During a recent lunch with a colleague, the conversation turned to a decision they had made at their church to change to a different system of readings for their Sunday morning services. We’re not doing that at the church that I serve. And we had a really rich and stimulating conversation about the matter. It was a reminder to me of the marvelous diversity of the denomination in which I serve, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. What an astonishing collection of congregations, individuals, and pastors.
A plethora of Pentecost postings on Facebook last week was another reminder of the rich spectrum of worship practices, pieties, and sensibilities. There are regional differences, ethnic differences, local differences, even differences based on where the pastor went to seminary and the places he or she has been since seminary. I can’t imagine that you could find even two congregations among the almost ten thousand congregations where everything is done precisely the same on any given Sunday morning.
That doesn’t mean to say I don’t have opinions about how things should be done. I do. And I think I have pretty good reasons for most of what we do and why we have made the decisions we have where I serve. I’m even willing to articulate the reasons for those decisions and enter in to conversation around them. Still, it would be arrogant and presumptuous of me to try to prescribe our way as the right way, with the assumption that other ways are the wrong way. Since the beginning of Christianity, worship has been a long process of evolution and it continues to evolve. It would be better for all of us if we could leave behind the notions of right and wrong about worship practice.
The wonderful diversity of practice also doesn’t mean that everyone gets to do whatever he or she wants, including me. Worship is always about God and who God is and what God has done and how God comes to us in the Gospel of the risen crucified one in whom we have life. Whatever our practices, it should be clear that they point to, and indeed communicate the one gospel, and that our practices become locations for the presence of the risen crucified one and for the faith that comes to birth through him.
That very Gospel becomes also a reforming force for worship, so says Gordon Lathrop in Four Gospels on Sunday.* The very presence of the gospels, and through the gospels the presence of Christ in the assembly, constantly calls us back from worship that is rooted in ourselves, our perceived needs and desires, our drive for control, our knack for falling into the kind of lifeless behavior that aims at nothing more than perpetuating institutions.
In the end, I guess I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything except a couple of very basic suppositions: that there isn’t a right and wrong way to worship, even for those of us anchored to a tradition. And that whatever we do, at the center is the life-giving gospel of the risen crucified One. Really, I think I’m writing this for my own benefit as much as anyone else’s. I need to be reminded constantly in my work as pastor and leader of worship that it’s not about me or my congregation or what we like or don’t like; it’s not about numbers or statistics or coddling the insider or wooing the outsider. It’s about the God who has come near to us in Jesus Christ, who loves us with a love that will not end, and who forms us and shapes us by the presence of the Word in our assembly so that God can send us out, empowered by the Spirit, to enact God’s intentions for the world.
*I’d highly recommend this book for the clergy types out there. While Lathrop is a noted liturgical theologian, it’s clear in this book that he began as a New Testament scholar. His sharp interpretive skills are on keen display in this work, especially as he nuances the different thematic schemas of each of the four gospels and the implications for worship.