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Why we do what we do in worship: developing a liturgy that is of the people

November 29, 2023

I grew up participating in Sunday worship that followed the order of worship from the Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW), a thick green hymnal that populated each pew of the church, hand-made bookmarks dangling from the spine and tickling our knees as we sidled into our spots each week.

The LBW was the work of an “Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship,” inclusive of Lutherans in North America. It was developed at the same time the ecumenical liturgical renewal was happening among neighboring traditions, and turned out to be a dynamic and sturdy hymnal, remaining as the hymnal of our denomination for almost 30 years.

The ecumenical context for its development was formative. Philip H. Pfatteicher writes, “The work of the Second Vatican Council had its effect on the Anglican world as well. As Lutherans began work on their book, Episcopalians were working on a revision of the American Book of Common Prayer, continuing its distinctive traditions and making use of the emerging work of the Roman church. There was therefore a remarkable convergence of the effort of three Christian bodies, and the Lutherans were the beneficiaries of the work of the Roman Catholics as well as of the Episcopalians. Lutherans were moving out of the confines of their own traditions and learning to open their eyes to other traditions and practices to the enrichment of their own life and worship.”

What we had in our hands when we worshipped was an order of worship inspired by developments in increasingly ecumenical liturgies but with music specifically written by 1970s Lutheran composers. The book contained three “settings” of the liturgy, plus about 500 hymns and a bunch of other attendant resources (prayers, the Psalms, orders of service for special occasions like private confession, baptism, weddings and funerals, etc.).

By the time I was about ten, I think I had entirely memorized all three of those settings. I only needed the hymnal for the hymns, I could sing and pray all the other content because I knew it by heart. I still do.

I also learned through repetition that what counts as “worship” is to walk procedurally through various portions of a liturgy, a formalized movement that begins with an entrance rite, settles into the word and preaching, gathers the community for a meal, and then sends them out into “the world.”

I now pastor in Arkansas, a location at some distance from the Lutheran heartland, and many, if not most, worshippers in our church in 2023 know little of the history of the development of these ecumenical liturgies. Even the liturgy itself is strange to many. It takes quite a lot of explanation. Many in our community come from non-liturgical traditions, church movements that host more loosely structured praise song services centering a long sermon. Most do not recite prayers or litanies. In fact, some traditions are quite skeptical of such “rote” liturgy and avoid doing it.

There are widely differing views on how to pray “from the heart.” For the liturgical, more textual traditions, we may memorize prayers in order to pray them by heart. For the non-liturgical types, we may prefer to lift in our prayers what comes to mind in the moment, lifting what is currently “on our heart.”

What I’ve always valued about the rote parts of the service is the rote-ness. This is most clearly illustrated in the praying of the Lord’s Prayer. It is the one memorized prayer still reliably inscribed into the neurons of almost all those gathered for weddings, funerals, and other solemn occasions. Because everyone has memorized it, it need not be printed or explained, but can simply be “done.”

But what is the path for bringing anything new into the collective consciousness and memory of a people? For those of us tasked with designing our liturgies, what’s difficult is knowing how and when to bring something new into the community’s liturgy and then repeat it frequently enough that it becomes rote.

There is a kind of journey the community collectively goes on to learn something new. For example, when I arrived at my current call (where I’ve now served for twelve years), relatively soon I introduced Jonathan Rundman’s Heartland Liturgy into the contemporary service repertoire. At first, it was very new, and new in multiple ways. Rundman’s liturgy is a “rock” liturgy, but it also follows the structure of the ecumenical liturgies. Rundman is a Lutheran rock musician, and he intentionally composed music (innovative then and still) in a contemporary style that conformed to the texts and structure of the “ordo.”

What would an exercise in developing a liturgy that is “of the people” mean? Forget about the divide between those who like liturgy that is rote vs. those who like liturgy that is spontaneous. I’m interested in the actual “heart” of liturgy, why we do what we do or why we even do it in the first place.
Thus, what is new to a community singing the Heartland Liturgy is both the music AND the structure. Part of this is how the songs are made up (for example, the Kyrie and Hymn of Praise in our tradition offer a call and response pattern), and part of it is in the structure of the service as a whole (the liturgy moves from Word to Sacrament weekly and includes musical components for each of the steps for these, such as a musical introit for the Psalms and an entire liturgy for the distribution of communion).

Our congregation has now been singing the Heartland Liturgy for twelve years (off and on, because do rotate other settings in and out depending on the season). We know it “by heart.” But we only know it by heart because we’ve been willing to take the risk of praying it each week, week after week, for years. What once felt distant or strange now feels close and familiar.

