Wisdom from Wittenberg – Part 2

Wisdom from Wittenberg – Part 2

Martin Luther’s Pastoral and Practical Revisions of Worship


Creativity is careful to honor the arts.

Though Luther considered Karlstadt’s experiments to be troubling (see part 1), he realized that they weren’t unique. By 1524, worship experiments were underway all over Germany, many initiated by reformers who were becoming increasingly estranged from Luther in the wake of Karlstadt. In Allstedt, Thomas Müntzer—in addition to propagating Anabaptism—was composing a vernacular service1 and vernacular translations of ancient hymns. Nearer-by in Zwickau, Nicolas Hausmann, the very pastor to whom Luther had dedicated the Formula Missae, sent Luther in 1525 some new German masses for critique.2

Luther felt that they all suffered from the same problem: the old tunes didn’t fit the translated texts.3 While pragmatic, these mass experiments lacked artistry. While aiming at re-formation of the service, they were nothing more than “loosely connected amalgams of prayer, preaching, and singing.”4

Luther’s solution, a German service for Wittenberg, aimed for a higher standard. To achieve this, he enlisted professional help. In October of 1525 as the Deutsche Messe texts and tunes were nearing completion, Luther requested the Elector to dispatch court composer Conrad Rupsch and his protégé Johann Walter to collaborate with him. For three weeks, they scrutinized texts and tunes.5 By mid-November, completed drafts were sent to Torgau for electoral approval. The texts were clean, the notes well-matched and well-tuned. Whether or not he intended it, Luther was putting church musicians on notice: if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.

Luther also put preachers on notice. “I think that if we had a German postil (a biblical commentary in sermon-form) for the entire year, it would be best to appoint the sermon for the day to be read entirely or in part out of the book—and not just for the benefit of those preachers who can do nothing better. …otherwise we will reach the point where everyone will preach his own ideas and instead of the Gospel we will have more sermons about ‘blue ducks.’”6

Luther’s critique can seem confusing until we realize the sad state of preaching in and around Wittenberg. Preachers were either so clumsy in explaining a text or so eager to offer their own ideas that sermons spun off into nonsense. Luther’s sharp critique boils down to this: those who can’t appreciate the art of preaching ought to read and imitate someone who can.

Luther’s expectation for excellence in artistic craft appeared throughout the Deutsche Messe and its accompanying resources. When he translated ancient prayers,7 he did so in ways that recognized and appreciated their ancient form. When he enlisted the most respected poets to translate old hymn texts and compose new ones,8 he expected clear and elegant language. When he commended pastors to chant the lessons, he gave them specific instructions to ensure it was done well.

Why was Luther so adamant about art forms? The preaching problem is illustrative. When a preacher bungles a text or, worse, ruminates on something foreign to the text, what is happening to the gospel message? When a poet bruises the language or a composer mis-matches the tune, a disservice to the gospel is taking place. Luther’s concern for the arts in worship is not art for art’s sake. “In Luther’s view, music in the church functions as viva vox evangelii.” How do music and art carry out this task? “By faithfully reflecting in its own terms the honesty, integrity, truthfulness, and winsomeness of the gospel.”9 Luther’s pastoral heart expected any tool used to express the gospel to be expertly handled and any tune accompanying the gospel to be expertly crafted.

Luther’s passion for the arts is an extension of his foundational principle. Once the creative arts have been placed into the service of the gospel, it follows that our creative impulses would also be placed into the service of the arts. Luther was acquainted with prominent musicians who were working to define and explore new musical techniques and innovations. Luther’s humanist contemporaries used the term ars (“art”) to describe the rules and techniques that could be taught and learned, and the term ingenium (“genius”) to describe the musician’s original and creative impulses. Both concepts are not only important to music, but required.“Ars without ingenium is insufficient, and ingenium alone is despicable, since it places itself above all musical order.”10 There are thus two temptations to avoid: the first, to basically reproduce artforms with no passion or creativity; the second, to simply ‘do our own thing,’ preferring our own genius rather than realizing the rules and working within the limits of the art.

Luther might unleash his good-natured wit on us against these two temptations: “Your passion for the past is commendable. And your plan to preach like I preach is well-intentioned. But art without genius won’t do!” Alternatively: “Your genius is a gift of God. Your next sermon series might be a creative gem. And your new ideas for adapting a service may be great. But have you taken the time to appreciate the form of art that you are improving or replacing? Or are you simply offering an “ape-like imitation?”11

Luther’s carefully crafted service is a reminder that the pursuit of excellence through artistic standard and craft leads each individual (preacher, player, planner, and more) to appreciate their role as a steward of God’s creative gifts and to acknowledge that God has blessed us with far more than our own cherished “tavern tunes,” “tin whistles”12 and “blue ducks.”

Creativity is careful to serve the community.

Hausmann’s letter to Luther wasn’t the last request for Luther’s pastoral advice. Luther became aware of a troubling situation in far-off Livonia (present-day Estonia). This time, it had nothing to with artistic integrity. A new fanatical preacher, Melchior Hoffmann, was causing the same kind of upheaval that Karlstadt had started in Wittenberg three years earlier. Hoffmann was soon toe-to-toe with the disgruntled church council who sent him to Wittenberg for advice from Luther. They also sent a letter to Luther asking, in effect: “Tell us what we should do!”

We can only speculate about what they expected to hear. On the one hand, Luther could have prescribed a precise format of what was appropriate and what not.13 On the other hand, Luther could allow every congregation to determine its own way,14 based on the consensus of the pastor, the council, and the people.

But Luther offered neither of those solutions. Instead, he wrote, “I pray all of you, my dear sirs, let each one surrender his own opinions and get together in a friendly way and come to a common decision about these external matters, so that there will be one uniform practice throughout your district instead of  disorder—one thing being done here and another there—lest the common people get confused and discouraged.”15 In other words, ‘do what seems best to you; but please, do it together with your fellow churches.’

Luther offered pastoral latitude within limits.

This thread of regionally-determined liturgical unity rather than congregational independence is woven into the fabric of the Deutsche Messe. “I do not propose that all of Germany should uniformly follow our Wittenberg order…. But it would be well if the service in every principality would be held in the same manner and if the order observed in a given city would also be followed by the surrounding towns and villages.”16 Luther then also offered pastoral latitude within limits: “It shall be understood that such communion, hymns, readings, and preaching are under the responsibility of the pastor, and may be increased or reduced according to the circumstances of the day.”17 Pastors were free to make various choices within a liturgical framework shared among churches in the district.

Luther was defending pastoral and congregational freedom while at the same time advocating that the freedom of a particular pastor or congregation be limited by love which serves their neighbor. The freedom of the individual submits in love to the needs of the neighbor. In this way, congregations would avoid falling into the ditch of legalism while at the same time avoiding the ditch of faddism or creativity-run-amok.

So much for the principle. But how could such a balance of freedom and love be struck, especially among German people known for their streak of independence?18 Luther’s practical solution was peer review. Anything newly created for worship should, as a matter of course, undergo careful scrutiny. Luther then offered as first specimens his own paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer and his exhortation to the Lord’s Supper. “[How] this paraphrase should be read, I leave to everyone’s judgment…. I would, however, like to ask that [it] follow a prescribed wording … for the sake of ordinary people. We cannot have it done one way today, and tomorrow another different way, letting everybody parade their talents and confuse people so that they can neither learn nor retain anything.”19

Luther’s practical solution was a peer review.

Incidentally, neither of Luther’s specimens would survive. In Wittenberg’s first church order (1533), neither idea was included. Pastors and people simply returned to the familiar patterns of the Lord’s Prayer and Preface.

Nevertheless, Luther’s practical principles took hold. Worship patterns were codified in church orders and the concept of regional unity cemented in the language of the Lutheran Confessions.20 It wasn’t until the 20th century that some Lutherans were taken up with the idea of “absolute congregational autonomy in all matters liturgical.”21

This article does not suggest or imagine that all the congregations of a 21st century synod adopt a uniform and identical worship practice. Nevertheless, we also cannot ignore how important it was to Luther and the Lutheran confessors that congregations work together in adopting and adapting worship patterns.

Perhaps we can be encouraged that the Livonian problem did resolve. In 1530, only five years after their letter to Luther, their neighbors in Riga (modern-day Latvia) wrote: “So far as is possible and helpful to our people, we may agree not only with the people here in Livonia, but also with our neighbors and other states in the German lands in which the Gospel of Christ is also proclaimed clearly and richly—especially in the principal matters pertaining to outward divine service or ceremonies.”22

Creativity is careful to serve the congregation.

As the busy year of 1525 closed, Luther had nearly completed his worship revision project. The gospel had been carefully taught and translated in words and actions. The tunes had been professionally assessed. But would the Wittenbergers sing? Luther, the pastoral pragmatist, had already worked to ensure that it could be done.

Luther was a musical theologian. He received musical training from a young age, long before he entered the monastery. At the same time that he was learning the Latin chants in school, Luther was learning German folk tunes from his copper-mining father Hans and his mother Grete. He reports that during his early years “his father would relax with a beer and break out into song.”23

This pattern continued in Luther’s own family life. In a famous scene by Gustav Spangenberg, Luther is strumming away, teaching songs to his children from a printed manuscript. Since Spangenberg’s painting is from 1875, some dismiss it as unrealistically idyllic. But this activity would have been common in the Luther household.

Also interesting is the person glancing over Katie’s shoulder. Philip Melancthon was a frequent guest in Luther’s home. But why is he featured in this painting? In my estimation, Spangenberg was portraying an idyll of Lutheran musical pedagogy. Melancthon, the praeceptor Germaniae, represents the idea of Christian education. If the Reformation would endure, it would require musically trained theologians and theologically trained musicians.24

Lower altar panel at St. Mary’s – Lucas Cranach the Younger

How Luther implemented this musical training in Wittenberg isn’t as clear as we might like it to be. One hint comes from another allegorical image from 1547 by Luther’s colleague Lucas Cranach the Younger.

We see the gospel of Jesus at the center, Luther in the pulpit, and the people gathered to listen, pray, and presumably, sing. We notice that men and women are separated into groups (as Luther advised for the communion distribution), but we also notice a congregation of several generations worshiping together. We don’t see a choir, even though we know they used one. How much did the congregation sing? How much did the choir sing? What did a service in 1527 sound like? These questions will remain under debate.25 But if we step back and listen, some key notes emerge.

Luther oversaw publication of a congregational hymnal in Wittenberg. Though the earliest known copy is dated to 1526, evidence suggests that the laity had hymnals in their hands—an Enchiridion—as early as 1524.26

Luther also invited Johann Walter to compose three- to five-part concerted settings of the same hymns listed in the Enchiridion. This Geystliche Gesangk-Buchleyn was also published in 1524.

Luther relied heavily on the scholia (school choir) for modeling the new texts and tunes to the congregation. Students trained in singing during the week were placed centrally among the congregation when the hymn was sung.

With this information, we realize that the two scenes above complement one another while providing a clear picture of how pastor and people worked together in the instruction of hymnody, liturgy, and song—to grow in faith. “For this, one must read, sing, preach, write, and compose. And if it would help matters along, I would have all the bells pealing, and all the organs playing, and have everything ring that can make a sound.”27

The enduring importance of careful creativity.

Ten years after his famous walk to the Castle Church door, the brilliant professor, no longer a bachelor, sat up late one night to compose another document—not to an archbishop but to a good friend. Instead of venting about indulgences, Luther laments medical needs.

“My dear Amsdorf: A hospital has started up in my house. I am very fearful for my Katy, who is close to delivering, for my little Hans has also been sick for three days now and is not eating anything and is doing poorly; they say he’s teething, but they also believe that both are at very high risk.”

The letter to Amsdorf wouldn’t cause the stir of the 95 Theses. The letter’s lasting significance is found only in Luther’s closing salutation: “Written at Wittenberg on the Day of All Saints, in the tenth year after the indulgences had been trampled underfoot, in memory of which we are drinking [Wittenberg beer] at this hour.”28 The date was Tuesday, November 1, 1527. Had it been Sunday or Wednesday, Luther might have been leading worship. Had it been Friday or Saturday, he might have been preparing a sermon or hearing confession. But Luther was commemorating All Saints’ Day with Gemütlichkeit.

Luther provided a pastoral and practical manual for careful creativity.

How much had changed in the previous decade? One need look no further than the All Saints’ Church. The thousands of meaningless private masses had been abolished by the end of 1521. The ten aisles of relics had been removed by 1522. By 1524, the people who had once only stopped to look were now starting to stay and sing, with forms and hymns that they could understand. The results, of course, would be seen and heard far beyond Wittenberg.

Did the brilliant professor realize what he was doing? In 1523, Luther began by revising an old order of service for the sake of the gospel. In 1526, he advised a new order of service for the sake of the gospel. But far from a mere ‘alternative service’ Luther provided a pastoral and practical manual for careful creativity. The wisdom and principles evident in his approach continue to guide pastors and worship planners today.

Written by Mark Tiefel

 


The picture in the heading is “Luther Making Music in the Circle of his Family” by Gustav Spangenberg.


For full citation information for some notes, see part 1 of this article.

1“Deutsch Evangelisch Messze.” Cf. Leaver, Sings, 84-88.
2 The story is explained in Luther’s “An Exhortation to the Communicants,” LW 53:104.
3 “To translate the Latin text and the Latin tone or notes has my sanction, though it does not sound polished or well done. Both text and notes, accent and melody, and manner of rendering ought to grow out of the true mother tongue and its inflection, otherwise all of it becomes an imitation in the manner of apes.” “Against the Heavenly Prophets” LW 40:141.
4 Leaver, “Deutsche Messe,” 331.
5 The professionals didn’t feel Luther needed much help. Praetorius records a visit by Rupsch and Walter. “Herr Luther had composed the Sanctus in masterly fashion.” Schalk, Paradigms, 27.
6 Lange, Annotated Luther. Cf. LW 53:78
7 Cf. LW 53:127ff and LW 53:153ff
8 Cf. Luther’s Letter to Spalatin (end of 1523), LW 49:68-69, cited in Schalk, Paradigms, 26.
9 Schalk, Paradigms, 51
10 Hoelty-Nickel, Theodore. “Luther and Music” in Luther and Culture, Luther College Press. 1960, 147-148.
11 LW40:141, cited in Leaver, Sings, 86
12 This is not to say that a well-played Irish tin-whistle isn’t proper art! The reference is from Martin Franzmann, Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets, CPH, 1966/1994, 92 or 96. Cf. Aaron Christie, “Excellence for Christ in All Things,” Worship the Lord #42 (May, 2010).
13 Other reformers, such as John Calvin, would take this approach.
14 This path was advocated by Johannes Brenz. Cf. Elert, Structure, 333.
15 LW 53:47
16 AL 3:139, LW 53:63
17 For a fuller discussion of latitude and limits, cf. page 6 in Stephen Valleskey, “Lutheran Worship Reforms of the 1500s that We Can Still Use Today.” WELS South Central District, January, 2010.
18 “We Germans are a rough, rude, and reckless people, with whom it is hard to do anything, except in cases of dire need.” AL 3:142. What would Luther think of Americans?
19 AL 3:155; LW 53:80
20 By 1580, the pattern of uniform regional church practice had spread throughout Germany. “The confessors were willing to work out their issues of freedom and love for the sake of unity. They saw the exercise of ‘discretion’ … as completely in accord with the very confessions they penned and confessed. They went about exercising that discretion not only by defending it in the confessions, but through active efforts of visitation and through extensive publication of church orders.” Matthew Harrison, “Luther, The Confessions, and Confessors on Liturgical Freedom and Uniformity,” in Chemnitz’s Works, Volume 9: Church Order for Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel. Concordia, 2015, xv-xvi.
21 Harrison, xxi
22 Leaver, “Deutsche Messe,” 333-334
23 Leaver, Sings, 28
24 Cf. Hoelty-Nickel, 149
25 As they currently are. Joseph Herl’s Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism asserts that the choir played the major role, almost to the exclusion of the congregation. Robin Leaver makes the case for a singing laity. Cf. Luther’s Liturgical Music, Fortress, 2017, 209ff and especially Sings, 102ff.
26 Leaver provides an engaging narrative of its development in Sings, 106ff.
27 AL 3:140; LW 53:62
28 The second quote is referenced in Leaver, Church, 2. The first can be found in WA 4:4, #1162.

 


 

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Wisdom from Wittenberg – Part 1

Wisdom from Wittenberg – Part 1

Martin Luther’s Pastoral and Practical Revisions of Worship


The story behind Luther’s creative worship

In the year 1517, The Feast of all Saints—November 1—just so happened to fall on a Sunday.1 The alignment of this date and the day of the week wouldn’t have escaped the notice of Christian worshipers. In fact, it would have amplified the din in town and city streets throughout Christendom. Across Europe, thousands of Christians would have thronged to the doors of their churches for what must have seemed like a Sunday morning, Christmas Day, and Memorial Day all rolled into one.

The scene in northern Germany would have been no different. But something different was about to happen, and it happened, in large part, due to a brilliant bachelor professor who, like the rest, would have been walking to and from worship on that particular Sunday morning. On All Saints Day, 1517, Martin Luther could not have imagined how much a document which he had written to his archbishop and posted publicly the night before was going to change his life and his congregation. So much, in fact, that now, even 500 years later, we are still celebrating the man and his moment at the church door.

