A mission-minded church wants to remove all obstacles from the paths of unbelievers to the gospel. “People today are turned off by the traditional worship. It is too cumbersome and difficult for them to learn.” With this rationale, numerous pastors and people have been quick to abandon or rewrite substantial portions of the liturgy. They are loathe to attempt standard Lutheran hymns, but quick to embrace songs of another tradition that seems to suit people’s fancy more easily.
What such well-intentioned folk fail to recognize, however, must not be overlooked. Even if they manage to make the liturgy and hymnody less of a stumbling block to “seekers” and “boomers,” they have not and they will not ever be able to remove an even greater obstacle: Jesus Christ himself, who is the stone of stumbling and the rock of offense” (Rom 9:33; 1 Pt 2:6–8). This offense becomes evident in the lives of those who hear Christ’s words, “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”
Worship is a crucial point of self-denial. The Divine Service is and must be offensive to our sinful nature. Real danger exists when the worship service is turned into an opportunity for self-centeredness. Terrible peril looms where the divine service abandons the theology of the cross in favor of a theology of glory. If people insist on promoting their own desires in the form of the service and in the hymns, they only show that they are lovers of themselves, having a form of godliness, but denying its power (2 Tim 3:2–5).
Liturgy and hymns bring the cross to us. That is to say, they are the setting in which Christ gives himself—his merciful love and forgiveness—through his holy and gracious gifts: holy baptism, holy absolution, holy communion, and the Holy Scriptures. If an unfamiliar hymn tune should make us wince, we ought to attempt it with greater effort, saying, “Take that, you sinful nature!”
We ought to be very cautious of those who want to make worship fun, neat, and exciting if they are attempting to do so by turning the sanctuary into a theater with up-tempo tunes, cleverly-contrived double entendres, and flowery prayers. Such artificial means never amount to self-denial. They only appease the sinful nature. This is especially true for adults who behave in a childish manner, thinking that they serve children or high school students with all the panache of rock station disc jockies. Our children need to be taught from the earliest age what it means to deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow Christ.
Whether the realm is youth work or evangelism, whether in Sunday School or a new members’ class, it is not a crime to want to remove all barriers to faith and life in Christ. We must never forget, however, that the kind of faith and life that come in Christ are diametrically opposed and entirely undesirable to the sinful nature. What better place than our liturgy and hymnody to examine and to observe that this is so? If people cannot endure the heritage of Lutheran liturgy and hymns, which in every aspect center us in Christ, then they are not likely ever to endure the greater difficulty: denying themselves, taking up the cross, following Christ.
Logia 6, 3 – Office and Offices (Holy Trinity 1997), pp. 66-67