Keepin’ It Real

The combined effects of midterm papers, spring break, travel, and both persons in my household in college combined to make “next week” turn into “next month”!  Amazing how time can get away from you.  At any rate, let’s talk about authenticity in worship.

When I was growing up, the idea persisted that every Lutheran congregation in the country should be using the same order of service, or liturgy.  This pattern was first set by Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, the first Lutheran pastor in North America c. 1742, who chaired a committee to establish the ‘Kirchenagende’, the first (and only) authorized Lutheran liturgy in colonial America.

Hymns from English-speaking authors, as well as translations of hymns from other countries identifying as Lutheran (Germany and the Scandinavian countries) were pretty much all that was found in the hymnal, until the Lutheran Book of Worship was published in 1978.  Suddenly there were hymns from other countries in the hymnal!

In the years leading up to LBW’s publication, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) inspired a tremendous production of liturgy and worship materials in peoples’ own languages, following the Vatican II directive to worship in the vernacular.

These developments, combined with the staggering speed of technological development, has brought us to a place and time where we are more able than ever to worship locally as well as globally.  Our new Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal has music from literally all over the world, as well as music that spans thousands of years.

But does this mean that every congregation should follow that path?

Not necessarily.  Here’s where the authenticity comes in.  It’s very important for pastors and worship leaders to understand who the congregation is, what their story is, and how they see themselves on the journey.  How do they name God?  How do they see God working in their lives and in the world?

Alongside the more spiritual questions, there’s many others that need to be asked when deciding what constitutes “authenticity” for a congregation, including where it’s located, what the neighborhood is like, and so on.

My home congregation is in a north San Diego County beach town, and has been around just over 50 years.  The town has changed a bit over the years (it’s gotten built up).  It’s still something of a bedroom community for San Diego, yet retains the same surfer vibe that made it famous long ago.  The congregation started as lifelong Lutherans, but now we’re quite a mix – some Lutherans, some from other denominations, some with no former affiliation.  Ages are all over the board, with lots of kids.  Lots of social ministry and global awareness.

Authenticity in worship for us involves an “all of the above” approach – our choices are made with a strong undergirding of solid Lutheran theology, but without limitation to time or place of origin.  We are fortunate to have a number of skilled musicians in the parish and so we are able to utilize a wide variety of music in worship.

My teaching parish is also a beach community, but is in the city of San Diego, specifically the Ocean Beach neighborhood.  It’s an older neighborhood, but still very beach-oriented.  The parish is about 15 years older than my home congregation.  It’s a smaller congregation, but growing, with lots of different age groups including children.

They don’t have the extensive musical resources of my home congregation (though one of my projects there is to investigate starting a “down home” musical group with some of the members).  The resources they do have they utilize very well.  This congregation appreciates different styles of music, as does my home congregation, but they don’t try to be something they’re not.  As the pastor noted, there is a very large non-denominational church just a couple of miles away that is well-known throughout San Diego.  It makes no sense to copy what they are doing; instead my teaching parish pastor engages her congregation in ongoing Bible study and conversation around the topic of worship (and many other things) so they can determine their own identity.

This approach sets the tone for authenticity in all forms of ministry that a congregation might be involved in, from operating a preschool to helping out at a community event.  There’s no question that authentic worship takes considerably more time and effort than just using whatever service order is in the book, and picking four hymns to go with it.  But when a community understands what’s behind worship preparation, and how it can be their unique expression of praise in response to God’s grace, marvelous things can – and DO – happen.

A few years ago, I heard a presentation by Dave Daubert and Kelly Fryer of the organization “A Renewal Enterprise”.  They talked about what constitutes a sustainable model of ministry, noting that many congregations create ministry situations that are not sustainable over the long haul.  There’s many reasons this can happen, but the catch phrases they taught us are collectively a great litmus test for any ministry – or really any endeavor:

*Be Who You Are.     *Use What You Have.     *Do What Matters.

Notice that I haven’t numbered these – that’s because they really exist in triangulation.  A ministry idea, or an existing ministry, is sustainable when it exists within these directives.

Instead of trying to be someone or something they’re not – instead of spending money on things they don’t really need – and instead of wasting time on things that don’t matter – the congregations I’m serving use these directives (or something very similar) to help them be Christ to one another and their communities in the most real ways possible.  It’s not always perfect, and that’s one of the many places grace is found.

However, in that triangulation is also a tremendous amount of grace.  And the result?

Honestly – it’s a really beautiful dance.  Thanks be to God!