Though we often tend to focus on the man and his moment, we rarely take the time to imagine what was actually happening on the other side of the door. In fact, it’s rather difficult to imagine. The style and pattern of worship inside the All Saints’ Church on that famous All Saints’ Day, 1517 would hardly be recognizable to us.

Perhaps some figures might be illustrative: In 1517, mass was celebrated 9,000 times at the Castle Church alone—a public or private mass offered every 53 minutes, without letup, for an entire year.2 40,000 candles were burned, consuming four tons of wax at a cost of $100,000. The prime attraction at All Saints Church was the collection of relics: 19,000 cataloged items neatly arranged in ten aisles.3

But the real heart of Wittenberg worship on All Saints Day was receiving the indulgence: walk through the door, say the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed, confess your sins to one of the dozen extra priests available, say a prayer for the pope. Once done, most people simply left once the priest had elevated the host. This was worship in Wittenberg under which the people were held captive to the careful control of the Catholic church and enslaved to the indulgence of the papacy. No one at the time could have known that the detailed document which Professor Luther had posted to the church door was about to change all of that.

The document that Luther had posted, 95 Theses, or A Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,4 was a breach in the dam. What flowed through that breach was Christian freedom. Throughout the five years that followed 1517, Luther began to experience for himself the unexpected effects of freedom. Sometime in 1518, Luther had a spiritual breakthrough in which the truth of the gospel finally set him free from the terrors of his conscience.5 By 1519, he was set free from his vows of monasticism. By 1520, he was publishing The Freedom of a Christian6 throughout Germany. And by 1521, Luther was finally called to defend that freedom before the Holy Roman Estates at Worms. Luther stood firm in his freedom, and the rest is history.

However, a breached dam often presents something of a problem. That problem was quickly experienced by the worshipers in Wittenberg. Luther’s associates in Wittenberg saw their new-found freedom as something to be experimented with. After Worms, Andreas Karlstadt concluded that since Rome had broken with the preacher of Wittenberg, it was time for the people of Wittenberg to return the favor. While Luther was away at the Wartburg, Karlstadt took over in Wittenberg and went on an “iconoclastic binge.”7 Worship services were flooded with new ideas and new forms. Suddenly, Germans who were used to Latin chants and prayers were hearing loud German phrases while receiving communion in both kinds from priests who wore no robes. None of them were sure why it was happening. It seemed the only reason was ‘because of Rome.’

Luther defended the gospel from the burst dam of freedom and creativity.

Throughout the five years that followed 1521, Luther would need to defend the gospel from the burst dam of freedom and creativity. Luther would respond from the Wittenberg pulpit in a way that was direct and abrupt.8 But he would also respond from his Wittenberg desk in a way that was subtle, quiet, and patient. Luther would find ways to change how communion was received. He would find a way to give the Wittenbergers a service of their own. But he would take his time in finding that way, and his approach would be pastoral and highly principled.

It would come about through a three-year-long worship project, begun in 1523 with an order of service meant to demonstrate how the mass could basically be used as is, save for a few critical changes. The project would reach its conclusion in 1526 with a second order of service, meant to show how worship life could be completely and creatively—but still pastorally and practically—adapted. These two documents, in which Luther recognized “something must be dared in the name of Christ,”9 would serve as two poles, each connected to the other, between which an ancient-future pattern of Christian worship would emerge.

Five hundred years later, the past is present. We worship in the land of the free. Innovation is addictive. Our creative impulses are rocket-fueled by communication technology. Often the question we hear isn’t “what can we change?” but “how much of this do we really have to keep in order to stay Lutheran?” We enjoy our liberty to tinker and experiment with worship. But perhaps Luther’s principled project can compel us to be careful with our creativity as we seek to adapt and shape the worship life of our congregations.

The remainder of this article and its part two companion will explore four aspects of Luther’s approach to creativity.

Creativity is careful to serve the gospel.

“The preaching and teaching of God’s Word must remain the most important.”10 This was Luther’s foundational worship principle. Everything he thought and did was not for himself, and not against Rome, but for the gospel. This is where Karlstadt had gone astray in 1522 and why his worship adjustments caused so much consternation. Karlstadt’s reforms were not initiated by or driven by an understanding of the gospel. This is what Luther addressed in the eight sermons that he preached following his sudden return to Wittenberg on Invocavit Sunday. Rather than allowing the gospel to do its subtle, quiet work through its various and familiar forms, Karlstadt sought to immediately renovate and redefine nearly every aspect of worship and preaching. His impatience, combined with a desire to liberate himself and the Wittenberg laity from the forms and patterns of Rome, drove him to a point where the gospel’s power was flouted in favor of his own fanatical enthusiasm.

Luther’s sermons were a call to faith, love, patience, and a renewed appreciation for the gospel principle: since God changes hearts through the power of the gospel, everything that we do—especially what we do in worship, and to an ultimate degree what we choose to add to or remove from worship—is done in the interest of conveying the gospel to people’s hearts. The Word must be allowed to do its subtle, quiet work. “We do nothing, the Word does everything.”11

The gospel principle did not lead Luther to the same conclusion that Karlstadt had reached. Wittenberg’s worship was free to change, but it was also free to be retained. In fact, much of the service ought to remain, owing to love for people and faith in the gospel. Much of the present order of service, after all, did preach the gospel, provided that it was heard in public (not just said in private) and provided that the clutter of indulgences was done away with. If the people were present, they would have heard sermons preached in their everyday language, just like we do. At the same time, they would have heard prayers not in everyday language, just like we do. The people knew what “Kyrie eleison” and “Credo” meant. Why alter them? Luther’s advice in 1523 but also in 1526 was to adhere to established patterns, since arbitrarily departing from them could be self-serving or Karlstadtian.

“We do not avoid the new but are careful to avoid novelty….”

In both services, the established pattern of liturgy was retained. Luther said, “This is necessary so that no sect arises from public worship as if I had devised this service out of my own head.”12 Luther’s subtle critique of Karlstadt and his motives deserves to be emphasized: “An order of liturgy is not simply to fulfill a personal need or plan or idea but must always serve the gospel.”13 On its surface, Karlstadt’s Wittenberg movement might seem driven by the desire for greater inclusion or clearer communication. But desires for better things ought to be checked carefully less like Karlstadt we charge ahead and miss our target. “Since we are rooted firmly in a rich tradition, we do not avoid the new but are careful to avoid novelty, eccentricity, or quixotic attempts at newness for its own sake.”14

On the other hand, perhaps Karlstadt had raised an interesting question. “If there are moments when the service isn’t clearly communicating the gospel, what do we do then?” To many, the Lord’s Prayer had become automatic. To many more, the mystery of the Lord’s Supper was just that—unintelligible. Here, Luther found ways to adapt. And Luther’s ‘way,’ as published in 1526, would be a form of worship catechesis.

The preface of the 1526 Deutsche Messe seems to be written by a man more interested in ‘a good catechism’15 than ‘a new service.’ In fact, when we look at the service, we recognize that the two interests are one and the same. “The preaching and teaching of God’s Word must remain the most important.”10 Where the Lord’s Prayer needs to be taught, teach it. Where the Lord’s Supper needs explanation, provide one. And so Luther did.

It is important to realize that Luther’s intention was primarily catechetical. Otherwise, there is a temptation to extract Luther’s statements from their context and then to force his ‘new service’ to serve modern ideas about what worship should be. Those ideas might sound like this:

  • “Such orders are needed for those who are still becoming Christians.”16 i.e. Luther was providing a new service that was more approachable to those new to the faith. This idea overlooks the fact that in Luther’s day, no one church shopped, adult baptisms were nearly unheard of, and every parishioner had been trained in the routines of church life almost since birth. It seems that in Luther’s mind, the service was about more than initiation.
  • “This service should be arranged for the sake of simple laypeople”17 i.e. Luther was adapting to the culture of the people in Wittenberg. Unless the service was translated into their language and idiom, they would be unable to hear and respond to the gospel. This idea might overlook the fact that Luther’s Latin service had been translated into German only a few weeks after it had been published and that people all over Germany were already worshiping in German. It seems that in Luther’s mind, the service was about more than language.
  • “Now there are three kinds of liturgies or Mass”18 i.e. Luther was willing to offer alternatives. A Latin service was preferred by some, a German service by others, another service by yet others. This idea might overlook the fact that Luther never drafted a third service. Nor did he object as the first two were merged.19 It seems that in Luther’s mind, the service was about more than preference.

Luther’s service was about more than initiation, language, or preference.

Rather than pitting these efforts against the other, Luther honored them all as expressions of catechesis. And he employed ancient and modern tools simultaneously in this effort. Luther sought to defend the gospel for a Christian culture which had a good knowledge of Christian tradition. To do this, he produced a Formula Missae which removed everything at odds with the gospel, while retaining everything that wasn’t. At the same time, he sought to declare the gospel to a “population becoming secularized and needing reintroduction to its Christian roots.”20 To do this, he produced a Deutsche Messe in which the truth of the gospel could still be ‘caught’ (as emphasized by the retained rituals21) and ‘taught’ (as emphasized by the added explanations).


Creativity in service of the gospel is the primary principle. Part two of this article will explore additional principles:

  • Creativity is careful to honor the arts
  • Creativity is careful to serve the community
  • Creativity is careful to serve the congregation

Written by Mark Tiefel

Pastor Tiefel serves at Emanuel, New London, WI. His service as a District Worship Coordinator has covered both the South Central and Northern Wisconsin Districts. He is general editor of a new edition of manuals for the WELS Hymnal Project.


Photo is of Weimar altarpiece, by Lucas Cranach the Younger, 1555. An analysis by Michael Zarling is at breadforbeggars.com. For another instructive image of early Lutheran worship, search for the 1561 altar panel from Torslunde Church. (Photo by Wolfgang Sauber, Wikimedia Commons.)


This article, part 1 of 2, is adapted from a presentation at the 2017 WELS national worship conference. Those interested may find additional information in a handout of the same title along with the worship folder for All Saints’ and recordings from that service at worship.welsrc.net/downloads-worship/worship-conference. Additional recordings are on the double CD “A Mighty Fortress” available from NPH.


1 Google, using the Gregorian Calendar, specifies Thursday. But prior to 1582, dates were determined according to the Julian Calendar. In that calendar, November 1 fell on a Sunday.
2 To say the Castle Church alone is tongue and cheek. The masses weren’t said constantly, but dozens were offered privately and simultaneously, often with no one else in attendance.
3 This is the scene described by Martin Brecht, Road to Reformation, 118.
4 LW 31:17-34
5 The date of this breakthrough is uncertain, but likely happened during the summer of 1518, while Luther was preparing his lectures on the Hebrews. Luther referred to it as a moment when “the gates of heaven were suddenly opened to me. Cf. Brecht, Road, 225.
6 LW 31:327ff
7 The phrase is coined by Frank Senn, page 275 in Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical. Fortress, 1997.
8 Many can remember the scene from the 1953 film: “How dare you lay hands upon the crucifix!”
9 The phrase is from Luther’s Preface to the Formula Missae. LW 53:19
10 AL (The Annotated Luther) 3:146, LW 53:68
11 LW 51:77
12 AL 3:142
13 Dirk Lange provides this note on the above quotation in AL 3:142 n.19
14 Schalk, Paradigms, 55
15 “Onward then in the name of God! First the German service needs a down-to-earth, plain, simple, and good catechism.” (AL 142)
16 AL 3:141
17 Ibid.
18 Ibid, 140.
19 Even during Luther’s lifetime, it was common for Latin and German settings of the same texts to be sung alongside one another.
20 Maschke, Timothy. Gathered Guests: A Guide to Worship in the Lutheran Church. Second Edition. Concordia, 2009, 155.
21 “The congregation assembled around the Word and the sacraments needs other forms than an individual needs when reading the Word or praying by himself. Unity demands the individual’s regard for the whole. Conversely, however, it also demands that the whole have regard for the individual. It demands regard for the ‘weak’—a demand, which in accordance with what Luther requires, is emphasized by many church rituals.” Elert, Werner. The Structure of Lutheranism. Tr. Walter Hansen. Concordia, 1962, 328-329


RECOMMENDED READING

For a fuller list, see Tiefel’s handout from the 2017 worship conference. The list below includes only newer or lesser known items.

Books:

Luther, Martin. “The German Mass and Order of the Liturgy, 1526.” Ed. Dirk G. Lange. The Annotated Luther. Volume 3: Church and Sacraments. Fortress, 2016.
Brecht, Martin. Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation (1483-1521). Tr. James Schaff. Fortress, 1985.
———. Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation (1521-1532). Tr. James Schaff. Fortress, 1990.
Leaver, Robin. The Whole Church Sings: Congregational Singing in Luther’s Wittenberg. Eerdmans, 2017.
Maag, Karen and John Witvliet. Worship in Medieval and Modern Europe: Change and Continuity in Religious Practice. University of Notre Dame, 2004.
Schalk, Carl. Luther on Music: Paradigms of Praise. Concordia, 1988.
———. Music in Early Lutheranism: Shaping the Tradition. Concordia Academic, 2001.
Zager, Daniel. The Gospel Preached Through Music: The Purpose and Practice of Lutheran Church Music. Good Shepherd Institute, 2013.

Articles and Essays:

Herl, Joseph. “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Liturgies: Insights from the Sixteenth through the Eighteenth Century” in: Thine the Amen: Essays on Lutheran Church Music in Honor of Carl Schalk. Lutheran University Press, 2005.
Koelpin, Arnold. “Luther Reforms the Mass.” Focus on Worship. Summer, 1989.
Leaver, Robin. “Luther and Bach, the ‘Deutsche Messe’ and the Music of Worship.” Lutheran Quarterly 15 (2001).


 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

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What do you do with children in worship? Practical Ideas for Education and Training

What do you do with children in worship?

Practical Ideas for Education and Training

Scene 1

The rocker slowly creaks back and forth in hypnotic tranquility. The young mother has been at it for a few minutes, though it feels like hours. Why won’t sweet Sofia settle down? In what could be a frantic moment in her first child’s first day at home, an unexpected calm settles in. Suddenly, this frantic moment has become a profound moment, one no lullaby could ever touch. The words come out in quiet chant: “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.” The mother recalls that her help in her new vocation will come from Christ himself. Without thinking, she starts into a new “lullaby”: “Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth.” By the time she gets to “O Christ, Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world,” she is not sure whether she or the baby will better sleep in heavenly peace that night.

Fast forward two years. Another profound moment. This mother had been joyfully smiling at little Sofia who clings to her favorite stuffed animal among the dozens in her room—a lamb. The mother has happily reported to her pastor how the young “soloist-to-be” runs around the living room shout-singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” She has reflected on her daughter’s ever-so-brief pauses from coloring during church to perk up when she hears the congregation singing Kyrie, eleison. But in this new profound moment she also has a moment of clarity. The memories of that first night home come flooding back, along with the last 24 months’ worth of liturgical lullabies and regular wrestling through worship. She suddenly gets it! Two years of catechesis, of faith formation in both home and church, have thoroughly shaped Sofia! As the lightbulb flashes in her mind like bright neon lights, she realizes that this symbiotic relationship of church and home will have eternal impact on her precious little one. Worshiping at home (and teaching about worship at home) is something her family will certainly not stop any time soon—the immediate and eternal blessings are far too rich!

Scene 2

A forklift would be needed to lift the parents’ jaws off the floor. They came for cute moments of pageantry, but they certainly got more than they bargained for. These two parents are among a half dozen preschool families new to the concept of church. It just “hasn’t been their thing” yet as they have sifted through the identity of their own personal truth. But they at least knew their kid needed a preschool that was safe and moral, so they chose the highly rated Lutheran one nearby. They were pleased with the first five months of school and were excited for the preschool Christmas service. After all, who could deny that little Tommy in his mini three-piece suit singing at a church would make one amazingly boast-worthy Instagram cover photo?

But the giddy excitement froze in time. If their iPad hadn’t filmed it, they wouldn’t have believed it even happened. This sweet little chorus erupted with preschool enthusiasm to belt out, “Nails, spear shall pierce him through, the cross he’ll bear for me, for you.” Say what? They were expecting to hear about a silent night or a little manger or perhaps “Merry Christmas” and “Here comes Santa Claus.” But this? It was shocking to see their little baby sing about another baby who would go on to die. They didn’t know what to say. That is…until three days later. Three days later they tried out the Christmas Eve candlelight service at the same Lutheran church. They marveled at little Tommy who was singing half the hymns from memory, hymns he learned during preschool song time! As the pastor then unwrapped the marvels and mystery of the incarnation that night, the parents shared a look that said, “This place is pretty special! Our whole family needs more of this!”

Scene 3

Ten kindergarteners solemnly process into a room, not coerced but definitely coached. Though the room is dimly lit and the one adult stands with a silent smile, they all know the routine. Each takes off their shoes. Four of them distribute mini-hymnals to the group. Three of them place a clean white cloth gently and neatly over a table situated perpendicular to three rows of chairs. The last three work with the adult to place candles on the table and carefully light them. Without prompting, they complete their tasks and file into their seats.

The adult begins, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The young children cross themselves and joyfully say, “Amen!” The leader continues, “Jesus Christ is the Light of the world.” They enthusiastically reply, “The Light no darkness can overcome.” Each child then lights their own little candle, gazing with wonder into the fire yet also remembering that their teacher told them how they were marked with the sign of the cross and given the light of Christ and resurrection at their baptisms.

