Thursday, June 24, 2010

Let's call it what it is - "Sectarian Worship" - Part 2

It’s time to talk a little bit about the theology of the sects and how their theological assumptions impact their worship practices. It would take many books to do this thoroughly, but for now, a cursory review will have to do, admittedly oversimplified.

Sectarian worship (a more helpful term than “contemporary worship”) is not confined to any single denomination. Much like Pentecostalism itself, sectarian worship transcends denominational lines, being itself a product of the experience-focused worship that characterizes Pentecostalism.

In an article entitled, “Embracing Your Inner Pentecostal,” Professor Chris Armstrong of Bethel Seminary in Minneapolis writes,
Many non-Pentecostal (and non-charismatic) congregations have become "Pentecostalized" in other ways. Contemporary worship style is an oft-noted influence of Pentecostalism, with congregations of all stripes now singing choruses and praise music, even raising their hands in adoration (Chris Armstrong, "Embracing Your Inner Pentecostal".)

You see, this “style” of worship not only has its roots in Pentecostalism, but it carries Pentecostalism with it, wherever it goes. It appeals to all the sects, because it fits in perfectly with the common theology of the sects: that man is not totally helpless before God, and that man approaches God on the basis of man’s feelings, man’s preferences and man’s works.

Sectarian worship and its theological assumptions

(Most of the following summaries can also be found in another fine essay by Prof. Em. Dan Deutschlander, “Reformed Theology and its Threat.”)

For Pentecostals, you’re not a real Christian if you don’t feel the Spirit and even exhibit outward, supernatural signs of the Spirit. Worship is designed to put people in a “spiritual mood.”

For classic Calvinists (Reformed), reason reigns supreme. Everything has to make sense. If something in worship doesn’t appeal to man’s reason, then get rid of it! It’s an “obstacle” to faith! Then there’s the burden of thinking that Christ didn’t die for all men, but only for some, while some have been predestined to condemnation. Since they can never be sure which group they’re in, worship has to be about proving to themselves that they’re among the elect by their efforts to “live right,” “experience” God and “feel” saved.

Arminianism was born in the Netherlands, nursed in the UK, but bred in America. It is the quintessential American religion. It tends to be centered on the individual, entertainment-oriented, superficial, casual, anti-intellectual, anti-clerical, and anti-authority – just like American culture (and not unlike Lutheran Pietism). For Arminians (mostly Methodists and Baptists), it’s about using the right set of methods to climb the holiness ladder. Arminianism is pragmatic to the core: “Whatever works” to get people fired up for Jesus. “Do church” right, and you’ll see the right results. In Arminian theology, man is not thoroughly corrupted by original sin. It’s still up to man to make his decision for Christ, and he has to really mean it, or it doesn’t count. So worship has to be “upbeat” enough to get people in the right state of mind to choose Christ, and informal enough to allow the individual to relate to God on his own terms. This is exactly what American Revivalism was all about. Creeds and confessions, if used at all, have to be rewritten and “personalized” so they become more meaningful to “me.”

All of these sects are represented in modern American Evangelicalism, united by their common exaltation of man and rejection of the Means of Grace – the Gospel in Word and Sacrament – as the way God has ordained to create and strengthen faith in helpless man, and thus distribute to him all the benefits of Christ. For the sects, Baptism and Holy Communion are definitely not the Means of Grace. Even the Gospel preached isn’t necessarily a Means of Grace, because they (especially the Reformed) teach that the Holy Spirit may be absent from the preaching of the Gospel.

So how does man approach God, as far as the sects are concerned? Through man’s prayers, man’s praise, man’s “worship,” man’s emotional responses, man’s devotion, man’s self-chosen, self-defined faith. God’s Word may well be preached in addition to all this. But God’s Word is only a part of the sectarian worship equation. It’s the upbeat musical style, the casual, “real” atmosphere, and the emotional responses of the people that really “bring God’s presence into the room.”

