Bishop Miller's Statement on Worship

Living Lutheran: Implications for Synod Worship Events

June 8, 2009
By Bishop Wayne N. Miller, Metropolitan Chicago Synod, ELCA

In a previous paper on Lutheran self-understanding, I proposed that authentic expressions of Lutheran Christianity must reflect the complementarity and the tension that exists between three essential characteristics of “Church.”

We must, at all times be:

  • Evangelical in mission
  • Catholic in substance
  • Protestant in spirit

If our worship life as a synod is going to reveal Lutheran identity through this lens, then all three aspects must be explicitly designed into each liturgy.

The “preaching event” is the focal point for all three of these energies, and to a greater or lesser degree all three should be present in every sermon. But the liturgy itself must also embody our complete understanding of our relationships with God, with the world, and with one another.

Evangelical in Mission
To be evangelical in mission begins with grounding the liturgy in the revealed Word. This means that the “whole counsel of God” is called up in our midst when we gather for worship. Even though many individual congregations have adopted the practice of hearing only a single scripture reading during the liturgy, when we worship as a synod, we must hear from both the Old Testament and the New Testament. We must hear both the stories of Jesus’ life and the apostolic witness to the meaning of that life. The poetry and pathos of our shared spiritual experience must be present either in the singing of a psalm or through hymn paraphrases of the psalms.

Since we believe that Jesus Christ, the living Word, is God’s truth and not just our own, our liturgies must reflect our conviction that Christ is God’s power of life and redemption for every time and every place.

Liturgy must be incarnational. It must speak both to and from the variety of cultural contexts within this synod. It must be multi-cultural with respect to both time and place.

Incarnational liturgy does not simply require an artistic imitation of diverse cultures. It requires full participation in both planning and implementation by people for whom these various cultures are indigenous.

As a general guideline, in synod Eucharistic liturgies, scripture readings should be read or printed in varieties of languages, and prayers should be offered in varieties of languages by people speaking their own primary language.

Music and hymnody must also reflect this multi-cultural dimension of our evangelical mission and wherever possible, music should be an offering from people who identify that particular style as the music of their own heart.

The planning and use of time is a significant mark of cultural values. In some North American sub-cultures starting late and ending late (not at the announced time) is a sign of disrespect. But in other sub-cultures gradual informal gathering and a relaxed attitude about when it is time to end is an expression of hospitality and relational engagement.

Most worship gatherings of the whole synod take place within a larger context where the time taken by the liturgy must respect the boundaries established by the whole agenda. For non-eucharistic liturgies, 45-60 minutes with a prescribed beginning and ending time will be the presumption. For Eucharistic liturgies, 75-90 minutes will be the norm.

Synod liturgies that do not meet these essential criteria for the evangelical mission of worship must be discussed with and approved by the bishop in the early stages of planning.

Catholic in Substance
Lutheran Christianity does not see itself and has never seen itself as a church apart from the “one holy catholic and Apostolic Church” confessed in the three ecumenical creeds and established by Jesus and the Apostles.

Individual congregations of this synod are widely divergent with respect to the “catholicity” of their liturgies.  This is part of the local contextualization of worship.

But when we gather as a synod, and particularly in Eucharistic liturgies, the catholicity of the church must be reflected in the shape and content of the liturgy.

The inherent flexibility and the wide variety of liturgies available in Evangelical Lutheran Worship provide a rich, diverse, and abundant basis for planning a liturgy that is global and multi-cultural in its evangelical scope but still catholic in its substance.  

Traditional liturgical vestments and appointments will be used in Eucharistic liturgies but are optional in non-Eucharistic liturgies.  The traditional formula for the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) will be used.  Creeds spoken in worship will be one of the three ecumenical creeds in a current standard translation.  The Words of Institution will be spoken verbatim and not paraphrased. These words are prayed within the context of a larger prayer of thanksgiving. The action of the presider at the table will follow the action of the Words of Institution; namely, “he took bread, (offering), gave thanks (Eucharistic Prayer through the Lord’s Prayer), broke it, (after the Lord’s Prayer), and gave it to the disciples (distribution).”  Both bread and wine will be distributed (normally by common cup or intinction) with non-alcoholic and gluten-free alternatives offered in at least one location.

