Christian Worship & the Pastor’s Personality

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.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

10 thoughts on “Christian Worship & the Pastor’s Personality

  1. Worship of the Risen Lord has for so long been a battleground for the church. In the broadest sense, I am not sure that we are going to be able to prevent these battles from occurring. Given my own biases about worship, I do value the input of our worship and music team. However, I think we need to be careful about a “democratization” of worship in the local context, as this can lead to all sorts of aberrations in the worship life.
    I read a blog entry somewhere else that suggested that moving worship into the arena of adiaphora is one of the major weaknesses of our tradition (a bit overstated, IMHO), but it does lead me to question if we need to return to the confessions to discern if indeed worship is generally in that category, or if it is limited in scope. I don’t presume to have the answer to that, though I do feel that the Father Confessors never intended the free-for-all present in American Lutheranism (ELCA and LC-MS).
    I like how you lift up culture, class, local tradition etc as parts of the conversation. Some things that are appropriate for one congregation may not be appropriate for another. An example would be the way I shake my head when our all white congregation sings negro spirituals…it just seems culturally inappropriate.

  2. I agree with most of what you have written, but I would add a few thoughts:
    Many Lutheran churches are in small and tiny communities. This means that the various “classes” worship together, or perhaps there are no “highest class” people there.
    The call committee, if it is asking good questions, would screen out a pastor whose worship style might not fit. Likewise, a pastoral candidate might self-select out of the process if his/her worship style didn’t fit the church. So I agree with your point about the pastor’s preferences, but I don’t think there would usually be a radical change from one pastor to the next.
    We had a pastor assigned to our church, not called, and his style didn’t fit. He did his thing, but he didn’t pull people along.
    The skill, training, and musicality of the musicians makes a huge difference. We have one musician who plays only the traditional hymns, and not too well. We have one musician who plays extrodinarily well and branches out into music of various cultures, countries, and other Christian traditions. So what if the white people are singing African hymns? [I have cassette tapes from Africa, on which the African singers are singing old European hymns.]
    It takes some work, but the pastor can help train the worship committee about the seasons and the themes for each Sunday. Then the worship committee can help pick the liturgy and hymns that fit. Being on the worship committee can be more than “just picking songs.” Feedback from the congregation can also be helpful, if the leadership is willing to listen.
    My personal preference is to NOT segregate the congregation by age, class, culture, etc. by having various services focusing on a type of music or worship style. I feel that if a hymn/song is theologically sound and singable, then it can be appropriate in “regular” church.
    How fast (or with how much spirit) does the organist/pianist play? Does he/she play like this is the “organ show” or as a worship leader? I’ve been to churches where the hymns of praise sound like funeral dirges. I’ve heard church musicians play or sing with a “look at me” style.
    And lastly, a rhetorical question….if a church insists on sticking with a traditional style of hymns, liturgy, but finds itself in an increasingly unchurched population, people to whom these melodies have no pull, are we fulfilling the mission when we don’t have something that is inviting to new people, something they can relate to?
    All old things were new at one time…I think it is theoretically possible to have a meaningful worship experience, a liturgy with depth, reverence, and traditional elements, but still have it be fresh and relevant to the community that the church is in.
    This takes more work than sticking with the tried and true. There’s the rub.
    But when we hear something old (the Gospel) put in a new way, our ears may be opened. Isn’t that the point?

  3. So what if the white people are singing African hymns?
    I think a central part of worship is that it be done well and be culturally appropriate. The spirituals of old are rooted in the context of a story, and in many ways, I don’t think white folks really do spirituals well, and certainly not with the understanding of what they are singing. It is not that it is “wrong”, but it just seems to be a misappropriation of the story that accompanies this. I mean, can a middle class white person really sing these songs with any depth of understanding? I know I can’t.
    Concerning your rhetorical question, I think an interesting conversation to be had by the church is on the relationship between worship and evangelism. I am really curious to hear what people think the relation is between the two, and to see how that shapes the worshiping future of the Church at large.

  4. BTW, P. SOftly, we have had both types of mmusicians that you mention. I think you are right on in asking if the person understands that they are a worship leader and not a performer. When people are wrapped up in performace rather than worship, I think that bleeds over into a congregation.

  5. I agree with LP’s first comment. Worship itself is certainly not in the realm of adiaphora. The confessions do offer guidance on how to think about the Christian assembly. The concern is always the clear proclamation of the gospel; the question we should always be asking is if our traditions, musical styles, the vestments or even the format of the bulletin help or hinder gopel proclamation. If, to take one highly contested example, in a local congregation if no one style of music or another is understood to more clearly support gospel proclamation, then it is adiaphora. But if, in the young hispanic congregation does not understand the language of the old swedish hymns, and cannot connect with the old european melodies, then surely it is not adiaphora. Worship is always contextual! I agree, LZ, that it would certainly be best if the laity had the resources to help them think about such things.
    I’ve found the Principles For worship ( be an entry to thinking about worship theologically.

  6. Good stuff to think about. LP–where could you possibly have read such a blog post…?
    There is no reason why the laity should abdicate their role as worship ministers–but there are responsibilities that come along with that right. Not all laity have seminary educations (though some do). Rather, what I see at seminaries is people who come to us wanting to be pastors or clergy who themselves lack basic catechesis. Lay people can and should be involved in the decisions but they need to be given the tools to do so responsibly. Good Christian Education/Formation is an essential part of this process.

  7. Thanks for the comments, dear friends. Some thoughts.
    LP – I’m not promoting the democratization of Christian worship, but I am advocating for a strong lay involvement in the creation and nurture of worship. This, as Derek points out, involves serious Christian Education/formation (BTW, my beloved wife is doing a PhD in Practical Theology/Christian Education – particularly the adult catechumenate). Lay involvement in the nurture of Christian Worship without education/formation is not meaningless, but not very meaningful, either. Yet, a pastor is a visitor in a faith community, a temporary member and leader, and should be in dialogue with the community on worship matters. The community could better undertand and embrace its worship through an active, studying and discerning worship committee.
    Of course, the issue here is authority – or lack thereof. I would recommend Wengert and Lathrop’s book, Christian Assembly: Marks of the Church in a Pluralistic Age. In it they attempt to discern the marks of the church – which are overwhelmingly evident in Christian worship, of course. Their conclusions are disconcerting to those who are seeking rubric-specific clarity in liturgical practice, yet freeing in simplicity. I can’t recall their thesis specifically at the moment (it’s been a long day), but I blogged about this book as I read it back in December here and here. However, I’d tend to agree with Derek’s (cynical?) interpretation of our tradition – the liturgical tools and language of Christian Worship is adiaphora – for these are tools that support the core mark of the church – the proclamation of the Word – not core elements in and of themselves.
    (PS – my wife reminds me that Wengert/Lathrop’s book is about ecclesiology, not worship per se, but there is much to discern about worship and the ministry of the church in their book, of course . . .)

  8. LZ – I didn’t take your post as advocacy per se, but just wanted to lift up that for some people, democratization would seem to be the natural result.

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