Legos doesn’t mean he wants his mother to repackage an old box and “regift” it to him for his birthday. Similarly, Lutherans who enjoy the familiarity and integrity of our rich worship heritage also expect that there will be new treasures to unpack as well as old. They will not be disappointed.

First, while the text of “The Service” remains the same, worship leaders can easily incorporate meaningful variety through various musical settings. In addition to the settings that are included in the pew edition, Christian Worship: Service Builder will include several more musical settings (more on Service Builder later). The diversity of musical settings provides an ability to bring musical freshness to worship within the context of a familiar pattern of worship.

Secondly, the psalms are significantly expanded. Congregations that have grown to love chanted psalm tones will have many options. But the hymnal and psalter will also include additional psalm styles: hymn type, melodic folk tunes, call and response format, and lyrical. Lyrical psalms lend themselves to solo or choral singing. So many excellent settings of the psalms exist that the best ones will be curated in a separate volume, Christian Worship: Psalter. This volume is worth consideration first for your choir or even just a cantor. Over time, people will grow to love the new treasures in psalm singing. CW: Preview gives details on pages 19-31.

Worshipers familiar with Christian Worship: Supplement quickly grew to love a modern hymn, “In Christ Alone.” It even serves as the introductory music to our monthly WELS Connection. No new hymnal is truly new unless it includes new hymns. Twentieth and twenty-first century hymn writers, American composers, and modern favorites have been carefully vetted. Offerings from Getty Music are plentiful6, as well newly composed music for time-tested texts. Congregations will have many new hymn treasures to unpack and enjoy.

Treasures in the home

When the LORD repeated the law in Deuteronomy, he enlisted parents to hand the faith down to their children. “Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 6:7). It’s no secret that the family altar is hurting, with devastating effect on our families and churches. Inside our upcoming hymnal, however, are treasures ready for the home. Can we encourage our parents and families that hymnals are not just for church anymore?

On the first three pages of CW: Preview you are introduced to the Scripture section. In addition to the church year lectionary, a daily lectionary will be included. Readings are chosen to harmonize with times and seasons of the year, and are easy to incorporate into another hymnal treasure for the home: the daily office. Brief devotional rites for various times of the day (dawn, mid-morning, noon, mid-afternoon, and evening) when paired with the daily lectionary, provide fathers and families a ready-made tool to build the family altar.

Famously, Luther introduced his Small Catechism thus: “As the head of the family should teach them in the simplest way to those in his household.” The Small Catechism will be printed in the hymnal, yet another devotional treasure for parents to use in the home. Between the text of the catechism, devotional hymns, ready to use psalms, the daily lectionary, and many other treasures old and new, busy parents will be able to incorporate a regular devotional life in the home. Pastors will find it easy to recommend the hymnal for home use.

Pastors will find it easy to recommend the hymnal for home use.

Treasures for leaders

Worship planning has matured from what it was in past generations. Sending Sunday’s hymn selections to your keyboardist on Saturday and asking the assembly to open to page 15 the next morning maybe once passed muster. (But shouldn’t have!) Now, worship leaders are expected to plan worship out at least month or quarter in advance. That good practice allows better lead time for your instrumentalists, vocalists, and choirs to prepare their musical offerings for the LORD and his people. Advanced planning also accommodates wider variety in worship. Even simple efforts help feed the flock and attract more sheep. Attracting more sheep—or not frustrating them in worship—has been the logic for another shift. Producing the entire service in a printed folder allows everybody to follow along seamlessly. Preparing a short “bulletin” might once have required only a small investment of pastoral time; now it can take many hours a week to prepare a true “worship folder.”

When we published our first hymnal in 1993, Windows 3.1 was ubiquitous. Technological advancements now make it possible to reduce the time needed for advanced worship planning. A cloud-based software solution, Christian Worship: Service Builder, is an obvious treasure for worship leaders. Planning services, including variety, making changes on the fly, allowing for widespread communication, automated copyright reporting, and producing service folders are all tasks that Service Builder can handle in a matter of minutes.

Smaller congregations might benefit the most from advanced technology. In churches without a keyboardist for live music, digital keyboards and computers have led worship via MIDI or HymnSoft. Technology has advanced to the point that any smart phone or tablet plays high quality music. Hymnal project resources will be provided in high quality digital format for use with a new tool called Christian Worship: Playlist. Leading worship will be as easy as compiling a playlist and clicking play.

Musicians will appreciate another technology tool. You are planning to sing the Gloria, aware that an eager teen would like to play her clarinet to the glory of God. Where do you find clarinet music for the Gloria? Inside the online Musician’s Resource! This online tool contains alternate settings, musical arrangements, and instrumental parts to serve the unique needs and gifts of your church.

Technology levels the playing field for churches of different sizes.

Technology levels the playing field for churches of different sizes. Sometimes pastors or members experience well-done worship in person or online, but feel deflated because “you can do that sort of worship in a big church, but we can’t in our small church.” When the content of the hymnal suite of products is paired with technology, every congregation will be able to enjoy the treasure of producing professional looking service folders, employing artistic variety, and leading worship with high-quality digital music. You can learn more about new hymnal technology in Christian Worship: Preview on pages 53-55.

Putting tools to work

Put a hammer in a mason’s hand, and the framing will take longer. Put a trowel in a carpenter’s hand, and the project will cost twice as much and take twice as long. The right tool for the job is essential. Since worship is the primary vehicle through which we build the faith of the flock, it’s worth our best efforts. It also deserves our best tools. Over the past eight years, almost 100 of our brothers and sisters have invested thousands of hours to produce tools beneficial for worship.

Of course, a tool is only as good as the person who uses it. Some of the tools will be ready to use right out of the box. Others will take time and practice to master. Just like a skilled craftsman, some tools you’ll use every week, while other tools you’ll employ for special circumstances. It is heartening and reassuring to know that whatever the job, you have the tools necessary to carry it out without a dozen trips to the local hardware store.

You will also find it heartening and reassuring to know that the 2021 hymnal suite of products will provide you with the tools you need to lead and feed the flock. Like the hammer your dad gave you in your youth, there will be treasures old. Like the shiny new tool you received for Father’s Day, there will be treasures new. Add to that the practicality of home use and time-saving technology. Congregations large and small can anticipate the new hymnal with excitement.

If your copy of Christian Worship: Preview has found a place in the corner of the workroom since the pandemic, grab a copy and familiarize yourself with the treasures inside. Work through it with your worship committee, your elders, and your council so that they also can appreciate the good things to come.

By Adam Mueller

A 1998 graduate of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Adam Mueller began his parish ministry at a mission congregation in Kokomo, Indiana. In 2012, he began to serve Redeemer, Marana, Arizona, a congregation of about 500 souls. He has served a variety of district and synodical positions. In January of 2020, Mueller was a keynote speaker at the WELS Leadership Conference where hymnal resources were previewed. He currently serves on the Commission on Congregation Counseling, and he is the director of the Hymnal Introduction Program.


Evaluating, budgeting, and special gifts

Here is one possible process leading to a decision to adopt new hymnal resources—with all respect for the realities noted in the first endnote.

  • In advance of a first meeting members of the worship committee or some other subcommittee review CW: Preview (content also available online) and additional material at the hymnal Web site (christianworship.com), especially the Q&A section under Resources. Start with viewing again the February 2020 WELS Connection, available under the Preview option.
  • The committee recommends to the church council the initial resources to obtain and others to consider in the future. The Q&A section includes helpful information about the CW: Service Builder software. At the bottom of the Resources page is a budgeting spreadsheet.
  • If the council approves the plan, the next step is budgeting (this fall yet for calendar year budgets, or early next year for fiscal year budgets) and encouragement of special gifts.
  • Use items from the Publicity Toolkit to inform members. Consider a special presentation after worship. Note that special offering envelopes are available from NPH; see CW: Preview page 60.

If leaders feel that more information is necessary, additional content will be posted to the hymnal Web site later this year and early next year. And for those who need a thorough review with new hymnal in hand, introductory workshops are being planned for fall of 2021.


C20 – Christmas 2020 resources

C20 is a synod-wide initiative to encourage and equip WELS congregations to invite the unchurched to worship this Christmas. Download promotional, outreach, worship, Sunday school, social media, graphics resources, and more at welscongregationalservices.net/c20. Don’t forget to order postcards by Oct. 23. Information about ordering and printing is in the “Introduction” document under “Getting Started.”


1 Hymnal project leaders recognize that not every congregation will want to or be able to adopt the new hymnal in 2021. Reasons include COVID uncertainties, tightened budgets, and uncertain futures. This article isn’t meant to ignore those realities but only to encourage review and planning in whatever way seems appropriate.
2 Plus it isn’t necessary to jump in and buy all resources at once. At christianworship.com under Planning Ahead only three items are listed as basic resources.
3 A rationale and outline of The Service was posted at christianworship.com in September 2020.
4 More information about these musical options plus additional settings mentioned below is available at the rationale/outline document in note 3.
5 CW: Preview content is also available at christianworship.com.
6 A partial list is at christianworship.com under the Q&A section.

 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

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WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

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Preach the Word – Joy and Confidence from the Basics

What a thing it is to be someone’s pastor. A young woman lies in her hospital bed lost in a fog of bad news. You walk in the door. And so associated are you with the gospel, so married in her mind with this one essential thing, that it is as if the gospel itself has just walked in the door.

You are her personal Good News Man. They said no one could understand a single thought of Martin Luther unless they understood it first as a thought about the forgiveness of sins. This is your obsession, too, Lutheran pastor. Forgiveness is the only sun in your sky.

Forgiveness is the only sun in your sky.

Yours is the simple eloquence that is born of love for the gospel. And this love for the gospel is born in desperate need. This explains you. And it explains the wonderful, warm thing I see come over you as you arrive, in the moment of preaching, at your true subject. In a certain sense, it is the only thing you really know. You portray Jesus, the Son of God, on his cross. Then, with a Word from God, you unleash a power like none other in the world.

“Take this,” you say. “This is for you.”

You never forget that the man in the back, looking just fine, may be barely holding it together for want of an unambiguous Word of Christ-for-us. You need no reminder—no “note to self”—to fix your spotlight on Christ crucified and raised. Every. Single. Time. You know no other way.

To borrow from Tim Keller, there’s something rare and special about preaching that combines such warmth with such force, such transparent humility with such borrowed, towering authority. It is good and right that we know—we can just tell—that the preacher is himself put back together by the things he is saying.

My Jesus does not squander men like this. They do not just come along. They do not make themselves. Praise God, my pastors have more than 45-seconds of things to say about the cross. They live in the Spirit’s hard school. Translating the theology of grace and redemption into real life is what they are about.

That’s why they are “gospel predominant” preachers, but “gospel predominance” doesn’t necessarily reduce to word count. It is even more about the way the preacher handles with words the mystery of God’s grace revealed in Jesus. He exercises at this spot, as no other, all eloquence, vividness, provocation, and creativity that already reside in the Scriptures he holds in trembling hands. And why? If only to gain a fresh hearing for the gospel, this thing Jesus has done, and to have it be, in the Spirit, as though his listeners had never really heard it before.

“Gospel predominance” doesn’t necessarily reduce to word count.

And as he takes all the risen Christ is and all he has won and pours it freely out, let him take his time. If he needs a moment to regain his composure, we’ll wait. Because when this man speaks, he speaks for Jesus. The Lord Christ is intervening all over again in the affairs of people.

It is a good day whenever it happens.

Planning to Teach the Basics

In my thirtieth year in public ministry, I was sent back to the basics of preaching in a quite decisive way. I was privileged to create and champion an introduction to preaching as half of a capstone course in the pastor track at Martin Luther College. This subject shares the stage in the class with Christian Apologetics. The bulk of our time has young men on their feet.

But along the way, of course, I do have opportunity to articulate one man’s opinion about what preaching ought to be. You can imagine that when I take my turn in the morning chapel rotation, I know the boys are watching closely. The pressure I feel to get it right, so to speak, is the good kind. Yes, I think it has been good to immerse myself in the basics of preaching. I pray it will be good for you, brothers, to be reminded of these things.

Let’s get to it. Are there other criteria, besides explicit gospel content, that characterizes good preaching? Are there other things that, although they may appear in different proportions week by week, should happen virtually every single time?

In my exploratory mission, when preaching dominated my weekly schedule, I had created a list for myself. I didn’t use it to guide my writing in cookie-cutter fashion. Instead, I turned to my list (with a silly acronym you don’t want to know) just to ask myself, is this sermon ready? Or is some vital element missing or under-developed?

Here’s that list. Next, we’ll draw things out by way of an extended example.

Faithfulness to the Text
Crucifying Law
Fresh, Explicit Gospel
Impactful Illustration
“Aha” Application
Clarity & Coherence
Warmth & Force in Delivery

In this issue of Preach the Word, we’ll expand on the first two issues listed here. We’ll take up the rest in the issues to follow. Before we do, let’s load up our minds with a text from John chapter 10 and use it to put flesh on the criteria we will be considering.

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

Faithfulness to the Text

There’s something special I hope to do with the particular Scripture that I expound for God’s people. I want it to be for them never the same—in the better stories they have to tell themselves, the better images to linger over, or what human stuff they share with a Joseph or a John.

Will my listeners, in the course of my preaching, gain an affection for this particular spot in Holy Scriptures? If I were to read my text again at the end of the sermon, would it feel awkward because, well, that wasn’t what the thing was about at all? Or will it resound with, “Yes, yes. I know this place well. I see that it has everything to do with Jesus. And now that I see that, I will never unsee it.”

To that end, was my study of the text in the “pastor’s private study” the true starting point of all my thinking as I imagined my way deep into that wide world of the Old and New Testaments and took in its horizon? Was this particular Word the true star of the moment rather than my own precious thoughts? Did the Spirit set the agenda?

Tim Keller has a useful analogy in Preaching. A sermon text is like a town in England. Every town has a Main Street, the flow of the inspired writer’s thought. Can I walk that Main Street in my sleep? Do I understand how one element follows on another? Likewise, there is a “road to London” from every sermon text to the preaching of Christ crucified, a path that is natural and unforced.

I’ll be calling it the “road to Oxford”—it’s a much more beautiful city than London. The point is that if I can’t see clearly from one end of Main Street to the other, or find that broader highway, I’m not ready to preach.

It’s an axiom in communication that context always matters. If I walk by the front desk at MLC and say to the receptionist, “You look hot today!” would it matter if you noticed that the air conditioner blew out? Better, would it matter if you knew that she is my bride?

Or say I stood up beside a man on the stage and announced, “This man is my friend!” How does the communication event change if the man is being celebrated for a lifetime of achievement, or if he is, instead, being universally vilified?

Context always matters. Asking, “Where do I stand in this text?” can be just the trigger we need for illustrations that are organically connected with the Word of God and applications that shine with the ways life can now be lived in our text’s special light. Also, when a particular text lacks law or gospel, the immediate context is the first place we might look.

How might John 10 (above) be “never the same” for those who hear me preach? It might happen if they’ve never heard how ferocious are the words, “I am the Good Shepherd,” when taken in context. They are fighting words addressed to spiritual tyrants. They are fiercely protective of the once-blind man who is there in the same room. My Jesus stirs the blood! I know where I stand in the story. It is with the one who can only say, “I was blind. Now I see.”

In the end, being textual is precisely what helps me paint the unforgettable gospel, my true subject, in the fresh colors of a particular Scripture.

Being textual is precisely what helps me paint the unforgettable gospel.

Crucifying Law

It is possible, as David Schmitt writes1, to see only Law and Gospel in a text to the neglect of its unique atmosphere. Preaching can, as we all know, become something far more formulaic and predictable than the thing itself, the gospel, as it animates the Bible. We have more ways to interrogate a text than to only ask, “Where is the law?” and “Where is the gospel?”

Yet, we would all agree that neglecting Law and Gospel would be the graver problem. I will save some thunder to keep Law and Gospel in front of us in subsequent articles. I only introduce here the familiar matter of preaching Law as if there were no Gospel, and Gospel as if there were no Law. Questions of interest include: what is the range of ways the Law can perform its function, from the brutal to the tender? How can the familiar gospel be, as the mercies of God are, “new every morning?” None of us tire of these age-old challenges.

I often find my young students over-writing a Law portion of their chapel devotions. They can create a lot of inches of text filled with “How many times don’t we…?” My boredom tells me something is wrong. Yes, probably with me. Yet it remains that I am not well served. But I remember a gifted student who had, essentially, one condemning sentence followed by a dreadfully long pause. “Brothers, you come to me and show me my sin, and I will kill you in my heart.” In that case, less is more…and devastating.

I use the example from John 10 with my students and find my heart pounding as I do. It is not easy. I remind them that they know of dangers their own younger brothers are in—the way some play with fire—and they may think, “What is that to me? What would I gain by making this my problem? Being a pastor will make you hip and cool. It will get you admired. You can be someone.” So, I raise my voice quite uncharacteristically, and I look them in the eye and shout, “Hired hands!”

Preaching cannot heal deeply enough if it does not wound deeply enough.

It’s brutal. And the compassion it comes with is not, in that moment, self-evident. Preaching cannot heal deeply enough if it does not wound deeply enough. We cannot have people saying, “Yes, yes. We know already. Next comes the Gospel so get on with it.” We need to crucify and kill the flesh. We need, as good Lutheran theologians, to call things as they are.

Fresh, Explicit Gospel

“The reason my father loves me . . .”—strange to hear Jesus start a sentence that way. We think, “What? He needs a reason?” The reason is that Jesus lays down his life voluntarily. There was no coercion in it to spoil the unspeakable beauty of the act. The Father prizes the act. And he prizes all those who prize with him—all who see it, too—by Word and Spirit.

This is the answer to the one who howls at me in bed. “Satan, when you can find something here that is not perfect, exquisite, and complete, Christ’s free laying down his life only to take it up again, then you can come to me. Until that day, this is the act I prize. This is the reason I love him.”

We add nothing to the power to the Word of God, naked and unadorned by our own personalities or rhetorical prowess. But we do love to speak the eternal Gospel in the unique terms of a particular text for which no other text can substitute. For this we endure our private birth pains, the sweet agony of writing another sermon.

What’s Coming Next Time?

Our sweep of the basics is only begun. By Impactful Illustration I mean that we want to put a human face on, or bring into now, whatever became the most significant burden of the sermon. We would like it to pack a wallop and not leave the heart unaffected.

By an “Aha” Application I mean that we search out the implications of the text before us for our changed situation as grace opens it up. Life is different “in view of God’s mercy.” It’s what we see in a way we hadn’t seen it before that makes the difference.

By Clarity & Coherence I mean that we have an instinct for when in our writing we may be taxing our listener’s comprehension by our own lack of clarity or their attention by the density of our content.

By Warmth & Force in Delivery I mean that we work within our own personalities at the same time as we display the version of ourselves that is captivated by the cross. Our preaching flows from our own faith. We have learned and translate into life what the gospel means, and we long to love it much better than we do.

Who Is Competent?

I look at the faces of the boys in Preaching 101 after laying out these criteria. They look back at me overwhelmed. I always say, “Then my work here is done.” “Who is competent for such a task?” If that’s how Paul felt, then we are in good company in the way we make our resort to Christ from down here on our knees.

The answer to the “who is competent” question was not “Well, no one.” The answer was that Jesus is our competence by the means of grace and by the Spirit who lets his power rest on the nothingness of the man and the apparent nothingness of his messages. His grace is sufficient for our need. When we are weak, we are strong.

Kierkegaard wrote about the beautiful tapestry of Christian theology, “What good would it do me to construct a world in which I did not live but only held up to the view of others?” I borrow from him to remind you, brothers, to live in that world of grace, the real one, that you display it to others week after week. I remind you of what can come as a surprise to the pastor. The Good News you are so eager to bring to the broken is first for you. We “comfort with the comfort we have received.”

The prerequisite is a full heart. You are forgiven. This is not information for you to store up for some future day’s use. This is Now. You are forgiven. What would Jesus have you do, preacher? He would have you be glad.

(By the way, I’ll be quoting diverse voices in the year of articles ahead. I do not quote them as authorities. It will be because I like what a certain writer caught in skillful or compelling words. Craddock can be dangerous. Keller can be “close but not quite.” Such as I am, I have tested everything and have prayerfully kept what is good.)

Bottom line: if our job as preachers were to promote ourselves, then we had better be all about that. No chinks in the armor, please. But if our high and holy task is to elevate Christ—who he is and what he has done—then we can dare to be sinners. We can dare to be ourselves. We can be, as J. P. Koehler wrote, “ever more deeply absorbed in the gospel—not letting go until it blesses.”

We can be Good News Men.

Written by Mark Paustian

Dr. Paustian is a professor of communication and biblical Hebrew at Martin Luther College where he teaches “Advanced Christian Rhetoric” which combines an introduction to homiletics and an introduction to apologetics in one course. He holds a PhD in Communication from Regent University.


1 “Law and Gospel in Sermon and Service” from Liturgical Preaching. Paul Grime and Dean Nadasdy, eds. CPH 2001. Reissued in 2011 with the title Preaching is Worship: The Sermon in Context. Schmitt teaches practical theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

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NPH Is Your Partner

NPH Is Your Partner

I have enjoyed a partnership between WELS Congregational Services (CS) and Northwestern Publishing House as we have rolled out synod-wide initiatives in recent years, like C19 for Christmas. Feedback from pastors says these programs have been highly appreciated.

I’ve especially enjoyed partnership with NPH’s Jeremy Bakken. He composed a new gathering rite for C18. He stocked a choral arrangement of Getty Music’s “Oh, How Good It Is” for Welcome Home. After that program had passed, I asked for sales data on that piece. “260 copies sold to 21 purchasers, about 3% of WELS congregations with an active adult choir. And that was a good performer compared to other pieces in their first sales run.”

Now I certainly don’t suggest that every choir director should pick a recommended piece. The worship plans for CS programs aim to give many flexible options. And not every congregation participated in Welcome Home. But this anecdote and others suggest that our churches could improve their walking together partnership with NPH. This article shows why and how one church musician partners with NPH.

This article is … a call to action to strengthen a ministry partnership that serves us all.

This article is not a NPH ad masquerading as a WTL article. It’s a call to action to strengthen a ministry partnership that serves us all. My prayer is that this article will build understanding and awareness so that congregations will intentionally partner with NPH.

Bryan Gerlach
Director, Commission on Worship


From Jeremy

Why Northwestern Publishing House? Hopefully that question piques your curiosity. “Why NPH?” could be qualified in many ways. Why that name? Why that ministry? Why shop there? Which one will this article address? Read on.

Buy American

In today’s consumer culture, what, where, and why we buy are topics on the minds of marketing researchers, retailers, and consumers. “You need this,” expressed in any number of ways, identifies the what and the why according to the marketer or retailer. Once that seed is planted and accepted by consumers, where we buy it is the last step in the process. And that fact is not lost on marketers and retailers either. Once they’ve convinced us to buy, they hope that we will buy from them. Where we buy has its own why.

Amazon has wired us to believe that we should buy from them because we don’t have to leave home and they deliver “free” in two days. (It’s not free; it comes out of your Prime fee). Many a company has used guilt, pride, or patriotism to convince us to “Buy American.” The customer gains an advantage or does some good by purchasing from said company. We neglect a greater good or meaningful identity if we don’t. What and why we buy may be first on our minds, but where we buy isn’t far behind.

The Bottom Line

What does this have to do with worship and gospel ministry? WELS has “a subsidiary corporation named Northwestern Publishing House.” This publishing ministry must “function as a self-supporting, self-funded operation” (WELS Constitution and Bylaws, 7.00f). WELS’ ministry of the Word includes a ministry of the published Word. But NPH is not funded like other ministries of the synod, by gifts and offerings distributed from the synod’s operating budget. Rather, it has a business bottom line. Consider that again: the publishing ministry of WELS is funded on a business model.

The synod has a publishing ministry only if people buy materials from their synod publisher.

Here enters an interesting conundrum. The what, why, and where of NPH are of two natures: ministry and business. The what and why of ministry are not hard to understand: publishing biblically sound materials. The what and why of business are also not hard to understand; they are the same as the what and why of ministry. But where . . . where is the key. And it is the key to both facets of the nature of NPH. From a ministry standpoint, NPH is where you find biblically sound materials. That’s so important; every resource, every time—biblically sound. But from a business standpoint, NPH will continue to be the place for biblically sound resources only if WELS people purchase resources from NPH. Yes, NPH has a business bottom line. But the bottom line—the most important reality—is that the synod has a publishing ministry only if people buy materials from their synod publisher. Often. Consistently. Intentionally.

A Different Ballpark

NPH has a ministry partnership with WELS members but also a business-consumer relationship. Which one is more important—for NPH and for the members of WELS? When the only relationship is one of business-consumer, where we buy is based on factors like price, brand, and loyalty earned from the consumer. Where you buy groceries, clothes, cars, lightbulbs is based largely on a business-consumer relationship. “Give me the best price and high quality. Woo me into giving you my business. Make me the center of your universe, and I will patronize you.”

A business lives or dies on customer purchases. From a business standpoint, this is important to NPH as well. Your synod’s publisher wants to give you the best price it can. It wants to offer you quality. And because this publishing ministry is funded on a business model, the ministry lives or dies on ministry partners’ purchases.

But do you notice something about that last statement? We’re in a different ballpark. Though funded on a business model, NPH is a ministry. Though funded by sales, our customers are also ministry partners. And that casts a very different light on purchases from NPH. Now the “consumer” isn’t supporting a business so that its employees stay employed and its owners make a profit; the ministry partner “consumers” are ensuring that the ministry of the printed Word flourishes. Additionally, customer ministry partners are not just benefiting their own world; profits from their purchases go back into producing more resources that benefit others throughout the world. And this benefit is spiritual; it’s eternal. Yes, we’re definitely in a different ballpark when we view NPH not only as a business but more so as a ministry; when we view ourselves not as consumers, but as ministry partners.

Though funded by sales, NPH customers are also ministry partners.

What Does This Mean?

It’s the Lutheran question, right? Let’s get to nuts and bolts . . . everyday purchase decisions about music and worship resources (and other ministry resources).

One of the best commissions from the 2017 WELS worship conference was “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word” by John Behnke. It’s masterfully crafted, combining original but highly complementary material (both music and biblical text) with a cherished Luther hymn. It is accessible without being simplistic, artful without being esoteric. And it was published by Concordia Publishing House. Solely from a business-consumer standpoint, a WELS choir director could order directly from CPH—the order might arrive faster. Or they could order this and music from other publishers through a one-stop-shop reseller like J. W. Pepper—it’s convenient.

Or they could order from NPH. The price is the same, but it might take longer. And it might require placing multiple orders during the year. So if some of the business-consumer benefits don’t seem to be there, why purchase this title from NPH? Enter the ministry partner aspect. A portion of your purchase through NPH remains with NPH, supporting its publishing ministry. It helps NPH publish more of its own music titles, composed by our own WELS composers, designed with WELS worship doctrine and practice in mind. It helps NPH publish other worship materials, like hymnals and seasonal kits. It even helps publish broader ministry materials—devotionals; Bible commentaries; personal evangelism growth books; focused ministry resources for dealing with addiction, cancer, pornography, challenges to the Christian worldview. Wider selection and one-stop shopping at J. W. Pepper is a nice consumer benefit; supporting the work of your synod’s publishing ministry is of great spiritual benefit.

Consider a more intentional ministry partnership with your synod’s publisher. NPH is a reseller. We carry and are able to order music from the following publishers:

  • Alfred Music
  • Augsburg Fortress
  • Beckenhorst Press
  • Choristers Guild
  • Concordia Publishing House
  • Floeter Music
  • GIA Publications
  • Hal Leonard (and subsidiaries, like Shawnee Press)
  • Hope Publishing
  • Kjos
  • Lorenz (and subsidiaries, like Word Music, Sacred Music Press)
  • MorningStar Music

Whenever you find something from one of these publishers that you wish to purchase, order through NPH! It doesn’t even have to be listed on the NPH website. Simply call us (800.662.6022) or email us (orders@nph.wels.net), and we can special order the titles you want. Our retail price is the same as the source publisher. Planning ahead ensures that you can compensate for any extra delivery time. Most importantly, a portion of your purchase supports the NPH publishing ministry—your publishing ministry as a member of WELS.

Some statistics may help to drive home this point. Regardless of whether the music was published by NPH or elsewhere, two statistics are striking. A 2018 survey conducted by NPH revealed that about 70% of WELS churches have an active church choir. But a review of five years of purchasing activity by WELS churches revealed that only about 20% purchased choral music from NPH. Again, what does this mean? To be sure, it is unreasonable to expect lock-step loyalty, to expect that every church will purchase their worship resources only and always from NPH. But is it reasonable to expect that a majority will? Think of how much more sacred music publishing ministry could be done if 60% of WELS churches with active choirs intentionally partnered with NPH for their choral music ministry by making their music purchases through NPH.

Is the business-consumer experience at NPH as good as elsewhere? Perhaps not. But here is a reality: When your synod publisher is first and foremost dedicated to materials built on sound doctrine, that means your denomination constitutes your primary supporters. Running a top-notch publishing house costs the same whether for 100 people or a million people. Historically, the WELS “customer base” has supported the baseline funding needed for its publishing ministry to be a premier publishing house. But there are some realties to be aware of. WELS is shrinking, which means fewer people partnering with NPH. The digital age has affected NPH, making it much easier for WELSers to compare NPH to other publishers, and at times, to be disappointed with NPH or envious of what other publishers offer. Some have even become content with using other publishers’ materials, requiring vigilance for doctrinal error or (hopefully not) being content with “I guess it can be understood correctly.” These factors mean fewer people partnering with NPH.

Why do I share all this? Because I want you to know how deeply your publisher cares about our ministry relationship. We don’t want your business. We want your support, even as we exist to support you. We want your partnership, even as we exist to partner with you. We want ministry to flourish—your personal ministry, your local ministry, your synod’s publishing ministry. And we do that together—ministry partners via a business-consumer relationship.

What does this mean? NPH will continue to make available music and worship resources that are biblically sound, excellently produced, and carefully curated. Your synod publisher does this so that you have resources to use with confidence, ease, and joy. Joy not because you got the best deal or the fastest service (though we will strive for these), but joy because together we’re bringing the Word of God to a world that so desperately needs it.


My Ministry Partnership with NPH

From David

In my early years at Pilgrim, I worked with church leadership to establish a sufficient budget to support a growing and vibrant music ministry. I was very conscious about getting the most “bang for my buck,” so I’m definitely guilty of trying to shop smart by ordering directly from some other publisher or heading over to J.W. Pepper for the one-stop-shop experience that Jeremy referenced.

Fast forward a few years. Our congregation now has a supportive music budget. This, combined with a few members who work for NPH, got me thinking, “Why don’t I order all this music through NPH and support our synod’s publishing arm?” NPH and Pilgrim are ministry partners, so why not support NPH for providing excellent resources to use in both church and school?

I plan all my choral music during the summer months, so I am in no rush to receive it unless a last-minute change arises. Thus began a relationship with Jeremy and NPH. The “slower part” of the church year is ideal for advance planning. Work with your pastor(s) and other musicians to develop some sort of worship grid that allows everyone to be on the same page. The best worship takes place when planning is done in advance; not at the last second.1

Jeremy and I have worked on various music projects for WELS which have led me to order both junior and adult choir music directly from NPH. Our choirs sing regularly for worship, so we need a healthy music library each year. NPH has always been extremely reliable and professional. Once the order has been fulfilled, I am able to go directly to CMM to pick up the music or have Jeremy bring it to Pilgrim when we have a recording session for the hymnology curriculum.

This article includes a link to a simple order form (worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/worship-the-lord-hymnal-introduction-series/) that I have sent to Jeremy. Some choir directors might see this as extra work. It really isn’t. You are already taking time to explore various websites to find music that you need. Why not take a few extra minutes to support NPH? The benefits of walking together certainly go far beyond a dollar amount.

