Lutherans, Liturgy, and Life… Seriously?!

Through the ages, Word and Sacrament Lutheran worship has most often been given expression by “the historic liturgy that has been used by countless Christians for almost fourteen hundred years, perhaps even longer.” (Arthur Just, Heaven on Earth,13). However, as noted in the previous post, the worship wars of the last half century have been disturbing and dividing Lutherans—often times vehemently so.

Yet, if Lutherans are being honest, until recently, the liturgical nature of Lutheran worship had always been a part of the Lutheran identity and life. And, to be sure, as noted in the previous post, there can be some flexibility in the practice and forms of the liturgy. (Perhaps a further honest and frank discussion exploring the freedoms and limits of that flexibility would be good.) However the point has been, that until recently, Lutherans being Lutherans, have always expressed and framed Word and sacrament worship by means of the liturgy. And this has been for good reason that goes beyond mere tradition.

The nature of the liturgy becomes significant, not because it is what we have always done, though I suppose that could be a part of it, but because it is the story that forms us. Much more than a mere mundane order of a formal worship service, it is the narrative that tells our story, or rather, the story of Christ, which, by faith, is also our story.

What has become so provocative in our postmodern times is the recognition that the narrative nature of the liturgy is indispensible to the postmodern church. That is, with postmodernism so incredulous toward metanarratives people now emerge in a world where they do not know the story of the world. It is not a narratable world for them, and so they are left with many questions.  “Who am I? Where am I going?  How do I make sense of this chaotic world?”

Here the church need not answer with arrogant certainties, but with a simple confession of faith, telling her story, through her vocational witness, but also and especially through her liturgy. As Robert Jenson notes, “The church has in fact had great experience in this role. One of the many analogies between postmodernity and dying antiquity—in which the church lived for her most creative period—is that the late antique world also insisted on being a meaningless chaos, and that the church had to save her converts by offering herself as the narratable world within which life could be lived with dramatic coherence…The church so constituted herself in her liturgy.” (From his article, “How the Church lost its story.”)

Arthur Just explains it this way: This is how the Church has survived persecution, heresy, wars, famine, and plague. It had a place to retreat and to engage in a confident expression of the story of the world. When it seemed as if the World might be coming to an end, or even worse, as if the world was losing its story, the Church regrouped to the measured cadences of the biblical story told through the historic liturgy. When things looked as if they could not get much worse, the Church entered into the safe haven of the historic liturgy, where through Kyrie and Gloria, through Sanctus and Agnus Dei, it proclaimed to a world in chaos the story of God’s redeeming love.”(13).

In this way, liturgy was more than a stuffy, old fashioned way of doing church. It told the church’s story and confessed the faith all at once. In fact, there has been a tremendous call for the postmodern church to make an intense and intentional return to the ancient liturgy precisely because of the narrative that it is. Reformed author James K. Smith is adamant: “I will argue that the postmodern church could do nothing better than be ancient, that the most powerful way to reach a postmodern world is by recovering tradition, and that the most effective means of discipleship is found in liturgy” (Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, 25). In other words, the liturgy tells the story of Jesus Christ and places us in that story.

Even more, the ancient rituals associated with the liturgy enliven the heart, the mind, the body, and the soul of worshipers by imbuing them with the body and blood of Christ and his comforting words of life and salvation.

It is intriguing that a call for a return to the liturgical ethos of the church is not simply by liturgical traditionalists or preservationists, but also by the postmodern Emergent Church as well. Invoking a return to the various practices of the “ancient” liturgy has enlivened the Emergent Church in new ways, while simultaneously testifying to the timeless appeal of this ritual-filled narrative. (See especially the Emergent Church book series, The Ancient Practices Series, particularly Brian McLaren’s book Finding Our Way Again, and Joan Chittister’s, The Liturgical Year).

Australian Lutheran, John Klenig, is resolute in affirming the powerful role of such narrative-driven, liturgical rituals. “[R]ituals do not just embody the basic values of a community; they constitute and maintain its common life. The Lutheran Confessions acknowledge this function when they insist that rites and ceremonies are necessary for ‘the good order’ and ‘well being’ of the Church.  Rituals are not just dramatic performances which celebrate what people have in common; they are performative actions which do what they mean.” (From his article, “Witting or Unwitting Ritualist,” Lutheran Theological Journal.)

In fact, the ritual of worship has been thoroughly demonstrated to assimilate converts into the faith.  “E. Bryon Anderson summarizes a growing body of material from theology, religious education and anthropology, concluding that ritual is the primary way one learns faith, for in ritual one is most fully engaged in the religious message. Anderson asserts that ‘liturgical practice is intrinsically formational and transformational. It is a means by which we come to know ourselves as people of faith and to know the God whom we worship.’ Supporting John Westerhoff’s argument, Anderson asserts that rituals are the most important influence in shaping faith, character, and consciousness.  Succinctly put, it is through ritual that we learn how to be a Christian.” (Todd E. Johnson. “Truth Decay: Rethinking Evangelism in the New Century.” in The Strange New Word of the Gospel: Re-Evangelizing in the Postmodern World, 129).

Thus, with the above said, is it fair to say that there is a demonstrable value to the liturgy beyond mere appeals to tradition? Perhaps the following can summarize: Through the liturgy of the church, Lutheran believers are a story formed, ritualized people of the Gospel, who, as a community of saints, assemble around the narrative of Word and Sacrament in order to be forgiven and freed, renewed and refreshed, discipled and dispersed into the vocations of their daily lives to serve their neighbor and give witness to their Savior.

As always, this blog aims to move past partisanship and demonizing of those who disagree, and endeavors to thoughtfully, honestly, and collegially, foster the goal of talking about the mission of the Holy Christian Church and what it means to be authentically Lutheran, while “discipling all nations” in the 21st century. For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts and reactions.

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

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