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Seven Reasons Why Lutherans Should Not Jump on the “Contemporary Worship” Bandwagon

It seems as though a lot of Lutheran churches these days are ditching the historic liturgy and jumping on the "contemporary worship" bandwagon.  This post details a number of reasons why I think that this is a bandwagon that Lutherans should avoid.  My experience as an evangelical has mainly been with non-liturgical worship of a "blended" type – i.e. praise songs with a few hymns interspersed here and there.  However, the following criticisms still apply.  They are not in any particular order.

1. Theological Shallowness.  Modern "praise songs" are, by and large, very theologically shallow compared to hymns.  They tend toward the vague and many of them speak generically of God rather than Christ – and even when they do speak of Christ they can be remarkably vague about what He did.  "There's Just Something About That Name" and "Bless That Wonderful Name of Jesus" come quickly to mind.  This sort of thing encourages, in my mind, the assumption of the Gospel that is all too prevalent in evangelicalism.

2. Definition of Contemporary – How does one define "contemporary"?  The truth is, most folks who want to introduce "contemporary" music into their churches will never be up on what is contemporary enough to really be cutting-edge and relevant to today's youth.  I hear Lutherans discussing the merits of praise songs from the eighties!  How is this relevant, exactly? It might be relevant to those who are in their forties and fifties, but certainly not to teens!  In twenty years we might be debating the merits of a song that came out in 2009.

The problem with selecting songs on the basis of "relevance" and how "contemporary" they are is that today's "relevant" and "contemporary" songs are tomorrow's moldy oldies.  It is much better to select songs on the basis of Christian content than on the basis of something as fickle as "relevance."

3. Inward focus vs outward focus.  In my experience and observation, praise songs tend to be very focused on what is happening inside the person singing rather than focused on what is outside of us – the objective reality of what God has done, and continues to do, through Christ.  For example, here's a song we used to sing at my old evangelical church:

Surely the Presence of the Lord is in this place;
I can feel His mighty power and His grace.
I can hear the brush of angel's wings,
I see glory on each face;
Surely the Presence of the Lord is in this place.

In this song, how do you know the Lord is present?  Because you feel it, you have an experience, etc.  As Lutherans, our feelings are not the gauge of whether God is present among us. God is present among us in His Word and Sacraments.  This is an objective reality whether I feel it or not.  Christ died for my sins and rose from the dead for my justification, regardless of whether or not I feel it to be true.

4. False assumption that new is good, old is bad.  This is an artifact of our constantly changing society.  The assumption is that people will think the liturgy and historic Christian worship is old, crusty and boring, so we should change it to accommodate what modern people like.  However, the false assumption here is that people want the same thing they get day in and day out in their everyday lives.  Lots of people are looking for something deep, meaningful and stable.  In my view giving up the liturgy for contemporary worship is like trading a priceless treasure for a cheap trinket someone bought last week at the dollar store.  The world's thinking is already only two inches deep.  Why should we want the church to be that way too? 

5. Focus on human activity rather than on God's activity.  The fact is many praise songs seem to have a sort of "me" focus – on me and my acts of worship and service rather than on what God has actually done.  "Everything within me worships you" is a line I particularly remember having trouble with as an evangelical when what I was really feeling was "everything within me is tainted with sin."  Many praise songs boil down to: I will do this, I will do that.  I will serve You in any number of ways.  I am worshiping, praising and adoring.  Often missing or simply assumed is why we should be doing these things, and when it is present it is often vague.  The emphasis is on what we are doing for God rather than on what God has done for us.

I recall a praise song that was popular years ago called "The Heart of Worship" whose chorus included the line, "It's all about You, Jesus."  But ironically, the rest of the song was basically about us, what was going on in our hearts, and what we were doing to worship God.  It was supposed to be all about Jesus but there was nothing in the song that said anything about what Jesus had done for us. 

6. False assumption that people are coming to church to be entertained.  If I want to be entertained, I will go to a concert, not a church.  If entertainment is what I am looking for, I will watch my favorite TV program.  Church is not the place I think of when I think "entertainment." And this is not a bad thing, because church is not about entertainment.