As it turns out, sweet little Sofia and three-piece-suit Tommy are classmates in this Sunday School room. Sofia has been at the church since birth and has been learning worship “stuff” since night one in that rocking chair. Tommy was just baptized last year (shortly after that Christmas service) and is relatively new to worship outside of what he hears in preschool. His family has been in membership for five months. However, both of them are thoroughly enjoying this catechetical experience. For one month each year, their Sunday School takes a break from normal lessons for “worship training mode.” The children enter a room that is set up to be a mini sanctuary. They are taught to revere the presence of a holy God yet appreciate his grace allowing them to enter into his presence. They work together, almost like a mini-altar guild, to set up the worship space. Then they continue with a brief 30-minute service of sorts with a few sensory-filled rituals, hymns, songs of the liturgy, and a brief lesson based on the theme for that Sunday. They conclude with 20 minutes of activities related to the Sunday or the season.

This one-month intensive worship teaching and training each year has made little children very enthusiastic about worship.

What Sofia and Tommy have been experiencing is based on The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. It’s an immersive worship experience for children designed by Sofia Cavaletti and patterned after Maria Montessori’s self-guided play theories. (Those with preschool ministries have likely heard of Montessori methods). The congregation has found that this one-month intensive worship teaching and training each year has made little children very enthusiastic about worship. The pastor has found that some of his 4-year-olds know more about worship than some of his 54-year-olds! Meanwhile, the parents have found both at home and church that their children are clearly the examples of faith and worship that Jesus once stated.

The Ideal: Partnership in Discipleship

Are such scenes even possible?

It would seem as though a wise first step in our congregations would be to follow in Luther’s steps (again!) and double down on families. Surveys strongly indicate that parents and children would benefit from more teaching and training regarding worship. But when presented with some test materials that could help in this matter, more than 75% of focus group parents indicated they would like more materials to help their family engage in worship. Our congregations seem to want help, too. The survey of WELS pastors indicated that 78% of them would be highly interested in materials that help teach and train parents to teach and train their children.

The first article in this series (July 2018) posed the question: What do you do with children in worship? In subsequent months we pondered parents’ struggles as culture has corroded and families have struggled. Pragmatic Westerners, of course, offer solutions to perceived problems. Thus, we reviewed things like children’s sermons, children’s church, Sunday school offered during worship, and other options. But each popular solution has weaknesses: keeping children occupied only for a few moments, or completely removing them from worship. Therefore, though Christian freedom allows various choices, not all may be beneficial or best.

Following this we turned to the Scriptures for both prescription and description. Prescribed were God’s commands about the vocation of parents who have primary responsibility for spiritual training. Also prescribed is God’s command for all to worship him. Though we may desire more detail on many accounts of public gatherings and worship, it is reasonable to assume that God’s people brought their children to worship.

Church history suggests the same. There is good evidence of children being incorporated into worship. The church fathers exhorted parents in their responsibilities—descriptions that again allow us to conclude that parents would bring even the youngest of children to worship. A brief survey of science also supported the value of all children being in worship. Children learn best by doing, from repetition, with their senses, and all of this especially when they are with their parents. Science suggests worship alongside parents is an ideal place for children.

Any solutions to improving ministry to and worship with children must focus on the parents.

Finally, it was noted that the problem is not really with the children. The problem is actually with the parents. Thus, any solutions to improving ministry to and worship with children must focus on the parents. Parents need teaching and training so that they in turn can teach and train their children. This is what the Church is called to do—to equip the saints for works of service within their vocations.

So, are the previously described scenes possible? Could the fictional and ideal become the factual and real? I believe they can when we work toward an ideal partnership between home, church, and school (where applicable).

The Home

Parents today often find themselves barely treading water in a vast ocean of information with waves of cultural influence crashing down on them. Thus, first and foremost, parents need to grab hold of their identity in Christ. When parents look for identity in their children, the children can become all-consuming idols that demand worldly focus. Parents who know their identity as children of God in Christ will understand the importance of fixing their hearts and minds on things above, not on earthly things—including their children. Furthermore, parents who are regularly taught their identity in Christ will grow to a fuller understanding of the importance of teaching children their identity in Christ, too.

When parents look for identity in their children, the children can become all-consuming idols that demand worldly focus.

Next, parents need teaching and training regarding how to parent. Simply being a parent does not equate with doing it well. Every Christian needs vocational catechesis, and parents are by no means an exception. It is best to start with teaching and training Scripture’s foundational principles about love, discipline, and physical and spiritual care for children. Then good and godly practical parenting strategies could be shared with parents. As they receive guidance in parenting at home, this will in turn help with their parenting in the pews.

Simply being a parent does not equate with doing it well.

Finally, parents need teaching and training regarding worship. Parents need to be reminded what worship is, whom God calls to worship him, why God’s people worship, and how they worship. When they better understand these truths, they will surely understand the importance of their children being in worship with them and the whole body of believers. As parents learn to understand and engage in worship themselves, they will better teach and train their children to do the same.

In order to accomplish these goals of teaching and training parents, it is wise for congregations to offer various educational and training opportunities. Bible studies on the topics of parenting, family life, worship, and more should be regular in the rotation. For those new to the church, pastors are wise to teach thoroughly about worship and children in worship already in Bible Information Class. Pastors can teach those with and without children what is expected of parents and children in worship. Additionally, pastors and church leaders can suggest or provide materials that facilitate home worship and that help teach and train both parents and their children. The more and the earlier children have the words and songs of worship (liturgy, hymns, psalms, etc.) in their hearts and on their lips in private worship, the better they will actively join with the full body in corporate worship.

The Church

But it’s not enough for parents and children to be taught and trained. While parents are in the trenches with the children, others sometimes criticize and complain. Congregations need education on the topic of children in worship.

While parents are in the trenches with the children, others sometimes criticize and complain.

Pastors and church leaders would do well to patiently and lovingly instruct on this issue. Rather than jumping into a practical solution fad—such as offering child care or Sunday School concurrent with worship—these leaders can teach the entire congregation what God says about worship, the Church, parenting, children, and the intersection of them all. Congregations always benefit from learning more about doctrine and practice. But they also do well to learn how to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the body of peace.”

Loving instruction might mean having some difficult conversations. It might mean telling some elders that they need to be more patient with parents’ struggles and that their privilege in Christ is to be a loving part of the solution, not a part of the problem. Then again, loving instruction might mean a difficult conversation with a young family, telling them that sometimes they might need to step out with the baby a bit earlier. Their effort to be present in worship and train in worship is marvelous. But some days for tykes and toddlers are just plain rough. While members can be taught to be patient and loving on this issue, it’s helpful for parents to step out sometimes so that others can maintain focus in worship.

Finally, pastors and congregations can strategize ways to encourage and facilitate children worshiping. Could the Sunday school take a month off from Bible stories each year for worship teaching and training? Could a church implement during those weeks, or perhaps during a midweek study, The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (described above)? Or might the worship folder provide clear and loving guidance about children and families? What about removing the “reserved pew” signs in back and encouraging families to sit up front where a child’s senses will be more engaged? How about using a children’s choir to sing a liturgical song or psalm refrains? How about an acolyte program…or a junior usher program…or kindergarteners joining adults to hand out the friendship registers during the offering? Congregations can explore many ways to bring children to the forefront and encourage their worship life as valued members of the body of Christ.

The School

For those who have preschools or schools, a quick word may be of use. Most WELS schools have a mission statement that includes the conviction that the school is an arm of the church and is a partner with parents. This certainly can remain true on this topic of children in worship!

Teachers can be encouraged to incorporate worship concepts into Bible stories. When teaching about John the Baptist, talk about the font, baptismal symbols in the church, and the sign of the cross. When teaching about Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter, talk about the precious Sacrament their parents joyfully receive as they commune with the risen Christ. When teaching the life of Christ, show how the songs of the Ordinary parallel the life of Christ. During quiet time in school preschool teachers can make clear the importance of quiet time in the pew as well.

Most schools, even preschools, have a hymnology curriculum or regular set of songs that are learned. The pastor can work with the teachers to ensure that children are learning the hymns sung most often in worship. Could liturgical songs or psalms also be part of this effort?

Speaking of the pastor and the school, what treasured moments are available in school chapel! It’s wise for the pastor to regularly lead chapel. Those are precious pastoral moments for a multitude of reasons. Pastors can use school chapel as a time to teach about worship, the liturgy, the Sacraments, the sanctuary, symbols, imagery, and more. The school is a priceless partner of both church and home!

Conclusion

“Yes, as God gives me strength.” It is truly a special moment in our worship life. Parents are beaming with smiles, barely containing their joy. As they gaze at their newborn, they know that as the water was poured onto the forehead, God himself poured open the floodgates of his grace and welcomed that child as his own with the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. While the congregation looks and listens with shared joy, the pastor asks if they are willing to assist in whatever manner possible so that the child may remain a child of God until death. The people respond, “Yes, as God gives me strength.”

With those words the entire congregation pledges before God to “assist in whatever manner possible” so that child remains faithful until reception of the crown of life. Raising a Christian child is first and foremost the God-given responsibility of the parents. But they are not alone. The entire Christian Church works together to train children in the way they should go—both in faith and in worship.

May God fill us with his grace so that we abound in patience, love, diligence, and wisdom as we teach the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord. May God then fill us with joy to join those children to worship the Lord with gladness for our growth and his glory.

Written by Phil Huebner


 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

Comments

What do you do with children in worship? Historical and scientific perspectives

What do you do with children in worship?

Historical and scientific perspectives

Why? It’s a question so beautiful yet so horrifying. Parents know. It can be equal parts inquisitive and annoying. It can cause a parent joy or frustration. “Why is the sky blue? Why do cows have spots but zebras have stripes? Why does it take so long to get to grandma’s? Why did that man just make a hand gesture at your driving?” Oh, to be a child again with such an inquisitive mind!

For all the times that parents hear an equally dear and dreaded question, God forbid they ever stifle curious minds when it comes to Christ and his kingdom! Children want to know so much about Jesus. “Why was he so loving? Why did he have to die? Why did he ascend into heaven?” They want to know so much about worship, too! “Why do we say ‘Amen’ so often? Why does the pastor make the cross with his fingers? Why did he say that you’re eating his body and drinking his blood?” How precious and how special that little children are asking giant questions!

God’s design is for children to be curious and for parents to be the ideal teachers. In the previous article we noted how Scripture testifies that it is God’s will for parents to train children in “the way that they should go.” Before exploring this further, consider support from church history and science.

History on Children in Worship

Last time we considered key principles from Scripture. To summarize:

  • Worship is for all people of all ages.
  • Parents have primary responsibility for training their children in the faith.
  • Parents in Scripture taught their children to worship.
  • Parents in Scripture brought their children to public worship events—no matter how great, grand, or gruesome.
  • Children were expected to be present at worship. (Paul addressed them in his epistles.)

Children joining their parents for worship is not a fad or phase of the past. This has always been the case. We can go back to Abraham and God’s encouragement to train his children in the ways of the Lord (Genesis 18), or to Moses and his encouragement to teach children anywhere and everywhere the commands of the Lord (Deuteronomy 6 et al.). Claire R. Matthew McGinnis notes in an essay on children that expression of the Jewish faith involved much interaction with children in worship.1

McGinnis reminds us that Passover (Exodus 12:25-27), the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exodus 13:7-8), firstborn rituals (Exodus 13:14-16), and the promised land monument (Joshua 4:6-7, 21-24) all had intended opportunities for children to ask “What does this mean?” God had designed worship for his people in such a way that the children would ask the giant “Why?” questions! The parents would then have occasion to teach and explain how these rites and rituals of worship connected to God’s grace in the past. Alfred Edersheim similarly describes in detail how from early on children would know the sights, sounds, and songs of temple life and worship.2 This was simply what the Jewish people always did. This was their way of life with their children—going to worship with their children and then teaching and training them.

As the Christian church then emerged from the Jewish people, the first Christians carried forward the attitude of Christ who welcomed little children and the rich history of families worshiping together. Marcia Bunge notes that while descriptions of early worship practices aren’t common, the evidence is strong enough to suggest that children were present at worship.3 Many of the early fathers also discussed children in their writings and sermons, and especially the importance of teaching and training children. John Chrysostom in particular wrote much about parenting and children.4 In every era of church history children were always included in worship, and parents were thought of as the critical influence in a child’s life.

In every era of church history children were always included in worship.

Thus, as we sweep across history and observe the evil of this world’s people using and abusing children, we witness the stark contrast of God’s people who treasured their children. They treasured them so much that they brought them again and again to Jesus’ feet as they carefully taught them the faith and trained them to worship, answering so often their “Why?” questions about worship.

Contributions from Science

As Lutherans, the solid foundation of our faith is the living Word of God alone. The Scriptures alone dictate our doctrine. However, it is a blessing from God when other sources of information give us wisdom and insight into what we know from the Word. We have seen how church history gives us additional information about children in worship. Science has much to offer as well.

Lisa Miller is a New York Times bestselling author who has spent more than two decades studying the spirituality of children.5 Her discoveries are conclusive that children are spiritual. We may smile at that since we know the Scriptures have testified for millennia about the soul and conscience that all people possess. However, her studies are still fascinating and useful.

In her work, Miller continually observed the child’s keen perception for the big, grand, and divine. Consider how children “Ooh” and “Aah” at the ocean or the Grand Canyon, or how they draw incredibly profound pictures about Jesus and heaven. It’s as if children were made for awe and reverence. Surely this is part of a simple child-like faith. This is the divinely-designed science behind the “Why?” questions children often ask.

Science also provides much information for us to ponder on the topic of child development—volumes of facts and figures about the developing body and brain of children. Consider a few key pertinent points:

  • Children learn best when they follow examples (mimic, imitate, repeat after me).
  • Children learn best when there is repetition (doing something over and over again).
  • Children learn best when examples and repetition come from their own parents.
  • Children learn best when they use all their senses (sight, sound, touch, etc.).

The church has been richly blessed with a liturgy that is centuries ahead of the sciences.

Clearly, science offers support for the importance of parents taking the lead in teaching their children the faith and training them to worship. But another thought occurs: what a precious gift God has given to us in the divine service! The church has been richly blessed with a liturgy that is centuries ahead of the sciences.

In worship the entire body of Christ gathers together—young and old alike. In the service children mimic and imitate the examples of their parents. They repeat songs, psalms, confessions, creeds, and prayers over and over.6 And while doing this, all their senses are engaged:

  • Eyes that see colors of the church year, robes, movements of the congregation
  • Ears that hear music, songs, psalms, words, prayers, and sermon
  • Mouths that join in those songs, words, and prayers
  • Noses that smell candles, flowers, perhaps incense, or a familiar “churchy smell”
  • Bodies that move by sitting and standing, bowing, folding hands, kneeling

Science contributes to our topic by emphasizing the importance of parents teaching and training. Experience teaches the same. I think of my daughter who from little on has sung hymns by herself in bed, or my son at age four wandering the living room with a piece of paper because he was “memorizing his sermon.” Both of them (now 8 and 11) just a week ago recalled my father’s Easter sermon theme from last year: Christ is Risen! No Foolin!

I think of a host of children who would belt out, “Glory to God in the highest” because they sang it in chapel during the week. I think of little Audrey setting a great example for the whole congregation with every hearty “Amen!” and fervently loud rendition of the Lord’s Prayer. I think of the preschoolers who watched with silent awe as their parents received the Lord’s Supper or ashes on Ash Wednesday. I think of kindergarteners enamored with the flickering candle flames of a Compline service, first graders who pondered the import of a pitch-black sanctuary as the seventh candle was extinguished on Good Friday, and even the littlest tykes who know when to respond, “He is risen indeed!”

Children have … a great aptitude for awe and reverence.

Children have been designed by God in such a way that as they develop—cognitively, emotionally, spiritually—they have a great aptitude for awe and reverence. Children are built for the “Why?” you could say. And God has given parents the great privilege of teaching and training in order to explain the “Why?” This is true for their faith lives and their worship lives.

History Repeats Itself?

What a mess it was! Few knew anything about the Bible. Few understood or even attended worship. Most abused their Christian freedoms. And regrettably, the pastors were leading the people astray. Luther could hardly believe it was actually that bad. Luther reported to Nicholas von Amsdorf on his horrifying visit to the Saxon churches, a letter that is now part of the enchiridion to the Small Catechism. Luther wrote:

The deplorable, wretched deprivation that I recently encountered while I was a visitor has constrained and compelled me to prepare this catechism, or Christian instruction, in such a brief, plain, and simple version. Dear God, what misery I beheld! The ordinary person, especially in the villages, knows absolutely nothing about the Christian faith, and unfortunately many pastors are completely unskilled and incompetent teachers. Yet supposedly they all bear the name Christian, are baptized, and receive the holy sacrament, even though they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments! As a result they live like simple cattle or irrational pigs and, despite the fact that the gospel has returned, have mastered the fine art of misusing all their freedom. Now that the Gospel has come, they have nicely learned to abuse all freedom like experts.

Considering the massive influence of a messy American culture along with the abuses of freedom seeping from Evangelical churches, perhaps we could say history is repeating itself. What was Luther’s solution to the problem? Teaching! Parents needed to be taught and they in turn needed to teach their children. Hence, the Large and Small Catechisms. If I may be so bold as to make a suggestion, history should repeat itself here, too: more teaching and training about worship.

The solution to any challenges is teaching and training parents.

Regarding the question of what to do with children in church, the answer from Scripture and other historical sources seems clear: the best practice is children worshiping with their parents among the full body of Christ. The solution to any challenges then is teaching and training parents and they in turn teaching and training their children. Statistics suggest that we haven’t been doing a great job with this.

