The Lutheran School Chapel and the Evangelical School Chapel

Our Father which art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.

The life, culture, education, and school chapels of the professing Christian ought to be a passionate demonstration of a yearning to see the glorious name of God sanctified, hallowed, in the hearts and minds of all people who claim to worship the God of the Bible. While visiting an evangelical school program recently, I was reminded why I prefer that my daughter be in a Lutheran school.

One is the form of everything they do in chapel, including the congregational recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. “Hallowed be thy name” is a prayer that is also highlighted as a big deal by the forms that we choose.

Each week I attend chapel with my daughter and 300 children between the ages of k5 and 5th grade and I see the same thing everytime. On cue they all hush as the two designated acolytes (candle lighters) under the watchful eye of their teacher light the candles. The cross is then carried to the front of the sanctuary and the the three children reverently bow and with that routine symbolism chapel begins. Once after the routine of school chapel with my daughter I was visiting an area Christian school and was treated to children jumping and jiving on stage declaring to feel the Spirit in their toes and in their noses. The trite, vacuous, banal, and irreverent familiarity with the God of the Universe could not have been more stark.

“The problem with you Evangelicals is that you don’t think we Lutherans are Christian” opined the executive director of an area parochial school to me when he became aware of the fact that I was a Baptist pastor. This is an accurate analysis of the evangelical understanding of Lutherans and it shows a remarkable ignorance of all things Lutheran. Yet his assumption (if indeed it was) that all Lutherans are Christian is equally erroneous. I told him that it was truly egregious that a sweeping judgment of all Lutherans as not being in the fold was assumed by Evangelicals, particularly since I knew for a fact from my vantage point as a Baptist reverend that only some Baptists are actually Christian. And, clearly, that would also be the case for Evangelicals as well. And Lutherans.

However, if one were to juxtapose the Lutheran chapel that I observe weekly and the Evangelical so-called “worship and praise” that is drummed into the psyche of evangelical children week after week one could not blame a Lutheran for thinking that Evangelicals are mindless cultural grubs that think that drivel is proof of adoption as sons.  Few of the songs used in many Evangelical Christian School chapels neither lyrically nor musically would occasion the response of a hushed bow.  It’s the crass familiarity of uninhibited farting. The only symbolism that occurs in the Evangelical Christian School chapel is the closed eyes and bowed head during the opening and closing prayer.

But it’s a formality. And, of course, this is the pitfall of the formality in the Lutheran school chapel. I highly doubt that anyone is actually thinking of the symbolism of the candles and the cross. Probably the Baptist minister sitting near the back with his fourth grade daughter is actually pondering on it more than anyone else in the room, including those who have spent their entire lives in the confines of Lutheran formalism. Liturgical formalism is deadening and those of us in the tradition of “free worship” rightfully worry about the consequences of formalism.

But have we adequately worried about the consequence of no form and no symbolism? Or the bad formalism of our mindless forms?

Lest we hastily assert that we are formless and symbol-free, let me remind us that bowing our heads and closing our eyes is both form and symbol. Standing for prayer = form.

It is not formalism to insist on form even though people may not understand it. We must insist on certain forms not only even if people may not understand them, but particularly because people do not have enough understanding. Now, please do not read this as an apologetic for the use of candles in the service. That is not my point at all. I am merely appreciating the form as a message bearer to the children. They do not understand all the symbolism, but they do get a key part of the message conveyed through the form. The form is a simple message that they get: the service has started and this service is different than the pep rally. I don’t think that it is wrong that the acolytes and the children watching the lighting of the candles do not fully understand the reasons behind what they are doing, but you hear no shushing from teachers and, amazingly, nearly 300 hundred pairs of eyes are watching the candle-lighting.