Most of our congregations average less than 100 people in worship each weekend. This often means limited musical resources. So how does this article apply to small congregations? In addition to serving as choir director, I am also one of the congregation’s organists. I keep up with new releases from various publishers. NPH does a marvelous job of filling orders for my personal keyboard library. A similar order form like the one mentioned earlier could be used for adding new music to your personal or church collections. Note the list of publishers below and order new music from these publishers through NPH. Minimal effort and planning can allow any church musician to walk together with NPH.

If you serve in a setting where you play organ or piano for no compensation or honorarium, this article can serve as an encouragement for your congregation to provide a line item in the budget for purchasing new keyboard music. All too often I hear from church musicians who feel that their church doesn’t support their work. My encouragement to fellow musicians is to practice patience when working with church leadership. A congregation’s budget is pulled in many valuable directions. A healthy music budget is not going to happen overnight or during one or two budget meetings. Congregations need to know why a healthy music budget is important and how this budget is vital for ministry. Church leaders need to be educated by their musicians on the cost of choral octavos and piano/organ/instrumental resources. Solid communication will alleviate frustration and confusion when budget time comes.

May God continue to bless our congregations as we walk together in all aspects of ministry.


Pastors, I encourage you to have a meeting with the musicians who serve your church. Send them a link to this article in advance. Then discuss the article—leading, we hope, to agreement: “This makes perfect sense. I’ll order as much as possible from NPH in the future.” David Porth is happy to answer questions from pastors or musicians: dporth@pilgrimcares.org. He can walk musicians through the process of developing a music budget.

Musicians, when you purchase musical resources from NPH—both items published by NPH and items from other publishers via special order—your walking together with others from over a thousand congregations will increase NPH’s ability to provide supporting products for everything from synodwide initiatives to resources that support a new hymnal. – BG


By Jeremy Bakken and David Porth

Jeremy is Director of Worship and Sacred Music, Curricula at NPH. He is a published composer and founding member of Branches Band. He holds music degrees from Wisconsin Lutheran College and the University of New Mexico and is a dissertation away from a DMA in choral music from the University of Southern California. He serves Trinity, Waukesha, as choir director and plays piano or bass in their modern liturgical ensemble, Trinitas, for which he has contributed many arrangements. For the WELS hymnal project he is a member of the Hymnody Committee and chairs the Musician’s Resource Committee.

David teaches Grades 7-8 and is Music Director at Pilgrim Lutheran Church, Menomonee Falls, WI. A graduate of Martin Luther College, he also holds the Master of Church Music degree from Concordia University, Wisconsin. He has been ordering all choral and personal music through NPH for the last few years.


1 Find help for worship planning here https://worship.welsrc.net/downloads-worship/worship-planning/

 

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Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

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Preach the Word – Delivery Matters

Delivery Matters

I can still remember my first real “preaching” opportunity—evening chapel at MLC during my senior year. I triumphantly finished writing my manuscript. It felt so good to be done! I even told my dad that I had my chapel ready. Do you know what he asked? “So have you memorized it?”

Huh. Memorizing that devotion hadn’t crossed my mind for even a second. In fact, I remember being a little flustered. “Memorize it? What do you mean? I’ve got it all written out!” I hadn’t given the slightest thought about how to deliver my message. I had finished writing. I was ready! I wonder if that’s why attendance at evening chapel was often light at MLC. Delivery matters!

I’ve seen that in a powerful way during the coronavirus pandemic. I bet you have too. I’ve gotten to watch myself preach more in the past two months than I had in all the rest of my ministry combined. Have you liked that? For me, it’s been eye-opening. My kids can ask me right on the couch, “Is it over yet?” I can see how my sermons seem to drag on. And all the little things…

Why am I waving my one arm all the time?
Why am I grinning with only half my face?
Why am I not smiling as I say those words?
Why am I talking so fast?
Why am I talking so slow?
Why am I looking up at the ceiling?

For me, it’s been painful to watch. It’s made me think, “How do people put up with this?” It’s not just what you say that’s important, it’s how you say it. Delivery matters!

That’s a very biblical idea. In his Word, our God doesn’t just focus on the what. He also focuses a lot of attention on how his Word is shared. Remember how God delivered his Law to his people on Mt. Sinai? He didn’t just rattle off ten commands. Listen:

On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him. (Ex 19:16-19)

Thunder and lightning and smoke… The delivery mattered!

But remember how Jesus delivered God’s Word to the woman caught in adultery? The Pharisees wanted fire and smoke! All they got was a finger drawing on the ground and a gentle voice:

Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (Jn 8:6-11)

The delivery mattered! It wasn’t just what Jesus said. It was how he said it.

Think of John the Baptist. The Gospels go into detail to describe his delivery of God’s message:

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”… John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. (Mt 3:1-2,4)

What a sight—and delivery! Now compare that with the apostle John in his epistles: “My dear children” (1 Jn 2:1), “Dear friends” (1 Jn 2:7), “Dear children” (1 Jn 2:12). Not quite the same delivery, huh? For each, the way they delivered God’s message mattered. In God’s inspired Word, it’s amazing to see how God chose lots of different ways for his Word to be delivered.

So, delivery matters. As I say that, here’s one caution: I’m not trying to tell you exactly how you should preach. I don’t know you. I don’t know your people. I’m also not telling you to preach like me. In fact, please don’t preach like me. Don’t preach like your neighboring pastor either. Please preach with the gifts God’s given you. Here’s what I am saying: As you preach, don’t just think about what you say. Think about how you say it. How you deliver God’s Word matters.

Let’s start with this: Every sermon has a form or structure. Long before you deliver your sermon, you decide what pattern it will follow. So here’s my question: Does each of your sermons follow the same pattern? Does each message follow the same template? Maybe you start with a story, dive into the text, share law, share gospel, then end with an illustration. Maybe you start with an introduction, state your theme and parts, explain part one (usually law), explain part two (usually gospel), and end by restating your theme and parts. That’s your template. It’s basically the same week to week. Your hearers expect it. In fact, it’s predictable. They know what’s coming next.

God’s Word isn’t predictable.

Here’s the problem: God’s Word isn’t predictable. Not every text has the same form. In fact, biblical texts have very different forms and structures. How often do you find yourself jumping around in the text? Sharing the message in a very different order than how it’s laid out in Scripture? Could it be we’re determined to make God’s Word fit our neat templates? It doesn’t.

God sent Nathan to preach his Word to David. So Nathan told a story—a parable—that initially seemed to have nothing to do with the sin in David’s life (2 Sam 12). God enabled Stephen to preach his Word to the Sanhedrin. Stephen retold the history of God’s people, from Abraham to Moses to Joshua (Ac 7). God sent Paul to preach his Word to the Athenians. Paul didn’t tell stories. He pointed to the natural knowledge of God (Ac 17). Three very different forms. Three different sermons. Three powerful calls to repentance (2 Sam 12:7; Ac 7:52; Ac 17:30).

If divinely inspired texts come in different forms, shouldn’t our sermons come in a variety of forms and formats too? In some texts, there is clear law followed by clear gospel with a very clear division between the two. In other texts, the author carefully weaves back and forth from law to gospel to law to gospel. In some texts, a story dominates, with a short, powerful summary at the end. In other texts, Christian doctrine is expounded point by point. Our wise God chose to share his Word in an incredible variety of ways. There’s nothing predictable about God’s Word!

Does the form of your sermons reflect that? I was blessed by a WLS summer quarter class called “Imitating Scriptural Variety in Sermonic Form and Structure.” Professor Rich Gurgel opened our eyes to the different genres of Scripture. There’s historical narrative, poetry, wisdom literature, prophecy, parables, epistles, apocalyptic… Far from following one template, wouldn’t it make sense that sermons written on different genres of Scripture will sound different?

Think of it like this: Each genre of Scripture is a little like a different musical instrument. There are low and somber texts. There are bright and joyful texts. There are deep and profound texts. There are light and repetitive texts. Let the genre of Scripture guide not just the words, but also the form of your sermon. Are you preaching on a story? Tell the story! Are you preaching on a deep doctrine from the epistles? Explain it point by point. Are you preaching on a psalm? Speak beautifully with metaphors and similes. What form is suggested by the text? What instrument?

My first sermon after taking that class was on 1 Corinthians 10: “Be careful that you don’t fall!” There’s gospel in that text—“God is faithful!”—but the somber warnings from Israel’s history sound like the low tones of a trombone. I told my people, “This isn’t a joyful section of God’s Word. Today’s sermon is going to sound like a somber trombone. But it’s what we need!” On another occasion, I preached on Jeremiah 31:31-34. What beautiful words! I told my associate that I was struggling to find more law to bring into the sermon. He said, “Why? This is gospel! Preach the gospel!” Forcing God’s text into my template isn’t biblical preaching. Preach the text!

I encourage you to think about the form of your sermons. Predictable sermons tempt our hearers to tune out. May our sermons reflect the richness and variety of God’s inspired Word! Whatever form your sermon takes, don’t give it all away at the start. Nathan didn’t walk in and say to David, “Today I’m going to tell you how guilty you are…” Not at all! He started with a story. Peter didn’t stand up on Pentecost and start with: “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” No, that’s how he finished! Don’t give it all away at the start. Help me see my sin as if there were no Savior. Then amaze me with God’s unexpected grace in Jesus.

But even after you’ve thoughtfully decided on the form of your sermon, even after it’s been carefully written, remember you’re still not done. Delivery matters! I know you’re a busy pastor. I know that practicing a sermon feels like an extra burden after you’ve spent so much time preparing it. But a sermon read off the page isn’t the same as a sermon preached to the eyes. Beautiful words written on a page benefit no one when our wandering minds forget them.

A sermon read off the page isn’t the same as a sermon preached to the eyes.

So memorization is key. After my debacle as an MLC senior, I’m grateful that my homiletics professor at the Seminary insisted we preach our first sermons without a manuscript. I bet I spent at least 10 hours memorizing that first sermon, but it was worth it! Thankfully, memorization has gotten quicker with practice. People appreciate it when their pastor looks them in the eyes. The time you spend memorizing your manuscript or rehearsing your outline is well worth it.

Here’s an added encouragement: Don’t just memorize your words. Memorize God’s words too. At first, I would look down and read the Bible passages in my sermons. One day, a man asked me, “How come you memorize your words, but you don’t bother to memorize God’s words?” He had a point! Since that day, I’ve memorized God’s words too. It’s been a blessing to have more Bible passages memorized, and it’s a joy to look people in the eyes when I share God’s Word.

But as you look them in the eye, what’s the expression on your face? Do you know? My 5-year-old son is at the age when he loves to have his parents watch him do everything. Recently, he climbed up the slide all by himself. When he made it to the top, he proudly turned to me and said, “Did you see that?” I said, “Yes, I saw you!” He said, “How come you don’t have a happy face? Make your happy face!” People notice what’s on your face. Does it match your message?

“How come you don’t have a happy face?”

I know a kind pastor who preached very Christ-centered sermons. Do you know what his wife often told him? “You look angry when you preach.” He did! Do you? He had to keep one thing on his mind: Smile! Is that you? Maybe the opposite’s true. A brother took notes on a sermon I preached at a pastor’s conference. One of his comments was, “Why do you smile when you preach the law?” Huh. I didn’t know that. Does your face match your message? People notice!

But it’s not just your face. Preaching involves your whole body. Are you communicating distance or intimacy? Excitement or boredom? Urgency or monotony? All I ask is that you think about it. Are you going to stand or sit? Pulpit or not? These are important decisions! We can’t be dogmatic about this. Jesus preached reclining at a table (Mt 26:20), sitting in a synagogue (Lk 4:20), sitting on a mountain (Mt 5:1), and from a boat (Lk 5:3). Why do you do what you do? Have you thought it through? Is your body communicating what you want to communicate?

There are so many elements of delivery. Do you ask rhetorical questions in your sermons? If not, try it. Asking questions draws people in. When you ask a rhetorical question, however, make sure you pause. Give time for people to ponder. I know it’s awkward, but it’s okay for there to be empty space in your sermons. Often, nothing recaptures people’s attention more than a well-timed pause. If people were daydreaming, they will wonder what they missed!

All of this emphasizes the need to practice before we preach. When you know your sermon well, you can to control the speed at which you preach. Slow down to draw people’s attention to an important phrase. At other times, purposefully speak quickly and build to a climax. Think of Romans 8:38-39. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers…” Paul builds and builds and builds!

But “if you cannot speak like angels, if you cannot preach like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus; you can say he died for all.” In everything, exude Christ’s love and concern for your people. They notice! They want you to preach like you as you tell them about the love of Jesus.

This means that all WELS pastors aren’t going to preach the same way. That’s okay! The how is going to be different, because we’re each in different settings. I have the unique opportunity to preach to two large services of 100+ people in English, one small service of 10-15 people in Spanish, and another service of 20 people in English. That’s three totally different settings. The message is the same, but it can’t be delivered in the same way. Different settings call for a different delivery, because delivery matters!

Our God has shared his Word in so many ways: thunder and lightning, a burning bush, a gentle whisper, a Man who had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him. God’s focused a lot of attention on how his Word is shared. We can too. So even when the pandemic ends, don’t stop watching yourself preach. Keep growing in how you share God’s message.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to write for Preach the Word over this past year. I pray these articles have encouraged you to preach simply. As Luther said,

Cursed be every preacher who aims at lofty topics in the church, looking for his own glory and selfishly desiring to please one individual or another. When I preach here I adapt myself to the circumstances of the common people. I don’t look at the doctors and masters, of whom scarcely forty are present, but at the hundred or the thousand young people and children. It’s to them that I preach, to them that I devote myself, for they, too, need to understand.1

Simple preaching is Lutheran preaching!

In my research, I came across an interesting comment about Luther. One blogger wrote, “Many think of Martin Luther primarily as a reformer. However, he thought of himself first and foremost, as a preacher.”2 It is a blessing to preach the Word of God, isn’t it? By God’s grace, you are a preacher, like Luther was, and I am too. Love it. Practice it. Grow in it!

Your identity isn’t tied to any sermon. It’s tied to Jesus.

But that quote isn’t right. Luther wasn’t first and foremost a preacher. You aren’t either. Luther was a redeemed child of God bought with Jesus’ blood. That’s who you are too! Your identity isn’t tied to any sermon. It’s tied to Jesus. Whether people listen or fail to listen, Jesus is your comfort, and Jesus is your strength. You are a forgiven child of God who can’t keep the grace of God to yourself, who can’t hold the love of Jesus inside. That’s who you are! It’s that simple. Don’t make it complicated. Show people Jesus! May Jesus bless you as you do.

Written by Nathan Nass

Nathan Nass serves as pastor at St. Paul / San Pablo Lutheran Church in Green Bay, WI. You can read his sermons and daily devotions on his blog at upsidedownsavior.home.blog.


1 LW 54:235-236
2 Ingino, Steven. “Six Lessons from Luther’s preaching.” https://thecripplegate.com/six-lessons-from-luthers-preaching/

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

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Preach the Word – Go Deep

Go Deep

As you know by now, I’m a fan of simple preaching. I love Luther’s assessment of a good preacher: “He’s the best preacher who can teach in a plain, childlike, popular, and simple way” (AE 54:384). A good preacher refuses to talk in secret pastor code language. He understands the reality of biblical illiteracy and meets his people where they are in their life of faith. He focuses his hearers on a central truth in his sermons, instead of wandering all over the map. Above all, he points people to Jesus with clear law and gospel again and again. I’m a fan of simple preaching!

But I’m afraid that phrase—“simple preaching”—can be easily misunderstood. It might sound like “simple preaching” means preaching simplistic sermons without much meat or depth. It might sound like “simple preaching” means sticking to easy sections of Scripture and simply rehashing the plan of salvation week after week. It might sound like “simple preaching” means avoiding anything that challenges our hearers’ understanding. If I’ve given you that impression, Jesus has other ideas. Jesus sends us out to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt 28:20). Jesus wants us to preach and teach everything in his Word.

“Simple preaching”—can be easily misunderstood.

A brother pastor asked me this perceptive question: “What about the sections of Scripture that are not simple? It’s good that you began here with Jesus’ parables and Paul’s simple preaching. But Peter noted that Paul is often difficult to understand…. What if the text is not so simple?”

Here’s the reality in Scripture: Some texts aren’t so simple! As our brother mentioned, Peter noted that Paul can be difficult to understand: “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Pt 3:16). So here’s how Peter ended his letter just two verses later: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen” (2 Pt 3:18). It’s true that some sections of Scripture are hard to understand. So what does God want? He wants every Christian—from a new convert to a long-time pastor—to keep growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ. God wants us to go deep!

Paul—who wrote things that are hard to understand—emphasized that same truth: “Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready” (1 Cor 3:1-2). Paul longed for his hearers to grow spiritually. In fact, Christ has given pastors and teachers to his church so that “we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ” (Eph 4:14-15). Jesus wants his people to grow!

The book of Hebrews includes a striking lament. “We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!” (Hb 5:11-12). Can you sense the frustration in the author’s voice? “I want to say more, but I can’t because of your spiritual immaturity.” Wow! Strong words. Every pastor can relate to the feeling of having to teach the same basic truths over and over again to people who ought to have matured further in their faith. “I want to say so much more, but…”

Here is the author of Hebrews’ encouragement: “Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so” (Hb 6:1-3). The author certainly wasn’t encouraging his hearers to abandon core teachings about Christ. But he was challenging them to take their understanding of Christ to a deeper level. Isn’t that also our goal as preachers? We want to challenge our hearers to grow. We want to go deep!

It sounds counterintuitive, but simple preachers lead people to go deep.

But here’s a caution: This encouragement to “go deep” doesn’t nullify anything I’ve written about “simple preaching.” Don’t challenge your people with your theological vocabulary or stuffy grammar. Don’t challenge your people with a convoluted outline or a myriad of disconnected biblical references. That’s not “going deep.” Do challenge your people with the deep truths of God. “From everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Ps 90:2). Simple words. Deep thoughts! “He chose us in him before the creation of the world” (Eph 1:4). Simple words. Deep thoughts! It sounds counterintuitive, but simple preachers lead people to go deep.

These Bible verses have led me to examine my own preaching. I want it to be simple and clear. But I also want to go deep! Am I? Every one of us has had the experience of sitting through a disappointing conference presentation. The topic had excited you. You had eagerly anticipated impacts on your life and ministry. But then the presenter spent an hour saying the same thing over and over again. You left deflated—maybe even angry! No depth. No value. How often is that me? Do people walk away from my sermons thinking, “I was expecting a whole lot more…”

There’s evidence that I haven’t been challenging my people as much as I think I have. How often am I surprised that my members don’t know what God says about important teachings? I moan, “How do they not get that sex before marriage is wrong? They act like it’s normal!” But then I realize that I hardly ever preach about sexuality. What else? Unfortunately, I can think of lots of examples. “How come they are not concerned about homosexuality?” “Why do they keep bringing up millennialism?” “How do they not know what the Bible says about predestination?” Well, have I preached about any of those doctrines lately—or ever? Maybe I need to go deeper!

Lazy mouths can lead to lazy ears.

There’s an interesting phrase in the Hebrews passage I quoted above. “We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn” (Hb 5:11). The phrase “slow to learn” is literally “lazy in respect to ears” (νωθροὶ γεγόνατε ταῖς ἀκοαῖς). Isn’t that a clever phrase? How often are our people “lazy in respect to ears”? But now here’s the catch: How often aren’t we preachers “lazy in respect to mouths”? Do you think there’s a connection? If my people sense that I’m preaching the same thing every week, that I haven’t gone deep, that I’m not willing to challenge them…. Do you think lazy mouths can lead to lazy ears?

Often our reasoning—or excuse—is to say, “That topic is better for Bible class.” Sure, it’s easier to explain something with an hour in a class. It’s much more challenging to craft a sermon on the same topic. But you know the problem. In my congregation, less than 15% of adults attend Bible class. How about yours? If diving deep is reserved for Bible class, we shouldn’t be surprised when 85% of our members think that Lutherans and Catholics believe the same thing. We need to preach—not just teach—on the deep truths of the Bible. I wonder if our people don’t have a greater desire to go deeper into God’s Word than we give them credit for. That’s why they bring up predestination and muse about the Trinity and ask for more Revelation… People want meat!

People want meat!

This means that you, preacher, have a big job! To challenge and motivate the 75-year-old elder who’s been a member his whole life. To convict and forgive the 44-year-old straying member who happened to show up for the first time in years. To connect with the 27-year-old who hasn’t ever stepped in a church before. To keep the attention of the 13-year-old who is supposed to be filling out a sermon summary. All while keeping the central focus on Jesus’ work of redemption.

Does this mean that every word of your sermon is going to be understood by every person there? No. Does it mean that every application should hit home for every person? Impossible. But if I’m preaching on the deep truth of predestination, I want the 13-year-old to walk away knowing that she is loved. I want the 27-year-old to go home trusting that his life has purpose. I want the 44-year-old to be amazed at God’s grace. I want the 75-year-old to have peace when he thinks of death. Going deep into doctrines has practical applications for every one of God’s people.

Here’s where to start: Give yourself time to pray and mature for yourself. Luther wrote, “You should completely despair of your own sense and reason, for by these you will not attain the goal…. Rather kneel down in your private little room and with sincere humility and earnestness pray God through his dear Son, graciously to grant you his Holy Spirit to enlighten and guide you and give you understanding.”1 When was the last time you “went deep” into a biblical doctrine apart from your sermon prep? In our circuit, a brother recently suggested we read the recent translation of Walther’s “Church and Ministry.” It’s deep. And long! It’s made me realize how rarely I go deep into God’s Word to grow personally in my knowledge and understanding.

Give yourself time to pray and mature for yourself.

Then, think carefully about how you go about choosing which text to preach on each week. As you choose a text, there are lots of factors to consider. What texts have I preached on before? Which has the clearest message for me to communicate? Which hits at a particular need in our congregation right now? Add these to the list of things to consider: Which text presents the greatest challenge to my sinful nature? Which text pushes my biblical understanding to a deeper level? Which has truths from God that my people probably haven’t heard for a while—or ever?

As you consciously look to challenge your people to grow in their spiritual maturity, here’s a caution: We’re not talking about randomly mentioning hot-button issues from the pulpit. In a recent devotion for a group of non-members studying English at our church, I mentioned abortion in passing as an example of sin in our world. The shaken looks on many of the women’s faces immediately convicted me of a serious pastoral mistake. If you’re going to go deep, go deep. Preach a whole sermon—or two or three—on abortion: why it’s sinful, what hope and forgiveness Christ offers, what godly options exist for those with unplanned pregnancies.

This might be a place for a sermon series at an appropriate time of year. In my previous congregation, we took a survey of our membership. We had a huge response—over 175 completed surveys. One unexpected blessing was the opportunity to see which biblical teachings our members were struggling with, including some deep doctrines like the roles of men and women, hell, fellowship, and the Lord’s Supper. In response, we designed a summer sermon series called “Clearing the Roadblocks.”2 We dove into each of those doctrines. Our people genuinely enjoyed “going deep.” Members asked, “I’m going to be gone next week, but I really want to hear what the Bible has to say about _________. Can you share your sermon with me?”

I remember one particular Thursday evening worship service. In a very liberal, ELCA-dominated small town in Minnesota, I got to preach on the roles of men and women. That evening, one of our faithful male members finally convinced his wife—a very committed ELCA member—to join him for worship. I saw her and thought, “Oh, boy.” The idea flashed through my mind to preach on something totally different. Thankfully, I didn’t. After the service, she said she had never heard what the Bible actually says. Going deep into a challenging doctrine was a blessing for her—and me too! I had nothing to fear, because God’s Word is true. People need all of it!

Into what areas of Christian doctrine would it be beneficial for your people to go deep? In an election year, God has a lot to say about government. Are your people going to hear it? Identity—it’s on everybody’s minds. Will you dive deep into what it really means to be a child of God? The Trinity: “Are all gods really the same?” Church fellowship: “Why are there so many Christian churches?” Nobody gets it, but the Bible explains it. Go deep!

As you do, remember the deepest, most challenging doctrine of Scripture. Do you know what it is? Here’s how Luther explained Peter’s words about the difficult teachings in Paul’s writings: “He saw that many frivolous spirits were jumbling and twisting St. Paul’s words and teaching, because some things in the latter’s epistles are difficult to understand, as, for example, when he says that ‘man is justified by faith apart from works’ (Rom. 3:28)” (AE 30:198). What’s the most challenging doctrine of all for our sinful natures? Justification by faith. We better make sure we clearly teach that difficult, deep doctrine of salvation by faith in Jesus!

As I write this, concern over the coronavirus is spreading. This week, WELS churches were forced to suspend in-person worship services. I pray that by the time you read this, those fears have subsided. Here’s what I’ve learned from the pandemic so far: Each time you preach, you are preparing your people for the day when you and your church will no longer be there. Preach the gospel in every sermon like it’s the last time your people will be in a church, and go deep into God’s Word to prepare your people to study the Bible on their own when you and your worship services are no longer available. Give them the gospel and challenge them to go deep.

That’s what Paul did. While he didn’t face a pandemic, he was often forced to leave the churches he served on a moment’s notice. A notable example is his stay in Thessalonica. A mob forced Paul to flee after a short stay. Yet, his letters to the Thessalonians reveal a depth of teaching on matters like the end of the world and the antichrist. Paul got deep with those people quickly. Even Paul’s long stay in Ephesus only amounted to two and a half years. Yet, Paul could confidently say, “I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God” (Acts 20:27).

In every sermon, consciously or not, you are teaching your people how to read and understand God’s Word. In other words, every sermon is a sermon on hermeneutics. Only please don’t use that word in your sermons! Every sermon you preach is an opportunity to teach your people how to search for answers in the Scriptures, how to use context to aid understanding, how to let Scripture interpret Scripture. Every sermon you preach is an opportunity to teach your people how to dive deeply into God’s Word, so that when the day comes that their preacher is gone or their church is shuttered, God’s people are equipped to continue digging deep into his truth.

Brothers, in your simple preaching, go deep.

Isn’t this exciting? Week after week we preachers get to open up God’s Word for God’s people, “like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Mt 13:53). There’s urgency for us preachers. Each week, we look at a portion of God’s Word and realize, “This is so important. This is so applicable. This is just what my hearers need to hear!” Then, the very next week, we look at a completely different portion of God’s Word and realize, “This is so important. This is so applicable. This is just what my hearers need to hear!” That joy and urgency is what led Luther to say, “If I today could become king or emperor, I would not give up my office as preacher.”3 Brothers, in your simple preaching, go deep.

Written by Nathan Nass

Nathan Nass serves as pastor at St. Paul / San Pablo Lutheran Church in Green Bay, WI. You can read his sermons and daily devotions on his blog at upsidedownsavior.home.blog.


1 What Luther Says (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), Volume 3, p. 1359.
2 If you’re interested, you can find an overview of our “Clearing the Roadblocks” sermon series at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/preach-the-word-volume-23/
3 Meuser, F. W. Luther the Preacher. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1983, p. 39.

 

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Crises, Hymns, and Faith

Crises, Hymns, and Faith

This article covers several themes and purposes. It shares thoughts and resources related to the COVID-19 crisis. It calls attention to the power of hymns—especially in a time of national crisis and private anxiety. It shares some resources planned for Christian Worship: Hymnal (CW21). It points to two new Congregational Services video resources.

By the time this article reaches readers, the crisis may be resolving. But that’s not how it feels while writing on April 5. And even if we are on the downside of the infection rate when you read this, the spiritual themes covered by hymns mentioned below will continue to strengthen and comfort God’s people and witness God’s truth to a broken world even as it returns to normal.

All Is Well

A well-received new song at the WELS leadership conference last January was All Is Well, by Steve and Vikki Cook. The final verse affirms “…with newborn eyes we will behold the glory of the risen Lord.”1 Consider how this song might fit in a (streamed) service during the Easter season. If a soloist or small group sings this song after the sermon and the preacher has intentionally referenced it’s meaning during the sermon (All is well—in spite of global pandemic and personal anxiety—because of God’s promises and Jesus’ resurrection), it will be a powerful synergy of sermon, song, and context.

A powerful synergy of sermon, song, and context

This song is featured in a new video resource: Worship Led by a Modern Ensemble. This video features the Trinitas ensemble from Trinity, Waukesha, WI. It demonstrates leading worship with an ensemble of piano, guitar, and other instruments. The focus is on songs of the liturgy, psalms, and hymns. Some settings of the liturgy, slated for CW21, are crafted to work either with organ (and other instruments) or with a modern ensemble; the melodies remain the same while the musical accompaniment varies.

The video, available at welscongregationalservices.net/download/w014/, includes interviews that can help parish musicians and leaders to think through rationale and best practices. All Is Well begins at 16:28.

By special arrangement, a melody/text graphic for All Is Well along with an organ accompaniment is available at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/worship-the-lord-hymnal-introduction-series/. The song works best with piano,2 but not every church has a good piano for leading the entire congregation. If a soloist sings the song with piano accompaniment, the organ version can serve as preservice music.

Do Not Let Your Hearts Be Troubled

The hymnal supplement (CWS) includes David Haas’ hymn by this name. It will also be in CW21. The text gives valuable comfort in time of crisis and echoes the Gospel for Easter 5, Year A. The first verse points to something far better than “safer at home”: “In God’s [eternal] house there are many places for you alone to dwell in safety.”

In the cantor/responsorial tradition from which this hymn comes, verses are sung by a cantor with the congregation singing the refrain. This custom grew out of reforms in the Roman Catholic church instigated by the Second Vatican Council in an attempt to encourage more participation.3 But Lutherans, accustomed to being “the singing church,” often want to sing the whole song, whether Gloria or hymn. A challenge for some, then, is that the CWS accompaniment doesn’t support congregational singing of the verses in the usual way—by placing the melody in the top voice of the accompaniment. That’s because the original intent was to accompany a cantor.

A congregation very familiar with the verses or with stronger than usual music reading skill can certainly sing the verses to the original accompaniment. To make it easier to sing this song in other congregations (and in those without a good piano), the accompaniment edition for CW21 will include an organ accompaniment that clearly states the melody. By special permission, this arrangement is available for free download at the previous link. The organ version can also be used as service music, perhaps with a gentle registration during the offering or communion distribution.

Vital hymn singing—and playing

While it’s no secret that the Getty movement has popularized modern hymns, some might not realize that the Gettys are champions of old hymns as well. I attended the 2019 Getty Sing! conference in Nashville and was struck by the frequent use of old, traditional hymns often in old, traditional arrangements—even a cappella. I’ll never forget hearing 10,000 people singing Holy, Holy, Holy unaccompanied and in harmony without printed music! And the same for O Sacred Head, Now Wounded about which one wag has said that American Evangelicals, who so love this old German hymn, think it’s an early American tune. Hans Leo Hassler (d. 1612), composer of the tune, might be amused.

10,000 people singing O Sacred Head, Now Wounded

The Trinitas video champions a “both/and” approach to musical variety for the congregation. An entire service led by an ensemble is for the entire congregation, not a niche audience with a musical taste preference. It’s not “contemporary worship”; it’s just worship for the united body of believers in a given place that Sunday. Same for services led by an organ.

If organ accompaniment feels draggy or lacking in pulse, an organist can gain insights and improve skills from another new video resource: Effective Service Playing: The Partnership between Organist and Congregation, presented by David Kriewall (welscongregationalservices.net/download/w013/). This is an online masterclass for organists, delivered by a video and a PowerPoint file or PDF. This masterclass seeks to improve performers’ ability to play in a way that best supports congregational singing. This video serves both for those who have had years of lessons and those who are self-taught. It’s not a video to view quickly in one sitting. It’s something to study and ponder with hymnal in hand and trying out some of the performance examples during a practice session.

A draft for the preface to one of the new hymnal accompaniment volumes discusses the musician’s privilege in worship.

Our worship this side of heaven is a foretaste of the feast to come, a highpoint in every Christian’s week, the “event” that drives congregational health and vitality because here God again delivers salvation to his people. It is a high calling and privilege for musicians to assist worshipers in this most central and important activity—to help them sing out about salvation that comes from our God. That’s why attention to hymns and liturgy is always more important than preservice music and postludes. In hymns and liturgy God’s people actively participate in proclaiming his salvation.

