Worship is central to who we are as Lutherans. I am very ecumenical, but I think it is important to maintain our Lutheran tradition. It isn’t only justification by faith that makes us Lutheran; how we carry that theme through our worship life is also central. Lutheran worship is really the Mass, and when you change worship into something else, you are saying, “We’re not very Lutheran.” In Renewing Worship, the liturgy and prayers are updated and contemporized, so I don’t feel that I am reaching back in time, but they are still cradled in the Lutheran tradition, which I strongly value.
We need a corpus of liturgy that expresses who and what we are as a church, to keep passing our heritage on from one generation to the next. In my library I have all the hymnals that I have been exposed to from my early days in the Augustana Synod — from a black book that was very important to my family as Swedes, through my evolution into the Missouri Synod, and then into the ELCA. All of that has been very important to me. As a parish pastor, when I dealt with people who were dying, many times it was parts of the liturgy that we spoke at bedside. It was a part of people’s makeup, and what they kept coming back to.
I was blessed in my ministry at Ascension in Riverside to work with two great cantors — Paul Westermeyer, who is now a professor at both Luther Seminary and St. Olaf College, and who has written extensively on worship and hymnody; and Randy Sensmeier, who is now an editor at GIA and composes hymn tunes. They have spent their lives devoted to liturgy, and through working closely with them, I gained a greater appreciation of our liturgical tradition.
There are some good writers today, such as Dr. Herman Stuempfle from Gettysburg Seminary. I love his hymns; he is working on his fourth volume of hymns with GIA. I have always appreciated how he has combined good hymnody with words that are so contemporary. When he writes about social justice, it feels to me that he is addressing things I just read in the Chicago Tribune.
Some pastors have said to me we don’t need another hymnal; we need resources that are accessible. We’re not going to buy hymnals to put in the pew; we project our music on screens. Other people say it’s time for a new hymnal. Both points of view are well represented in our synod. As bishop, I think we need resources that are both solid and contemporary, and congregations will use them however they choose. Every 30 years or so, we need to put something together that is the corpus of the historical Lutheran liturgy, updated to contemporize it without sacrificing the text.
I certainly encourage congregations to take a close look at the Renewing Worship materials. For the sake of our tradition, we need something to use and pass on that provides a sense of who we are as Lutheran Christians. I hope all of our congregations at least give the new materials a good solid look, especially the occasional services. They are valuable. I saw the new liturgy for baptism used, and I thought it was excellent.
I wish there were an even broader spectrum in the hymnody in Renewing Worship. Some good hymns are missing, but of course the editors have to choose among thousands of hymns, and there’s no way they can include them all. What I have seen reflects the variety of cultures represented in our church — African American traditions, Asian, Latino — and for that I’m most grateful. It is a great improvement over the LBW; the church has changed in 30 years.
The reaction of the Conference of Bishops to Renewing Worship was very positive. As at the Churchwide Assembly in Orlando, some questions were raised about some of the inclusive wording, which probably were generated from folk out in the church who are calling their bishops and saying, “Do you realize what they’re trying to do? They’re trying to sneak gay marriage in the back door.” Overall, the new worship materials have had a very positive response from the bishops. I enjoy worship and I enjoy exposure to new things in worship, but I want “meat” connected with my worship. I want hymn texts that are substantive and carried by solid music.
I am very concerned that in some congregations worship has become performance, and the focus is on the people leading the worship rather than on God. In those services, I don’t feel that I worshiped God; I feel I worshiped a group of people who were applauded for what they did, and God was just kind of an afterthought to the whole experience. I worry about that.
I’ve always questioned applause in worship. If we are applauding anything, it ought to be God for God’s gracious activity in our lives — a grace-filled God who gives us so many blessings, and not someone with a microphone in their hand who sings a good song. It’s even worse if the sound system amplifies a mediocre vocalist. Worship, whether done in a contemporary or traditional or blended vein, should always be of the highest quality possible. God should be the one who gets the glory, but sad to say, that’s not true in a lot of our churches. Sometimes worship strikes me as works-righteousness centered — that it’s what I do that’s important, not what God has done.
Renewing Worship provides resources that both engage the congregation, many of whom are coming from a very different place than 30 years ago, and keep the focus on worshiping God. I think we need this as we move forward. There is flexibility to substitute for various parts, but it is the outline of the liturgical expression that I don’t ever want to see lost. Sometimes after I worship, I wonder, what is the logic to what we just did here? There was no flow to it, no central theme. When I walk away, I wonder what people got out of it.
I believe in having a thematic approach to worship. The three-year series of the lectionary provides challenges for us as pastors in terms of putting worship together, but the hymnody, the prayers, and the sermon should all be focused on one theme. In my first pastoral call I was a mission developer and my wife and I had three little kids. She sometimes said, “I didn’t have a chance to listen to much of your sermon, but I knew what it was about because of the structure of the service. The hymns spoke to me, and I’m sure that’s where you went with your sermon.”
I don’t want to lose the cradle that worship should be. I worry that we have pastors who seem to think they are experts in liturgy, but have never actually focused on its structure and content. So worship becomes whatever they think it should be, or what people say they would like to have, whether it fits liturgically or not. Some say, “We have a worship group, and they plan the service.” Well, have you given them training in what liturgy is all about? Things get tossed in; we don’t want to offend anyone, and we want to attract seekers, etc…
There are congregations in our synod that do contemporary worship well, in a Lutheran context, with a Lutheran “feel.” Shepherd of the Lakes in Greyslake with Pastor Jon Holmes, and Bethlehem, St. Charles, with Pastor Mark Larson are two examples. Bigger churches often are able to do a better job because they have more resources such as talented vocalists and trained musicians. But all congregations can benefit by taking a look at their worship practices and asking themselves how they can improve. Renewing Worship gives us a great opportunity to do that. It provides excellent resources for making worship meaningful to contemporary life while still maintaining our Lutheran identity and tradition.