Posted by: Johnold Strey | January 4, 2010

Catholicity: Beyond our Borders

An article I recently wrote has been published in the January 2010 edition of Worship the Lord, a bi-monthly worship newsletter for pastors, published by the WELS Commission on Worship.  The Worship the Lord newsletter is currently offering a twelve-part series on “Worship Words.”  The “worship word” I was asked to write about was catholicity, and the article is titled, “Catholicity: Beyond our Borders.”  Some excerpts from the article are below.  Click here if you would like to see the entire January 2010 edition of Worship the Lord.

The adjective catholic and the noun catholicity, both with lower-case c’s, do not refer to unique practices of the Roman Catholic Church.  Rather, catholic and catholicity point to church practices that are in some sense universal.  A practice may be catholic because it connects us with the church of ages past.  A practice may be catholic because it connects us with other Christians around the world.  Striving for catholicity in worship says that the Church is greater than our local congregation.  Striving for catholicity testifies to the invisible Church.  It comforts us with the knowledge that the Spirit uses the gospel to bring other souls to faith and sustain them in faith (Isaiah 55:10,11) despite their churches’ heterodox confession.  It acknowledges the truth that “we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1).  It takes to heart the encouragement to “remember your leaders, who spoke the Word of God to you.  Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7). …

Contrary to the spirit of the radical reformers, Luther’s worship reforms honored the principle of catholicity.  In the preface to his Latin service, Luther stated that his goal was never to start anew, but to preserve what was good and to eliminate the bad.  “It is not now nor ever has been our intention to abolish the liturgical service of God completely, but rather to purify the one that is now in use from the wretched accretions which corrupt it and to point out an evangelical use.”  Since there was really nothing objectionable in the basic outline of the mass, and since the gospel could be proclaimed through a purified liturgy, Luther retained the liturgical flow of worship—and, consequently, a connection with the lower-case c catholic church. 

The Lutheran Confessions often cite the early church Fathers.  The plethora of these quotations emphasize that the Lutheran Church is not a new sect, but is in harmony with the historic, lower-case c catholic church.  Similarly, Luther’s worship reforms deliberately retained much of what had been handed down from the past.  Luther’s services communicated in practice the very same thing the confessions communicated in words:  We are not a new sect, but a part of the church catholic, the universal church that spans time and space. …

Four services among current WELS worship resources claim to be versions of the historic Christian liturgy: Christian Worship’s Common Service and Service of Word and Sacrament, and the supplement’s Divine Service I and II.  Two settings of Matins, one setting of Vespers, and two settings of Compline in WELS-produced resources find their roots in the historic series of prayer services called the Daily Office.  These rites say to members and guests alike that we belong to a Church that is bigger than our sanctuary’s four walls or our nearly 400,000-member synod.

Psalms, hymns, and services can be performed in a wide arrange of musical styles.  Rather than limiting a service to one musical genre, these styles can be brought together in one service as a testimony to the church catholic.  At the congregation I serve, this year’s Pentecost service included a traditional Lutheran Chorale for the opening hymn, a contemporary musical setting of the Gloria done with piano and three wind instruments, an arrangement of Psalm 51 in a style that combined jazz and Taizé concepts, and a hymn with Spanish origins from Christian Worship: Supplement prior to the sermon.  A wide array of musical forms within the same service says that the church is not bound to the cultural makeup of our congregation or synod, but it extends to every “nation, tribe, people, and language” (Revelation 7:9).

Catholicity is a useful principle in worship, but it is not the only principle that drives worship.  Catholicity does not trump the gospel.  We rightly preach in a distinctively Lutheran manner, with specific law and gospel and a prominent focus on Christ crucified and risen for our salvation.  Catholicity is not synonymous with a false ecumenicity.  We rightly practice closed communion, testifying that our confession will not tacitly condone false doctrine.  Catholicity does not prevent creativity.  Some of the best creativity in worship today comes when creativity is combined with catholicity.  The popularity of the gathering rite concept is one example of this: The invocation, confession and absolution, Kyrie, and Prayer of the Day are brought together under a common musical theme, merging the rite’s catholicity with the composer’s creativity. …

If catholicity were to become our only driving principle in worship, then we might as well turn our churches into liturgical museums.  But when the connection we enjoy with the church catholic is combined with healthy variety, fresh musical styles, or unique cultural contributions, the end result will be worship that confesses, “We believe in holy Christian and apostolic church”—a church that is here and now, even as it spans time and space.



  1. Thank you for this. I’m always interested in what a pastor has to say concerning worship.

  2. Johnald, I read your article in “Worship the Lord” –it arrived in today’s mail — and again here on your blog. It was well thought out as I would expect anything from your pen to be. However, if catholicity connects us in some way with the church outside our borders, then wouldn’t incorporating catholicity into our worship be shooting at a moving target? The church outside our borders, to use your terminology, includes more Christians than just those who worship with a style that echos the worship of ages past. It includes also Christians whose worship is non-liturgical and whose style is innovative, not echoing the past worship of the church.

