Can Traditional Ritual be Evangelistic?
by John P. Nordin
jpn@jpnordin.com

            Should we keep "the tradition," praised as the "way Christians have always worshiped" but attacked as a dispirited grinding through a pointless liturgy, certain to repel all visitors?  Or should we adopt a "user-friendly" alternative, praised as "the same gospel in different dress" and attacked as anti-intellectual, more mindless MTV entertainment mush?  Is this our choice?

            This is a false choice between a modern liturgical iconoclasm and a legalistic clinging to the "canon" of the past [1] .  We have another possibility: the reform of our tradition to achieve powerfully done ritual.  When our ritual is enchanting and inspirational, it will be appealing to visitors, a strong witness to the reality of the new life we have in Christ.

            To achieve a third way, advocates of traditional worship must first admit that much of current worship is not well done, and thus is neither attractive to visitors nor graceful and sustaining for "veterans."  Let me briefly suggest several strategies for reform.

            Reform of hymnody.  Our tradition is not defined by the LBW, or even a certain style of music, it is defined by quality and an certain theology.  We need to review the classic repertoire, sensitive to melody as well as words, and carefully select those hymns that can speak to us now.  We must seek out those contemporary hymns from all over the globe that deal with modern issues in appealing melodies withthe weight and good theology our heritage demands.  Unsingability is not a sign of authentic Lutheran church music. 

           Reform of Liturgy  We must remember that while a certain liturgical order is a mark of our heritage, the services of the LBW are compositions from the late 1970s, not the first century.  It is the flow and substance of worship, not the precise text, that marks it as Lutheran.  We need to consider not merely new musical settings but also revisions of this order of worship that enhance its appropriateness to the liturgical year, increases its flexibility to speak to a variety of contexts and needs, and supports the thematic coherence and emotional consistency necessary for powerful ritual.

              Don't be afraid to teach.  If we confidently believe that the life of a Christian, as reflected in our worship is valuable and worth knowing, then we can gently and unapologetically lead people into "the world of meaning" [2] of worship by consciously teaching.

            Remove unessential obscurities.  Both the words "narthex" and "justification" are cited as examples of the many intimidating barriers for newcomers.  But they are not equally important to us, are they?  Calling the narthex the "lobby" gives up far less than living without the concept of "justification."  By removing the unessentials we make it easier to teach the essentials.

            Acknowledge the artistic dimension of worship.  We must pay attention to the nearly lost art of leading worship.  We should also curtail obsessive focus on the words and etiquette of worship, and attend to the larger issues of the theology of music, space and movement.  In composing liturgy, we must consider tone and emotion, coherence and flow.

            Those who advocate elimination of a liturgical order of worship will remain skeptical, "this liturgy isn't what people want."  Liturgy is not what people say they want, but people often need something other than they know. 

              Funerals are an example of the unexpected power of well done ritual.  Families regularly tell me when planning the funeral to "keep it short," because they "just want to get it over with."  I respectfully ignore this comment, because I know that our LBW funeral liturgy, when led with dignity and accompanied by personal preaching that explores how God was at work in the life of the deceased will be valued and loved by the family.

            Doing liturgy with power can prove compelling for visitors and regulars alike.  Again and again, I have seen those contemptuous or merely weary of boring, ineffective public ritual be grateful and intrigued when they experience effective ritual.  I believe that complaints about the obscurity of "traditional" liturgy are really complaints about incompetent ritual.

            Suppose you went to a football game for the first time ever, would it seem unfriendly, complex, confusing?  It could depend on the quality of the game.  If the teams fumbled often, ran the same play over and over again, and acted like they were just going through the motions, you might conclude football was too obscure and not worth the effort to watch.  If the teams executed well and you could sense the passion and skill of the players, then you might conclude that there was something interesting going on and be motivated seek the deeper satisfaction that came from a fuller knowledge of the game.

            I suggest that this third way of reform is, in fact, our true tradition, and will prove evangelistic.


1 [1]   I do intend to evoke a comparison to Reformation battles over the liturgy.  See for example the writings of Luther at Luther's Works, vol. 53, p. 17-8.

2 [2]   A phrase suggested to me by Prof. Ted Peters.  Also see Augsburg Confession, article 24.