Formalism is the sin of thinking that the form itself, minus heart and thought, is pleasing to God and a substitute for real devotion. But you cannot have devotion without form, especially corporate devotion. Music is a legitimate tool in worship because it is a form. Listen to a congregation read a Psalm out loud together. We do this in our church from time to time and some of our people are disturbed by it because they find the out-of-sync reading of several hundred voices to be distracting. Enter music as a form and instantly every word is perfectly in sync.

But the form is not just the carrier of the message. It is part of the message. It compliments it or detracts from it. It clarifies are obfuscates. Evangelicals want to elevate the worship so they add lofty words to banal forms. Poetically and musically and logically it’s the “praise and worship” rendition of a ring in a pig’s snout.

For good and for bad, I see evangelical influence in the Lutheran culture. On the good part, I see that they have learned from us the richness of a kind of grass-roots expression of praise. On the down side, too many of them are buying into the pop-culture idealization of worship as giddy tripe that makes kids jump up and down, and I roll my eyes and sigh when I see the real Christians introduce new slop from the Evangelical camp because they think that the answer to dead formalism is froth.

I put my daughter in a Lutheran school, not because I want her to become Lutheran, but because I want her to be less confused about what Christian is. I love the fact that they are distinctly Lutheran. At least I can peg who they are and we can understand ourselves more clearly. However, I have no idea what I will find in most Evangelical/Baptist schools. I’m not going to drop her in the the hodge-podge hobo’s soup of evangelicalism that is in our Christian schools where everything and anything that names Christ is called Christian. And I certainly don’t want her to be saturated in American evangelicalism that has so trivialized worship that even little children seem to subconsciously sense is ridiculously banal. The children who hush when the cross is carried in sense something far more lofty than the children who jump to the drumming beat and exclaim that they feel the Spirit in their noses.

Sadly, formalism has invaded the Evangelicals too. Their formalism is called “praise and worship” and looks more spontaneous and free. They feel that since their bodies have proved faithful to them by responding to the rhythm and that they have sung “God is greater, God is greater, God is greater” fifty times with intensifying passion that they have had worship. But since the form is so much like the forms of pop-culture, I can’t help but think while they’re chanting, “Who exactly is their god?”

Forms and symbols do mean something. And, yes, in the Lutheran chapel there are some forms and symbols that we don’t see in Baptist churches. But the very fact of their separateness from pop-culture makes them more effective and more meaningful. On the one side you have the lighting of candles and the silent bow. On the other you have the jarring twang of the electric guitar and the soto voce of the worship leader crooning that worship has begun. Both forms symbolize a beginning of worship. Both could be authentic; both could be mere formalism. The first, however, has the singular advantage of conveying that God and everything about God is actually bigger, transcendent, and serious.

So, that’s one reason I don’t have my daughter in the evangelical schools around here. Perhaps, in another post, I’ll explain why I don’t have her in the fundamental Baptist schools. Or, the Catholic parochial schools. Or, why we have chosen not to homeschool. But for now I’ll just say that we choose to risk exposing her to the formalism that is more serious versus the formalism that is trite, artistically evanescent, and flippant.

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6 Responses

  1. Good words, Bob. Thanks.

  2. That is the same reason 3 of 4 of my kids have been in a LCMS school.

  3. Yet another good reason we have chosen to home school.

    Looking forward to your thoughts on other schooling choices, Bob.

  4. Bob,

    Another thought-provoking post from the acid tipped pen. Thanks for your observations, and your willingness to state them. I love the way you force us to think.

    Warm regards,
    Greg Barkman

  5. With whatever vestiges of my fundamentalist baptist upbringing remain in my mind, I shout “AMEN!” I love the liturgy and tradition of the confessional protestant churches (at least, the ones that still believe what they confess) and their connection to church history, especially when contrasted against the shallow, trite, commercialism that characterizes the broad evangelical world (to say nothing of the narrow fundamentalist world).

  6. Can we vote on next post topic? I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on this : “Perhaps, in another post, I’ll explain why I don’t have her in the fundamental Baptist schools.” Having come from that world, you’d have a helpful perspective, I’m sure.

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