The myth of traditional Lutheran worship

Melanchthon Lutheran Church
I hope you all enjoy these beautiful rendered MS Paint pictures. I made them just for you.

This church sign could be in your town. At least, it could be if we named churches after famous Lutherans, which we don’t, but if we did, Melanchthon would definitely be near the top of that list. Somewhere below “Luther Lutheran Church” but way above “John Mellencamp Lutheran Church.” But the rest of the sign, advertising two different styles of Sunday services, that’s probably pretty accurate, right? And for such general terms, these two words, “traditional” and “contemporary,” evoke very specific images: Traditional: white robes (albs), candles and acolytes, hymnals and organs, repetitive prayers, choirs, pews, pulpit, altar, stained glass. Contemporary: praise bands, jeans, projection screens, praise bands, comfortable seating, stages, a total embargo on “thee”s and “thou”s, and praise bands. Maybe your local Lutheran church even offers a third style, “Blended” worship, a term which always brings to my mind a vision of Lutherans staunchly singing the Kyrie with frozen margaritas in their hands.

"This isn't Patron!  Lord have mercy, indeed..."
“This isn’t Patron! Lord have mercy, indeed…”

Recently I’ve really started wondering about Lutheran “traditional” worship. Moving beyond what it looks and sounds like, what is it? I imagined that when Lutherans started talking about “traditional worship,” what we’re talking about goes beyond the organ and the albs—I suspect that deep down, we’re all picturing some proto-Lutheran liturgy that has remained more or less the same in content and in spirit for the past 500 years. In fact, when I recently asked friends on Facebook to describe traditional Lutheran worship, one friend was able to rattle off precisely what that liturgy looks like: “confession, hymn, kyrie, gloria, prayer of the day, OT reading, psalm (optionally chanted), NT reading, acclamation, gospel, sermon, hymn, creed, prayers, peace, offering/offertory, eucharistic prayer including the wordy preface of the day, sanctus, memorial acclamation, amen, Lord’s Prayer, agnus dei, distribution, song of Simeon, benediction, hymn, done.” Granted, my friend is a trained Lutheran liturgist. But still, this pattern is familiar enough to most of us that we consider it second nature. When we walk into traditional worship in a Lutheran church on Sunday morning, that liturgy right there is what we expect to do. And insofar as any of us ever really think about our worship, I think we believe that it’s always been that way. That’s what “traditional” means, right? This fall, I went looking for traditional Lutheran liturgy. I wanted to identify the liturgical elements that have unified our worship for 500 years. I wanted to know what made our worship distinct from the ways that other denominations worship. I sought, in other words, that proto-Lutheran liturgy. I couldn’t find it. I did find–get ready for this, guys–that not having a traditional Lutheran liturgy is the Lutheran tradition. I refer you to one of our confessional Lutheran documents:

“We unanimously believe, teach, and confess that the ceremonies or church rites which are neither commanded nor forbidden in God’s Word, but have been instituted alone for the sake of propriety and good order, are in and of themselves no divine worship, nor even a part of it. We believe, teach, and confess that the congregation of God of every place and every time has the power, according to its circumstances, to change such ceremonies in such manner as may be most useful and edifying to the congregation of God.” (Epitome of the Formula of Concord, Article X)

In other words, we don’t have an official, binding, unchanging Lutheran-wide liturgy. What we have is a Lutheran theology that shapes the way we worship. And the way Lutherans have interpreted that theology in their worship over the past 500 years has changed. A lot. To me, this means two Big Important Things:

Big Important Thing #1: “Traditional” and “Contemporary” is a False Dichotomy

There is no “traditional” Lutheran service that is not influenced by its contemporary context. That context can be national, historical, cultural, generational, or theological. The worship services coming out of Lutheran Orthodox congregations of 17th century Germany looked dramatically different from the liturgies of 18th century German congregations in North America. Some 19th century American Lutheran churches had anxious benches in them, for crying out loud:

anxious bench
“We consider [the anxious bench] necessary in many cases, and we believe there are circumstances when no measures equally good can be substituted. Hence we are free to confess that we go for this measure with all our heart.” Benjamin Kurtz, Lutheran Observer, 1843. Qtd. in Nelson’s Lutherans in America.
This leads me to…

Big Important Thing #2: There’s No Such Thing as “The Way We’ve Always Done Things.”

This line has got to be at the top of most pastors’ lists of Least Favorite Things Congregants Say, and so it’s a relief to be able to tell you that, at least when it comes to liturgy, it’s fundamentally untrue. “The Way We’ve Always Done Things” is not the rallying cry of tradition, but rather of traditionalism, and traditionalism made it up.

Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Jaroslav Pelikan.

Jaroslav Pelikan reminds me to mention the Big Important Caveat:

Big Important Caveat: We might not have a traditional liturgy, but we DO have a liturgical tradition.

As I said above, as Lutheran worshipers, we don’t have one “pure” liturgy to which we may hearken as the one traditional mode. What we have is a theological worldview—saved by grace through faith­­­—that shapes everything we do as Lutheran Christians, including worship. That worldview + time + a huge catholic liturgical repository has given us a strong liturgical tradition. Its boundaries are malleable and shift with the cultural climate, but at the heart are a set of worship habits that have remained surprisingly resilient. I’ll go into more detail about what they are in another post. The point of mentioning this caveat is to say that most of the best liturgical work in Lutheran circles starts with looking to the past while working in the present. This was true for Luther’s liturgical reforms; it was true for the major ecumenical liturgical reforms of the 20th century; it was true for the Inter-Lutheran Commission’s work on Lutheran Book of Worship; it was true for Evangelical Lutheran Worship; and it is true for several “emerging church” Lutheran congregations in America. It’s also why I’m starting this work by looking to the past, starting next week with the medieval church and Luther’s liturgical reforms.

