LBW as Interim Hymnal
by Dan Borchers (May / June 2000 — Volume 16, Number 3)
The author argues that the LBW has served our churches well — as an interim worship resource. What should we do next?
Pastor Cathy accepted the call to St. Matthew. She had a clear job description and clear goals. There was no reason to think this pastor/parish relationship wouldn't last 10-20 years.
But after arrival, she began to learn that the local situation was a little more complicated than she had anticipated. The "ghost" of the former pastor was still a powerful, controlling force. There were new factions that have sprung up over various issues. St. Matthew had looked like a unified congregation from the outside. From the inside, the reality was quite different.
Pastor Jim, the former minister, led the church through the 1970's and 80's as if it were still the 1960s. The congregation's records, communications, decision-making processes, and, not to mention, worship life were terribly out of date. The laity had a weak sense of ownership of the congregation's ministry.
Pastor Cathy worked very hard, but found it nearly impossible to establish her leadership in the shadow of the former beloved pastor. She was never more than "not-Pastor-Jim" in the eyes of most parishioners.
Over time she began to see that she didn't have a long-term future at St. Matthew. The best she would be able to do would be to serve as an "unintentional interim." She began to understand her ministry to St. Matthew as (1) helping them get beyond their identification with, and dependence on, the former pastor; and (2) get them ready for a pastor who could lead them into the future without the present baggage and ghosts now holding them back.
When Pastor Cathy left St. Matthew, she didn't leave angry. She'd grown to love the people and wished she could go with them into the future. With sadness, she left them, both for her own good and for theirs. Most came to understand why it was necessary for her to leave. Some never did.
A big farewell was held for Pastor Cathy. It was sad and joyous. Amidst all the feelings swirling within her was a powerful sense of rightness — this was the right thing to do at the right time. God was blessing both parish and pastor. This was church with a capital "C."
This is a true story. It plays itself out all over the ELCA. A similar thing happened to me. Recently I've also come to believe that this story is the story of our Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW). It has served us well during an interim time. And now it's time to say goodbye without guilt or anger.
Our LBW was created within a particular historical context. Pre-ELCA bodies were warming up to each other and extending a hand of friendship toward the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. The creation of a common hymnal was a way to get past former divisions to experience the commonality of Christian faith in the Lutheran family.
The LBW was the right thing to do at the right time. It served a very valuable purpose, serving as a bridge between one chapter and the next, the same way Pastor Cathy served as a bridge between one chapter and the next in the life of St. Matthew.
The LBW unified the pre-ELCA bodies and prepared us for the ELCA. But somewhere between the LBW's release in 1978 and the birth of the ELCA in 1988 it was already becoming clear to a growing number of pastors, church musicians, and parishioners that the LBW wasn't going to be able to take us much further.
When I began my search for alternatives to the LBW, it wasn't primarily an issue of musical style or preference. I grew up in a home that listened to both Bach and rock. I was, and still am, very much at home with the pipe organ. My search for alternatives began because of text.
Problem of Language
Several years ago I was an associate pastor given oversight for Christian education and youth, among other things. I was supposed to encourage our children and youth to attend worship and be involved in it. Worship was supposed to complement their learning about the faith. But it wasn't working. The problem was language.
Over the course of a few weeks, I went through the hymns of the LBW with a yellow highlighter. I marked archaistic words like "didst," words no longer commonly used (conjubilant, replete, extol, homage, whelmed), words that have significantly changed in meaning over the last several hundred years like ghost (spirit), want (poverty), lay (song), and others.
I also marked phrases that contained obscure references, foreign language, or odd construction and word use. Examples include: "this terrestrial ball," "I raise my Ebenezer," "swell the strain," "mean estate," "men made strange."
Some hymns were very yellow from my marking. Some were clean. But the fact that I was stumbling over these language problems every Sunday was making my job of teaching the faith unnecessarily difficult and frustrating. How could I possibly teach the faith with material like this, either to children or to the unchurched?
What about the language of the liturgies? Although I find some of the LBW's liturgical language a bit wordy or formal, I have not experienced it as being as problematic as some of the hymns. The liturgical language is clear enough.
I believe that worship is a teaching moment. There is always mystery in worship, to be sure, even for the veteran Christian. But that we should place such barriers between God and children, between God and the new Christian, is, I believe, unfaithful and counter to the spirit of evangelism we have received from Christ. Mystery is part of faith and worship. Needlessly obscure language serves no one.
The LBW was a good interim pastor. It took us from post-WWII Lutheranism into the ELCA. Parts of it are still very good. But as a whole, it's not capable of taking the ELCA into the new century. The language is too outdated, the liturgies too thick with confusing options. The many escape routes with which to dodge Holy Communion no longer match the sacramental teaching of our church. The LBW once unified us, but no longer has the power to do so.
What Should We Do?
What then should be do? Find a new book? Create more supplements? Should each congregation build their own collection of hymns in a loose-leaf binder or subscribe to copyright licenses? Why not? It's what many of us are doing anyway.
If the LBW is not to be the only source of worship materials in the congregation I serve, then what criteria should I use in selecting materials? Am I to trust my own judgment in such matters?
Honestly, I'm not frightened of that prospect. If I, as a pastor of the church, cannot be trusted to make such decisions, then I shouldn't be trusted to write a sermon on prayer, or engage in pastoral care. The same education and spiritual formation that are a part of the other theological tasks I perform weekly is adequate for such things as song selection or the writing of new liturgical pieces.
I'm not suggesting that we burn our LBWs. We don't need to "leave angry." We needn't blame the LBW or its creators for the changes that swooped through the church since 1978. But we'd be foolish to ignore them.
What I'd like to suggest is that, as a whole, the LBW's work as an interim hymnal is done. We should be grateful to God for its service to the church. And each congregation, within its unique context, should look for the worship resources that will take it into the next century without leaving children and the unchurched behind. There are many to choose from, many of them of high quality and theologically sound.
If Pastor Cathy had remained at St. Matthew and tried to force the congregation to accept her as more than an interim, it probably would've gotten ugly and ended badly. Grace and maturity tell us when our job is done. Grace and maturity tell pastors and other church professionals when it is in the best interest of the congregation for us to say goodbye.
So it is with our interim hymnal, the LBW. Without guilt caused by misplaced loyalty, we should recognize that it's time to say goodbye to the LBW. To do so is to be church with a capital "C."
Dan Borchers is pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Aurora, Illinois.