Without the "authority" of Rome or even Canteburry, and with the adiaphora-laden ambiguity of our American Lutheran tradition, what is the determining factor in shaping a Lutheran congregation’s worship life?
Surely culture is part of the mix. Our worship generally reflects the cultural background of the worshippers – German chorales, Negro spirituals, English hymnody, etc. etc..
And class is part, too. NPR-listeners who read the New York Times and drive a Lexus to the Philadelphia Orchestra tend not to worship at praise-band, power-point parishes. If you’re an upper class suburbanite Monday-Friday, chances are your Sunday worship also reflects those class-oriented distinctions and tastes.
Local tradition is a huge factor. We all know of those unique and odd practices that seem to happen only in our congregation.
But truth be told, much of it ends up based upon the personal preferences of the pastor. Lacking any clearly articulated core principles for the practice of worship, we Lutherans are at liberty to explore, engage and express our worship in a variety of ways. But since most congregations’ Worship & Music committees don’t commit themselves to rigorous reflection on the theology, nature and practice of Christian worship, worship decisions are often left to the pastor.
But should it be? Through a committee the faith community could take ownership of worship and determine – in dialogue with the Christian tradition, our Lutheran heritage, and the parish’s local context – what Christian worship means and looks like in a particular place. But the cause of community-ownership of worship is lost when laypeople seem to only concern themselves with the presence of a flag in the sanctuary, the "correct" version Lord’s Prayer, or how long the service is. Since that’s all we laypeople care about, the "important" decisions about the character and practice of worship are usually left to the pastor (and perhaps the musican). Hopefully the pastor makes pastorally appropriate decisions based on the context, tradition, etc. etc.. But without a healthy and strong lay voice, the laity abdicates its role in Christian worship (a problem in and of itself) and leaves itself open to possible abuse by agenda-driven pastors. How often do congregations have to undo and recover from the (at best) quirky or (at worst) destructive worship practices of a departed pastor?
But what of renegade laity? I think that the laity often get a bad rap from a clergy corps who would prefer to keep the masses ignorant of liturgy and thus retain the reigns of liturigcal power. Laity that cares only about flags, time limits and trespasses vs. sins don’t offer anything to a meaningful conversation about worship. But a laity that truly seeks to understand and embrace the complexity and meaning of Christian worship can and must have a decisive role in shaping Christian worship. Fostering this kind of lay involvement is not easy – but who suggested that authentic ministry was easy?
Absent the authority of Rome or Canteburry, each local congregation needs to make an informed decision about its own worship practice – in dialogue with the Christian tradition, local contextual needs, etc. etc.. These decisions need to be made by the people who constitute the congregation – by the lay people who will worship there week after week, year after year – in partnership with the clergy who are called to lead the congregation.