  • What do you think of when you see the words “traditional worship” and “contemporary worship?
  • Do you think there is a Lutheran tradition of worship? What does it look like?
  • What are your favorite parts of worship? What do you hope remains unchanged?
  • What parts of worship do you wish were different? Why?

68 Replies to “The myth of traditional Lutheran worship”

  1. I can’t wait to hear what the specific parts of ELCA Lutheran worship are. I know that Christ Jesus must be honored and central. I’m on my own writing up dog devotion services and I use your attributed pieces but hymns and special scripture and poems and “Soon and Very Soon” and as much extras as my old brain can concoct are coming forth.. In January we had 9 dogs and 13 folks and Stephen Stidinger did the reflection about Hannah. I have a hard question, Victoria, Do you remember Maggie the Bichon Frisse’s parents from Terre Haute IN? Dawn may be able to help me capture their names.. The Phillips’ dachsunds objected to Luther’s explanation of the creed. All the best in your studies!!!!!

    1. Hi Martha! Good to hear that the doggie devotions continue! I wish I could have heard Stephen’s reflection. Is there any way to send it to me? It’s so great that he did that.

      I remember Maggie and her parents, but not their names!!

      Those Phillips dogs. I’m telling you. What a catechetical nightmare.

      1. Hi, Victoria. Wanted you to know that Stephen with Hannah by his side spoke from his heart. Next month Jerry is reflecting on the Greyfriar’s Bobby in 19th century Scotland. In March Karen Phillips promised to reflect. Tap dancing has begun in our park and I’m always conniving to incorporate that. I’m thinking of Miriam and her dancing with the children of Israel. .

  2. I grew up Southern Baptist, but have attended Lutheran churches most of my married life. On to your questions:
    – What do you think of when you see the words “traditional worship” and “contemporary worship?
    Traditional conjures up images of monotone. Boring. Hard to follow. No real worship.
    Contemporary to me is loud. a little chaotic. even a bit disrespectful.
    Neither of those images are true. I’ve been to both types of services. The worship depends on my heart at any given time.
    – Do you think there is a Lutheran tradition of worship? What does it look like?
    In a sense, yes there is a Lutheran tradition of worship. My husband grew up in Lutheran churches. I did not. I still have trouble with some of the prayers, sayings, responses, etc that are deeply etched into his memory.The service follows the same order. There is a certain amount of predictability to the worship.

    – What are your favorite parts of worship? What do you hope remains unchanged?
    I love the liturgy. I love that I can attend a service on a day where I feel dark and angry and the last place I want to be is in the sanctuary. But as I semi-rotely participate in the liturgy, light creeps in around the edges and I find myself worshipping inspire of myself. I hope the liturgy doesn’t go away or change too much. The familiarity can be comforting.

    – What parts of worship do you wish were different? Why?
    In my current church, there is nothing about worship I’d change. Except the days it feels rushed because the pastor was overly enthusiastic in his sermon or there is a false need to end by a certain time. If I want change or a ‘different worship experience’ that I will go to a church that hands out earplugs as you walk in.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful response! I particularly love what you said about how the pattern of liturgy lets light creep in around the edges of whatever we bring with us into worship. On my best days, that draws me into the feeling of participating in an ongoing stream of liturgy that extends back to the days of the earliest church.

  3. There is one thing that remains constant within the true Lutheran church that has nothing to do with a particular style of worship. We are unique outside of all other denominations in this, that we recognize our worship is not about us. It is God himself serving us in Word and Sacrament , not the other way around. A worship service isn’t about the praise and gifts we bring. It is “His service” for us! Our response no matter what style, as long as it stays focused on that absolute truth, makes all of our liturgical worship “traditional.” Yet not every church that has Lutheran in it’s name, is Lutheran. But that is for another blog. To read two of my guest blog posts about the reformation and the best gift ever, go to

    1. The German word for worship, “Gottesdienst,” captures part of what you’re saying–that word means “God’s service.” It’s beautifully ambiguous, in that it can refer to God’s service to us, our service to God, and the service God offers to the world through us!

      While you’re right in that our understanding of worship is that it begins with God’s action, not ours, and that that’s a characteristically Lutheran emphasis, I wouldn’t limit that understanding to Lutheranism; I’ve certainly experienced it in the worship of other denominations as well. 🙂

      1. Agreed. There are certainly theological differences that are manifested in different liturgical actions – the Reformed doctrine of the Eucharist and the use of the assurance of pardon are two that come to mind – but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that only Lutheran worship is centered on God. It’s hard to imagine how the ELCA could be in full communion with other denominations were that the case.

        Totally unrelated, but I think Article VII of the AC might help us move past the false dichotomy of traditional and contemporary. If the gospel is preached and the sacraments are administered, it’s “proper” Lutheran liturgy. Hopefully the move towards weekly communion since the 1980s is one change we can all be grateful for.

    2. This is what I find is the most beautiful element of corporate worship: God serving His children through Word and sacrament ministry. .. despite the style of worship, level of formality, beauty of the surroundings, etc. God serves us.

