Today I had the “day off” from teaching my Sunday School class, and decided that I’d visit our local Lutheran Church (an ELCA church). This was my first visit to a Lutheran church since the the branch I grew up in (LCA) merged with the more “liberal” branches of the church, and probably my first such visit in over 20 years (I think the last time was for a funeral). But, as I’ve been reconnecting with Lutheran theology over the past year, I thought it was time to actually experience a Lutheran worship service.
My first impression was that I perhaps had picked the wrong church to visit. I was a few minutes early, and the place was near empty. Rather than the organ music I was used to, there was a very sad little combo playing off to the side, with a drummer who really shouldn’t be a drummer. When the service began, there were perhaps 50 people there, with an average age of at least 70. I saw one child, and 3 other people who may have been in their 20’s. The Pastors were gone (a married couple), off to their daughter’s wedding. A woman pastor from a church downtown had come to fill in. And, rather than use the liturgy in the official hymnal, they were using parts of something called the “Bonnie Drewes Liturgy” with a couple of additional modifications. The “Confession of Sins” had us confessing that we hadn’t fed the poor and were not environmentally responsible. But, I decided to be patient and see what developed.
I was glad that I stayed.
The first part of the liturgy was focused on the reading of Scripture. It was read from “The Message,” and included selections from the Old Testament, the Gospels and the Epistles. After the sermon, there was more liturgy, including the collective recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed. Now, many probably will not understand this, but I couldn’t wait to say the Apostles’ Creed with these people; I was actually afraid they were going to skip it (I had a hard time following the schedule in the bulletin and things were out of order from what I remember from the old days). But, I should have known better – Lutherans would never skip the Apostles’ Creed.
It was the sermon, however, that had the biggest impact. It was a tremendous sermon; typical to Lutherans, it was about 10-15 minutes long, but she said more than most pastors get across in their self-indulgent 45-minute discourses. She spoke simply of the heart of Lutheran Worship, that no matter who we are outside of church, whether we are friends or enemies, we are sinners who need the saving grace of God. She spoke of baptism, and why the baptismal font is prominently displayed, to constantly remind us of the living water which washes us. And, she spoke of communion, that brings us all to the cross to receive forgiveness and grace.
It was then that I knew that I could take communion with these people. Now, I don’t take communion in the church I attend, because what they believe about it makes it either an empty act or an act of superstition. However, I understand what Lutherans believe, and the Pastor reminded me that in church we are all equal in our need for grace. Communion, you see, isn’t about the unity of our beliefs or lifestyles (there was at least one lesbian couple there); it’s about the unity we have as sinners who have been equally forgiven.
I understand Lutheran worship now, more than I ever did growing up. It probably helps that I understand what is so lacking in much of evangelical theology and worship; coming back, I see the depth in the apparent simplicity. It’s not empty ritual, it is the enactment of the story of God, of creation, incarnation, and re-creation, and of the reality of God’s kingdom, on Earth as it is in Heaven.
I need to do this more often.
Richard, thanks. I have For the Life… I read about 30 years ago, and plan to read it again soon.
The Eastern Orthodox seem to have been able to convey that sense of “the enactment” to the current generation, even in America. However, that seems to have been lost in the Western traditions, probably due to the influence of Modernism; for Moderns, enactment becomes a show, rather than a reality.
It’s not empty ritual, it is the enactment of the story of God, of creation, incarnation, and re-creation, and of the reality of God’s kingdom, on Earth as it is in Heaven.
If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World.
Definitely agree about the experience becoming routine. When we start expecting a feeling each Sunday, our expectation can either artificially produce an experience, or cause our faith to become dependent on an experience. When we let God do what he has for us instead of expecting him to reveal himself in the way that has before, it’s liberating to not have to worry about getting it right, yet frightening because we have no control.
This weekend was great, by the way. I mean, it’s no secret that I love getting outdoors to meet with God–but I would say that I am most away from my routine expectations for God when I am out in nature; routine experience is what the danger is with evangelical churches.
About Orthodox churches, I have never been, although I would like to attend a few different breeds of orthdoxy. I have always wanted to go to a Catholic mass as well, but never have done it. Maybe I will the next time I get a “day off” like you did.
