Organs or guitars?

Jeffrey L. Samelson

Organs or guitars?

Actually, it’s not about the instruments. Maybe it was for Great Aunt Tilly, way back, the first time someone played a guitar in church and all she could say was, “I just don’t like it!”

Or maybe you want it to be about the instruments, because that makes the arguments easier. But that’s not what it’s about.

Perhaps you have escaped the discussions and disputations so far, but for years now there’s been a lot of talk—some of it heated—about how we worship in WELS. Too often it’s summed up as something like: “Those people like organ music” and “Those other people like drums and guitars.” That’s a mischaracterization because it places the disagreement in the category of personal preference, when in fact the differences go much deeper—into questions of theology and our identity as Lutheran Christians.

Just what is “Lutheran”? The limited changes in the church that Martin Luther and his true followers advocated for made the Reformation conservative. Our Lutheran forefathers were not radical reformers as some of their contemporaries were. Their goal was to remove false doctrine and unscriptural practices from the church, but they were careful not to change anything that didn’t need changing. Much that had been passed down through the centuries was worth preserving for their own and future generations.

A big part of that heritage was the liturgy and other traditions connected with worship, like observing the church seasons and festivals. Luther and the others re-centered the service on the gospel and gave back to the laity what had been restricted to the clergy. Along with these corrections, they developed a theology of worship that informed their decisions, instructed the church at large, and inspired generations to follow. Think of the magnificent music of Johann Sebastian Bach or the deep devotional hymns of Paul Gerhardt!

As the centuries passed, however, it became easy for Lutherans to neglect the theology of their worship and just stick with what was comfortable and familiar for them. It all became a matter of personal preference. That meant that when suddenly, new worship “styles,” practices, and, yes, instruments, were being introduced, many were unprepared to explain why these new things were theologically good, bad, or indifferent, and how exactly what belonged to our Lutheran heritage was better and wiser or worn and outdated.

We’ve learned since then. Worship is just too important to the life of the church and to the faith of the Christian for any of us to be comfortable with ignorance and insistence on one’s personal opinion. It’s not by any means a neutral thing whether we have a praise band up front playing the latest Christian hits or a robed minister presiding over an ordered liturgy of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. If we argue for one or the other based on what we like, we can’t assume that the person arguing the opposite has a different set of likes. Confessional Lutherans take these matters seriously because the gospel itself is at stake—for us and future generations. These are not just matters of practicality or personal preference.

Oh, now you want to know what exactly a confessional Lutheran theology of worship is and what it means for you and your congregation? Good. That’s exactly the conversation we need to be having.

Contributing editor Jeffrey Samelson is pastor at Christ, Clarksville, Maryland.


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Author: Jeffrey L. Samelson
Volume 103, Number 9
Issue: September 2016

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