During the summer of 2005, an urban congregation of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod went from using Setting 2 from the Lutheran Book of Worship to a movable summer worship without books or formal setting, steeped in ancient liturgy with Eastern Orthodox overtones. Wicker Park Lutheran Church was the congregation, and the worship of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco provided the model. The common denominator was the hope that Wicker Park culture would be open to both.
Wicker Park Lutheran Church
The culture of Wicker Park Lutheran Church is almost unique in Chicago. An historic landmark district, but also known as Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhood thirty years ago, Wicker Park today is a flourishing and a diverse community of artists, artisans, musicians, aging urban pioneers, young professionals, and community organizers and activists. It is black, white, Latino, and Asian. It is hip and hardworking, creative and practical, gay and straight, wealthy and poor and everything in between.
Wicker Park Lutheran Church reflects the neighborhood. It is ethnically and socially diverse. It is growing. Above all, like the neighborhood, Wicker Park Lutheran Church is young. The median age of the church council is 34. The oldest member of the choir is 65 and the youngest is 22. The median age is 28. Twelve infants (ten of them children of active members) were baptized in 2005.
With the exception of the summer of 2005, worship at Wicker Park has been (and continues to be) conventional and formal but varied. Liturgical settings change with the seasons. After the organ succumbed to water damage in 2001, a piano accompanied congregational singing for three years. With or without the organ, parts of the liturgy are sung a capella, and hymns are frequently accompanied with Suzuki percussion instruments. A small but fine choir leads worship in the fall, winter, and spring.
Conventional and formal Lutheran worship seems to reflect the culture of Wicker Park’s young, mostly “Gen X” but increasingly “Gen Y” assembly. Such worship is not confined to Sundays. For several years lay-initiated and lay-led compline from the LBW was sung on Tuesday evenings. Recently lay-initiated and lay-led midweek Holden Evening Prayer has been sung during Advent and Lent. Suggestions of praise bands and/or PowerPoint are met with rolled eyes and firm “No’s.”
While worship is conventional and formal, the congregation is anything but. Worshipers on Sunday morning frequently arrive with coffee cups in hand. Only visitors arrive before 10:30 a.m. when the service begins. Only the older members dress up for church. Members and friends participate in The Night Ministry and other social service activities. They have also raised red worms for their castings as part of a larger ecumenical urban ecology project in Humboldt Park and Logan Square.
Most visitors come to Wicker Park Lutheran out of curiosity, attracted by the building itself. Most return because of the warmth of the congregation and its involvement in the community. Sunday bulletins print the entire liturgy, music and words, any hymns not from the Lutheran Book of Worship or With One Voice, and explanations of the service and of the particular Sunday. The bulletin also serves a weekly newsletter, introducing visitors to the breadth of congregational activities.
St. Gregory of Nyssa
The worship at St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco is not conventional. I first learned about the congregation in 2002 from a pastor friend and studied the St. Gregory website (www.saintgregorys.org). While intrigued by the exotic vestments, strange umbrellas, and congregational dancing, I was mystified as well. This was clearly not for us.
In 2004, Father Richard Fabian, one of the two founders and rectors of St. Gregory, spoke at the Valparaiso Institute of Liturgical Studies. My assessment that this was not for Wicker Park did a 180-degree turnaround.
In a small workshop session, Fr. Fabian explained the vestments, umbrellas, and dancing. Just as chasubles were ordinary Roman outer garb in the fourth century, the exotic and colorful tunics worn by the St. Gregory worship leaders are common outer garb in East Africa, Central and South America, and Central Asia today. In the fourth century, umbrellas were carried over officials as a sign of honor. At St. Gregory, the strange but beautiful umbrellas are from Ethiopia and honor the gospel. In the early church, hymns were danced as well as sung, a practice followed by the doctors of the church from Aquinas to Dante, and into the last centuries by Shakers and some Methodists.
While Fr. Fabian’s small session was demys-tifying, it was his plenary address that captured my attention. Hospitality, he explained, underlies all that St. Gregory does. Its purpose is to show the Jesus who welcomes and eats with sinners to the world. He outlined how St. Gregory puts newcomers first.
- Worshipers are greeted on the steps at a welcoming table. Before the service, the clergy move among the crowd (in 2004, 225 persons attended the main service) touching each person.
- During the service deacons announce everything so newcomers never feel left out. When collection is taken after communion, newcomers are told that they don’t have to give. Congregational groups treat insiders and outsiders alike.
- The music at St. Gregory’s (“Good church music! Not dumbed down!” Fr. Fabian emphasized) is sometimes sung with hand instruments but usually without accompaniment. The congregation and the music director preview the music before the service, singing the first verse of any hymn or service part in unison then in parts. Much of the liturgy is in call and response form. All this gives newcomers some familiarity with the service. The only written material given to worshipers is a book with a collection of music used at St. Gregory.