This point is somewhat related to point 4.  Are people really looking for "church as entertainment" these days?  When I can get megabytes and megabytes of shallow entertainment on my iPhone, why would I go to church to get more?  And even if there are those out there who do expect the church to entertain them, here's the thing – people are not saved because we entertain them to make the message more palatable to their fallen human will.  No, they are saved because the Holy Spirit, working through the Word, convicts people of their sin and creates faith in their hearts.

7.  What you confess determines how you worship (and vice versa).  I am convinced that behind "contemporary worship" is a different confession from that which Lutherans confess. This sums up all of the other points.

When I first started attending a Lutheran church I was struck by how participating in the liturgy was like being saturated in God's Word.  Everything that is done gives the worshiper more of the Word – the hymns, the prayers, the chanting, the readings, the sermon, the Eucharist – it's like swimming in a sea of wonderful, life-giving Scripture.  Why is this the case?  Because Lutherans believe that the Word of God is what creates faith, that it's living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword, that the Gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.  In Lutheranism, the Holy Spirit comes through the Word of God (and the Sacraments – the Word attached to visible elements).

There is a reason why evangelicals worship the way they do – because
1) they largely believe that the Holy Spirit comes apart from the Word of
God and 2) they largely believe that faith is an act of the will rather than God's gift through the Word.  Thus the songs that are more about God "touching your heart" and "drawing us close" during worship – the Holy Spirit coming in a mystical way through our emotions – than about what God has objectively done and is still doing in Christ.  Thus all the frantic efforts to be culturally relevant in order to appeal to human will. 

What does it say when Lutherans worship like evangelicals?  It says, "we believe no different than what evangelicals believe."  When Lutherans worship like evangelicals, they are confessing that they don't really believe that the Word of God is THAT powerful.  They are confessing that what happens inside of us is more important than what was done outside of us.  They are confessing that what we do for God is more important than what God did (and still does) for us.

What would I have done if, on that fateful morning when I first decided that I needed to see Lutheranism in practice, I had walked into a church full of Lutherans who were worshiping like Baptists or Pentecostals? 

I would have walked away and never come back.  At least not to that particular church.


Because there's no hope for me when all I am pointed to is myself – to my feelings, to my obedience, to my devotion, to my worship.  Hope only comes from outside of me – through the external Word and Sacraments delivering Christ crucified for my sins. 

"Contemporary worship" seems to be less about God's Word and more about entertaining us, making us feel good and pointing us to ourselves while at the same time claiming to be Christ-centered.  But in my experience there is nothing more Christ-centered and cross-focused than the liturgy done by Lutherans who are not ashamed to be Lutherans.

Posted in Faith, Hymns, Liturgy, Lutheran Distinctives, Worship.

37 Responses

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  1. Alden Swan says

    Amen. Those 7 reasons are why I left the contemporary evangelical church for a liturgical church.

  2. Glen Piper says

    Very nicely done, Dawn! Thanks for writing this – I’ve already used this post to generate a little discussion on my FB…

  3. Frank Gillespie says

    Congrats Dawn on being picked as an Issues, Etc. Blog of the Week as it was a well deserved honor!

  4. Doc B says

    As a Southern Baptist who worships in a ‘contemporary worship’ and ‘blended worship’ style congregation, I think this is an excellent analysis of the contemporary music movement. Of course, one should not be surprised at the focus of much of this music when one sees the emphasis on pietism and experientialism in the evangelical church, especially the SB denomination, over the past 100 years or so.
    Fortunately, many of us are working to change this; there is an explosion of the teaching of the doctrines of grace in the SB denomination. With the Finneyism and Arminianism of the past, we saw an explosion of denominational diversity. With a move toward the doctrines of grace, I expect we’ll see a move toward less-and-less differentialism in the denominations, and even a demise of some of the marginal denominations as Christians move back toward the Gospel and a Biblically-centered model of governance.

