Is your worship really the only one God works through?

Recently I saw this post on facebook that was bemoaning/making fun of a whole host of what one might call “worship styles” that (according to this post) represent a consumerist style of approaching church. There was something for everyone–Gregorian chant to hip-hop worship.

I don’t know what to do with this kind of post. For those of you who might read this who are churchy-types, I understand that the liturgy works in some kind of way that we cannot understand, explain or control. But I have three issues with people bemoaning alternate styles of worship:

  1. It makes God too small.
  2. It privileges some style of worship above others, and marginalizes people in the process.
  3. It is not good news.

It makes God too small:

I believe the Holy Spirit also shows up in places we cannot explain, understand or control. He/She/It may show up outside of the liturgy that is somehow mandated in some place that means one way is the right way, and these other ways represent “consumerism.”

If it is true that the Holy Spirit might show up outside of liturgy as it has always been done,  it seems as if we have some tools available to us to experiment with how we, out of our own context and time, might offer praise, speak, and hear good news spoken into this time and place. I assume that God speaks good news into our lives using the stuff of creation, in each time and place. That might mean some different kinds of liturgy, with different genres of music, instrumentation and words. I trust God is present in these new things.

It privileges some styles of worship above others, and marginalizes people: 

We could mandate that all worship looks the same. I don’t think Martin Luther ever did that, but we can. I remember learning that he thought word and sacrament were essential, and that the rest was bonus, (I know the fancy word, I’m just not using it here). I believe Luther said if it seemed good for proclaiming gospel in that location, then it was good for worship.

One of the reasons I am uncomfortable with the conversation is because of how it seems to belittle or make fun of those who lead worship or experience worship in ways other than (whatever it is that you think is the established right way). And that “right way” is likely grounded in something European and old. The comments on the picture seem to suggest that some people believe there is one way to worship in spirit and in truth, and  all these other ways just represent disunity in the body of Christ, and making God into our own image. What this does is marginalize people who don’t experience or lead worship the way it is assumed it has always been done. One could probably make an argument that if it was good enough for 500 years’ worth of people, it should be good enough for people today. You can say that, but the church is shrinking quickly so you may not be saying it to many people. More to the point, all worship came out of a culture, whether ancient Judaism or Europe 500 years ago. All worship comes from culture.

It is not Good News: 

The Church should not be about marginalizing anyone, because that is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Church is about proclaiming the gospel into people’s lives–that the grace of God is for you–whoever you are, in whatever way you can hear it, using the tools, instruments, gifts and talents of the community that is doing the hearing and proclaiming. I believe God can work with all of that. Do you?

Come, Holy Spirit.





To whom shall we go?

I go to church almost every week. I go even though I don’t always know why we are all there and I am often disappointed with what I experience–or don’t experience–in church.

Today as I sat in church, at Trinity Lutheran Church in Moorhead, MN (that’s my home church, though I end up in a lot of different churches) I worried I would experience that again. I sat wondering what it was I was expecting, and often don’t find. I think what I often miss is the glimpse of something luminous or holy or sacred–something outside of every day life that touches on something larger. Something that both drives me deep within and also lifts my attention to the world I am called to care for.

Today, I went hoping to hear good news proclaimed in a time of national tragedy. I also went as study–since I am also a pastor, sociologically and ecclesiologically, I wanted to see how this church would handle 20 kids dead (and 8 adults) across the country in Newtown, Connecticut in the middle of the Holidays.

I just prayed they wouldn’t ignore it, and drone on with the words we always say. And then this happened: We started the words of confession and forgiveness, and I heard the voices of the table full of children next to me, saying the words in that confession: “We are truly sorry” as I sat, thankful for their voices, thankful we were all in this room together in a posture of prayer, thankful they knew the words by memory because someday they might need them. As the words of forgiveness were said, I looked up and saw the line of water in the stained glass window behind the altar, that runs like a lifeline from a depiction of baptism to the cross.

Then we stood up to greet the Gospel, and we were all singing the oh-so-familiar words ”Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Those words take on new meaning when you are trying to figure out how to make sense of things like death that comes too early.