    If catholicity does not have a capital C, then these parts of the church also contribute to the what is in some sense general, beyond our borders and catholic, don’t they?

    Thanks for the article.

  3. Hi Pastor Johnson,

    Thank you for your inquiry. The short answer to your question is this statement from the article: “Catholicity does not trump the gospel.” Catholicity is a useful concept to keep in mind for worship, but it cannot be done at the expense of the gospel, lest catholicity or ecumenicity for its own sake become a stronger force in worship than the gospel itself.

    Although there are various forms of worship in use in the church at large today, not all of these forms assume a “means of grace” theology. For example, the “praise and worship” format was built around the assumption that we enter into God’s presence by praising him (as opposed to the preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments). So this particular form begins with 15-30 minutes of singing songs in succession to bring the assembly into the presence of God. A “middle section” might be included with things such as baby dedications, intercessory prayers, vocal or instrumental solos, choir songs, announcements, a Bible reading (if you’re lucky!), acknowledgements of service, etc. (for the record, this list reflects the things I’ve seen when I’ve gone “church spying” to other denominations). Then comes the sermon (usually strong on exhortations), and a final closing song. This “praise and worship” format is fairly common among Evangelicals, but its structure does not emphasize the means of grace nearly to the degree that the liturgy or the daily office or other forms do.

    The same could be said of other non-liturgical traditions, such as Quaker worship. While long periods of quiet, with an occasional interruption from someone who feels compelled to speak, might seem peaceful and meditative, the form assumes the work of the Spirit apart from the Word and sacraments.

    The same could also be said of some liturgical practices, even those with some history to them, like the “presentation of the gifts” to be used in Holy Communion. The language of the Eucharistic Prayer in the Roman Catholic Mass still speaks of a sacrifice that we are offering to God. The presentation of the elements, then, seems to imply the same concept in a visual and symbolic manner, thus turning the sacrament from God’s work into our work.

    In my opinion, our expressions of catholicity with the church of today are most useful when they express the truths of the Christian faith confessed by the universal church. If the theology behind a particular practice doesn’t jibe with Scripture or doesn’t speak clearly, I would avoid it for the sake of a clear confession.

    A complete and thorough answer to your question would almost merit another essay — which I’m not ready to write! But some of what I’ve written here is fleshed out in greater detail in my WLQ essay from Fall 2008.

  4. Good comments, Pastor Strey! Here are some thoughts that were sparked by your discussion. See what you think.

    Catholicity does not mean finding something we have in common with other Christian denominations. Catholicity is that which properly belongs to the whole Una Sancta – the One, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. And that which properly belongs to the whole universal Church is one thing: the Word of Christ.

    By that, I don’t just mean Bible passages. I mean the right use of the Bible passages, the proper distinction between Law and Gospel, the right confession of the truth of Scripture from start to finish. I mean the Word rightly taught and the Sacraments rightly administered. All of that has been entrusted to the Una Sancta, and she rejoices in it.

    Catholicity in worship means that every single word, phrase, song and practice in the service flows directly from God’s Word and from an orthodox interpretation of God’s Word. Therefore, any orthodox Christian from anywhere in the world should be able to nod in agreement with every word, phrase, song and practice in the service.

    Catholicity and orthodoxy are inseparable. Every expression of orthodoxy is catholic, and every expression of catholicity is orthodox. If it’s heterodox, it’s not catholic, and if it doesn’t belong to the universal church, it can’t be orthodox. The Una Sancta always hears and follows the voice of the Good Shepherd.

    I think many guys have the false understanding that catholicity is simply a lowest common denominator that we share with all Christians, so that we focus on that which unites Christians across denominations, rather than on those nasty points of disagreement. Others have the strange idea that catholicity means an eclectic borrowing of some practices from Lutheranism, some from Roman Catholicism, some from Evangelicalism and some from Pentecostalism, putting them all together in one service and rejoicing in our unity. Johnold, you rightly pointed out that “Catholicity is not synonymous with a false ecumenicity.”

    But neither is catholicity a separate principle from the gospel itself. That which unites the Una Sancta is not a form or set of forms, but the Word of Christ. Right forms flow from right teaching, which includes right emphasis.

    So we don’t set the principle of catholicity aside for a moment while we practice closed communion. That, too, emphasizes our connection to the Una Sancta, which always does as Christ commanded, keeping away from false teachers. When we preach in a distinctively Lutheran manner, we preach in a catholic manner, because the Una Sancta lives and breathes the Word of Christ, rightly divided.

    So I have no problem occasionally using part of the Lutheran Confessions in worship, because it is the truth confessed by the Una Sancta, whether or not visible churches have signed onto it. There are lots of applications of this to the worship service, but this post is too long already.

  5. Here’s a thought: catholicity is the high road between the two ditches of sectarianism and syncretism.


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