Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Luther's Third Way of Gathering Christian Community

My current congregation has had a bit of a kurfuffule over worship furniture, which raised the issue of what are "genuine Lutheran" ways of worshiping.  In preparation for some conversation about slab-altars vs table-altars I pulled volume 53 of Luther's Works off the shelf. And I read some stuff there that is revolutionary even today.  Man, Luther, you were WAY ahead of your time.

This volume, entitled "Liturgy and Hymns" contains (among other things) Luther's "Deutsche Mass" (German Mass), a document which he wrote in 1526 to help the congregations in Germany who were beginning to switch from Sunday services in Latin to German. (The whole thing is available online here, worth a read). In 1523 he had written an order of service for the churches in the town of Wittenberg, but in the Deutsche Mass makes clear that he "does not propose that all of Germany should uniformly follow our Wittenberg order." (pg 62) Instead he offers a basic outline and some theological reflections about worship, tools to help churches wherever they find themselves construct an order of worship that makes sense for them and at the same time is rooted in the great Christian faith.  He outlines three different types of worship services, and while it is the "third way" that is most interesting to me, I'll give a rundown of the other two (and where I see them in practice today).

The first kind of worship service that Luther outlines is the "traditional" Latin Mass that was common at the time.  As the Lutheran churches became dominant in Northern Germany, Luther did not require all of a sudden that people give up the type of worship that they were accustomed to.  The mass said in Latin in its traditional style was kept in many places (though Luther advocated for clarifying some of the more theologically troubling parts). The service was said and sung entirely in Latin, and so was accessible only for those who had been brought up attending, or those who had studied Latin and could therefore follow along.  But in Luther's place and time this applied to fewer and fewer folks--and most of the people had no idea what was going on (leading many to quit attending frequently or at all).  Luther says "For in no wise would I want to discontinue the service in the Latin language, because the young are my chief concern." (pg 63)  Those who continue to be brought up in the church, and are taught the language, still gain much from this form--and so (unlike many of his contemporaries) thought it fine to continue it.  Many Lutherans have relished in this example of Luther "the conservative reformer" who was as likely to keep tradition as to change it.

This "first way" seems analogous to me to the "traditional" Lutheran worship of the 20th Century which is being carried forward into the 21st in many places as THE WAY of Lutheran worship. While the language of traditional liturgical worship is technically English, the complexities of traditional liturgical Lutheran worship are confusing (if not totally mystifying) to those who were not raised attending or who have studied the traditional liturgy in later life.  This is the way of worshiping I was brought up in --ala Setting Two of the "green book" (aka Lutheran Book of Worship), itself a continuation of the setting in the "red book" a generation before.  This tradition takes great pride in tracing a direct line to Luther's liturgical reform.  And while I certainly would not advocate the abandoning of this magnificent form of worship (I really adore worship in this mode) in many ways and to many people, it might as well be in Latin.  This way of worship is most of what I've seen in ELCA Lutheran congregations (whether the newest hymnal be "blue" or "cranberry").

The "second way" that Luther talks about is the "German Mass" that this document is named after, a service that "should be arranged for the sake of the unlearned lay folk." (pg 63)  Luther cautions that the service not simply be based on novelty: "For those who itch for new things will soon be sated and tired with it all." (pg 89). But at the same time that "it is best to plan the services in the interest of the young and such of the unlearned as may happen to come." (pg 89).  Key to "German Service" was Bible reading, preaching, and singing in a language that was readily accessible to those who came--particularity the young and uneducated. Without this regular, accessible connection to Scripture and the basics of Christian faith, Luther knew that "people can go to church daily and come away the same as when they went. For they think they need only listen at the time, without any thought of learning or remembering anything. Many a man listens to sermons for three or four years and does not retain enough to give a single answer concerning his faith--as I experience daily." (pg 67).  Luther longed to open up the service so that the proclamation of the Word could transform the hearts and lives of those who heard it.

I see this "second way" today in congregations that have made attempts at "contemporary" or "casual" services (though after a generation, these become "traditional" too and more like the "first way").  Like the German Mass in Luther's day, these "contemporary" services continued to be structured in some way or another around the ancient "ordo", the liturgical pattern shared among Christians.  But the emphasis is opening up the complexity of liturgy with language, music, and actions that don't require years of exposure and/or training to connect to--especially with the intention of reaching the young and/or non-Christians.  Though generally less liturgically structured, the "seeker friendly" services that draw on the Evangelical movement are in a similar mode.  The "worship wars" of the 1980's and 1990's seem to me to be a battle over which of these two modes is best.  But to follow Luther's advice, "These two orders of service must be used publicly, in the churches, for all the people among whom are many who do not believe and are not yet Christians." (pg 63).

But as Lutheran congregations battled (to the death sometimes) over "traditional" vs "contemporary" modes of worship, we've missed out on Luther's "third way."  What he writes about this "third way" is so amazing I'm going to let it stand on its own (and in the older translation, which I like better here):
But the third sort [of Divine Service], which the true type of Evangelical Order should embrace, must not be celebrated so publicly in the square amongst all and sundry. Those, however, who are desirous of being Christians in earnest, and are ready to profess the Gospel with hand and mouth, should register their names and assemble by themselves in some house to pray, to read, to baptize and to receive the sacrament and practise other Christian works. In this Order, those whose conduct was not such as befits Christians could be recognized, reproved, reformed, rejected, or excommunicated, according to the rule of Christ in Matt. xviii. Here, too, a general giving of alms could be imposed on Christians, to be willingly given and divided among the poor, after the example of St. Paul in 2 Cor. ix. Here there would not be need of much fine singing. Here we could have baptism and the sacrament in short and simple fashion: and direct everything towards the Word and prayer and love. Here we should have a good short Catechism about the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer. 
In one word, if we only had people who longed to be Christians in earnest, Form and Order would soon shape itself. But I cannot and would not order or arrange such a community or congregation at present. I have not the requisite persons for it, nor do I see many who are urgent for it. But should it come to pass that I must do it, and that such pressure is put upon me as that I find myself unable with a good conscience to leave it undone, then I will gladly do my part to secure it, and will help it on as best I can. In the meantime, I would abide by the two Orders aforesaid; and publicly among the people aid in the promotion of such Divine Service, besides preaching, as shall exercise the youth and call and incite others to faith, until those Christians who are most thoroughly in earnest shall discover each other and cleave together; to the end that there be no faction-forming, such as might ensue if I were to settle everything out of my own head.
(From Project Wittenberg. In LW53 the same is on pg 63-64)

That, to me, looks a lot like the house church movement, and the Emergent Church. Anyone agree?

This "third way" that Luther wrote about nearly 500 years ago remains something we as Lutherans have not gotten too involved in as of yet.   Luther may not have seen it happen in his day (nor had people longing for it) but the more people I talk to (especially those under 40 and others outside the organized church) this "third way" seems to be precisely what they long for. I think it's time for us who claim the name Lutheran to make Luther's dream for Christians gathering in the "third way" come about in more places--even as the other two forms continue to function and bring life to people in their own ways.  I'm finding myself "unable with a good conscience to leave it undone" anymore.  Who's with me? (We'll be "cleaving" in the pub, by the way. =) )


  1. So, you have just discovered there is nothing new?


  2. Brilliant. I'm going to put this up on my Facebook for conversation among my people. Thanks for the link. It sums up what I've been reading well.

    I would be interested in having a conversation with you sometime, perhaps over coffee or beer, about the Emerging movement. It got too tied up in my last call experience and I need a new access to it to hear it well.

    Thanks for writing and sharing!