Thursday, January 20, 2011

Contemporary Worship, Adiaphora, and Being Beneficial

The Oklahoma District is going to be having a worship conference, based upon the model of the big national one they had last year, and I hope to attend. In speaking with my dad about it yesterday, he off-handedly said, "Oh, I'm sure we'll get to hear about FC X how its all adiaphora."

Adiaphora. The word that is the bane of many a Confessional Lutheran. A word that is almost anathema to many.

Adiaphora is that which is indifferent, which is neither commanded nor forbidden. Stuff that we may do, stuff that we may refuse to do if forced to do so. Fasting on Friday - Adiaphora. Do it if you wish, but if someone says you must fast on Friday to be a Christian, oppose so that the Gospel is not obscured by a new Law.

The response and reaction of many, especially on worship issues, is to assert that what goes on in Contemporary worship is not adiaphora, and often the debate ends up being a debate over whether or not one "can" do something.

This is a horrid place for those who support and see the value of the historic liturgy. Why?

1. It won't convince anyone who isn't already opposed to Contemporary Worship already. We aren't going to get people who have wild worship to suddenly say, "Oh, you mean I can't? Because you say so? Oh, we'll, I better stop."

2. Arguments from Tradition don't win. As specific forms and liturgical structures aren't specified in the Scriptures, people can simply dance away from your assertions. While we are shaped and guided by Tradition as Lutherans, Tradition itself is not binding. You can't pin someone down with tradition in the Lutheran Church.

3. And, well, I'm sorry guys, but it is adiaphora.

There. I said it. Oh no, I've lost all my cred. Oh well. The specific structure and form is... well, indifferent. The key is the preaching of the Gospel and the Administration of the Sacrament -- if that is done, well, it's done.

"Well then, why don't you just go and break out your guitar and start your praise band, you sell out!"

A-ha! Now, that, that is the question.

All things are permissible, but not all things are profitable. Instead of spending the worship discussions trying to say, "you can't" - we should spend it saying, "Why are you - what good does this do, how does it teach what we say we believe?" Instead of spending our time on the defensive, trying to pin a mandatory definition on worship, we should go on the offensive.

If, as we say we believe, God Himself is physically present in our worship in order to bring us the forgiveness of sins - how does a specific part of the liturgy or song or what have you teach and proclaim that? Ask that question. It's not that you can or can't do something, but why would you do something that teaches what we believe about God's salvific presence less well?

That is how we take the offensive on this, that is how we can pokes holes and break things apart. It won't be the quick win, it won't be the 1st round knockout of "Not Adiaphora!" It will be a long, 12 round slug fest -- but we might win some.

What are you trying to teach and communicate with how you conduct worship?

"Well, I've seen you on children's sermons, it doesn't work on you, why should it work on them?" Because the knock against children's sermons are all assertions that aren't things that I myself would say. I'd never say that I'm trying to teach my kids to be Baptist, or that they aren't part of the worship in toto. And thus, the argument goes around whether or not your assertion is true.

That's not the point - shouldn't be.

Rather, instead of telling them, ask them what they are trying to teach and communicate -- and then break them down.

"I want people to feel the joy of salvation in our worship." That's nice, but:
1. Is making people feel something about salvation or is making people know and receive the point?
2. Will and must all Christians have the same emotional response? Why do you denigrate Christians who feel more awe, or wonderment, or even tears at this message. Why do you devalue those emotions?
3. While you might bring forth joy - there is group response (consider when one person starts clapping in a room, or laughter being contagious) -- are you really communicating the joy "of salvation" or just simply joy?

Then you start chipping away and the assumptions that lead one to come to the conclusion that a Contemporary style worship is best.

And what if they respond with a "Well, you know, everything that is supposed to be there is in there, so this is just as valid and good as what you do"?

Here, I would direct you to consider that great practical theologian - Bill Cosby. Cosby does a routine in Bill Cosby Himself about how his kids talked him into letting them have chocolate cake for breakfast. And Cosby showed how he rationalized his decision - the ingredients said eggs, flour - that's breakfast stuff right there. And the children even sing his praises - "Dad is great, he gives us chocolate cake!" And then, mom comes home, and there is hell to pay.