- After the sermon (delivered by the presider while seated), everyone is invited to share life experiences.
- After the service, the altar covering is removed, coffee urns are brought, and coffee hour takes place around the altar. On Fridays, the table and the space around it become a food pantry serving 300 families. The coffee hour, Fr. Fabian noted, is “the most remarkable part of the liturgy,” one linking Eucharist and service.
The St. Gregory church building also enhances hospitality. Completed in 1995, it was inspired by early Syrian Christian synagogues. The church is laid out in a rectangle with two equal square spaces. The western space or choir room has seats facing one another along two sides. At one end is a platform with a lectern and a standing censor where the word is read. The presider sits in a chair at the other end. The eastern space of the building is open, with no seating and a D-shaped table. After the Service of the Word, the congregations moves, singing and dancing, to the eastern room where they gather around the altar for the Eucharist.
The average age of worshipers at St. Gregory is 38. The cultural similarities between St. Gregory and Wicker Park were striking. I was already thinking of adaptations. Our music director (then age 35) and choir director (then age 31) had missed the plenary address and were more mystified than enlightened by the small group session. Unlike myself, they were not inspired.
All that changed the following year at the 2005 Liturgical Institute. Gordon Lathrop from the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia spoke. For the closing Eucharist (and with no advanced warning), Prof. Lathrop presided at a service and in spaces that replicated those of St. Gregory. Wicker Park’s music and choir directors were beyond inspired; they were transformed and motivated. By the time we left for Chicago, they had quizzed and garnered materials from Lorraine Brugh of Valparaiso University, who had planned the St. Gregory service. During the ride home we discussed adaptations for Wicker Park.
St. Gregory at Wicker Park
Our music and choir directors immediately set out to devise a service based on the St. Gregory model. The logistics proved to be the easiest part because the Wicker Park Lutheran church building was amenable to a movable service.
- There is a courtyard in front of the church with a small furnace for the Easter Vigil, planted with flowering white plants. The assembly would gather around the furnace to begin the service. A card table would serve as a welcoming table.
- Adjacent to the sanctuary is a large connecting room, formerly a chapel but now a fellowship hall. The 1906 architect cleverly designed the walls between the sanctuary and the chapel space to roll up, thus connecting the two spaces visually. The Service of the Word would be set up in the fellowship hall with rows of chairs on both sides, facing one another. The lectern would be at one open end, and chairs for the presider and assisting minister at the other.
- In the sanctuary itself, there was ample room for a table and people in the front of the nave. The church possessed a beautiful Victorian table with inlaid legs that had long been crying out for refinishing (and, in my mind, for being used as a free-standing altar).
To prepare the congregation, I introduced a two-minute period of silence following the sermon that began and concluded with the ringing of a gong. Beginning in May, the communion liturgy (including the Lord’s Prayer) was sung without accompaniment. Meanwhile the Victorian table was beautifully refinished.
The Wicker Park service was both like and different from that of St. Gregory.
- As at St. Gregory, the Wicker Park worshipers were greeted and gathered outside. When they arrived, they were given bulletins in which the hymns were printed in full. Unlike St. Gregory, the bulletin contained the order of service. By the time the service started, visitors and regulars had gotten acquainted (as well as neighbors walking their dogs). Ice water was available.
- At 10:30 a.m., worshipers moved into the courtyard. Older members who have difficulty with stairs sat in chairs at the top of the outside steps. Preceded by a crucifer with the processional cross and an assistant with wind chimes suspended from the cross beam of a ten foot pole (an umbrella surrogate), the presiding and assisting ministers came from the church and down the steps and joined the worshipers in the courtyard.
- The ministers greeted those gathered by touching each person on the left shoulder and saying, “Christ is risen” — usually eliciting “He is risen indeed” as a response. After a welcome, the order of service was explained. A cantor taught the congregation an easily harmonized “Alleluia” from Zimbabwe and rehearsed the offertory hymn (Vamos todas al banquete / Let us go now to the banquet) in English or Spanish.
- Singing the Alleluia, the congregation followed the crucifer and ministers into fellowship hall. The processional cross was placed near a table with communion vessels and elements, and the wind chimes were placed near the lectern. The lectern was flanked by torches, and a stationary censer burned a small amount of incense. Scatter rugs were placed on the floor in the open space for small children and infants.
- Once everyone found a chair, the opening hymn was sung, accompanied by the piano in fellowship hall. On a few Sundays, there was a confession before the opening hymn.
Service of the Word
- After the hymn and greeting, everyone sat down, and the gong introduced silence. After the gong was rung again to conclude the silence, everyone remained seated for the prayer of the day. (At St. Gregory, silence follows the readings.)
