Christ in our worship
Christ is the center of our faith, and we want our worship to center on him.
Jonathan P. Bauer
Responses to recent surveys of the WELS Hymnal Project indicate that those who come to worship strongly desire that their worship be Christ-centered.
One of the ways in which the desire for Christ-centered worship is seen most clearly is the widespread use of the Christian Worship and Christian Worship: Supplement lectionaries, or readings assigned for each Sunday of the church year.
Certainly Christ-centered worship is possible without following the lectionary. At the same time, these lectionaries have long proven to be valuable resources for the church’s annual proclamation of Christ. Their widespread use among our churches reflects a desire for the life and teachings of Christ to continue to serve as the focus for our worship.
In addition to using the lectionaries, worship planners, choir directors, and musicians have also indicated that other parts of our worship be clearly Christ-centered. One of the most important factors is making sure that the music selected has a specific connection to the gospel-centered focus of the day. One resource already available, Planning Christian Worship, provides summaries of each week’s lesson along with a list of hymn suggestions. Pastors and worship planners commonly used that resource.
Finally, one of the requests most frequently made through our website’s comment form is for the inclusion of Scripture references with the hymns. In one survey, nearly half of those who responded (49 percent) indicated that they would benefit greatly from these references.
It is encouraging to see how concerned people are that our worship richly and clearly proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Traditional or contemporary
Perhaps the area of sharpest disagreement is over whether our worship should be more “traditional” or more “contemporary.” This disagreement certainly isn’t new and doesn’t come as much of a surprise. But those terms are used in different ways by different people, are often misunderstood, and rarely help groups of people have beneficial discussions about worship.
One survey sought opinions on various styles of hymns. Every style of hymn listed in the survey is currently in either the hymnal or supplement with one exception, “Christian Contemporary Music.” The category revealed that here is where opinions are most sharply divided. Even though the category is not currently represented in our hymnal or supplement, 20 percent of respondents still indicate that there is “too much” of that style in those resources. On the other hand, 40 percent indicate that there is “not enough.” Some people pleaded for more Luther, Bach, and Gregorian chant. But just as many pleaded for more contemporary music, gospel music, and Christian rock.
So what does this mean? It indicates that when people hear the word contemporary, they often have a strong and immediate reaction that is either very positive or very negative. The same is probably true when people hear the word traditional. In love for the entire body of Christ, we owe it to our brothers and sisters to be aware of these different viewpoints and seek to understand them. It is so easy to surround ourselves with those who think like we do and refuse to listen to and understand those who don’t.
Those who plead for a more traditional worship style have often explained that they are concerned about doctrinal purity and clear gospel proclamation. Those who plead for a more contemporary worship style have often explained that they are concerned about active and joyful participation. Even if people come to different conclusions about the best style for worship, everyone would advocate clear gospel proclamation and active, heartfelt participation as key characteristics of worship.
Whether they realize it or not, those whose opinions are sharply divided have one important thing in common. Neither wants a hymn to be excluded from worship simply on the basis of when it was written. One person thinks a hymn should not be excluded simply because it’s old. Another thinks a hymn should not be excluded simply because it’s new.
There’s a flipside to that. If a hymn should not be excluded from worship simply on the basis of when it was written, neither should it be included in worship simply on the basis of when it was written. It would not be wise to base our decisions about music selection on a single factor.
In other words, what we suggest everyone seems to be pleading for is timeless worship.
We rightly show tremendous appreciation for the blessings that God has given his church in the past. The fact that a hymn has remained in use for centuries is a pretty good indication of its quality and its ability to bring comfort and joy to worshipers over the years.
At the same time, it would be foolish to assume that the same God who has blessed the church with so many gifts for so many years would suddenly stop. In fact, one of the important reasons for continuing to produce new worship resources is that it gives these newer songs an opportunity to go through the same test of time that older songs have gone through and passed. We look for new hymns that bring the same comfort and joy to worshipers today.
The original intent is that this hymnal would be released around the 500th anniversary of the year Lutherans first started publishing hymnals, 1524. One of those first Lutheran hymnals contained just eight songs. Four of them were written by Martin Luther, but the one for which he’s best known—“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”—wouldn’t be published for another five years. The great Lutheran hymn writer Paul Gerhardt wouldn’t write a single hymn for another century. We can certainly thank God that early Lutherans were wise enough to continue to allow new gifts from God for worship. We certainly ask him for the same judicious wisdom he gave to them.
People desire to grow in worship
Finally, it has been encouraging to see how much people care about their personal and public worship. Most have expressed a high interest in continuing to learn more about the biblical principles for worship and the rich heritage of worship that has been handed down to us. They’ve also responded positively to possible resources that would aid them in the use of worship resources at church and at home. In other words, it seems as though very few would say, “My worship life is exactly what it should be. Nothing needs to change or improve.”
As we continue to live under sin’s curse and in the shadow of our Savior’s cross, we fully realize that worship on this side of heaven will always be a work in progress. Since a hymnal project is a natural opportunity to think more and talk about worship, the members of the Hymnal Project look forward to working together with the people of our church body to continue to achieve the growth in worship that we all desire. As we do so, we thank you for giving us the opportunity to listen. We want you to know that our ears are still open. Finally, we ask for your prayers as we carry out this important work.
Jonathan Bauer, who serves on the WELS Hymnal Project’s communications committee, is pastor at Good News, Mount Horeb, Wisconsin.
This is the final article in a two-part series on the work of the WELS Hymnal Project.
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Author: Jonathan P. Bauer
Volume 102, Number 6
Issue: June 2015
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