  4. This is excellent – thanks so much. Is it possible to subscribe to your blog? I will take a pass at the questions.
    What do you think of when you see the words “traditional worship” and “contemporary worship?
    Like most I suppose I assume they are talking about musical style. The problem is that it seems to me that the terms then define worship by the musical style which I think is inappropriate.
    Do you think there is a Lutheran tradition of worship? What does it look like?
    Word and Sacrament.
    What are your favorite parts of worship? What do you hope remains unchanged?
    Any opportunities to remember my baptism (formally or informally) and the distribution of the elements of communion.
    What parts of worship do you wish were different? Why?
    I would have to spend some time thinking about this. My wife is quick to point out various “traditional” parts and texts that she feels contradicts Lutheran theology and lift up works righteousness (Go in Peace, Serve the Lord) or point to a remote, inaccessible God – or (her #1 pet peeve about worship) celebrate substitutionary atonement. I think she has a point and perhaps I am just so used to it these things don’t register. But it would be useful to examine all of the texts and elements of “traditional” worship some time. Thanks….

    1. I just redesigned the blog, so the subscribe button isn’t where I remember it! Try the sidebar: I just put a “subscribe” widget in there. Thanks for mentioning it!

      Thanks, also, for taking a shot at the questions! Those were some fine answers. 🙂 I’d be curious to know what tradition your wife is from? And to hear more about what bothers her about substitutionary atonement? (I’ve been hearing that too from different corners.)

      1. She grew up LCMS – but has done a lot of reading and studying. I don’t have time now to go into substitutionary atonement, but I share her concerns and feel that it is not a helpful way of understanding Jesus’ crucifixion. For one thing (IMHO) it is too wedded to Anselm’s early medieval own context and world view.

    1. Thanks for the link! That was a lovely and very thoughtfully written article.

      This post is just what you say–a start. I’m fascinated to know how a church could go from where it seems as though your congregation might be to a congregation that embraces a measure of liturgically flexibility. Is their anxiety rooted in a discomfort with change or a love of the rite of confession and absolution, do you suppose?

      1. Typical Lutheran answer to your final question: “both/and.” I have received feedback from voices in both camps (dislike change/don’t feel “forgiven” if not expressly included/etc.).
        The offered blog is more to the point of where I believe many are, i.e., its about what we like/dislike. To be honest, we provide very “blended” worship with a high degree of interchangeability (and bunch of very talented musicians). Yet, there is always the tension of whether or not the piano, drums and electric bass have as much a place as the organ, oboe, clarinet, flute, etc. (even when they co-participate on the same Sundays!) Parts of the liturgy are sung some weeks, spoken others. A gross generalization is that we are very flexible, worshipfully, while trying to remain liturgically faithful.

      2. Oh, and I wanted to offer this from C.S. Lewis in his “Letters to Malcom: Chiefly on Prayer:”
        “I think our business as laymen [sic] is to take waht we are given and make the best of it. And I think we should find this a great deal easier if what we were given was always and everywhere the same.

        To judge from their practice, very few Anglican clergymen take this view. It looks as if they believed people can be lured to go to church by incessant brightenings, lightenings, lengthenings, abridgements, simplifications and complications of the service. And it is probably true that a new, keen vicar will usually be able to form within his parish a minority who are in favour of his innovations. The majority, I believe, never are. Those who remain – many give up churchgoing altogether – merely endure.

        Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value. And they don’t go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best…when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance.

        The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God. But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshiping. A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service bu on the celebrant. You know what I mean. Try as one may to exclude it, the question, “What on earth is he up to now?” will intrude. It lays one’s devotion waste.

        There really is some excuse for the man who said, “I wish they’d remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not Try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks.

        Thus, my whole litugiological position really boils down to an entreaty for permanence and uniformity. I can make do with almost any kind of service whatever, if only it will stay put. But if each form is snatched away just when I am beginning to feel at home in it, then I can never make any progress in the art of worship.”

      3. Fantastic quote–I’m not familiar with it. Thanks for sharing!

        Ironically, I have heard the fourth paragraph in almost precisely the same form, but “boredom” replaced “novelty.” 😛

      4. Familiarity is almost necessary for the very young and the very old to participate. First confusion and then not paying attention–at all–happens with my children every time we are traveling and visit a church with no recognizable liturgy (I don’t mean exactly as our church uses, but with no familiar canticles, order, etc.). Novelty is very hard on the physically weaker brothers and sisters–those who can’t read yet, or who have lost their eyesight or can’t hear well, and can’t follow the bulletin insert or screen. By comparison, I have attended Masses in France and Italy where I knew exactly what was happening and could sing and pray along, even if in English, and even if I was using a different melody

      5. Thanks for commenting, Katy! You raise a really great point about how liturgy can be used pastorally. Martin Luther, in his introductions to the liturgies he wrote, makes much of the need to be considerate towards those he calls “weak in faith.” Not that your kids or the elderly are weaker in faith–but certainly we do need to be sensitive to varying needs in a congregation.

        That said, I think it’s also important to make sure that worship isn’t impoverished because we’ve always made decisions according to the “lowest common denominator.” Does that makes sense?

        Totally different note–its sounds as though you and your kids struggled while visiting churches that would identify themselves as “non-liturgical,” but I wonder whether, if you visited them regularly, you might have discovered that there was indeed an unofficial but reliable order to the way things were done, and even a song repertory that would become familiar over time. Melanie Ross makes this argument in her book “Evangelical vs. Liturgical? Defying a Dichotomy.”

  5. Article X of the Solid Declaration is only speaking to true adiaphora (crossing yourself, exorcism in the bapismal rite, etc), not the order of worship. The more Martin Chemnitz you read, the more you find out he was dead serious about good order in the church and uniformity in doctrine and practice.

