Archived Sections, Commentary

Worship — treating people the way that God treats them

The articles by Mark Schroeder, Beth Burns, Karis Thompson, Steve
Thorngate, Bill Otte, Julie Lindorff, and Jay Beech in the June 2008 issue of
Metro Lutheran (23:6; pages 9, 10, 11, and 20), taken as a whole, summarize
the essentials of Lutheran worship something like this (not surprisingly, this
is a long list, but one worth detailing):
Worship is central to the life of the church, Christ-centered, Biblically-based,
related to the past and present, not driven by market research or individual
feelings or entertainment or a concert mentality, about relationship with God
and one another, surprising, countercultural, diverse, not organized by
dividing people into demographic subsets, authentic, and not an evangelistic
tool. It requires thoughtful care and planning, welcomes a wide variety of
music, respects the liturgy, follows the Church Year and the lectionary,
relates deeply to people in the present moment yet respects their heritage,
lives in solidarity with people of various cultures and times and places,
engages people in songs of prayer and praise that celebrate the new life God
graciously gives, recognizes God’s initiative, centers on Word and sacraments,
and includes theological content that emphasizes justification by grace
through faith and law and Gospel.
If you brought the authors together and engaged them in a discussion, you
would likely find differences of nuance and emphasis. There would no doubt
be disagreements. But there is a remarkable consensus here. Whatever the
differences may be, the articles indicate far more agreement than
disagreement, and on essentials substantial agreement.
This is not surprising. A group of Lutherans — or a group from any given
tradition in the Christian church — who reflects seriously about worship will
find that common themes emerge even in a period as contentious as ours.
The themes these writers spin out are hefty ones. They point to the
importance of worship and its relation to the totality of life before God.
Worship is no trivial or superficial matter. The implications for thoughtful
planning are many, and the courage it takes to live them out in our culture is
Here is the dilemma. Worship gifts the culture, but the culture resists the gift.
It is addicted to selling things with music as the tool and wants to co-opt the
church’s message for its own gain. The church is always tempted, for reasons
that can be rationalized as “missional,” to join the culture’s game.
If you get music rightly located in the empire’s box, so the logic goes, your
problems will vanish because the laws of the marketplace will then yield
many customers. This addiction is immensely attractive, extremely hard to
resist, and makes of the church one more room in the empire’s palace for
manipulating people and denying the freedom God gives them.
Perhaps this is the way it has always been. The church has always been
tempted by the culture’s lure, at least since the early fourth century when the
Constantinian alliance with the empire was formed. The church in its
reflection has often articulated a better way, but it has not always been able
to live out that better way. In our period, when the lure of commercial greed
has been institutionalized with virtually no checks on its power, the stakes
may have been raised to a more acute level. It may be that this is the critical
problem the church in our generation has to face.
If that is so, what are we to do?
First, thank writers like these for their thoughtful responses. We have been
treated to too much superficial trivia about techniques as easy fixes. The
trivia is still present, but more and more people, like these writers, are
realizing how false and counterproductive it is. They are the ones thinking
outside the box.
Second, courage in our planning and doing in worship is required. Two
responses are ill-advised. One is to blast away at the culture’s trivia; the
other is to succumb to it. What is required is a gracious living into the culture
with wit, wisdom, and the winsomely attractive integrity the liturgy embodies
— without our misguided doctoring or insertions of self. Our job is to edit
and get out of the Holy Spirit’s way, which paradoxically requires the hard
work of planning and preparation in presiding, preaching, individual
practicing, and communal rehearsing.
Third, this will not mean doing exactly the same thing exactly the same way
everywhere, but if we do it well there will be common shapes and motifs
because it is about the church as a whole, not a body divided by artificial
distinctions of demographics, age, race, sex, or anything.
In short, as the writers imply, we are to treat people the way God treats them
in the Word and sacraments of the liturgy — with care, respect, and love.
Paul Westermeyer is Professor of Church Music at Luther Seminary in St. Paul,
Minnesota, where he also serves as Cantor and administers the Master of
Sacred Music program in cooperation with St. Olaf College. He is a musician
and pastor who has been the president of the Hymn Society and editor of its
journal “The Hymn.” His writing has been at the intersections of music,
theology, and worship in books like “The Church Musician,” “The Heart of the
Matter,” “Let the People Sing, Let Justice Sing,” “Te Deum,” and “Rise, O