Posted by: Johnold Strey | October 8, 2008

WELStock Keynote Address

I’ve made a few references to WELStock, my affectionate nickname for the WELS National Conference on Worship, Music, and the Arts.  Don’t let the nickname fool you; the worship conference is an excellent event that sets superb standards for worship, music, and art pursuits in our circles.

Pinpointing the highlight of the four-day conference would be almost impossible, but I could talk about several highlights–worship, concerts, fellowship, etc.  In this post, one of the highlights I’d like to bring to your attention was the excellent keynote address offered by Pastor Jon Zabell, a member of the WELS Commission on Worship, a member of the committee that prepared Christian Worship: Supplement as well as chairman of the supplement’s introduction committee.  Pastor Zabell’s keynote adress was titled, “The Formation and Function of WELS Hymnals.”  Okay, a worship geek like me gets excited about presentations like that, but Pastor Zabell had so many interesting insight into Lutheran worship in his presentation that went beyond the scope of a trip down WELS hymnal lane.  I’d like to share a few excerpts here, but if you have the time, the entire essay is worth reading.  It’s available at this link. (Update on 3/9/2009: A video of the presenation is now available at this link).  And here are some good food-for-thought excerpts:

Page 3: Why do we worship? Not because it’s our job. Not because we’re eager to try something copyrighted in 2008. We worship because in Word and Sacrament, the Holy Spirit always holds Jesus before our eyes. One look at him and the devil’s duty‐driven, feelgood angles on worship look completely ridiculous. The curse is lifted. We are eternally blessed. That’s why we worship. And the better we understand the “why” behind our worship, the better we know what to say.

Page 5: It’s still true today. The way we worship says something about what we believe. You might get by with singing songs in church that come from Christian contemporary radio, if you’re careful about the ones you pick. But how often will you sing about original sin? You’ll never sing about the blessings of Baptism. Over time, the public confession of your worshiping congregation will take a hit. Not that we have to boycott “Here I Am to Worship.” But singing a healthy portion of hymns that proclaim both Christian “lehr und trost,” doctrine and comfort, not only praises God and feeds our faith, it says who we are. We come to church not just to speak up, but to speak out. In a sense, the way we worship sets us apart.

Page 11: Many people think that art should be fancy or expensive. Art can be plain. Art can be simple. But the one thing art isn’t is entertainment. Good entertainment doesn’t lead you to the truth. It helps you escape it for the moment. You can call it “reality television” if you want, but there’s nothing even remotely real about it. That’s not necessarily bad. It’s just what it is. In its essence, entertainment provides escape. Art aims for truth. There’s value in remembering these things when we use our Christian freedom to choose music for worship. At any given moment, we’re all just one Google search away from hundreds of thousands of worship songs that are designed to entertain. The theology is shallow, the poetry is trite, and the music is designed to feel like an escape from real life. These things sell because people want them. But what about what people need? A good book of worship makes use of well‐crafted poetry and artful music to help worshipers dig deep into the richness of God’s Word. Even in the secular world, art tries to address the deep human need for truth, but only in service to the gospel can it succeed. Maybe that’s why worship and the arts have fit together so well for so long.

Page 13: We might forget that there’s a blessing in taking a corporate approach to the new things we try in worship. It’s not one pastor saying to his congregation, “Let’s try something new.” It’s the whole synod saying it. “Let’s try this new thing on for size and see how it fits. And not only that, but let’s give it, say, fifteen years to see how well it endures.” No single congregation will ever be able to approach new resources with this kind of depth or breadth. But a synod can, and a hymnal supplement can help.

Page 14: Besides all this, replacing books in worship entirely with presentation technology might not be the forward progress we’re so often led to believe it is. In his famous 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman maintains that television has robbed us of the ability to think and talk about things the way we used to be able to do in the age of print. According to Postman, whether you’re a newscaster, a politician, a teacher, or a preacher, nobody will listen any more unless you entertain them. He sees a day coming when people will not only lack understanding of the world around them, they just won’t care. In a 2003 article for the Chicago Tribune Julia Keller echoes some of what Postman wrote about television, but applies it instead to the world of PowerPoint®, in an article called “Killing Me Microsoftly.” She wonders if we’re losing the ability to think in anything other than bullet points. Just this year a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist from Miami, Leonard Pitts, Jr., wrote a piece with a title that says it all. It was called “Is Google Making us Stupid?” (Green Bay Press Gazette, June 15, 2008). A week ago, in an a review of a newly published anthology from TIME Magazine, one journalist wrote: “Those of us who traffic in words for a living feel somewhat under siege these days, like a Donkey Kong machine sitting forlornly in the corner of a ramshackle pizza parlor while teenagers on the sidewalk outside play Grand Theft Auto on their handhelds” (Time Anthology Reaffirms the Printed Word, AP, July 18, 2008). In a book called The Vanishing Word, Arthur W. Hunt III, a Christian with a PhD in communication, applies this line of thinking to the life of the church. He sees the pervasiveness of imagery in our society as a pagan attack against the written Word of God.

Page 15: It is said that the first time Luther heard Paul Speratus’ new hymn, “Salvation Unto Us Has Come,” he wept tears of joy. By God’s grace, we’re still singing the same gospel, from our pulpits, in our classrooms, in our homes, in our hearts, and in our hymnals. What’s more, we have God’s promise from his Revelation to St. John that his song will never be silenced, and that we’ll still be singing it long after every earthly hymnal has passed out of use: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Revelation 5:18).



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