Lutheran worship and its theological assumptions

According to Lutheran theology, man is thoroughly corrupted by original sin, without true love of God or fear of God or faith in God, by nature. The unbeliever cannot praise God, thank God, worship God, love God, trust in God or appease God. On the contrary, he is hostile to God and cannot understand the things that come from the Spirit of God. He is dead in sin, and his heart a heart of stone, unable to be opened, moved, or attracted to God in any way, by any method, through any musical style.

Only the miraculous power of the Means of Grace, as the Holy Spirit’s tool, is capable of changing a heart of stone into a heart of flesh, of giving life to the dead and faith where there was only unbelief. It’s not the style in which it’s presented, but the power of the Holy Spirit that brings this about. The Means of Grace is not a matter of manmade style or man’s preference, but of the Spirit’s proclamation of God’s favor for Christ’s sake. Faith comes from hearing the message, not from being able to relate to how it was presented.

But even once faith is given and dead souls are raised to spiritual life, Lutheran theology emphasizes man’s constant neediness before God, a lifelong beggarliness that still depends entirely on God’s grace for everything. And the Means of Grace is the same for the believer as for the unbeliever. It remains the only source of comfort and strength for believers. It remains the Holy Spirit’s power for God’s people, unhelped and likewise unhindered by its manner of presentation.

While it’s certainly true that believers can read Scripture in their homes and serve the food of the Means of Grace to themselves, God has ordained the gathering of believers and the office of the Holy Ministry for the purpose of serving his people with the Means of Grace. This is a uniquely Lutheran understanding of worship, that God should serve man, and not the other way around. Or perhaps more accurately, that man serves God best when he simply receives the service of God in faith. This is how our Confessions speak about “worship.”
Thus the worship and divine service of the Gospel is to receive from God gifts; on the contrary, the worship of the Law is to offer and present our gifts to God. We can, however, offer nothing to God unless we have first been reconciled and born again. This passage, too, brings the greatest consolation, as the chief worship of the Gospel is to wish to receive remission of sins, grace, and righteousness. Apology V:189

Faith is the divine service, which receives the benefits offered by God...By faith God wishes to be worshiped in this way, that we receive from Him those things which He promises and offers. Apology IV:49.

Most of a believer’s time during the week is spent living out his or her faith, surrounded by opportunities to interact with unbelievers. But when the Church gathers for worship, the Lutheran Church understands this to be the time for faith primarily to be fed, for God to serve his people with the Living Bread from heaven – Christ in preaching and Christ in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Even the people’s thanksgiving and praise proclaims Christ in Lutheran worship.

This is also why the Lutheran Confessions insist on celebrating the Sacrament every Sunday (and at other times as well). Because God’s people always need to be fed, Christ’s Sacrament should always be available to them, right alongside the preaching of Christ. The Lutheran Mass, or liturgical service, has this as its primary goal, not just saying the name “Christ,” but presenting the whole story of Christ, the entire teaching of Christ, and all the benefits of Christ.


Sectarian worship is incompatible with Lutheran worship because it denies man’s utter neediness before God.

Sectarian worship is incompatible with Lutheran worship because it denies the Means of Grace as that alone through which God communicates and communes with man.

Sectarian worship is incompatible with Lutheran worship because it rejects the very concept that God distributes forgiveness of sins through the Gospel in Word and Sacrament.

Sectarian worship is incompatible with Lutheran worship because it does not have as its primary goal to bring Christ to his people in Word and Sacrament.

Sectarian worship is incompatible with Lutheran worship because it starts with the assumption that man is capable of encountering God through his own feelings, praise, prayers and experience.

Sectarian worship is incompatible with Lutheran worship because it is designed, not to teach men about Christ, but to work men up into the right “spiritual” state to be affected by God.

Since these are fundamental principles of sectarian worship that flow from sectarian theology, why do Lutherans think they can somehow “Lutheranize” that which is diametrically opposed to Lutheran theology? And here’s the real question: Why do they think it’s so important to turn to the sects to learn how to worship in the first place?


Pastor Jeff Samelson said...

Can you give some specific examples of what exactly is (and perhaps some examples of recently-produced songs or forms that are not) "sectarian worship"?

