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.
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:
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?