Archived Sections, National Lutheran News

Slow down, settle in, light the candles, listen

New Lutheran worship liturgy invites participants to do just that

There is no “right way” for a Lutheran to worship. The authors of Lutheranism’s charter document, the Augsburg Confession, correctly described worship forms as “adiaphora” (things not essential to faith).
That having been said, there is no denying some worship forms have more impact than others. Why that should be might form the basis of a research thesis for a liturgical scholar. It doesn’t take a scholar, however, to know that certain music, certain ritual, certain sacred space can move us to tears — or leave us cold.
The Roman Catholic brothers who organized what became the Taizé movement in France hit upon an unlikely approach to worship several decades ago. Their standing-room-only services draw worshippers of all ages — including a significant contingent of young people. What goes on at a Taizé service? Silence, quiet meditation, the lighting of candles, and music that draws on repetitive refrains so easy to grasp that one doesn’t even need a printed resource.

Twin Cities church musicians Mary Preus and Tom Witt lead singing for an evening contemplative Prayer Around the Cross service. Photo provided by Tom Witt

The Lutheran faith community at Holden Village, a retreat center high in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state, has been borrowing from the Taizé model for decades. The popular “Holden Evening Prayer,” a creation of Twin Citian Marty Haugen, has been used for evening worship services far beyond the mountain retreat center. Many congregations use it at mid-week during Lent.

When Taizé worship began to catch on in Europe, the youth of that continent came in a flood to the tiny French town where the prayers, the silence, the candles, and the chant-like music seemed so enchanting.

Now comes a new creation from Holden. Begun as an evening liturgy for use at the retreat center, “Holden Prayer Around the Cross” is being made available to the wider Lutheran community. Music editors at Augsburg Fortress (AF), the ELCA-related publishing house, embraced the approach, which actually consists of simple liturgies and a collection of easy-to-sing hymns. In recent months AF has offered a package of resources built on the latest incarnation of evening worship at Holden Village:
■ Holden Prayer Around the Cross is a 140-page paperback liturgy handbook. Co-authored by one-time Holden Village director Susan Briehl and former Village musician-in-residence Tom Witt, it provides elements suitable for an evening liturgy. (Only a worship leader would purchase this book.)
■ Singing Our Prayer, a Companion to Holden Prayer Around the Cross, is a hymn collection including 44 selections. (The publication comes in a full-score edition, designed for musicians, and a “user edition,” subtitled “Shorter Songs for Contemplative Worship” and produced in an inexpensive stapled version designed for quantity purchase.)
■ There’s a companion CD that samples the music in the printed booklet.
For information about the resources, go to

Light in the darkness, silence in the cacophony

According to Witt, the service has taken on a life of its own. “Just like Holden Evening Prayer, this liturgy is being picked up in lots of places around the church. It’s had exposure at ELCA synod assemblies — and, intimate as the approach is, it works surprisingly well in large groups like that. It’s gotten use in some Twin Cities venues, including Our Savior’s Lutheran and Calvary Lutheran, two ELCA congregations less than two miles apart on Chicago Avenue. And Wisdom Ways, a Roman Catholic ministry in St. Paul, used it this year during Lent. Augsburg College campus ministry also uses it from time to time.”
Witt says the ambience created when “Holden Prayer Around the Cross” is used is really quite extraordinary. “The music, the quiet, the candles, the darkness — they all work together.” The repetitive nature of some of the music has to be “grown into,” he admits. “It can seem boring at first — until you relax and focus. Prayer might emerge out of that.” Witt says you have to “nurture people into” this approach.
“I’m surprised at the age range of people who respond to this [style of worship],” Witt confided. “Teenagers and young adults, for example, don’t just want peppy praise music. They sit in the dark and light candles and are deeply moved.”
Perhaps Witt shouldn’t be surprised. When Taizé worship began to catch on in Europe, the youth of that continent came in a flood to the tiny French town where the prayers, the silence, the candles, and the chant-like music seemed so enchanting. And they’re still coming. Perhaps “Holden Prayer Around the Cross” will become North American Lutheranism’s embodiment of that same genius.
Time will tell.

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