    Read the preface to the Solid Declaration.
    “In a similar manner at present our opponents, the Papists, rejoice at the dissensions that have arisen among us, in the unchristian and vain hope that these discords might finally cause the suppression of the pure doctrine, while those who are weak in faith are [greatly] offended [and disturbed], and some of them doubt whether, amid such dissensions, the pure doctrine is with us, and others do not know with whom to side with respect to the articles in controversy.”

    Read by itself, the article looks to uphold what you’re saying. But read in the context of the time that it was written and other writings of it’s author, it’s clear that Chemitz never intended for churches of the same confession to have completely different worship practices.

    1. Thanks for pointing back to the original document I quoted and encouraging consideration of the context. Always a good practice!

      It’s definitely true that the authors of the FOC distinguished between adiaphora and those parts of the service they considered instituted by the Word of God, but I haven’t seen anything in the confessions that suggest that the confessors included uniformity of practice in that category. Can you point me to something specific?

  6. Well, most of all, I would point you to the many historical factors that lead to the Formula being written in the first place, manly the impact of Luther’s death, the Smalcald War, and the Augsburg Interim.

    For Chemitz, you can only find pieces of the book in English, but I would point you to his book *Braunschweig-Woelfenbuettel Church Order of 1569*. Martin Chemnitz was a supervisor of about 250 congregations in Germany. He wrote this book on church order prior to writing FC in 1577.

    I would also point you to AC XXIV which states: “Falsely are our churches accused of abolishing the Mass; for the Mass is retained among us, and celebrated with the highest reverence. Nearly all the USUAL CEREMONIES are also preserved, save that the parts sung in Latin are interspersed here and there with German hymns, which have been added TO TEACH THE PEOPLE. For ceremonies are needed to this end alone that the unlearned be taught [what they need to know of Christ].” (emphasis mine)

    1. Thanks for the reply!

      I’ll go on a hunt for Chemnitz’Church Orders, but if he is advocating for a single order for use throughout Lutheran churches everywhere, he’s working against Luther’s own expressed preferences (check out the prefaces to the Formula Missae, Deutsche Messe, and his tract “Concerning the Order of Public Worship”). Interesting contrasts. 🙂

      As for that part of the AC, I think that the original article was included mostly in response to the horror evinced upon Luther’s treatment of the Eucharistic action (i.e.: he took out everything except for the Verba). However, the much more detailed discussion in the Apology to the AC boils down to just about this: (Paragraph 33:) “But just as the dissimilar length of day and night does not injure the unity of the Church, so we believe that the true unity of the Church is not injured by dissimilar rites instituted by men; although it is pleasing to us that, for the sake of tranquility [unity and good order], universal rites be observed.”

      The authors then go on to make clear that while universality is “most pleasing,” it is by no means binding or necessary. And to the best of my ability to seek it out, that universality never existed among Lutheran liturgies.

  7. Great intro article! Too often, the “traditional” and “contemporary” labels are used disparagingly to describe everything we don’t like about worship: traditional is long, boring, quiet, old; contemporary is loud, annoying, a fad. I hate the distinction. All worship is traditional, as we have been doing it for 2000 years. All worship is contemporary, in that we do it now, in our context, with our own spin. I find that the arguments over traditional and contemporary (which, as pointed out above, is almost always about music and clothing) are not usually about worship, and usually about something else.

      1. It sure is. I’m having some similar conversations as what you are blogging about here regarding traditional services. Quite interesting. Keep up the good work. I can’t wait to read more.

  8. Thanks for the post, Victoria. Much food for thought. As you search out liturgical traditions I suggest you take a look at Frank Senn’s book, “Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical” (Fortress Press). Wealth of info there. Also Marva
    Dawn’s “Reaching Out without Dumbing Down.” Both are from the 90s and will spare you having to re-invent the wheel. Then again I’m sure you have your own resources. God’s peace be with you.

  9. Thanks for the trip down memory lane…
    I left LCMS for good three years ago, and I’m glad to be reminded why.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the content of your post. The entire spirit of the reformation is to let everyone do as they please, and not just with respect to worship. This is the underlying concept behind Sola Scriptura as well. The reformers rejected the idea of a Holy Tradition without attacking what it really is – and without a Holy Tradition, there is no objective right or wrong way to do any of what you do in church… including interpreting Scripture. It’s all a matter of majority rule, which boils down to the individual virtue or caprice of the members.

    If Lutheranism these days seems like a mess to you, it’s because you’re the type of person who doesn’t think a religion which claims exclusive objective truths should just go along with whatever its subscribers feel like doing from week to week. If you let liturgy be whatever sounds good at the moment, then it’s inevitable that your doctrine will end up also being whatever sounds good at the moment.

    Some people are fundamentally OK with all of that. They’re OK with Christianity being whatever sounds good. If you’re not OK with that, then you cannot logically be mad at them for taking over Lutheranism, because as the article stated, they didn’t take anything over: that IS what Lutheranism is. If you want something different, well, it does exist, but you have to talk to people for whom Christian history starts before October 31, 1517. You have to learn something about the other **three-quarters** of Christian history. When you do, you’ll find out that Rome is not the only option, and that there were entire peoples who were tired of Rome’s shenanigans almost five centuries before Luther was.

    1. Mmmm, I disagree with your interpretation about the spirit of the Reformation…you also seem to be conflating unity of doctrine with singularity of worship practice. I also think you’ve read more negativity about my perspective on Lutheranism and Lutheran worship than is actually there–but it also sounds as though you’re deeply discontent with it yourself. If that’s an accurate read, I’m sorry, and do hope you’ve found a place to worship in community.