I don't need to argue whether or not something is valid - such, there's flour and eggs in chocolate cake - but that doesn't make it a good and healthy breakfast. Doesn't mean your approach to worship is good and healthy. Can't shouldn't be the question.

Now - there are a whole host of other objections and defenses that could be raised -- I'm certainly not going to anticipate them all. But make them answer questions, questions that they can't answer well, and let their own answers speak.

"But a theologian of the cross calls something what it is!" True - but your job isn't to prove to them that they aren't theologians of the cross, it's to make them start thinking like theologians of the cross. They aren't enemies to be defeated, but little brothers who ought grow into maturity.


Anonymous said...

You should read Holger Sonntag's The Unchanging Forms of The Gospel - if you haven't already. He shows that it is not merely adiaphora.

Anonymous said...

In addition to Sonntag's helpful essay, John Kleinig has written a very insightful piece here:

To summarize: Praise worship is a new sacrament.

Tom Fast

Rev. Eric J Brown said...


This is not in praise of praise worship - I'm not going to argue that it is good. But to argue that you "can't" isn't going to be clearly and directly supported by the Word of God (nor indeed the Confessions, because the assertion that forms and rites need not be the same in all places gives undercuts a mandate to a specific form).

The question should be - why does one think the main point of worship is "praise" rather than receiving God's good gifts.

Knock out blows don't convince people unless they already lean that way.

Anonymous said...

Pastor Brown,

Jack would agree with you, but you might be interested in:

Bethany Kilcrease

Unknown said...

Speaking only for myself, the reason I attend the contemporary service at my congregation is that it is at 10:30. Divine service is at 8:00. The “blended service” as we call it, seems to have all the elements necessary, and my pastor uses the same sermons at both services, but at 8:00 I’m barely out of the shower and dressed, and probably only on my second cup of coffee, so I only manage the 8:00 service once in a while. (I can’t even spell my name before I’ve had 3 cups of coffee, to say nothing of getting in the car and going somewhere....)

Seemingly, the practice among many congregations is to have the contemporary service as the later service. For those who would claim that the contemporary service generates a larger crowd, how about switching things around? Are more people coming to church at 10:30 because it’s a contemporary service, or are they coming because it’s at 10:30 instead of 8:00? My hunch is that the scheduled time has more impact on people’s decision than the style/format of the service.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...


I believe you are on to something there with time. And this also touches on part of the major frustration that many pastors have -- we are told that we *need* to do contemporary services if we want to grow - that they are automatically more popular.

For one, I don't think that holds out. Also - I find it ironic that on the one hand one will argue, "It's adiaphora, we are free to do it" and then next say, "Oh, well, you really need to do this."

It's just... poor practice. It's not ideal. Not the end of the world, not what I'd want... but ugh.

Anonymous said...


I agree completely with you that there needs to be healthy dialogue about this new form/rite/sacrament which has been imported into the liturgical heritage of Lutheranism. Just blurting out: "it's wrong" does no good and really fails to take these matters seriously. So I agree with the spirit of your post, if not the letter.

But the question for me is "why?" Why has praise worship (a particular genre of song...a fairly well defined rite, even) taken hold in the Lutheran Church? I think Kleinig is right to note it has been used as a Sacrament for years in the Pentecostal Church. It is an alternative way to connect with God, to access the mystery/presence of God, to have koinonia with God, than through the flesh of Christ. At least this is the way it is used in Pentecostal circles.

So the question is: can you import the chief Pentecostal sacrament into the Divine Service with no harm being done? Can you have koinonia with the Holy Trinity apart from the flesh of Christ? My fear is that this "Sacrament" overrides the other genuine Sacraments whenever it is a part of the Service.

Of course, I am no expert. And it would be good to have a serious examination of these matters. How can we lose if we debate theology in a serious and good spirited fashion?


Phillip said...

Fr. Brown,

I agree(grudgingly), but how do you convince them there is a difference? I spent three hours last week failing to convince some Methodist/ Non-Denom (real ones, that's not bashing LINO's) friends that I disagreed with them on worship. I just kept getting the response, "So we agree, yeah!" whenever I agreed that God is loving. How do we convince people that there is a difference between the liturgy and egocentric/ amorcentric pop songs?

