(This article is excerpted and adapted by Let’s Talk with the permission of the author. The material is from two presentations made at the June, 1995 Synod Assembly of the ELCA Southwestern Washington Synod.)
Centering Worship for the Sake of the Gospel
Clement of Alexandria, writing a few years before II and III John were completed, said this about the community of Christians: it is
the union of many, which the divine harmony has called forth out of a medley of sounds and divisions, and that union becomes one voice, one symphony, following the leader of the choir and teacher, the Word. (Protrepticos 9)
Perhaps Clement was remembering Paul’s words in Romans:
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 15:5-6)
That both writers pleaded for unity of spirit and behavior indicates that they lived with plenty of challenges to such unity. Yet, that is small comfort for all of us who know less than concord and harmony about worship these days. Our dissonances about Sunday gatherings, our suspicions of one another, our misrepresentations of one another’s motives result in high decibel shouting sometimes which has been described in months past as “worship wars.” Balkanization we don’t need. Yet we are torn apart by our attempts to deal with the world around us, and are baffled by the culture in which we live. We yearn for unity and for the certainty that each of us is doing the right thing in our liturgical assembly. We yearn to live with one voice.
How do we worship while being faithful to the Gospel? If we are nothing else, we are Lutherans who know that, try as we might, there is no way we can tune ourselves into a symphony or sing ourselves into one harmonious voice. Left to ourselves we can at best clamor and create dissonance. Let’s face it, such disgusting noise has made us unbelievable to those even tempted to turn their ears to us. To be Church, to be called to the community of believers, to sing together as with one harmonious voice, is to hear and to listen to the still small voice that comes from without (1 Kings 19:4-18).
The power of that voice is in its seeming weakness. Upon hearing it, Elijah was moved to wrap his face in a mantle, and only then did he learn how God had nurtured and preserved 7000 faithful in Israel, who Elijah was sure were all lost. In the synoptic Gospels we hear that same voice settling on Jesus: “This is My beloved Son–hear him” (Mt. 3:17, Mk. 1:11, Lk. 3:22). The voice has a new mouthpiece in Jesus, prompting John to speak of him as the Word from eternity made flesh. Jesus, knowing himself as the choir leader (to use Clement’s title for him), says that He is the Great Shepherd, and that his sheep know his voice and they follow him (Jn. 10:3-27).
With one voice God has made us a people, with one voice God continues to call us into assembly as from a tomb of death into the light of day. To be Church is to be within earshot of the voice of God.
To say it another way, we are most clearly church when we are gathered around the Choir Leader, when His presence sings us into one voice. Church growth advocates such as Timothy Wright (1994:18) hold that the primary function of worship is thanking and praising God, but that is not enough. If it were so, Luther would have never begun his own liturgical revisions, for surely a few revised rosaries and some translated Latin chants could have provided ample opportunity for people to join in praise. Rather, he again and again insisted that the Gospel be heard above all else (“An Order of Mass and Communion”:p. 37), and that the Gospel “be given free course,” (“The German Mass”:p. 69) adding, incidentally, that the appointed lessons for Sundays and Holy Days be kept in order that all, including servants, may be cared for by hearing the Gospel fully.
The point here, of course, is that to be Church is to be in the presence of the voice of God in Jesus Christ. Lest we think too narrowly about that, we need to be reminded that all three of Luther’s proposals for worship orders (“An Order of Mass and Communion” (1523), “The German Mass” (1526) and a third type of service for mature Christians which would not necessitate a pre-arranged order) included weekly Lord’s Supper (Luther’s Works, vol. 53, 1965:63). This is because Luther understood, as did the church all along, that Word is Act, that Word becomes enfleshed, and a Word without bread and wine is a word put asunder.
In fact, it would be clearer to say that for Luther the Christian community becomes just that when it worships gathered around bread and wine. All of the energy he summoned to let the Gospel shine freely for all people was at heart his self-perceived, God-given vocation to free up the “gift of Christ in the proclaimed Word and in the thanksgiving-bread and blessing-cup of the church’s gathering,” as Gordon Lathrop has written (1994:138).