      1. When will we come to understand that our mission goes further than our own personal faith in Jesus? Jesus Christ is for the world. After 9-11 we have come to understand more deeply how in the world America is. And what about our young people coming up after us? They’re so into technology. We need to suit ourselves up for the sake of other folks. It’s not all about us!

  10. I have learned to not like the “contemporary” service offered at my church because the music is consistently too loud, monotonous, repetitive riffs, and too often performance-not music done to lead congregational worship. I’ve noticed the musicians are often not musically trained and have lifted the music from a performers recording so they work from their cheat sheets-having to do this leads to music done that allows no molding a hymn to meet a congregations’ needs. Big mistake-sacred music needs to enhance the liturgical word and create another opportunity to pray-not perform. I may not care for the hymns at the “traditional” service all the time but they do lend themselves to sung prayer that enhances the prayers, readings and sermon that day. If this study does succeed in defining what a traditional service is it can’t do it without addressing the music—because the music has come to define the “contemporary” service, I think.

    1. You bring up a great point about the tremendous importance of music to the Lutheran tradition! I absolutely agree that a conversation about the Lutheran tradition of worship is incomplete without considering the music, but unfortunately that’s beyond my scope and expertise. Maybe you could take this on? 🙂

      I understand that Gracia Grindal has written about Lutheran hymn traditions. You might also look into “Sound Decisions,” which is an ELCA resource from the 1990s about choosing contemporary music. I’ve written another post about Lutheran CM resources, as well as one about what makes music Lutheran. If you have other resources or insights, I’d welcome them!

    2. As a praise band member, I and my fellow members wrestle with that weekly. “This is a beautifully worded song that reinforces the pastor’s message.” “The congregation won’t be able to follow along or participate in the singing.” “This song works best as a solo, but then it seems like a performance.” Every time we try to walk that fine line.

      1. Thank you for the conscientious work you do! In the world of my liturgical dreams, this sort of consideration would be applied to all our worship music. 🙂

  11. This is SO refreshing to read. I’m part of a (Lutheran) church plant that has come under fire from a nearby Lutheran church which believes that “traditional” worship is the only true worship. They told us that if we are anywhere close to them, we will be in a fight, whether we choose to fight or not. I wish I could say that I was making a broad interpretation of their words, but I’m not.

    On the other hand, I’ve also heard people of the “contemporary” ilk deride older forms of worship as being out of touch, stodgy, and dirge-isn. There’s nothing inherent in the form that causes it to be that way, and it depends entirely on the worshipper. I’m sick of the war that some people continue to perpetuate between these two forms of our outward expressions of our inner posture before God. We waste time fighting with each other – while the rest of the world watches us – instead of focusing on our mission. I’m always encouraged when I hear more people saying what you’re saying and trying to bring the focus back onto the heart.

    1. I appreciate your comment! I’m heartened in turn by your spirit of reconciliation and acceptance. Thanks for your witness.

  12. Hello, Victoria. I appreciate very much the way you approach this issue: thoughtfully, whimsically, and positively. Having been intensely involved in consideration of changes to our worship practices over the past thirty+ years, I’m very encouraged by the manner in which the conversation around these issues has deepened. Your blog is strong evidence of that.

    Last spring I helped plan and led music for worship at the Minneapolis Area Synod assembly. We had a wonderful combo/quartet that accompanied the assembly singing including bass, drums, piano, and woodwinds, plus the synod’s “Senior Band,” an 80 member concert band made up entirely of retired folks. We sang hymns, new compositions, and music from other cultures. It was a great variety of material played and sung with fine musicianship and good energy.

    The next week as the evaluations for the assembly were being reviewed, the synod office assistant/receptionist set one aside and couldn’t wait to share it with me. It said, “Just because you put drums with hymns, that doesn’t make it contemporary.” I shook my head head and said, “Do you see what we’re up against? People now think that there are two kinds of worship.”

    I would argue that there is really only one kind of worship, but many different expressions of it. The organization that I lead – The Center for Worship & Music Studies – is preparing to begin training church musicians and others who lead worship to be able to practice, articulate, and teach vibrant and substantive worship in the congregations they serve. Whatever it looks like (WAY beyond the control of wonks and judicatories), it should reverently join with the worship of the Church in every time and place, AND be deeply meaningful in its current, cultural context.

    If we can continue to do those things, stay committed to the crazy concept of justification by grace through faith, and do it all within a healthy dialectical approach, there might just be a new edition of Lutherans in North America published some day.

    1. I’m having a small Lutheran fangirl moment. (Omigosh! Jay Beech commented on my blog! Whaaa?!)

      I really love this idea of there being “only one kind of worship, but many different expressions of it.” As someone who regularly prepares worship and worship music, what is it that holds you in touch with what’s essential to worship? Without a rigid form for reference, how do you know when the music you’ve chosen is doing its job–particularly this: joining in the worship of the whole church, and simultaneously being deeply meaningful in its context?

      Thank you for commenting, and for the faithful work that you do!

      1. You are very kind, Victoria. And as you well know, “rigid form(s)” do not a true Lutheran make. An important part of what we offer to the church and to the world is a capacity to find deep meaning in the shadowy places between law and gospel, between sinfulness and sainthood, between the messy realities of the present and the ideal of the reign of God, etc. We HAVE to be able to both articulate and demonstrate the holy truth that lives in paradoxical realities. The tension between these things can create great energy for mission and ministry.