In a survey of nearly 600 WELS pastors across the US and Canada, 92% reported that they do not offer formal training to parents about how to engage their children in worship. Confirming this, a survey of 200 WELS parents reported that 93% have not received any worship education.

Similarly, a survey of pastors reported that 78% of churches do not offer training to children about worship. However, it is suspected that those that do train children do so only through their Lutheran school. Why this assumption? Because a survey of parents found 95% reporting that their congregation has not offered any training to their children to help them understand or participate in worship.

It would seem as though a wise first step in our congregations would be to follow in Luther’s steps (again!) and double down on families. Surveys strongly indicate that parents and children would benefit from more teaching and training regarding worship. But when presented with some test materials that could help in this matter, more than 75% of focus group parents indicated they would like more materials to help their family engage in worship. Our congregations seem to want help, too. The survey of WELS pastors indicated that 78% of them would be highly interested in materials that help teach and train parents to teach and train their children.

An Example of a Solution

Recently, WELS Congregational Services created a booklet of daily devotions with accompanying prayers, rites, and rituals for Advent and Christmas. The intention was for the family to spend time together at dinner or bedtime to meditate on the Word, discuss some common worship practices (like the Advent wreath), and prepare for the coming of the Savior.

These materials are brilliant—precisely what is needed to help train children in worship. Consider the benefits of making use of such materials:

  • Families are growing together in the Word.
  • Children have opportunities to ask their “Why?” questions and get answers from parents.
  • Families are following scriptural directives and precedent, reflecting historical and scientific support, for parents taking the lead in teaching and training their children.
  • Families are reflecting on the Scripture readings heard in worship, subtly training children to listen carefully in church so that they can be prepared for these daily devotions.
  • Parents are training children for worship as they teach them about various aspects of worship (in this case the wreath, the tree, candles, etc.).

In my reading and research on the question of what to do with children in church—in Scripture, church history, science, survey work, and more—it is quite clear that the number one solution lies with the parents. God tells us that he wants all his people to worship him. God tells us that he has charged parents first with the responsibility of teaching and training children. Thus, if we want to make improvements on the topic of children in church, we must work hard to teach and train the parents.

Conclusion

The long history of this world is filled with darkness, evils, and atrocities, especially toward children. From Molek to medieval or modern times, from varying abuses to millions of abortions, sin has gripped the hearts of many cultures and children have sadly experienced far too much evil. But through every era the light of Christ has shined on and through his people who act distinctly different. God’s people treasure the blessings that are their children. Thus, throughout the ages Christian parents have been careful to answer the “Why?” faith questions of their children. It is the distinct privilege of parents to teach their children how and why we worship a gracious Savior God who shepherds us to a paradise much different than this world of sin.

As leaders of churches, schools, and synod, pastors would do well to follow the directives of Scripture, the support of history and science, and the saints who have gone before us. We must find more and new ways to continue the critical work of supporting parents in the teaching and training of their children. May our actions support the prayer of the hymn Gracious Savior, Gentle Shepherd:

By your holy Word instruct them;
Fill their minds with heav’nly light.
By your pow’rful grace convince them
Always to approve what’s right.
Let them feel your yoke is easy;
Let them find your burden light.

Taught to love the holy praises
Which on earth your children sing,
With their lips and hearts, sincerely,
Glad thankoff’rings may they bring,
Then with all the saints in glory
Join to praise their Lord and King.

This article has focused in a general way on a vitally important strategy: teaching and training parents so that they can do the same for their children. In the next and final article on children in worship, we will explore specific ways that congregations and parents can partner together to teach and train children to worship.

Written by Phil Huebner


1 Bunge, Marcia J., Terence E. Fretheim, and Beverly Roberts Gaventa, eds. The Child in the Bible. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.
2 Edersheim, Alfred. Sketches of Jewish Social Life. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003, p. 103-104.
3 Bunge, op. cit.
4 See especially his major work, An Address on Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring Up Their Children, also known by a more concise title, On Vainglory and the Raising of Children.
5 Miller, Lisa. The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving. New York: St. Martin’s, 2015, p. 10.
6 Is there a risk of encouraging thoughtless auto-pilot worship? Not when pastors, parents, worship planners, and musicians focus on the depth, richness, and variety available in Lutheran worship. Helpful content is at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/worship-education; e.g. for pastors (Theology of the Ordinary) for congregations (Worship Service Notations) and for parents: (The ABCs of Worship and Meaningful Worship).


 

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What do you do with children in worship? Biblical perspectives

What do you do with children in worship?

Biblical perspectives

“If that happens, I’m leaving.” If Helen of Troy had a face that launched a thousand ships, this threat has launched a thousand conversations.

It happened so fast that I hardly knew how to react. One older council member was frustrated by the noise and activity of children during worship. He strongly suggested, “I think every child should be out of the sanctuary in a separate children’s service or Sunday school program.” With that Satan didn’t just put a foot in the door—he slammed it down and burst in SWAT-style. Sure enough, a younger parent councilman launched a return mortar: “If that happens, I’m leaving the church.”

And so our conundrum began. Satan found opportunity to push us toward obsession over the topic of children in church to the extent of some leaving the flock and other sheep wandering with wounds from the crossfire. Older members were angry, younger parents were hurt, and I was left in the middle trying to figure out, “What do you do with children in worship? What’s the best solution?”

Adults have been influenced by culture to segregate children to “age-appropriate” experiences.

Previous articles1 have painted a picture of America today, a Pollack-ian abstraction that is hard to make sense of. Confusing problems are evident at the intersection of children, parents, and worship. Generational corrosion, the decline of the nuclear home, the struggle of parents to discipline their children, the post-Christian environment, and more contribute to the problems. Adults have been influenced by culture to segregate children to “age-appropriate” experiences as parents learn to have “others” care for their children. All these cultural complexities create vastly mixed experiences for many families in the pews on Sunday.

Following these philosophical meanderings, we considered how pragmatic Americans often look for solutions to problems. So too with this one. The second article reviewed current strategies and then shared a concluding thought from Paul’s wise words: “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive.” We may have Christian freedom to make such choices. We may feel that these various solutions are ways to serve families better. But…what if some of these choices aren’t actually beneficial or constructive? What if some of these choices are actually detrimental or destructive, and we don’t realize it? What if some of these choices are contradictory to Scripture and to the history of the Church and even to recent insights into “best practice” nurturing of children in worship?

Back to the question: What do you do with children in church? This article, starting with Scripture, moves toward a clear and concrete answer.

Scripture on Children and Parents

As we trace through Scripture, we see throughout history that children were considered to be blessings. From God’s first command to be fruitful and multiply, the careful naming of children, to Psalms 127 and 139, to the women who lamented not being able to conceive—we clearly observe that children are blessed gifts from God.

However, with these little sinner-saints running around the house, parents have quite the job to do! And surely, God has charged them to embrace this high calling. Proverbs is replete with memorable quotes about parents disciplining children and children obeying parents. Perhaps the most famous parenting proverb is 22:6, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” The greatest responsibility of parents is to bring their children up in the ways of the Lord. Much of Scripture echoes this. We consider Moses’ parting words at the doorstep of the Promised Land, encouraging the people to teach the commands of God to their children and talk about them at home and on the road and at all times of the day. And Joshua’s charge to follow his example: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Similarly, Psalm 78 poetically proclaims the importance of telling the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord.

Then there’s Jesus. It is not at all surprising that the compassionate Good Shepherd took time for even the littlest of lambs. We see Jesus bring a child to the center of the discussion as a living object lesson about greatness in the kingdom. We see Jesus welcome children joyfully as he indignantly rebukes his ignorant disciples. “Let the little children come to me!” he says, supporting parents who bring their children to him at any and every time. And who can forget Jesus’ sharp words about training children in the way they should go? So serious is the task of caring for the souls of children that a millstone around the neck in the middle of the sea is better than doing spiritual damage to a child.

This duty of disciplining and discipling children first and foremost is the responsibility of parents, and not someone else.

In summary then, Scripture is clear: a family consisting of two parents2 with children is a foundational design of God for humanity. Those children are precious blessings—rich rewards from the God of grace. However, the vocation of parent is one to be taken seriously. There are many scriptural charges to all adults to help in raising children, especially in telling the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of our Savior God. Yet particularly clear is that this duty of disciplining and discipling children first and foremost is the responsibility of parents, and not someone else—contrary to current American practices.

Scripture on Children and Worship

Now that we have taken a flyover on children and parenting, we can circle the runway to land on Scripture’s guidance about children in worship.

No specific Bible story explicitly answers our main question about children in church. Unfortunately, we cannot open to Acts 29 (which doesn’t exist!) and find that as the early church was established, great discipline prevailed among Christian families who controlled their children and kept them silent for an hour of public worship.3 We don’t have a transcription of Epaphras’ dynamic children’s sermon. Nor do we hear that Paul warns the foolish Galatians to send their crazy kids to Sunday school during worship so they can listen better to the gospel they were so quick to abandon.

We don’t hear these things. But we can learn much from what Scripture tells us. The more we ponder the topic of children and worship, the more we find insights in God’s Word. The Lord inspired a lot for us to think about regarding children.

Start in the beginning with Cain and Abel. They were born in the image of their newly-sinning parents, separated from God and dead in sin. So how would they know about giving offerings to God? How did they know offerings would give him glory? How did they know what was a pleasing and acceptable (Abel) and what was not (Cain)? Since they were born sinners separated from God, they must have been taught by Adam and Eve how to worship in this way! So also today: parents teach and model worship for their children.

So also today: children internalize worship from years of sitting with their parents.

Jump ahead to Abraham and his terrifying test of faith. As they walked up Mt. Moriah, Isaac noted that he was carrying wood while his father carried the fire and knife. But where was the lamb for the burnt offering? Similar questions could be asked. Isaac didn’t ask Abraham why they were carrying wood, knife, and fire. Isaac knew what they were going to do. How did he know the elements of sacrifice? How did he know a lamb was needed? How did he attain such a thorough knowledge of what was necessary for proper worship? Just as with Cain and Abel, this sinful boy was taught about worship. Theoretical instruction about sacrifices in a Sabbath school classroom down the hall wouldn’t have cut it though. Isaac must have participated in sacrifices in the past to understand this form of worship so well. So also today: children internalize worship from years of sitting with their parents.

We can find many such stories where we would ask many such questions and likely come to many such conclusions. When God’s people would “call on the name of the Lord” and offer sacrifices in worship, children always seemed to be present as they participated and were taught by their parents.

Children always seemed to be present as they participated and were taught by their parents.

Note also the time of a more formal worship—a style that God himself commanded. Consider the dedication service for Solomon’s temple. When the ark arrived, when Solomon blessed the people, when he spoke his beautiful prayer, we hear the repeated note that those in attendance consisted of “the entire assembly of Israel.”

All Israel was at this dedication service. And why not? Who wouldn’t want to be there for such a momentous event? Why wouldn’t parents want their children to see the house of God they had desired for ages? Why wouldn’t parents want their children to see the glory of the Lord seeping out of the temple? Why wouldn’t parents want their children to see and smell 120,000 sheep slaughtered in a you’ll-never-forget-this moment pointing toward the paschal Lamb to come? So also today: children can benefit from being with adults in worship.

The Old Testament reports several similar examples. Consider the reforms of Josiah. When he rediscovered the Book of the Covenant, he read it in the presence of “the men of Judah, the people of Jerusalem, the priests and the prophets—all the people from the least to the greatest.” While that common phrase “least to greatest” could refer to status or importance rather than age, it is worth considering whether hearts renewed by the Word of God would want to bring their children to such a rededication. It seems most likely the people would.

“While Ezra was praying…, a large crowd of Israelites—men, women and children—gathered around him.”

Another time of reform came many years later. When God’s people returned from exile, their New Man was ultra-sensitive to God’s Law. Recognizing their sins, Ezra the priest prayed and confessed sin on behalf of all the people. We receive this specific information about the event: “While Ezra was praying and confessing, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a large crowd of Israelites—men, women and children—gathered around him. They too wept bitterly” (10:1). It is interesting to note that children were participants in this repentant worship—something our culture might not consider “age appropriate” for children.

Would this mean that preschoolers, toddlers, and infants were left behind with servants or siblings? Was it too grand or too grave an event for the youngest children? And if so, was this always the practice among the Israelites? This confession of Ezra event would seem to suggest otherwise. So would verses from Joel. As Joel encourages the people to “rend your heart and not your garments” in repentance, he gives this command:

Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly. Gather the people, consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast (2:15ff).

We gain similar insights from the New Testament. We know the most famous instances of parents letting their children come to Jesus. Though we won’t equate such events with Sunday worship, we can certainly compare bringing children to the physical feet of Jesus back then to bringing children to the feet of Jesus who is present where two or three gather in his name. Clearly, parents saw the importance of having their children with Jesus.

Consider events like the Sermon on the Mount, the feeding of the 5,000, the feeding of the 4,000, or others. Would we assume that men and women would leave behind their children to listen to that great hillside homily? Of course not! It’s more obvious with the other two events as Scripture clearly tells us that children were present at the two famous feedings. Again, not corporate worship, but this point: when it came to being around Jesus, parents considered it important to have children with them.

The New Testament doesn’t describe much about public, corporate worship. We gather principles about worship from the New Testament, but we don’t see descriptions of worship as we do at the dedication of Solomon’s temple. But consider the story of Jesus in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4). Jesus unrolled the scroll, the Word of God, and proclaimed the Gospel—himself. Were children present? We don’t know for sure. It doesn’t specifically say. Yet it would be hard to imagine children not present considering how seriously and literally the Israelites took the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 6.

The first Christians also teach us about children and worship. Peter sets the tone in his Pentecost sermon. He instructs that the promise of the Holy Spirit creating faith and granting forgiveness is a promise for adults and their children. Every time they gathered to worship, to confess and absolve, to baptize, they could be confident that the Holy Spirit would bless anyone of any age. Immediately after the record of this Pentecost sermon we hear in a description of everyday life in those early days that “all the believers” were devoted to the Word, to gathering, and to each other.

These men and women had hearts that burned within them. They followed daily rituals of private and public worship. They actively used the means of grace in private and in public. It would be absurd to assume that children were never present. When parents went to the temple courts or gathered in their homes, surely children were present—just as surely as God added children to the number of those who were being saved.

Finally, it is fascinating to consider how Paul indicates his letters are to be read in the corporate gatherings of early Christians (e.g., Colossians 4:16). What makes this interesting is that the same letter addresses children about obeying their parents. It seems safe to deductively assume then that if A) the letters were read in worship much like Epistle readings today, and if B) Paul addresses children in his letters, then C) Paul was expecting children to be present at worship.

Concluding and Summary Thoughts

What have we gathered then from Scripture regarding parents, children, and children in worship? Parents have been given primary responsibility among all adults in the disciplining and discipling of children. Of utmost priority is training children in the ways of the Lord. Surveying Scripture, it appears that parents took up this responsibility of spiritual training in every aspect of life—both at home and in corporate worship. So we gather from Scripture that children have always been present for public worship. No matter how long the event, how gruesome (sacrifices), how big or small, children were with their parents in worship as they observed, learned, and participated.

We gain insights from biblical descriptions even when they are not prescriptions. We certainly have been given freedom in many matters by our Lord Jesus. But consider some questions. Is it a matter of freedom for children to be worshiping? Is it optimal for children to be trained to worship by someone other than their parents? Is it really the best strategy to usher down the hallway those Jesus brings to the center as examples of faith when other strategies can assist their parents to train them for worship with the entire congregation?

Some contexts will require patient instruction and training before “best practices” can be implemented.

It is understood that there are many ways to answer such questions with evangelical hearts and Christian freedom. It is understood that some contexts will require patient instruction and training before “best practices” can be implemented. However, it seems clear in Scripture that children were regularly with parents in worship. While granting freedom for a variety of practices, we can also affirm that the biblical and historical pattern of children with parents in worship is not obsolete—children, parents, and all other adults worshiping together as one body of Christ.

The next issue will focus on practical ways to carry this out. How can we help parents and their children? How can churches facilitate children’s participation and engagement in worship? We will focus on a variety of ways so that the body of Christ can work together to train children in the way they should go as we tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord.

Written by Phil Huebner


1 Available online https://worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/worship-the-lord-practical-series/ (PDF) and https://wels.net/news-media/blogs/worship-blogs/ (blog).
2 Granting the foundational ideal, we recognize that many single parent families have faithfully raised Christian children.
3 If you missed it, see the second article for anecdotes about quiet and well-behaved children in other cultures.


 

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What do you do with children in worship? Cultural perspective / strategies

What do you do with children in worship?

Cultural perspective / strategies

Side by side the children sat. Old kids. Young kids. Big kids. Small kids. They sat together with zero problems. No pinching or poking. No goofing or giggling. No whining or weeping. Not even any parental prodding! They just sat there—looking around from time to time, but otherwise completely focused on message and music.

“How can this be?” you wonder. What enchanted chocolates did they eat? Is the choir director’s baton actually Harry Potter’s wand? How could children of all ages sit together without parents and quietly participate in worship without one Cheerio being launched or tear being shed? Surely this is a myth or fairytale!

How could children of all ages sit together without parents and quietly participate in worship?

I assure you, this is no utopian fantasy. This was a reality, and I saw it with my own eyes. Sadly, it wasn’t anywhere in the U.S. though. It was in Zambia.

