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Whose Tradition?

Recently a visitor to our Sunday morning worship service commented on her way out of church that she was really looking for a more traditional service. That’s not the kind of reaction we often hear at Heritage Lutheran Church. More commonly, first time visitors and church shoppers react in the opposite direction, surprised at just how traditional the Heritage worship services are.

That morning we had followed the order of Matins from our Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary. Matins is a worship treasure reaching back to the 16th century reforming work of Luther and his co-reformers. But Matins is not a Lutheran invention! The main components of the order of Matins appeared in Christian worship long before Luther and the Reformation. For example the Te Deum Laudamus, “We praise You O God…,” goes back to 500 AD. Can you get any more traditional than that?

The hymns included in the service on the day of the woman’s visit could hardly qualify as contemporary. The opening hymn, “We Now Implore God the Holy Ghost,” dates back to the 13th century. The chief hymn, “Let Me Be Thine Forever,” was composed in the late 1500s. Likewise the sermon hymn, “Lord, Thee I love With All My Heart,” and the benediction hymn, “Lord Jesus Christ, with Us Abide.” The choir offering for the day, “Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness” came from the 1700s.

So how could a visitor possibly consider this worship service not traditional enough? It’s possible that she was an expert in the history of worship in Western Christianity, and she was looking for a church that still chants its service in Greek, Hebrew, or Latin. But more likely she was defining “traditional” in terms of her own, personal sense of tradition. By “traditional” she really meant familiar. She was looking for a worship service that reminded her of what she grew up with. And her personal tradition did not include the order of Matins or classic hymns.

Intentionally or unintentionally, churches produce their own unique worship traditions. I am aware of one Lutheran congregation that sang “Holy, Holy, Holy” as the hymn of invocation every Sunday. Those members would have insisted that the hymn was part of the original liturgy, and if you don’t begin the service with it you were not doing the liturgy right! To many people, traditional hymns are “How Great Thou Art (which was first translated into English in 1925), “The Old Rugged Cross” (1912), and “In The Garden” (1912)— all lovely sentimental songs, but hardly classics of Christian hymnody.
One congregation I served had long ago dropped the Sanctus (Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord God of sabaoth!), the Agnus Dei (O Christ Thou Lamb of God) and the Nunc Dimittis (Lord now you let your servant depart in peace) from the Communion service in order to keep the service shorter than an hour. When I attempted to restore these hymns to the Communion service, the cry went up that I was trying to force through innovations to the traditional service!

Ignorance concerning the historic liturgies of the church is also the result of the so-called contemporary worship craze. For at least thirty years now contemporary worship forms have steadily wormed their way into Lutheran churches, consequently pushing the old liturgies and hymns out. Having been born, baptized, and confirmed in these contemporary worship churches, an entire generation of Lutherans have never even heard the old worship orders. Their sense of tradition is as shallow as a mere twenty or thirty years.

These realities confront us with an ongoing challenge. Education is always key, so we will have to strive harder to inform our own membership as well as those who are visiting our church. But I think something else is even more important. If we cherish our way of worship, then we need to show it. We need to have a good grasp of its history and usage. We need to strive and grow toward excellence in how each of us sings the hymns and chants the liturgy. We need to put some vocal muscle into the responses, the Creed and the prayers. We need to stretch and reach outside of our comfort zone and learn to sing and chant with vibrant, full-throated voices. Sing! Sing like you sing in the shower! Sing like you did at that karaoke bar a few weekends ago! Listen with rapt attention to the reading of the Scriptures. Train your eyes, ears, and mind on the preacher and the sermon. Let your closing “Amen!” be not a whisper, but a loud and assured note of confident faith in what you have just heard and confessed and believed.

If we will do that, then our visitors will leave our worship with a sense of holy awe and reverence— and dare I say it?— excitement. Though they may be ignorant of the ancient worship orders we use, they will walk away inspired by the depth, power, and majesty of our worship. Through the scriptural content of our liturgy and hymns, the Holy Spirit can ignite in new worshipers a yearning to know more and to become part of something awesome, majestic, truly relevant, and worthy of our creator and redeemer.

-Pastor K.J. Anderson