  5. Robert says

    This is a horribly written article. All of these points try to prove why we are to live and worship like Lutherans? Ummm…how about to live and worship like Jesus. The criticisms of the contemporary worship songs today are correct in a couple of places, but the point of the Gospel is JESUS and what He did for humanity. To remove humanity out of the equation does not emphasize the point of the cross well. It’s about Jesus. That does not mean that we are not to worship God from the inside out, with all of our heart (which is how Jesus tells us to obey the greatest commandment). It means that each song, each action of a Christ-follower is to exalt Jesus Christ and Him alone. That’s done through our lives.
    One more thing. Though we are not to entertain, does not mean that we are to bore people to death either. Theology without biblical passion and/or zeal is a faith by word only. The Scriptures call us to word and deed.

  6. Dan at Necessary Roughness says

    Biblical passion is not the problem. Seeking to generate passion through driving beats and guitar riffs instead of the sheer joy that we are saved from hell, and calling that artificial passion “biblical” is akin to taking the Lord’s name in vain.

  7. Dawn K says

    Hi Robert,
    The point of the article is that worship IS all about Jesus and not about ourselves, and that CW by and large puts the focus on ourselves instead of on Jesus and what He has done and is still doing for us.
    Lutheran worship at its best puts Christ squarely at the center. We are not against passion and emotion. It is a matter of emphasis. Lutherans worship the way they do because they believe that God objectively comes to us from the outside through Word and Sacraments – that despite how I may feel, God is for me in Christ.
    The fact is that I don’t always worship God with all of my heart, and if you’re honest with yourself, neither do you. We break the greatest commandment with our apathy and distractedness and self-centeredness. This is where the objective reality of the Gospel for even sinners like you and me is tremendously comforting.
    I find it interesting how folks who are in favor of this sort of thing always put up the straw man of “dead theology” or “theology without Biblical passion.” Always seems to me like the mark of a pietist. The bigger problem in the church today is passion without Biblical theology.
    I challenge you to read the words of a hymn like “Salvation Unto Us Has Come” and tell me if you find yourself bored. If you need a certain musical style to not be bored by a song with those lyrics then you should think about where your focus really is. Dan is spot on in what he says.

  8. Christine says

    You are already a very wise Lutheran. Thanks for your thoughtful and uplifting comments.
    Christine (a Lutheran revert)

  9. Ken Howes says

    Very well stated, Dawn. The theological vacuity of “praise songs” compares very poorly with the historic Lutheran chorales–or with most of the older Anglican or Reformed hymns.
    The crazy thing is that we have been down this road before. Take a look at our beloved Lutheran Hymnal (1941). There are perhaps 200 hymns in there that date from the 1800’s–mushy, sentimental songs, mostly of Methodist origin, that are almost an embarrassment to sing any more. They were the Contemporary Worship of their time, and had to be removed from subsequent hymnals.

  10. Dawn K says

    Very interesting, Ken …
    It’s true that contemporary “praise songs” are not the only culprits when it comes to theological shallowness/inward focus. These things are true of many hymns as well (largely from the 1800’s). Interesting that such hymns found their way into a Lutheran hymnal … I guess there’s nothing new under the sun!

  11. SKH says

    This is a great discussion, and I agreed with your main points. However, I wish you had kept your thesis to true worship. You and I agree on all the points about worship, but I began to see this as an apologetic for Lutheranism instead of for true, biblical worship. Your thesis holds true for Christians, Dawn, not just for Lutherans. When we begin to argue about which denomination is “better,” we commit a red herring. Stick to your beautiful essay about true worship, and don’t draw your audience off topic!

  12. Dawn K says

    Hi SKH, The article didn’t go off topic because if you’ll notice the title is “Seven Reasons why LUTHERANS should not jump on the ‘Contemporary Worship’ Bandwagon.” 🙂 It was addressed to Lutherans in particular. The last point of the post was that Lutherans should not worship like Baptists or Pentecostals since the way we worship is indicative of what we believe. I find the whole idea of “non-denominationalism” to be misleading. There is no such thing as “generic” Christianity. Everyone believes something even if it is “it doesn’t matter what you believe.” I happen to believe that Lutheran theology is true and I write accordingly. The question is not so much “which denomination is better?” but “which denomination best teaches what is in accord with sound doctrine?”