I recently returned from a mission trip in Africa filled with joyful experiences and one unexpected revelation. I’ve spent so much time pondering children in worship, and then I learn an incredible lesson on the other side of the world when I wasn’t expecting it!

The deafening silence from Zambian children in those oxymoronic moments of worship preached a message of magnitude. Children of all ages can sit quietly in worship and can fully participate—even without threats of time-outs or promises of stickers and screen time!

Children are expected to be quiet and respectful when required.

I came to learn that Zambian family culture is starkly different from American family culture. From the earliest moments children are expected to go with the flow, to be obedient, to be quiet and respectful when required. All over children are found cuddled in kangas on their mothers’ backs during daily work. Children are allowed to play near streets and by themselves. Yet they are expected to make good choices, to be safe, and to participate in the chores that support and sustain life. And amazingly, everywhere we went we saw children respectful to all elders in authority—parent, pastor, teacher, or even visiting Americans.1

Such a cultural context provided moments that would go unnoticed if not so glaringly different than American culture. I saw those children sitting quietly together for worship (and it was uncomfortable on the dusty ground in a handmade hut-sanctuary). Another day I saw more than two dozen children sit together without any parents, joyfully joining in a one-day VBS of exchanging stories and songs between cultures. Those children ranged in age from two to 14, and there was not one behavior issue for four hours. I even saw twin three-year-olds sitting cramped on their parents’ laps for a nine-hour bus ride. They had no games, toys, or screens, and yet I wouldn’t have known they were there had I not been sitting across from them!

There was not one behavior issue for four hours.

Now let’s go back to the U.S. again (thankfully without the 23 hours of flying). Here we see children at the epicenter of life. They have painted rooms and hundreds of dollars of toys and accessories waiting for them before they are even born. Parents flinch at their child’s every movement from birth on, eager to please Paul and pacify Payton and hopeful to record every moment on their iPhones and boast about it on Facebook. Children learn quickly that it doesn’t take much to make mom or dad jump. Appropriately timed tears or tantrums make parents cave-in to buy the toy, to drop important work midstream, and yes, even to take them out of church to the “fun room” down the hall.

Appropriately timed tears or tantrums make parents cave-in…

Consider also the surge of stimulants in America. Within months of birth children are plopped in front of Baby Einstein with its flashing lights and colors. They’re handed tablets and phones not long after—either to get them ahead in learning or to keep them occupied when noise is inconvenient, like at a restaurant. (I’ve often seen parents hand their kids screens in worship, too). Are we surprised at attention and focus issues when Americans average more than 70 hours per week on screens2 where images change every few seconds? Add these thoughts to those shared in the previous article on this topic: Americans also have parenting problems due to generational issues, information overload on how to parent, a post-Christian culture, and constant age segregation where others are expected to take care of my children.

So take a breath and a step back to peer at the portrait of parenting in America. For me the picture became crystal clear when I was immersed in a different culture. We have cultivated a culture of parenting in America that is often inappropriate at best and inept at worst. Unfortunately, we’re so lost in our American trees that we don’t usually realize the problems until we have opportunity to frolic in a different forest…like in Africa.

“I Have a Solution!”

Here we are then, steeped in the American parenting culture, and churches are feeling the hurt in worship. Some older members look in disdain at disruptive children during worship. Parents wrestle in the pews, praying for a quick and quiet finish to the service—“Please, can we just once make it through the whole service? Just once, please!” Meanwhile, churches have children who are lost in the mix while the adults are wondering, “What do we do about this?”

Well, typical to Western civilization and pragmatic American thought, when you have a perceived problem you need a solution. Over the years God’s people have attempted various solutions. One might wonder aloud: Do the solutions and services for children in churches come from an American mindset of “please the customer”? Or do the solutions come from genuine evangelical, pastoral, and missiological care for people to hear the Word of God? In other words, do our solutions show we’re trying to keep people happy about children—so no one complains about noise and so parents don’t have excuses? Or do our solutions show we’re searching for every possible way for the Word of truth to be proclaimed to all people? I’m not sure there’s always a clear-cut answer.

What follows then is a review of some strategies and solutions churches have adopted to serve children and families in worship. This is not a comprehensive list, but it does touch on the most popular solutions. Each is reviewed by considering some of the positives and negatives they offer.

Foolish, Frivolous, and Forced

Liturgical clowns. Yes, they actually do exist. Please don’t google it (though I’m sure you will now). This is one of several “solutions” for serving children in worship that would fit into this category. Many creative minds have concocted many “creative” ways to involve children in worship, e.g. liturgical clowns. Another is a suggestion to have children come forward to the chancel and enact letters and words from the Lord’s Prayer, much like Y.M.C.A by the Village People. Yet another suggestion is to have children lead the entire service via hand puppets they created. You can buy books filled with such ideas. Might it be safe to say that we can agree these are foolish and frivolous ideas, unwise for the sanctity of God’s house and the dignity of gospel ministry?

Other solutions spring from a buzzword in children’s ministry today—intergenerational worship. For many authors, this does not mean simply having old and young people worshiping together. Rather, some force contrived ideas into worship to create intergenerational moments. For example, a grandparent and a grandchild take turns reading the Scripture lessons together.

Not to be misunderstood, intergenerational worship is good and God-pleasing. God wants all of his people to worship together. There are good ways to plan for involving children in worship (children’s choirs, children passing out friendship registers, child acolytes, etc.). But we would do well to think carefully about intergenerational moments that might be forced or contrived.

Nursery / Cry Room

In a recent survey sent to pastors, 84% of WELS churches reported have a dedicated space that functions as a nursery or cry room.

Pros: It’s a fact of life that every parent knows: some days are just bad days for tots and tykes. Anything from earaches to bellyaches cause a youngin’ to be yearnin’ for the exit during worship. A nursery can be a great blessing for parents to nurse, to discipline, or to let a child catch a breath and regroup. Additionally, in this post-Christian era many parents may not be familiar with proper decorum for children in church. A nursery could be helpful to visitors as they (and their children) gradually learn more about worship.

Cons: Perhaps the biggest consideration is this: What purpose does the nursery or cry room serve? Is it a quiet place for parents to do what is described above? Or is it simply a safe zone for kids to play and let loose? Children learn quickly. Babies know if they cry they’ll be fed, held, or changed. Little ones know if they throw the sippy cup off the high chair and you pick it up, they can play that game all day long with you. Children can quickly be trained that if they cry enough they can go to the “fun room” with all the toys. Children should go to the nursery because they need to not because they want to.

Similarly, caution should be observed if the nursery functions as a drop off zone, as if it’s day care during worship. It may be convenient for parents during worship. It may allow them to pay attention more. It may even be a blessing for those newer to the faith and still learning about the Word and worship. However, God has given the directive first to parents to train their child in the way to go.

Perhaps the best scenario is a nursery that is used on a needs basis, not a convenience basis.

Considerations: A nursery or cry room can be a great blessing. Perhaps the best scenario is a nursery that is used on a needs basis, not a convenience basis. It is probably best to have a room that looks into the sanctuary or that has an audio and video stream of the service. If such a room is staffed by volunteers, it would be wise to have a large rotation so that the same people do not continually miss worship.

Children’s Sermons

In a recent survey sent to pastors, 22% of WELS churches reported having a children’s sermon every Sunday, 27% fairly regularly, and 18% on occasion. Others may be considering adding them to worship.

Pros: A children’s sermon is a fantastic way to show pastoral heart and care. There’s something friendly and heartwarming about the Lord’s called minister welcoming children as the Lord himself did. A children’s sermon provides specific opportunities to preach Law and Gospel on a level that children might understand better. Additionally, they may be great ways to teach about the worship theme of the day or other aspects of worship (liturgy, symbols, rites, rituals, etc.).

Cons: One of the biggest considerations for children’s sermons is how they are carried out. Far too often this time during worship turns into a pause from the sanctity of divine service for moments of trite and trivial hilarity. I’ve seen garbage cans, balloons popped by lighters, puppets and more appear in the chancel before the holy altar of God Almighty. And inevitably, there are also the awkward moments—Johnny revealing a little too much about home life, or Susie hiking up her dress to reveal Elmo undies. Yes, these could be considered cute moments of “kids being kids,” but what are we subtly teaching the congregation about reverence and awe? What does this “time out” do to the ebb and flow of worship, the back and forth interaction between God and man that is the liturgy?

Careful planning should be exercised so that we not give children a cartoon version of Jesus.

Considerations: A children’s sermon can provide great personal time with the pastor for children as they have opportunity to hear a clear and concise point about the Gospel, the worship theme, or some other liturgical lesson. However, caution and careful planning should be exercised so that we not give children a cartoon version of Jesus instead of the true Alpha and Omega, King of kings Jesus.

Children’s Church

In a recent survey sent to pastors, 4% of WELS churches reported having a Children’s Church service that runs in a separate location from the sanctuary during part or all of the regular service. However, anecdotal evidence suggests this is a growing trend in our circles.

Pros: In theory, a Children’s Church service could serve good purposes. This service could be used to directly and specifically apply the Law and Gospel from that Sunday to children. It could be used to teach children about the liturgy as well as the words and songs of the liturgy. Children’s Church could provide parents an opportunity to focus more during worship. In some settings this may be a greater need than others. For example, on one Easter Sunday at my previous parish we had over 300 people in worship. Nearly half of those were visitors, and over 75 children were under age 12. It was so loud you could barely hear me read the Easter Gospel! Could a Children’s Church service have provided an opportunity for more focused Easter worship so that all the visitors could clearly hear about resurrection hope and joy?

Cons: You note how I stated that Children’s Church could be good in theory. It is my estimation that the possible pros are far outweighed by the cons. Is it wise to separate the body of Christ during worship? Is it wise for others to usurp the parents’ responsibility for training children in the way they should go in a society where parents are already so accustomed to others raising their children (see the previous article)? If children, especially young children, learn best from watching and mimicking, when will they see dad sing or mom confess her sins or both with tears in their eyes after receiving the body and blood of our Lord? And finally, what are we subtly teaching children about their value and abilities in worship when we send them down the hall?

Considerations: While there are potential blessings from offering a Children’s Church service, there should be great caution here. Too often Children’s Church becomes play time or song and craft time in a “more fun” room down the hall. More importantly, Children’s Church potentially communicates subtle messages of great gravity that we ought to consider carefully.

Concurrent Sunday School

In a recent survey sent to pastors, 7% of WELS churches reported having Sunday School or a children’s program running concurrently with worship that children could go to instead of the regular service.

For the sake of brevity, most of the pros and cons for this are the same as for Children’s Church. However, this question must also be asked, “If children go to Sunday School during worship, when will they worship?” Worshiping the Lord of Hosts is considered neither optional nor age-specific in Scripture. God wants everything that has breath to praise the Lord in worship.

Parents may make strong comments about Children’s Church or concurrent Sunday School such as, “I was finally able to concentrate. I get so much more out of church now.” However, though these comments are well-intentioned, we must recognize that parents are the ones God has given the task of training their children to do the very thing God wants all people to do—worship.

What is Beneficial?

When considering a few of the solutions that have been offered for serving children in church, we do well to heed the words of Paul: “I have the right to do anything,” you say—not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive.3 We surely have Christian freedom to do many things, but not everything is beneficial or constructive for children.

Some may be noticing that I have been burying the lede a bit with this article and the previous. The topic is What to Do with Children in Church? But no answer has clearly been given yet. This is done purposefully. The intention was that we first ponder the struggles many congregations and parents have with children in worship and then consider what many are offering as solutions. With these thoughts in mind, in the next article we will turn to the Scriptures for both prescription and description regarding children in church.

May the Word of truth guide us clearly as we serve all who worship the Lord!

Written by Phil Huebner


1 Some in the broader secular culture—not only Christians—recognize the issues. See: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-overprotected-american-child-1527865038 and https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/07/02/spoiled-rotten.
2 https://www.cnn.com/2017/10/19/health/children-smartphone-tablet-use-report/index.html
3 1 Corinthians 10:23


 

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What do you do with children in worship?

Series Introduction

The Look. You know it well. It comes in different shapes and sizes. It comes in different times and places. It comes in different expressions and amounts of seriousness. There are many variations to The Look, but it’s all essentially the same.

You certainly have seen The Look before. You probably have received The Look before. Writing an article first for pastors, I’m quite confident you have given The Look before. The location of The Look is churches, exclusively. The object of The Look is parents, specifically.

What is The Look? It’s a writhing of the brow, a wrinkling of the nose, and a wriggling of the lips that accent a glassy-eyed, ice-cold stare of death. It’s a communication of body language that silently screams, “What is wrong with you? Will you PLEASE shut that kid up?!”

We who are pastors rarely sit with our children, so we might have to go back to seminary or vicar days to remember what it is like to receive The Look. Or we could ask our wives what it is like to receive it (if we dare stir that pot of opinions).

Many times we observe The Look. From the bird’s nest of the pulpit we can survey the congregation and see much of what takes place during worship. We can hear and see the child whining as the parent struggles to soothe and wonders how long to hold out before leaving the sanctuary. We can also see the subsequent turning of heads. Who cares if you were making the greatest sermonic point of your life? At least ten people find it completely necessary to turn and find that disruptive family because they need to be given The Look.

Most times we pastors have familiarized ourselves with The Look because we have given it ourselves. You know the times: When Johnny feels like he has to go marching in with all the saints mid sermon. When the new family decided it would be a good idea to bring a Tonka fire truck and not turn off the siren. When you are pouring your heart out in a sermon you spent plenty of hours on while some (hopefully) well-intentioned parent thinks waiting out a crying child is ideal during worship. When the stray toddler runs down the aisle and looks like he’s going to make a break for the chancel. (All these I’ve personally experienced!)

Yeah. Those are the times we give The Look. Perhaps we give it with our best evangelical spin. But nevertheless we too give The Look that says, “Go ahead kid. Make my day. Charge the chancel and you’ll get the most evangelical death stare you could ever imagine. I’ll ban your family from pot lucks from now until the good Lord returns!”

I know. A light-hearted opening. But don’t let the satire hide the seriousness. Many times we think about these kinds of things that occur within our walls, and we do laugh it off. We shrug our shoulders and say, “There’s not much we can do about that.” We relish a change but relinquish effort so as to keep the status quo. After all, there will always be children and there will always be noise in worship, so we might as well just deal with it.

But I believe this issue is more serious than that and deserves more attention than a roll of the eyes or shrug of the shoulders. Ministry experience has taught me this.

I’ve been at the door of, or in conversation with, many a prospect who has said something like, “Do you have child care or children’s church during your services? If you don’t, I’m not coming.”

I’ve been in council meetings that pushed the boundaries of brotherly conversation as opinionated grenades were launched across the table: “I think all children should be separate in their own service during church so we can concentrate,” . . . “Well, if that happens, I’m leaving!”

I’ve had people leave during worship never to return to worship because of the noise level in church. (Coincidentally, it was my own daughter who stubbed her toe that day.) I’ve had empty-nesters complain about the noise level in church, and then five of them leave membership within a five-month window.

I’ve had parents stare in disbelief when discussion on the topic arises, as if they are surprised their noisy kid would ever be considered a distraction. And yes, I’ve even given my fair share of The Look as pesky peewees pushed my patience while preaching.

This is a big deal. This is a serious issue. Granted, my former congregation was extraordinarily youthful (40% of 300 souls were under age 12!) and our sanctuary was designed for great acoustics. We faced a bigger challenge than most. But every church has children. Every church has visitors and potential visitors with children. No church is exempt from dealing with the issue.

So if many parents and prospects are looking for something for their children during worship, and if children can often be very distracting during worship, and if other worshipers can easily become distracted and upset with distractions . . . What Do You Do with Children in Worship?

Contributions to the Current Situation

This question has taken me on quite the journey. Initially I was searching for that silver bullet that would silence the congregational alligators, hush the zoo of children, and let God’s people go back to focusing on mission and ministry (and worship!). There must be some solution to knock off these three birds with one worship stone! I asked around. I researched. I read. I tried new things. I read some more.

Then, years later, it finally hit me in a lightbulb moment that felt somewhat embarrassing. How could I have been so foolish? I’ve been looking in the wrong place the whole time! It’s not about the children! It’s not like children are suddenly born “worse in church” in the 21st century—as if there is another degree beyond total depravity that children have now reached! No, it’s not about the children! This is really all about the adults!

It’s not about the children! This is really all about the adults!

Take a few moments to consider only a few challenges in the world of adults and parenting today. First, there have been tectonic shifts in generational stability within our country. “The Greatest Generation” carried us on their backs through the Great Depression and WWII. They gave birth to the Baby Boomers who led us toward the ‘60s. But it was the pivotal generation that came next—Generation X. This is the generation that grew up in Vietnam Days, embraced free thinking, embarked on the sexual revolution, and then embodied rebellion against authority and discipline. Perhaps much of their cultural shift stemmed from what was happening at home. Over 50% of those in Generation X experienced some form of childhood abuse and more than 60% grew up in a broken home without both mom and dad present.1 Today, the youngest of this Generation X (those born closer to the 80’s) has children mostly in grade school, with some having high school or preschool children.

Generation X, a conflicted and confused generation, then gave birth to those notorious Millennials. Millennial parents primarily have early elementary or preschool aged children today. That means that these young children coming up through school today are now two generations removed from any kind of parental stability or normality. It shows, too. James M. Pedersen, a principal in New Jersey, wrote a book2 describing in great detail 55 different parenting styles identifiable today.

What’s the point? Many parents today struggle in knowing how to be parents—how to discipline, how to interact with and communicate with their children, and thus obviously, how to have them behave in worship.