I agree that "contemporary worship" is not the most useful term, but it might be helpful to know what all you are including under "sectarian".

Thank you.

Lisette Anne Lopez said...

Pop music, rap music, rock music, new Christian pop songs, just about everything that isn't in the WELS hymnal, or -"It’s the upbeat musical style,"- yeah, that's pretty much exactly what is "Sectarian worship" music.

What's not "Sectarian worship" music, is in our WELS hymnal, and is any music that doesn't have an "upbeat muscial style,"- it's not pop music, rap music, rock music, new Christian pop songs, and any other music that doesn't encourage, "the casual, “real” atmosphere, and the emotional responses of the people that really “bring God’s presence into the room.”

All that is included under "sectarian" is everything that is highlighted in bold at the bottom of the whole discussion and blog.
It's pretty clear. :)

Rev. Paul A. Rydecki said...

Pastor Samelson,

I could list a bunch of CCM songs and point out their fuzzy/false theology, or simply their lack of Scriptural content and their focus on how a person feels. I'll do that at some point. But it's more than the choice of songs.

Some will pick and choose from the following examples and say, “I saw that done in a liturgical service!” Or, “You can’t say that’s sinful!” The point of these examples isn’t to say that they’re all sinful. The point is, they’re sectarian practices, practices that did not flow from the worship of the Church catholic and have not historically been part of confessional Lutheran worship. They have originated among the sects, and stem from the theology of the sects. Whether or not these specific practices are prevalent in WELS congregations is also not the point. The question was, “What does the worship of the sects look like?”

Sectarian worship practices: Scrapping the liturgy and starting over from scratch. Scrapping the Church Year and the Lectionary, and instead choosing sermon series and topics to fit the perceived or felt needs of the worshipers. Speaking of the liturgy as “irrelevant.” Putting the focus on the performer(s) "on stage," as if it were a concert rather than a time to receive Christ. Appealing to the emotions of worshipers independently of the Scriptures. Using a genre of music that panders to the culture and doesn't properly carry the Scripture text or reflect the transcendent nature of God – Rock & Roll, country, Blue Grass, R&B, rap, Jazz, pop, etc. Starting off the service with rousing music to get everybody in the right mood to feel the “Spirit”. 5-10 minutes spent on each Scripture-less, Gospel-less song. Only occasional celebration of the Lord's Supper, if at all. A lack of confession and absolution, or a failure to confess that we are "by nature" sinful. A confession that isn't really a confession, or an absolution that isn't really an absolution. Reciting the church's "Mission/Vision Statement" during the service. Creating an entertainment atmosphere vs. a reverent atmosphere (food and drinks encouraged, comedy show, buffoonery). Ultra-casual atmosphere. No vestments to distinguish the office of the holy ministry during worship. Preacher's personality and charisma become the focus. Rejecting standard formulae, even ancient creeds, and freely rewriting them "for the moment." Preaching that generally focuses on Sanctification rather than Justification. Lax fellowship practices.

Those are just a few examples, and again, not every one of them is wrong in and of itself. But those practices combine to form a service that no longer looks Lutheran and most certainly does look sectarian.

That's still not the worst of it, though. The underlying reasons for a Lutheran church to scrap its historic worship and copy the worship of the sects – that’s a bigger problem. The notion that the Church gathers on the Lord’s Day primarily to reach the lost is not historically accurate or Biblically sound. The notion that we can “more effectively” reach the lost by using the right style or method of worship is simply heretical. The Holy Spirit does it all through the Means of Grace, not through styles that appeal to unbelievers.

Joe Krohn said...

Thanks for providing this platform for discussion. This is very important for what represents true Christianity, which is what Luther and the authors of the Confessions were striving for. Its not the format of worship, but rather the motivations. I think those who are contemplating mimicking the reformists in worship should have a good read of Jonah before embarking on such an undertaking.

Joe Krohn

Anonymous said...

Joe Krohn,

I read your comment and read Jonah. Could you please expand your thoughts? I want to know what you are getting at.

William Chase

Joe Krohn said...