  13. David Housholder--Robinwood Church says

    Not sure if your post is even serious; perhaps a prank, so I respond with some trepidation, not wanting to be lured into a blog version of “punked.”

    You are entitled to your opinion, but you are no longer a Confessional Lutheran by making worship style such a big deal.

    If you take AC VII seriously, you are required to allow total freedom in worship form, including your caricature of “Contemporary.”

    BTW, what passes for “traditional” in most Lutheran churches is not Lutheran at all, but rather a black and white version of Vatican 2 Roman Catholicism with an over-emphasis on baptismal theology and the canon of the mass. But, being a confessional Lutheran, according to AC VII, I have to live and let live.

  14. Dawn K says

    The key phrase in AC VII is the Gospel being purely taught and the Sacraments being correctly administered. A key point of this post was that worship practice demonstrates what you believe. It’s not simply a matter of style or preference as many Contemporary worship advocates claim.

    It’s a big stretch to assert that “if you take AC VII seriously, you are required to allow total freedom in worship form.” I don’t think even you would go so far as to allow *total* freedom. I can think of quite a few pagan worship practices that you probably wouldn’t allow in your church (or at least I hope you wouldn’t). Why? Because those practices are inconsistent with what you believe. In much the same way, Baptist/Pentecostal worship practices obscure the pure teaching of the Gospel by what they confess (or fail to confess). If you disagree with any of the points to that effect in the post above feel free to comment further.

  15. David Housholder--Robinwood Church says

    The spirit of AC VII, no matter how you parse it, is to allow for freedom in worship, provided that the gospel is preached correctly and that the sacraments are done right.

    Thus, in the spirit of AC VII, to suggest that contemporary worship, nothing more and nothing less than a style, is “less” Lutheran or to discourage its practice, which the title of this string clearly states, is simply not confessional.

    Yes there should be total freedom, but the gospel can be communicated just as clearly with guitars and sandals as with organs and robes. Ditto the sacraments.

    I have nothing against traditional liturgical worship. It can be beautiful. It can be deadly dull. And there is nothing worse than bad contemporary worship :-).

    But to imply that anything more contemporary is de facto worth less is simply not Confessionally Lutheran

  16. Dawn K says

    @David – I’d be curious to hear what you believe the Gospel is. Your church website says “We believe in Grace. We do not believe that we can become holy by human striving. We can only become holy by giving control of our lives to Jesus Christ through his Holy Spirit.”

    Since when do Lutherans believe that we are saved by surrendering our lives to Jesus? How is your Lutheran church different from an Arminian church in this regard? Same way with the Sacraments – seems almost like you regard Baptism as optional. Unless I’m missing something major on the website, I’m confused as to how you – as a confessional Lutheran – can regard this as “the Gospel being rightly preached and the Sacraments being correctly administered.”

    My critique of contemporary worship is not a matter of musical style per se. The issue is “what does our style of worship communicate about our theology? And how does our style of worship reflect our theology?” I’m not seeing Lutheran theology at your church’s website, but rather something you can find at any Arminian megachurch. This just reinforces my concerns.

  17. Dan Malloy says

    I was forced to respond. It must be remembered that God, the mighty and infinite reaches out in many ways. To put Him in a box is sin, so this might be considered a rebuke. If you divide His time by every person that has ever lived, He has spent eternity thinking about each individual (∞ ÷ N = ∞). So He can reach people in very many ways. One person’s life giving experience with God (Jesus Christ) can be very different than another persons. To some people liturgy, though founded in the word, makes God seem transcendent and impersonal. Many of the Hymns, though great in truth are in the 3rd person. Speaking about God and not to Him. Many people need to “Feel” the truth that God cares about them as an individual. Is that really bad? My observation is that God cares not how how theologically shallow the song is as long as it is a prayer. If one really wants and example of what God wants to hear then go to the Psalms (That means all the Psalms). In them are promises of behavior, thoughts of only “me”, what is going on in the heart of the psalmist, and curses on others (Ps 140:9-11). How do you think it would be accepted today to sing a song in church wishing evil on your enemies. I say it doesn’t matter what Lutherans confess, the Word Of God is the example!