We hope that Effective Service Playing will help organists to improve, whatever their current skill level.

Theologia crucis

“All is well because of God’s great love.” Is it easier to trust the truth of Romans 8:28—“We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him”—in hindsight? Perhaps. But the ability to “validate” God’s promise in this way is not necessary to trust his promise even when we can imagine no reason for hardship or disappointment. “The sun beams on behind the clouds, and in the dark still grace abounds” (from All Is Well).

“Don’t let worship be wiped out.”

As theologians of the cross, it’s good to ask “What shall we sing about?” What is the content of songs during a crisis? There are many themes, but a particular Lutheran emphasis flows from the theologia crucis. We can gain insight from Lutheran choral music during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). American Christian perspective on life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness knows that God doesn’t promise health and prosperity. These are not inalienable rights. If they vanish, we don’t blame God but rather trust his working “for the good” in a world broken by sin and its consequences. One song from that three-decade war prays in part: “O God, we thank you that you have alleviated our pains through your dear Son, the pains brought to us by filthy sins.” This doesn’t mean that a specific sin caused a war or any other crisis, only that we live in a sin-damaged world. Another song makes us thankful for streamed worship when it prays: “Grant us again your heavenly peace; don’t let churches and schools be destroyed, don’t let worship [Gottesdienst] and good order be wiped out.4

It’s probably true that many people prefer to sing happy songs. But note the frequency of lament and penitential themes in the psalms, the hymnal of the Old Testament. Even in our culture there are “popular” examples of musical lament, whether the Blues or sad Country-Western songs. So it’s valuable now and then to give a rationale for the sad and serious hymns we sing, whether by verbal or printed comment.

It’s valuable to give a rationale for the sad and serious hymns we sing.

For not a few of us a Thirty Years War perspective on the fragility of life has been reinforced. It is good to speak in both sermon and song to the temptations faced by us who live in a comfortable “first world” context. Am I really worried that I’ll get the virus? Or that the market and my 403b won’t rebound, if not this year then certainly within my retirement horizon? God’s promises in Christ are our ultimate confidence, not the wonders of pharmaceutical rescue and economic recovery. One of the new Getty/Townend hymns begins: “Still, my soul, be still and do not fear though winds of change may rage tomorrow. God is at your side; no longer dread the fires of unexpected sorrow.”

One day we will face death, but not in despair or defeat. Rather, with the confidence found in All Men Living Are but Mortal. This hymn from TLH, updated by Hymnal Project director, Michael Schultz, is included in CW21 with the tune to which the text was originally sung, JESU, MEINES LEBENS LEBEN (CW 114). The author, Johann Albinus (1624-1679), was born during the war. He lost his father at age 11 and his stepfather at age 19, five years before war’s end. Consider these stanzas in light of our current crisis:

All men living are but mortal
and will surely fade as grass;
only through death’s gloomy portal
to eternal life we pass.
When this body here has perished,
then will heav’nly joys be cherished
where the saints, in glorious dress,
live and reign in righteousness.

Therefore, when my God shall choose it,
willingly I’ll yield my life,
nor will grieve that I should lose it,
with its sorrow, pain, and strife.
In my dear Redeemer’s merit
peace has found my troubled spirit,
and in death my comfort this:
Jesus’ death my source of bliss.

Jesus for my sake descended
my salvation to obtain:
death and hell for me are ended,
peace and hope are now my gain.
With great joy I leave earth’s sadness
for the home of heav’nly gladness,
where I shall forever see
God, the Holy Trinity.

This hymn is posted for free download along with other resources mentioned in this article. The text most people associate with JESU, MEINES LEBENS LEBEN, is Christ, the Life of All the Living, which will also appear in CW21. Not a bad association! “All men living are but mortal,” but in faith we affirm: “Christ, the Life of all the living, Christ, the Death of death, our foe.”

Funeral

A “new to us” funeral hymn is Now Calm Your Heart. One hymnal committee reviewer commented, “Time to beef up the Death and Burial section with quality hymnody.” This comment referred to the text. But pairing with the tune HAMBURG (When I Survey the Wondrous Cross) caused other reviewers to rate it low, even a blunt “no” as in “forget it!” Then WELS composer Jeremy Bakken, moved by the text, submitted a new tune that easily gained approval. Thus we have a very old hymn with Latin and German roots paired with a 21st century tune. If there are COVID-19 funerals in your church, familiar hymns are the first choice. But this hymn is available for free download (along with an mp3 audio file), perhaps best rendered by a soloist for now.

And this peek into the editing process: The original first line, from other hymnals, was “Now hush your cries and shed no tear.” Really? A health-care professional in your church has died, and you say to grieving friends, “Stop crying, no tears”?5 The revised first line is not only more pastoral, it’s also faithful to the original ancient hymn by Prudentius (d. c.413), Jam moesta quiesce querela, which comes to us via a German translation by Nikolaus Herman of Joachimsthal fame.6

Gerhardt

Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676) became an adult during the Thirty Years War. Some details of the war’s impact on his life are in CW:Handbook. His difficult life was aptly described by an inscription on a portrait, which reads, “Theologus in cribro Satanae versatus”—“a theologian strained in the sieve of Satan” (CWH, p717). His hymns help us to sing God’s promises in the face of tragedy and disruption.

Someone recently asked me about the new hymnal Web site’s emphasis on hymns from Getty Music: “I hope we’re not giving up Gerhardt to make room for Getty.” No, we aren’t. There are more Gerhardt hymns than Getty. In fact there are more Gerhardt hymns in CW21 than in CW93. One new Gerhardt translation with a “new to us” tune is Entrust Your Fears and Doubting. Like so many Gerhardt texts and others from his era, this text speaks powerfully to our current crisis. It is paired with the tune originally associated with Gerhardt’s text and bearing the name of his hymn in German: BEFIEHL DU DEINE WEGE. This hymn is also available for free download, along with an mp3 audio file.

Now and then one hears the objection that old German hymns can’t speak to our modern world. It’s certainly true that complex poetry and archaic language can be a barrier. So this hymn allows Gerhardt to speak in a 21st century idiom.7 Some also wonder about old music connecting with modern people, but so much depends on presentation and familiarity. Who would say that Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel, from the 12th century, doesn’t connect? To gain an impression of how adaptable BEFIEHL DU DEINE WEGE is, search YouTube to find a remarkable variety of settings in various styles.

So much depends on presentation and familiarity.

The Trinitas video mentioned above starts with God Himself Is Present (CW 224). At 22:40 you can also hear We All Believe in One True God (CW 270) with just one voice, piano, and guitar. This is immediately followed by mention of sources for arrangements. Gerhardt gets a 21st century boost from the Hymnal Project in another way beyond fresh translation. The Musician’s Resource will include arrangements for modern ensemble similar to those featured in the Trinitas video. Some were used at the January national leadership conference, including arrangements for Gerhardt’s Why Should Cross and Trial Grieve Me (CW 428) and My God Will Never Leave Me (CW 418) with text by Ludwig Helmbold. CW:Handbook points out that Helmbold wrote this hymn to comfort friends who were fleeing Erfurt in 1563 to escape a plague.

Since so much depends on presentation and familiarity, how might you introduce Gerhardt’s hymn? I can hear a certain female vocalist at my church singing the first two stanzas. I know that most people would find this first exposure to a new tune to be utterly compelling as an expressive soprano sings words of comfort and prepares the congregation to join in on stanza 3, maybe with a clarinet or other instrument doubling the melody. Then back to soprano for stanza 4 and congregation for 5. You don’t have a capable soloist in your congregation? Then use three people singing unison.

This article has focused on a present crisis and a future hymnal. In closing, some words from Hymnal Project chair, Jon Zabell, from his plenary address to the 2008 WELS worship conference, introducing CWS.

“The early Christians faced persecution to the point of death for their faith. Martin Luther had a weight of responsibility on his shoulders I can’t even begin to imagine, and he had powerful enemies and a tender conscience besides. Paul Gerhardt lived through war and poverty and buried his wife and four of his five children. Open your hymnal. Open your supplement. You can sing what they sang. You can trust what they trusted.”

By Bryan Gerlach

New at ChristianWorship.com

Under Frequently Asked Questions

  • Replacement for HymnSoft
  • Why Service Builder and pew hymnals?
  • Rationale for Service Builder pricing

A spreadsheet for calculating costs is now available. “Budgeting for Christian Worship” links from two pages: Resources (top of homepage) and Looking Ahead (bottom).

 

1 Full lyrics are available online. Some online performances of this and some of the more upbeat modern songs are often “too much” for typical Lutheran worship. But as the Trinitas video demonstrates, an ambiance suitable for Lutheran worship is easily achieved. Note also that this song, like so much of the Getty Music repertoire, is eminently singable by a congregation—in contrast to the soloistic and rhythmically complicated style of much “contemporary Christian music.”
2 Purchase the piano or ensemble accompaniment if you want to use these options before the new hymnal is published.
3 More participation in contrast to the deficit implied by the title of Thomas Day’s book, Why Catholics Can’t Sing (Crossroad, 1990; updated version 2017).
4 CD 2, tracks 6 & 17 from Friedens-Seufftzer und Jubel-Geschrey / Music for the Peace of Westphalia 1648. CPO, 1998.
5 To be fair, the original text can be understood as “you will be able to find comfort….”
6 Brown, Christopher Boyd. Singing the Gospel: Lutheran Hymns and the Success of the Reformation. Harvard, 2005. He spoke on this topic at the 2008 WELS worship conference.
7 Compare a 19th century translation at hymnary.org; search for “Thy Way and All Thy Sorrows.”

 

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Preach the Word – What’s the Point?

What’s the Point?

I have a confession to make. I once attended Joel Osteen’s church. Okay, twice. I went twice. My wife and I lived in Houston, TX for a year, and we went to Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church twice. I can tell you firsthand that much of what you hear about Osteen and his messages is true. In the first sermon, Osteen didn’t mention God a single time. In the second, Osteen brazenly twisted Scripture to support his prosperity gospel. Don’t do that! Don’t preach like Joel Osteen.

But I have another confession to make. It’s been nine years since I heard them, but I can still remember each of those two sermons almost word for word. The first had the theme, “Who’s Packing Your Parachute?” Osteen told the story of a U.S. Navy pilot in Vietnam whose plane was shot out of the sky. He ejected from his plane and was saved by his parachute. Years later, he unexpectedly met the man who had packed his parachute on that fateful morning. Like him, we can be eternally grateful for all the people behind the scenes who are packing our parachutes.

The second sermon had the theme, “It’s Under Your Feet!” Osteen took the verse, “He has put everything under his feet” (1 Cor 15:27) and applied it to you and me instead of to Christ. Everything is under your feet! No matter what you face in life—from cancer to bad bosses to financial struggles—you can look that struggle in the eye and say, “It’s under my feet!” Heresy!

A central theme is vital for a memorable message.

I heard each sermon over nine years ago, but I can still precisely remember each one. Why? Each message had a carefully crafted point. There was a central theme that connected the entire message together. It stuck. No one walked away from those sermons asking, “What’s the point?” I remember thinking to myself: “What if this man with such obvious public speaking gifts were to actually preach the truth of God’s Word?” Can I admit I learned something from Joel Osteen? A central theme is vital for a memorable message. When you preach, ask, “What’s the point?”

Compare that with some feedback I received from my first article on “Simple Preaching.” I got a kind letter from a retired WELS pastor. He described his concerns about preaching in the WELS. He wrote, “I sat next to my friend at a lecture given by one of our profs a couple years ago. When he was done, I leaned over to him and said: ‘I didn’t get a thing out of that.’ He replied: ‘Neither did I.’ Well, it just so happened that this past Sunday our new pastor was installed and he had a friend of his preach the sermon. My friend was sitting next to me for this event, and I said to him: ‘I didn’t get anything out of his sermon.’ His response: ‘Neither did I.’” Ouch.

“I didn’t get it.” Aren’t those the most painful words a preacher can hear? If the retired pastor in our pews doesn’t get it when we preach, how many others are asking, “What’s the point?”

Let’s be honest. How many times have you preached a sermon, sat back down in your chair, and wondered to yourself, “What was the point?” I have! How often have you written a sermon because you had to write a sermon? God’s Word was there. True! God uses stumbling, fumbling sermons to accomplish his will. Praise be to God for that! But God’s Word is not pointless. If you and I struggle to know what our point was, our people probably don’t know it either.

That’s a problem. Perhaps there was a time when people went to church simply to hear God’s Word. They felt they needed to. That’s often not the mindset today. If people are going to come, there’s got to be a reason for them to be there. How many people sit in our pews, asking, “What’s the point?” How many people sit at home, asking, “What’s the point?” Pointless preaching makes it seem pointless to attend. Are you willing to ask with me, “What’s the point?”

God’s Word is not pointless.

Because God’s Word isn’t pointless. You know that. There is one, central theme to all of God’s Word. The Bible is one, united story of God’s grace to us in Jesus. Contrary to popular belief, the Bible doesn’t just ramble on and on. It isn’t a disconnected mishmash of stories and songs and proverbs. “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:31). Jesus is our Savior. That’s the point!

Beyond that central theme of justification, there are many other clear truths that God preaches to his people over and over again. When God speaks, he always has a point!

  • A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Gen 2:24; Mt 19:5; Mk 10:7-8; 1 Cor 6:16; Eph 5:31).
  • Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One” (Dt 6:4; Dt 4:35; Neh 9:6; Ps 86:10; Is 43:11; Is 44:6; Zec 14:9; Mk 12:29; 1 Cor 8:4; Eph 4:6).
  • The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” (Ex 34:6,7; Num 14:18; Neh 9:17; Ps 86:15; Ps 103:8; Ps 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2).

Many biblical books have clear themes that resonate throughout the book. Luke builds his beautiful narrative of lost and found until Jesus finally declares: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Lk 19:10). What a point! No one who reads Galatians could possibly miss the central truth: “We … know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal 2:15-16). Why is Psalm 23 so beloved? It’s so clear! “The LORD is my shepherd.” There’s no doubt about the point! God’s Word is not pointless.

It’s our joy as preachers to share that “point” with God’s people. Note how Ezra’s preaching is described: “They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read” (Neh 8:8). Here’s the result: “Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them” (Neh 8:12).

Contrary to the mindless chatter we hear around us, God’s Word really matters.

There is great joy in getting the point of God’s Word! Contrary to the mindless chatter we hear around us, God’s Word really matters. It’s really written for you and me. It has a message that’s truly a matter of life and death. Like Ezra, we strive to make God’s Word clear and give the meaning so that God’s people can understand. A clear central theme in our sermons is important for that to happen. There is a very powerful, applicable point to every section of God’s Word.

Luther would agree. Here’s an example from his Table Talk:

“Only a fool thinks he should say everything that occurs to him. A preacher should see to it that he sticks to the subject and performs his task in such a way that people understand what he says. Preachers who try to say everything that occurs to them remind me of the maidservant who is on her way to market. When she meets another maid she stops to chat with her for a while. Then she meets another maid and talks with her. She does the same with a third and a fourth and so gets to market very slowly. This is what preachers do who wander too far from their subject. They try to say everything all at once, but it won’t do.”1

Luther once simply said, “In my preaching I take pains to treat a verse [of the Scriptures], to stick to it, and so to instruct the people that they can say, ‘That’s what the sermon was about.’”2

Another author puts it like this:

“One common sermonic flaw is the preacher’s failure clearly to define the thrust of the message. Without some definition, some clarity on the issue tackled, the sermon rambles from one idea to the next like a bumper car with an eight-year-old behind the wheel.”

“Try this test: If you can’t identify what you’re saying in one, clear sentence, it means that you probably aren’t clear yourself. You may say some good things, but don’t be surprised when no one seems to grasp the thrust of your message. Think about it: When you’re uncertain as to what you’re saying, you don’t know when to stop, do you? How many times have you heard a message like a plane circling the airport, trying to find a place to land? Just when you think the plane is finally making its descent, the pilot takes it back up again for some more circling. A word to the wise: Know what you want to say and say just enough for your listeners to want more.”3

“… like a bumper car with an eight-year-old behind the wheel.”

I bet you get the point. People need to know, “What’s the point?” But here’s the challenge: How do you find the point?

Let’s remember this first: Having a strong central theme isn’t a matter of sermon style. Maybe you preach deductively. You have your theme and parts printed out in the bulletin. Good! But then you hardly mention them in the sermon. You share lots of doctrinal knowledge, but your people may still walk away saying, “What’s the point?” Maybe you preach inductively. You build suspense through the sermon. You take your hearers on a journey. Great! But then you stop before you reach a clear destination. Your people may still walk away saying, “What’s the point?

A brother pastor put it like this: “What if the listeners come away scratching their heads? I think this is rude! … If a deductive form or inductive form or if a narrative style or non-narrative style leaves listeners without a clear, ‘Ah! God has spoken to me today through his Word and his messenger and has drawn me closer to his love and empowered me on my path,’ then 1 Cor 13:1 and 14:8-9,16-17 come to mind.”4 No matter your style, you’ve got to have a point!

So how do you find the point? I know this isn’t easy. We’re sinful, flawed preachers attempting to communicate perfect truths. God help us! He does! Start with a prayer. “Dear Holy Spirit, as I study your Word, lead me to see the truth that you want me and your people to hear this week.”

Then, commit yourself to finding your central truth in the text itself. Far too often, I’ve been guilty of deciding what my theme is before actually studying the text. What audacity! I see the assigned text. Ideas flow. This… That… It’s going to be a great sermon! Then I actually study the text. I almost always realize my initial thoughts were not what the text is about. You too? What should we do? Throw away our thoughts and preach God’s central truth from the text!

But what’s that truth? On the one hand, it’s reassuring to know that each text of God’s Word contains many applications for God’s people. As I search for the main point, I sometimes put far too much pressure on myself. “I’ve got to find just the right thing to preach. I’ve got to phrase it in just the right way. I… I… I…” Relax. Finding a main point in a text from the Bible is not like finding a needle in a haystack. It’s like finding a Super Bowl trophy at Lambeau Field. They are all over the place! In a mine full of jewels, you get to ask, “Which gem is best for my people?”

On the other hand, we guard against making a text say what we want it to say. As you study, ask what question the text is addressing and what answer God is giving. Often, Jesus’ teachings—like the writings of the prophets and apostles—were in response to very specific situations. There was a very specific point. Sometimes that main point is salvation by faith in Jesus. Sometimes it’s God’s truth about marriage, money, or Christian living. While every sermon will contain law and gospel, justification won’t be the main point of every sermon, because not every text focuses on justification. As you constantly point people to the big picture truth of salvation in Jesus, let the main point of the sermon be the main point of the text.

Do you still do text studies in the original languages? Use your Greek and Hebrew skills. Distinguish between main clauses and subordinate clauses, indicative verbs and supporting participles. Greek and Hebrew grammar often highlights the main point in ways that aren’t reflected in English translations. Let the Spirit-given languages guide you to the central truth.

This is why sermon prep is so important. When I feel rushed in my sermon preparation, it’s tempting to begin writing before I know where I’m going. That leads to a stressful writing process and a meandering sermon that loses my hearers along the way. God’s truths don’t come intuitively to us. They are gifts of God’s Spirit through the Word. We often miss a lot on our first glance at a text. It takes time to understand God’s truth and what it means for us.

Once you decide on the point of your text, express it in two different ways. First, write a one-sentence proposition statement that captures your central truth. Then think of a short, memorable theme that can help your hearers remember God’s message. Here’s a simple example:

Luke 1:46-55
Proposition Statement: While I foolishly magnify myself and other people, Mary found joy in magnifying the great things her God had done for her.
Theme: “My Soul Magnifies the Lord”

I know this all takes time, but it’s worth it! Haddon Robinson remarked, “Someone suffers every time you preach. Either you suffer in preparing it or the listener suffers in hearing it.”5

This is something I appreciated about the chance to do children’s devotions in my previous congregation. You talk about honing in on the point! There were Sundays when I lamented, “It’s too hard to condense my sermon into something kids can understand.” Huh. That’s a problem, isn’t it? It was good to learn to share my sermon in a concise way with little kids.

When you’ve arrived at your central truth from God’s Word, here’s my last bit of advice: Use it! I’ve seen sermon themes listed in the bulletin but never actually mentioned in the sermon itself. If the Spirit has convinced you of the central truth of your text, say it. Repeat it. Preach that truth into your people’s hearts. A member recently had an interesting request. He said, “When you have a sermon theme, could you repeat it more than once during the sermon? Sometimes I miss it.” This is what John does over and over again, isn’t it? He comes back to the same themes. In easy Greek. So we can remember them. The Word. I am…. I guess Jesus preached like that!

I’m thankful for it. I’m thankful for every preacher who has pointedly preached God’s Word into my heart. One spring at the Seminary, Professor Brug preached a sermon on Annunciation Day. I could still tell it all back to you, after just hearing it one time. The theme was, “When did the devil know it was over?” The devil knew it was over when the Son of God became the Son of Man inside Mary’s womb. That was the dagger for the devil! That’s when he knew it was over. I walked into chapel that day wondering why we were having a special service for Annunciation Day. What’s the point? I walked out rejoicing in our victory through our God made flesh.

One Ash Wednesday at the Seminary, Professor Cherney preached about David’s sin with Bathsheba. He looked us in the eye and said, “You are the man! Let’s be honest, the reason you and I haven’t committed adultery like David did was because nobody’s wanted to commit adultery with us.” That cut. Then he healed us with God’s grace. Nobody walked out saying, “What’s the point?” I walked into that service focused on classes and deadlines. I walked out convicted and restored by God’s grace. I was blessed. Because God’s Word has a point.

Written by Nathan Nass

Nathan Nass serves as pastor at St. Paul / San Pablo Lutheran Church in Green Bay, WI.


1 LW 54:428.
2 LW 54:160.
3 Johnston, Graham. Preaching to a Postmodern World: A Guide to Reaching Twenty-first-Century Listeners. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001, p. 172.
4 Pastor James Huebner posted this comment in an online class, “Preaching in a Postmodern World.”
5 Johnston, Preaching to a Postmodern World, 172.

 

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Audio, Acoustics, and Video in the Worship Setting – Part 4

Audio, Acoustics, and Video in the Worship Setting

Part 4: Hearing Assistance

Welcome back once again! Let’s review where we have been thus far:

  • Room acoustics and the sound system are forever intertwined in what we call the electro-acoustic system.
  • The room’s acoustics must be held in check—no excessive reverberation, no slap or flutter echo—in order for the room to sound right for speech or for acoustic music.
  • The sound system must be designed and implemented properly in order to have a chance at working well to communicate speech and, when needed, to properly support music.
  • Microphones and loudspeakers must be carefully selected and applied properly in order to pick up the voice properly and to “spread the word” so to speak, evenly, clearly, and naturally to every worshiper.

Okay. Let’s assume that we have done all of the above. Most people report that they can hear very clearly at worship. However, there are a few people who report that although the sound is much better now than in the past, they still have trouble hearing. For them, both volume and clarity are lacking.

Uh-oh! What did we miss? We have gotten everything right up to this point, but one important system design element needs to be accounted for. You see, Aunt Tilly and Uncle Charlie can hear just fine now. They are very happy. The friends they sit next to at worship, on the other hand, are not so happy … yet.

Rose and Harry are getting up in years, and for both of them hearing is more difficult than it used to be. Rose has hearing aids. Harry will be getting them soon. They have also heard that some folks younger than they need help as well. They are not complaining about the new sound system; they just realize that they need some more help than others to hear well. For them, the ambient noise in the reverberant space is too much. The sound from the loudspeakers seems distant. Again, not the fault of the speaker system. These folks just need some more help bringing the sound directly into their ears.

How do we provide assistance for these people—young and not so young—so that they, too, can hear clearly at worship? The answer is to provide a hearing assistance system for them.

There are two prominent methods of delivering the needed assistance: the FM-based system and the inductive loop system. Many pastors and others already know the FM-based method well and have it in their churches. The loop system is becoming well-known and popular. Let’s take a look at both and see how they fit into sound system designs.

But first, a hearing assistance “gotcha.” Folks complain that they cannot hear well at worship. The pastor and church leadership approve the purchase of an FM-based hearing assistance system. It works well. A number of folks who use the system are quite satisfied with the improvement. But other people still complain that they cannot hear well. Turns out, the problem is with the sound system itself. The church leadership fell into the trap of buying the hearing assistance system as a cheap “band-aid” which in reality did not solve the root problem: a bad overall sound system.

Implementation of a good sound system meant that some with mild hearing loss no longer needed special assistance.

I have been in several situations where implementation of a good sound system meant that some with mild hearing loss no longer needed special assistance. Here’s an anecdote to illustrate the point.

The first installation that I was involved with was 35 years ago: St. Paul’s in New Ulm, MN. Our company was under contract to install a new sound system at the church. It was for its day (1986) a very good system (though admittedly not visually attractive by today’s standards)—a central horn cluster designed to cover the space evenly, which it did well. An elderly gentleman in the congregation donated the funds for the addition of an FM-based hearing assistance system. He said that he and others needed the help.

We completed the installation enough to where we could debut it—including the hearing assistance—for Thursday evening worship. The donor gentleman came to worship and was met at the door with a hearing assistance receiver. After worship, he returned the receiver and said, “I don’t need the help. This is the first time in 30 years I’ve been able to hear the sermon.”

The moral of the story: Make sure that your sound system is up to par first, and then implement the hearing assistance system for those that really need it!

Who really needs the help? As stated above, Harry, Rose, and some younger folks are experiencing hearing issues at worship. Younger folks? Really? Are they just not paying attention?

I’ve attended a number of seminars dealing with hearing loss, the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), and sound system design. Presenters throw around statistics without referencing anything. But a quick Google search leads to the World Health Organization Web site with a wealth of up-to-date information. A few highlights and another anecdote:

  • Specific to the United States, over 36 million people (more than 17% of the population) experience measurable hearing loss, or the inability to hear sounds of 25 dB or less in the speech range (referenced to 0 dB as the threshold of human hearing and 70 dB as normal speech from about two feet from the talker). The numbers balloon when expanding to a worldwide view. This compares to about 1.4% of the U.S. population with physical disabilities and 0.14% with visual disabilities.
  • Hearing loss results from a number of causes: genetics, infectious disease, use of drugs, chronic ear infections, exposure to excessive noise, and aging.
  • Hearing loss affects not just older people. Worldwide, 1.1 billion young people age 12-35 either suffer from or are at risk of measurable to debilitating hearing loss due to noise exposure in recreational settings (concerts and listening devices with earphones top the list of causes).
  • It is reported that 60% of hearing loss in children is preventable.
  • Over the past 30 years I have had to bring bad news to more than a few teenagers who were willing to help run sound at church or at the high school. I could not allow them to operate the mixing console. The simple reason: those kids could not hear feedback above 2000 Hz. The admitted cause: hours of listening to their devices with earphones. 30 years ago it was the Walkman cassette player; today it’s the smartphone or iPod). The constant pressure on the ear’s mechanics had severely impacted their ability to hear high sounds such as consonants, ‘s’ sounds, and even feedback in a sound system.

Hearing loss issues are real, and they are not exclusive to older people.

So yes, hearing loss issues are real, and they are not exclusive to older people. It is critical that we a) get the sound system right, and b) add hearing assistance for those who need it, because they do need it. And the number who need it grows by the day.

How does the hearing assistance system work? In simple schematic form, we route a feed directly from the mixer or signal processor to the “driver” of the assistance system (see below).

Diagram of a hearing assistance system

That direct connection is critical to the success of any hearing assistance system. Let’s now get into the FM-based and the loop type systems. How do they work? Is one “better” than the other?

First, the FM-based system. “FM-based” means exactly what it says. The system “driver” is a transmitter that operates on a single FM radio frequency. It’s a single-channel radio station. The sound signal is transmitted through the air to a pocket-sized receiver used by the worshiper. There are several types of antennas to attach to the transmitter based on the size of the space to be transmitted into. On the receiver end, the user can choose from several types of earphones based on preference and health concerns—ear buds, headphones, etc.

The advantages with the FM system are ease of setup, potential broadcast range, relative convenience, and cost-effectiveness. In terms of setup, the FM system is basically plug-and-play. You turn up volume and position the antenna properly. Depending on the physical structure of the building and the presence of interference-causing electrical devices, the FM system may not be limited to just the church proper. Going back to the church in New Ulm, the pastor’s mother was in town for Christmas but was limited in terms of mobility. The FM system “reached” across the street to the parsonage so she could hear the Christmas service. That scenario is not typical, but radio is radio. The FM system is generally very cost-effective, ranging from $1,800-$2,500, including professional installation.

The downsides to the FM system are interference and inherent misuse by the user. First, the FM system is a very small, limited-range radio station and radio receiver system. As such it is subject to all of the things that annoy us when listening to the car radio. If the “air” is not “clean,” interference may be problematic. Reflections of radio waves off metal support structure can cause distortion and dropouts. And since this is simple radio, the FM system at your church may at inconvenient times receive from a similar FM system at the church down the street, and vice versa.

Second, many FM assistance users with hearing aids actually misuse the system. The proper use is to remove the hearing aid and “plug” the ear bud or earphone into the bad ear. Many folks, however, plug the earphone into the good ear and then turn it up. Since the hearing aid has a microphone built into it, the sound from the earphone creates a feedback loop with the hearing aid which is often audible throughout the church nave. There are “loop” type necklace accessories that will plug into an FM receiver, effectively turning the FM system into a loop system for that user. However, keep in mind that the interference and other issues that arise with FM are transmitted through that necklace device.

A third downside to FM is that it transmits sound that is not colored or tonally equalized. The user has hearing aid(s) that have been tuned for that person’s ear(s) to compensate for hearing loss at specific frequencies. Without the hearing aid to “tune” the sound, the sound quality may not be adequate to significantly improve clarity for the user.

Lastly, people have become very conscious of how the earbud looks. The fear with many users is that they will stick out in the crowd because they have this earphone or earbud with its cord hanging out for all to see. That aesthetic stigma prevents many from using the FM system.

There are variations on the FM theme today in which wi-fi adjuncts to the system are utilized. Using wi-fi and Bluetooth with a smartphone, the user can receive very good sound quality without the wires. For older users who have difficulty with smartphones and wi-fi technology, this may be cumbersome. For younger users who embrace technology, this may be a cost-effective option.

Let’s move to the inductive loop system. While still fairly simple in concept, there is a bit more going on here than with the FM system. We still directly connect a sound system mixer output to a “driver.” But in this case it is not a transmitter. We are actually using wire to create an electro-magnetic field to transmit the sound signal. The photos to the right show a church re-carpeting project of which a hearing loop is system is a part. The white strips on the floor are tape covering the loop wire.

The wire is routed in either one or multiple loop circuits around the seating area. The electro-magnetic field is picked up by the telecoil in one’s hearing aid or cochlear implant. The signal is then converted back into acoustic energy by the telecoil, tuned by the micro-electronics in the hearing aid, and transmitted into the user’s ear. Hence, one advantage with the loop system: the user wears nothing extra. He or she simply switches on the telecoil in the hearing aid, making use extremely convenient and inconspicuous, while delivering sound to the ear that is “tuned” for that ear.

But…the loop system is not plug-and-play like the FM system. Because we are dealing with electro-magnetics, we must study the space. What is in the floor structure: concrete, rebar, metal ducts, electrical wire and conduit, large water or gas pipes? These metal objects in the floor will actually “compete” with the loop wire by generating their own current fields. The “competition” manifests itself in buzz and hum that is audible to someone using a hearing aid. We can measure and hear that using an app with a telecoil adapter, which enables us to see and hear any noise before laying out a loop system. The photo below shows the app screen. If the needle goes into the green range, we are good—very little or no noise/hum. When we get into the yellow and then red, then the hum would be significant and render a loop system unusable. That’s the benefit of testing before installing the loop.