- The readings were read from the lectern. (At St. Gregory the first reading is introduced by the singing of the Shema in Hebrew. I hope this will eventually become part of Wicker Park’s liturgy.) The assisting minister introduced a psalm tone and everyone sang the psalm in unison.
- The congregation stood for the gospel and, while the assisting minister walked to the lectern and retrieved the gospel book, the congregation sang the Alleluia it had sung earlier. It continued singing the Alleluia as the assisting minister carried the book around the open space between the rows of chairs. The assisting minister then held the Gospel book for the presiding minister to read. (At St. Gregory, the Gospel is read at the lectern by a deacon.)
- After reading the gospel, the presiding minister took the book and, with the rest of the congregation, sat down. The sermon was delivered with the gospel book open on the presiding minister’s lap. The gong and silence followed the sermon.
- Omitting the hymn of the day, the congregation stood for the intercessory prayers, led by the assisting minister.
- After the greeting of peace, the congregation sat, and the offering was taken. Immediately before the congregation stood to go to the sanctuary, the pastor reminded them of options for taking wine or grape juice.
- The procession to the sanctuary was led by the ministers carrying the communion elements and vessels. The congregation sang Vamos todas al banquete / “Let us go now to the banquet” as it processed and gathered around the table in the sanctuary, forming a large circle. There were chairs for older members. (At St. Gregory, as the clergy lead the congregation to the table, worshipers put their hands on the shoulders of people in front of them, singing and marching the tripudium step i.e., three steps forward, one back.
This “dance” is accompanied by Ethiopian sistrum rattles and African and native American drums.)
- The offertory prayer from Sundays and Seasons was said by all. Sung without accompaniment, the dialog and Lord’s Prayer were from LBW setting 3 and the preface and sanctus were from LBW setting 1, followed by Eucharistic Prayer G from With One Voice.
- During communion, “Eat this bread, drink this cup” was continuously sung. For at least sixty years, Wicker Park Lutheran has used a pouring chalice and individual cups for communion wine. At last summer’s services the option of a common cup was introduced. Children who do not commune and unbaptized adults received a blessing. (At St. Gregory, everyone participates in the Eucharist, and each person is communed by name. The clergy give bread to each worshiper. Lay persons administer chalices to each other. Children receive bread from the clergy or their parents.)
- After the communion and blessing, the congregation joined the assisting minister in praying the post communion prayer from Sundays and Seasons. After the benediction, everyone remained gathered at the table and sang the sending hymn. (At St. Gregory, the congregation joins in a circle dance.)
- The congregation moved back to the fellowship hall for coffee.
The Pastor’s Reflections
The service at Wicker Park Lutheran was not the St. Gregory Service. There was no congregational dancing. Wind chimes replaced an umbrella. Vestments were not exotic or different. Incense was used sparingly. Announcements of “what we are doing next” were abandoned early on as unnecessary. At the same time, the service was St. Gregory in spirit, in openness, in hospitality. For the pastor, delivering the sermon seated made the connection with the members of the congregation immediate and direct. Gathering everyone around the table meant that individuals who attend regularly but do not commune were part of the assembly. Each responded positively to receiving a blessing. The congregational singing was exceptional. Even the record-breaking 2005 summer heat was somehow more bearable. As one worshiper remarked, with seating for fifty, no one was aware of the seasonally low attendance.
The Congregation’s Reaction
The unanswered question at the beginning of the summer was whether the St. Gregory’s service would be accepted in Wicker Park’s hip culture and by its Gen X and Y residents. The music and choir directors were sure it would be, and they proved to be correct.
The overwhelming response to a survey of summer worshipers was summed up by the response of one previously unchurched member: “What I liked most about the summer service was being outside and connecting with the neighborhood. Having a place for the children to sit while they played. Dancing with the Bible. The intimacy that the service had.” What survey respondents least liked were singing in Spanish (“Recognizing the global church for ONE Sunday with international music is fine for me, but to do it every Sunday was a turn-off for me”), the heat (“but we can deal with it for the hour of worship”), and starting outside (“I am a more private individual… but it was a nice processional into the interior space…”).
An older member (who used the chairs) liked the intimacy of the service but missed the windows and carvings in the sanctuary. Only one respondent (a twenty-something cradle Lutheran) did not like the use of incense and found “the walking around of the Bible before the gospel…bi-zarre.” Suggestions for improvements included coming into the church through the sanctuary (thereby connecting the service of the word more directly with the communion) and arranging the chairs in fellowship hall in a semi-circle.
Because of last summer’s service, silence is now a permanent part of our worship. The communion rail has been moved (and made removable) to open up the chancel. The table is now used as a freestanding altar.
Will Wicker Park repeat last summer’s service this year? Almost without exception, those responding to a survey said “Yes!” and “Definitely!” There’s a cultural fit. I, for one, hope that it will happen.