        This tension between tradition and “contemporary” relevance is nothing new for the church. I think that what is new is the way that it is expressing itself within individual congregations, especially in worship practices. For me, planning worship that is both faithful and effective has more to do with asking the right kinds of questions than with adherence to some sort of rigid formula.

        *Does this service honor the witness of the (historical) church?

        *Would someone walking into this place recognize that what is happening here is not simply focused on this particular time and place?

        *Is the scripture being interpreted, amplified, and contextualized in a way that makes it possible for these people who are here today to have a genuine encounter with God in Christ?

        *Are word and sacrament clearly in focus and being administered with grace and generosity?

        *Is there life and energy and soul in the music (and everything else in the service)?

        I can think of about 50 other questions that I ask myself intermittently, but this is your blog after all. The point is that that the process is essentially dialogical. You ask me, “how do you know…” You can’t know that you’ve gotten it just right. But if you’re patient, and if you ask good questions, and listen to the congregation and to the Spirit, you can learn and grow. And ultimately, it is God’s Spirit that makes liturgy more than a rigid set of rules.

      2. “You can’t know that you’ve gotten it just right. But if you’re patient, and if you ask good questions, and listen to the congregation and to the Spirit, you can learn and grow. And ultimately, it is God’s Spirit that makes liturgy more than a rigid set of rules.”

        There’s so much grace in that right there. Thank you.

  13. Additional resource/book recommendations that may (or may not) be useful:
    Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology by Gordon Lathrop
    Liturgical Spirituality by Phillip Pfatteicher

  14. Just pointing out, as an Anglican, that the Book of Common Prayer is not an ” official, binding, unchanging [Anglican Communion]-wide liturgy”. Each province of the Anglican Communion has either created their own version of the Book of Common Prayer which is adapted to their context, or they have authorized additional prayer books to supplement the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. The Anglican Covenant, which would have added the 1662 BCP to our doctrinal standards, was rejected. That said, in the United States, a Lutheran congregation using Evangelical Lutheran Worship will have a few more liturgical options than an Episcopal congregation using the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal 1982.

    1. Thanks so much for this correction! I was wondering even as I typed out the sentence whether I was characterizing it correctly…

  15. Can you help me understand the myth conclusion in the context of the evidence of AC XXIV, Reed, Webber, Just, and so many others? The evidence of traditional Lutheran worship is so very bulky, and it is a natural human tendency to disregard bulk. Then, having done, it seem sound to conclude that it is only myth, but only because the case for tradition was too good.

  16. I’d be glad to help you, but I’m afraid you’ll have to give me a little more to go on. What exactly did I write that you disagree with?

  17. My reply will be very basic, as I don’t have the time for big words at present, nor deep thought. However as a ‘new’ person to the Lutheran church (14 years) as opposed to forever, I find the service orders sometimes monotonous and drummed out as if no one has thought about it (which I’m sure is not true). in fact we dont need to think, we just say what we need to say and it’s done. This is obviously a harsh comment, but I’m honest in that it is sometimes how I take it. However when I take my focus off myself and onto God and ask him to prepare my heart for the service in whatever format or structure or context, my heart and eyes are opened and it is just great. I do love it when I attend a service that is real and earnest. When it doesn’t feel staged or like someone is just going through the motions just like we have always done but when they sometimes explain why we are doing things and refresh our memories. For new Christians I wonder what on earth they must think sometimes, I’m personally on a journey to really reevaluate why I go to church, why do I find some services dry and without heart, and why some are more uplifting. Is it for my benefit or for worshiping God? Within our congregation there is a fair amount of ‘because we’ve always done it this way’ which disturbs me a little because I don’t fully understand all the ways of the Lutheran church. Thanks for an interesting article!

    1. Thanks for your comment! I love your words about asking God to prepare your heart. I had a very wise seminary professor who told us once that he used to pray exactly that before going to daily worship at his divinity school (where worship was very changeable!), and eventually, he noticed that he had stopped needing to pray it.

      I agree that worship can at times feel very rote. In my current setting, I’m trying to learn how to strike a balance between those who want to know why we do what we do, and those whose worship experience is undermined by pauses for explanations.

      Thank you so much for your perspective! Blessings on your continuing exploration of Lutheran worship.

  18. When you play the music of Bach, do you ask yourself if parts of it are useful? Do you edit, tweak, turn it into “self expression”, or do you give yourself up to the music, follow it as given? You do the latter, if “Bach” is what you really want to perform. For centuries, people approached liturgy in the same way. It was seen as being inspired by God and was adhered to because it was a VEHICLE that carried people – in a corporate way – to a certain destination. This faithfulness to what came before isn’t a “dead” following of the letter. It’s “religion” by its very definition. The word comes from the Latin word “religio” (hard “g”), which means to “reconnect”: to God, to ancestors, to the saints, and to the Church which came before. Prior to the Reformation, “authority” for Christians came from sacred custom, oral traditions, and the Bible, the latter being something that the first Christians didn’t even have, as the New Testament came during or after their time, and the Bible, as we know it, was yet to be assembled and approved by the institutional Church, which came first. Certainly, God can speak to us still, and liturgy need not be completely static, but too often today, it’s something that “we” do, not something that we give ourselves up to, in expectation of reconnecting to something larger.

  19. In January we’re going to sing “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so”… and I think everyone knows that and the dogs will appreciate everyone singing, right after The Lord’s Prayer.