A reading of background noise heard as a buzz on a hearing aid

The loop may be a simple single-loop system or it may be a figure-eight loop, or many smaller loops overlapping in what is called a “phased array” to create one field. The complexity of the loop is dictated by noise/hum in the floor, and by the presence of electronic instruments such as guitars and keyboards that might be used within close proximity of the loop. These instruments will generate significant amounts of noise/hum, which only a more complex loop will overcome.

Measuring the hearing assistance system after installation

If I or another loop designer has done the job properly, then the result will be an “invisible” system that allows the user to walk in, flip a switch on the hearing aid, and hear the service clearly with sound tuned for the user’s own ears. The “after” measurement of a completed system is shown in the photo to the right. Green on the meter is always very good!

The advantages are as stated above: invisible equipment, no wires or extra “stuff” that could create an aesthetic stigma for the user, and the ability to pick up sound tuned for their ears. By the way, pocket-sized telecoil receivers are available for those who need assistance but do not have hearing aids. Additionally, the range of the loop system is limited to the area within the loop. We will not be able to transmit to the parsonage across the street. But on the other hand, we will not be susceptible to interference from the church down the block.

The downsides to the loop system are cost and labor. The best time to lay a loop system is during a construction or a renovation project. Otherwise, cutting of existing floor tile or carpet is necessary. (Some loop installers have installed systems to floors with tape, but this is unsightly to say the least.) Necessary testing and the loop layout/design must be carried out by a professional. The installation requires trained technicians. In some areas, certified audiologists may wish to certify the installation. This all comes at a cost. A well-designed and installed loop system will cost $7,000-$20,000, depending on room size and the required loop complexity.

My job here is not to pick a best option for you. I am simply laying out the two most prominent options for your consideration. For performance and aesthetic reasons, I believe that the loop system holds the advantage over the FM system. But the loop may not work in some churches. (We just completed a major sound renovation at the Basilica at the University of Notre Dame; the loop system was not an option due to the floor structure.) The congregation must ultimately decide which is best for its purposes.

For performance and aesthetic reasons, the loop system holds the advantage over the FM system.

My strong opinion, however, is that to not provide hearing assistance is not an option for churches. While technically the ADA does not apply to churches for this purpose as they are still considered private spaces, the real issue of hearing impairment is here to stay. And it is growing. It is our duty to enable Harry, Rose, and all those who need help to hear the Word clearly, just as we provide good sound systems with good loudspeakers for Aunt Tilly and Uncle Charlie.

I have seen “happy tears” in the eyes of people who finally can again hear the liturgies and sermons that were becoming more and more unintelligible. I look forward to seeing many more of those kinds of tears!

 

 

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Audio, Acoustics, and Video in the Worship Setting – Part 3

Audio, Acoustics, and Video in the Worship Setting

Part 3: Sound System Layout and Setup

Welcome back! We have talked about acoustic principles that directly impact how successful a sound system will be in the worship space. We have also talked about sound itself and how best to project it for clear hearing within the worship setting.

In this article we go one step further and explore system setup in two ways. First, initial setup: how we lay out the sound system from input (microphone, electronic instrument, or playback device) to output (loudspeaker, recording device, or video feed). Second, we look at what a good sound system designer and tuner strives for when setting up the system after the physical installation is complete.

I will include several “gotcha’s” along the way. And, Aunt Tilly and Uncle Charlie are still with us. You see, they try to hear the message when they go to worship. But they haven’t been able to hear it clearly. They’ve been following our discussion. They want to know more so that they can talk to their pastor and congregation leaders about improving the situation. Let’s get to it!

Sound System Layout

In its simplest form, the sound system consists of several basic components: the input device, the mixer, the signal processor, the power amplifier, and the loudspeaker. The signal follows a path as shown in the figure to the below.

Diagram of a basic sound system.

How do we “make” sound through the sound system? Think of baking a loaf of bread. The “bread” is our sound. The “ingredients” are the signals we put into the system via the input devices, from microphones to playback devices to electronic instruments. The mixer is just that. This device, which comes in various forms and sizes, takes those sound ingredients and allows us to mix them together in the needed proportion—more vocal than drum in the modern liturgical ensemble, for instance—and produces the signal or “dough” that will eventually be finished.

However, we must do something more with that dough. We must prepare it, or “process” it, so that it comes out right when projected from the loudspeaker. Does the sound need more or less bass or treble? Do some frequencies produce feedback due to reflection off walls, microphone choices, loudspeaker positioning, etc.? The signal processor provides us with all the tools we need to prepare that sound properly so Aunt Tilly and Uncle Charlie will be pleased. The processor, back in the 1950s, was as simple as a tone control on a car radio. It then became an equalizer in the 1960s and 1970s as engineers such as Charles Boner and Bob Coffeen (a mentor of mine) and companies such as Altec Lansing developed the tools that allow us to break the “dough” or raw sound into many pieces and have finer adjustment control over the signal.

Aunt Tilly and Uncle Charlie will be pleased.

In the late 1990’s we witnessed the advent of digital tools that now allow for precision far beyond what early pioneers ever thought possible. A digital signal processor is not just a fancy tone control but a virtual toolbox that allows remarkable control over a number of factors:

  • Adjust frequency response (tone).
  • Synchronize multiple speakers in time using time delay.
  • Set limits on the strength of the sound coming out of the device in order to protect the loudspeakers.
  • Internally mix and route the signal to device outputs of choice such as the main loudspeaker, the cry room speaker, the recording device, the audio-for-video feed.
  • Setting memory presets to recall things like system configurations for varying worship settings, differing attendance levels, and speaker zone on/off.
  • Automatic mixing for voice mics to keep levels consistent and to minimize the potential for feedback from excessive volume.
  • Wireless remote control that allows for simple control without the need for a mixing console where one is not required.

Digital tools allow for precision far beyond what early pioneers ever thought possible.

Once we have prepared that sound “dough,” it is sent to the power amplifier. This is the oven that makes the sound level rise like yeast in the bread to the level (volume) we need to deliver a pleasing “loaf of bread” which we call “sound” for Aunt Tilly and her fellow worshipers to hear from the loudspeakers.

The rudimentary schematic diagram above can be simple or complex depending on a number of variables. A good system designer will use information regarding the size of the worship space, the number of loudspeakers required to provide good coverage and clarity, the number of inputs required from microphones and such, and the number of output devices required—such as feeds to video recording, live streaming, audio recording, subsystems such as musicians’ monitor speakers, feeds to fellowship/social halls, etc.

In a simpler system design where there is no modern instrumental ensemble (or only a very small one), with a limited number of microphones, the mixer and signal processor may well be one unit. Coupled with a wireless remote device (some are simply wi-fi based as opposed to a specific Apple or Android app), all the mixing, signal processing, and signal routing can be handled from that one device, saving cost and operational complexity.

On the other hand, a mixing console may be required for a larger liturgical ensemble. In that case you need the ability to mix sound from a much more hands-on perspective. But be prepared! With that console comes the need to have a trained operator who is willing to learn its features and make adjustments on the fly. And that console will need to be located in a place where the operator can hear as the congregation hears. If you stick the operator in the corner of a balcony, then you have placed your control in another room where levels and tone will most likely be different than on the main floor. In that case Aunt Tilly will not be happy.

Going to the output side of the signal flow, notice the colored dotted lines going toward the output devices. These help me to address a common and significant “gotcha.” I get calls from pastors and church system operators complaining that the levels are bad on the audio recording. Sometimes they tell me that the level is low and that turning up the level results in feedback from the loudspeakers in church. From this description I can tell the caller that the system is configured too simply. The issue most likely stems from the fact that the signal to the loudspeakers and the signal to the recording feed come from the same control. The system designer did not build in flexibility to allow for separate control of main loudspeakers and other feeds. A separate mix and master level control are needed for the recording feed (or other feed) apart from the mix for the main loudspeakers.

A design using the “best bargain” method is a waste of money.

Sometimes this “gotcha” is due to a perceived budget limitation. “We can’t spend much on the system.” So the congregation settles for gear that is not flexible or not expandable. The result is that the system will not do what is needed. And the solution is to start over, which means spending the money twice to get the job done right once. The real solution is to be honest about needs and have the system designed to the need rather than to say “This is what we are going to spend.” This doesn’t imply spending a fortune on a sound system. But it does mean that a design using the “best bargain” method is a waste of money and never ends well. Design the system to the need, and make it expandable so that additions can be made without the need to start over. It costs a little more on the front end but saves a great deal in the future.

Another “gotcha:” The pastor calls and reports a hum in the audio going to our video recording. After I complete my groaner joke (“It hums because it doesn’t know the words.”), I ask questions about how the hookup is accomplished, what the devices are, and other qualifiers. The cause and solution are common. Outside of a cable that has gone bad, the most common cause for the hum is that a cable is not right for the situation. Most “off-the-shelf” hi-fi type cables with phono type connectors accept noise from other sources, induced into the line. Or the grounding is not right. The hum is the result. Make sure that you are using high-quality cables that will ground the devices properly, and make the proper connections to prevent outside noise from getting into the line.

One more “gotcha:” The level is strong coming out of the audio device, but is weak or nonexistent going into the recording device (may also be from playback device or electronic instrument going into the mixer). This is almost always an impedance mismatch. Simply put, there is an electronic roadblock that prevents the signal from getting to where it is supposed to go. In such cases, you need a transformer device that will correct for the mismatch. Since there are varying levels of quality, contact your sound professional for advice on which device to use. Make sure that you are using high-quality devices, both audio and video.

Books have been written on the subject of system layout. The brief description provided here will suffice for now, along with this summary: figure out what you need, design to that need (by a professional), build in flexibility and expansion capability, and utilize the right loudspeakers and microphones.

Sound System Setup

I state up front that the following discussion is not a “how-to-guide” so that you can tune your own system. Just as it takes education and experience to be a good pastor or music director, it takes education and experience along with a trained ear to be a good system tuner or “setter-upper.” Below I point out goals to accomplish when tuning a system. Remember: go to a professional for system design and for system setup/tuning!

Recall from our previous installments that there are some fundamental “must-do/must-have” matters when considering sound system design and setup—and ultimately tuning:

  • Good acoustical character that matches the worship setting.
  • Avoid destructive “slap” and “flutter” echo.
  • Balance reflective, absorptive, and diffusive elements in the space.
  • Design loudspeaker system to work in the acoustic space.
  • Use the proper types of microphones for the various applications within the worship setting.
  • Use proper mic technique.

I assume now that we have followed all of these principles of good design. We have good mics in place. The loudspeakers have been carefully selected and located. The mixer and signal processor are appropriate for the situation. We’re ready to tune!

First, what is my goal? Assuming that we will have good loudspeaker coverage, our goal is simply to deliver the most natural sound possible, clearly and without feedback. If there are supplemental speakers, under the balcony for example, then we also must synchronize these speakers in time with the main speakers so that every worshiper perceives the chancel as the source of the sound.

Second, achieving the goal. Clarity will result in part by having a well-behaved acoustic space and in part by selecting the proper loudspeaker. Notice I say nothing about the prettiest loudspeaker or the most invisible. We always work hard to blend the speakers into the architecture and make them as inconspicuous as possible. But if we lean too far toward aesthetic priorities, then clarity will nearly always be compromised.

To achieve natural sound without feedback, we start with a high-quality speaker that is proven to deliver smooth frequency response “out of the box.” Look at the graph below from a recent project where we measured the balcony support speakers. It shows an even frequency response from the lower-midrange frequencies through the upper end of the speech range. Frequency is shown on the bottom/horizontal axis, and level in dB is shown on the left/vertical axis.

Frequency response graph showing natural sound

Notice that there are no jumps or peaks in response across our measurement range. The graph shows me—and my ears heard—that the sound is natural. And since there are no big peaks, feedback will not be an issue.

Why no issue with feedback? Feedback occurs when sound is allowed back into the microphone. It could be from a reflection, or it could be from poor mic placement. If there is a big peak in response (greater than 2 or 3dB above the average), a significant amount of energy will be allowed back into the microphone, creating a loop we hear as a screeching sound—feedback. Since there are no peaks here, we have no issue with feedback.

While in the tuning process, I will check to see how direct the sound is. What is the level of the sound coming to the ear directly from the loudspeaker as compared to reflected sound? The graph below shows a measurement of the direct sound. The left/vertical axis is level, and the bottom/horizontal axis is time in fractions of seconds. I want to see a very strong initial sound arrival, and either no or very little late arrival from reflection.

Graph measuring direct sound – shows no echo

Notice the tall vertical line just to the right of ‘0’. The ‘0’ point is the loudspeaker’s place in time. The tall line is the first sound arrival. There is a second line close to but far down in level. This graph shows me (and again, my ears heard) very clear sound with no audible echo from any other source.

In the last graph below we have an example of how poor things can get when our basic principles are not followed. Notice the initial arrival followed by arrivals that are nearly as strong. This client hears the same syllable distinctly three times. In that case, I had to report to the client that “we have issues” with room acoustics or with loudspeaker layout or type. In this particular case the issues were with both room acoustics and loudspeaker layout.

Graph measuring direct sound – shows and echo

I have included a good deal of information here. It may be difficult to process it all, especially for those not familiar with all this “audio geek” stuff. If I have helped you to think a bit about your goals for sound in worship, what your real needs are, and how to meet your needs and goals, then I have accomplished my goal.

Sound design involves science, art, and experience.

Additionally, I hope it’s clear that far more goes into this sound thing than just going to the local music store (or going online), buying some stuff, and sticking it in the church. The process of sound design involves quite a bit of science (laws of physics that the good Lord gave us and has not yet repealed) as well as art and experience. Yes, it is a process. And knowing just a little about the process, from design to setup to proper operation, can help you to ask the right questions and to budget appropriately. Then you can be confident of achieving the best results, and God’s Word both spoken and sung will be clear to the congregation.

Knowing just a little about the process … can help you to ask the right questions.

A fourth installment will conclude this series. It will focus on assistance for the hearing impaired. We will review a few simple statistics to show that assistance is no longer just for older people. We will study two major methods for providing assistance—how they work and the benefits of each.

If you have something to ask or an issue to deal with, let me know at info@dshaudiovisions.com. I will respond as time allows and might even prepare another WTL article in the future.

 

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Preach the Word – Preaching to the Biblically Illiterate

Preaching to the Choir Biblically Illiterate

In March 2018, The Wall Street Journal had to issue a correction. The previous day, a journalist had quoted Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as saying that Moses had brought water from Iraq. As it turns out, Mr. Netanyahu actually said that Moses brought water from a rock.1 Who’d have thought? That same week, National Public Radio had to make a correction too. An NPR blog on Good Friday stated, “Easter—the day celebrating the idea that Jesus did not die and go to hell or purgatory or anywhere at all, but rather arose into heaven—is on Sunday.” As the corrected blog later noted, Easter is actually “the day Christians celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection.”2

There’s a term for this lack of Bible knowledge: biblical illiteracy. Less than half of adults can name the four gospels. 60% percent of Americans can’t name five of the Ten Commandments. 81% of born-again Christians think that “God helps those who help themselves” is a Bible verse. Over 50% of high school seniors think that Sodom and Gomorrah were a husband and wife….3

And then a guest walks into your church and hears your sermon…. Would they understand it?

Actually, don’t even think about that guest for a moment. Think about the members of your church choir. Over the past year, I’ve had member visits with spiritually mature members of our congregation—like your typical choir members. For a devotion, I’ve read the story of Zacchaeus. I assumed it would be a familiar story. Everybody knows about the wee little man, right? Wrong! When I’ve asked, “Can you remember anything about Zacchaeus?” less than 50% have had any recollection of Zacchaeus at all. Even if we just “preach to the choir” in our churches, we’re preaching to people who are less familiar with the Bible than we’d like to think.

Far from being comical or simply surprising, biblical illiteracy presents a huge challenge to the preacher. Consider these words from Jesus’ “sermons”: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up” (John 3:14). “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). “Before Abraham was born, I am” (John 8:58). “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:37).

What did Jesus assume? That his hearers knew about Moses, Jonah, Abraham, and Noah (and many others!). How can we preach what Jesus preached if our hearers don’t know what Jesus’ hearers knew? Biblical illiteracy isn’t just a matter of Bible trivia. The less our hearers know the people, places, and stories of the Bible, the less they can appreciate God’s plan of salvation in Jesus. Paul reminds us that “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us” (Romans 15:4). We want to lead our people to an ever deeper knowledge of God’s Word.

A caution is needed. Biblical illiteracy certainly can’t be solved by preaching alone. That’s more pressure than any preacher can or should bear. We need the Word in our homes, not just in our churches. But preaching does matter. Our sermons do make a difference. So how can we preach when even preaching to the choir means preaching to people who might be biblically illiterate?

To start, we need to understand what biblical illiteracy is. At its simplest level, biblical illiteracy is a lack of knowledge about biblical names and places, like my members’ ignorance about Zacchaeus. In our small Spanish services, I routinely ask if my hearers have heard of people in our Bible lessons. Moses? Blank stares. Abraham? No clue. The apostle Paul? Nope. I’ve come to assume that every character in every story is unknown to my hearers, except for maybe Jesus. People simply don’t know who people in the Bible are. That’s biblical illiteracy.

But it’s been helpful for me to realize that biblical illiteracy goes much deeper. Biblical illiteracy is also missing the context of the words of Scripture. Albert Molher comments, “Our people can know so much, and yet know nothing, all at the same time. They can have a deep repository of biblical facts and stories, and yet know absolutely nothing about how any of it fits together, or why any of it matters beyond the wee little ‘moral of the story.’”4

How many of our people struggle with that? There is danger in “Facebook-meme Christianity.” How often aren’t single Bible verses pulled out of context and used independently from the rest of Scripture? Think of how misquoted this verse is: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13). It’s talking about contentment, not winning the Super Bowl!

To be biblically literate doesn’t just mean knowing that Zacchaeus was a wee little man. Jesus’ love for tax collectors and sinners is at the heart Luke’s gospel, from the Calling of Levi (Luke 5) to the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) to the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16) to the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18). The story of Zacchaeus leads to a marvelous conclusion: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). Every text has a context.

So does the Bible itself. Every “little” story like Zacchaeus is part of God’s “big” story. Biblical illiteracy is also failing to grasp how each story of the Bible fits into God’s grand plan of salvation. Professor Paul Wendland likes to quote this phrase from Luther: “If you don’t understand the subject matter, you won’t be able to make sense of the words.” You can learn all sorts of stuff about Zacchaeus, but if you don’t know God’s plan of salvation from creation to the fall to Christ’s cross to God’s promises of heaven, you still won’t get it. How many of our people grasp the little stories (like Zacchaeus) but miss how they fit into the big story of salvation?

That leads us to the deepest, most hidden level of biblical illiteracy. Biblical illiteracy is failing to realize that every text of Scripture points me to my Savior Jesus. “These are the Scriptures that testify about me,” Jesus asserts (John 5:39). It’s all about Jesus! Every part of God’s Word—from Genesis to Revelation—was written to point you to your Savior Jesus. To miss that truth is the worst kind of darkness. You can be a biblical expert and lecture on the grand metanarrative of the Bible, but if you miss the truth that Jesus came to save you, you’re still biblically illiterate.

So where do we start? How do we preach to people struggling with different levels of biblical illiteracy? I know where I need to start: with me. The biblical illiteracy that’s most concerning is my own. Would you agree? I often feel embarrassed to read Luther. He quotes the Bible left and right. In contrast, how many of us have a Google (or a Logos) knowledge of the Bible? I can remember bits and pieces from Bible verses. So, I Google the phrase, and Google tells me where it’s from. Easy! I don’t have to memorize anything. I don’t really have to know anything. Can you relate? Biblical illiteracy in my ministry starts with me.

So I appreciate the encouragement that WELS pastors receive to keep learning and growing. There are lots of conferences. Lots of presentations. Lots of suggestions. “Read Luther. Read current events. Read philosophy and science and history. Read apologetics.” Those are all great suggestions, but do you know what I don’t hear very often? “Read the Bible.” I wonder if our job description as pastors has become so broad that we inadvertently spend less time in the Word than previous generations of pastors. Do we sometimes “run ahead” of the Word (2 John 9)?

Here’s my confession: I don’t know the Word as well as I think I do. I bet you don’t either. So I’m going to give you the encouragement that I need you to give me: Read the Bible! God’s promise is true: “Blessed is the man…whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2). Read the Bible. If you read just one thing today, read the Bible. In fact, don’t worry about reading anything else until you’ve spent time in God’s Word.

Let’s be men of the Word. Biblical literacy starts with us.

In a recent seminary satellite course, “Preaching on the Parables,” Professor Paul Wendland shared two Latin phrases that have stuck in my mind. He encouraged us to preach todo in illis—“everything in these things.” Fill yourself so full of God’s Word that your sermon is todo in illis—“everything in the things of God’s Word.” Then he reminded us that we are the vox Dei—the “voice of God.” What a privilege! We stand before God’s people and share his Word as if God himself were speaking through us. Let’s be men of the Word. Biblical literacy starts with us.

But it doesn’t stop there. We want to raise up people who are people of the Word too. To do that, we need to know people. Where are people at? Which level of biblical illiteracy do they struggle with? Dear pastor, have you planned visits in people’s homes on your calendar yet? There’s no substitute for time with people. Listen to the 13-year-old girl cry hysterically because she’s terrified of death. Watch that hard-working man struggle to find Genesis in the Bible. Preaching to a biblically illiterate society starts with knowing the Word and knowing people.

Here are suggestions for preaching the Word to biblically illiterate people. Assume your hearers will be hearing your text for the first time. Before you dive into your text study, read the text in English, just like people will hear it. Ask yourself this question: What biblical knowledge is assumed in this text? Since we can’t assume that our hearers are familiar with any text, be proactive about anticipating their questions.

Asking that question before you dive into your text study is key. You don’t want to forget what it was like to hear the text for the first time. Don’t start your sermon where you are at on Sunday morning. Your people aren’t there yet! You need to start where you were. In your sermon, take people on a journey. Instead of downloading information, lead them to discover God’s truth, just as you did as you studied your text. Start with the questions that popped into your mind. How did God’s Word answer them? In each sermon, take your people on a journey.

Along the way, tell the context of your text. Don’t just jump into Ezekiel or Mark or Romans. Walk your people into the biblical world of the author. When?… Where?… Why?… It doesn’t have to be long. Often a paragraph or two is enough. Show your hearers your text’s biblical context.

One of the best ways to do so is to not be afraid to preach on biblical narratives. Jesus did! He preached on Moses, Noah, Abraham, Jonah, and many others. If we want our people to know the stories of the Bible, let’s preach on them! When was the last time you preached on creation? How about David and Goliath? Sodom and Gomorrah? If we don’t preach on Bible stories, we shouldn’t be surprised when people don’t know them. Consider using Hebrews 11 as a guide to help you see which heroes of faith to include in your preaching.5

Once you decide which text to preach on, don’t jump away from your text. Before referencing biblical stories or verses from outside your text, ask yourself, “Can biblically illiterate people understand this verse without its wider context?” Don’t say, “Just like Noah in the ark,” unless you plan on telling the story of Noah and his ark. You’ll lose your hearers. Proof texts work great in doctrinal essays, but they can make it hard for our hearers to follow. This isn’t “dumbing down” the sermon. Our hearers aren’t stupid. They just haven’t had the opportunity to study the Scriptures like we have. Instead of jumping around the Bible, let’s help our hearers appreciate the rich ways our sermon text plumbs the depth of sin and the fullness of God’s grace.

Our hearers aren’t stupid. They just haven’t had the opportunity to study the Scriptures like we have.

As you do, tell the big story over and over again. Every little story of God’s Word is an intricate part of the big story of God’s plan of salvation. Zacchaeus wasn’t just a wee little man. He’s Exhibit A of how Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. Biblical illiteracy clouds the unity of Scripture. This is where a thorough text study comes in. How does this specific text in its specific context connect to God’s plan of salvation? That’s what the Scriptures are meant to do, right? They “make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15).

That means that we want to get to Jesus in every sermon, like Jesus did on the way to Emmaus. “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Since the Scriptures from beginning to end testify about Jesus, every text contains its own unique path to Jesus. Charles Spurgeon is known for saying, “I take my text and make a beeline to the cross.” Instead of thrusting the same gospel paragraphs into every sermon, mine your text to discover that text’s own connection to Christ.

That’s especially relevant, because our biblically illiterate culture desperately needs to hear law and gospel in every sermon. At the heart of biblical illiteracy is failing to see Jesus as my Savior from sin. Not every text reveals God’s plan of salvation with the same clarity. That’s true. Some texts emphasize Christian living more than justification. That’s true. Yet, in hundreds of texts and in hundreds of ways, Scripture was written to say to us, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Our people won’t hear that anywhere else.

Our biblically illiterate culture desperately needs to hear law and gospel.

Your sermon matters. From the choir in the balcony to the guest in back, there is a great need for biblical preaching. So here’s a final encouragement: Give yourself time to preach. At times, I stand up to preach already 30 minutes into the service, and we still have the offering to collect, prayers to be said, the Lord’s Supper to celebrate. There are many good things that can be included in worship. Make sure there’s time for the preaching of the Word. Our people are not overfed with God’s Word. In a biblically illiterate world, your sermon matters. Sermonettes can make Christianettes. We need to give our preachers time to preach the Word.

Just remember your goal. I once talked with my dad about how little my confirmation students knew about the Bible. I’ve never forgotten how my dad responded about his time teaching confirmation class in the 1980s. He said, “My goal for my confirmation students by the end of the year was to have them believe in Jesus as their Savior.” That’s our goal as Christian preachers, isn’t it? Our ultimate goal is not people who know lots about the Bible. Our goal is people who believe in Jesus as their Savior through the power of God’s Word.

But think of the names the Bible gives to our Savior: Son of David (Matthew 21:9), Lamb of God (John 1:29), the last Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45), Lion of the tribe of Judah (Revelation 5:5), and the Root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:10). What’s striking about those names? They intimately connect Jesus with the people and places of the Bible. Biblical knowledge draws me closer to Jesus. The more I know God’s Word, the more I appreciate God’s plan of salvation for me. So to the choir… To the guests… Preach the Word! Don’t give up. Don’t give in. “Know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Written by Nathan Nass


1 For more, read this article from the Washington Post: “You Should Read the Bible” (March 30, 2018) at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/even-atheists-should-read-the-bible/2018/03/30/98a1133c-3444-11e8-94fa-32d48460b955_story.html.
2 To read NPR’s own description of the mistake, check out “NPR Catches Hell Over Easter Mistake” (April 2, 2018) at https://www.npr.org/sections/publiceditor/2018/04/02/598029102/npr-catches-hell-over-easter-mistake.
3 These statistics were compiled by Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. See “The Scandal of Biblical Illiteracy: It’s Our Problem” (January 20, 2016) at https://albertmohler.com/2016/01/20/the-scandal-of-biblical-illiteracy-its-our-problem-4.
4 Mohler Jr., R. Albert. He Is Not Silent: Preaching in a Postmodern World. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008.
5 As I wrote this article, I preached on Jacob wrestling with God (https://upsidedownsavior.home.blog/2019/10/20/wrestling-with-god/) and the end of Hebrews 11 (https://upsidedownsavior.home.blog/2019/11/03/the-world-was-not-worthy-of-them/). Here’s also a link to a sermon series that I’ve used on the Heroes of Faith: https://www.dropbox.com/s/2eid4j28jeam0c3/2016%20Series%20Schedule%20-%20OT%20Heroes%20of%20Faith.pdf?dl=0.
Easy click links are at the online version of this article: https://worship.welsrc.net/downloads-worship/preach-the-word/.

 

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Preach The Word – The Blessing of Knowledge

Simple Preaching: In our last issue, we were encouraged to preach simply for the benefit of all of our hearers. We heard from Luther, “He’s the best preacher who can teach in a plain, childlike, popular, and simple way.” One reader shared this feedback, “[Your article] reminded me of a remark made by one of my parishioners at St. Paul’s in Douglas, Arizona back in the 1950’s. Her comment was, ‘Put the feed down low where the lambs can reach it. It won’t hurt the sheep to stoop a little.’”1 What a great encouragement to simple preaching from a sister in Christ!


The Curse Blessing of Knowledge

I have a sister and a sister-in-law who are both nurses. I love them both dearly, except when they start to talk together about nursing. Then the acronyms start to fly around. Those are followed by unpronounceable medical conditions that I’ve never heard of. Then a lot of abbreviations and shared experiences that only a nurse can understand. If you’ve been part of a conversation like that, how do you feel? Invisible. Frustrated. I don’t get it! It’s like they’re talking another language. I know that what they’re talking about is important. I’m glad they know about it. But it has nothing to do with me. I’d almost prefer not to listen. Have you experienced that feeling?

It’s not just nurses. We could list any number of examples of people who have their own “language.” I love talking to family members in the military, but when they start talking to each other, they lose me. NCOs and IEDs and 24-hour clocks…. I love talking with Hispanic immigrants. It’s fascinating to learn about their lives, until dairy workers start talking together about their work. Then they lose me. There’s only so much about the cow reproductive system that I can handle. I can’t picture it. I don’t want to picture it! I know it’s important. I’m glad there are people who know that stuff. But it’s not for me. I don’t get it. I’d prefer not to listen.

This communication-killing phenomenon has a name. It’s called the “Curse of Knowledge.” You can Google it! The curse of knowledge happens when people unknowingly assume that their hearers have the background to understand what they are saying, even though they really don’t. We often don’t realize the gap between our knowledge and the knowledge of the people around us, and that knowledge gap can be a great barrier to communication.

In 1990, a Stanford student named Elizabeth Newton proved the curse of knowledge through a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: “tapper” or “listener.” Each tapper was asked to pick a well-known song, such as “Happy Birthday,” and tap out the rhythm on a table. The listener’s job was to guess the song. Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Of those 120 songs, can you guess how many the listeners correctly identified? It sounds pretty easy, doesn’t it? Well, the listeners guessed only three of the songs correctly. There’s more. Before the listeners guessed, Newton asked the tappers to predict how many of the listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50%. The reality was just 2.5%.

Why? When a tapper taps, it’s impossible for her to avoid hearing the tune playing along to her taps. In contrast, all the listener can hear is a kind of bizarre Morse code. Yet, the tappers were surprised by how hard it was for the listeners to guess the tune. The problem is that once we know something, it’s hard to imagine not knowing it. In a way, our knowledge has “cursed” us. We have difficulty sharing that knowledge with others, because we can’t relate to their state of mind. In fact, we get frustrated when others can’t seem to understand what’s so obvious so us. Can you see the damage done to effective communication? That’s the curse of knowledge!2

Do you think this curse of knowledge can affect us as pastors?

Do you think this curse of knowledge can affect us as pastors? I do! By God’s grace, you have a deeper knowledge of God’s Word than most people do. You’ve spent years of your life studying the Bible, even in Hebrew and Greek. You’ve made reading God’s Word a daily part of your life. Before you preach a sermon, you spend hours studying the text and carefully thinking through different possible interpretations. But then you stand up and preach to people who haven’t had many—or any—of those blessings. Do we unknowingly assume our hearers understand more than they do? Can you see how this curse of knowledge could be a barrier in our preaching?

This hit home for me on a recent evening with my kids. I was reading to my 8- and 4-year old boys from a children’s Bible before bed. That evening, the story showed a picture of heaven. I asked my 4-year old son, “Remember how we get to heaven?” He said, “No. I don’t know.” “What?” I said. “Come on, you know how we get to heaven.” He said, “No, you never told me.” Huh. I bet he’s right. I can’t remember ever specifically telling my boys how we get to heaven. I assume they know. How could they not? I know how to get to heaven, so I assume my boys do too, even without telling them. What a dangerous assumption! That’s the curse of knowledge.

I’ve had the blessing of taking an online course from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary called “Preaching in a Postmodern World.” I appreciated these comments from Professor Rich Gurgel:

Basic assumptions we may make about knowledge possessed as we preach would be utterly wrong. If all growth in knowledge progresses from the known to the unknown, how easily our presumed starting point with our hearers could leave people hopelessly in our dust!

