Sharing the Same Error: Some Thoughts on Medium & Message

There are times when errors are so deeply ingrained in a culture that they show up on all sides of a hotly debated issue.  The result is often that two people who hold vehemently opposed positions do so because of an erroneous shared assumption that is taken in different ways.  In such cases, it’s not uncommon for the two sides to feed and provoke the shared error in one another even as they debate.  My recent post on contemporary worship brought one such example to mind.

“Keep the message; change the medium.”  It’s a familiar refrain from those who advocate contemporary worship for the sake of church marketing.  Take a hymn, for example.  If it’s a good one, it has some kind of meaning.  Those who seek to divide medium from message perceive the meaning as being encapsulated in a distinct shell of rhythm, tempo, notes, and lyrics. However, since the meaning is what we generally find to be truly important about a hymn, they try to extract it from the music and encapsulate it in a new set of notes and lyrics.  The upshot is that if a particular style of notes and lyrics happens to be extremely popular among folks you want to reach, you can take your message out of it’s current medium and repackage it in the new popular one without having any effect on the message itself.  In theory.

Of course, this mistake is rarely made by skilled and experienced musicians and songwriters.  If anyone doubts, for example, that style and instrumentation touch a song’s meaning, just compare this selection from Huey Lewis & The News to this cover by Glen Phillips.  You may not be able to articulate the difference, but nearly anyone can perceive it.  It might be a good difference, it might be a bad difference, but two things are certain:  There is a difference and those who do not or cannot acknowledge that difference are incapable of discerning whether it’s good or bad.  Accordingly, those who select a style based on its popularity rather than what it communicates do an injustice not just to their message, but to the musical style as well.  In the immortal words of Hank Hill, “you’re not making Christianity any better; you’re just making rock n’ roll worse.”  While this mistake is not made by all contemporary Christian musicians (some of whom are skilled and experienced), it’s a common one among congregations who see musical trends as a way to stop the bleeding of members.

Unfortunately many confessional Lutherans who steadfastly oppose contemporary worship & church marketing nevertheless share in this same underlying error and apply it to preaching.  Consider some of the following statements:

  • God’s word is what nourishes a congregation–wordcraft and delivery are just fluff.
  • A Pastor’s skills and abilities don’t matter–Christ alone does the work.
  • On Sunday morning, a pastor is just a set of shoulders holding up an Alb.

The assumption in such statements is one I’ve criticized before:  that preaching is a kind of magic in which the pastor summons the Holy Spirit to call, sanctify, and enlighten the congregation.  It doesn’t really matter how the preacher preaches–only that God’s word is somewhere and somehow encapsulated within the diction.  But God does not work alongside the proclamation of His word;  He works through it.  “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”  Just as the water cycle is how God brings forth crops rather than some symbol that accompanies an otherwise independent action on His part, preaching is how God speaks to His people.  He does not do this independently of the words, tone, and styles that the preacher selects, but through them.  God has not given us the mechanical details of how this all works, but it is presumptuous to think we can dissect preaching in order to find Law & Gospel encapsulated but somehow independent of the preacher’s work.  Likewise, inasmuch as a Christian has ears and a mind, we cannot assume that he receives preaching apart from being heard with the ear and understood by the mind–both of which are indeed influenced by word choice and delivery.  God is indeed the One who calls, sanctifies, and enlightens, but pastors should not despise their own calling by assuming their own efforts are not a participation in and enfleshment of God’s work–that their skills and efforts somehow don’t matter.

Ironically, it is precisely this error that ends up creating many Lutheran contemporary worship marketeers.  A man who sees his only real priorities as wearing vestments and making noises is a man with a lot of extra time on his hands.  If the whole preaching thing is fulfilled by a being a warm body who repeats Scripture like a recording and that anything else he might do in a sermon is meaningless…  what then shall he do?  How then shall he spend his time?  Being a church-worker, he will try to serve the church by taking on a task which humans are capable of accomplishing:  getting people in the door.  Anyone who runs a coffee shop or amusement park can do such a thing, but if it’s done in a church…  well, then more people can be hit by that magic spell called “preaching.”  He finally has a purpose to drive his life!  The pastor’s efforts are then poured into marketing–trying to craft product, entertainment, and spectacle rather than Word & Sacrament (the Holy Spirit’s job).  Preaching & teaching are taken for granted, and a marketeer is born.

This error is so ubiquitous because it is modernistic.  It is how post-Enlightenment Westerners approach understanding by default:  trying to disassemble something and strip away everything possible until one ends up with the ‘essential’ part.  This has proven to be a great approach for mechanics (physics, engineering, etc), but a terrible approach for things like theology & the humanities.  Hymn and sermon writing are squarely in these latter two categories.  A human may not be alive without a soul–a dead body is just that–but he does not go on living as a human without flesh and bone.  Christianity doesn’t teach modernism’s soul/body dualism in which the former arbitrarily inhabits the latter.  Why then should we apply that same flawed model to God and His means of grace?  Wordcraft, delivery, tone, and so forth are not simply the packaging of preaching–they are its flesh and bone.  The Spirit is solely responsible for making these things alive and active, but it doesn’t therefore follow that its flesh and bones are irrelevant to that life and activity.

Acknowledging and repenting of this error could heal some of our anger and resentment in the worship wars.  Repentance would remove the perception that the worship wars are merely about matters of taste and preference.  It’s harder to resent someone who honestly disagrees with you than it is to resent someone who merely wants to impose their preferences on you.  By shifting the goal back from attractiveness to excellence in the proclamation of God’s word, our musicians and songwriters could have a purpose in crafting new hymns and liturgies without having license to discard everything that came before them.  At the same time, repentance might turn the attention of many of our pastors back towards Word and Sacrament.  Rather than taking these things for granted by writing them off as God’s responsibility, idle hands could once again be occupied with serving our neighbors by preaching and teaching well.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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