by Greg Singleton
November 20, 2013
Q. I Love St. Luke and the people there. I love the activism and the warm fellowship of the place. I like being here. But I am not quite comfortable with the worship. There are things that I don’t understand that go on in worship and some gestures that have me completely confused. I think I’m not the only one because there are not many people doing those gestures. I’m afraid this is all pretty vague because I really don’t know that much about Lutheran worship. Or maybe other people are comfortable and it is just me. What are the things I need to know?
I can empathize with you. I don’t know whether you come from another tradition within Christianity, or from another form of religion, or from no religion at all. As one who came to a liturgical tradition in my early adulthood after being raised in the Southern Baptist Convention I can tell you I was very confused at first. That confusion is probably even greater if you come from a non-Christian background.
I was initially tempted to throw out a few book titles on the history of worship generally and the Lutheran tradition specifically, but that is a bias of a retired academic assuming that books will solve all problems. Let’s put that aside (and leave it there unless there is a request for such a bibliography). Let’s deal with a few basics.
First, concentrate on your experience of the community at St. Luke. The love that you feel for this congregation, and the love that you receive from this congregation will give you the space and time you need to become comfortable with what goes on in worship. You’ve taken an important step by asking the question. Keep asking questions. You can send them here or ask our pastor, or both. Bring this up with people you know in the congregation. Some may share your confusion. Others may have some interesting perspectives on what happens in worship.
Second, always remember that you are invited to this form of worship in which we share the bread and wine, the nourishing body and blood of Christ, as a community united in love. We all are invited, and it doesn’t matter whether our ancestries received communion from the hand of Martin Luther or whether this is the first time we have ever been in a Lutheran church. We come to the altar as equals. The invitation comes from Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. It does not come from an “Old Guard” of “church insiders.”
Third, realize that your experience would likely not be exactly the same in another Lutheran congregation. While there would be some similarities, there are significant variations in how the Gospel is proclaimed and the sacred meal is celebrated in the world-wide Lutheran tradition, in the United States, and in the Chicago metropolitan area. We often hear that Lutheran liturgy (the style of worship we use—the word literally means “the work of the people”) is one that is written to be sung but also can be spoken. How much is sung and how much is spoken can vary considerable (pretty much on a scale from almost all of it sung to pretty much none of it sung). Some congregations use several layers of vestments, a more simplified set of vestments, or simply a stole over street clothes (and you can see all three of these at St. Luke depending on the time of the year and the specific occasion). In some congregations almost everyone utilizes several gestures during liturgy (such as making the sign of the cross). In some congregations some do and some don’t. I have worshiped in some places where only two are three do so. There is no “should” or “shouldn’t” about this. If something has meaning for you and aids your worship, go for it. If something has no meaning for you and/or is a hindrance to worship, don’t engage in it.
A general rule of thumb is that unless a practice detracts from the proclamation of the Gospel and the celebration of the sacred meal, it should be allowed for those to whom it is meaningful. Equally important is another rule of thumb: the only things that can be required are those which are essential for the proclamation of the Gospel and the celebration of the sacred meal. Therefore, there is a great deal of liberty for congregations as a whole and individuals within congregations.
All of that having been said, the form of worship we engage in at St. Luke has a history which goes back far beyond the 16th century origins of our communion and is a visible sign of our continuity with Christians throughout two millennia and our solidarity with contemporary sisters and brothers in other Lutheran congregations and non-Lutheran denominations who practice a form of liturgical worship. I would be happy to write about the various gestures, postures, vestments and much more if you would like, but not as an exercise in what one ought to do but as an explanation of why some of us find these practices meaningful. If at any time you and/or others would like to find out more about that tradition, just ASK GREG.
In the meantime, know that as fascinating as I personally find that topic, it is not essential to your being a part of us nor is it the foundation of our unity in the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.
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