  20. Just bumped into your blog…you’re awesome! Fun to read and challenging to consider. Thanks!
    My question is less about Traditional/Contemporary but engaging families in worship with whatever form of worship is used. We want families to worship together – parents, young children, youth, grandparents – but our culture has a “let’s drop the kids off in the children’s ministry” mentality. I find that worship is getting divided by generational preferences (typically older folks prefer liturgical; younger folks contemporary – obviously a hasty generalization but what we generally experience at our church). This division of families (children separated for parents) and generations (Builders, Boomers, Gen XYZ, whatever) can’t be good over the long haul.
    Any comments/thoughts on the topic would be appreciated.
    Again, your blog was a blessing (as were the thoughtful replies).

    Phil Cameron

  21. “Falsely are our churches accused of abolishing the Mass; for the Mass is retained among us, and celebrated with the highest reverence. Nearly all the usual ceremonies are also preserved, save that the parts sung in Latin are interspersed here and there with German hymns, which have been added to teach the people.” (CA, Article XXIV)

    “At the outset we must again make the preliminary statement that we 1] do not abolish the Mass, but religiously maintain and defend it. For among us masses are celebrated every Lord’s Day and on the other festivals, in which the Sacrament is offered to those who wish to use it, after they have been examined and absolved. And the usual public ceremonies are observed, the series of lessons, of prayers, vestments, and other like things.” (Ap. concerning Article XXIV of the CA)

    …our churches dissent from the church catholic in no article of faith but only omit some few abuses which are new and have been adopted by the fault of the times although contrary to the intent of the canons… (CA, prologue to XXII,1 [Latin])

    …nothing has been received among us, in doctrine or in ceremonies, that is contrary to Scripture or to the church catholic. (CA, epilogue to XXVIII,5 [Latin])

    …no novelty has been introduced which did not exist in the church from ancient times… (CA, XXIV:40 [German])

    We gladly keep the old traditions set up in the church because they are useful and promote tranquility, and we interpret them in an evangelical way, excluding the opinion that they justify. Our enemies falsely accuse us of abolishing good ordinances and church discipline. We can truthfully claim that in our churches the public liturgy is more decent than in theirs, and if you look at it correctly we are more faithful to the canons than our opponents are. (Ap., XV:38-39)

    On holy days, and at other times when communicants are present, Mass is held and those who desire it are communicated. Thus the Mass is preserved among us in its proper use, the use which was formerly observed in the church and which can be proved by St. Paul’s statement in I Cor. 11:20 ff. and by many statements of the Fathers. (Ap., XXIV:34-35 [German])

    Since, therefore, the Mass among us is supported by the example of the church as seen from the Scriptures and the Fathers, we are confident that it cannot be disapproved, especially since the customary public ceremonies are for the most part retained. (Ap., XXIV:40 [Latin])

    What you have written is absolutely false. Lutherans DO have a traditional form of worship that is binding–that form is the Western Catholic Mass which was cleansed by Luther and the Blessed Reformers from accretions that had been added over the course of time and needed to be removed so that the Mass would more clearly set forth the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Everything was retained that could be retained from the Roman Mass, and still to this day, that is the very foundation of our traditional Lutheran Liturgy. When the evangelicals argued at Augsburg it isn’t necessary for all ceremonies to be exactly alike in all places, they were not saying that they had abandoned the Mass, for they would have contradicted other parts of the Augsburg Confession that argue that “we religiously keep and defend it [the Mass].” They were arguing in favor of the few changes that had been made in the Mass that allowed for a clearer articulation of the Gospel. Luther and the Lutheran Reformers of the 16th and 17th Centuries could not have imagined the kind of situation we have in American Lutheranism today where every parish seems to be crafting its own “worship experience.” That is NOT Lutheran Liturgy!

    It is unfortunate that you did not discover my parish in your search to find the traditional Lutheran Mass, “for the Mass is retained among us, and celebrated with the highest reverence.”

    You seem young, and perhaps do not remember, or were born after, a time when there was a great deal of uniformity in Lutheran parishes when it came to worship. In the Lutheran Church in America, for example, pastors and congregations were bound to use “the book of the Church.” There were, of course, churches with more ceremonial and churches with less, but they were all using the same texts, same prayers, same hymns, same calendar, etc. No one was crafting their own worship experiences.”

    We are bound, by our Confessions to a particularly Liturgy, and that is the Liturgy of the Mass (allowing for certain small differences in adiaphora). The reason you couldn’t find what you call ‘a proto-Lutheran Liturgy’ is not because one doesn’t exist, but because of the unfaithfulness to the Lutheran Confessions that is rampant, opening the door to a-liturgical (and even anti-liturgical chaos.

    I earnestly encourage you to study those passages in the Book of Concord that pertain to the subject of our Liturgy, and to do a study of the Lutheran church orders and service books from the time of the Reformation to the present day. You will find much continuity and uniformity.

    1. Thank you for your comment, and for your encouragement to continue my research in Lutheran liturgical studies! It has indeed been a source of much joy and interest to me.

      I spent a year doing precisely what you suggested: a survey of American Lutheran church orders for an STM project at Yale. You’re right about there being considerable continuity (with a LOT of regional variation), but there really isn’t a great deal of uniformity in American Lutheran practice until the Common Service 1888 (the formation of which is itself marked with divergence between the three cooperating synods), and that uniformity isn’t really “enforced” in rubrics until the 1958 SBH…the language which is adiaphora, as is demonstrated by the subsequent softening of that language in the 1978 LBW.

      I did that research in the context of seeking to understand how liturgies come into use and then come to be considered part of a “tradition,” and what study demonstrated to me is that the myth of there being a “pure” liturgy, whether in the Roman Catholic practice or the Lutheran, is extremely persistent but not well-supported.