Many parents today struggle in knowing how to be parents.

It doesn’t help that these parents are immersed in a post-Christian America. Some 50% of Americans identify as “post-Christian” today. More than 60% of Americans are unchurched or dechurched. And for those that do go to church, almost 40% of Christians today are “not too familiar” with the liturgy (19%) or have “never heard of it” (19%).3 So not only are children growing up in homes without much discipline or parental stability, they are also growing up in homes that are not familiar with being in church. Thus, proper church decorum can often amount to, “What threat, reward, or sticker can be offered in order to keep my kid quiet for an hour?” And if that doesn’t work, “Here, play on my iPhone” often becomes the solution.

There are many more challenges for parents with children in worship today, such as diminishing attention spans due to the 70+ hours Americans average in front of screens per week. But one more challenge deserves a bit more attention here—the age segregation of society.

We are in an era when everyone has their own place or group. There are geriatric and pediatric specialists. There are YMCA camps and programs for every age level. Even churches have senior groups, teen groups, youth groups, Mommy and Me groups, singles groups, young professional groups, and more. But no segregation of society is more significant than between children and adults.

Parents today train themselves to being accustomed to others taking care of their kids. As soon as a child is “old enough,” it’s off to day care or preschool—sometimes for 10-12 hours a day. When school is done, then Shelly is chauffeured and Cara is carted off to gymnastics or swimming or basketball or karate where others continue to take care of the children. But that’s not all. Grabbing a quick couple nuggets at McDonald’s or Chic-Fil-A? No worries! Kids can go to the play place. Need to get a quick workout in? Not a problem! The Y has childcare, too. Need to shop for the newest Swedish-designed lamps? You’re in luck! Even Ikea has childcare! It has become a strange norm today that parents pass off the parenting.

Let’s put this all together then. If a majority of American parents today are “post-Christian” and also non-church going, and if a majority of parents today struggle to know what it means to parent or discipline, and if a majority of parents today have become accustomed to passing off parenting to others, then should we really be surprised in worship that wiggling, whining, and wailing from children have climbed to epic heights while flustered and frustrated parents have bottomed out at miserable lows?

What Does This Mean?

First, the pastoral heart will have sympathy for those who are struggling with their children. (He will certainly also have empathy if his dear wife is herding a horde of littles each week to worship!) With compassion for these struggling parents, the pastor understands that the culture of Christian parenting has greatly changed over the years. Many may not know well how to discipline because they never experienced it themselves. Many newer Christians have also never really experienced worship, let alone liturgical worship. Thus, the pastor is sympathetic because so many parents today are simultaneously experiencing parenting and church for the first time!

Next, the pastoral heart will have sympathy for those concerned about the noise and volume from children during worship, too. We should not be so trite or dismissive as to declare to those concerned, “Well Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me,’ so you’re going to have to get over it.” Remember that such voiced concerns may come from God’s people who desire greatly to hear God’s Word and concentrate on worship. Even though their concerns are not always voiced with Christian care, they can be heard with your evangelical ear. Considering parents’ struggles, some level of distraction is not surprising. The pastor can be sympathetic toward that concern.

Still, the pastor would do well to fully instruct his members about a vow they make so often in worship: “Yes, as God gives me strength.”4 Time and again God bursts open the floodgates of his grace as he richly pours out forgiveness, life, and salvation on a young child or infant newly buried and risen with Christ in the waters of baptism. Following the rite of Christian Worship, the pastor then asks all present if they are willing to assist in whatever manner possible so that the child may remain a child of God until death. Has any pastor ever heard a “No!” to taking up that responsibility? So if the congregation unanimously resounds with the promise, “Yes, as God gives me strength,” then they need to understand what that entails. They need to understand that there will be compassion, encouragement, and support for parents so that in whatever manner possible children may be trained in the way they should go. This includes being trained in how to participate in worship.

In the articles that follow in this series, we will take a closer look at how the pastor and congregation can partner with the parents in such an undertaking. Specifically, our focus will be on how to assist parents in engaging their children in worship.

We will review the pros and cons of various strategies proposed by congregations such as children’s sermons, children’s church, and much more. We will look at biblical and historical precedents (both prescriptive and descriptive) to guide us on parenting and the topic of children and worship. Finally, we will consider a specific strategy aimed at helping parents to engage their children in worship—a strategy supported by Scripture, psychology, and science.

God bless us as we help, encourage, and support letting children hear the mighty deeds which God performed of old!5

A Preview of What’s to Come
  • Biblical precedent for families worshiping together in the church
  • Biblical directives for parenting and parental responsibility for teaching children to worship
  • Historical, psychological, and scientific factors that have implications for what is done with children in worship
  • Reviews of common practices with children in worship such as children’s sermons, children’s church, Sunday School held during worship, and more
  • Specific strategies for parents and congregations to help engage children in worship
  • A clearing house of ideas for child involvement in worship

Written by Phil Huebner

In 2007 Pastor Huebner was assigned to start a new mission church in Palm Coast, FL. In the nine years he served there, Christ the King Lutheran Church and School grew quickly and became known for outreach in the community, with many young people and children. He now serves as the Campus Pastor at Wisconsin Lutheran High School in Milwaukee, WI where he works with families and children on a daily basis. He received a Masters in Sacred Theology from WLS in 2015 and will finish in January 2019 a doctorate in Missions and Culture from Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN. His dissertation is on what to do with children in worship. Departing from the usual custom, Worship the Lord is offering a four-part series on this topic.


1 Statistics from Revolutionary Parenting by George Barna
2 The Rise of the Millennial Parents
3 Statistics from barna.com
4 Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal, p. 14
5 CW: 512


Commissioning new music

Is there a special occasion happening in your congregation in the next year or so? An anniversary, retirement, or facility dedication? Consider commissioning new music to celebrate the event. A list of WELS/ELS composers is available here: welsfinearts.org. Or musicians at your church might suggest another favorite composer.

A recent NPH publication is 8 Hymn Preludes for Organ, by Jeremy S. Bakken. The collection bears this dedication: “For Phil Becker from his wife, Lois, in recognition of 50 years of faithful service as an organist in WELS churches. S. D. G.” Phil also served for several years on the Commission on Worship, including as vice-chairman.

online.nph.net/8-hymn-preludes-for-organ.html

Organ Chorales of Samuel Scheidt
Forty-Nine Practical Settings

A new edition is edited and arranged by WELS musician Steven Rhode. From online publicity:

The passage of time hasn’t dulled the craftsmanship and creativity in the chorales of Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654). Nearly four centuries after they were first published, the settings still sparkle with innovative harmonies and exuberant rhythmic flourishes. Over time, some of these chorales have changed in common usage from how they were originally published in 1650. This new edition of Samuel Scheidt’s chorales matches the keys, notes, and rhythms of current hymnals while remaining faithful to Scheidt’s musical intent.

online.nph.net/organ-chorales-of-samuel-scheidt.html

 

 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

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Worship coordinators carry Christ to the heart

With emphasis on Reformation 500, the 2017 National Conference on Worship, Music, and the Arts brought hundreds together to focus on Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Scripture Alone. Exuberant worship used various instruments—the bright sound of the trumpet, the lustrous tones of the violin and (one of my new favorites) the loud clank of the tire wheel during Dan Forrest’s setting of “A Mighty Fortress”1. Each service was meticulously planned to center around the theme of the service, yet everything was put in place to focus on Christ Alone.

Attendees received a worship folder—really a 218-page booklet with all the services and much more. For each service it included a description “About the Service”—useful information to focus the mind and give background knowledge on what was about to be experienced. The “worship folders” had everything necessary to participate in worship, including spoken responses and melody lines to sing. They included lists of service participants: pastors, organists/pianists, directors, and a long roster of instrumentalists. They also included acknowledgments and licenses for copyrighted selections.

Hmm…. How was all of that so brilliantly coordinated? What an incredibly well-done task! Behind the scenes, service orders were planned, hymn and psalm variations were chosen, music was sent to instrumentalists, practiced, and put together in rehearsals. The glorious sounds of the worship conference came from well-prepared instrumentalists, trained choral voices, and hundreds of worshipers in the assembly. The personnel to put together a conference with services of this magnitude included a dedicated planning committee to oversee the intricate details of the service plans.

Could a service like this happen in your church this weekend? While not on this level, God has blessed every congregation with resources for enriching worship. God has given unique gifts and talents to every member of the body of Christ. Are we using all of them to the best of our ability to his glory? Are we doing everything we can to prepare for worship as we would for other important events in our lives—a birthday party, a graduation celebration, or even company coming over for dinner? “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with gratitude in your hearts to God. And everything you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:16-17).

At some WELS congregations, a person is called or hired to coordinate worship. Together with the pastor, the worship coordinator helps select the service orders, schedule choirs/instrumentalists, and submit license information. Worship coordinators spend time behind the scenes to make worship the best that it can be. At the worship conference three worship coordinators were chosen to lead a presentation on their work. While their congregations’ characteristics may vary from yours, the goals can be the same.

Worship is enriched through musical proclamation of the Word

Martin Luther wrote, “When God’s Word is not preached, one had better neither sing nor read, or even come together.”2 Worship in every WELS church is centered entirely on the Word of God. However, in an hour-long service, how much of the Word is retained, set to memory, and applied to the worshiper’s life? In an ideal situation, worshipers would take home the readings and hymns and study them devotionally throughout the week. But, that’s most likely not the case. Members are sometimes sidetracked in worship, thinking of the last phrase that was spoken or distracted by an unfamiliar melody. Beautiful sections of Scripture sometimes don’t receive the focused attention that they deserve. The words of a hymn can flow by without enough thought about meaning or with scant musical variation to highlight meaning.

For instance, I have sung “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” (CW 125) and thought, “What a nice Lenten hymn,” as all four stanzas were sung at the same volume and registration. But could something be done to encourage worshipers to look at the cross on or behind the altar? Could “forbid it, Lord, that I should boast” be sung softly from a humble heart that knows it doesn’t deserve to be in the Lord’s presence? Is there a reed stop on the organ to emphasize the agony, suffering, and affliction produced by the nails and crown of thorns? What if every worshiper sang at full volume the phrase “demands my soul, my life, my all”?

Attention to creative or expressive musical nuances in worship has one simple goal: “The primary objective of music is to carry Christ to the heart…. God placed a beautiful rainbow into the sky as a lasting testimony to his faithfulness. So also Christian artists use color, highlight, and texture to solidify in the heart the message of God’s grace. The Creator has also enabled Christian musicians to join to basic musical sounds rhythm, dynamics, tempo, timbre, pitch, and style so they may touch the heart as they proclaim the gospel.”3

Planning allows integration of musical selections with readings and themes

In a helpful article summarizing the benefits of a music coordinator, Pastor Phil Casmer wrote: “We know that nothing we do this side of heaven will be as glorious as what we’ll experience there where God is with his people—present in glory realized. And yet, we also know that we are given the wonderful opportunity to receive the encouragement of his Word and to bless his name in worship every week. It may be that a music coordinator is something that serves to help you do that. Yes or no, worship is a worthy place to focus our time and resources and energy, a worthy activity for our thought and attention.”4

Pastor Casmer included some excellent points for consideration in his Q & A section at the end of the article. “Certainly there’s something to be said for picking hymns on the basis of good text-study. At the same time, it’s arguable that one could just as well have a sense of the thematic ideas of any Sunday in the Church Year and pick hymns to the same effect…. Chances are good that organists would appreciate a few weeks’ time to prepare hymns and other music rather than cramming it all in 24 hours before worship starts. Why not give it a try? … A worship plan lets you think ahead and take time for good preparation. But it also gives you flexibility. If you’ve done good planning, small changes don’t rock the ship as much because there’s other preparation to rely on. Your organist might feel better about a last-minute hymn change when she’s well-prepared for the other three. On the other hand, we pastors might also consider whether we sometimes make participants slaves to our whims by making worship prep a week-by-week exploration.”

When worship is planned well, it is a team approach. Our church’s planning begins with the pastor who brings worship planning pages to the Worship Committee. The committee looks at the theme of the services, the Scripture readings, sermon texts, hymn suggestions, and any special items that will be included in the services that weekend. Since directors have these pages well in advance, they can select choir anthems that closely match the sermon theme. They can plan liturgy and psalm variations along with special presentation of some hymns. A well-planned worship folder can assure that everyone involved with worship knows exactly what is happening when. The worship coordinator can place anthems in spots that provide an edifying service flow. All the tasks of the Worship Committee are founded on the goal to “carry Christ to the heart” with services planned as well as possible.

Coordination promotes musical excellence in worship

What is musical excellence? I’d argue that it is simply giving God our best. “And shall man alone be still? Has he neither breath nor skill? No, the Church delights to raise psalms and hymns and songs of praise” (CW 222:4). “It is the church musician’s duty before God to practice and perform with the best of his abilities. He ought to do nothing mechanically, by habit, lightly, or casually. Everything in the service ought to be done by decision, with thought and prayer.”5

This does not mean only the most talented can serve in worship. Rather, whatever gifts have been given should be used to the best of one’s ability. What musical gifts and talents has God given members of your congregation? Encourage members to wipe the dust off the instruments they learned as a child. Your flute players may not be able to play a challenging instrumental line of a choir anthem, but they can certainly praise God and enrich his people’s worship by playing the melody of a hymn. For example, if you can raise “Lamb of God” (CWS 748) an octave, the C-C range with no sharps or flats may be a beautiful choice for a beginning flautist. And be ready to invest a bit of time to coach willing players who need some help on anything from reading rhythms to improved intonation.

Encouragement trains future generations of church musicians

Our Sunday school recently sang the first verse of “To God Be the Glory” (CW 399). Those words were taught to children to edify the service. However, one Kindergartener who sang for the service also sang those words to me on our way to school. She informed me that with the help of her Kindergarten teacher, the Sunday school kids would help the others in the class learn the words. Lutheran elementary schools, Sunday schools, and early childhood ministries have an incredible opportunity to teach children biblical truths through song, truths they will carry with them the rest of their lives.

Training musicians at a young age is close to my heart. My mom taught me how to play the piano and continually bought new music for me. My fourth-grade teacher encouraged me to play hymns for the class and to accompany the Junior Choir. She made it seem fun and not intimidating. My dad introduced me to the organ and said it would help if I’d play while he went to communion. Congregation members encouraged me to continue through their positive feedback, and I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to play for worship ever since.

Is there someone you can influence? You may never know who takes your words to heart. Yet, behind every musician, there is often someone who inspired the use of those musical gifts for God’s glory.

An overview of the position

What exactly does a worship coordinator do? The answer to that question is as varied as each congregation. At the 2017 worship conference, three coordinators put their ideas together to lead a roundtable discussion of the position. The three were Lisa Uttech (Christ the Lord, Brookfield, WI), Levi Nagel6 (St John, S 68th St, Milwaukee, WI) and Debbie Price (St Peter, Schofield, WI). An overview of their duties, schedules, and resources is available online.7

There is already someone at your church who does some of this work behind the scenes, whether it’s the pastor, church administrator, or someone else. But inaugurating the position of worship coordinator—with title, job description, and possibly a divine call—identifies that work as being important to your congregation and its mission. There is always room to grow. Look at what you already do and see where there is room for improvement. Could you add a worship education note to explain various elements of worship?8 Would an instrumental or vocal arrangement help your congregation learn a new hymn? How frequently is there “special music” in your worship? A worship coordinator can help to increase this frequency, contributing more often the spiritual impact of God’s Word set to music—carrying Christ to the heart.

I pray the posted resources will benefit you and your congregation. My efforts may not compare to the talented individuals who plan the services of a national worship conference. But God puts us where we need to be to serve him and his people in that place. St. Paul teaches us, “He himself gave the apostles, as well as the prophets, as well as the evangelists, as well as the pastors and teachers, for the purpose of training the saints for the work of serving, in order to build up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12).

“Before You I Kneel (A Worker’s Prayer)” by Getty, Getty, Taylor, and Townend is a favorite prayer of mine as I begin my daily tasks. (Easy to find online.) Whether your congregation is large or small, all of us who plan worship have the glorious message of the gospel to share. May all the talents of God’s people be used to carry Christ to many hearts through music in our worship!

By Debra Price

Debra, a 1996 graduate of Martin Luther College, serves as worship coordinator at Saint Peter, Schofield, WI, where she also trains the next generation of musicians through teaching piano lessons and substitute teaching.


Involving teens

True story, details altered. Maria and her family recently moved and transferred membership from a mid-size congregation. Gifted at playing the oboe, she had won a top rating at the statewide high school solo/ensemble event. What a surprise to discover that she had never been asked to play at her previous church! Two opportunities were missed: 1) to show that her musical contribution was valuable, and 2) to share her gift with others. Cf. 1 Corinthians 12:21.


Excellence in worship

Perhaps for most of us the [national worship] conference is a triennial battery charge—an inspirational encouragement to return to small and medium and large parishes…and do our best. As we ponder what “best” means, it’s good to remember two points.

Excellence is not elitist. The beautiful tone of children singing on pitch and with beautiful blend is impactful to anyone with ears to hear. The precision of Bach played well or a moving concertato communicates across generations.

Excellence is not difficult. But not everyone can play Bach. So note that some musical selections are actually quite simple (especially in some repertoire sessions). These can be achieved at the piano or with a handful of singers and high school instrumentalists. Excellence is not replicating an orchestra; it’s doing the best you can with the resources you have!