The Word of God has power to save regardless of what men think, say or do. Jonah had his own idea of how to do his ministry and God showed him otherwise. When we think that a certain ministry is going to bring forth fruits better than another, we are sadly mistaken. We are being irresponsible with God's word just as Jonah was.

Joe Krohn

AP said...


I agree with your first sentence 100%. What, however, do you mean by the third sentence? There is only one kind of ministry that is going to bear true fruit, and that is the ministry of administring the uncorrupted Word and Sacraments. And, yes, by uncorrupted I mean unpolluted by the false doctrine of the Church Growth Movement and all the works that spring forth from it. I have absolutely no qualms about calling the CGM what it is.

By the way, I think it is kind of fitting to point out that Herman Melville's character Father Mapple in Moby Dick described the message of Jonah thusly:

"Jonah did the almighty's bidding. And what was that, shipmates? To preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood! That was it!"

Please correct me if I am wrong, but if you are suggesting that Jonah is somehow a lesson about tolerating various worship or ministry forms, then you are sadly mistaken. I am not expert, but it seems to me that Jonah is a story of repentence and the power of God's Word.

Dr. Aaron Palmer

Anonymous said...

Joe Krohn said..."Its not the format of worship, but rather the motivations. I think those who are contemplating mimicking the reformists in worship should have a good read of Jonah before embarking on such an undertaking."

After your explanation I realize I took your word "reformists" to be reformers or even Concordists. I am glad I have been clarified.

I will humbly point out that when you say "Its not the format of worship, but rather the motivations" that there is danger there also. True to a point, but I have many observations and direct statements given to me that glow over the motivations and zeal of the Reformed/sectarians. And these well intended pastors and laity go on to follow and copy everything and call it a "means of grace ministry" as if just pasting a name on it makes all the difference in the world and somehow sanctifies it and vulcanizes it into fitting Lutheran doctrine and practice just fine. I think some have called it "lip service to the means of grace" here. Again, there is a huge difference.

Also your comment "When we think that a certain ministry is going to bring forth fruits better than another, we are sadly mistaken" is fine, but I would add for clarity "any ministry other than a means of grace ministry."

For the edification of all I leave you all with this beautiful and germane quote from Luther.

Regarding Holiness, Preach Creeds to get Deeds. From quote 2324 of What Luther Says, edited by Ewald Plass.

According to the First Table, God requires us to hear, consider and teach the Word, to pray to Him and to fear Him. When this is done, the service or the works called for by the Second Table will follow, as it were, of their own accord; for it is impossible for him who performs the acts of worship of the First Table not to perform those of the Second Table. The first psalm says: He who meditates on the Word of God day and night is as a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth his fruit in his season and his leaf have not withered (vv.2-3) This is the evident and unfailing result. For he who believes and fears God, who calls upon God in tribulation, who praises and thanks Him for His blessings, who loves to hear His Word, who attentively contemplates the works of God, who teaches others to do the same things - how could he harm his neighbor or disobey his parents or kill of commit adultery? Therefore the First Table is to be placed before men first, and they are first to be instructed in all that constitutes the TRUE WORSHIP OF GOD For that is making the tree good, which then bears good fruits, Our adversaries turn this around; they want to have the fruit even before they have the tree.

Sound familiar to what we hear in church or not so much?
The emphasis is mine in the last sentence of Luther.

William Chase

Intrepid Lutherans said...

A week ago as I was preparing a sermon on the sinful woman, I read these words of Jesus

"To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? 32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.’ 33 For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ 34 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.”’ 35 But wisdom is proved right by all her children.” Lk 7:31

And I thought, this speaks to an arrogant generation that demands the new and different worship services because times have changed. If people will not listen to John the Baptist nor to Jesus who had two different styles, who are we to think, “If only I can provide people with different worship service, they will repent.”

Pastor Rod Dietsche

Joe Krohn said...

Dr. Palmer,

I can see how my statement could be misconstrued within the context of Jonah and the message of Grace. My apologies.

When we decide how to spread the Word other than what God asks of us, we are in error. I am not against a praise band, but I am against the notion that it will affect the growth of a church. I am not against the study of demographics, but I am against targeting a certain demographic for your church.