If we are not careful about our assumptions as we stand up to preach, we could unwittingly leave our hearers in the dust already from the first sentence of our sermon!

This lesson is urging us to check our assumptions about what our hearers know, lest we leave more and more of them clueless in our preaching because we will seem to be preaching to someone else somewhere else living in some other time.

So what do our hearers know? Each is a unique individual, but all live right in the middle of our postmodern culture. Have you had the chance to study what our postmodern culture is like? Here are four basic characteristics of postmodernism that were mentioned in our course:

  1. There’s no absolute truth. “What’s true for me isn’t true for you.” Truth is subjective and can be different for every individual and society.
  2. Words and texts have no meaning apart from the reader. “That’s just your interpretation.” Readers and listeners have the right to find their own meaning in a text, even if it involves twisting or changing the author’s original intent.
  3. Morality is relative. There is no objective right and wrong. Each individual decides what is right and good for them.
  4. Skepticism is good. It’s wise to be skeptical of authority, institutions, and anyone who claims to have the truth.

How many of those statements match your worldview? More importantly, how many of those fit a biblical worldview? After being immersed throughout the week in postmodernism, people step into our churches—praise the Lord!—and we expect them to think as biblically as we do. Can you see how that assumption could hinder communication?

  1. Not recognizing significant deficits in hearers’ basic Bible history knowledge.
  2. Not discerning where misunderstanding is masquerading as familiarity with biblical truth.
  3. Not seeing where hearers’ biblical knowledge has become disconnected bits of “Bible trivia” divorced from grasping the grand themes of biblical revelation.
  4. Not grasping the need to translate when speaking theologically to a culture that thinks more and more therapeutically.

That’s quite a list! How many of these assumptions affect our preaching, without us even knowing?

Let’s think about that last assumption—not grasping the need to translate when speaking theologically. Isn’t it true that the longer you serve as a pastor, the more knowledgeable and comfortable you are with theological vocabulary? At the same time, as the years pass, the less knowledgeable and comfortable the average person is with theological vocabulary. That means that the knowledge gap is constantly growing! The list of words that need translating is growing rapidly too. Redemption, reconciliation, atonement, sacrament, Lamb of God, justification, sanctification, divine call, absolution, vicarious…. Of course, none of those words is bad. They are rich and deep and beautiful. But to many people, it’s like we’re speaking another language.

You can even add words like “sin” and “eternal life” to that list too. About 30 families attend a monthly food pantry at our church. I give a short devotion to small groups of people as they wait for their food. This past month, I used “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Simple, right? No! When I talked about sin, I got blank stares. “Sin? What’s that?” It was like I was speaking another language. Eternal life? That wasn’t a comfort to anyone. My first reaction was frustration: “Come on! Why don’t you get it? Everybody knows about sin and grace.” No, they don’t. I assume they do, but they don’t.

On that day, I’m afraid I made those people feel like I feel when my nurse relatives start to talk about nursing stuff. “I know that what you’re talking about is important. I’m glad you know about it. But it has nothing to do with me. I’d prefer not to listen.” May that never be what our hearers say about God’s Word! When we don’t realize the gap between our knowledge and the knowledge of the people to whom we preach, our unfounded assumptions can keep people from growing closer to Jesus. That’s the curse of knowledge.

Of course, there’s a problem with that phrase. Knowledge about Christ isn’t really a curse. No way! It’s a blessing. What grace God has showered on us, that “from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15)! If so many people today have so little knowledge of Christ, why do we have so much? We say with Paul, “By the grace of God I am what I am…” (1 Corinthians 15:10). By grace we, like Ezekiel, have gotten to taste the Word and know how sweet it is. “He said to me, ‘Son of man, eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it.’ So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth” (Ezekiel 3:3). Knowledge of the Word isn’t a curse. It’s really a blessing!

Our goal as preachers is to take the biblical knowledge that so easily separates us from our hearers and use that very knowledge to be a tremendous blessing to their faith in Jesus. Isn’t this what Jesus was talking about when he said, “Every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matthew 13:52)?

It’s daunting to think about all the gaps between what the Bible says and what people think. But I hope you’re willing to use another word to describe that challenge: Exciting! Can you see the opportunity God has placed before us? It’s no fun preaching to know-it-alls, and that’s not our audience. In grace, God fills us with his Word and provides us with endless opportunities to share the treasures of Jesus with people who desperately need it.

Look for ways to talk to people outside your church.

So how do we do that? It’s hard for many of us to remember what it’s like to not have all the theological training we’ve received. But there are a lot of people who can teach us that. Look for opportunities to talk with people outside the mature Christian members of your congregations. I’m blessed in doing Hispanic outreach to spend a lot of time around a lot of people who know very little about the Bible. I need to listen to them to learn how they think and to hear how they talk. Look for ways to talk to people outside your church. Not for their benefit—for yours. To learn. To listen. To see what people are like. To be prepared to share the Word in their language.

As you talk with people, note gaps between what people know and what we assume they know. The first step to breaking assumptions is to be aware of them. Maybe you could start by scanning the liturgies you use at your church. What are theological words that we assume people understand? I found these in the Service of Word and Sacrament: fellowship, penitent, atoning sacrifice, called servant, eternally begotten, incarnate, sacrament, redeem, heavenly realms, kingdom of our God, Lamb, institution…. These are good words. Words rich in meaning! But we can’t assume people know them. If we’re going to use them, we need to preach about them often with concrete definitions and clear illustrations to plant these words into people’s hearts.

I tried that recently. I preached a sermon with the simple theme “Grace.”3 When I saw Hosea 3 come up in our lectionary, I was amazed by the concrete, visible way God describes grace. What’s grace? Grace is a husband loving an adulterous wife over and over again. After she runs off with another man, grace is paying the full price to bring her home. Grace is loving the unlovable, the undeserving, the adulterous. That’s grace. That’s God’s grace for us! When you preach, take your people from the theoretical and theological to the concrete and visible. God does!

Take your people from the theoretical and theological to the concrete and visible.

As you take people into God’s Word, check to see whether they are following you along the way. Ask questions in your sermon. Say, “Got it?” or “Make sense?” or “Can you see what God is saying?” and see if heads nod. Have one central theme and a clear flow for people to follow. One of our members talked with me after a recent service. She seemed happy, so I was expecting a “Great sermon, Pastor!” Know what she said? “Pastor, I could actually follow you the whole sermon.” She meant it as a compliment. That was a good day. God’s Word was preached. She could follow what was said. Her heart was filled with Jesus. That’s the blessing of knowledge.

“Pastor, I could actually follow you the whole sermon.”

Doesn’t that make you excited to preach? I hope you look forward to writing that next sermon. You’re not sharing old news. You have knowledge to share that everyone absolutely needs. There’s one characteristic of postmodernism that I didn’t mention above. People today are searching for identity and meaning in the emptiness of life. You are blessed with knowledge of both of those things! Tell them about our glorious identity as the children of God by faith in Jesus. Tell them how much they and their lives mean to God. He made us. He saved us. He’s got a spot for us in his house. You get to open eyes and change lives and save people through the Word of Christ. That’s the blessing of knowledge. Doesn’t that make you excited to preach?

Just please, by all means, in every way, in every sermon, remember to point them to Jesus. May there never be little boys waiting for their dads to tell them about heaven or people waiting to be told where there is hope and peace and joy. You know. It’s in Jesus! Don’t ever assume that people know how much Jesus loves them. Don’t ever assume that they know the way to heaven. Don’t ever assume that their hearts are sufficiently filled up with the grace of God in Christ.

Like my little boys, they won’t ever get it on their own. They need someone to tell them. To share the blessing of the knowledge of the forgiveness of sins. To share the blessing of the knowledge of a Father’s gracious love. To share the blessing of the knowledge of eternal life in heaven. Over and over again. We get to share it! The blessing of knowledge. How has God been so good to us? May God bless you as you share the blessing of the knowledge of Christ!

Written by Nathan Nass

Nathan Nass has served at St. Paul / San Pablo Lutheran Church in Green Bay, WI since 2018. He previously served at St. Peter Lutheran Church in St. Peter, MN from 2013-2018. You can read his devotions and sermons at his blog: www.upsidedownsavior.home.blog.


1 This is from retired pastor Joel Gerlach, who taught homiletics at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary from 1971-1981.
2 This description of Newton’s study at Stanford can be found in “The Curse of Knowledge.” Harvard Business Journal (December 2006). https://hbr.org/2006/12/the-curse-of-knowledge. Accessed May 9, 2019.
3 If you’re interested, you can read it at https://upsidedownsavior.home.blog/2019/09/15/grace/.


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Audio, Acoustics, and Video in the Worship Setting – Part 2

Audio, Acoustics, and Video in the Worship Setting

Part 2: Acoustic Definitions and Implications / Microphones

In our first installment we discussed basic acoustic principles to maximize sound quality, tone projection, and speech clarity in the worship space.

In this installment we get into the sound system. Coined as a tongue-in-cheek statement by a sound industry icon, the following statement hits home: “If bad sound were fatal, audio would be the leading cause of death.” Fortunately, bad sound is not fatal. But it can be upsetting both for listeners and for pastors on the receiving end of complaints from members who cannot hear clearly.

“If bad sound were fatal, audio would be the leading cause of death.”

Just what is sound? How does sound behave in the worship space? What does a designer look to accomplish when laying out a sound system? How should I place the microphones? Which microphone designs are used for which purpose?

And the dreaded “gotcha’s.” Why is the audio quality bad on recording feeds? Why do we have “hot” and “dead” spots in the space? Why do we have feedback? Why is the sound just not clear?

The goal here is to give you things to think about. These will help you to have an idea of what questions to ask and the knowledge that good sound can be achieved. Note: I invented the fictional characters Aunt Tillie and Uncle Charlie some years ago to personalize my talks. I have brought them along here. They, like any worshiper, have one thing in mind when they come to worship: they want to hear the Word—clearly. My job and yours is to make that happen. So let’s dive in and see how we can prevent audio pain, futility, and fatality.

There are a few simple goals that any good sound system designer will strive to achieve. But first, an important definition:

Decibel – The decibel (dB) is a comparison with some point of reference. It is not a unit of power like a watt or volt. I can say that the electrical power in my house is 110 volts. I can’t say that it’s 110 dB. What I can say is that normal human speech is measured at about 65 dB. That measurement assumes a reference level of 0 dB, which is the threshold of human hearing. A difference in level of 3 dB is audible; 6 dB is very noticeable, and 10 dB is considered twice or half as loud, depending on an increase or decrease in volume. I cover this definition first because it is at the root of everything we discuss regarding audio design. Following are other clusters of definitions and their implications. These all are inseparable for achieving a goal of optimal sound quality and for microphones to perform well.

Loudspeaker coverage – We seek to deliver even sound levels throughout the seating area. The standard we use is plus-or-minus 3 dB from front to back and side to side in the seating area. If we keep the sound levels within that window, then there will be no audible volume level differences. The “gotcha” will be intelligibility, or clarity.

Intelligibility – How clear the sound is.

Volume – How loud the sound is.

“Gotcha”: There is a distinct disconnect between volume/loudness and clarity/intelligibility. Aunt Tillie approaches an usher or the sound operator during worship and says, “I can’t hear.” The usher or sound operator turns up the volume. But did that make a difference? The sound is louder, but how clear is it? If the ambient sound is too loud, if the worship space is excessively reverberant or fraught with slap echo issues, or if the loudspeakers are not directional enough, then volume is not going to help. We need to ask Aunt Tillie, “Is it volume or can you not hear clearly?”

Loudness 15 dB above ambient noise level – The clear sound levels from the sound system must be more than twice the level of background or ambient noise. Recall our case study in the previous installment. The ambient noise level from the HVAC system was measured in excess of 70 dB. Normal human conversation is measured at about 65-70 dB, depending on male or female talker and strength of voice. We want the sound from the sound system to arrive at the listener’s ear at about 70 dB in order to make the sound comfortable. If the ambient noise level is already at 70 dB, then the sound from the sound system is totally masked or covered up and needs to be at nearly rock ‘n’ roll levels, at least 85 dB, in order to be heard above the ambient noise. Those levels will drive people away.

“Gotcha”: You can count control of HVAC and other ambient noise as major. If you don’t control that ambient noise, the sound system, no matter the quality of components, will not be able to make up for it without irritating the listeners. Keep that ambient noise level at about 55 dB. Then I as a designer can deliver a most comfortable 70-75 dB to the congregation.

Direct Sound – The sound we receive directly from the sound source before reflections.

Early Reflected Sound – The sound we hear very soon after the direct sound, maybe off a wall near the loudspeaker. This is usually not a deterrent to intelligibility and is desirable especially for good music projection for choir and organ. (This is why we see shell type walls to the sides of choirs and organ pipe chests.)

Reverberant Sound (also Late Reflected Sound) – The ambient sound, which is made up of HVAC noise, people whispering and rustling paper, and other acoustic and loudspeaker sound that has reflected off walls, balcony faces, and ceiling.

Deliver primarily direct sound – God designed our ear/brain mechanism to receive a syllable, process it, then receive the next syllable. Aunt Tillie, Uncle Charlie, and all of us need to hear the syllable once and let it pass so we can get the next one. When we hear echoes or when the background noise is too strong, then that God-designed hearing process gets messed up. Our ears get tired, our brains shut down, and we tell the usher, sound guy, or pastor that we can’t hear.

There is not a written standard to tell us that we need “x-amount” of direct sound for maximum clarity. Experience has shown me and other designers that we need to achieve at minimum 75% direct sound as compared to reverberant sound in order to deliver good speech intelligibility. As mentioned above, we like to have some early reflected sound as well to give us depth for music; this can give dimension to speech as well.

How do we deliver 75% direct sound? We get this result in two ways. First, recall the acoustic principles discussed previously. We need to get the room acoustics right: live but not excessive reverberation, no slap echo and no flutter echo, and control of mechanical noise from HVAC, fans, etc. Secondly, we need to ensure that the sound system receives energy directly from the talker into the microphone, and then that it emits the sound as directly as possible from the loudspeaker to the listener’s ear.

How do we make that happen? Let’s get into a few more definitions and principles. I think that the answer will become clear with this slightly deeper dive into sound principles. It will also answer some more “gotcha’s.”

Sound – Sound happens when something vibrates. Stretch a rubber band and pluck the elastic. The elastic moving back and forth creates air pressure zones, like the high- and low-pressure zones you see on a weather map. The sound is carried along in waves (hence the expression sound waves) along those pressure zones.

Frequency – The speed at which the elastic moves back and forth, or more specifically, how many times the elastic vibrates in one second. The faster the elastic vibrates, the higher the frequency which is labeled “hertz” (Hz). The slower the vibration, the lower the frequency. We can see those sound waves and their speed on an oscilloscope. The scope will show us wavelength.

Wavelength – the portion of one second occupied by a single vibration. The longer the sound wave, or wavelength, the lower the frequency. Moving in that direction takes us into the bass range. The shorter the wavelength, the higher the frequency, and we move into the treble range.

The table below shows how wavelength and frequency relate:

The table may not mean much to many people, but it’s important when we discuss acoustics and audio. And I think it brings clarity (pun intended) to the whole direct sound and intelligibility discussion. Paying attention here eliminates a myriad of “gotcha’s” before they can happen.

The longer the wavelength, the stronger it is and the more difficult it is to deal with. As you read the following points, think of wavelength simplistically as a beam of light with finite edges projecting out from a source.

Example A. The lower we go in frequency, the wider and stronger the beam and the more difficult it is to block or absorb those frequencies. The obstruction required to fully block the frequency must be about equal to the size of the wavelength.

Acoustically speaking, the material thickness and density required to absorb lower frequencies must be substantial. A felt banner or thin drapery will be invisible to a sound at 1000 Hz and below.

A pillar of three feet in diameter will not block a sound at about 400 Hz or below. On the other hand, that three-foot diameter pillar will cast a “shadow” and block sound from 500 Hz and up.

“Gotcha”: The installer just mounted thin column speakers on the front pillar in the church. People seated behind the subsequent two-foot diameter pillars say they cannot hear. The reason? The frequencies in the upper vowel range and consonant and ‘s’ ranges are blocked by the pillars. People seated behind those pillars will not hear clearly. The installer needed to locate support speakers at the subsequent pillars.

Using the table as a guide, we can see that an obstruction of as little as six inches can damage intelligibility. We need to keep that in mind as we go about achieving our design goals.

An obstruction of as little as six inches can damage intelligibility.

Example B. In audio systems, the lower we go in frequency, the more difficult it becomes to control, aim or “steer” those frequencies. Conversely, it is easier to control higher frequencies. In simple terms, we need “acoustic buckets” large enough to contain the frequency range we want to control.

Typically we use horns or other highly directional array type loudspeakers in a space, no matter the size. The horn or array dimension will dictate to what extent we can control where sound is aimed. We can use a small horn or device with mouth dimension of about 8 inches to control from about 1,500 Hz and up. That’s good for consonants and ‘s’ sounds. In order to control the projection of a 500 Hz sound (the vowel range), we need a device (horn, array height, etc.) of 28 inches; for 100 Hz we need a 10-foot horn!

“Gotcha”: The installer just installed one or two loudspeakers, suspended from the ceiling. The total dimension of each enclosure is about 26 inches. The installer tells you that the speaker will deliver very good clarity. He is right—to a degree. What he failed to tell you is that the enclosure contains a high-frequency horn that measures about six or seven inches. It will control the consonants well. There is a 15-inch diameter bass speaker in the enclosure as well. The midrange and bass frequencies will be well-supported but not controlled. At 15 inches in diameter, that woofer cannot contain the wavelengths below about 1000 Hz, meaning that the vowel sounds are allowed to bounce around the space. Those vowels now mask the consonants and develop excessive reverberant sound. In a reverberant space, Aunt Tillie and Uncle Charlie won’t be happy.

Aunt Tillie and Uncle Charlie won’t be happy.

How do we make them happy? We need to utilize loudspeakers that are directional not just in the high frequencies, but also in the mid- and low frequencies. If we can control from about 500 Hz and up and deliver even coverage, then we have a very good chance at making every worshiper happy.

Okay, we’ve spent a lot of time on loudspeakers and direct sound. We needed to because if we don’t get that part right, what we do with the rest of the sound system will not matter. But now let’s move to microphones.

There is a difference between microphones. You will get what you pay for.

There are a lot of brands and types of microphones available at virtually every price point imaginable. I need to encourage you up-front that there is a difference between microphones. You will get what you pay for. Many microphone issues are caused by one or more of three basic “gotcha’s”:

  1. Very inexpensive microphones were purchased. Usually, the very-inexpensive microphone is not articulate or clear in the consonants. It may not sound natural. And it may not pick up well for what you need it to do.
  2. The wrong microphone type was chosen for the application. A typical handheld microphone will not work well at the lectern, pulpit or ambo, or for the choir. They are designed for up-close solo work. Unless your talker can position their mouth within about three inches of the microphone, this is not the right mic.
    Use a good long gooseneck microphone for the lectern, ambo, or pulpit. Use a similar type on a stand for the choir when needed as they are more “forgiving” in their pickup pattern and more sensitive and so will pick up from a greater distance—about eight inches at the lectern, pulpit, or ambo; and with greater gain (volume) applied, about two feet from the front row of the choir.
    Use a good discrete headset/ear mic (definitely not inexpensive) that fits well for the pastor’s wireless. These are designed for live sound, as opposed to lapel mics which were designed for use in TV news studios many years ago.
  3. The talker is not positioned properly. The talker must be within the clear operating range of the microphone. This means within about three inches of a handheld solo mic, no more than eight inches from a gooseneck microphone, and two feet from the front row of the choir. Within these distance windows the sound pickup will be full and articulate. The sound level will also be strong for feeds to recordings and distributed speakers in cry rooms and such. Outside these windows the sound will become thin, volume will be low, feedback may occur when trying to increase the volume, and Aunt Tillie and Uncle Charlie will wonder why the sound is bad.
  4. The talker is not talking to the microphone. This relates to the former point, but deserves its own block. You must address the microphone. In other words, the mouth must be pointed toward the microphone head. Just like we need direct sound from speaker to listener, we need direct sound from talker’s mouth to microphone. If we talk “away” from the microphone, or physically turn away from the microphone to make eye contact somewhere, we will turn out of the microphone’s pickup pattern and sound level and clarity will be lost.
    This is why the headset/ear mic has become popular and even better than a lavalier/lapel mic. But if you have a mounted mic, maintain a distance and position relationship with the microphone. When turning to make eye contact, turn your body about the microphone so that you can look the other way without looking away from the microphone. As was stated in the former point, this will help everything: sound levels, clarity from the loudspeakers, recording feeds, and even hearing assistance systems.
  5. The microphones are placed ahead of the loudspeakers. Feedback occurs when sound from the loudspeaker reflects around the room and back into the microphone. It can occur when the microphone is placed in front of the loudspeaker. If that speaker is too close to the microphone, or if the overhead speaker is turned up and microphone is out front, feedback will be an issue. Proper system tuning (next installment) can help somewhat, but the needed clarity and volume levels will not be realized. And feeds to recordings will suffer as well.

My design philosophy has always been simple: use the right microphone and loudspeaker, set them up properly, and the sound will be right at all destinations. I won’t need to play tricks to try to get the system to work right. If you follow the same philosophy, you will be successful as well.

Use the right microphone and loudspeaker, set them up properly, and the sound will be right at all destinations.

Next up: system setup—good stuff and “gotcha’s.” Also, the hearing assistance system: why do we need it, and which type is best?

Written by David Hosbach

David Hosbach is President of DSH Audio Visions LLC, Milwaukee, WI. A 1983 graduate of Dr. Martin Luther College, his clients include: the Chapel of the Christ, MLC, New Ulm, MN; Peace Lutheran Church, Hartford, WI (WELS); the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Mobile, AL; and hundreds of parish worship spaces of all sizes. For more information visit www.dshaudiovisions.com.


 

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Preach The Word – Simple Preaching

Welcome a new writer: Nathan Nass has served at St. Paul / San Pablo Lutheran Church in Green Bay, WI since 2018. After graduating from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in 2013, he served at St. Peter Lutheran Church in St. Peter, MN from 2013-2018. In this new series of Preach the Word, he will encourage us to preach simply and clearly for the benefit of all our hearers.

Simple Preaching

“Preach to the milkmaids, and the doctors will be edified.” When I first heard that comment by Martin Luther, it instantly became one of my favorites. Let’s preach the Word so simply and clearly that even the humblest of our hearers understands, and the most intelligent will benefit too. “Preach to the milkmaids, and the doctors will be edified.” I was happy when I was asked to write for a new series of Preach the Word with a focus on the idea of Luther’s axiom: Simple preaching.

Then I tried to find where Luther said it. I don’t think he did! That quote is nowhere in the American Edition of Luther’s Works. It’s nowhere online either. I googled the phrase, and the only occurrence is in the July-August 2013 edition of…Preach the Word! Sorry folks, but it doesn’t sound like Martin Luther ever said, “Preach to the milkmaids, and the doctors will be edified.”

“He’s the best preacher who can teach in a plain, childlike, popular, and simple way.”

But here’s what Luther did say: “He’s the best preacher who can teach in a plain, childlike, popular, and simple way” (AE 54:384). It should come as no surprise to hear those words from the man whose love for God’s Word and love for God’s people led him to translate the Bible into his people’s language and to write a simple catechism for every family to use in their homes. Despite the fact that Martin Luther is credited with an IQ of 170 and is often included on lists of the most intelligent people in world history, he valued simple preaching that everyone could understand. Here was his philosophy:

“We preach publicly for the sake of plain people. Christ could have taught in a profound way but he wished to deliver his message with the utmost simplicity in order that the common people might understand. Good God, there are sixteen-year-old girls, women, old men, and farmers in church, and they don’t understand lofty matters! … Accordingly he’s the best preacher who can teach in a plain, childlike, popular, and simple way” (AE 54:383-384).

Luther encouraged simple preaching.

In fact, Luther had strong words for those who aimed their preaching at theologians and neglected the common people:

“Cursed be every preacher who aims at lofty topics in the church, looking for his own glory and selfishly desiring to please one individual or another. When I preach here [Wittenberg] I adapt myself to the circumstances of the common people. I don’t look at the doctors and masters, of whom scarcely forty are present, but at the hundred or the thousand young people and children. It’s to them that I preach, to them that I devote myself, for they, too, need to understand. If the others don’t want to listen they can leave. Therefore, my dear Bernard, take pains to be simple and direct; don’t consider those who claim to be learned but be a preacher to unschooled youth and sucklings” (AE 54:235-236).

Of course, simple preaching isn’t a matter of dumbing things down. It’s not about avoiding difficult subjects. It’s striving to teach deep scriptural truths in simple ways. It’s unpacking difficult subjects so that everyone from sixteen-year-old girls to old men, from first-time visitors to life-long members can understand them. Far from being easier or less time consuming, simple preaching is hard! That’s why Luther said, “He’s the best preacher who can teach in a plain, childlike, popular, and simple way.”

So that everyone from sixteen-year-old girls to old men, from first-time visitors to life-long members can understand.

In my congregation, we offer English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to everyone who is interested. On the first day of each new session, we have a full house of students with all different levels of English—from beginners who don’t speak a word of English to advanced students who speak English as well as I do. Here’s our struggle: We can’t possibly tailor the classes to every individual’s need, so for whom do we plan the bulk of the material—advanced students or beginner students?

Here’s what we’ve found: If we plan materials for advanced students, they love it, but beginner students are completely lost and never come back to our classes. We lose them after the very first night. But if we plan materials for beginner students, even the advanced students gain valuable practice, and everyone benefits. The truth is, it’s way easier for our teachers to prepare materials for advanced students. But despite the extra effort required, it’s way more beneficial to everyone involved to have simple materials that everyone can benefit from.

Does that hold true for our sermons as well? I’m convinced that it does. I once went with a group of WELS men to a men’s conference. I particularly enjoyed one thought-provoking presentation. Afterward, I asked the men in our group what they thought of that presentation. Three of the men said, “It was awesome! I loved hearing that man speak.” Six of the men said, “I didn’t get it. I couldn’t follow him from the very start.” Do you think that presenter’s goal was to have one-third of his hearers walk away blessed? Or to have all of his hearers walk away blessed? Whoever made up that quote, “Preach to the milkmaids, and the doctors will be edified,” had a point. If you preach to pastors, the pastors and a few others will benefit greatly. If you preach to the simplest people in the pew, everyone can grow in God’s Word.

How often do people walk away from our worship services—and especially our sermons—with the same feeling those six men had at that conference? Excitement over God’s Word is quickly replaced by, “I couldn’t follow what he was saying.” Or, “I get more out of the children’s sermon than the actual sermon.” There are so many reasons people neglect God’s Word. I don’t like the thought, but is it sometimes because my or your preaching goes over their heads? When I don’t put the time or thought into making my preaching of God’s Word clear and simple for all, the sad result is that people walk away without understanding as they might. Should I be surprised (granting also other factors) when guests don’t return? When people don’t invite? When teens don’t come?

Am I a simple preacher? Are you? I don’t know how you preach. But I do know me, and I could benefit from thinking more about preaching simply and clearly for all of God’s people. I have to admit that on the same evening when I read Luther’s quote above about sixteen-year-old girls understanding his sermons, I had just preached a sermon with two sixteen-year-old girls in the front pew. My sermon that night wasn’t written for them—at all! It was written for the mature adults behind them. It’s one thing for our listeners to walk out of church and say, “I didn’t like it.” Like or dislike is often beyond my control. It’s a whole different thing for our hearers to walk out of church and say, “I didn’t get it.” That’s crushing. God’s Word is meant to be understood. I just want you to ask yourself: Do I preach God’s Word simply and clearly so that everyone can understand, or are my sermons geared for the mature Christians I expect to see in my pews?

Luther took great pains to preach simply, but simple preaching wasn’t Luther’s idea. He picked it up from Jesus. “Christ could have taught in a profound way but he wished to deliver his message with the utmost simplicity in order that the common people might understand” (AE 54:383). “In my preaching I take pains to treat a verse, to stick to it, and so to instruct the people that they can say, ‘That’s what the sermon was about.’ When Christ preached he proceeded quickly to a parable and spoke about sheep, shepherds, wolves, vineyards, fig trees, seeds, fields, plowing. The poor lay people were able to comprehend these things” (AE 54:160). Luther saw in Jesus a purposefully simple preaching so that the commonest people could understand.

The Gospels are filled with the simple preaching of Jesus. Think of the short, clear illustrations that peppered Jesus’ teaching: “You are salt” (Matthew 5:13). “You are light” (Matthew 5:14). “Look at the birds…” (Matthew 6:26). “See the flowers…” (Matthew 6:28). Even visual aids! Jesus’ “I am” statements in John are perfect examples. “I am the bread of life” (6:35). “I am the light of the world” (8:12). “I am the gate for the sheep” (10:7). “I am the good shepherd” (10:11). “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25). “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6). “I am the true vine” (15:1). Simple, clear truths for God’s people.

Jesus certainly didn’t ignore difficult topics, and he certainly didn’t dumb down God’s message, but he most certainly explained difficult concepts in simple, clear language. Jesus never delivered a doctrinal treatise on grace. Instead, he told the parable of the lost son. Jesus didn’t give us any essays on justification. Instead, he told a simple story about a Pharisee and a tax collector. As incomprehensible as the doctrine of the Trinity is, Jesus found the simplest ways to talk about his relationship with the Father, “Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him” (John 5:23). Whole books are written on the topic of neighboring. Jesus? The parable of the good Samaritan. Sanctification? Big topic! “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Simple explanation.

It’s not that doctrinal discourses are bad. We have them in the Bible, especially in the Epistles. When Jesus preached to people, however, he preached to them on their level. He preached clearly. He gave illustrations. He told helpful stories. He used visual aids. He took great pains to preach the deep truths of God’s Word in simple ways, because he wanted all people to be saved. Now let’s be clear: Not everybody loved Jesus. Not everybody got it. Some still walked away without understanding his teaching, including his parables. It took a special out-pouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost for even his own disciples to really catch on. His simple preaching style wasn’t a magic bullet. But Jesus went out of his way to make the message of salvation so clear and simple that even the smallest child can grasp it by faith. Simple preaching.

I can’t help but add how the apostle Paul talks about his preaching in his letters. Note these statements:

“For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:2-5 NIV).

“Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:1-2 NIV).

“I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Corinthians 14:18-19 NIV).

A Christian preacher’s goal is to set forth the truth plainly, using understandable words, so that every hearer’s heart can be pointed straight to Jesus Christ and him crucified.

I hope you’re willing to grow with me in simple preaching. Let’s start with this: Whom do we have in mind when we write our sermons? Think about that. It really matters! Here’s whom Luther had in mind: “I will not consider Drs. Pomeranus, Jonas, and Philipp while I am preaching; for they know what I am presenting better than I do. Nor do I preach to them, but to my little Hans and Elizabeth…. Therefore see to it that you preach purely and simply and have regard for the unlearned people, and do not address only one or the other” (What Luther Says, § 3610; see also Lockwood’s CPH commentary on 1 Corinthians 14:19). I have to admit that sometimes I have only mature Christians in mind when I write sermons. Is it any surprise when it’s mostly mature Christians who attend? One neighboring pastor told me he often thinks of a 19-year-old, fresh out of high school. Another pastor thinks of his soccer teammates who have no connection to a church.

Here’s another evaluation tool: Did you know that Microsoft Word will tell you what reading level you’ve written for? It’s a rather impersonal but helpful gauge of how simple your sermon might be. In Word, go to “File,” then “Options,” then “Proofing,” then make sure the box “Show Readability Statistics” is checked. Then exit the file menu and run a spelling and grammar check of your document. Ignore all the suggestions, and a little box will show up at the end with your readability score. My last four sermons have averaged a 3.5 on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level scale. What about yours? In comparison, this Preach the Word article registers a 7.0 on that same scale. I hope it makes sense to use bigger words and longer sentences when writing to pastors than when preaching to a congregation.

Microsoft Word will tell you what reading level you’ve written for.

