Dr. Dirk Lange, associate professor of worship at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn., recounts the day as if it were yesterday. He had been invited to provide a keynote address on worship at the Lutheran World Federation Conference in Augsburg, Germany. While his written remarks focused on a confessional/theological approach to worship in the international context, Lange came prepared to offer practical observations as well.
"That day I expressed concern about how confined some of us are here in North America to particular approaches to worship. We say we have diversity in our worship by using terms like high and low liturgy, or contemporary and tradition. But it often feels to me that much of the worship in the United States is simply our own historical, ethnic and colonial expression."
Even more concerning for Lange has been the exportation of these colonial expressions of worship around the world. In places like Africa and Asia, some new Lutheran congregations have built their worship services almost exclusively around North American/North European practices, because of their belief these are normative for the international community. "After my LWF presentation, I was shocked at the number of very well educated church leaders from places like Cameroon and Tanzania who asked questions like, 'Is it permissible to dance in a worship service?' or 'Is clapping allowed in the context of worship?'"
For Lange, a renewed commitment welled up within him to bring the rich and diverse music and prayers of the global church into the North American Lutheran worship experience and into the lives of his seminary students. A teaching partnership has developed with Mary Preus, music director at Our Saviour's Lutheran Church (ELCA) in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minn. Preus encourages worship students to use global hymns and songs as a way to form a Christian community that has doors open to its neighborhood. "If we remain stuck in our own uncritically accepted expressions of worship with our very small repertoire of songs, a community of faith doesn't really have much of a possibility of engaging others with different traditions."
"Singing the song of our neighbor is not a token kind of thing," says Lange. "It should be an exercise into getting to know who the neighbor is. Why do they sing this song? And how will it open up our vision of God's kingdom?"
A Multitude Of Worship Services
Julie Lindorff, organist and worship planner at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Minneapolis, regularly prepares for the congregation's weekly rotation of five different worship services with music, liturgies and prayers from around the world. A favorite in the congregation is the Lima liturgy, developed by the World Council of Churches (WCC), but Lindorff also uses global hymnody from the new Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal and other worship resources provided by the WCC.
"A regular variety of worship music has helped our congregation become as comfortable singing an African song as they are with an Iona Community tune from Scotland or a dearly held Swedish hymn. Most of our members have come to prefer this type of stimulation." Using music from around the globe "helps them to bridge themselves to the rest of the world and realize we are not the center of the universe."
Lindorff readily admits not everything works. However, she chooses new music that she believes will eventually catch on. "I look for hymns that worshippers can start singing in their bones from the beginning." Sometimes the children's choir will sing a new global piece as an anthem first and then the congregation will sing it as a friendly form of introduction.
"A lot of people never sing during the week. Sunday worship becomes their only time to sing. New music needs to be user-friendly and surrounded by things that are familiar." When introduced well, what was new quickly becomes familiar and makes the congregation more apt to try another new hymn.
An openness to global worship often leads to increased diversity within a congregation. Pastor Gary Dreier of Christ Lutheran on Capitol Hill recalls how the church housed ESL classes for Hmong people who were moving into the neighborhood in the early 1980s. These new immigrants were soon worshipping and getting baptized.
The transformation in worship to welcome these new members changed the congregation's identity forever. Today the church's membership includes a dozen nationalities and ethnic groups who worship every Sunday. The Gospel is read in English, Khmer (Cambodian) and Tigrinya (Eritrean), and the worship service is simul-translated into Khmer.
This type of transformation offers hope and encouragement to Lange. "To engage in the songs of other cultures, to sing in different languages than our own, opens up for us a new vision of the communion of saints," he explained. "Hopefully this will provide a way for us to walk out of our church on to the street and into the neighborhood around our parish, so we actually see who is there and enable our neighbors to find a church community with open doors."
This article first appeared in the Metro Lutheran June edition.