In his 1520 “Treatise on the New Testament, that is the Holy Mass,” Luther cuts through to the very core and purpose of Christian worship. In the process he reveals his understanding of the linkage between Word and Sacrament and of the interrelationship of church, worship, and Word and Sacrament. He writes:
And that he might not give further occasion for divisions and sects, he (Christ) appointed in return one law or order for his entire people and that was the holy mass. Henceforth, therefore, there is to be no other external order for the service of God except the mass. And when the mass is used, there is true worship. (p. 80)
Every once in a while, it seems, it takes blunt words to call the church to what should always be obvious. By the Holy Spirit God calls and gathers the church and preserves it in the one true faith. God does this by nourishing it through the presence of Christ in Word and Sacrament. The purpose of worship is to engage in that holy music whereby the church hears the voice of God as Gospel, heard, broken, and blessed, and whereby voices are sung into one harmonious voice of Christ for the sake of the world. Worship is that life-giving interchange of enfleshed voices. But the center must be clear: the assembly gathers around Christ in Word and Sacrament.
Let the Full Voice be Heard
At minimum, then, the church centers its worship in Jesus Christ, and it does so by gathering around Word and Sacrament. Does such a minimum require us to say more?
- Surely one must say that the heart of the Gospel is God’s deliverance from sin and death through the death and resurrection of Jesus. While all are welcomed at the gathering, access to and participation in the assembly’s life is given through the waters of Holy Baptism and through the Word and teaching which accompany it. Those waters are central to the gathering, and its evangelism has those waters as goal.
- Surely one can say that because Sunday marks the dawn of God’s second creation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Christians will gather chiefly on that day.
- Surely, as Christ is central, the community wants to be as close as possible to him and to his teachings. It will want to give place to a full and ample reading of the Scriptures in the first and second testaments. The unfolding of the year, whether in one pericopal system or another, provides the experience of embracing the center fully. Theme liturgies and issue-generated worship always runs the danger of displacing the center and advancing new gospels.
- Surely that Gospel can become clear and present power only if it is contemporized. The homily places the Gospel alongside the community’s life on a given day and interprets its eating and drinking against its own needs and the conditions of the world.
- Surely, as choir leader is gift to the world, we come to realize that all that we are and have is gift. The whole creation is God’s and its purpose is hidden yet revealed in Christ. Gifts in the gathering are more than pledges for favorite causes, therefore, but rather signs of who we are in assembly and without.
- Surely just as the choir leader Jesus invites to the gathering voices of all people and the whole creation, the assembly will be moved to pray for the poor, orphaned, widowed, sick, dying, and for all sorts and conditions of humanity. Such prayers serve as an agenda which itself arises from the gathering’s new view of all people, a view enlightened again and again by being close to the center.
- Surely, as voices are tuned to that of the Leader, the assembly seeks to give thanks harmoniously and fully. The faithful respond to their leader in a Great Thanksgiving over bread and cup, offering praise for creation, seizing upon the promises of the meal, imploring the Spirit for unity with Christ and with one another, thereupon to be surprised–and who of faith would have expected any other–that the Greatest Thanksgiving is finally to receive from the One who first spoke.
- Surely worship is incomplete without sending for the sake of the Gospel. Any attempt to turn worship into a chummy affair by which the friendly erect tents to enjoy themselves and their peculiar visions controverts the Gospel. Sending protects us from preoccupations with our own self-satisfactions.
- Over the entry through washing, the Sunday gathering, the full regular reading of the Scriptures, the contemporization of the Gospel in homily, the offering of ourselves and our worlds, the prayer for the world, the blessed cup and bread with thanksgiving, and the sending–over all hovers a sense of awe, because God has come to dwell with humans. And, if here and now with humans, then the assembly also carries within it–as only it can do–the suffering of this world.
Lutheran parishes are called to these core ingredients for Sunday worship, not because they represent something north European, but because this is the way God dwells with humans. Patterns of Christian worship from every time and every place are essentially local variations of this core. No matter where you look–be it the second century commentary of Justin Martyr, north African liturgies, the rites of East or West Syria, the German Mass of Luther–all attend to this canon, this rule, as Don Saliers has called it (1994:154-170), because that is what is required of Christian worship.
