Quiet Lutheran worship wars

If members of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod have heard it once, they've heard their national leaders repeat this mantra a thousand times: "This is not your grandfather's church." That's certainly what musician Phillip Magness experienced when he took a sabbatical at Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, Ill., and began a research tour after the 2006 release of the Lutheran Service Book. Since he led the committee charged with promoting the new hymnal, Magness wanted to see what was happening in the conservative denomination's sanctuaries.

"What I found out is that we're a lot like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates," he said. "It says Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod on the sign, but when you go inside you have no idea what you're going to get. ... Some of our churches are playing with the structure of the liturgy and some are playing with the content and our whole synod is trying to find out how to draw some boundaries."

One pastor wanted to offer five worship services in five musical formats to meet the needs of what he perceived as five separate audiences in his church.

The "TLH" service was for members still attached to the 1941 volume called "The Lutheran Hymnal." Then there was the "Valpo" audience, which yearned for the "smells and bells" approach to high-church worship popular at Valparaiso University in Indiana. Then there were fans of the pop "CCM" music found in the "Contemporary Christian Music" industry. The "Gen X" crowd wanted its own post-baby boomer music.

The fifth service? It would feature country music.

These struggles are particularly poignant for Missouri Synod Lutherans, who are part of a 2.3 million-member denomination that occupies a tense niche between the larger, more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the evangelical megachurch marketplace.

It's crucial, said Magness, to understand that the churches linked to Martin Luther are part of the Protestant Reformation, but it's hard to pin a simple "Protestant" label on their approach to piety. Missouri Synod Lutherans, for example, have much in common with evangelicals, especially in terms of biblical authority and conservative morality. However, some parish leaders are not sure they want to make radical changes to modernize their worship services.

Magness, for example, is one of about 30 Missouri Synod musicians known as "cantors," an honorary title once held by Johann Sebastian Bach and many others in Lutheran history. Magness has created "Liturgy Solutions," a company that helps churches of all sizes maintain Lutheran traditions, while mixing old and new music.

"We know that culture is not static," he said. "We want to find the way to proclaim the church's message in ways that remain reverent and appropriate, yet sound fresh today. Otherwise, we'd be singing chants in Latin every Sunday."

The problem is that many pastors resort to forming separate congregations that worship under the same roof -- variations on a "traditional" vs. "contemporary" split. What is "traditional" worship? That's whatever older church leaders were doing before new leaders decided to change what Magness called the "soundtrack" for worship.

Sadly, these worship wars often drive off some faithful members, losses that negate whatever growth followed the changes that were adopted to attract newcomers.

Magness believes that church leaders should attempt to work with all their members to create services that are faithful to the past, but not stuck in the past. A common warning sign that trouble is ahead, he added, is when pastors begin altering the words of crucial prayers and liturgical texts -- even the ancient creeds.

The bottom line, he said, is that dividing a church into separate, even competing, worship services rarely produces growth. At least, that isn't what is happening in the Lutheran congregations he has studied.

"Maybe the saints prefer a place where the real practice of the church -- preaching the Gospel in its truth and purity and administering the sacraments rightly and reverently -- are much, much more important than whether Jack's son gets to play his trap set in church or whether the patriarchal families get to pick all the hymns because they don't want to sing any new songs," said Magness, at a national worship conference.

"I do know this: the congregation that works out these issues the old-fashioned way provides a better confession of 'one Lord, one faith and one baptism' than the congregation that doesn't share the Lord's Supper together."