Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Getting Worship Right

I guess I took a few people by surprise with the letter to the editor I contributed to this month's "Lutheran" magazine. I was responding to a lead article in February's issue about WORSHIP that claimed to represent a Lutheran pattern for the "work" of worship. (You can read it yourself at http://www.thelutheran.org/article/article_buy.cfm?article_id=6296.) In fact, this article represents a 20th century liturgical, largly Roman, movement that has inflitrated mainline Protestantism, unknowingly influenced the contemporary Christian praise & worship scene, and I believe threatens to undo the emerging church movement. I got my undies in a bunch when I read this article, written by a leading and highly repected worship teacher, for several reasons: 1) It acts like the worship debates are over - and that they have been won by the traditionalists, liturgists, and museum curators - nevermind the fact that increasing numbers of Christians are worshiping in all kinds of both new and ancient ways, 2) It tells the story of a little boy who got chased away from the Communion table - without irony, as if not to recognize that our "worship" services (and our congregations) chase people away all the time, and 3) It totally misses the mark in terms of what a confessional, Reformation theology might actually have to offer as we attempt to connect with each other and with the stranger in the midst of this postmodern mission field. Here's what I said: We have plenty of (really important!) things to argue about within the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in American) besides worship. But your February issue gives the impression the debate is over. It’s not. In fact, many of us are frustrated by the mid-20th century liturgical movement which has infiltrated Lutheranism, turning worship into “work of the people” rather than (as the Reformers understood it) something God uses to evangelize sinners (i.e., all of us!). We are not “baffled” by the liturgy or afflicted by the need to “create something different.” (Why is that a bad thing, anyway?!) Every congregation in North America sits in the middle of a mission field. If we have thrown away our hymnals, it may be because our first priority is sharing the good news of Jesus within a changing culture. What we desperately need, in order to do that well, is a Lutheran theology of worship that is both deeply confessional and radically missional. This issue offered neither. You see, I believe those 16th century reformers actually have something to teach us today. Read Martin Luther's Preface to The German Mass and Order of Divine Service, January 1526, and see for yourself. Here are a few of the key things I hear the old man saying: 1. I don't want to write a new order for worship because I'm afraid everyone will think they have to do it this way forever...and they most definitely don't. "No order has any intrinsic worth of its own..." (Luther) 2. The "Divine Service" (he does not use the word "worship") is designed within the context of Christian freedom. In other words, we are free from all legalistic orders and traditions in every part of our life together, and bound by one thing only: Service to our neighbor. 3. What does our neighbor need? The good news that Jesus came to bring, about the inbreaking reign of God! The POINT of all our forms and orders (including the "Divine Service") is this, Luther says: "the promotion of faith and the service of love" (Luther). In other words, the purpose of the Service is to teach and equip us - sinners all, and especially the simple, unbelievers, and the young - to be a part of God's mission in the world! One radical conclusion: The OBJECT of our "worship" service is not God! God is the SUBJECT of the service. WE, the people who are participating in the service, are the objects. The message, the singing, the readings, everything is done with US in mind -to teach us and equip us. 4. Finally, Luther recommends three different forms or orders for the Service. a. First, keep the Latin mass. Why? Because it will teach us a foreign language and "I would gladly raise up a generation able to be of use to Christ in foreign lands and to talk to their people..." (Luther). b. Second, offer a Service in German (the native language) for the sake of people "in general" who are "not yet believers or Christians" as a "public allurement to faith and Christianity" (Luther). Don't make them learn your language or customs! Use their language, customs, and means of communication so that they can understand what you are saying! c. Third, and most radically, Luther describes the "true type of Evangelical Order," the ideal Service, as a HOUSE CHURCH!: "Those, however, who are desirous of being Christians in earnest, and are ready to profess the Gospel with hand and mouth, should register their names and assemble by themselves in some house to pray, to read, to baptize and to receive the sacrament and practise other Christian works...Here there would not be need of much fine singing. Here we could have baptism and the sacrament in short and simple fashion: and direct everything towards the Word and prayer and love." The bottom line is this: In too many places - traditional, contemporary, and emergent - worship is about what WE do. Whether we're wearing albs or playing the drums or lighting candles and asking deep questions in a coffee shop, we make worship our common "work." But the Reformer teaches us that the Christian service is not OUR work; it is God's. The purpose of the Christian service is NOT to "worship" God, at all. (God doesn't need or want our worship & praise, people! Read Amos 5:21-24 again.) The service is to teach & show us how to be Christians and how to DO the Christian life, as participants in God's mission to love and bless and reconcile and set free and save the world. So, what questions, if they are taking direction from the Reformer, should worship service PLANNERS today be asking? Here are a couple: 1. Are our words and actions helping people learn (here's a clue: LECTURES DON'T DO THAT!)?! 2. Are we really equipping people to live and share their faith? Where is our evidence? 3. Are our words, images, media communicating in the language of those who do not yet believe and, especially, the young? 4. Who is this service FOR? How is it serving our neighbor? Do we even know who our neighbors are?!? How is it providing for a "public allurement to faith" in this context? 5. The biggest challenge is to the get the DIRECTION of worship right: God's Word comes DOWN to teach, equip, save, and set us free to love & serve our neighbor. If our songs are all about how Jesus is my boyfriend...or we're "working" hard at telling God how wonderful God is in our music and our prayers and our liturgies...or we're navel gazing more often than we're listening for a Word from the living God...we've got the direction mixed up. It worries me that the traditionalists think they've won, and so many in the contemporary and emergent camps want to show how they really ARE using liturgical forms (just in a new contemporary or ancient-new way), partly so we can all just make nice. Nice is overrated. I think what we need is a rousing conversation - and the Reformers need to be at the table.

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The Bottom Line

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love becomes slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." - Galatians 5:13-14