Rev. Eric J Brown said...


The point that I emphasize is that instead of giving folks our own answers, but rather make them answer that question of why -- and turn it over and over and back and back to doctrine.

And often the answer will be that one wants to be Penecostal - the answer will be that there is a difference belief -- and then we see the point isn't whether or not something is adiaphora or about forms - but about the doctrine of the Word.

And perhaps we will bring about repentance.

As for Phillip,

The question is how do you receive God's love and know that you have received it? Is it by the Word (regardless of what you feel), or is it that you know by your feelings? That's the point of distinction -- I can say, "If my feelings are off, who cares -- the Word of God still remains".

Unknown said...

Pr. Brown,

So what would happen, in your estimation, if part of the strategy included scheduling the “popular” contemporary service as the early service, and scheduling the Divine Service for mid morning? My thought/hunch is that the Divine Service would soon be gathering the larger crowd, thereby negating the “popularity” of the contemporary stuff. Would that sufficiently justify tossing out the contemporary stuff?

Likewise, I know that I can also stop hitting the snooze button, and go to the 8:00 service – which might even get me to stay for the 9:15 Bible class between the two services...


If we “must” have contemporary services, can we substitute the sappy soft- rock praise band tunes for something that sounds a little more like Brubeck?

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

I'm guessing, that typically speaking, the 10:30 service would continue to be more popular... and that more people who had been 8 am service folks would wait until the 10:30 DS than there would be 10:30 folks who would get up early to hit things at 8.

That's a sweeping generalization, but it's what I would guess.

Anonymous said...


I can't argue with your approach, that's for sure. Seems sound to me.

What I disagree with is the judgment that Praise WOrship is an adiaphoron. I used to be convinced we were arguing about adiaphora (though we were misusing the term all along the way, imo), but I have now changed my mind. I no longer think Praise Worship is an adiaphoron. Just for fun, let me say this: It may well be that Praise Worship is one of those "human traditions that are instituted to win God's favor, merit grace, and make satisfaction for sins" about which ACXV complains.

Haha! Turnabout is fair play.


Tom Fast
PS--Let's face it, the revelation of God as Holy Trinity and the personal union of the two natures of Christ have everything to do with worship/Sacraments in the New Testament, and seemingly little to do with Praise Worship. But I digress...

Rev. Eric J Brown said...


See, what you say is accurate and true - but when discussing with people, they can duck and dodge and deny that is what they are thinking/doing. If they openly deny the Sacraments or the efficacy of the Word - then their "worship" is lower on the list of problems. If they claim they want to be Lutheran and would reject the things you posit, that's a whole 'nother kettle of fish.

Fast... fish. . . it's getting awfully Roman around here. . . is it Friday yet?

Phillip said...

Just to play devil's advocate (or maybe in this case God's advocate), is contemporary worship adiaphora? 80% plus of American nominal Christians say all good people will go to heaven. 90% plus (sorry I don't remember the exact statistics) of regularly church going Americans don't believe the Holy Spirit is God. If the lack of Creeds, the Invocation, the Glory Patri, the Kyrie, the Trihagion, Trinitarian hymns, etc. and their replacement with Atrinitarian and egocentric pop songs about love are encouraging these false doctrines, then are they really adiaphora, or do you have another explanation for this?

Phillip said...

I had tuna for supper Pastor. How many years does that get me out of Purgatory?

Anonymous said...


You're right.

Interestingly, the nice list Phillip supplies of what is missing or marginalized in Praise Worship (namely, virtually anything which has to do with witnessing to the work of God in the flesh amongst us) is pretty damning evidence for PW being about connecting with God through means other than the flesh of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

That said, I didn't even stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. So caveat emptor.


Rev. Eric J Brown said...


One "can" drop them... when I commune a shut-in, I omit most of the liturgy, yet it is still the Supper.

Also - note that you have antitrinitarian pop songs - that's fundamentally wrong, not because it replaces something, but in and of itself it is wrong.

Replacing the Kyrie with another hymn - that's adiaphora. Replacing the Kyrie with a song that sings false doctrine -- that's false doctrine, and as such the discussion isn't about "freedom" but doctrine.

