The Catholic Elements in Contemporary Worship

The Catholic Elements in Contemporary Worship March 11, 2020

The knock on us Lutherans–with our sacraments and liturgy, our vestments and church year, our crucifixes and making the sign of the cross–is that we are “too Catholic.”  As if the practices of the historic church were the exclusive property of Rome and as if they did not have evangelical meaning.

Ironically, some of the very Protestants who make this charge themselves hold Catholic views.  The obsession with “leadership” in many evangelical circles can turn preachers into mini-popes.  Some Pentecostal preachers on TV sell handkerchiefs that have been “prayed over,” to be used in their followers’ devotions like Catholics use relics.

More importantly, many anti-Catholic Protestants hold Catholic views of salvation.  They both teach that salvation is conditional upon the free will and good works. They both cultivate a sense of merit, of having to deserve salvation.  Catholics believe that Christ’s atonement is efficacious at baptism and evangelicals believe that Christ’s atonement is efficacious at conversion, but after that, Christians are under the Law again.  Missing the sense in which the Gospel applies to every moment of the Christian’s life and creates the fruit of good works, many Catholics and many anti-Catholic Protestants struggle with guilt and uncertainty over where they stand with God.

Now some observers are noting how even in the area that is seemingly farthest away from Catholicism–namely, worship–evangelicals and Pentecostals who practice “contemporary worship” are demonstrating affinities with Roman Catholicism.

As contemporary worship has spread from the United States to the rest of global evangelicalism, the Reformation tradition of vernacular worship is giving way to worship always being in the English language.  The praise songs are all in English, and although many have been translated into other languages, English is prevailing.

The reasons given are the same that the Catholic church used, up until Vatican II, for always worshipping in language.  Vernacular language is incapable of true Christian expression.  A German evangelical says that “I could never praise God like that in my language.”  Latin is the international language, connecting Christians from all over the world with the universal church.  The German evangelicals “say the foreign language allows them to loosen their German identity, praise God in an uninhibited way, and connect with a global, cosmopolitan Christianity.” (Quotes from the Christianity Today article on the phenomenon.)

Josh Pauling goes much deeper in his article for Mere Orthodoxy entitled The Hidden Transubstantiation of Contemporary Worship.  The essence of contemporary worship, he says, is the separation of “style” and “content.”  Advocates believe that the content of Christianity can be expressed in any style.  This is similar, he says, to the separation of “form” and “substance” in the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.

In the Lord’s Supper, Rome says that the outward form of bread and wine remain the same while the inner substance change into the body and blood of Christ based on Aristotle’s philosophical categories of form (accidents) and content (substance).[1]

Contemporary worship proposes a similar separation between the outer form or style of worship and its inner content or substance. Worship leaders are the new priesthood who preside over not the Lord’s Table, but the Spirit’s Moving. The requisite praise band performs a mixture of songs leading the congregation through an emotional progression assumed to be the work of the Holy Spirit. The induced emotions are interpreted as evidence of the Spirit with the subjective inner feelings of the worshiper being the substance of worship that matters, while the outer style of music, words said, and rituals enacted are the incidental forms.

Herein lies the latent transubstantiation: the outward form of worship does not matter, as long as the substance, i.e. inner content of the heart feels right. In other words, low-church Protestants think that the outward form and style of worship does not affect the content and substance of what actually is communicated in worship. The same philosophical separation of form and substance used by Rome in transubstantiation is used by advocates of contemporary worship as justification for “relevant” styles and techniques in worship, while claiming to retain the historic substance of Christianity.

This separation of style and content, form and substance, is contrary to the more classical understanding that style and content, form and substance, should go together.  Lutherans–and Pauling is a Lutheran (LCMS)–teach a “sacramental union” of the Body of Christ and the bread of Holy Communion.

The style-substance division severs the deep ties between doctrine and practice recognized by the historic church. With worship practices now untethered, they easily end up running counter to the very content of the Christian faith that worship is meant to buttress. What must be recovered is the sense in which style is substance and how the Church has a distinct style and culture that transcend the tiresome debates over relevance and musical tastes.

Pauling also discusses how contemporary worship elevates praise singing to a sacramental status.  (I have noticed that the time of singing at the beginning of the service is called “worship,” as in, “first we worship and then we hear the sermon,” as opposed to the classic understanding of worship in terms of Word and Sacrament.  Also, worshippers believe in a “real presence” of Christ and the Holy Spirit when they sing, often citing Psalm 22:3, that God “inhabits the praises of Israel.”)  Pauling analyzes the lyrics of praise songs that disclose their sacramental claims and the theology that underlies them.

For the vast majority of church history, the climax of Christian worship was the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper. But when this practice is jettisoned, something fills the vacuum, and for many churches contemporary worship has done exactly that. And so, in the most consequential trade-off, out goes Jesus’ objective and firm forgiveness of sins in the breaking of the bread, in comes the subjective and fleeting feelings conjured up with yet another repeat of some praise chorus. . . .

And so, instead of actually experiencing the Savior’s promised presence and having one’s faith “made stronger” through Christ’s forgiveness in the Lord’s Supper, it all becomes an abstract, disembodied, spiritual thing to emote about through song and experience ethereally in the mind, if one is lucky.

Pauling believes that for Christianity, style and content, form and substance, come together best in the Word and Sacraments and the historic liturgy.

And yet, if the substance of the church’s theology is a subjective focus, as is often the case, then contemporary worship styles express that content well.  There is no disjunction between form and substance.  And we really shouldn’t criticize them on that basis.

The problem with contemporary worship is when a church with a specific objective theology (such as Lutherans) adopts a worship style with a subjective focus (which often happens).  Then the style contradicts the content that the church stands for, and, indeed, since the style is what communicates, it contradicts that substance.

Pauling says that he isn’t really intending to criticize Catholics, in raising the way they split form from substance, and I’m not really intending to criticize evangelicals and Pentecostals who engage in contemporary worship styles (or the international evangelicals who worship in English).  Most of them are quite consistent in aligning their worship styles with what they actually believe.  (I might question their underlying theology, but that is another issue.)

I do have problems, though, with churches committed to a specific “substance” that adopt forms and styles that undermine that substance.   Churches that are part of a distinctive doctrinal tradition–Lutherans, Reformed, Anglican, some Baptists, Catholics, etc.–generally also have a distinctive worship tradition, and they would do better to stick with that if they want to keep their doctrinal tradition alive.


Image from Piqsels, royalty free photos, Creative Commons 0 License.

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