      Perhaps you see this at work in your own parish, which I’m sure does an admirable job of providing a worship service with much liturgical integrity. Do you employ a eucharistic prayer? Excising this was one of Luther’s “corrections” to the Mass, which was restored during the liturgical renewal movement during the 1950s to align it the canon of the mass more with early Christian practice. So which version of the canon of the mass is “purer”–Luther’s or our interpretation of early church practice?

      Those questions continue to challenge the idea of a “binding” or “pure” church liturgy, particularly for Lutherans–as I rather think it should be, in the tradition of sola scriptura!

  22. When you heard the comments of “prayer, confession, Psalm, Readings, Eucharist, etc…” you got your true answer for “traditional Lutheran Worship”. When the “ordo” is preserved, you have the historic Mass of the church as stated in the Augsburg Confession XXIV
    “1 Our churches are falsely accused of abolishing the Mass. The Mass is held among us and celebrated with the highest reverence. 2 Nearly all the usual ceremonies are also preserved, except that the parts sung in Latin are interspersed here and there with German hymns. These have been added to teach the people. 3 For ceremonies are needed for this reason alone, that the uneducated be taught ‹what they need to know about Christ›.”

    The ordo was preserved without making a significant change to the Mass of the Council of Jerusalem going back to the early 4th century. Traditional “Lutheran” is a misnomer. Traditional means “the historic worship of the Church”.. The Lutheran Confessions are pretty clear on it. 🙂

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      Funnily enough, my church–the ELCA–has landed exactly where you have in stating that the ordo is what holds a liturgy in continuity with historical practice…but the way we’ve interpreted “ordo” is a helluva lot more flexible than it was, say, 70 years ago.

      I hear your point about _traditional_ meaning the historic worship of the church–I agree that worship is, at its heart, ecumenical! But that’s not an understanding that’s found much on the ground inside a congregation’s mentality…or at least, that’s been my experience. 🙂

      Also, I’m afraid there’s far more going on in the mass than your statement about the 4th c. and the Council of Jerusalem allows. I spent A LOT of time enumerating some of these dynamics and changes in a short series of blog posts, which of course you’re welcome to read and comment on! And then there are other scholars who have done considerably more work than I have on this who have a lot to say too…I reference them in these posts.

  23. The Lutheran Confessions bind us to the Mass of the Roman Rite with its ancient order, lectionary, prayers, formularies, ceremonial, gesture, and vesture. It’s true, Luther did remove the Canon of the Mass because of its emphasis on propitiatory sacrifice. One could argue that the Canon of the Mass is not really a Eucharistic Prayer, for there is really nothing Eucharistic about it. The thanksgiving is limited to the sursum corda, variable preface, and Sanctus. The prayers that surround the Verba of the Lord are heavily sacrificial and pleading. How this particular prayer (or series of prayers) came to replace all others in the Western Church is somewhat of a mystery. Luther and Melanchthon knew of the the Eastern Eucharistic Prayers and admired them. The criterion for judging whether or not something should remain in the Mass was, for Luther, justification by grace through faith (not surprisingly). The Roman Canon which Luther excised did not mean that Luther did not approve of Eucharist Prayers. That is simply not true. Luther didn’t merely throw out the Canon Missae, he replaced it with an evangelical Canon which consisted of the Sursum Corda and a fixed preface. The Verba was connected to this preface by the Word ‘qui,’ so that it is still within the context of a prayer of thanksgiving. Then followed the Sanctus and Benedictus, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Agnus Dei. One of Luther’s great innovations was to take the Nunc Dimittis and use it as a Post-Communion canticle. There is no reason why Luther could not have reformed the Canon Missae, as Cranmer did in 1549, he simply didn’t . For Luther (and for the Medieval Scholastic theologians such as Aquinas) the Verba does the work of consecrating. My point is that Luther’s changes are not radical, and they are deeply indebted to and rooted in the Western Catholic tradition. Luther was willing to allow some variations in liturgical customs and ceremonies observed in various regions and territories (which, prior to Trent, was the case with the Church of Rome as well), but not homespun “worship experiences” as we see today.

    Now, the reality is that, yes, there has been a lot of variety among Lutherans, particularly in America do to the corrupting influences of pietism, puritanism, revivalism, anti-Romanism, etc. However, I for one, do not see aberrations as legitimate variations. And what we find in the church orders of the 16th and 17th Centuries is very little variation from place to place and a lot of uniformity. I believe there is a “proto-Lutheran” liturgy (to borrow your phrase). In fact, it is something that has always been quite obvious to me. The Lutheran liturgy is the Roman Mass reformed.

    You see, my concern with this “ordo” business is that it leaves way too much up for grabs. If I put horse manure into a bundt cake pan, unmoulded it on a dish, sprinkled powdered sugar on it, this would not make it a bundt cake. If you were to take a bite of it and say, “Blech! That’s not a real bundt cake, that’s horse ****!” I doubt you would accept the validity of my replying, “Why, no it isn’t ! It’s a bundt cake! Can’t you see that it is in the shape of a bundt cake?” No, the form alone doth not a bundt cake make.

    The shape is important, but the ingredients also matter a great deal.The Lutheran reformers retained the form and the ingredients, using
    a few healthier substitutes. This is not the same as changing the whole recipe, so that it’s something very different, as many are doing nowadays under the dubious quality of being “missional.”

    Yes, Virginia, there is a traditional Lutheran liturgy.

    I assure you, it is no myth. Many of us recognize it immediately when we see it.

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