Finally, practice simple speaking and writing, and then ask for feedback from others. Over the past six months, I’ve been writing short devotions three or four times a week. Writing simple, clear devotional thoughts on God’s Word has helped me write simple, clear thoughts in my sermons. I’ve also begun posting my sermons and devotions on a blog—upsidedownsavior.home.blog. Feel free to check it out and share your feedback with me. Then find a way to get feedback on your own writing and preaching. Whom can you trust to tell you the truth about your sermons?

Whom can you trust to tell you the truth about your sermons?

This advice about preaching has always stuck in my head: Know God’s Word. Know God’s people. Know how to get God’s Word to God’s people. Simple—but so hard! When people hear God’s Word in our churches, I hope they go home and say, “That was written for me.” Because it was! God’s Word—every part of it—wasn’t written just for doctors and theologians, it was written for milkmaids—and for you and me. Jesus took great pains to communicate God’s life-saving Word simply and clearly to us. May God use our simple preaching of his Word to point people—all people!—to Jesus and his cross. Because that cross was meant for every one of us.

Here’s a preview of what’s coming in this series: We’ll consider the curse—and blessing—of knowledge. We’ll tackle the challenge of biblical illiteracy in our society and how it affects our preaching. We’ll look at some practical sermon-writing suggestions like having a strong central theme and a clear outline. Please share your comments and suggestions on simple preaching with me at nass.nathan@gmail.com.

May Jesus bless you as you set forth his truth plainly!

Written by Nathan Nass


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Audio, Acoustics, and Video in the Worship Setting – Part 1

Audio, Acoustics, and Video in the Worship Setting

Part 1: Acoustics

Our company is a design consulting firm. We design audio, video, and acoustic systems primarily for liturgical churches—Lutheran, Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, etc. With 30-plus years of experience, we have worked with many situations both in new construction and in existing buildings.

In this series of articles we will explore room acoustics along with sound and video systems, noting how these elements are inseparable. To accomplish the goal of clearly communicating the Word at worship, these elements must work together. We will give tips and pointers about things to look out for, to take caution against, and things to pursue in the quest for developing the best spaces possible for worship. Finally, we will look at operating system “gotchas.” We will investigate problems like bad audio quality from a video, audio feedback, unclear or washed-out video images on a projection screen.

Sound and acoustics are inseparable.

Everything we discuss—design concepts and operational things alike—is based on the laws of physics. These laws provide the foundation for everything we do in system design and operation. We must follow them. After all, the good Lord gave them to us, so it’s our responsibility to work with them and not try to get around them!

As happens far too often, we get the call from a congregation needing a “fix” for a bad situation. The issues vary: poor speech clarity, feedback issues, “hot” and “dead” spots from the sound system, poor video images, poor sound quality from a video. The issue might be unfulfilled needs from when the current system was installed or when the building was constructed, or something more sinister.

A common misconception is that a problem is isolated and that a simple inexpensive “fix” like a new microphone is the solution. Sometimes that is the case. Unfortunately, in many cases the solution is not so simple or inexpensive. Allow me to tell a story, a true story. We’ll use this story as a backdrop to talk about how sound and acoustics are inseparable, how they must work together for a successful worship space.

In many cases the solution is not so simple or inexpensive.

Case Study

We were called to a church several years ago to solve issues with the sound system. It was a good-sized congregation and worship space. The building was five years old at the time. The premise was that they needed help with their sound system. There were some feedback issues, and worshipers could not always hear clearly. The committee felt that if we retuned the system and possibly provided some help with using the microphones, the problem would be solved.

When we arrived at the church, we found that the issues ran much deeper than just retuning the sound system. When the building was constructed, the congregation declined the recommendations made by a reputable acoustic engineer. They took the lowest sound system bid and required that speakers be either completely recessed or as invisible as possible.

At first glance the space was very bright and inviting. Loudspeakers were tucked into inconspicuous cavities. But reality was extremely unfortunate. The congregation was worshiping in a literal echo chamber. Coverage from the speakers was blocked by the sides of the cavities that made them so inconspicuous. Air handling system noise was loud enough to require one to shout to be heard. Feedback was common. The spoken word echoed like a bad surround sound system. Vocal solos sounded awful—though not the fault of the soloist!

Members were leaving the congregation. What was the purpose for coming to worship if one could not hear the pastor or a soloist because of feedback, echoes, and poor speaker coverage?

This congregation thought they had two simple issues to resolve. In reality those “simple issues”—feedback and lack of clarity—required a major rework of both room acoustics and sound system. No sound system was going to work with a room “misbehaving” as badly as that one. And the sound system was poorly laid out. When we visited the church for evaluation and testing, we stayed for weekend worship. People came out of the services asking hopefully if we could help them. “Can this be fixed?” they asked. It was an expensive “fix,” but after two years of planning and implementing sound and acoustic renovations, we heard members exclaiming on our return visit, “We finally have a church!”

It is surprising how often this sort of scenario plays out. It is equally surprising how many building committee meetings I have sat through where the committee has spent an hour or more discussing the paint color or the light fixtures for the narthex but only a few minutes about what in my opinion should be the overriding priority in the church: How are we going to effectively and clearly communicate the Word at worship? I understand that we want our worship spaces to look the best they can in honor of our Lord. But don’t we want people to hear clearly when they come to worship?

The question seems simple enough. But whether discussing a new building project or seeking solutions for an existing one, the answer is multifaceted. And it takes time, effort, and talking to the right people to answer questions properly. There is cost involved, but the key is spending money once on getting sound and acoustics right as opposed to spending money two or three times in search of a “fix” for unwise decisions of the past.

Let’s dissect what happened in this church: the “bad stuff,” the causes, and solutions to fix the “bad stuff.” The laws of physics will be intertwined in the discussion as we travel from a really bad situation to a much improved one. As we proceed, you may be reminded of or discover a similar situation in your own church.

As stated earlier, this church in appearance was inviting. Light yellow color splashes the walls. The space is open; it does not feel “closed in.” A cruciform shape with chancel platform at the cross-section lends itself to a closer view of the clergy.

Acoustically, the space should be conducive to sound/tone projection from front to back. The ceiling is peaked and open, which should further aid tone projection. Floor and walls are hard-surfaced. Pews have a thin cushion on the seat only, which has the potential of providing some acoustic balance between room empty and room occupied.

The hard surfaces are indeed desirable, especially for conducting liturgical worship with a need for speech clarity along with pleasing choral and organ music. But in order for that music to come alive so that the worshipers can understand song text and clergy sermon, there are several principles to follow.

Design Principles

One principle is that the hard surfaces on the side walls must be “diffusive.” That means the surface needs to be broken up, or uneven: slanted surfaces in varying degrees, wood slats up to four or six inches deep, or uneven brick. All of these will break up the sound waves that hit those surfaces and alleviate the “flutter” or echo from side to side in the space. Doing this will not reduce reverberation, but it will make the reverberation more pleasing.

A second principle is that the rear wall surfaces must either be diffusive or even somewhat absorptive. The rear wall can be a staunch enemy of spoken word clarity and musical quality if left untouched. Sound that hits this wall will “slap” back into the nave, creating a distinct echo for speech and a “smear” effect with music. Treating the rear wall will prevent that “slap” from occurring and will make the entire listening experience better.

A third principle is that some absorptive element in the space is necessary. The amount and placement depend on the room size and shape. But the objectives are to a) create an environment that “comes alive” for music while also allowing for articulate speech sound, and b) create an environment that is acoustically consistent between unoccupied and occupied—for example, a small wedding or a full Easter festival service. Pew cushions (seat only) will help, and sometimes absorption on wall surfaces is necessary. Acoustic plaster or fabric wrapped or other absorptive core panels are examples.

However, in this church, the walls are smooth and parallel; sound waves that hit them bounce back and forth unhindered. The rear walls—central nave and transepts alike—are tall, hard, and smooth. Consequently, sound waves that hit these surfaces bounce back to create a distinct echo in the worshipers’ ears. There is not enough absorptive property to the pew cushions to make them effective. The end result was a worship space that acted just like an empty gymnasium, with measured reverberation in excess of 3.5 seconds and sound echoing and “slapping” with no mechanism in place to dissipate the sound.

And the choir and soloists? They are located in a transept, arranged to sing directly into the opposite transept wall. There is no direct path for their sound to travel into the central nave, so they must be supported by the sound system.

Another principle to follow in worship space design is to keep the HVAC system as quiet as possible. HVAC noise has several sources: rumble caused by vibrating duct work, the hissing sound created by air trying to move through spaces in grates that are too small, blower fans moving too fast for what is needed in the space. The goal is to produce no more than about 50 decibels (dB) of ambient (background) noise in the space. This level is less than average normal conversation, which is usually measured at about 70-75 dB.

The HVAC system in this particular congregation hit a home run in the wrong direction. Shortcuts were taken with duct work that was not insulated well. Vent openings were much too small to allow air to pass through quietly, and blowers were much too strong. The result was rumble, hiss, and whistles that added up to over 70 dB of ambient noise.

When this church building was designed, the architect enlisted the aid of a good acoustician to recommend solutions to create a good acoustic space, solutions that would follow the principles listed above. The desire was for a worship space that would come alive for music but also deliver good speech intelligibility without too much ambient noise, aided by a well-designed sound system.

Such a sound system would feature loudspeakers of a size and type to aim the sound into the pews without allowing too much sound to reflect off walls and ceiling, especially rear walls. It would need to support the clergy clearly and support the choir without the obvious perception that they were being mic’d. And since the choir needed to be mic’d, the system would need to be designed so that some speakers—those that face the choir so they can hear the liturgy—would be shut off when the choir sings.

Besides these functional needs, principles in good sound design need to be followed. First, speakers need to be seen in order to be heard. We can’t “bend” sound around objects and walls on the way to the listeners’ ears; we need a direct path.

Second, to have the best chance at delivering good intelligibility, the sound system must be driven at a level at least 20 dB above the ambient noise level. For example, if we reach the goal of 50 dB ambient noise level in the space, then the sound system must be driven to a minimum 70 dB.

Third, the speakers need to be located as much as possible between the listener and the talker—in this case the clergy in the chancel. This helps the listener to associate the source of sound with the source of action. If the speakers are too far to the sides or are facing in from the rear, then more echoes like a poor surround sound system are created, and intelligibility is damaged.

Did the church get a good sound system? No. Many of the feedback issues we were asked to address were the result of the choir “singing to itself” because the speakers were playing directly into the choir microphones. Other feedback issues were the result of trying to overcome HVAC noise and a large cupola over the altar that reflected sound back down to the chancel and into microphones. They tried to turn up the sound system level, but the needed level was 90 dB or more. The space acoustically could not handle that level, and neither can the worshipers’ ears since this sound level is like a loud home stereo or a small bar band.

In an attempt to conceal the loudspeakers, cavities were constructed to house them. The cavities were small enough that much of the sound from the loudspeakers was blocked by the cavity walls. And the sound that did get out from the cavities was aimed mostly at the walls as opposed to projecting directly toward the pews. In short, the coverage was poor, echoes were abundant, and feedback was prevalent.

Well, all righty! This was quite a mess! How did we get from “can we fix this?” to “we have a church again!”? Let’s walk through the solutions.

Solutions

HVAC Noise. Without a major building renovation, we could not do anything with the HVAC system since duct work was underground and/or concealed in walls and with grates built into floors. The church’s working solution was and is to heat or cool the room before worship and then shut down the blowers at least during the sermon or for longer depending on room temperature fluctuation. This flawed HVAC system is a strong testimony to achieving a good design in new construction!

Room Structure and Acoustics. The walls were built. We could not change their shape. But we could add things to make them uneven. Again, the principle is to have uneven surfaces and some absorption to avoid the “flutter” between side walls and the “slap” from the rear wall.

It is also critical that, whether new construction or a retrofit, we preserve the aesthetic value of the worship space. We do not want anything looking like an afterthought. With that in mind, the congregation enlisted the aid of the building architect to turn the “fixes” into architectural elements in the space.

We added wood panels with slats perpendicular to the nave and transept wall surfaces to provide the diffusive element. This helped break up “flutter” which had been an issue even 85 feet between the transept end walls. We also added fabric wrapped absorptive panels to the nave rear walls and to the side walls to knock down the “slap.” We added absorption inside the large cupola located above the altar to break up and absorb the sound that was echoing down from above and causing more feedback.

Sound System. Our next article will go into detail regarding sound system applications (microphones, loudspeakers, and such). But I summarize here by saying that new, more articulate microphones were utilized for clergy and choir. And new loudspeakers were deployed—still low profile but outside the cavities and with better ability to aim the sound directly to the pews. And the speakers were split into zones so that the choir is no longer “singing to itself.”

The end result was a “new” church. Reverberation was reduced somewhat to alleviate the “smear” that damaged musical sound; yet the space still was very much “alive” for choir and organ music. “Slap” and “flutter” were nearly completely eliminated. Now the worshipers’ ears could hear as the Lord intended: receive and process a syllable once, then bring in the next syllable with no echo. The sound system was now feedback-free and sounded natural and clear for every worshiper.

It pays to get it right the first time!

This story is no fairy tale, but there is a moral: When looking at church acoustics and sound, it pays to get it right the first time! Take the time to plan for the right combination of wall shapes and diffusive and absorptive surfaces. Get the sound system right. Budget the funds to make it happen, including bringing the professionals on board who can do the complex design work. When you add in all the work you put into light fixtures, paint color, and wood finishes, the end result will be a worship space that “is a church!”

Next up: the sound system. What is sound? How do I get it right? What are the “gotchas”?

Written by David Hosbach

David Hosbach is President of DSH Audio Visions LLC, Milwaukee, WI. A 1983 graduate of Dr. Martin Luther College, his clients include: the Chapel of the Christ, MLC, New Ulm, MN; Peace Lutheran Church, Hartford, WI (WELS); the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Mobile, AL; and hundreds of parish worship spaces of all sizes. For more information visit www.dshaudiovisions.com.


 

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Wisdom from Wittenberg – Part 2

Wisdom from Wittenberg – Part 2

Martin Luther’s Pastoral and Practical Revisions of Worship


Creativity is careful to honor the arts.

Though Luther considered Karlstadt’s experiments to be troubling (see part 1), he realized that they weren’t unique. By 1524, worship experiments were underway all over Germany, many initiated by reformers who were becoming increasingly estranged from Luther in the wake of Karlstadt. In Allstedt, Thomas Müntzer—in addition to propagating Anabaptism—was composing a vernacular service1 and vernacular translations of ancient hymns. Nearer-by in Zwickau, Nicolas Hausmann, the very pastor to whom Luther had dedicated the Formula Missae, sent Luther in 1525 some new German masses for critique.2

Luther felt that they all suffered from the same problem: the old tunes didn’t fit the translated texts.3 While pragmatic, these mass experiments lacked artistry. While aiming at re-formation of the service, they were nothing more than “loosely connected amalgams of prayer, preaching, and singing.”4

Luther’s solution, a German service for Wittenberg, aimed for a higher standard. To achieve this, he enlisted professional help. In October of 1525 as the Deutsche Messe texts and tunes were nearing completion, Luther requested the Elector to dispatch court composer Conrad Rupsch and his protégé Johann Walter to collaborate with him. For three weeks, they scrutinized texts and tunes.5 By mid-November, completed drafts were sent to Torgau for electoral approval. The texts were clean, the notes well-matched and well-tuned. Whether or not he intended it, Luther was putting church musicians on notice: if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.

Luther also put preachers on notice. “I think that if we had a German postil (a biblical commentary in sermon-form) for the entire year, it would be best to appoint the sermon for the day to be read entirely or in part out of the book—and not just for the benefit of those preachers who can do nothing better. …otherwise we will reach the point where everyone will preach his own ideas and instead of the Gospel we will have more sermons about ‘blue ducks.’”6

Luther’s critique can seem confusing until we realize the sad state of preaching in and around Wittenberg. Preachers were either so clumsy in explaining a text or so eager to offer their own ideas that sermons spun off into nonsense. Luther’s sharp critique boils down to this: those who can’t appreciate the art of preaching ought to read and imitate someone who can.

Luther’s expectation for excellence in artistic craft appeared throughout the Deutsche Messe and its accompanying resources. When he translated ancient prayers,7 he did so in ways that recognized and appreciated their ancient form. When he enlisted the most respected poets to translate old hymn texts and compose new ones,8 he expected clear and elegant language. When he commended pastors to chant the lessons, he gave them specific instructions to ensure it was done well.

Why was Luther so adamant about art forms? The preaching problem is illustrative. When a preacher bungles a text or, worse, ruminates on something foreign to the text, what is happening to the gospel message? When a poet bruises the language or a composer mis-matches the tune, a disservice to the gospel is taking place. Luther’s concern for the arts in worship is not art for art’s sake. “In Luther’s view, music in the church functions as viva vox evangelii.” How do music and art carry out this task? “By faithfully reflecting in its own terms the honesty, integrity, truthfulness, and winsomeness of the gospel.”9 Luther’s pastoral heart expected any tool used to express the gospel to be expertly handled and any tune accompanying the gospel to be expertly crafted.

Luther’s passion for the arts is an extension of his foundational principle. Once the creative arts have been placed into the service of the gospel, it follows that our creative impulses would also be placed into the service of the arts. Luther was acquainted with prominent musicians who were working to define and explore new musical techniques and innovations. Luther’s humanist contemporaries used the term ars (“art”) to describe the rules and techniques that could be taught and learned, and the term ingenium (“genius”) to describe the musician’s original and creative impulses. Both concepts are not only important to music, but required.“Ars without ingenium is insufficient, and ingenium alone is despicable, since it places itself above all musical order.”10 There are thus two temptations to avoid: the first, to basically reproduce artforms with no passion or creativity; the second, to simply ‘do our own thing,’ preferring our own genius rather than realizing the rules and working within the limits of the art.

Luther might unleash his good-natured wit on us against these two temptations: “Your passion for the past is commendable. And your plan to preach like I preach is well-intentioned. But art without genius won’t do!” Alternatively: “Your genius is a gift of God. Your next sermon series might be a creative gem. And your new ideas for adapting a service may be great. But have you taken the time to appreciate the form of art that you are improving or replacing? Or are you simply offering an “ape-like imitation?”11

Luther’s carefully crafted service is a reminder that the pursuit of excellence through artistic standard and craft leads each individual (preacher, player, planner, and more) to appreciate their role as a steward of God’s creative gifts and to acknowledge that God has blessed us with far more than our own cherished “tavern tunes,” “tin whistles”12 and “blue ducks.”

Creativity is careful to serve the community.

Hausmann’s letter to Luther wasn’t the last request for Luther’s pastoral advice. Luther became aware of a troubling situation in far-off Livonia (present-day Estonia). This time, it had nothing to with artistic integrity. A new fanatical preacher, Melchior Hoffmann, was causing the same kind of upheaval that Karlstadt had started in Wittenberg three years earlier. Hoffmann was soon toe-to-toe with the disgruntled church council who sent him to Wittenberg for advice from Luther. They also sent a letter to Luther asking, in effect: “Tell us what we should do!”

We can only speculate about what they expected to hear. On the one hand, Luther could have prescribed a precise format of what was appropriate and what not.13 On the other hand, Luther could allow every congregation to determine its own way,14 based on the consensus of the pastor, the council, and the people.

But Luther offered neither of those solutions. Instead, he wrote, “I pray all of you, my dear sirs, let each one surrender his own opinions and get together in a friendly way and come to a common decision about these external matters, so that there will be one uniform practice throughout your district instead of  disorder—one thing being done here and another there—lest the common people get confused and discouraged.”15 In other words, ‘do what seems best to you; but please, do it together with your fellow churches.’

Luther offered pastoral latitude within limits.

This thread of regionally-determined liturgical unity rather than congregational independence is woven into the fabric of the Deutsche Messe. “I do not propose that all of Germany should uniformly follow our Wittenberg order…. But it would be well if the service in every principality would be held in the same manner and if the order observed in a given city would also be followed by the surrounding towns and villages.”16 Luther then also offered pastoral latitude within limits: “It shall be understood that such communion, hymns, readings, and preaching are under the responsibility of the pastor, and may be increased or reduced according to the circumstances of the day.”17 Pastors were free to make various choices within a liturgical framework shared among churches in the district.

Luther was defending pastoral and congregational freedom while at the same time advocating that the freedom of a particular pastor or congregation be limited by love which serves their neighbor. The freedom of the individual submits in love to the needs of the neighbor. In this way, congregations would avoid falling into the ditch of legalism while at the same time avoiding the ditch of faddism or creativity-run-amok.

So much for the principle. But how could such a balance of freedom and love be struck, especially among German people known for their streak of independence?18 Luther’s practical solution was peer review. Anything newly created for worship should, as a matter of course, undergo careful scrutiny. Luther then offered as first specimens his own paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer and his exhortation to the Lord’s Supper. “[How] this paraphrase should be read, I leave to everyone’s judgment…. I would, however, like to ask that [it] follow a prescribed wording … for the sake of ordinary people. We cannot have it done one way today, and tomorrow another different way, letting everybody parade their talents and confuse people so that they can neither learn nor retain anything.”19

Luther’s practical solution was a peer review.

Incidentally, neither of Luther’s specimens would survive. In Wittenberg’s first church order (1533), neither idea was included. Pastors and people simply returned to the familiar patterns of the Lord’s Prayer and Preface.

Nevertheless, Luther’s practical principles took hold. Worship patterns were codified in church orders and the concept of regional unity cemented in the language of the Lutheran Confessions.20 It wasn’t until the 20th century that some Lutherans were taken up with the idea of “absolute congregational autonomy in all matters liturgical.”21

This article does not suggest or imagine that all the congregations of a 21st century synod adopt a uniform and identical worship practice. Nevertheless, we also cannot ignore how important it was to Luther and the Lutheran confessors that congregations work together in adopting and adapting worship patterns.

Perhaps we can be encouraged that the Livonian problem did resolve. In 1530, only five years after their letter to Luther, their neighbors in Riga (modern-day Latvia) wrote: “So far as is possible and helpful to our people, we may agree not only with the people here in Livonia, but also with our neighbors and other states in the German lands in which the Gospel of Christ is also proclaimed clearly and richly—especially in the principal matters pertaining to outward divine service or ceremonies.”22

Creativity is careful to serve the congregation.

As the busy year of 1525 closed, Luther had nearly completed his worship revision project. The gospel had been carefully taught and translated in words and actions. The tunes had been professionally assessed. But would the Wittenbergers sing? Luther, the pastoral pragmatist, had already worked to ensure that it could be done.

Luther was a musical theologian. He received musical training from a young age, long before he entered the monastery. At the same time that he was learning the Latin chants in school, Luther was learning German folk tunes from his copper-mining father Hans and his mother Grete. He reports that during his early years “his father would relax with a beer and break out into song.”23

This pattern continued in Luther’s own family life. In a famous scene by Gustav Spangenberg, Luther is strumming away, teaching songs to his children from a printed manuscript. Since Spangenberg’s painting is from 1875, some dismiss it as unrealistically idyllic. But this activity would have been common in the Luther household.

Also interesting is the person glancing over Katie’s shoulder. Philip Melancthon was a frequent guest in Luther’s home. But why is he featured in this painting? In my estimation, Spangenberg was portraying an idyll of Lutheran musical pedagogy. Melancthon, the praeceptor Germaniae, represents the idea of Christian education. If the Reformation would endure, it would require musically trained theologians and theologically trained musicians.24

Lower altar panel at St. Mary’s – Lucas Cranach the Younger

How Luther implemented this musical training in Wittenberg isn’t as clear as we might like it to be. One hint comes from another allegorical image from 1547 by Luther’s colleague Lucas Cranach the Younger.

We see the gospel of Jesus at the center, Luther in the pulpit, and the people gathered to listen, pray, and presumably, sing. We notice that men and women are separated into groups (as Luther advised for the communion distribution), but we also notice a congregation of several generations worshiping together. We don’t see a choir, even though we know they used one. How much did the congregation sing? How much did the choir sing? What did a service in 1527 sound like? These questions will remain under debate.25 But if we step back and listen, some key notes emerge.

Luther oversaw publication of a congregational hymnal in Wittenberg. Though the earliest known copy is dated to 1526, evidence suggests that the laity had hymnals in their hands—an Enchiridion—as early as 1524.26

Luther also invited Johann Walter to compose three- to five-part concerted settings of the same hymns listed in the Enchiridion. This Geystliche Gesangk-Buchleyn was also published in 1524.

Luther relied heavily on the scholia (school choir) for modeling the new texts and tunes to the congregation. Students trained in singing during the week were placed centrally among the congregation when the hymn was sung.

With this information, we realize that the two scenes above complement one another while providing a clear picture of how pastor and people worked together in the instruction of hymnody, liturgy, and song—to grow in faith. “For this, one must read, sing, preach, write, and compose. And if it would help matters along, I would have all the bells pealing, and all the organs playing, and have everything ring that can make a sound.”27

The enduring importance of careful creativity.

Ten years after his famous walk to the Castle Church door, the brilliant professor, no longer a bachelor, sat up late one night to compose another document—not to an archbishop but to a good friend. Instead of venting about indulgences, Luther laments medical needs.

“My dear Amsdorf: A hospital has started up in my house. I am very fearful for my Katy, who is close to delivering, for my little Hans has also been sick for three days now and is not eating anything and is doing poorly; they say he’s teething, but they also believe that both are at very high risk.”

The letter to Amsdorf wouldn’t cause the stir of the 95 Theses. The letter’s lasting significance is found only in Luther’s closing salutation: “Written at Wittenberg on the Day of All Saints, in the tenth year after the indulgences had been trampled underfoot, in memory of which we are drinking [Wittenberg beer] at this hour.”28 The date was Tuesday, November 1, 1527. Had it been Sunday or Wednesday, Luther might have been leading worship. Had it been Friday or Saturday, he might have been preparing a sermon or hearing confession. But Luther was commemorating All Saints’ Day with Gemütlichkeit.

Luther provided a pastoral and practical manual for careful creativity.

How much had changed in the previous decade? One need look no further than the All Saints’ Church. The thousands of meaningless private masses had been abolished by the end of 1521. The ten aisles of relics had been removed by 1522. By 1524, the people who had once only stopped to look were now starting to stay and sing, with forms and hymns that they could understand. The results, of course, would be seen and heard far beyond Wittenberg.

Did the brilliant professor realize what he was doing? In 1523, Luther began by revising an old order of service for the sake of the gospel. In 1526, he advised a new order of service for the sake of the gospel. But far from a mere ‘alternative service’ Luther provided a pastoral and practical manual for careful creativity. The wisdom and principles evident in his approach continue to guide pastors and worship planners today.

Written by Mark Tiefel

 


The picture in the heading is “Luther Making Music in the Circle of his Family” by Gustav Spangenberg.


For full citation information for some notes, see part 1 of this article.

1“Deutsch Evangelisch Messze.” Cf. Leaver, Sings, 84-88.
2 The story is explained in Luther’s “An Exhortation to the Communicants,” LW 53:104.
3 “To translate the Latin text and the Latin tone or notes has my sanction, though it does not sound polished or well done. Both text and notes, accent and melody, and manner of rendering ought to grow out of the true mother tongue and its inflection, otherwise all of it becomes an imitation in the manner of apes.” “Against the Heavenly Prophets” LW 40:141.
4 Leaver, “Deutsche Messe,” 331.
5 The professionals didn’t feel Luther needed much help. Praetorius records a visit by Rupsch and Walter. “Herr Luther had composed the Sanctus in masterly fashion.” Schalk, Paradigms, 27.
6 Lange, Annotated Luther. Cf. LW 53:78
7 Cf. LW 53:127ff and LW 53:153ff
8 Cf. Luther’s Letter to Spalatin (end of 1523), LW 49:68-69, cited in Schalk, Paradigms, 26.
9 Schalk, Paradigms, 51
10 Hoelty-Nickel, Theodore. “Luther and Music” in Luther and Culture, Luther College Press. 1960, 147-148.
11 LW40:141, cited in Leaver, Sings, 86
12 This is not to say that a well-played Irish tin-whistle isn’t proper art! The reference is from Martin Franzmann, Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets, CPH, 1966/1994, 92 or 96. Cf. Aaron Christie, “Excellence for Christ in All Things,” Worship the Lord #42 (May, 2010).
13 Other reformers, such as John Calvin, would take this approach.
14 This path was advocated by Johannes Brenz. Cf. Elert, Structure, 333.
15 LW 53:47
16 AL 3:139, LW 53:63
17 For a fuller discussion of latitude and limits, cf. page 6 in Stephen Valleskey, “Lutheran Worship Reforms of the 1500s that We Can Still Use Today.” WELS South Central District, January, 2010.
18 “We Germans are a rough, rude, and reckless people, with whom it is hard to do anything, except in cases of dire need.” AL 3:142. What would Luther think of Americans?
19 AL 3:155; LW 53:80
20 By 1580, the pattern of uniform regional church practice had spread throughout Germany. “The confessors were willing to work out their issues of freedom and love for the sake of unity. They saw the exercise of ‘discretion’ … as completely in accord with the very confessions they penned and confessed. They went about exercising that discretion not only by defending it in the confessions, but through active efforts of visitation and through extensive publication of church orders.” Matthew Harrison, “Luther, The Confessions, and Confessors on Liturgical Freedom and Uniformity,” in Chemnitz’s Works, Volume 9: Church Order for Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel. Concordia, 2015, xv-xvi.
21 Harrison, xxi
22 Leaver, “Deutsche Messe,” 333-334
23 Leaver, Sings, 28
24 Cf. Hoelty-Nickel, 149
25 As they currently are. Joseph Herl’s Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism asserts that the choir played the major role, almost to the exclusion of the congregation. Robin Leaver makes the case for a singing laity. Cf. Luther’s Liturgical Music, Fortress, 2017, 209ff and especially Sings, 102ff.
26 Leaver provides an engaging narrative of its development in Sings, 106ff.
27 AL 3:140; LW 53:62
28 The second quote is referenced in Leaver, Church, 2. The first can be found in WA 4:4, #1162.

 


 

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Preach The Word – You Have to Do Something with This Jesus Character

Apologetics in Preaching

You Have to Do Something with This Jesus Character

God or bad man? This ancient dilemma has faced skeptics for centuries. If Jesus is not true God, then he is a liar for claiming divinity and therefore a bad man. C.S. Lewis made the dilemma famous as a “Trilemma: Liar, Lunatic, or Lord.” We will add one more and call it “The Four L’s: Legend, Liar, Lunatic, or Lord.” When we look at the evidence of Christ, only a few options emerge. Jesus of Nazareth is either a legend, liar, lunatic, or who he says he is, Lord Almighty.

The dilemma turned argument poses a striking challenge: You have to do something with this Jesus character. Ambivalence is not an option for the thinking human. It seems Jesus had this in mind when he said, “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters” (Lk 11:23). A reasonable and thoughtful person will have an opinion about Abraham Lincoln, Joseph Stalin, current politicians, and many other famous people. A man cannot expect to be taken seriously if he says, “Stalin? I don’t know. I guess I don’t have an opinion about him.” How much more for the man who has been written about more than any other person, Jesus of Nazareth?

The burden of proof is on the skeptic.

First, the argument. Can we come to a reasonable conclusion that Jesus is a legend? No respected historian believes that the carpenter’s Son did not exist. There is too much biblical and extra biblical evidence. He is not a myth. Of course, the claim that Jesus performed miracles and rose from the dead is another matter. These claims are bolstered by the historical reliability of the New Testament texts and the fact that the earliest Christians risked martyrdom for their belief in his divinity. We encountered these arguments in previous issues. The challenge to the skeptic is to make a decision, legend or not? If the skeptic comes down on the side of legend, then he must back this up with more than an a priori stance against the existence of a divine being. The burden of proof is on the skeptic when it comes to the most famous person in the history of the world.