Josh, thanks for the comments and info on Drewes; funny that you should be my Lutheran “insider.”
This was actually the illustration for the sermon; the Pastor had spent yesterday with leaders from a church that was “quarrelsome” and she talked about how the realities of worship with the cross at the center restores fellowship.
I do know what you mean about things becoming habit. That can happen everywhere, and probably more so when everything is written out for you. I used to joke that “liturgy is for when the Holy Spirit doesn’t show up.” But, I was just stupid (it can happen to anybody); I was too affected by the existential, experiential thing that started happening in the 60’s-70’s. But, existential experience can also become an empty routine, without any life-changing impact.
Have you ever been to a Greek Orthodox church? Now there’s a liturgy for you…
First off, about the Bonnie Drewes liturgy, it’s just a modified order of worship that was developed by the Music Minister at the Lutheran Church I attended while I was working in Bellingham, WA in 2006 (Christ the Servant, they were ministry partners with the camp I worked at). It’s funny that I met her and worshipped with her for 3 months and you happened to show up at a Lutheran church on a Sunday when her liturgy was used.
How many kids and teens can get outside of the “routine” to see what is going on? The Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed are taught and rehashed throughout confirmation classes and declared on every Sunday of every year of their formative years when they would rather be doing anything other than church–maybe fencing or web design. As you have discussed before on this blog, Alden, “the newer the better” is the mentality of not only the current generation, but the preceding couple of generations. Lutheranism is as old as Christianity gets without being Catholic, and under the rubric of the modern mindset, it is outdated and inferior to the new. The aging population in the Lutheran church is a perpetual discussion within the members, but I had the advantage of working with people whose entire motivation was to see young people being raised by Lutherans become young Lutherans.
When I attend Lutheran services, I love the focus on the Word. I admire their devotion to reading, knowing, and analyzing Scripture. The Creed–Apostle’s, Nicene, or otherwise (Here‘s a link to a great one we did at staff worship at camp this summer)–is such a great tool to rely on if I need a reminder of who I am as a Christian and what I believe.
Lutherans have so much right: focus on Scripture, unity in worship, social responsibility, missions, congregational declaration of faith, etc. However, whenever I attend a Lutheran service (ELCA only, I haven’t been to an LCMS service because I disagree with some/many of their theological points such as closed communion, refusal to ordain women, and others) I feel that there is something missing. I just want to stand up and ask them if it has become habit or if they really believe what they are saying and singing. Do they see growth and development in their lives or are they content with the status quo? Would Christ want his worship to be reduced to quarrels over pews or chairs, hymns or choruses, grape juice or wine?
However, I do love their heart. People who know me as an Evangelical give me crazy looks when they hear that I have worked (and will probably work again this summer) at a Lutheran camp. The truth is, they have as much correct with their worship as we in the Evangelical camp do with ours.
I should add the Benediction from this morning’s service:
I don’t rightly know… and, I don’t know if this is common to the Lutheran church as a whole. Perhaps Josh, who spent his summer among the children of Lutherans, can comment on that the next time he visits. It may just be this particular church.
One of my thoughts is simply that Lutheranism doesn’t translate well to the culture of the self that I’ll discuss in my next Webber segment. As a Lutheran, you don’t worship your own way, and none of it is about how you happen to feel, or should feel. And, it never could adapt to the “pro” performance-worship that has become the thing among Evangelicals. During the 70’s they tried some of the “folk” worship stuff, but what I saw was less than mediocre, in both content and quality.
But, from blogs I read, there are a lot of Lutherans out there who definitely understand why they are Lutheran. That both surprises and impresses me. And, there are young ex-evangelicals who are discovering the depth of the liturgical denominations like the Lutherans, and that is interesting, too.
I would like to find a “happening” Lutheran Church and see what’s going on there.
Musing: If your experience there was significant and (here’s the rub) transferable, why so few people? Why such an old demographic? I’m not in any way challenging your experience or assessment (I believe you). I’m only wondering why a worship practice as you describe would have so little drawing power. Do you have any insights from this particular experience?