Like Jonah, when we use 'other' methods, we are acting in fear/distrust of God as Jonah was.

Hope that helps.


Intrepid Lutherans said...

Rev. Dietsche writes,

Sometimes we Lutherans think we can do something because we get arrogant just like other sinners.

I wonder at times, do we spend time developing or copying other forms of worship because we unknowing think we are better than John the Baptist or our Savior Jesus who preached repent and many just found fault with them.

On the flip side are those who say - they will not come to worship because the music isn't lively enough - arrogant in that they believe that they are better than past generations and cannot learn from them.

Could it be this arrogance flows from ignorance?

Pastor Rod Dietsche

AP said...


Much of this seems to come down to motivation or reasoning. Yes, having a praise band because, "we have to be modern to grow the church" is wrong. I'd agree with you that there is probably nothing wrong in theory with different styles of music in worship, but again, I would always ask two questions before going down that road.

First, what is the motivation? Second, does the new style cause offense or confusion? Think of it this way: what images does the electric guitar invoke? Are those the images one wants to invoke during worship? Moreover, there is the issue of being "yoked" with those who do not share our confession. If our worship looks like ECLA, the Reformed, or the mega-churches, could that not at least be perceived as tacit agreement with those sects?

I think, even if we agree that doctrinal issues have to be sorted out before making innovations in worship, there are still bigger issues about so-called contemporary styles than just taste.

Dr. Aaron Palmer

Anonymous said...

Dr. Palmer,

Here is something that may be a very thought provoking. From my copy of Handbook of Denominations copyright 1970, I found this tidbit.

"It might be said generally that these Dunker or Bretheran bodies are former German Baptists who took their theology and much of their practice from the Pietists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Germany. The Pietists, who were mostly Lutheran, became unhappy with the formalism of worship and ritual in their state church and with the general "barenness" of German Protestantism." It goes on.."From these German Pietists came the Chruch of the Bretheran, The Bretheran Church, the Old German Baptist Bretheran and the Church of God etc."

So we have to ask why should this be going on in so called confessional Lutheran churches today? Is it from boredom, pietism, re-inventions of the same? I think yes. It looks like WORSHIP was big part of the Pietists, yes Lutherans, started entirely new denominations from the quote above.

How I have heard among the laity of this boredom today. How I have heard pastors speak of "dead orthodoxy", scoffed at "our great Lutheran hymnody" and simply showing loathing and distaste for the historic and yes incredibly relevent rites of worhship we seem to be losing and the theology with it.

Jim Huwe

Mr. Douglas Lindee said...

Dr. Palmer,

You ask: If our worship looks like ECLA, the Reformed, or the mega-churches, could that not at least be perceived as tacit agreement with those sects?

In fact, I can tell you from nearly thirty years experience among charismatics in modern Evangelicalism, that this is precisely the case. Among Evangelicals, whether one lands in the Arminian or Calvinistic end of the Reformed spectrum, worship experience has been designated as the prime measure of the Holy Spirit's presence and working. The worshiper's own act of worship, the zeal with which he engages in it and the pleasure he derives from it, are Means through which the Holy Spirit works to strengthen the worshiper's faith, and draw him closer to God. For them, such experiences serve as the basis of a material relationship with a personal, yet invisible, God. Pentecostals (on the Arminian end of the spectrum) view such experiences as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, as evidence that He indwells the worshiper and is with them in power. Among charismatics outside the tradition of Pentecostalism proper (that is, those who are more toward the Calvinistic end of the Reformed spectrum among modern Evangelicals), such experiences are manifestations of the worshiper's sanctification, and, consistent with Calvinistic teaching, serve to assure the worshiper of his status among the Elect. Both among the Arminians and the Calvinists in modern Evangelicalism, the experience of certain specific worship traditions have become necessary in order that the individual be assured of his Justification, and in some cases (especially among Pentecostals) to stand as merit before God and evidence of His consequent blessing. In either case, worship experience is connected to establishing the worshipers Justification, rather than flowing from it, and specific worship forms are engineered by their pastors and/or worship leaders to manufacture a specific sort of experience that reinforces these false teachings.

