Do What You Mean, Mean What You Do

There are a couple of “buzz words” surrounding worship these days: intentionality and authenticity.

Intentionality is a word created from the word intentional, meaning “done in a way that is planned or intended” (Merriam-Webster).  Authenticity is from authentic: “real or genuine: not copied or false” (Merriam-Webster).

Applied to worship, these words are in many ways complementary.  This week, I’d like to look at intentionality.

It might seem that worship has ALWAYS been intentional, and to a degree that’s true.  We intend to do what we’re doing, right?

Or do we?

Growing up in the Lutheran church, I never got a sense of relationship between the various elements of the service.  To me, it felt more like liturgical Pac-Man – the worship service consisted of dots labeled “Greeting”, “Confession”, “Opening Hymn”, and so on, and the objective was to eat the dots.  Did the Opening Hymn relate to anything else in the service?  Sometimes, but it was rare.  In many Lutheran churches, I’m told, the Opening Hymn was always “Holy, Holy, Holy.”  The only days that this was not the case were Palm Sunday, when “All Glory, Laud and Honor” was the opening hymn, and Easter Sunday, when “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” was used.  That resulted in worship that was safe, reliable –  and boring.

I am one who deeply appreciates the rich tapestry that Lutheran hymnody weaves throughout our faith.  As Lutherans, we have a musical heritage that is really unparalleled – but that is something to be explored, not tightly controlled.  Granted, limited resources in a parish can make this difficult.  More on that next week when we look at authenticity.

Intentionality occurs when those responsible for preparing worship make a commitment to make worship a very high priority – not just something for which four hymns are picked and you move on.

If a worship group has made such a decision, they’ll look at a number of things: the season of the church year, the particular Sunday, the time and season of the secular year, the lessons, and the overall pattern in the lessons for the season of the church year.  For example, in Year B during the summer we read the “Bread of Life” narrative from John’s gospel.  This year, in Epiphany Year A, we have a long Epiphany season and so have worked through nearly all of the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew.

All of these elements bring a certain feel to a season and to each Sunday.  Intentionality happens when those preparing worship dwell in those elements for a time before making choices for worship.

This past Sunday, I was installed as the “teaching parish student” at St. Peter’s by the Sea Lutheran Church in San Diego.  This parish has a long history of participating in theological education in this way.  Pastor Karen Marohn is my supervisor, and I have been privileged to work with her in the past.

The service on Sunday was a great example of intentionality.  The lessons all focused on right relationship, whether between people or between people and God.  The words of the confession and forgiveness, the prayers, and the hymns selected all wove through, in, and out of that theme.  Each element supported and commented on the lessons.  Instead of several “little themes” running parallel and taxing the attention of even the most dedicated person, it was more like a beautiful Venn diagram, with everything circling back to the center.  As the last verse of the hymn of the day went:

Great God, in Christ you set us free/your life to live, your joy to share.

Give us your Spirit’s liberty/to turn from guilt and dull despair

and offer all that faith can do/while love is making all things new.

There were no bells or whistles, no projection screens, no praise bands.  Those things are fine in some settings.  But at St. Peter’s, the people are keenly in touch with who they are and whose they are, and it shows.  Deliberate, intentional choices made for the community resulted in worship that reached beyond and welcomed the stranger.

And that leads us to authenticity.  But we’ll save that for next week.