Replacing the Kyrie with a lousy song - that's just dumb.

Phillip said...

Fr. Brown,

Fair point with Communing shut-ins, but presumably they know more or less the parts left out from years of doing the liturgy. Since it is a special circumstance, they know part of the liturgy is omitted. Also, I'm assuming you do the standard Lutheran practice of saying the Apostle's Creed in there.

The issue I see is that it is not Antitrinitarian songs, but Atrinitarian ones. They aren't explicitly against the Trinity, they just ignore the Holy Spirit and to a large extent the Father as well. One of the top 25 CCM songs mentions the Trinity. If the songs explicitly attacked the Trinity we could clearly refute that, but instead they just ignore it. LSB has a few songs without a mention of the Trinity, "Jesus Loves Me" for example, but instead of a 1 in 25 mention of the Trinity we have probably a 1 in 50 not mentioning the Trinity. And even those songs are counter-balanced by all the Trinitatian aspects of the liturgy I mentioned earlier. Certainly Antitrinitarianism is not adiaphora, but what about the utter neglect to mention the Third Person? Where does it cease to be adiaphora?

Anonymous said...

It's not so much the omission of the elements that's the problem. Rather, the willingness to do so on a regular basis simply is symptomatic.....or at least could be considered so. Symptomatic of a person who has found another way into the presence of God. If you think you have found another way...a Sacrament which needs not the flesh of Christ but only a certain form of singing, then removing the creeds and canticles would make perfect sense.

Put it this way. If the invitation recently issued to praise worship musicians in the LCMs to write praise worship music about the Sac of the Altar is successful, and the songs gain popularity, and we start seeing such folks singing and dancing and expressing excitement over Holy Communion.....well, then I will know I am all wrong about this. I'd love to see these folks dance around the body and blood of Christ and talk about how excited and enraptured they are with the fact that the Bread they break is koinonia with the Body of Christ. But I'm not holding my breath.

Anonymous said...

Oops. I forgot to put my name on the last comment.

Tom Fast
PS. I think our controversy is not over worship, broadly speaking. Rather, it is a controversy over the addition of a third/fourth Sacrament, if you will.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...


You're right - in a sense "worship" here is a red herring. This is about doctrine -- I do like the idea of additional "sacraments" -- that is I think an accurate assessment.

Maybe when discussing this, we need to remember that it is about theology and not the necessity of particular human rites.

Anonymous said...



Mike Baker said...

Former Contemporary Worship guy speaking:

It is not adiaphora. It COULD be, but all proponents of Contemporary Worship insist that modern worship must be this way. They call traditional worship dead.

When they use that term "dead" they are speaking as pentecostals and other word-faith Christians do... as in "dead faith" as in "not a living faith". They mean that the "Holy Spirit is not moving" and that "The Spirit is being quenched".

In short, opposition to Contemporary Worship is almost always seen by the true zealots as an afront to the Gospel itself. Such mysticism is seen as neccesary. That makes it a new law that obscures the true Gospel. That means it is no longer Adiaphora and must be opposed (as you have already stated).

Enthusiasm, where the Spirit is thouht to come without and apart from the Word or Sacraments is forbidden by the Smalcald Articles. That makes it not only no longer Adiaphora, but a matter of confession.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...


You make an EXCELLENT point -- the arguments that are made is support of many aspects of contemporary worship they denote that it isn't a matter of indifference.

And the problem with this too becomes -- what is "it" when we refer to CW. It's a giant balloon, and messy, and ugly - man's reason and independence taking the fore.

Mike Baker said...

The "Worship Wars" as people call them are not really wars... they are more like two drastically different cultural people-groups trying to co-exist in the same land. Think the Isreal/Palestine conflict or some other clash of cultures like the rise of some revolutionary sect within an existing state.

The tactics are the same in church culture shifts as they are in the secular world because both are made up of sinful, zealous people. If you are the majority, you fight to silence the minority and think that the easiest way to solve the problem is to just deport the trouble-makers. If pressed, you will appeal to a greater authority for relief (a church version of the international community like the Synod for example.)

