Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Worship is time and place for God’s stories, not ours

Carl Schalk addressed Mount Olive Lutheran Church’s liturgy conference

Good worship form is an exercise in faithful storytelling. That’s according to a leading Lu-theran worship scholar.
Speaking at the Fourth Annual Liturgy Conference sponsored by Mount Olive Lutheran Church in south Minneapolis on January 7, Dr. Carl Schalk said, “There is an emphasis today on ‘storytelling’ at worship. But too often it becomes my story, not God’s.”

The veteran church musician said Lutheranism contributed a special kind of hymnody to the larger church — texts that teach. “But in the centuries after Luther,” he said, “church hymnody stopped teaching and began focusing on feelings. Lutheranism hasn’t yet recovered.”

The story Schalk wants the contemporary church to celebrate is the one encapsulated in the Gospel. “Moses’ sister, Miriam, celebrated the escape from slavery in Egypt by singing. The writers of many of the psalms sang praises to God for his mighty acts. The New Testament writers do the same thing.”

Schalk, who taught church music for 30 years at Concordia University, River Forest, Illinois, before his retirement, said, “There is a lot of proclamation in worship outside the sermon. The liturgy is full of Gospel storytelling.”

He cautioned against dropping elements from the liturgy “because we already know that stuff.” His concern was that “we need to be reminded of what we already know. Otherwise, we forget, and the next generation doesn’t hear the story any longer.”

Neither does Schalk favor using music to “create a mood.” He said, “For Luther, music conveyed a message. A prime example is the series of hymns Luther wrote to teach the catechism.”
Schalk warned against using new worship resources “not worthy of Christian worship.” He suggested many erode the Gospel they purport to proclaim. “Third-rate work is not acceptable,” he declared, calling musicians to focus on integrity, not performance. “We need,” he said, “to judge between the shoddy and unfit on the one hand, and that which is appropriate for the worship of God.”

Susan Briehl sounded a similar theme. The soon-to-be professor of preaching at Wartburg Sem-inary (beginning in Feb-ruary) told conference attendees, “The writer of Psalm 78 called the faithful to remember God’s mighty acts for God’s people. He did it by remembering ancient stories.”
Briehl said, “The psalmist knows what happens when people forget the old stories. They become stiff-necked and stubborn and sell their souls for things that don’t matter.” She added, “When they forget the stories, they have nothing of worth to tell their children.”

Briehl said everyone in the faith community is a storyteller and a steward of language. She said, “Words have the capacity to seduce and kill — or to raise from the dead and forgive sins.”

Echoing words of former Lutheran (now Orthodox) theologian Jaroslav Pelikan, Briehl spoke of the need for “a reverence for language.” She reminded her listeners of words Pelikan once spoke to an audience at Wittenberg University in Ohio: “Three things remain — faith, hope and clarity, and the most important is clarity.” Pelikan added the zinger, “Clarity begins at home” — in the church home, the place of worship.
Quoting E.B. White, she said, “Muddiness destroys hope.” She illustrated: “A badly-written highway sign can cause a traffic tragedy.”

Briehl said Lutheran Christians have a priceless story to tell. “Tell it clearly and well,” she urged.