Christian worship happens through form. Because God comes to dwell with humans in the form of a human being, or in words, or in water, or in bread and wine, the canon or ingredients will occur in and through form. We need to exercise care, therefore, when we speak of “informal” worship as if to suggest that it has no form. The word, of course, has other connotations which we will take up later. Let it be said, however, that the voice of God and the voices of the holy choir will be incarnated, enfleshed through form, and that each and every form potentially assists or detracts from that which it proposes to convey. It is finally impossible to be non-liturgical.
The history of church music makes it clear that nearly any style of music can be shaped to serve the Gospel. World church musics, such as the Christian gamelan orchestras of Bali, or the Bhajan singing of India, imply wider perspectives on useable repertoires of church music. For the time being, it is sufficient to say that church music serves best when it both solicits awe over God’s creative voice in our midst, and tenderly embraces the immensity of human suffering.
The faithful delivery of the canon of ingredients with Christ at the center is what the Lutheran Book of Worship proposes to do. That its use across the land so often beclouds this intention is generally apparent. But, as Martin Marty has said, “be sure to locate the scandal of ineffective worship (1994:5).” Many of the foundational principles of that book have not been put into practice. While I would like to be the first in line to utter a litany of the book’s weaknesses, I also am here to say that its intended purpose is faithfulness to the center, Jesus Christ. That same kind of faithfulness sparks With One Voice, a book which at the same time addresses many of the difficulties belonging to the LBW.
Worship centered in Jesus Christ and in the canon of ingredients is in fact consumer-oriented. The blessedness of the baptismal bath, finally, is that God has led us through the sea of reeds to the promised land where there is milk and honey. In the Egypt of our spiritual darkness we could not know or imagine the sweetness of this food. To consume anything else leaves us hungry. Christological centeredness is the real gift to the spiritually hungry of today. To offer a menu based on self-perceived hungers is to lack faith in the promises connected to God’s own best gifts.
Shaping Worship for the Sake of the World
Like vocalists on tour, we live in and are sent out into a world which has its own sets of patterned living, its own assumptions, its own motivations, its own sufferings. Worship is beneficially shaped for this world when we are clear about the center, faithful to the canon of ingredients, and astute about culture. Shaping is a local thing, partly, but it is regional and national as well. Learning how to distinguish the center from those elements which can and should change from place to place, is, as Luther said, “the greatest and most useful art (“Treatise on the New Testament”:81).”
But there is more at stake here than simply rearranging components of culture artfully to serve the center. The church dare never be taken captive by culture even as it yearns to embrace it. There is always a counter-cultural stance we must take, simply because there is always only one center. Gordon Lathrop shows the way here. The church, he writes:
welcomes the gifts of the many cultures of the world: their languages, their music, their patterns of festivity and solemnity, their manners of gathering, their structures of meaning. But [it] also urges that these cultural patterns must not become their own new law or usurp the place of the center; they must rather come into the “city” to gather around the “Lamb” (Rev. 21:22-27); they must be broken to the purpose of the Gospel of Christ. Cultural patterns of all sorts . . . are welcome here. But they are not welcome to take the place of the Lamb. They are not welcome to obscure the gift of Christ in the Scriptures read and preached, in the water used in his name, and in the thanksgiving meal. (1994:138ff)
When trying to shape worship for the sake of the world we must also keep in mind that there is more than a subtle complication in trying to be contemporary. In fact, accurate descriptions of contemporary culture generally tend to be dialectical; that is, one characterization needs to be balanced by another. Or, what appears to be an obvious trait may after all conceal a deeper conviction yet unspoken.
What now can be said about shaping worship for the sake of the world? How do we look at specific characteristics of our contemporary scene?
In his book, A Community of Joy, Timothy Wright claims that for worship to be contemporary it should use some form of rock music, be informal, and avoid ceremony (1994:68ff). These assertions–seemingly verifiable–are worth a second look.
It may be true that Baby Boomers (born 1946-64) do music via rock. But which rock? In Chicago we have stations which specialize in 60’s Rock, 70’s Rock, and 80’s Rock, not to mention Nu-Age light jazz, and “Golden Oldies,” and a host of other marketable categories. Further, what may be true of the “Boomers” may not be true of the “Busters,” for whom ecumenical tastes in music prevail. To be contemporary may mean a more sophisticated look at common musical vocabularies.