From a welcome letter at the 2017 WELS worship conference. The full letter is available at the link in endnote 7.


Examples of worship planning

Sample worship plans from various churches are available here: worship.welsrc.net/downloads-worship/worship-planning. These can be a starting point for creating a customized plan for any church not currently doing this type of longer range planning.

See also from the 2014 worship conference “Working Smarter at Worship” by Jon Bauer and Caleb Bassett: bit.ly/workingsmarterhandout


1 This is included on the double CD of highlights from the worship conference: http://online.nph.net/music-video/cds/wels-worship-conference.html. Choral score: http://online.nph.net/a-mighty-fortress-is-our-god-1.html
To view the conference’s opening festival concert or closing worship service, visit livestream.com/welslive.
2 Luther’s Works, Vol. 53, p. 11
3 Christian Worship Manual, p. 57
4 Worship the Lord, no. 68, September 2014. Online at: worship.welsrc.net/ download-worship/wtl-practical-ideas-worship
5 Christian Worship Manual, p. 61
6 If you missed it, check out Levi Nagel’s WELS Connection video update: wels.net/ news-media/together
7 Sermons, presentation handouts, worship service folders, music downloads, and more from the 2017 National Worship Conference are all available FOR FREE at: worship.welsrc.net/worship-conference-2017—useful information for organists, keyboardists, elders, council, choir directors, teachers, as well as for a pastor’s own personal study and growth.
8 See samples at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/worship-folder-notes

 

Print out the latest edition of this newsletter to share with your congregation.

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Let’s rethink how we think about technology in worship

The debate concerning the role of screen technology in worship is nothing new. The pages of this publication took up the topic already more than ten years ago. The good advice given then could be summed up neatly with one word: moderation.

But cultural and technological developments since that time have given new insights on the effects of pervasive digital technology in our homes, classrooms, and public spaces. Indeed, as screens transition from large-format installations in front of the crowd to small-format devices in every purse or pocket, the question of the appropriate role of screen technology in worship is as relevant today as it was a decade ago.

My contention is that the current state of affairs requires more than merely updating our advice for the latest devices. Instead, we must rethink how we think about screen technology in leading the congregation in liturgy and song.

Test our fundamental assumptions

One way to rethink how we think about screen technology in worship is to test our assumptions. A mistaken assumption at the foundation of our thinking will lead to flawed applications later. The result may be a flurry of mitigating efforts, few of which address the fundamental issue at the root of it all and some of which may actually make matters worse.

For example, the thinking about screen technology to lead the congregation in liturgy and song generally goes something like this: “The screen will be an alternative to what’s printed. Those who wish to use the screen will use the screen, and those who wish to sing and speak from the hymnal or worship folder will sing and speak from the hymnal or worship folder.” The assumption is that screen technology is a neutral medium and therefore assumes a supplemental role in the worship space. I believe that this assumption is almost certainly mistaken.

Consider some recent research from the field of educational science. Anyone connected to a school or college knows that the use of screens in education has become almost the sine qua non of what’s considered quality educational methodology. Administrators first installed screens in the front of classrooms and information-dense books and handouts were replaced by semantically-thin slide decks. More recently, screens were put in the hands of every student through direct funding or policies requiring students to “bring your own device” (BYOD). While educators vigorously debated the relative merits of various devices and software programs, the general assumption was that any added technology would be an improvement.

The assumption is that screen technology is a neutral medium….

But recently the debate over which devices and software to use in education has dramatically shifted to whether such technology should be used in the first place—or at the very least, whether it should always be used. Prompting the shift were studies demonstrating that students who took notes on laptops or tablets achieved poorer outcomes than those students who processed coursework with non-digital technologies such as ruled paper and a #2 pencil.

Even more startling (and relevant to the topic of this essay) was the discovery that the use of screens in the classroom had a degrading effect on peers who did not use a device. Researchers compared the effect to something like cognitive secondhand smoke. Merely being in view of an active screen has been shown to cause a degrading effect on the focus and attention of nearby peers.

This result may not be all that surprising when we consider our own experience. Human beings are generally powerless to ignore surprising new information in their field of vision, an effect most pronounced when new visual data appears in the periphery of our focus. This is why something that appears alongside you so easily startles you. It’s why your laptop displays notifications in the upper corner of the screen. It’s why a flickering light bulb will make you look again and again long after you’ve consciously acknowledged that the bulb is flickering.

Generally speaking, liturgical churches that decide to adopt screen technology to lead the congregation in liturgy and song seek a physical arrangement that doesn’t necessarily replace the altar, font, and pulpit as the focus of the worship space. This leaves the areas slightly above and to the edges of our visual focus for the screens to be installed. Ironically, the laudable effort to preserve the architectural and liturgical integrity of the worship space moves the screens to a position where the visual effect of disruption and distraction is the strongest.

Remember also how screen technology works: imagery and text (often animated) is projected as flickering light in front of the congregation. Projection slides suffer from resolution constraints—a slide can only hold a small amount of visual information while also retaining legibility. Such resolution constraints are the reason why information-dense content like liturgy and song must be split over numerous slides. Text and tune that fit easily on a single 6×9 page usually require more than a dozen slides in a hymnal projection edition. Each build in the slide deck is another blink or flash (not to mention another opportunity for disruptive human error). It becomes virtually impossible, then, for the worshiper to keep his or her eyes from the magnetic allure of the projected pixels as they flicker in the most sensitive part of the visual field. And once neighboring worshipers are invited to swipe their way through the service on a smartphone or tablet, the effect may well become even more pronounced.

The screen will accept nothing less than to own the room.

Screen technology tends to disrupt other media and easily dominates the environment by demanding attention from everyone in view. This is not supplemental, additive, or merely neutral; it is a fundamental reorientation of the worship space. Indeed, the screen will accept nothing less than to own the room. To assume that worshipers who find screen technology disruptive or distracting will be able to simply ignore it misunderstands the nature of the medium and downplays the qualities of our human senses. This is why more and more instructors (especially in higher education) are surprising their colleagues with the announcement that they, too, are eschewing the use of screens in their classrooms. Worship leaders may wish to rethink the issue as well.

Examine our embedded metaphors

A second way to rethink how we think about screen technology in worship is to examine our embedded metaphors. We have certain ways of describing topics that may preclude us from seeing a topic in a different—and perhaps better—light.

Consider, for example, how technological metaphors dominate the ways our culture describes the world around us. The enduring mystery of human consciousness is explained in terms of a computer that “processes information” and “stores things in memory” in spite of the fact that the human mind does no such thing. The paradigm of technocracy that so dominates American civic life creeps also into our conception of Christian ministry: people are no longer complex, embodied beings in need of the daily care of a shepherd but instead become resources to be “managed” and workers to be “activated” by ministry experts. Rich concepts like “preach the Word” and “encourage one another” are replaced with phrases like “deliver Christian content.” Embedded metaphors refashion the world in their own image.

One metaphor that deserves scrutiny is the idea of “technological progress.” Because of the undeniable progress that human society has enjoyed as a result of technological development, we have adopted the word “progress” for virtually any new application of technology. The more radical technologists in society go even further. They alloy the idea of progress with an assumed sense of inevitability to it all. This is the dominant ideology of Silicon Valley and is rapidly assuming an outsized role in shaping the broader society’s view of moral philosophy and ultimate purpose. Nevertheless, enough dark footnotes are attached to the use of technology to prevent us from equating progress with any and all application of technology.

Historians point out that the 20th century saw an unprecedented amount of death not because of plagues or natural disasters but because mankind had developed technologies to make the mass destruction of human life possible. This is not to equate PowerPoint with concentration camps or Facebook with napalm, but to illustrate that it is intellectually dishonest to reason that the application of technology is in itself human progress.

We can escape the unhelpful “are you for progress or against progress” dialogue.

By examining this embedded metaphor we can escape the unhelpful “are you for progress or against progress” dialogue that can so easily arise when a diverse group of individuals discuss how best to walk together in Christian community. If we can accept that new technology does not in itself equal progress, then we will enjoy the freedom to accurately assess when the application of a particular technology might not, in fact, be progress toward the goals of Christian worship. After all, making a wise decision not to do something is as vital a form of progress as any other. Indeed, it may be a kind of progress we need.

Embrace our cultural anchors

A third way to rethink how we think about screen technology in worship is to embrace our cultural anchors. Let us enjoy the happy reality that time and time again the cultural practices of the church, shaped as they are by the gospel of Jesus Christ, become suddenly relevant to a new generation of people disillusioned by the listlessness of life unanchored by ultimate truth.

For example, we’re observing in our society the growing strength of a sort of digital temperance movement. The movement is motivated by a variety of cultural developments. Waves of revelations have detailed how social media companies have explicitly engineered their products to harvest profit from our insecurities and have deliberately worked to draw us into destructive patterns of digital addiction. It seems increasingly impossible to find a public space that isn’t dominated by scrolling chyrons covering the latest political demagoguery and highlights of hat tricks and home runs. Even the local gas station punctuates the few quiet moments spent topping off the tank with a rapid-fire barrage of ads, news blurbs, and weather reports. Few moments remain that are not held captive to the content of a screen.

Commentators have called this the “attention economy.” In a traditional economy natural resources are developed into products which are sold for profit. In the attention economy you are the product and your attention is the resource to be mined. One author has fairly called the business tactics of the attention economy a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.” How apt. The goal of the attention economy is not to invite you to enjoy life in the full, but to convert you into a compulsive checker of news feeds and binge watcher of original programming.

The reaction has been what you might expect. People are sensing that something’s being done to them and it’s not benevolent. Ironically, the dominant forms of expression today (i.e. social media) are filled with depictions of disconnecting from digital technology. Photos of open books, quiet spaces, and peaceful settings offer the modern mind a glimpse of the alluring hope that man does not live on likes alone.

In this environment the temptation is to become ourselves captains of industry in the attention economy. We could fill the pre-service time with rotating ads for church events. We could shoehorn a showing of the WELS Connection between the offering and the prayers. We could assume that colorful clip art will make a great hymn even greater. But modes and methods better suited for the attention economy are becoming more and more likely to elicit a reaction like, “Eww, gross” instead of, “Hey, cool.”

Likely to elicit a reaction like, “Eww, gross” instead of, “Hey, cool.”

And so here we are again—the seemingly old-fashioned, liturgical, Lutheran church anchored to ultimate truth is bringing out treasures old and new to a world dying for something better.

We are fellow travelers who answer the call of Jesus Christ to be a communion of believers shaped over lifetimes by patterns and paradigms not immediately apparent to the world. Our churches are places where the primary task is not to demand more attention but to offer Sabbath rest for the whole person—body and soul. What we offer is not something that attracts eyeballs with its overwhelming brightness but creates a new heart of worship by its captivating beauty.

***

I have taken an admittedly contrarian view on the topic of screen technology in worship. Indeed, any call to rethink implies that the process may involve discarding some ideas and reforming some assumptions. Yet I have not indulged in a simplistic “all technology is bad everywhere” jeremiad. I have pointed out that just as it is true that not all technology is bad everywhere, it is equally true that not all technology is good everywhere. The wisdom is in discerning between what’s good and what’s bad—or perhaps even more difficult, between what’s good and what’s best.

Not all technology is bad everywhere … not all technology is good everywhere.

I have presented a range of empirical, cultural, and theological observations that I believe support the conclusion that congregations which resisted the impulse to direct attention to the screen may rightly feel validated in their decision. I sense that this may also be a good time for congregations who bet all the blue chips on the power of presentation technology to reexamine whether such practices will foster the kind of embodied community that offers a countercultural witness to the commercial logic of the attention economy. The modern world is oriented toward the fundamentally ephemeral model of content delivery, but the gospel creates an eternal community gathered around a word and a meal. While I remain fascinated by technology and enjoy the benefits it has brought to my life, it seems nonetheless unmistakable that the character of the kingdom to come will be decidedly more human than machine. Perhaps it will be best for the character of our worship to reflect this in a time like ours.

By Caleb Bassett

Pastor Bassett serves at St. Stephen, Fallbrook, CA. He is a member of the WELS Hymnal Project Executive Committee, serving as chair of the Technology Committee. He has designed the project’s public website as well as its private side for managing work by seven subcommittees.


“Moderation…”

Worship the Lord previously addressed projection in numbers 27 and 28: worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/wtl-church-architecture. Note the supplemental content posted along with the archived issues. One item is “Designing a Worshipful Environment,” 38 pages of helpful content by former Mission Counselor Wayne Schulz (d. 2011). See “Screens or Not?” Regarding some uses of projection, he wrote in 2000/2005, “Time will tell if this serves as an aid or a distraction….”

See also Caleb Bassett’s presentation from the 2017 worship conference, a narrated presentation “Screens in Worship,” worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/2017-worship-conference-presentations. Direct link: vimeo.com/228517631.


Holy Week Resources

If you haven’t finished planning for Holy Week, find some ideas under Church Year Planning Resources here: worship.welsrc.net/church-year-planning-resources.

Check for new music at NPH: online.nph.net/music-video/sheet-music/choral-music.html. Use the seasonal filters to find a new setting by Phillip Magness of “He’s Risen, He’s Risen.” Also John Reim’s “Lamb of God,” perhaps with a vocal quartet (or two voices on a part) if you don’t have a regular full SATB choir. Could the string trio part be played on an electronic keyboard?

 

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Renovation: St. John, Burlington, Wisconsin

Sanctuary interiors are like wedding photos. They are snapshots in time of a sacred event. They represent a Christian congregation at its finest, offering the Lord their very best.

When a couple gets married, they’ve spent months, even years, planning for the big day—whether that wedding is a small gathering of family members or a large church full of people. And when the service is over and the wedding photos are taken, the bride and groom are as joyous, stunning, and well-dressed as they will ever be. So it is with sanctuary interiors. When a worship space is constructed or renovated, months, even years, have been spent planning for the work—whether that sanctuary is the small, redesigned storefront of a mission congregation, or the towering edifice of a well-established, 1000 member congregation. And when the construction is complete and worshipers gather in the newly renovated space, the sanctuary interior is as joyous, stunning, and well-dressed as it will ever be.

But as wedding photos age, the attractive couple therein—still beautiful—is inevitably locked into that moment in time, with its fashion style, its look. You can usually guess in which decade a couple was married by looking at the wedding photos. And you can usually guess which decade a church was built by looking at its sanctuary. As the worship space ages, it still remains beautiful in its own right. But it is locked into a moment in time, with a certain style, a look.

St John's, Burlington, WI - Before

Before

St. John’s Lutheran in Burlington, Wisconsin is a beautiful church with a long, rich history. Founded in 1858, the congregation built their first church building in 1875. But impracticality in maintenance and growth in membership required new construction. In 1980 a brand new, gorgeous sanctuary was erected and dedicated to God’s glory…representing the very best of 1970s style. And just like a wedding snapshot from the 70s—picture periwinkle suits and puffy white dress sleeves—the St. John’s sanctuary retained the look of that era. Bright orange carpeting covered the entire floor and chancel. Low hanging light fixtures were “buoys of light in a sea of darkness,” according to our design architect. The balcony, which was originally designed for extra seating but later became the “choir loft,” was impractical for musicians. New lighting, new flooring, new balcony design—these became the focus of our renovation.

Lighting

Longtime members of St. John’s and members of the original church building committee say our nave pendants gave inadequate light from day one. Even at the original church dedication some people were disappointed. Apparently the lighting contractor actually said, “Well, it’s a lot better than other churches we’ve done.” Before the renovation, some people would sit directly under the light fixtures just so they would have enough light to see the hymnal.

So we hired an architectural design firm to put together a new lighting plan for us. No more low hanging pendants, which create an artificial ceiling of light. Now we have linear banks of lights hanging only a few feet from the 40’ high ceiling deck, as well as high-powered can lights pointed down at the pews. We also added additional LED spotlights to brighten the chancel area and replaced the narthex lights with bright LEDs.

St John's, Burlington, WI - After

After

What a change! Now all can see the hymnal and the service folder—and each other. Now we can see the beautiful, golden varnished, knotty pine ceiling deck. (When people asked us what we did to the ceiling, we said, “We just put light on it.”) Now we can see the carefully detailed carvings on the face of our large, chancel cross. Now we can see the face of the pastor in the pulpit. Now we can see how badly we needed new lighting.

Wedding photographers used to comment to me about how difficult it was to take good pictures. Members used to lament that they couldn’t see the expressions on the pastors’ faces. Some people with decent vision used the large-print service folder, just for added help. Not anymore.

Some of the members of the original church building committee said afterward that this is the kind of lighting they wanted from the very beginning. There is a happier, more celebratory atmosphere noticeable in the sanctuary now. Instead of a dark, intimidating house of worship, now we gather in a bright, joyous space to receive Word and sacrament with fellow believers.

There is a happier, more celebratory atmosphere.

Flooring

The time for flooring change was overdue. The orange carpet had become a laughingstock among members. People talked about purposefully spilling coffee on the floor to force the update. I don’t think anyone actually did that, but we did have plenty of sippy cup spills and accident stains. We even had a large bottle of Communion wine slip from someone’s hands and crash to the floor, leaving permanent traces. And try as we might, we just couldn’t lift the stains and return the orange carpet to its original glory (?). The anecdote shared often at congregational meetings was, “If we get brand new lights, then we’re going to see just how bad the carpet really is!” Since the pews needed to be removed for the electricians’ lifts anyway, we decided now was the perfect time for new flooring.