  18. Dawn K says

    Hi Dan, God reaches people through the Word (Romans 10:17). It’s not like God had to spend eternity thinking about what it would take to get each individual to choose Christ. Left to ourselves, we were all dead in trespasses and sins and would only choose against God if we had the choice. The question is, what kind of worship best delivers to people the Word of God? You wrote, “many people need to ‘feel’ the truth that God cares about them as an individual.” Feelings are not the issue. Objective reality is. I look not to my subjective feelings to know that God cares about me but to the external Word of God. I know God cares about me because He put His name on me at my Baptism. I know He cares about me because He speaks words of forgiveness to me through the mouth of His called and ordained servant. I know He cares about me because He gives me His body and blood to eat and drink for the forgiveness of my sins. So no, it’s not a bad thing for people to want to feel the truth that God cares about them as an individual. It’s just that I would rather know that for certain through Christ’s Word and Sacraments than just being content with a feeling that may or may not be real. Feelings that are based on anything other than actual reality are not reliable. I’m not buying the comparison of modern praise songs to Psalms. I wouldn’t call the Psalms “theologically shallow.” They are always in the context of God’s works of salvation, and like the rest of Scripture they point to Christ.

  19. Andrew says

    I side with Dave.

    In addition to what he writes, I just observe people of my generation (mid-40’s and under) in traditional settings wanting to collapse onto the floor by about verse five of so many boring traditional hymns. Right or wrong, they could care less whether the theology is “right.”

    That by itself is not convincing perhaps other than to say I find it ineffective at reaching new generations that did not grow up with traditional worship forms, and even for many of them who grew up Lutheran it is a stretch.

    So often, no energy.

    As for the “personal relationship” aspect of new hymns, read the psalms, the hymnbook in our bible, and it is so personal, you can’t escape the first person, personal expression, speaking out to God, crying out to God aspect of it. Three kinds of psalms – mad, glad or sad. All personal.

    So many traditional Lutheran hymns are just loaded with secondary discourse – you can sing them and keep your distance and stay far away as you doze off, waiting for them to be done soon.

    It is so often talk “about” the gospel. Forde used to say there is nothing more deadly than talk “about” the gospel, rather than the proclamation of the gospel, in sermons. And, while generalizing to some degree, I find the same in so many traditional hymns.

    As for expediency, I just find it is way easier to reach people in worship using modern contemporary sounding music whether it is amazing grace with guitar, A Mighty Fortress on Guitar, or something being written today.

    I’ve heard they have Luther’s original chart of A Mighty Fortress, arranged on… guitar. Lutherans broke the mold with indigenous contemporary worship but, for the most part, have let the evangelicals pave the way, the Lutherans sticking to what was familiar to them.

    We are not doing what Luther did.

    We stay comfortable rather than reach new people.

    We prefer insider language and music.

    Seems different to me than what Jesus would have done. Didn’t he leave everything to reach those far from God?

    If contemporary worship music helps us reach new people, and traditional hymnody honestly just scares many people away, are we sticking with our traditions at the expense of the great commission?

    Are we setting aside the commands of God to honor our own traditions.

    Most of the time, it comes down to “what I like” versus all the rest of the arguments.

    There is no such thing as Christian music. Only Christian lyrics. That has been said again and again. True, in my opinion.

  20. Andrew says

    “Since when do Lutherans believe that we are saved by surrendering our lives to Jesus?”

    I don’t see the problem. Isn’t “surrendering” – I confess that I’m in bondage to sin – confession?

    Isn’t salvation through grace by faith? Believing in Jesus Christ. And doesn’t faith only happen through the power of the Holy Spirit?

    Dave’s statement makes sense to me. Sometimes, unless we use the insider language, or the officially approved language, Lutherans can’t accept others as not be works-based.

    Whether we’re right or not, seems like Lutherans are always on witch hunts to pound out theological language they don’t like. None of my evangelical friends would say faith is a work nor would they say it was anything other than God’s doing alone.

    As for affirming Dave’s comment, don’t we believe as Luther said that we cannot by our own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ or come to him… except how…? When the HS calls, gather, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it united with Jesus Christ.

    And so if someone surrenders, wouldn’t that be something God is doing?

