Every congregation needs to examine critically its worship life at this transitional point in our history. Many congregations are offering "contemporary" or "alternative" worship services in an honest effort to reach out to those in the community without a church home. Unfortunately, terms like "contemporary" often are not clearly defined and can be confusing. What do we mean by "contemporary?" "Alternative" to what? For many, the answers lie in changing or evolving musical styles and leadership. For others, the move to contemporary worship means not using traditional patterns and texts in an attempt to make the Sunday event appealing to visitors who may have little or no background in Christian worship.
Distinctions between contemporary and traditional worship are often related to musical styles. Without realizing it, many Lutherans identify Lutheran worship with a specific kind of music. Although our church’s musical heritage is strong and should not be abandoned, we cannot define our worship by it. The ten musical settings of Holy Communion in Evangelical Lutheran Worship are not, by themselves, Lutheran worship. Rather, Lutheran music is most clearly defined as music that has its heart in the voice of the congregation. The German Reformation influenced the role of music in worship most profoundly through its insistence on congregational singing as a means for proclaiming the Gospel. No longer did the congregation passively observe the liturgy. They sang it themselves! Whatever music is used in worship among Lutherans, it must
- honestly and boldly proclaim God’s Word,
- be integral to the liturgy,
- reflect the diversity of the church, and
- have primary expression in the voice of the congregation.
Music of all styles should be considered for use in every liturgy. The first criterion for making selections should not be the musical style, but the integrity of the text for its particular use in the liturgy.
Many congregations have attempted to solve the traditional-contemporary dilemma by offering a menu of worship services. Adding a service, especially when the additional service added is very different from the other(s), usually results in an increase in overall attendance, although not always by newcomers. It has worked very well in some congregations while seriously fracturing others.
A concern for hospitality to strangers is always important. If we emphasize worship as the gathering of the faithful around Word and sacrament without concern for the visitors, we may leave them out and ignore our evangelical mandate. What is familiar and sacred to us may be strange and unfamiliar to others. We must graciously invite everyone into the liturgy and offer assistance as desired. Concern for the visitor, however, should not immediately drive us to the other extreme of abandoning the long-standing traditions of Christian worship. Neither extreme is acceptable.
Some congregations have attempted to find a compromise by offering separate services–-one for "seekers" and another for long-time members. Although some people may enter the congregation through a seeker service and continue their journey into the liturgy, where they experience the depth of our faith in Word and sacrament, others, deprived of that depth from the beginning, may never move to that liturgy. Still others, including long-time members, may choose the easiest approach and regularly attend the seeker service, where less participation is usually expected. These divisions cause us to falter in our responsibility to nurture all members of the congregation. Offering events such as revivals, concerts, coffeehouses, and discussion groups can be effective ways to welcome seekers into the liturgical life of the congregation, where all God’s people are gathered around Jesus Christ, present in Word and Sacrament.
As Lutherans, we understand ourselves to be included in the larger church of all times and places. This church knows no bounds of time, language, culture, gender, or style. As a part of this church, we commit ourselves to look seriously at the past and to use whatever we can from our tradition in worship. Cherishing tradition does not mean encouraging a stagnant, museum-like approach to worship. Quite the contrary! The tradition should always be adapted to specific contexts, local circumstances, and unique times in history. Our worship forms and texts have been evolving for centuries and are passed on to us. They are a vital link to the church of all ages—past, present, and future. We risk impoverishing our worship when we simply abandon Christian traditions in order to create something we believe to be more relevant. Language changes and musical styles evolve. Commitment to Word and Sacrament, biblical texts, and congregational song do not.
Traditions are things we are strongly committed to and understand. Traditions are not things we do routinely but do not understand. We need not apologize for our traditions. Rather, we should celebrate the liturgy with life and color and action. We are called on to proclaim the gospel and boldly celebrate the sacraments. When newcomers visit our congregations, they should be so captivated by what we do and by the sincerity and intensity with which we do it that they will want to return. Real hospitality means that all of our people, not just the assigned greeters for the day, are prepared to offer gracious human hospitality. Our buildings need to be designed and signed in such a way that they welcome people unfamiliar with our facilities and our traditions. Concise, clear, and inviting bulletins can offer valuable assistance to all, especially visitors. Our challenge is to discover a variety of ways to be welcoming to the seeker without abandoning the substance of our worship tradition.
Collins, Dori Erwin and Scott C. Weidler. Sound Decisions: Evaluating Contemporary Music for Lutheran Worship. Chicago: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Division for Congregational Ministries. Provides step-by-step guidance on how to evaluate and use contemporary church music within Lutheran worship. ISBN: 6000065744.
Open Questions in Worship Series. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress.
Vol. 1, What are the essentials of Christian worship?
Vol. 2, What is ’contemporary’ worship?
Vol. 3, How does worship evangelize?