Scripture readings for synod liturgies are generally expected to follow the appointed readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and must be read from a standard translation of the Scriptures rather than a scripture paraphrase. 

The catholicity of non-Eucharistic liturgy will vary widely. Use of the prayer offices (morning prayer, evening prayer, and compline) are the most “catholic” options. Spontaneous, improvised word and prayer experiences are the least catholic.  

There are a number of “services of the Word” that fall within the range between these two.  All of these options for non-Eucharistic liturgy are acceptable, and variety is encouraged so long as the question of catholicity is part of the planning and discussion process.

Synod liturgies that do not meet these essential criteria for the catholic substance of worship must be discussed with and approved by the bishop in the early stages of planning.

Protestant in Spirit

At the same time that our catholic substance draws us into continuity and connection with the forms of the universal church, our powerful protestant spirit compels us relentlessly to release our attachment to forms.

In the planning of Lutheran liturgy there is no way to escape the inherent tension between catholic substance and protestant spirit.  They are engaged in a dance with one another in every worship experience.

The protestant spirit is the playful and creative face of Lutheran Christianity and Lutheran liturgy.  It can perhaps best be described as the element of spontaneity and surprise that signals the presence of the Spirit of the Living God active within the assembly.

To invite the spirit of surprise into our liturgy does not imply the absence of planning.  Carelessness, laziness and procrastination are human nature.  There is nothing surprising about them.

Some of the many possible manifestations of the protestant spirit in worship might include:

  • Liturgical Dance
  • Humor and spontaneous laughter
  • Child-friendly elements
  • Clapping and vocal exclamation
  • Unusual musical instruments
  • Delightful and unexpected visual elements
  • Unexpected but choreographed movement
  • Spontaneous congregational prayer
  • Intentional silence
  • Skillful and thoughtful uses of technology

Other General Guidelines

Hymnody and song is an element of worship that is of fundamental importance in Lutheran liturgy. Choosing hymns, songs and special music for worship is an art form in its own right.  

The familiarity or unfamiliarity of congregational music can alter the impact of the entire liturgy. But because of the cultural diversity of this synod, determining what will be familiar to most of the gathered community is very challenging.

In general, the gathering or Processional Hymn should be one that is likely to be known and loved by most of the people present or sufficiently tuneful and metric to make it easy for the assembly to learn and embrace as their own song within one or two stanzas.  Instrumental accompaniment should be designed and rehearsed to facilitate congregational participation.

The Hymn of the Day does not need to be familiar.  It needs to be a poetic and musical response to the themes of the proclaimed Word.  Extended meditative instrumental introductions to this hymn are welcomed and encouraged.

The Sending Hymn should meet the same criteria of familiarity as the Processional Hymn to send people out energized and inspired.

Communion Hymns can and should be widely varied, meaning that some will be familiar and some unfamiliar to just about everyone.

When the musical setting of the liturgy is likely to be unfamiliar, more emphasis should be placed on familiar hymnody.  Conversely, if the liturgical music is widely known, the choice of hymns can be more adventurous and educational.

Planning and Preparation requires time and effort.  Even though bishops get very accustomed to walking into unexpected situations, the liturgy should not be one of these. A complete Presider’s Manual should be prepared for the bishop’s review at least 2 days in advance of the liturgy in question.  The “scripts” should be highlighted for easy use by the individuals using them and printed in 16 or 20 pt. type for easy reading in a public setting.  Materials that must be printed for use by the assembly must be ready for printing at least 2 weeks in advance of the worship event.

Preparation will call us, over time, to develop a list of leaders and participants for worship that are gifted and trained for their area of service.  Some roles in worship will always be filled spontaneously.  A plan must be in place for orientation or rehearsal for these individuals in advance of the worship event.

As with everything we do, the evangelical mission of the church must be reflected, on every level, in the diversity of those who participate.



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