What do the Confessions say about this? Of Usages in the Church, they teach that those ought to be observed which may be observed without sin, and which are profitable unto tranquility and good order... Nevertheless, concerning such things men are admonished that consciences are not to be burdened, as though such observance was necessary to salvation. They are admonished also that human traditions instituted to propitiate God, to merit grace, and to make satisfaction for sins, are opposed to the Gospel and the doctrine of faith. (AC XV).

For the heterodox in greater Evangelicalism, "contemporary" worship forms, while not securing Justification in the sense that Roman practices did, serve as prime tools for assuring Justification. That is, apart from the specific experiences derived from such forms, the individual's Justification is ultimately in question.

Continued in next post...

Mr. Douglas Lindee said...

...Continued from previous post

This is illustrated in the way Evangelicals often use their observations as a basis for judging others. Since specific kinds of worship experience are so tightly connected to the Holy Spirit -- His presence and working -- such experience often determines whether the Holy Spirit is with other professing Christians, functioning as a grounds for measuring the faith and sanctification of fellow Christians: So-and-so is more spiritual than that other person. or He is more evangelical than the other person. Or... worse. That everyone reaches a certain threshold of manifest zeal is vitally important to worship leaders in each congregation -- in order that they themselves have reasonable assurance that they are leading true Christians, and that they produce a basis of providing the same assurance for each individual in the worship assembly. That such experiences only serve to fulfill the expectations of the worship leader is obvious, if one takes the time to spend a few minutes in conversation with them. Invariably, their discussion devolves into some sort of emphatic declaration that individuals who are true Christians must emote in a specific fashion, usually with a form of worship piety directly informed by the Pentecostal experience.

But this is not all. In the same way, such experiences are also used by these Christians to validate the ministries of other congregations. Quite apart from orthodox confession, experience is the basis for determining whether the Holy Spirit endorses a given congregation or ministry, and it is only these congregations to which the conscientious Evangelical will attach himself, and with which he will engage in Fellowship activities. Evidence for this is plain in their speech -- just listen to the local Evangelical radio station (only for as long as you can tolerate it, of course...). The announcer and/or his guests will frequently speak of their recent experiences at such-and-such congregation or ministry, particularly in worship, or in prayer, or point to the feeling that came over them listening to the speaker, as evidence of the Holy Spirit's endorsement of that congregation or ministry: "I spoke as a guest preacher at such-and-such church this weekend, and I was so impressed by the worship. I could tell that the Holy Spirit's blessing is upon this ministry." Pretty much every permutation you can imagine on this Fellowship recipe can be heard any number of times during the week or month on any local Evangelical radio station.

The point is that Evangelicals look primarily to specific worship experiences as fellowship criteria, to specific experiences because of, what we would call, their doctrinal implications (although for them, such experiences bypass scripture teaching and indicate direct spiritual revelation from God). When Lutherans adopt practices that are intended to produce the same experiences sought by Evangelicals, we are telegraphing doctrinal agreement to them. Indeed, we are making overtures of Fellowship to the heterodox by using their own language of spiritual experience.

The fact is, most congenital Lutherans have no direct experience with these sectarian practices, haven't lived the life of an Evangelical who (as he has been taught) seeks spiritual fulfillment in certain experiences, haven't thought the thoughts of these heterodox, haven't prioritized their priorities, and as a result have completely misunderstand the danger of adopting or approving of these practices. I have lived the doctrinally confused and spiritually unsatisfying life of an Evangelical, and so have other Lutherans like me. These sectarian practices are not adiaphora, but insidious destructive forces, working internally to undermine our precious doctrine by reinforcing false teaching through their use, and externally to undermine our Confessional distinction by calling out to the heterodox in their own terms.

Mr. Douglas Lindee

Post a Comment

Comments will be accepted or rejected based on the sound Christian judgment of the moderators.

Since anonymous comments are not allowed on this blog, please sign your full name at the bottom of every comment, unless it already appears in your identity profile.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License