Can we come to a reasonable conclusion that Jesus is a liar? We humans are experienced liars but we almost always have a selfish motive. So what is the motive? What did Jesus gain for his so-called deception? Did he gain power, revenge, sex, or money (the reasons why we humans lie)? He only gained death by crucifixion. My Old Adam will take a lie a long way but the gig is up when they bring out the cross and nails! Why would Jesus lie? Again the burden is on the skeptic to prove that Jesus lied. There is no plausible motive for such a deception.

Can we come to a reasonable conclusion that Jesus was a lunatic? We do not live in an era or place, thankfully, in which an accusation of insanity automatically gets a person institutionalized. The burden of proof is most definitely on the accuser in this case. Can we find evidence of a certain pathology in the writings about Christ? This is not an obscure topic. Albert Schweitzer famously wrote his doctoral thesis on the sanity of Jesus. Can we find any indication from the ancient texts that the man from Nazareth had a mental disorder besides the a priori insistence that there is no God and therefore Jesus is crazy for thinking he is divine? No credible case has been made for this conviction. There is no evidence that Jesus was a lunatic.

This leaves us with only one option left: Lord Almighty.

The argument is not without its critics1 but it still serves a valuable apologetic purpose. The argument places an intellectual decision before the skeptic without making it a spiritual decision (decision theology). The skeptic cannot simply brush aside Jesus of Nazareth so easily. He or she is forced to think through this rejection. Is it because I don’t want to believe it, or do I have solid intellectual reasons for disbelieving in the divinity of Christ?

The argument is also particularly valuable in today’s cultural climate which I would describe as heavily moralistic. Righteous indignation seems to be at an all-time high. It is less and less acceptable to be indifferent about any matter. Nor is it good enough to simply have an opinion. Your righteous indignation, if it is to be taken seriously, must be active. We are tripping over ourselves to be more righteous than the next person. From straws to balloons to black lives matter to blue lives matter to all lives matter, we are activists in constant search for a cause. The higher moral ground is not a place of humility but a place of pride, and the race to get there first is fiercely competitive.2

The Four L’s are not the end of the conversation but only the beginning.

Here we find an apologetic opportunity to push the issue. You have to do something with this Jesus character. It deserves some thought. It deserves an open-mind. You cannot be indifferent. I do believe that there will be a time, if not already here, when we will get tired of these attempts at self-righteousness. It’s exhausting. I am sure the warriors will still fight but there will be (and are) better angels who yearn for a more thoughtful political discourse and robust discussion of religion, philosophy, and culture. The Four L’s are a good place to start a conversation. It’s not the end of the conversation but only the beginning. The goal is to have thoughtful conversation about the real Jesus and let the Spirit do his work.

There is a uniqueness about this particular moment, as there is about every particular historical moment. There is a strong desire for authenticity, thoughtfulness, and moral understanding as we emerge from the plastic, often shallow, and material-driven era of late modernity. Along with this comes a heightened awareness of the past, diversity, and the connection between the physical and the spiritual. Who are we? Where did we come from? Is the body all there is? How should we act? These are, of course, the same questions we have always asked. The difference is that we now live with the unfilled promise of modern progress.

We cannot escape the big questions of life. But why is that the case? Why are we not indifferent about the environmental impact of straws or human trafficking? Could it be that we are something different than just the material? We are not just a pile of molecules arranged differently than the soil. We are alive. But, then again, so are plants. We are different. We are aware of our surroundings and interact with the world in a more sophisticated way than the dandelion. But so do the animals. Yet we are different than the animals too, aren’t we? We are self-aware. We interact with language on a higher level. We strive for something more than squirreling away nuts for the winter. We seek beauty, morality, and progress. We are often overcome with a sense of wonderment. We also seek justification, that is, we desire value. We want our existence and our actions justified. We want to be just, right, righteous. Who doesn’t want to be seen as valuable, just, and right? We are, in short, created in the image of God, though damaged by the Fall. We know that we are important. Yet the greatest distinction is found in Christ. God became one of us to redeem us. This is what ultimately separates us from the dirt, dandelions, and squirrels.

We are right to push the skeptic’s worldview to its ultimate conclusions.

We are also confessors. We have opinions, right and wrong. We speak our minds, wisely and foolishly. As apologists we are right to force the issue: So what do you say about this? We are right to push the skeptic’s worldview to its ultimate conclusions. Can a material only view really explain the love I have for my children or the wonderment I feel looking up into the night sky or the rush I experience when I discover something new or accomplish a seemingly impossible task? Can a moral relativist justify her righteous anger towards the racist or the pedophile, let alone a capitalist economy? Can human rights survive in a worldview that sees no difference between a human and a chicken? The apologist is right to ask the skeptic, “What do you say?”

Have I inspired the people in the pews to be thinkers and confessors?

For the Christian preacher the question becomes this: Can I both present apologetical arguments such as the reliability of the New Testament texts and display the fullness of a Christian worldview? Can I offer something more than “Jesus, my friend” or “Jesus, my copilot?” Have I missed an opportunity to be profound? Have I missed an opportunity to have a real conversation about the real Jesus? Have I inspired the people in the pews to be thinkers and confessors? Can we send out evangelists (the people in the pews) armed with more than trite one-liners but with a deep understanding of the big questions? Can we send out confessors?

We see an example of Jesus asking a similar question of Peter in the readings for Pentecost 5 (July 14, 2019). In the Gospel for the day Jesus famously asks his apostle, “But what about you, who do you say I am?” (Lk 9:18-24). Zechariah speaks about the remnant which is refined in fire. God will declare, “They are my people” and the faithful will respond, “The Lord is our God” (Ze 13:7-9). God declares grace and his people confess. Our identity (the people of God) is made personal in baptism, a theme we encounter in the Second Reading (Ga 3:23-29). After Peter answers his Lord’s questions correctly, “The Christ of God,” Jesus explains who the Christ is and what he does: “The Son of Man must suffer many things.” This fits with the Psalm selection for the day, Psalm 22.

Here is an attempt to preach the good news of who Jesus is and arouse the listener to think deeply and, when called upon, confess Jesus as the Christ.

I think that there are as many Jesuses as there are people in the world. What I mean is this: Everybody has an opinion about Christ. There is a republican Jesus, a Marxist Jesus, a self-help Jesus, a life-coach Jesus, a moral crusader Jesus. You name it and you will find somebody who has that particular image of Jesus. Those images look remarkably like what the person wants Jesus to be. But Jesus is the ultimate iconoclast, breaking the image we have created of him.

Your Jesus often looks like he was made in your image instead of the other way around.

You too have an image of Jesus. You do. If you are honest, you will admit that this Jesus often looks like he was made in your image instead of the other way around. Such is the constant battle of being a sinner-saint. This is another reason to stay in the Scriptures. That’s where the real Jesus is revealed, shattering our images of him. And that’s a good thing because our image of God is only as good as our imaginations. I need a better God than that and so do you.

In the Gospel Reading we heard Jesus ask this question, “Who do people say I am?” The answer came from his disciples, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and still others, that one of the prophets long ago has come back to life.” All fine and reasonable answers, better than life-coach! But all those answers were incorrect.

Jesus then asked Peter, “But what about you?”

Peter got it right, “The Christ of God.”

Then Jesus explains Peter’s answer (I wonder if Peter’s answer was a catechism class answer, the right words but without full understanding). “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”

A God who dies? Not exactly the image Peter or anybody else had in mind. Jesus really is the ultimate iconoclast, shattering the image we have of the divine. He is the God on the cross displaying a love our imaginations could never invent. He is the Psalm 22 God of whom we just chanted moments ago. “I am a worm and not a man,” he says, carrying our sins in our place. “But you, O Lord, be not far off,” he cries in sure hope of his resurrection and ours.

So I challenge you today as Jesus did Peter, “Who do you say Jesus is?” Is he merely your personal guide in life? You know, the guy you rely on for advice. Or is he the eternal creator who made you and this world, the reason up is up and 1+1=2, the one who knew you before creation and has set up good deeds for you to accomplish until the day he takes your tired soul to an eternal Sabbath rest?

Is he simply a motivational speaker or is he the one you are crucified with in daily repentance and resurrected with so that every day is a new day for you, forgetting the past as you stare into eternal freedom?

Is he only your moral guide, an example to follow, or is he the God-man who comes crashing into our world with words of absolution and a heavenly meal as medicine for your sinful soul?

Is he the rabbi who only tells you how to live or the one who lives in your place? Is he only there for you when times are good or does he give you permission to enter the darkness as he lays a cross before you?

Now consider what your friends and acquaintances say about Jesus. Who does the world say Jesus is? And how about this question: who are you? Who are the people you meet? Are we simply a pile of material or are we souls created by God himself, people so valuable to him that he died for them? What does the world say about Jesus and about humanity? I bet it is different than what we find in Scripture. Can you help them? Can you confess?

Can you confess the real Jesus, the cross Jesus, the Psalm 22 Jesus, to these precious souls? It’s not always easy to shatter someone’s image, is it? But Christ will give you the faith and the words. He will. You will fail at times. That’s okay. Keep confessing. And for every failure there is refinement, whether you feel it or not. Did you hear God through the prophet Zechariah today? The shepherd is struck and the sheep scatter, but there remain those he refines in fire, those he tests like gold.

That’s you. “These are my people,” God says about you, “My people.” Here is your identity: baptized into Christ, clothed in his righteousness, justified, not by your own actions but by his. Declared valuable, made perfect, dearly loved. “My people,” he declares. You are his people. And his people confess. “Who do you say I am?” Jesus asks you. And the answer comes every week, “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.” This is who you are. This is who the refiner made you to be.

So, when the time is right you will be able to say, “Oh, no, my dear friend! Jesus is so much more than law giver, so much deeper than mere story, more real than myth, so much more important than teacher, friend, or guide, he is your everything. He is your beginning, your end, and everything in between. This is the Christ of God, lover of you, the sinner, giver of life to the dead, and consolation for the broken hearted. Oh, dear friend, here is Jesus, the Christ of God.”

Written by Michael Berg


1 Some objections are easily dispelled by someone with an average knowledge of the Gospels. One example is the claim that Jesus never thought of himself divine because he never claimed divinity. Other objections are more subtle. One example is that Jesus thought he was divine but that didn’t make him insane but rather a zealous Jew of his day. In this case a modern person can still appreciate his teachings without having to come to a conclusion that he is divine.
2 The tragedy of this situation is that legitimate causes are often obscured.


Books for Further Study:

The Psychiatric Study of Jesus: Exposition and Criticism by Albert Schweitzer
Tactics by Gregory Koukl
Prepared to Answer and More Prepared to Answer by Mark Paustian
Theologia et Apologia edited by Adam Francisco, Korey Mass, and Steven Mueller
Scientism and Secularism by JP Moreland
The Reason I Believe by Allen Quist
The Heresy of Orthodoxy by Andreas Köstenberger and Michael Kruger


 

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Wisdom from Wittenberg – Part 1

Wisdom from Wittenberg – Part 1

Martin Luther’s Pastoral and Practical Revisions of Worship


The story behind Luther’s creative worship

In the year 1517, The Feast of all Saints—November 1—just so happened to fall on a Sunday.1 The alignment of this date and the day of the week wouldn’t have escaped the notice of Christian worshipers. In fact, it would have amplified the din in town and city streets throughout Christendom. Across Europe, thousands of Christians would have thronged to the doors of their churches for what must have seemed like a Sunday morning, Christmas Day, and Memorial Day all rolled into one.

The scene in northern Germany would have been no different. But something different was about to happen, and it happened, in large part, due to a brilliant bachelor professor who, like the rest, would have been walking to and from worship on that particular Sunday morning. On All Saints Day, 1517, Martin Luther could not have imagined how much a document which he had written to his archbishop and posted publicly the night before was going to change his life and his congregation. So much, in fact, that now, even 500 years later, we are still celebrating the man and his moment at the church door.

Though we often tend to focus on the man and his moment, we rarely take the time to imagine what was actually happening on the other side of the door. In fact, it’s rather difficult to imagine. The style and pattern of worship inside the All Saints’ Church on that famous All Saints’ Day, 1517 would hardly be recognizable to us.

Perhaps some figures might be illustrative: In 1517, mass was celebrated 9,000 times at the Castle Church alone—a public or private mass offered every 53 minutes, without letup, for an entire year.2 40,000 candles were burned, consuming four tons of wax at a cost of $100,000. The prime attraction at All Saints Church was the collection of relics: 19,000 cataloged items neatly arranged in ten aisles.3

But the real heart of Wittenberg worship on All Saints Day was receiving the indulgence: walk through the door, say the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed, confess your sins to one of the dozen extra priests available, say a prayer for the pope. Once done, most people simply left once the priest had elevated the host. This was worship in Wittenberg under which the people were held captive to the careful control of the Catholic church and enslaved to the indulgence of the papacy. No one at the time could have known that the detailed document which Professor Luther had posted to the church door was about to change all of that.

The document that Luther had posted, 95 Theses, or A Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,4 was a breach in the dam. What flowed through that breach was Christian freedom. Throughout the five years that followed 1517, Luther began to experience for himself the unexpected effects of freedom. Sometime in 1518, Luther had a spiritual breakthrough in which the truth of the gospel finally set him free from the terrors of his conscience.5 By 1519, he was set free from his vows of monasticism. By 1520, he was publishing The Freedom of a Christian6 throughout Germany. And by 1521, Luther was finally called to defend that freedom before the Holy Roman Estates at Worms. Luther stood firm in his freedom, and the rest is history.

However, a breached dam often presents something of a problem. That problem was quickly experienced by the worshipers in Wittenberg. Luther’s associates in Wittenberg saw their new-found freedom as something to be experimented with. After Worms, Andreas Karlstadt concluded that since Rome had broken with the preacher of Wittenberg, it was time for the people of Wittenberg to return the favor. While Luther was away at the Wartburg, Karlstadt took over in Wittenberg and went on an “iconoclastic binge.”7 Worship services were flooded with new ideas and new forms. Suddenly, Germans who were used to Latin chants and prayers were hearing loud German phrases while receiving communion in both kinds from priests who wore no robes. None of them were sure why it was happening. It seemed the only reason was ‘because of Rome.’

Luther defended the gospel from the burst dam of freedom and creativity.

Throughout the five years that followed 1521, Luther would need to defend the gospel from the burst dam of freedom and creativity. Luther would respond from the Wittenberg pulpit in a way that was direct and abrupt.8 But he would also respond from his Wittenberg desk in a way that was subtle, quiet, and patient. Luther would find ways to change how communion was received. He would find a way to give the Wittenbergers a service of their own. But he would take his time in finding that way, and his approach would be pastoral and highly principled.

It would come about through a three-year-long worship project, begun in 1523 with an order of service meant to demonstrate how the mass could basically be used as is, save for a few critical changes. The project would reach its conclusion in 1526 with a second order of service, meant to show how worship life could be completely and creatively—but still pastorally and practically—adapted. These two documents, in which Luther recognized “something must be dared in the name of Christ,”9 would serve as two poles, each connected to the other, between which an ancient-future pattern of Christian worship would emerge.

Five hundred years later, the past is present. We worship in the land of the free. Innovation is addictive. Our creative impulses are rocket-fueled by communication technology. Often the question we hear isn’t “what can we change?” but “how much of this do we really have to keep in order to stay Lutheran?” We enjoy our liberty to tinker and experiment with worship. But perhaps Luther’s principled project can compel us to be careful with our creativity as we seek to adapt and shape the worship life of our congregations.

The remainder of this article and its part two companion will explore four aspects of Luther’s approach to creativity.

Creativity is careful to serve the gospel.

“The preaching and teaching of God’s Word must remain the most important.”10 This was Luther’s foundational worship principle. Everything he thought and did was not for himself, and not against Rome, but for the gospel. This is where Karlstadt had gone astray in 1522 and why his worship adjustments caused so much consternation. Karlstadt’s reforms were not initiated by or driven by an understanding of the gospel. This is what Luther addressed in the eight sermons that he preached following his sudden return to Wittenberg on Invocavit Sunday. Rather than allowing the gospel to do its subtle, quiet work through its various and familiar forms, Karlstadt sought to immediately renovate and redefine nearly every aspect of worship and preaching. His impatience, combined with a desire to liberate himself and the Wittenberg laity from the forms and patterns of Rome, drove him to a point where the gospel’s power was flouted in favor of his own fanatical enthusiasm.

Luther’s sermons were a call to faith, love, patience, and a renewed appreciation for the gospel principle: since God changes hearts through the power of the gospel, everything that we do—especially what we do in worship, and to an ultimate degree what we choose to add to or remove from worship—is done in the interest of conveying the gospel to people’s hearts. The Word must be allowed to do its subtle, quiet work. “We do nothing, the Word does everything.”11

The gospel principle did not lead Luther to the same conclusion that Karlstadt had reached. Wittenberg’s worship was free to change, but it was also free to be retained. In fact, much of the service ought to remain, owing to love for people and faith in the gospel. Much of the present order of service, after all, did preach the gospel, provided that it was heard in public (not just said in private) and provided that the clutter of indulgences was done away with. If the people were present, they would have heard sermons preached in their everyday language, just like we do. At the same time, they would have heard prayers not in everyday language, just like we do. The people knew what “Kyrie eleison” and “Credo” meant. Why alter them? Luther’s advice in 1523 but also in 1526 was to adhere to established patterns, since arbitrarily departing from them could be self-serving or Karlstadtian.

“We do not avoid the new but are careful to avoid novelty….”

In both services, the established pattern of liturgy was retained. Luther said, “This is necessary so that no sect arises from public worship as if I had devised this service out of my own head.”12 Luther’s subtle critique of Karlstadt and his motives deserves to be emphasized: “An order of liturgy is not simply to fulfill a personal need or plan or idea but must always serve the gospel.”13 On its surface, Karlstadt’s Wittenberg movement might seem driven by the desire for greater inclusion or clearer communication. But desires for better things ought to be checked carefully less like Karlstadt we charge ahead and miss our target. “Since we are rooted firmly in a rich tradition, we do not avoid the new but are careful to avoid novelty, eccentricity, or quixotic attempts at newness for its own sake.”14

On the other hand, perhaps Karlstadt had raised an interesting question. “If there are moments when the service isn’t clearly communicating the gospel, what do we do then?” To many, the Lord’s Prayer had become automatic. To many more, the mystery of the Lord’s Supper was just that—unintelligible. Here, Luther found ways to adapt. And Luther’s ‘way,’ as published in 1526, would be a form of worship catechesis.

The preface of the 1526 Deutsche Messe seems to be written by a man more interested in ‘a good catechism’15 than ‘a new service.’ In fact, when we look at the service, we recognize that the two interests are one and the same. “The preaching and teaching of God’s Word must remain the most important.”10 Where the Lord’s Prayer needs to be taught, teach it. Where the Lord’s Supper needs explanation, provide one. And so Luther did.

It is important to realize that Luther’s intention was primarily catechetical. Otherwise, there is a temptation to extract Luther’s statements from their context and then to force his ‘new service’ to serve modern ideas about what worship should be. Those ideas might sound like this:

  • “Such orders are needed for those who are still becoming Christians.”16 i.e. Luther was providing a new service that was more approachable to those new to the faith. This idea overlooks the fact that in Luther’s day, no one church shopped, adult baptisms were nearly unheard of, and every parishioner had been trained in the routines of church life almost since birth. It seems that in Luther’s mind, the service was about more than initiation.
  • “This service should be arranged for the sake of simple laypeople”17 i.e. Luther was adapting to the culture of the people in Wittenberg. Unless the service was translated into their language and idiom, they would be unable to hear and respond to the gospel. This idea might overlook the fact that Luther’s Latin service had been translated into German only a few weeks after it had been published and that people all over Germany were already worshiping in German. It seems that in Luther’s mind, the service was about more than language.
  • “Now there are three kinds of liturgies or Mass”18 i.e. Luther was willing to offer alternatives. A Latin service was preferred by some, a German service by others, another service by yet others. This idea might overlook the fact that Luther never drafted a third service. Nor did he object as the first two were merged.19 It seems that in Luther’s mind, the service was about more than preference.

Luther’s service was about more than initiation, language, or preference.

Rather than pitting these efforts against the other, Luther honored them all as expressions of catechesis. And he employed ancient and modern tools simultaneously in this effort. Luther sought to defend the gospel for a Christian culture which had a good knowledge of Christian tradition. To do this, he produced a Formula Missae which removed everything at odds with the gospel, while retaining everything that wasn’t. At the same time, he sought to declare the gospel to a “population becoming secularized and needing reintroduction to its Christian roots.”20 To do this, he produced a Deutsche Messe in which the truth of the gospel could still be ‘caught’ (as emphasized by the retained rituals21) and ‘taught’ (as emphasized by the added explanations).


Creativity in service of the gospel is the primary principle. Part two of this article will explore additional principles:

  • Creativity is careful to honor the arts
  • Creativity is careful to serve the community
  • Creativity is careful to serve the congregation

Written by Mark Tiefel

Pastor Tiefel serves at Emanuel, New London, WI. His service as a District Worship Coordinator has covered both the South Central and Northern Wisconsin Districts. He is general editor of a new edition of manuals for the WELS Hymnal Project.


Photo is of Weimar altarpiece, by Lucas Cranach the Younger, 1555. An analysis by Michael Zarling is at breadforbeggars.com. For another instructive image of early Lutheran worship, search for the 1561 altar panel from Torslunde Church. (Photo by Wolfgang Sauber, Wikimedia Commons.)


This article, part 1 of 2, is adapted from a presentation at the 2017 WELS national worship conference. Those interested may find additional information in a handout of the same title along with the worship folder for All Saints’ and recordings from that service at worship.welsrc.net/downloads-worship/worship-conference. Additional recordings are on the double CD “A Mighty Fortress” available from NPH.


1 Google, using the Gregorian Calendar, specifies Thursday. But prior to 1582, dates were determined according to the Julian Calendar. In that calendar, November 1 fell on a Sunday.
2 To say the Castle Church alone is tongue and cheek. The masses weren’t said constantly, but dozens were offered privately and simultaneously, often with no one else in attendance.
3 This is the scene described by Martin Brecht, Road to Reformation, 118.
4 LW 31:17-34
5 The date of this breakthrough is uncertain, but likely happened during the summer of 1518, while Luther was preparing his lectures on the Hebrews. Luther referred to it as a moment when “the gates of heaven were suddenly opened to me. Cf. Brecht, Road, 225.
6 LW 31:327ff
7 The phrase is coined by Frank Senn, page 275 in Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical. Fortress, 1997.
8 Many can remember the scene from the 1953 film: “How dare you lay hands upon the crucifix!”
9 The phrase is from Luther’s Preface to the Formula Missae. LW 53:19
10 AL (The Annotated Luther) 3:146, LW 53:68
11 LW 51:77
12 AL 3:142
13 Dirk Lange provides this note on the above quotation in AL 3:142 n.19
14 Schalk, Paradigms, 55
15 “Onward then in the name of God! First the German service needs a down-to-earth, plain, simple, and good catechism.” (AL 142)
16 AL 3:141
17 Ibid.
18 Ibid, 140.
19 Even during Luther’s lifetime, it was common for Latin and German settings of the same texts to be sung alongside one another.
20 Maschke, Timothy. Gathered Guests: A Guide to Worship in the Lutheran Church. Second Edition. Concordia, 2009, 155.
21 “The congregation assembled around the Word and the sacraments needs other forms than an individual needs when reading the Word or praying by himself. Unity demands the individual’s regard for the whole. Conversely, however, it also demands that the whole have regard for the individual. It demands regard for the ‘weak’—a demand, which in accordance with what Luther requires, is emphasized by many church rituals.” Elert, Werner. The Structure of Lutheranism. Tr. Walter Hansen. Concordia, 1962, 328-329


RECOMMENDED READING

For a fuller list, see Tiefel’s handout from the 2017 worship conference. The list below includes only newer or lesser known items.

Books:

Luther, Martin. “The German Mass and Order of the Liturgy, 1526.” Ed. Dirk G. Lange. The Annotated Luther. Volume 3: Church and Sacraments. Fortress, 2016.
Brecht, Martin. Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation (1483-1521). Tr. James Schaff. Fortress, 1985.
———. Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation (1521-1532). Tr. James Schaff. Fortress, 1990.
Leaver, Robin. The Whole Church Sings: Congregational Singing in Luther’s Wittenberg. Eerdmans, 2017.
Maag, Karen and John Witvliet. Worship in Medieval and Modern Europe: Change and Continuity in Religious Practice. University of Notre Dame, 2004.
Schalk, Carl. Luther on Music: Paradigms of Praise. Concordia, 1988.
———. Music in Early Lutheranism: Shaping the Tradition. Concordia Academic, 2001.
Zager, Daniel. The Gospel Preached Through Music: The Purpose and Practice of Lutheran Church Music. Good Shepherd Institute, 2013.

Articles and Essays:

Herl, Joseph. “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Liturgies: Insights from the Sixteenth through the Eighteenth Century” in: Thine the Amen: Essays on Lutheran Church Music in Honor of Carl Schalk. Lutheran University Press, 2005.
Koelpin, Arnold. “Luther Reforms the Mass.” Focus on Worship. Summer, 1989.
Leaver, Robin. “Luther and Bach, the ‘Deutsche Messe’ and the Music of Worship.” Lutheran Quarterly 15 (2001).


 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.


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Preach The Word – Not without Testimony

Apologetics in Preaching

Not without Testimony

We are not left without testimony (Ac 14:17). This is true in every aspect of life. Imagine waking up to a world without any knowledge passed down to you. No set language to imitate. No wisdom to ponder. No technologies invented. I am thankful that I didn’t have to learn, discover, or invent all the agricultural, mechanical, or technological advancements I take for granted every day. We are not left without testimony.

Nor are we left without theological testimony. Not even the Gentiles Paul encountered, whether in cosmopolitan Rome (Rm 1:20) or backwater Galatia (Ac 14:17), were left without testimony. Natural law is common to all. Every human has enough information to conclude that there is a something out there beyond this world. Paul therefore states that Gentiles are “without excuse” (Rm 1:20).

Paul based his conclusion on evidence that we might categorize as the classical arguments for the existence of God.1 Consider a form of the cosmological argument: All things are contingent; nothing pops into existence by itself but rather depends on something or someone else for its existence (e.g. the carpenter made the table from wood). Since the universe is the sum total of all contingent things, then the universe is contingent. This requires a necessary being outside the universe which caused the universe. The universe could not pop into existence by itself.2

The cosmological argument not only points to the existence of a noncontingent being, it also points to certain attributes of this being. This being would have to be a free agent and outside of time and space. If this being created the universe, it would also be powerful and intelligent. This being would also be a person (philosophically) which means it has consciousness and rationality.

Love is conspicuously absent in the classical arguments.

The classical arguments, although debated, are powerful. Yet they don’t bring the skeptic to Christ. They may point to the existence of a divine being but not the Christian God. Notice also that love is conspicuously absent in the classical arguments. The gospel is nowhere to be found. If we are left with only natural law, we are left with only law. We can only conclude that the “god” of nature seems angry and doesn’t discriminate between the good and the evil of humanity.

Thankfully, we are also not left without testimony about Christ. Testimony about the existence of God is evident with a use of reason, but gospel testimony is only revealed. And revelation means words. Whether spoken, written, signed, or pictured, these words are always preached.3 The truth of the gospel must be preached, that is, revealed. And to be revealed it must be hidden, that is, clothed in word.

So words matter. Therefore, we are concerned not only with words but also with attacks on words. Today we encounter two attacks on words. The first is an attack on words themselves. The second is an attack on the texts of Scripture. Both are ultimately an attack on the Word. Jacques Derrida’s attack on logo-centrism4 is an attack on Christo-centricism (since Christ is the Logos). Yet we should not ignore the main point of his critique: Do words help us know truth, or do they get in the way of knowing truth? Practically speaking the answer is “yes” to both. Words are our best tool in discovering and transmitting truth. Yet who of us has not struggled to communicate a thought because words have failed us? Here we realize that the problem is not with words but with misuse of words and our failure to articulate truth with imperfect language.

Postmodern language games [bring] two apologetic opportunities.

While the Lutheran preacher is worried by these postmodern language games, he should also see two apologetic opportunities. The first is the recognition that we, as sinful language speakers, are limited in our ability to know truth and are weary of people who speak truth not to power but for power. The second is the urge to know is still engrained in all humans, even in those who claim “we cannot know.”

Do not Lutherans understand the bound will better than anybody? Are we not dismayed at the misuse of words by politicians and advertisers? We should be the least surprised people on the planet when sin is exposed. With a certain calmness (as opposed to the hysteria we experience in the contemporary world), we can slow down the anger and build a solid epistemology. Sparing ourselves (and our people) from technical language, we can simply argue that we humans are capable of knowledge. I suppose someone could always protest “Couldn’t this all be a dream?” But we don’t live our lives like that. We have basic beliefs upon which we build a view of the world.

Secondly we have a desire to know. More than that, we have a desire for joy, drama, importance, and wonder. We were made for something great and we know it. Nobody would describe as admirable the person who shrugs his shoulders and mutters “Who cares?” Lutherans are able to balance this very somber attitude of “We can’t know fully and it’s out fault” with the revelation of the Logos who fulfills our natural desire to know. True, we sinners cannot fully know anything, let alone God, but God provides everything we need in Christ. He is the Logos.

Heraclitus’ famous river analogy about a person unable to step into the same river twice5 seems to imply that change is so constant that meaning is illusive. But Heraclitus also said, “Listening not to me but to the Logos, it is wise to agree that all things are one.”6 Heraclitus understood that there was something outside which regulates all things. Heraclitus said “Listen to the Logos,” and John said “Here is the Logos dwelling among us.” Jesus is the Logos. He is what we are looking for but cannot see because of the blindness of sin. The urge to know is there in all. The way to know is in Christ. So we preach Christ.

The urge to know is there in all. The way to know is in Christ. So we preach Christ.

The second attack on words is an attack on the texts of Scripture. There is a general cynicism to the accuracy of the Gospel accounts. Once again, the apologist does not want to engage in circular logic (the Bible is accurate because it says so). Nor does the apologist want to cede the field to the skeptic. Instead the apologist wants to level the playing field so that the same criteria used to examine other ancient texts are used on the New Testament manuscripts.

A basic outline of such criteria can be found in countless books on apologetics. A quick summary will suffice here. Three tests determine the accuracy of ancient documents. First, the biographical test examines the autograph and manuscript evidence. How close to the events were the autographs written? How many manuscripts are there, and how early are those manuscripts? Second, the internal test concerns itself with the coherence of the text, the ability of the writers to be accurate (means, motive, and opportunity), and the text’s claims about itself. Finally, the external test asks if there is extratextual evidence to back up the claims of the texts.

The New Testament texts pass all three tests. We have good reason to believe in an early dating of the Gospels. The amount of manuscript evidence and the gap between the autographs and the manuscripts are by far the best of any document of the era (biographical test). The New Testament writers had the opportunity and means to record this data. They also had pure motives (they gained nothing for their testimony but martyrdom). The New Testament claims inerrancy and lays out a coherent message (internal test). We also have what amounts to a chain of custody of the evidence. We have insight into the vetting process of the books of the canon (e.g. John taught Polycarp who taught Irenaeus who taught Hippolytus). Add to this extra-biblical accounts of Christ (e.g. Tacitus and Pliny the Younger) along with archaeological evidence, and the texts pass the external test.

The Sixth Sunday after Easter (May 26, 2019) has much to do with testimony. The First Reading (Acts 14:8-18) is the story of Barnabas and Paul in Lystra and Derbe. The two missionaries are mistakenly identified as gods. In response Paul states that they work for the true God who had not left the Galatians “without testimony” of a supreme being who sends “rain from heaven and crops in their seasons” (Ac 14:17). Psalm 65 is an example of praise for such providence.

The Sixth Sunday after Easter has much to do with testimony.

The Second Reading (Rv 21:10-14, 22, 23) highlights the foundation of the apostles’ testimony. In Jesus Christ’s revelation to John, the church is pictured as the New Jerusalem. Written on the city’s foundations are the “names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Rv 21:14). The apostles are equated to foundations because the church’s ministry is built on their testimony.