Sermon time–I saw all the chatter from my pastor-friends, trying to figure out how to address this tragedy, or if they should. I watched to see what would happen here. Pastor Matt McWaters first sat with the children and acknowledged that it was a dark time, and had been a hard week for many people. Then he asked them to help by doing three things: hugging their parents a little tighter, laughing and playing a little wilder, and telling their parents “I love you.”

I could see these children, paying attention to the gravity of the situation. They promised to hug, and laugh and love like they knew it was important.

Then Pastor Matt got behind the pulpit and, visibly shaken, preached his way into the good news of Christ until tears came down his face as he named the stupid things people might say at times like this, like that “God must have needed another angel” or “She’s home now” and just nailed those ridiculous unhelpful sentiments right to the cross and said it is not true–that God does not cause evil to happen, and reminding us that Christ always came that we might have life, and that always wins, and always comes in the dark places.


During communion I heard the words of the song around me, talking about healing, as I made room for the man with his walker. I don’t know what healing looks like for this man, but it is moving nonetheless. I was reminded that these are the hurts we can see–how much more is inside each of us as we reach out our hands and hear the words spoken to us: This is the body of Christ, and it is given for you. After communion we hear words of blessing and hope–that at this meal we share we might be strengthened and kept in God.

Last week someone from The Project F-M book club said, “Fake it ‘til you make it.” She was talking about how she started going to church with her grandmother, and wasn’t sure why she went either, but now it has become important to her.

And then there are the words of my friend, Pastor Matthew Bolz-Weber who says, “The liturgy* works. You can’t say when or how, and you can’t force it, but it does work.”

If I didn’t go every week, and say those same words every week I might miss it. On this day, those words we repeat over and over and over had a different meaning.

Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia.

*liturgy is a churchy word that can variously be defined. One way to define it is that it is the prescribed ‘form’ for public worship, talking about the order of things, and what words are said when, and what is included, especially in the context of a worship service with Holy Communion.

Keep your laws off my liturgy

“What is sung liturgy,” a friend asked me, a little freaked out at the words. This was in a conversation we were having where I was preparing her to attend church; a place she hasn’t been often in her life. I was hoping I didn’t have to sing the liturgy the week they came, because that would feel even more awkward than it already does to me.

I tried to explain: In church, we have these participatory dialogues, so it isn’t just about coming and sitting and listening to something. People participate in the dialogues, between the leader and the congregation, and sometimes they sing. I tried to demonstrate. “The Lord be with you” I sang. From the kitchen her partner responded, “and also with you” almost as if it hadn’t been 20 years since he last came to church.

She stared at us. “It’s a little weird, I know” I said. I continued the sung liturgy. Steve made up his own words in response. We started joking about how funny it would be if we all walked around singing at each other, and wondered what it would be like to have a “sung liturgy party” where you had to chant all of your conversations.

And so there is this tension in me (welcome to Lutheranism at its best). There is something cool about the fact that Steve can walk into a church 25 years later and know exactly what to do (if he wanted to). And then there’s the reality that it is still so far outside of his life that he likely won’t come back. And then there’s the woman next to him, so nervous about what will happen in this church service; what it will feel like when everyone around her is singing these dialogues they all know, standing up (did she miss the hand signal?) Some people say it is good that church is something set apart from what happens in the world—that’s what makes it sacred and safe. But those things just feel weird and not safe to another set of people. And who said all of life isn’t sacred, anyway? Why is it so important to separate them?

Perhaps it is not for me to say why it is so important to separate sacred from secular or profane or all of the rest of life—however you view it. Because there are people for whom this is an important distinction, and it is not for me to take that away. But I’d rather remove the walls that divide. Can we make space for that kind of understanding too?

Many pastors and liturgy professors speak about how you can’t know how the liturgy is working on you, and you can’t control how it works on others. I have experienced that. But I also think that liturgy can take on different forms, and it doesn’t need to be so far outside life experience outside of the church. My hope is that there is room for lots of understandings within this, lots of ways for good news to be proclaimed. I am pretty sure that when Jesus presided over the first/last supper it didn’t begin with him singing the opening dialogue from an LBW setting. (sorry for the Lutheran jargon: the short story is we have these books—Lutheran Book of Worship, or LBW–of hymns and orders of services, and each order of service is called a “setting.”) So we put formulas around these things and ritualize them. And that is a good thing, as long as it speaks the gospel in a particular time and place, instead of becoming law.