However, we still don’t know the liturgy by heart in the way a large group of Swifties knows Taylor Swift’s repertoire. This is likely because most Christians in our community do not pull up liturgical music and listen to it on repeat in their cars and before bed or while working out. I always find it a fascinating comparison, how willing groups of humans are to learn all the songs of a particular musician, while reserving the music of worship only for the sporadic times they gather Sundays for worship.

What’s fascinating about a large crowd all singing along in unison is what it represents. When a crowd can all sing the same songs from memory, it signifies not only that they know the songs, but that they are part of a group, a collective. When churches are full of people who primarily listen but don’t sing along to the liturgy, I think it means they don’t identify (on some deeper level) in quite the same way fans identify with one another in fan culture.

In 2006 our denomination published a hymnal to replace the LBW. They went back to the cranberry color (also the color of the ’60s era hymnal that preceded the LBW) and called the new volume Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW). One difference that came with this new hymnal was the philosophy: the hymnal, rather than attempting to be comprehensive (one book, one people), containing everything we would or could sing and pray in worship, instead served as the core of a set of liturgical resources published by the denomination. Over time our publishing house has published a wonderful proliferation of extra volumes (including new volumes for the pews like the ecological social justice themed All Creation Sings) available for worship, and an entire repository online we can access for even more resources.

This means when you sit down in our pews, you now have about 1000 hymns available. And yet those thousand songs are not the “complete set” but rather the core for a wider set of options.

Options are the name of the game in 2023. Just like you can order thousands of drink combinations at Starbucks, so too the options for assembling an order of Christian worship are almost endless. The new ELW we have been using for the last decade included not three but TEN settings of the liturgy. Ten!

There’s just a lot available, representing hymnody from the global church, many styles and traditions, and from the now very long tradition of Christian hymnody. Like trying to pick what to listen to next on Spotify, what we are presented with in worship today invokes a kind of decision freeze emerging out of an overwhelming surplus of options.

Even if someone is incredibly faithful in attending worship every single week, even if they take the hymnal home and practice some of the hymns at their guitar or piano, even if they sing them at other assemblies or before or after their meals, the reality is that the repertoire is so extensive, it’s hard to know how they could know by heart much of what we do each week.

Liturgy is kind of like the tip of an iceberg, the visible part of a much larger sustaining structure. In our modern moment, it seems that the entirety of Christian worship resources are potentially available at our fingertips. If liturgy is still an iceberg at all, it has been incredibly thinned, more like the thin ice over a newly freezing pond. No one feels the water, they only skate on the ice.

Richard Niebuhr once said that “religious traditions are in permanent revolution.”[i] I think what I have described as the shift that has occurred in Lutheran worship, this adoption of an ecumenical liturgy while also proliferating options, has created a situation in which our religious tradition cannot truly experience revolution because all the options are on the table. Yet it simultaneously crowds out all the other “options” that don’t go in a hymnal (think of things like the Quaker practice of silence, the activities and actions that make up some Pentecostal services, and really all the widely varied actions that take place in worship that simply don’t translate well into a book). It’s kind of like neoliberalism’s co-optation of everything, the new way of doing liturgy can encompass anything, and therefore risks substantiating nothing in particular.

I know I can’t take everyone back to what I remember nostalgically as those wonderful days in my early life when the liturgy was always reliably the same week after week. I mean, I like ’70s music as much as anyone, but I do recognize life has continued to happen since.

What I do wonder, however, is what it means to focus more carefully on what we think we are doing when we worship these days. I’ve written this entire article about the contents of the liturgy because that is what I was trained to primarily consider when planning worship. Lutherans love their books. But I’ve become far more curious as to what an exercise in developing a liturgy that is “of the people” might mean.

Forget about the divide between those who like liturgy that is rote vs. those who like liturgy that is spontaneous. I’m interested in the actual “heart” of liturgy, why we do what we do or why we even do it in the first place. It seems that to get to the “why” it is first necessary to describe carefully the “what” that has preceded a return to the “why.”

Claudio Carvalhaes in “Liturgies From Below” argues that liturgy is “an invitation to resist the temptation to be co-opted by the Empire, and [to find] the nerve to come out of the Empire, creating counter-imperial alternatives.”

If we were to begin the work today, asking ourselves not what will be in the next hymnal, or how to further broaden a “set of resources” for worship today, what would it mean to host liturgy that resists empire and creates counter-imperial alternatives?

Rev. Clint Schnekloth is pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, a progressive church in the South. He is the founder of Canopy NWA (a refugee resettlement agency) and Queer Camp, and is the author of Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era. He blogs at Substack.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Quoted in Zegarra, Raúl E. A Revolutionary Faith: Liberation Theology Between Public Religion and Public Reason. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2023.


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