  21. Frank Gillespie says

    The statement “Lutherans broke the mold with indigenous contemporary worship” is simply untrue but often repeated. It was many, many years before the reformers even moved the Divine Service or Gottesdienst from Latin to the vernacular German.

    Moreover, I would also take issue with the Psalms being perceived as personalized in the same way that the majority of modern Christian music accomplishes its personalization. The easiest way to test ccm is to simply look at the grammar: who is the song about by looking at who is the subject of the verbs. If we, or our feelings, or our works, or our actions are the subject of the song, it is about us and is not about us the work and person of Jesus. Using the Psalms as a baseline is actually a good idea in that our hymnody should at least measure up to the various psalmists in both proclamation as well as theological content.

    I’m glad you brought up Amazing Grace. Is it possible to reach people with a song like Amazing Grace that says absolutely nothing about person and work of Jesus? Is it possible to reach a lost soul with a song that both a Muslim and a Buddhist can sing without compromising their own unique theological distinctiveness? I know that Amazing Grace is a sacred cow to many but the song says about who Jesus is (and therefore says nothing of the Father who sends Him nor the Spirit who proclaims Him) and what He did for us as well as what He does for us today in the preached Word and through the blessed Eucharist. The Psalms on the other hand always speak of the Lord who saves and points us to the Christ who does the saving.

    Yep, I’ll be happy to use the Psalms as a “traditional” benchmark any day!

  22. Jeremy Clifton says


    Based ton your first comment, I’m guessing I’m probably in your generation or at least close (I’m 35).

    “I just observe people of my generation (mid-40’s and under) in traditional settings wanting to collapse onto the floor by about verse five of so many boring traditional hymns. Right or wrong, they could care less whether the theology is ‘right.'”

    There are certainly hymns that I like less than others, but I’d rather sing a hymn than pretty much any “contemporary” song I’ve ever run into.

    “That by itself is not convincing perhaps other than to say I find it ineffective at reaching new generations that did not grow up with traditional worship forms, and even for many of them who grew up Lutheran it is a stretch.”

    I didn’t grow up with traditional worship forms, or even anything that remotely would have qualified as liturgical (I spent the first 27 years of my life in non-traditional and contemporary Baptist churches). Yet the first time I experienced a traditional liturgical service I realized how much I was missing. I know I’m not the first person from a non-liturgical background to have that reaction.

    In fact, at my church, where we have a traditional service (8am) and a contemporary service (11am), most people who visit the 11am service end up attending the 8am service within a few weeks and stay there for the most part.

    So, I’m not at all comfortable with asserting that a traditional liturgical service isn’t effective for reaching folks outside of the traditional Lutheran fold, or even that new generations prefer contemporary to liturgical. (Yes, I know you didn’t say that.)

    In fact, I’m not comfortable with talking about worship style being effective or ineffective at all, or making the decision based on preference. I think that’s putting the cart before the horse.

    “So many traditional Lutheran hymns are just loaded with secondary discourse – you can sing them and keep your distance and stay far away as you doze off, waiting for them to be done soon.”

    Actually I find that fairly attractive. 🙂

    “Most of the time, it comes down to “what I like” versus all the rest of the arguments.”

    I’m with you there. “What I like” is not acceptable criteria for shaping the divine service.

    “There is no such thing as Christian music. Only Christian lyrics. That has been said again and again. True, in my opinion.”

    I would posit something different … and I think it is helpful to this conversation. I’d say there is no such thing as Christian music OR Christian lyrics. Trying to determine whether lyrics are or are not Christian is striving after the wind, in my opinion.

    There is sacred music, suitable for the divine service, and there is non-sacred music, not suitable for the divine service. That’s not to say that music that is not sacred it not beautiful, praiseworthy, or that it does not express appropriate theological content or portray a right and proper attitude towards God.

    It may seem like that’s not significantly different from saying lyrics are or are not Christian, but I think it makes a world of difference when we’re talking about what is appropriate for the divine service. Then we move the question back to what the purpose of the divine service is. Once we arrive at its purpose, only then can we determine whether a particular song is or is not appropriate for the divine service.


