Recently, a young man on a clergy Facebook group I am part of wanted to know what the purpose of traditional liturgical worship could possibly be. He told us that he grew up with knowledge of the ELCA but didn’t feel that worship the way most congregations do it had anything for him or his early-30-something peers. He didn’t see the point of the hymns, the liturgy, or the basic theology that was being put forth, especially the idea that Jesus‘ death and resurrection were redemptive and that the Bible is the basis for our faith. He said, why don’t you all preach on the writings of the Dalai Lama or C.S. Lewis? Presuming himself to speak for many others, he asked: How are you going to draw people like me to your church?
This sparked a lively discussion with several dozen comments and comments to those comments, pretty evenly divided between those who were trying hard to see his point of view and those who are making the case for liturgical worship in the Lutheran tradition and the theology that underlies it. Finally, he admitted that he really did not consider himself a Christian at all. He basically said, thanks for the discussion, and good luck with all that.
Maybe not the most tactful and humble of souls, I couldn’t help thinking. But the discussion did remind me of the great hazards the church faces in trying to be all things to all people, or in other words, giving people what they seem to want.
It is generally thought that the panicked response to the decline in attendance that began perhaps half a century ago, which led countless churches to abandon their worship practices in favor of praise bands, is what brought about great decline in the quality of worship life. I have heard many of our older folks say that when they grew up, going to church on Sunday was just what people did. Now we are fortunate to have 50, or maybe 60 between our two Sunday services. Other churches and communities like ours are not even that fortunate.
Sunday morning sports and other family commitments are usually blamed for drawing people away from church, but really I think the problem is more a loss of understanding of what worship is and what our worship life provides us with. When you try to be everything to everybody, you lose all sense of identity. For all those years the Lutheran church largely forgot who it was. Then the liturgical renewal movement took hold perhaps two decades ago and has since restored to many of our congregations the rich words and actions that have been part of the worship life of the church since the second century. But we are still doing damage control, and it’s pretty clear that the church will never be what it once was.
Does this mean we throw in the towel? On the contrary!
With the return of liturgical forms to our worship life comes the corresponding commitment to bringing them alive anew each week. Why, the young man on Facebook might well have asked, do you do the same old things the church did 1,000 years ago, or 1,500 years ago? We would answer, because they communicated the real presence of God then, and they still do now. Well, then, why can’t you write new words that do the same thing, and come up with new actions? Because the old words are grounded firmly in Scripture, which remains the norm and basis of our faith, and the actions that go with them have been tested over centuries and found to communicate deep and lasting truths about the triune God. (This is why I am not an advocate of waving our hands in the air during worship.) Did you know that the words of every single part of our liturgy come from the Bible? Basically, we are learning scripture through these words just as we do through the readings that we hear and the proclamation of those readings. The music to which these words are set is designed to draw us more deeply into their meaning and lift us into a place where we can experience God‘s presence in a way that unites us with saints down through the ages. Happy-clappy music simply does not do this, sorry.
One more thing. There was a perceptive comment on the long discussion thread I mentioned above. That was: If the sermon happens to be a complete dud, you still get Scripture proclaimed through the liturgy. I took a deep breath and said, thanks be to God!
In Christ’s peace,