Finally, the Gospel (Jn 14:23-29) is Jesus’ own words about his relationship to the Father and his sending of the Spirit to the apostles. “These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me. All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (Jn 14:24b-26).

Here is an example of how a preacher might include apologetic concerns about words, texts, and reliability into a sermon.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” What a lie. It doesn’t take us too long in life to realize that wounds inflicted by words heal slower than broken bones. Words matter. Words are powerful.

This makes perfect sense because we are people of words. Better yet, we are people of the Word. The world was created by words. God wants to deal with us with words. We deal with each other with words. He wants us to take him at his word. The whole story of the Bible is about people not taking God at his word and then God coming with his Word to save them. Finally Jesus is the Word. Now, you might say “But Pastor, I dream in color!” Or “I think in pictures.” Good for you, but how will you explain it to me? With words. For lack of a better way to say it, we are people of words.

We have more reliable historical data for Jesus than any other person of that era.

So we are very sensitive when people attack the Word. Maybe you have heard it said that the New Testament is unreliable history. “We don’t really know what Jesus said or did.” This is simply not true. We have more reliable historical data for Jesus than for any other person of that era, and it’s not even close. I won’t bore you will all the details, but just consider this one fact: We have more copies of the New Testament which verify the events of Jesus’ life than any document describing the most important people of ancient Greece or Rome. We have around 5,600 manuscript fragments of the New Testament. Most famous writings of the time have less than a dozen. A dozen! By far the largest manuscript collection of one book is Homer’s Illiad which boasts 643. It’s not even close to the evidence of the New Testament. All I am saying is don’t fall apart when you hear that the New Testament is fraudulent. It’s simply not true.

But there is another more subtle attack on words. It’s an attack on the ability of words to even transmit meaning. It goes like this: every word is spoken by an author who then loses control of the word. The word is just floating out there detached from what the original author meant by that word. Even the original author is using words that come with their own baggage. For example, when a poor kid on the tough streets of Philadelphia hears the word “run” he thinks of something different than what the long-distance runner thinks when she hears the word “run.” Fair enough. There are shades of meaning. But does that really mean that we cannot communicate with each other or even know anything for sure? The fact that we are using words right now disproves that theory. We are able to match reality with words.

Yet we all have experienced a time when words didn’t do the trick. “I’m at a loss of words,” we might say about an extraordinary event. It’s not that words have necessarily failed us but rather that we sinful users of words have failed. We’re the problem. And God knows this. He knows that we are so deeply flawed that we cannot wrap our heads around divine things and in fact, fight against them. Every single day I grow in appreciation of this passage from 1 Corinthians: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cr 13:12). God knows our flaws. He knows us better than we know us. And one day I will know. One day.

So God is very concerned with words. It is through the Word transmitted through preached words that you and I know salvation. Think about what we heard today. Jesus revealed to St. John the Golden Jerusalem, heaven. It’s pictured with twelve foundations with the names of the apostles on those foundations. Why such respect for the Twelve? Because of their bravery, wisdom, and integrity? Hardly. The Twelve are most important because of their testimony. They were the first to see and hear Jesus. Their greatest honor was to pass down this testimony.

In fact, this is what Jesus was talking about in today’s Gospel. These words of the Father were given to the Son and the Spirit. It is the Spirit who then comes to these eyewitnessing apostles. The Spirit inspired them to write, record, speak, and preach this message to others. Why? Why are all three persons of the Trinity involved in words? Why do they acknowledge this on the foundations of the Golden Jerusalem? Why is this the highest honor? Because of you, that’s why. Because of you.

Words matter. God’s words matter. They matter because this is how God deals with us. This is how he is revealed to us. This is how the Spirit comes to us. This is how you have faith. And these words have power, the power to save. They have power to cut through all the confusion of our modern world. We hear all sorts of stories, all sorts of words, all sorts of reports. We don’t know which words to believe anymore. But the gospel cuts through all of that and declares forgiveness for you. This is truth, for this Word is Christ and Christ is the truth.

We need this specific word. It is true that every person has been given testimony from God. Nature tells us that there is a designer of some sorts. Our consciences tell us that the designer is a moral being. There is a right and wrong. “He has not left himself without testimony,” as we heard Paul say today. But none of this tells me what I really need to know. A tree can tell me that there is a God. But it can’t tell me that Christ died on its distant relative for my salvation. I need to know Christ and him crucified for me. Only the Word tells me that.

God has gone to great lengths for your salvation. He sent his Son who lived, died, rose, and ascended for you. He has also gone to great lengths to give you words, and in fact the Word. The Twelve preached it and even died for it. The New Testament writers recorded it. The church copied it. Your ancestors confessed it. Your parents, biological or spiritual, taught it to you. And now it is preached to you. So that you would know. So that you would have peace. Words matter, don’t they? So here is the preached Word to you today, “You are forgiven!”

Written by Michael Berg


1 The four classical arguments for the existence of God are the cosmological, teleological, ontological, and anthropological arguments.
2 One important question in cosmology is the finitude of the universe. If the universe is infinite then no creative being is needed to explain the universe. The Kalam Cosmological Argument makes the case that time cannot be infinite. If the universe (and therefore time) is infinite then the time between when you started reading this sentence and the time you stopped would include an infinite amount of moments. But how could you traverse an infinite amount of moments? The fact that you have reached this present moment proves that the universe is not infinite.
3 See Luther’s distinction in The Bondage of the Will between the preached God and the unpreached God. We are to seek God where he intends to be sought, hidden but paradoxically revealed in word. Seeking an unpreached God, that is without word, ends with law not gospel.
4 Derrida attacks the idea that language is a fundamental expression of reality.
5 Heraclitus: The Cosmic Fragments, G.S. Kirk, 1954 Cambridge University Press, 366 -367.
6 The History of Philosophy Vol. 1, W.K.C. Guthrie, 1967 Cambridge University Press, 424-425.


Books for Further Study:

Can Science Explain Everything? by John Lennox
Can We Trust the Gospels? by Peter Williams
Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospel by J. Warner Wallace
Handbook of Christian Apologetics by Peter Kreeft & Ronald K. Tacelli
History, Law and Christianity by John Warwick Montgomery
The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists by Ravi Zacharias


 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

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What do you do with children in worship? Practical Ideas for Education and Training

What do you do with children in worship?

Practical Ideas for Education and Training

Scene 1

The rocker slowly creaks back and forth in hypnotic tranquility. The young mother has been at it for a few minutes, though it feels like hours. Why won’t sweet Sofia settle down? In what could be a frantic moment in her first child’s first day at home, an unexpected calm settles in. Suddenly, this frantic moment has become a profound moment, one no lullaby could ever touch. The words come out in quiet chant: “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.” The mother recalls that her help in her new vocation will come from Christ himself. Without thinking, she starts into a new “lullaby”: “Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth.” By the time she gets to “O Christ, Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world,” she is not sure whether she or the baby will better sleep in heavenly peace that night.

Fast forward two years. Another profound moment. This mother had been joyfully smiling at little Sofia who clings to her favorite stuffed animal among the dozens in her room—a lamb. The mother has happily reported to her pastor how the young “soloist-to-be” runs around the living room shout-singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” She has reflected on her daughter’s ever-so-brief pauses from coloring during church to perk up when she hears the congregation singing Kyrie, eleison. But in this new profound moment she also has a moment of clarity. The memories of that first night home come flooding back, along with the last 24 months’ worth of liturgical lullabies and regular wrestling through worship. She suddenly gets it! Two years of catechesis, of faith formation in both home and church, have thoroughly shaped Sofia! As the lightbulb flashes in her mind like bright neon lights, she realizes that this symbiotic relationship of church and home will have eternal impact on her precious little one. Worshiping at home (and teaching about worship at home) is something her family will certainly not stop any time soon—the immediate and eternal blessings are far too rich!

Scene 2

A forklift would be needed to lift the parents’ jaws off the floor. They came for cute moments of pageantry, but they certainly got more than they bargained for. These two parents are among a half dozen preschool families new to the concept of church. It just “hasn’t been their thing” yet as they have sifted through the identity of their own personal truth. But they at least knew their kid needed a preschool that was safe and moral, so they chose the highly rated Lutheran one nearby. They were pleased with the first five months of school and were excited for the preschool Christmas service. After all, who could deny that little Tommy in his mini three-piece suit singing at a church would make one amazingly boast-worthy Instagram cover photo?

But the giddy excitement froze in time. If their iPad hadn’t filmed it, they wouldn’t have believed it even happened. This sweet little chorus erupted with preschool enthusiasm to belt out, “Nails, spear shall pierce him through, the cross he’ll bear for me, for you.” Say what? They were expecting to hear about a silent night or a little manger or perhaps “Merry Christmas” and “Here comes Santa Claus.” But this? It was shocking to see their little baby sing about another baby who would go on to die. They didn’t know what to say. That is…until three days later. Three days later they tried out the Christmas Eve candlelight service at the same Lutheran church. They marveled at little Tommy who was singing half the hymns from memory, hymns he learned during preschool song time! As the pastor then unwrapped the marvels and mystery of the incarnation that night, the parents shared a look that said, “This place is pretty special! Our whole family needs more of this!”

Scene 3

Ten kindergarteners solemnly process into a room, not coerced but definitely coached. Though the room is dimly lit and the one adult stands with a silent smile, they all know the routine. Each takes off their shoes. Four of them distribute mini-hymnals to the group. Three of them place a clean white cloth gently and neatly over a table situated perpendicular to three rows of chairs. The last three work with the adult to place candles on the table and carefully light them. Without prompting, they complete their tasks and file into their seats.

The adult begins, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The young children cross themselves and joyfully say, “Amen!” The leader continues, “Jesus Christ is the Light of the world.” They enthusiastically reply, “The Light no darkness can overcome.” Each child then lights their own little candle, gazing with wonder into the fire yet also remembering that their teacher told them how they were marked with the sign of the cross and given the light of Christ and resurrection at their baptisms.

As it turns out, sweet little Sofia and three-piece-suit Tommy are classmates in this Sunday School room. Sofia has been at the church since birth and has been learning worship “stuff” since night one in that rocking chair. Tommy was just baptized last year (shortly after that Christmas service) and is relatively new to worship outside of what he hears in preschool. His family has been in membership for five months. However, both of them are thoroughly enjoying this catechetical experience. For one month each year, their Sunday School takes a break from normal lessons for “worship training mode.” The children enter a room that is set up to be a mini sanctuary. They are taught to revere the presence of a holy God yet appreciate his grace allowing them to enter into his presence. They work together, almost like a mini-altar guild, to set up the worship space. Then they continue with a brief 30-minute service of sorts with a few sensory-filled rituals, hymns, songs of the liturgy, and a brief lesson based on the theme for that Sunday. They conclude with 20 minutes of activities related to the Sunday or the season.

This one-month intensive worship teaching and training each year has made little children very enthusiastic about worship.

What Sofia and Tommy have been experiencing is based on The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. It’s an immersive worship experience for children designed by Sofia Cavaletti and patterned after Maria Montessori’s self-guided play theories. (Those with preschool ministries have likely heard of Montessori methods). The congregation has found that this one-month intensive worship teaching and training each year has made little children very enthusiastic about worship. The pastor has found that some of his 4-year-olds know more about worship than some of his 54-year-olds! Meanwhile, the parents have found both at home and church that their children are clearly the examples of faith and worship that Jesus once stated.

The Ideal: Partnership in Discipleship

Are such scenes even possible?

It would seem as though a wise first step in our congregations would be to follow in Luther’s steps (again!) and double down on families. Surveys strongly indicate that parents and children would benefit from more teaching and training regarding worship. But when presented with some test materials that could help in this matter, more than 75% of focus group parents indicated they would like more materials to help their family engage in worship. Our congregations seem to want help, too. The survey of WELS pastors indicated that 78% of them would be highly interested in materials that help teach and train parents to teach and train their children.

The first article in this series (July 2018) posed the question: What do you do with children in worship? In subsequent months we pondered parents’ struggles as culture has corroded and families have struggled. Pragmatic Westerners, of course, offer solutions to perceived problems. Thus, we reviewed things like children’s sermons, children’s church, Sunday school offered during worship, and other options. But each popular solution has weaknesses: keeping children occupied only for a few moments, or completely removing them from worship. Therefore, though Christian freedom allows various choices, not all may be beneficial or best.

Following this we turned to the Scriptures for both prescription and description. Prescribed were God’s commands about the vocation of parents who have primary responsibility for spiritual training. Also prescribed is God’s command for all to worship him. Though we may desire more detail on many accounts of public gatherings and worship, it is reasonable to assume that God’s people brought their children to worship.

Church history suggests the same. There is good evidence of children being incorporated into worship. The church fathers exhorted parents in their responsibilities—descriptions that again allow us to conclude that parents would bring even the youngest of children to worship. A brief survey of science also supported the value of all children being in worship. Children learn best by doing, from repetition, with their senses, and all of this especially when they are with their parents. Science suggests worship alongside parents is an ideal place for children.

Any solutions to improving ministry to and worship with children must focus on the parents.

Finally, it was noted that the problem is not really with the children. The problem is actually with the parents. Thus, any solutions to improving ministry to and worship with children must focus on the parents. Parents need teaching and training so that they in turn can teach and train their children. This is what the Church is called to do—to equip the saints for works of service within their vocations.

So, are the previously described scenes possible? Could the fictional and ideal become the factual and real? I believe they can when we work toward an ideal partnership between home, church, and school (where applicable).

The Home

Parents today often find themselves barely treading water in a vast ocean of information with waves of cultural influence crashing down on them. Thus, first and foremost, parents need to grab hold of their identity in Christ. When parents look for identity in their children, the children can become all-consuming idols that demand worldly focus. Parents who know their identity as children of God in Christ will understand the importance of fixing their hearts and minds on things above, not on earthly things—including their children. Furthermore, parents who are regularly taught their identity in Christ will grow to a fuller understanding of the importance of teaching children their identity in Christ, too.

When parents look for identity in their children, the children can become all-consuming idols that demand worldly focus.

Next, parents need teaching and training regarding how to parent. Simply being a parent does not equate with doing it well. Every Christian needs vocational catechesis, and parents are by no means an exception. It is best to start with teaching and training Scripture’s foundational principles about love, discipline, and physical and spiritual care for children. Then good and godly practical parenting strategies could be shared with parents. As they receive guidance in parenting at home, this will in turn help with their parenting in the pews.

Simply being a parent does not equate with doing it well.

Finally, parents need teaching and training regarding worship. Parents need to be reminded what worship is, whom God calls to worship him, why God’s people worship, and how they worship. When they better understand these truths, they will surely understand the importance of their children being in worship with them and the whole body of believers. As parents learn to understand and engage in worship themselves, they will better teach and train their children to do the same.

In order to accomplish these goals of teaching and training parents, it is wise for congregations to offer various educational and training opportunities. Bible studies on the topics of parenting, family life, worship, and more should be regular in the rotation. For those new to the church, pastors are wise to teach thoroughly about worship and children in worship already in Bible Information Class. Pastors can teach those with and without children what is expected of parents and children in worship. Additionally, pastors and church leaders can suggest or provide materials that facilitate home worship and that help teach and train both parents and their children. The more and the earlier children have the words and songs of worship (liturgy, hymns, psalms, etc.) in their hearts and on their lips in private worship, the better they will actively join with the full body in corporate worship.

The Church

But it’s not enough for parents and children to be taught and trained. While parents are in the trenches with the children, others sometimes criticize and complain. Congregations need education on the topic of children in worship.

While parents are in the trenches with the children, others sometimes criticize and complain.

Pastors and church leaders would do well to patiently and lovingly instruct on this issue. Rather than jumping into a practical solution fad—such as offering child care or Sunday School concurrent with worship—these leaders can teach the entire congregation what God says about worship, the Church, parenting, children, and the intersection of them all. Congregations always benefit from learning more about doctrine and practice. But they also do well to learn how to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the body of peace.”

Loving instruction might mean having some difficult conversations. It might mean telling some elders that they need to be more patient with parents’ struggles and that their privilege in Christ is to be a loving part of the solution, not a part of the problem. Then again, loving instruction might mean a difficult conversation with a young family, telling them that sometimes they might need to step out with the baby a bit earlier. Their effort to be present in worship and train in worship is marvelous. But some days for tykes and toddlers are just plain rough. While members can be taught to be patient and loving on this issue, it’s helpful for parents to step out sometimes so that others can maintain focus in worship.

Finally, pastors and congregations can strategize ways to encourage and facilitate children worshiping. Could the Sunday school take a month off from Bible stories each year for worship teaching and training? Could a church implement during those weeks, or perhaps during a midweek study, The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (described above)? Or might the worship folder provide clear and loving guidance about children and families? What about removing the “reserved pew” signs in back and encouraging families to sit up front where a child’s senses will be more engaged? How about using a children’s choir to sing a liturgical song or psalm refrains? How about an acolyte program…or a junior usher program…or kindergarteners joining adults to hand out the friendship registers during the offering? Congregations can explore many ways to bring children to the forefront and encourage their worship life as valued members of the body of Christ.

The School

For those who have preschools or schools, a quick word may be of use. Most WELS schools have a mission statement that includes the conviction that the school is an arm of the church and is a partner with parents. This certainly can remain true on this topic of children in worship!

Teachers can be encouraged to incorporate worship concepts into Bible stories. When teaching about John the Baptist, talk about the font, baptismal symbols in the church, and the sign of the cross. When teaching about Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter, talk about the precious Sacrament their parents joyfully receive as they commune with the risen Christ. When teaching the life of Christ, show how the songs of the Ordinary parallel the life of Christ. During quiet time in school preschool teachers can make clear the importance of quiet time in the pew as well.

Most schools, even preschools, have a hymnology curriculum or regular set of songs that are learned. The pastor can work with the teachers to ensure that children are learning the hymns sung most often in worship. Could liturgical songs or psalms also be part of this effort?

Speaking of the pastor and the school, what treasured moments are available in school chapel! It’s wise for the pastor to regularly lead chapel. Those are precious pastoral moments for a multitude of reasons. Pastors can use school chapel as a time to teach about worship, the liturgy, the Sacraments, the sanctuary, symbols, imagery, and more. The school is a priceless partner of both church and home!

Conclusion

“Yes, as God gives me strength.” It is truly a special moment in our worship life. Parents are beaming with smiles, barely containing their joy. As they gaze at their newborn, they know that as the water was poured onto the forehead, God himself poured open the floodgates of his grace and welcomed that child as his own with the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. While the congregation looks and listens with shared joy, the pastor asks if they are willing to assist in whatever manner possible so that the child may remain a child of God until death. The people respond, “Yes, as God gives me strength.”

With those words the entire congregation pledges before God to “assist in whatever manner possible” so that child remains faithful until reception of the crown of life. Raising a Christian child is first and foremost the God-given responsibility of the parents. But they are not alone. The entire Christian Church works together to train children in the way they should go—both in faith and in worship.

May God fill us with his grace so that we abound in patience, love, diligence, and wisdom as we teach the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord. May God then fill us with joy to join those children to worship the Lord with gladness for our growth and his glory.

Written by Phil Huebner


 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

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WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.


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Preach The Word – Resurrection Apologetics

Apologetics in Preaching

Resurrection Apologetics

I have to admit, to my great shame, that I had trouble preaching during the Easter season. Easter Sunday was great. Preaching on Doubting Thomas the next Sunday was always a delight, but the rest of the season was tough for me. What’s left to say? One bit of advice that helped me was: read the hymns of the Easter season; they will inspire you. And they did. Another inspiration came when I got more serious about apologetics. The Sundays of Easter became an opportunity to speak about the facts of the resurrection and how those facts were the foundation for a confident faith in the face of all tragedy, especially death.

A theme of sorts emerged in my Easter season preaching, one taken from 1 Thessalonians: “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope” (1 Th 4:13). I wanted to make sure that my people knew where they were going, where their faithful loved ones who died already were, and the basis for this hope. In short, I wanted them to know the facts, reason, and hope of the resurrection of Christ.

On Easter Sunday, when visitors abound, I also wanted the skeptics to know. I didn’t want them to be ignorant either. But as we have already discussed in this series of articles, the skeptic might balk at a sheer proclamation of these facts. Again, preaching is the means by which the Spirit will grant faith but the apologetic minded preacher is also aware of the task to knock down any barriers. So the skeptic might contest, “How do you know?” and the answer “Because the Bible said so” is incredulous to him. It is a form of circular logic.

The skeptic is aware of the following circular argument: Question: How do you know that the Bible is true? Answer: Because it is God’s Word. Question: How do you know that it is God’s Word? Answer: Because the Bible says it is God’s Word. Question: Why should I trust the Bible? Answer: Because it is God’s Word. While this is true, the unbeliever is right to be skeptical. Insert Koran for Bible, and you see the problem.

So how do we get out of this circular argument? The answer is the resurrection of Christ. Question: How do you know that the Bible is true? Answer: Because Jesus said so. Question: Why should I trust Jesus? Answer: Because he rose from the dead, and I’m going with the guy who claimed to be true God and backed it up with a resurrection.

Facts back up the claims of Christianity.

The advantage of this tactic is that the argument is moved from the arena of blind faith to one of normal reason. Thus the skeptic is not left with only a command, “Believe this because I say that it is true” but is offered evidence for the claim. Why should the skeptic believe you and not the Muslim who says that Jesus did not rise from the dead (or even die on the cross)? In this case the apologist simply levels the playing field while being fully aware that the Spirit, and only the Spirit, will convert the unbelieving heart. The apologist only wants to show that Christianity is not like other religions that only assert claims. Facts back up the claims of Christianity.

It is helpful then to start with the facticity of the resurrection of Christ. Is there good reason for the skeptic to believe that at least the resurrection of Christ is possible? I think so, especially if the skeptic is willing to treat the evidence of the resurrection as they would any historical claim from the same era. Permit me to lay out the evidential argument for the resurrection of Christ in outline form:

I.  There are eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion.

A.  The Romans knew how to crucify someone to death, and there is no good reason to believe that they did not kill Jesus, especially considering the punishment Roman soldiers faced for not carrying out their duties.

B.  There is no good reason to doubt the eyewitness accounts of the crucifixion.

II.  There are eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. There is no good reason to believe that these eyewitnesses lied about what they experienced.

A.  They gained nothing from such a ruse (money, power, prestige).

B.  They were willing to die for this truth, making them very credible eyewitnesses.

C.  There is no good reason to believe that these eyewitnesses were all mentally insane. How could so many people in one place and in one time all of a sudden be insane when there was no evidence of a preexistent mental illness? And even if this was the case, how credible is it that so many mentally insane people got their stories straight?

III.  Only three groups had access to the body of Christ: the Romans, the Jewish enemies of Christ, and the disciples of Christ. There is no good reason any of these groups would fake the resurrection of Christ.

A.  The Romans would not fake the resurrection. They were the ones who crucified him.

B.  The Jewish enemies of Christ were the ones who wanted him dead in the first place. They were even paranoid about a theft of the body and demanded that the Roman authorities secure the grave.

C.  Despite the paranoia of the Jewish leaders, there is no good reason to believe that the disciples of Christ would fake his resurrection. Most of them displayed incredulity to his claims of a death and resurrection. Nor would they have gained anything from such a conspiracy except persecution.

IV.  Jesus claimed to be true God.

A.  There is no evidence or reason that Jesus would lie about this.

1. Jesus did not gain anything from such a lie except death.

2. There is no evidence that Jesus was crazy.

B.  Jesus proved his divinity by rising from the dead and performing miracles for which there were credible eyewitness accounts.

V.  Jesus declared the Bible to be the inerrant Word of God.

A.  Jesus declared the Old Testament to be the Word of God.

B.  Jesus sent the Spirit to inspire the New Testament writers.

VI.  Since Jesus is divine we ought to believe what he says about the inerrancy of the Bible.

Theories of a faked resurrection are outlandish and easily dismissed.

This is only a brief outline. The Christian must contend with textual criticism and questions of the canon, topics the confessional Lutheran pastor is trained to handle. The apologist must also deal with theories of a faked resurrection, but they are outlandish and easily dismissed. But there are also other tidbits that enhance the resurrection argument such as women discovering the empty tomb. If you were to create a believable story about a resurrection in an era when female witnesses were deemed less credible than male witnesses, you would not make women the first eyewitnesses in your story.

Armed with this logical outline, the preacher can move to the deep meaning of the resurrection: We too will rise! Three elements combine to make Easter season preaching robust: the facts of the resurrection, the breaking of the circular logic mentioned above, and a passionate application to frail human life.

The Third Sunday of Easter (Year C, May 5, 2018) connects the resurrection of Jesus Christ to our place in heaven. In the Gospel (Jn 21:1-14), Jesus proves his resurrection by appearing to the disciples on the shores of Galilee. In the First Reading, Christ converts Saul to be the great missionary to the Gentiles so that we might know with certainty that Jesus actually rose from the dead (Ac 9:1-19a). The Second Reading is a picture of heavenly worship from Christ’s Revelation to St. John (Rv 5:11-14). The Lamb is on his throne encircled by the living creatures and the elders. They sing with a multitude of angels “Worthy is the Lamb.” This is our home made secure by the resurrection of Christ. All people will know and all people will fear this awe-inspiring God because of his victory over death, a fact we sing in the Psalm (67). The following is an example of how a preacher might make these connections for his listeners.

You can’t just assert things and expect people to believe them to be true. We are far too jaded to accept the assertions of the late night television salesman. True, we all have our gullible moments. The infomercials still run, don’t they? We sooo want to believe that eggs won’t ever stick on this new kind of skillet. Yet we learn from our mistakes and become less and less naïve as we grow older. That’s probably a good thing.

In the marketplace of spiritual ideas there are a lot of infomercials. This preacher over here claims he can cure diseases. That preacher over there can give you “your best life now.” One religion promises enlightenment, another internal peace. This denomination stresses moral integrity, that one social justice. It even seems that some people chose their spirituality by letting the charisma of the leader trump facts, a dangerous method. So who are we supposed to believe let alone follow with our whole lives? All religions make assertions, but how do we know which one, if any, is true?

Sometimes we investigate claims by trial and error. We buy the skillet and hope it lives up to the salesman’s pitch. As we grow a little wiser we might carry out some research. What are the reviews of the skillet? If the reviews are poor, we don’t waste our money. But we can’t do that with religious claims, can we? We can’t go by trial and error. A religious commitment means exactly that, a commitment. You can’t go half way. And what religion is not going to have glowing reviews from its adherents and bad reviews from its enemies? We aren’t buying kitchenware after all; we are trying to find a way of life, a way of thinking, a path to truth. We need something more.

We can test the claims of Christianity not by Yelp reviews or by trial and error, but by careful investigation of its claims.

But not all is lost. We can test the claims of a religion. In particular we can test the claims of Christianity not by Yelp reviews or by trial and error, but by careful investigation of its claims. Is Jesus who he says he is? This was certainly a question with which the disciples grappled. You don’t think the disciples doubted Christ? Last week we heard about Thomas forever known as “Doubting.” Peter and the rest could not wrap their heads around the death and resurrection of Christ. They heard but did not always confidently believe. We are not alone in our doubts.

It would take a lot for us to accept a bodily resurrection of someone whose funeral we just attended.

Jesus appeared to his disciples in order to prove his resurrection. And notice how he often did it. He ate! It’s so simple. He ate with the Emmaus two and he ate breakfast on the shore of the Sea of Galilee as we heard today. Think about it. Let’s say that you just attended a funeral. Maybe it was your grandmother. Now let’s say you see grandma a week later. Your probably would rub your eyes or pinch yourself. It must be a dream. “I shouldn’t have eaten that frozen pizza at midnight last night.” Or maybe you might think this is a hallucination. “The doctor did change the dosage of my medication last week.” It would take a lot for us to accept a bodily resurrection of someone whose funeral we just attended. I wonder if some of the followers of Christ thought along the same lines. Thomas did for sure. The Emmaus disciples weren’t fully convinced either.

Now let’s say that your dead relative eats with you, physically eats in front of you. There is a piece of fish on a plate and then the piece of fish is gone. Now that’s something. This is exactly what Jesus did for the disciples in Galilee. Peter believed right away and maybe his fellow fishermen-disciples did too. But Jesus goes above and beyond. He provides physical proof. He eats. Ghosts don’t eat. Hallucinations don’t eat. Jesus bodily rose from the dead. Peter wouldn’t wonder a week late, “Did I really see Jesus?” He would remember: the fish was there and then it wasn’t.

Now, you might say, “That’s nice, but I wasn’t there.” True enough. You weren’t there when Abraham Lincoln gave his Gettysburg address either, but you believe it happened. Why? Because there are credible eyewitness accounts. You have no reason not to believe it. In fact, if you denied it, you would be thought of as a weird conspiracy theorist. Granted, the resurrection of Christ happened way before the Civil War. And it is more than a presidential speech; it is a supernatural event. Yet, we have eyewitness accounts and documents to back up the resurrection claim. We have more textual evidence of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection than any other event of that era, and other events aren’t even close. We have more historical evidence that Jesus rose from the dead than any Roman emperor winning any war or legislating any law.

So we are left with conspiracy theories raised against the resurrection claim. Maybe this was faked by the disciples? But let’s think it through. Why would they do that? Generally speaking, people lie for three reasons: money, sex, or power. The disciples gained no prestige, no revenge, no high placement in society. They gained no power. Nor did they become wealthy or more popular with the ladies. In fact, they received only persecution and, for most of them, death. Would the Roman officials fake Christ’s resurrection? Why would they? They wanted to be done with this religious squabble. Would the Jewish leaders? They were the ones who wanted him dead in the first place. We are running out of options. Except one. He actually rose from the dead.

And God wants you to know about it. So Christ sent the Spirit to inspire these eyewitnesses and historical investigators like St. Luke to write about it. These documents have been carefully vetted and preserved for you. In one case, Christ took his own enemy, Saul, kicking and screaming into the faith. We heard about it today. He literally knocked Saul down on the road to Damascus and confronted him. He baptized Saul, known to us as Paul, and converted him to Christianity. He even taught Paul in Arabia everything he needed to know so that he could testify to the leaders in Palestine, to Jews and Gentiles across the Mediterranean world, and finally to us centuries later through his letters. And his message is this: Christ died for sinners like you and me, and he rose from the dead defeating death for us.

These eyewitness documents are to be preached to desperate sinners who face the possibility of death every day.

I know that we are pretty jaded people. It comes with the territory. How many products have you bought that have left you wanting? How many lemons have you driven off the used car lot? And it’s actually worse than just being jaded. We have sinful minds which by nature abhor God and his message of grace. We (our sinful sides) fight against him. So did Thomas, Peter, and Paul. So these eyewitness documents are not just for our careful investigation. They are to be preached. Preached to desperate sinners like you and me who face the possibility of death every day. Preached so that we might believe that Jesus truly is who he says he is, the Lord Almighty and our Savior from sin.

“I don’t want you to be ignorant … or grieve like the rest of mankind” (1 Th 4:13) to quote that same St. Paul. I want you to know that there is a real hope based in real facts. I don’t want you to wonder what happens next. I don’t want you to be alone in the misery of burying a loved one. I don’t want you to be depressed about death or fear what comes next. I want you to be at peace. I want you to know that God did something about this horrible thing called death. I want you to know that Christ loved this world so much so that he gave his life for it, to pay the price for your indiscretions and everybody else’s too. I want you to know that he overcame death with a miracle. I want you to know that he promises you the same miracle of resurrection. I want you to know that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and he did it for you…so that one day you and I could join in heaven’s song we heard today, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (Rv 5:12). I want you to know, and so did Christ. So he ate with the disciples and told them to tell us. Christ lives, and so shall we.

Written by Michael Berg


Some helpful online resources:

Cross Examined (crossexamined.org)
Gary Habermas (garyhabermas.com)
Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (rzim.org)
Reasonable Faith (reasonablefaith.org)
Stand to Reason (str.org)
The Veritas Forum (veritas.org)
Thinking Fellows (thinkingfellows.com)
Library of Historical Apologetics (historicalapologetics.org)


 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

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