  23. Raggedy Lamb says

    My comment may not be quite in line with your thesis, Dawn. But, since I’ve been out of the US so long, I have come to a greater appreciation of the liturgy and those really long “boring” hymns. Both are saturated with God’s Word and His promises of who He is and what He has done for all mankind, even for miserable me.

    When Paul was in prison, and he was singing hymns, what was it that changed the heart of the guard? The content, the message that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes on Him would not perish, but have eternal life.

    When we sing in worship, do those around us hear the Gospel in its rich purity? God does not need to hear the Gospel, but we do, and our neighbor does! Lately, for me, that’s the bottom line.

  24. Dawn K says


    I find all this talk along the lines of “Lutherans just stick with what’s familiar to them” and “traditional worship is ineffective at reaching new generations” to be rather funny because I’m a relatively young person (early thirties) who is a recent convert to Lutheranism from evangelicalism. I don’t speak as one who’s been a Lutheran all her life.

    The thing is that for Lutherans, the “personal” is not (or at least it should not be) found in what we bring to God, but in the gifts that God gives to us (personally) in Word and Sacrament. Those hymns so full of “secondary discourse” are all about the objective reality of what Christ has done FOR ME. They are basically God’s Word set to music. If faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ then why would we want to sing songs that are all about our own feelings and works? If worship is all about “expressing my feelings to God” then that would be one thing. But it’s not primarily about that. Worship is primarily about receiving God’s gifts. Will receiving God’s gifts of Word and Sacrament create feelings in me? Often times it will. But that’s not the primary focus. Frank is spot on in what he says regarding the Psalms, which have way more objective content than most praise songs.

    I seem to constantly hear the argument “we need to use contemporary worship to reach new people.” My question is: what are you reaching them with when you are constantly teaching by your practice that worship is all about what we bring to God?

    Regarding the phrase “surrender your life to Jesus” you are just deconstructing the phrase to make it sound as though evangelicals and Lutherans believe the exact same thing when they really don’t. No, the Arminian evangelicals who use such language (which Calvinists generally don’t use) probably won’t come out and say “I believe faith is a work.” But they do believe (and I speak from personal experience here) that they are saved because they made a decision to accept Jesus as their Savior. They certainly believe the Holy Spirit was involved (in giving them the ability to choose God) but they don’t believe it was God’s doing alone. Just suggest election and predestination to such folks and see how loudly they protest against the idea of our free will being violated.

    The reason I have a problem with using such language is not because I am a Lutheran on a “witch hunt” who doesn’t know anything about actual evangelical theology. I know a great deal about evangelical theology, having been a (mostly) Arminian evangelical all my life until quite recently. You can deconstruct evangelical language all you want, but the fact is that such language puts the focus on human activity in salvation (and in sanctification). This is true even if you modify it by saying “well, it’s God who causes you to surrender” – if that’s the case salvation still hinges on something I do. And it’s not merely an academic issue – this sort of theology can really do a lot of spiritual damage. I’m not sure why we feel the need to improve upon what the catechism expresses quite well without the man-centered theological baggage.

  25. Phil says

    I am not a big fan of contemporary worship. The music is shallow and often filled with false doctrine (as you pointed out very well). But at chapel at my school once we sang a hymn to his guitar. It was different but I didn’t really think it was problematic. But I wonder though if you would consider that “entertainment” and thus be more inward-focused rather then God-focused. If so, does that mean that Lutherans have to purposefully use music that some would consider boring so as to avoid the temptation to let church be even a little bit “entertaining”? Are Lutherans required to use pianos and organs until Jesus comes?
    Good column, I’m interested to hear your response to this challenge.

  26. Dawn K says

    Hi Phil,

    The issue is not primarily one of instrumentation, but of content and focus. I don’t have a problem with hymns being sung to guitar accompaniment, if it can be done in a way that actually facilitates communal singing and not in a way that makes it all about the performance of the guitarist.

    I’m somewhat curious as to what makes one instrument more entertaining than another – unless the issue is really about something other than the content of what is being sung. I have to say that it mystifies me as to how people can hear the words of some of the great hymns of the church – that point so wonderfully to the saving work of Christ on our behalf – and the only thing they come away with is that it was boring because of the instrumentation used as accompaniment.