And while informality may be the prevailing pattern of behavior, some are expressing dissatisfaction with its practice. And in group settings informality is always in tension with hospitality.
This brings us to ceremony which originates in part for the purpose of enabling hospitality. Greeters dress up, put on deodorant, stand up, look for the stranger, and are prepared with smiles and warm words, all for the sake of the other. Ceremony adopts formal conventions in order to honor the other. But ceremony also ventilates a certain need we all have for ritual moments. That need and its peculiar fulfillments may be stronger in our culture than we are first led to believe, e.g. the popularity of the sweat-lodge, fascinations with Satanism or with Eastern religions, or the fuss families invest in that interesting event called the prom.
We learn, that Americans are obsessed with surface and that impression and image prevail. One should not be permitted to ask after anything more. But there are contrary voices to this theme of prettified emptiness. Consider the new spiritualities, the yearning for authentic personhood which accompanies womens’ studies, or the search for authentic personhood in general. Preoccupations with surface show up in worship when, on the one hand it focuses on ceremonial actions deliberately medieval and pretty, and when, on the other, it relies on leaders trying to be late night talk-show hosts. Yet packaging is important to our culture, and we ought to make sure that all surfaces are permeable and permit one to discover the center, and the deep realities of awe and human suffering.
Sometimes our worship is shallow by default. Declaring ourselves sympathetic with contemporary culture and its longing for the deep experiences of personhood will appear as surface gesture unless accompanied by forms which, for instance, lift up women rather than oppressing them linguistically or ritually. However the center and core take shape, Christians need to test for content and depth beneath the formal surface. Contemporary culture is also said to be shaped by post-modernism. In a nutshell post-modernism holds that the individual is all important, that the subject creates the world and reality, and that we all are people who no longer believe but have beliefs. There is no truth or reality beyond what we ourselves concoct. But there is a related but contrary view. Because no truth can claim external verification any longer, fundamentalism looks very attractive to those whose tolerance is fully taxed. Fundamentalists feel justified in imposing personally-held truth by fiat or threat.
In this atmosphere we dare not urge our product too forcefully as if to contradict the weakness the cross. But the time is fit for a firm witness to the one who said “I am the Truth.” Note that he did not say, “I have a Truth,” but rather, “I am the Truth.” and they knew and we know that He could say that because he lived faithfully and truthfully. We are called to table fellowship with the tax collectors and Samaritans of our own day. We are called to not throwing stones. To be truth is to live out the vision of the wedding banquet, eating and drinking with people of every nation and race.
The church-growth model of Sunday worship has challenged all of us to think ever more sharply about what it is we do when we assemble for worship. It has invited us to be more hospitable, to think seriously about our culture, and to find ways of reaching generations which have temporarily given up on what they have experienced as Christianity. We would all be less well off were we to avoid these invitations.
At the same time, the vision of the Christian assembly gathered to toast the resurrection around Word and Sacrament with Christ as the center is far more compelling than any alternative. Creatively bringing that vision to life may in fact bring to life a band of people whose behavior in the streets will attract seekers of authentic faith. If that has happened too little, then let us listen yet again for the melody from the leader of the choir, and let us work even harder to sing as with one voice.
- Lathrop, Gordon. 1994 “A Contemporary Lutheran Approach to Worship and Culture: Sorting Out the Critical Principles,” Worship and Culture in Dialog, Geneva, Switzerland: Lutheran World Federation.
- Luther, Martin. 1960 “Treatise on the New Testament, that is the Holy Mass,” is in Luther’s Works American Edition, vol. 35, Philadelphia: Fortress.
- Luther, Martin. 1965 “An Order of Mass and Communion,” and “The German Mass,” are in Luther’s Works American Edition, vol. 53, Philadelphia: Fortress.
- Saliers, Don E. 1994 Worship as Theology, Nashville: Abingdon.
- Wright, Timothy. 1994 A Community of Joy, Nashville: Abingdon Press.