As the ELCA lives into the promises of “Evangelical Lutheran Worship,” it is perhaps useful to take a step back and consider what is really happening in worship in our church in the last years.
From my point of view, I see many congregations using “Evangelical Lutheran Worship,” both by using the musical and ritual contents of the books, and living in the spirit of “Evangelical Lutheran Worship” — the conviction that there are certain central things that mark our worship — patterns that we hold in common — and those patterns can be enfleshed, realized, enacted and imagined in a great variety of ways.
Some congregations are admittedly using material from “Evangelical Lutheran Worship” but still in a “Lutheran Book of Worship” environment. And, of course, other congregations are not using “Evangelical Lutheran Worship” much or at all.
The Introduction to “Evangelical Lutheran Worship” states its approach to worship that is unified but diverse in this way:
Evangelical Lutheran Worship continues to emphasize that “freedom and flexibility in worship is a Lutheran inheritance, and there is room for ample variety in ceremony, music, and liturgical form” (Lutheran Book of Worship, Introduction). And, through its design and through a variety of interpretive materials herein, it seeks to make more transparent the principle of fostering unity without imposing uniformity.
Patterns for worship
Thus, “Evangelical Lutheran Worship” champions unity amid diversity. We have “patterns for worship” (see pages 91-93, 225, 248-249, 273-275, 295-297) that we hold in common, not just in our denomination, but often ecumenically. The claim of “Evangelical Lutheran Worship” is that where these patterns are kept, we are indeed attending to the proclamation of the gospel and the celebration of the sacraments, which define the true unity of the church, and allow that these patterns can carry a remarkable diversity of ways to enact them.
These patterns show grand schemes: the Sunday and festival assembly of Holy Communion is the now well-known four-fold shape of Gathering, Word, Meal and Sending. But under these grand schemes lie other central elements with secondary elements that support the primary movements.
In some congregations, the grand schemes are all that are really observed, and the details of the unfolding of the main parts are not held in common with other worshiping assemblies.
So, I begin to wonder — how important are the more detailed central elements in each rite? For instance, how much do we value reading three biblical readings with a sung psalm at Holy Communion, or for that matter, the readings appointed by the Revised Common Lectionary?
Is there anything that unites us as we pray in thanksgiving at the meal?
Are there some musical elements — either hymns or service music — that we all hold in common?
Should it matter to us when and where we gather an offering? How will our rites invite us to a deeper understanding of baptism and baptismal identity?
One of my more realized fears of late is that some congregations plan worship always only with the bare essentials — “the book says that this is all we need to do” — so these congregations and their worship planners take the road of minimalists just getting by.
In some cases, we think that any music or any ritual will be fine — “let’s just sing a bunch of songs and call that a gathering” — without reflecting on the character and content of the elements and how they contribute to the purpose of the event.
The things we hold in common
More: In our time of rampant individualism, where many feel entitled to “have it their way,” where more options are better, where menus in restaurants include everything but the kitchen sink — I wonder if church and the church’s worship ought be marked by more things that we hold in common.
Rather than celebrating primarily how we are different and unique, perhaps we should accentuate those elements that link us to churches down the block, in our country, around the globe. Have we fostered congregational worship that is primarily contextual, and then to a lesser degree the ways worship is trans-cultural, cross-cultural, or even counter-cultural?
And what I mean most specifically is this: Can we encourage more of our congregations to read the readings appointed by the lectionary?
Could we propose that congregational worship not be segregated by musical styles and learn a core repertoire of hymns and songs that spans diverse origins of time, place and people?
What would we lose by adopting the services in “Evangelical Lutheran Worship” for Lent and the Three Days rather than the plethora of services offered in many of our congregations during Holy Week?
Is there some merit to using the words in the book that have been crafted, edited, reviewed and commended by the church? What is a book in our time of paperlessness and wirelessness?
Some may say I am imposing an unnecessary uniformity. I think, rather, that I am proposing that we be a church at worship — not just a congregation at worship — but an assembly that is linked to a body, united by central signs and actions that form us to be God’s people in the world.
Will our worship still be diverse? Yes, of course, but in balance with the ways our worship is also catholic, is also a sign of sharing among the people of the world, and is a sign of our unity in the gospel.
Mark Mummert is organist at Christ the King Evangelical Lutheran Church, Houston, and is the organist for the Bach Society of Houston, an affiliate ministry of Christ the King. Mark is a composer of “Setting One of Holy Communion” in “Evangelical Lutheran Worship” and was general editor of “Psalm Settings for the Church Year,” published by Augsburg Fortress.