  27. Brian Crocker says

    For me, a key phrase I saw in one of the replies gets to the heart of the matter: “…they could [sic] care less whether the theology is right.”
    What I think the responder is trying to say is that they “couldn’t” care less about the theology, but putting grammar aside, not caring about the theology is hugely problematic. If the theology doesn’t matter, then what IS the primary concern? Feelings/Emotions? Being “lifted up” by the musical style? Those are false and flimsy gods, because they are always changing and subject to human desire.
    For our own sakes, we need to care about the theology.

  28. Jason says

    Alot of good points here, much, but not all of contemporary worship does fall under these criticisms. I would, however, encourage you to look beyond “the 1980’s” and you will see that the last 5-10 years has brought many new songs that are begining to return to the biblical and theological principals of who God is and what He has done. Some in the contemporary movement have heard these criticisms and are responding with songs like Mighty to Save, You’re Beautiful, Christ is Risen, Sweetly Broken, and many more that may one day find there place among the great hymns of the Christian faith.

  29. Jason says

    I would also like to remind everyone that Luther’s hymns were considered contemporary at one time and contrary to the teaching of the church in his day. I’m not defending the 90% + of contemporary music that is little more than emotional drivel, only the small minority that is Christ and gospel centered.

  30. Dawn K says

    Hi Jason,

    Please note that by criticizing “contemporary worship” I am not criticizing “songs written in recent times.” It is more about content and focus than it is about “newness.” There are most certainly songs written in the last few decades that can be described as solid Christ-centered hymns.

    My aim in pointing out the folly of “Lutherans debating the merits of praise songs from the 80’s” is to show that if “relevance” and “attracting young people” is the goal, then these folks are about three decades behind the times. But solid hymns are timeless and relevant regardless of how long ago or how recently they were written.

  31. Steve says

    Couldn’t agree more. Although I’m not Lutheran, I left my church because of the very reasons you outline. And I’ll add one more…this “contemporary” mindset has led to a complete abandonment of reverence within the church. Sloppy clothing, food and drink being brought into the service, people milling about and talking well after the service starts, etc. When one day the pastor dressed up like a farmer and started singing Broadway show tunes, I knew it was time to leave. Worship has become something where we are the audience, not God, and all that’s done is done to appease men, rather than God. One more gripe while I’m at it….the use of PowerPoint during the sermon is another case of looking at what the world does and bringing it into the church. The argument that “some people are visual learners” implies that the Word of God on its own is insufficient and that every sermon ever given before we had computer screens, including Jesus’, were not effective for the entire audience.

  32. Paul says

    I find it interesting that the objections to Dawn’s seven-reasons come from non-Lutherans (and I am including David Housholder–Robinwood Church, because his education is from an ELCA school and he now serves Community churches and Bible churches). Yes, I do consider ELCA non-Lutheran for many reasons, but that discussion is for another day. Those who object to the Liturgy object to the fundamental teachings of Luther and focus primarily on freedom, often in opposition to what God says in his Word. I suggest that if you are not Lutheran, start your own discussions about anything you choose, but this site is for Lutherans!

    Now, let’s get back to the question of Lutheran worship, can we?

  33. Joe says

    Oops. I don’t belong here. I’m an Orthodox Presbyterian minister and completely agree with Dawn’s 7 arguments.

  34. Jonathan says


    I’m not a Lutheran, but I implore you to, instead of catering to a certain crowd, teach. And don’t just teach hymns and liturgy, but teach what they represent and why the people need to care. It’s such a loss. And it’s so hard to go back.

  35. Dennis says

    Well said. I am writing a book on Lutheran worship and “contemporary” worship in the Lutheran context. I would love to have permission to quote major portions of this blog.

  36. Dawn K says

    Hi Dennis – Sure, go ahead!

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Contemporary Worship’s Problem | Try 2 Focus linked to this post on December 30, 2011

    […] Seven Reasons Why Lutherans Should Not Jump on the “Contemporary Worship” Bandwagon ( […]

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