On the opposite side where you are the minority, you fight for "equality" and "tolerance" knowing that such tactics are only until you get your foot in the door. Since, as a revolutionary culture you lack history and precidence, you must make emotional appeals and play to people's hopes and fears about an important situation (in this case "worship" and "outreach".) Then you can flip tactics over to the majority and silence the new minorty... the old way of thinking.

So, in the case of a traditional church, the traditionalist majority attempts to silence debate and push out rival ideas while the contemporary minority makes emotional appeals and pleads for mere tolerance and equal time. Once that is secured, they begin to push out anyone who opposes them... especially the old people because contemporary churchs are almost always utilitarian and seen as not of much use.

An equally bad situation happens if the contemporary minority is successfully squashed. Rather than addressing their concerns and winning them over to the majority view, they are marginalized and oppressed. Instead of a victory for confessional lutheranism, the congregation is forced into schism.

With neither of these options being preferable, a way has to be made to get everyone to move beyond the "us vs them" mentality and engage issues piece-meal. Successful changes in the church have to happen gradually and with teaching. If you rush to hard one way or another, you will end up with an unacceptable level of casualties.

To be honest, when I was a zealot for contemporary music, I acted in ignorance and pride. Had I been taught humility and a few facts, I might have come to my current views sooner... which could have spared me alot less guilt and regret.

Phillip said...


How was your basic doctrinal theology (Trinity, real presence, etc.) when you were a CW guy? I'm not so bothered by their insistence that you have to have CW to be a loving Christian as that where I've seen CW or "mixed" services, doctrines like the real presence might get lip service but aren't really understood or believed. I was raised thinking our biggest theological issue with Baptists was they don't drink. Sure I would say I believed in the real presence, but I obviously wasn't taught to care about it. I wasn't taught that CW was some kind of new sacrament; I was taught sacraments just weren't all that important.

Mike Baker said...


When I was a "charsmatic", I was schooled as a pentecostal in a purpose-driven church in the Southern Baptist Convention. That is really the crest of the wave when it comes to this movement. It's where it started in large part and it is where the theological systems that birthed it are the clearest and most pronounced., to answer your question, I did not have any doctrine of the real prensence at all because (to my shame) I was a memorialist who denied the real presence completely. Other basic Christian doctrines (trinity, deity of Christ, etc) were understood and at least followed, but not to the degree that they should have been. The real deal is that what the congregation believes about CW and what the musicians believe about CW are often two different things. As a musician, there were things that I "knew" about what we were doing that we just didn't share with the congregation because they just weren't ready for it yet. We were missionaries who were bringing this church into the updated, God-pleasing way of doing things.

What you are sensing from your own experience is the fact that mysticism (in all its forms) is almost always anti-intellectual. It is a religion of feelings and so it sees any religion with teachings as its enemy and only a cold system of facts and dogmas that does not "impact" people the way mysticism does. America is also fairly anti-intelectual so mysticism here is a really good fit! :P

But Charismatic practice is not something that can be taken up in isolation. You cannot take a peculiar practice a la cart without bringing along the doctrines and presuppositions that birthed it. It is a belief system and, by adopting its practices, you ascent to what it teaches: chiefly that the Holy Spirit moves first and foremost through the hearts of worshipers by way of an emotional experience that does not have to come about through the Word. This is inherently an anti-Lutheran way of thinking.

I am sure that many charismatics are Christians... but they labor in a horrible system of works in which God is mysterious and fickle and does not always seem to "show up" to worship, the Holy Spirit must be summoned to worship by our pietism, and Scripture is largely an unknowable book filled with teachings that are badly misinterpreted. Based on my experience as a charismatic, I do not see how it is possible for mysticism to coexist with Lutheranism in a church precisely because Lutheranism (and Lutheranism alone to a great extent) has set itself up from the beginning as the enemy of superstition and mysticism.

While you could have charismatic Methodists, charismatic Baptists, or even charismatic Roman Catholics... the doctrines of Lutheranism (primarily dealing with Word and Sacrament, the theology of the cross, and the role of the Holy Spirit) prevent such a nice fit that you see in other denominations.

As I have said before to anyone who will listen: "You can't have a Charismatic Lutheran for the same reason why there are no flaming snowballs or air-filled vacuums."