Saturday, July 2, 2011

Mark Preus on "Praise Songs"

The Reverend Mark Preus, not only one of the slew of Preuses, but, perhaps more importantly, one of the slew of pastors at Faith Lutheran Church, in Plano, Texas, has posted a minor screed on the "praise song" and the place it merits in the Lutheran Church.  I commend it to the reader, for the so-called "praise song" is a plague on the liturgical life of the Church, and this plague is itself a symptom of a mindset which is plaguing the Church today, a mindset which harms, waters down, weakens, dulls, and in many cases redefines out of existence the genuine faith in Jesus Christ in which our dear children were catechized and inculcated. 

Let me just add a thought on this topic this morning.  (To be clear, the rant which follows in no way implies that Mark Preus is guilty of that which I condemn here.)  As implied above, I consider this "praise song" style of worship to be unfortunately named.  For the worship which the Church of all times and places renders to her dear Lord, namely, in the liturgy, is truly worthy of the name "praise," and in terms of the quality and depth of its praise it puts to shame the modern Evangelical suburban community-church excuse for worship.  Some mistakenly convince themselves that the way to counter the non-denominational coffeehouse church Terry Dittmer style of worship is to argue that praise is not the point of worship.  While the Lutherans are in bad need of new metaphors, I must say I wish they would end their habit of stumbling head first from one bad conclusion to another.  For it does a disservice to the subject to say, as some say and others imply or are close to saying, that the difference between the guitar and amplifier worship on the one hand and the liturgical tradition of the Church on the other hand, is that the point of the former is praise and the point of the latter is something else (whatever someone's pet subject may be, such as catechesis or the sacrament, or whatever).

The liturgy of the Church accomplishes all of these things and more.  Christian worship is indeed catechetical.  For as we confess in the Augsburg Confession, ceremonies teach us what we need to know of Christ.  Yet if catechesis were the sole goal of the liturgy, then we may as well fill the service with recitations of the Catechism.  The Church's worship is indeed sacramental.  For in the liturgy the Church-and therefore also each member of the Body of Christ-is blessed with the true presence of the Eternal Word, Who comes to us in His holy Mysteries, by His Word, and by His Sacrament, to impart to us the saving message of His all availing sacrifice on the cross, and to personally give us the forgiveness of our sins which He won for us, and thus also His own life and salvation.  Yet if the only aim of the liturgy were sacramental, then we would do well to omit the singing of hymns, and psalms, etc.

The Church goes wrong when she tries to define the genius of her liturgy down to this or that aspect of it.  There are some things that Christian worship is not.  It is not in any way a propitiatory sacrifice for sin.  Nor is it a celebration of human emotion.  These, by the way, are not mere straw men; they are major ways of approaching worship, which must be ruled out as essentially unchristian, and even harmful to a healthy faith life. 

The liturgy has sacramental, catechetical, and indeed, also doxological dimensions.  It also has an eschatalogical dimension, for it is an entering into the heavenly communion, though through a veil, that the Church enjoys with her Lord Christ.  These sacramental veils of which I speak, to be sure, are not mere symbols, nor do they hide God in the sense of keeping us from Him, but are, in fact, the very way by which we recognize and receive our Lord, and find our own true identity as His Body. 

These realities of the Church's worship (teaching, forgiveness, communion, praise) are all involved in the Church's liturgical celebration.  And here I would emphasize two points.  1. They are each distinct.  For serious trouble results when it is thought that these aspects of worship bleed into each other in such a way that they lose their own nature (by which confusion, for example, the Eucharist is defined as the sacrifice of man to God, rather than the other way around).  2. Nevertheless, they are meant to be united and interwoven together, into the genius which we call the liturgical life of the Church.  One aspect cannot, without serious spiritual cost, be separated out and divorced from the others.  This helps us to see, for example, that there is a doxological facet of worship, which is always present, even in the lower keys of the penitential seasons.  It helps us see, also, the great genius of the ancient practice of using a term like "eucharist" so long as it is not improperly understood.  (Some say the term "eucharist" is "unhelpful"; I say it is profoundly helpful.)

Praise is an important aspect of the business of heaven, and therefore it is an important aspect of the business of the Church.  And there is no better way to participate in such praise than by means of the reverent and informed use of God's Word.  Sit at the feet of the Psalms, for example, and Christ will teach you how to praise God, both in your personal piety and in the Church's public worship.

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