Our sanctuary floor slopes down toward the chancel, like in a theatre. So we decided to keep carpeting in the aisles and entryway. But, mindful of improving the natural acoustic of the space, we installed under the pews a hard surface—luxury vinyl planking. Congregational participation in song and liturgical dialogue has improved greatly. Now worshipers can hear themselves and those around them speaking and singing better than ever before.

Congregational participation in song and liturgical dialogue has improved greatly.

Symbols of the means of grace

Symbols of the means of grace

For the chancel we wanted the very best. The chancel deserves the best because its furnishings remind us of how the means of grace are delivered through Word and sacrament. So we installed a lovely ceramic tile which coordinates well with the wooden chancel furnishings, brick walls, and bright reredos wall. All the hard surfaces have greatly improved the acoustic of the room, and the carpeted aisle ways alleviate slip concerns—a win-win for everyone.

Additionally, we installed under the carpeting a hearing loop system, which wirelessly transmits the signal from our church audio system directly into hearings aids equipped with t-coil technology. This allows worshipers with hearing loss to finally hear the service and sermons clearly, as opposed to picking up all the ambient sounds taking place in the sanctuary around them. Our hearing impaired members speak very favorably about the new hearing loop technology.

Balcony

Our balcony was impractical for musicians, and yet most of our musical ensembles perform from the balcony. Since our members typically do not sit in the balcony for worship, we decided to completely redesign the floor plan to allow for more flexibility for our musicians. Faceted floor risers now allow a director to stand front and center, with a choir wrapped around them in a semicircle. Fixed balcony pews were replaced with individual, stackable chairs. Handbell tables, previously retrofitted over existing pews, are now positioned more comfortably on the risers. Custom cabinets for choir folders, sheet music, and bell cases have decluttered the previously disorganized work area. Now the balcony is versatile enough to meet the needs of vocal, brass, string, guitar, and children’s ensembles.

Here’s one small but impactful change we made to the balcony: we replaced the glass panels of the balcony railing with an attractive façade of steel cables. This allows music to pass unhindered through the balcony railing, instead of being blocked by it. And the result was not the industrial appearance some feared. Now the congregation often comments on how much better they can hear the handbells, choirs, and organ.

An attractive façade of steel cables allows music to pass unhindered through the balcony railing.

Speaking of the organ, we gave our congregation’s main instrument for worship a complete makeover. The relay system was replaced with digital components, the electrical wiring was updated, the console was touched up, and the inoperative pedals and stops were all fixed. Once tuned and voiced, the organ now sings in the acoustically enhanced space like never before. “Majesty” is the word that comes to mind when I think about the refurbished organ. (The impact from an improved acoustical setting applies to any instrument, not only a pipe organ, and especially to congregational singing.)

We also use piano for worship quite frequently. The old keyboard was becoming glitchy. So now a digital baby grand piano accompanies choirs and leads worship from its own designated space near the organ. In sum, the balcony has become a dream come true for our musicians.

Committee Work

Sometimes working on a committee can be a drag, especially when competing personalities clash and narrow-minded stubbornness prevails. But when a committee is comprised of people passionate for the project, united on the goal, and committed to a cooperative spirit, committee work can be a real joy.

That was the case for our Sanctuary Refurbishment Committee (SRC). We sometimes had different ideas and strong feelings, but God blessed us the kind of camaraderie that makes working together for the common goal exciting and fun. In our four years together as a committee, I can’t recall the men and women of our SRC ever speaking sharply to one another. Instead, our meetings were characterized by prayer, patience, perseverance, and productivity—and frequently some homemade chocolates from a chocolatier on our group.

Member Commitment

It certainly wasn’t just the SRC forwarding the renovation project, however. The congregation really took ownership, as well. Our last Sunday in the old sanctuary was July 16. After the second service, over fifty members came together to prepare the room for renovation. Together we removed all the pews, ripped up all the carpet, and put into storage all the Bibles, hymnals, and church furnishings. It was an inspiring display of congregational solidarity.

An inspiring display of congregational solidarity.

So was the inflow of donations. We started with some savings and memorial seed money. But within a few short weeks, the necessary $270,000 was raised to complete the project debt-free, without the guidance of a special funding program. The outpouring of financial support for the project was overwhelming. Everyone wanted to fund the project, at whatever level they were able. God’s Spirit moved the members to contribute to a project they knew would outlive themselves and benefit the next generation.

For fourteen weeks we worshiped in our school gymnasium, which meant changes for everyone. The altar guild had to set up Communion in the school kitchen. The accompanists had to play the piano in front of everyone. The pastors had to preach from a school stage. The worshipers had to sit on metal folding chairs. The ushers had to rethink their responsibilities. The singers had to do without their harmony lines from the hymnal. We all had to worship on a basketball court. And we all had to pitch in to make sure chairs were set up and the gym was worship-ready. But the comforts we lost were made up for in the unity we strengthened. We realized that it’s okay to worship in a hot gym; it’s okay for the pastor to not wear his robe; it’s okay to stand for Communion; it’s okay for the bell to not be struck at the beginning and end of the Lord’s Prayer; it’s okay to sing everything from the service folder; it’s okay for the bleachers to be the worship backdrop. It wasn’t ideal. But it did bring us together as a congregation; it did remind us that “Where two or three gather in my name” (Mt 18:20), there Jesus is with us; it did make us eager to return to our renovated worship space.

Project Stories

Two fun stories may give the readers a chuckle. We ordered the wrong spotlights for the chancel. Somehow, somewhere communication broke down, and the wrong pieces were shipped. Replacement would have been easy enough, but by the time the second order was placed, we were running short on time. We had already set the rededication date, and we had a large wedding the following Friday. Then we received word that the correct spotlights and housings were delayed—by several weeks!—due to manufacturing complications. So one of our committee members baked homemade, chocolate chip cookies, drove them to the manufacturer 100 miles away, gave them to the production staff, and urged them kindly to speed along our order. We got the lights just in the nick of time!

Then, once the electrician had the lights installed, I was with him up in the lift, over forty feet in the air, positioning them to correctly shine onto the chancel. In order to reach the lights furthest from the lift, the electrician stood on top of the railing of the lift, leaned well over the edge of the lift, and stabilized himself with one hand on a ceiling beam. This made me more than a little nervous, and I expressed to him my concerns. He said to me, “Don’t worry, Pastor. I do this for a living.” I looked up at him and said, “Well, I do funerals for a living!” He got the point.

Rededication

We rededicated the St. John’s sanctuary on October 22. We used the same hymns, Scripture readings, even much of the same rite of dedication from the original dedication in February 1980. The theme for the project, and the occasion’s sermon text, was Psalm 26:8—“Lord, I love the house where you live, the place where your glory dwells.”

And that love for God’s house was evident that rededication day. There were tears, smiles, and hugs. There was sense of accomplishment and a feeling of humility. There was Word and sacraments as the congregation heard the gospel, tasted the gospel, and witnessed an infant washed with the gospel. There were gifts given by God to his people—forgiveness and grace. And there was a gift given by God’s people to their Lord—a refurbished sanctuary dedicated to his honor, glory, and praise. “‘Tis Thine for us, ‘tis ours for Thee” (Come, Jesus, from the Sapphire Throne, TLH 634:2).

And pictures were taken, just like at a wedding, because the rededication of this sanctuary was a snapshot in time of a sacred event. The sanctuary looked as joyous, stunning, and well-dressed as ever—same beautiful church, with a new, updated look.

I suppose the comparison would be to a husband and wife renewing their vows. They probably aren’t wearing the same clothes they wore years ago on their wedding day. Their outfits are new, their look updated. They are the same attractive couple as in the original wedding photos—still beautiful, still the same people—but no longer locked into that moment in time.

St. John’s sanctuary no longer looks locked in the 1970s. It’s still the same beautiful church, the same dignified house of worship it was at its 1980 dedication. But now some new photos can be added to the album—photos of an attractive, refurbished space with a fresh look and a new outfit, a place where God will continue visiting his people and where people will continue meeting with God.

And this renovated sanctuary is where the people of St. John’s will worship, until it needs refurbishing again, or until we make it to the sanctuary that needs no refurbishment committee—the holy, heavenly dwelling of the Most High God, where Jesus will someday bring us to live with him for eternity, and where all Christians will joyfully exclaim, “Lord, I love the house where you live, the place where your glory dwells.”

By Kirk Lahmann

Pastor Lahmann has served at St. John’s in Burlington, WI since graduating from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in 2009.


Additonal Photos

Additional photos and the dedicatory service folder are available at https://worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/worship-the-lord-renovation-projects/.

 

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Renovation: Luther Prep, Watertown, Wisconsin

Fifty years ago, the chapel on the Watertown campus was the worship gem in the WELS worker training system. It was a newly-built, neo-gothic structure with a fine neo-baroque Schlicker pipe organ of modest size. The organ, dedicated on March 14, 1963, was supported by a fine acoustical environment. It led the robust singing of the student body for decades. The sound and sheer volume of the singing gave me and my classmates goose bumps the first time we attended chapel as freshmen at Northwestern College. The Watertown chapel served up life-giving truth and life-long memories to thousands of called workers in WELS.

Gradually, the rest of the WELS worker training campuses caught up with—and surpassed—the chapel at Watertown. Michigan Lutheran Seminary reconfigured her old gym into a chapel/auditorium with good acoustics and a moveable 180-degree seating pattern. Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary installed a Martin Ott pipe organ and would later redo the entire chapel, earning a design award.1 Martin Luther College worshiped for decades in an auditorium until the New Ulm campus was blessed in 2010 with the Chapel of the Christ.2 All of these chapel projects have been welcome upgrades to our worker training system. They are molding and shaping the next generation’s expectations for public worship in WELS. Our synod is richly blessed as a result.

Over the years, while other chapels were improved, the Watertown chapel began to show her age. It received some attention during the mid-1990’s at the time of amalgamation when Martin Luther Preparatory School and Northwestern Preparatory School were combined on the Watertown campus as Luther Preparatory School. At that time, a link was built between the Library-Science Building and the main Classroom Building. The size of the chapel immediately became an issue. LPS enjoyed the blessing—and significant challenge—of having more students than the chapel could hold. The solution was the installation of a large, sloped, carpeted balcony. The seating issue was solved, but the acoustics of the chapel were drastically altered. The organ’s voice was dampened and could barely be heard underneath the balcony. The students’ singing was significantly impacted…and not for the better.

Chapel Before

Since amalgamation, other chapel improvements were generally piecemeal and not carried out with a view toward the whole. The sound system was upgraded, but the controls remained in the sacristy. Large black speakers were at odds with the wood and glass of the room. Little white space-age looking speakers were installed under the balcony to try to accommodate the poor acoustics. New lighting was installed, but with a different fixture style and light intensity than the older fixtures. Pews were mixed, some from the original chapel, others installed post-amalgamation. The sacristy, really a storage room, remained untouched. During a visit in 2014 I was surprised to see that neither the room nor its contents had changed since college graduation back in 1993!

The genesis of the chapel project

The chapel project began as yet another minor improvement. The 1950’s blond wood laminate on the altar and pulpit was beginning to chip, bubble up, and peel away. It was originally envisioned that the “new” pulpit would utilize parts of the old and generally look like the old. The laminate of the reredos was in good shape, but the altar itself needed significant work. The initial proposal for a new but not very different pulpit and altar was estimated at $2,000-4,000. The chapel had no baptismal font. The initial proposal kept a “?” behind the baptismal font, noting that it would be good for “both symbolic and practical use.” It was thought that these items could be provided as a graduating class gift.

Along with cosmetic furniture repair, another urgently needed improvement was being discussed. The pipe organ had received no major maintenance since it was installed in 1963. The organ was inspected by Dr. Edward Meyer in the fall of 2008. His report noted many maintenance issues. The organ chamber had accumulated 55 years of dust. The organ needed to be re-leathered. The keyboards needed minor repairs. More ominous, however, were the “long-range” issues. The air lines needed to be replaced. The entire electrical system needed to be upgraded. The cloth-covered, low-voltage wires were a fire waiting to happen.

Dr. Meyer’s report also addressed serious acoustical issues:

When the organ was acquired, the chapel interior did not have the 1995-balcony, nor did it have carpet in any area. The organ was designed for the space and it served well in that environment. It was bright, strong, transparent, and supported the hearty singing of 300+ men easily. The room acoustics have been drastically altered since that time…. The balcony overhang hinders sound from reaching the worship space beneath it. The soft floor covering near the altar and in front of the first pews absorbs a generous amount of sound—both vocal and instrumental. The result is an organ that is no longer fully capable of carrying out its originally intended roles as it once had.

Dr. Meyer’s report then listed five acoustical suggestions to enhance the room. The report concluded with a recommendation to expand the tonal variety of the organ. The additional stops would have cost another $150,000. In short, Dr. Meyer’s report gave the LPS administration about $190,000 of things to think about—not including the acoustical recommendations. It became obvious that the chapel needed more than new laminate on the furnishings. It needed a complete overhaul.

“Let’s do it right”

With a proposal in hand for partially-new chancel furnishings, with another proposal for organ maintenance under discussion, with acoustical enhancements being proposed that would alter the look of the chapel, and with the 150th anniversary of the Watertown campus on the horizon, the LPS administration decided to seek some independent counsel. With two sons enrolled at LPS, I was asked to serve as chapel consultant. President Crass expressed a strong desire to “do things right.” The next year was filled with questions of what was “right” for the Watertown campus, her students, and the church body she serves. These conversations were a blessing. The results of these conversations we commend to the Lord of the Church and the constituency of WELS.

The first question the project had to answer concerned the organ. The organ had longevity on its side. No one really wanted to be done with it. But the maintenance issues would need to be taken seriously. If we performed all needed maintenance and brought the electrical issues up to code, the total cost would have been well-north of $100,000 and would have cannibalized over half of the project’s original budget. That’s a lot of money to invest in an organ that everyone knew was inadequate for the post-1995 space. Should we just live with it? Opt for an electric organ? What about installing a used pipe organ? How about a minor expansion of the current instrument? All these options were explored and eventually rejected. None of them were quite right for LPS.

The organ issue bled into larger issues with the room itself. What about the acoustics? It would be poor stewardship to sink money into the organ while the room remained acoustically unfit. The acoustical question raised the issue of flooring, a mix of carpet and tile. (This then led to another issue: asbestos!) Study of flooring options raised the practical question of pew removal and reinstallation. Should we really reinstall pews that were in worse shape than the chancel furnishings that started the project in the first place? The administration of LPS became convinced that this was the right time to opt for new pews as part of ongoing campus maintenance. The rest of the project would be paid for through the synod-wide thank offering that was underway to celebrate the campus’s 150th anniversary.

The school administration hoped that something could be finished for the 150th anniversary year. The first element completed was the new baptistry. I proposed the baptistry concept to the administration after preaching for chapel. I noticed the beautiful tower with six windows just to the east of the main entrance doors. (The only thing in the tower, however, was a donated kitchen table on which students placed their books and backpacks.) About the same time, Prof. Robert Bock visited Trinity, Waukesha for the baptism of his granddaughter. During coffee hour, he commented that there were six stained glass windows from the pre-1995 chapel in a crate in the basement of the cafeteria. About the same time, my son came home from LPS one Friday eager to show a video of an international student being baptized at a chapel service. I noticed that a stainless-steel bowl was used for the water. At Taste of Ministry Day, I found out that the Scharf family’s popcorn bowl was used for the baptism.

The baptistry, “a theologically rich center point”

A plan came together. The six stained glass windows from the pre-1995 chapel windows were framed in wood and hung in the six clear glass windows. The mix of stained and clear glass balances color and light. The six windows are hung thematically: Two windows picture the Word of God, two the Church, and two the sacraments. Instead of catching dust in the cafeteria basement, these windows now catch light in the center of the campus. The used kitchen table was replaced with a beautiful wooden baptismal base designed by Massmann Studios. The base was a labor of love by Matthew Staude, a NPS alumnus. His craftsmanship and attention to detail are a beauty to behold. The popcorn bowl has been replaced with a substantial stone basin inscribed with the Latin words BAPTIZANTES EOS IN NOMINE PATRIS + FILII + SPIRITUS SANCTI, a nod to the classical heritage of the campus. It is hoped that the baptistry, underwritten by a gift from the NWC Alumni Society, will serve as a theologically rich center point on the campus for the next 150 years.

Stone basin with Latin from Mt 28:19

Meanwhile, the organ plank in the project began to take on a new life. Once again, the school administration expressed a wish to do things “right.” LPS certainly does things “right” when it comes to training future church workers in general—and church musicians in particular. LPS trains more students in organ than any other high school in America. WELS needs these young musicians. The chapel organ, used several hours a day by multiple musicians, needed to become a higher priority. When issues of cost were discussed, it was noted that the school had, in the past, spent significant resources on items deemed important to the school’s mission (especially the athletic fields). The organ portion of the project was handled much like it would be in a WELS parish. The organ wasn’t paid for out of the school’s budget or the LPS150 special offering for chapel renovation and tuition assistance. It was paid for by additional gifts from the Lord’s people who hold in their hearts a special love for LPS’s music program. The organ was dedicated with a plaque thanking God for the teaching ministries of Prof. and Mrs. Franklin Zabell. Prof. Zabell now sings with the choirs of heaven. Mrs. Zabell continues to teach a new generation of organists to lead choirs on earth.

After several interviews, the organ contract was awarded to Berghaus Pipe Organ Builders of Bellwood, IL. The new instrument used almost all the pipes of the old Schlicker organ, added several new ranks of pipes from an Italian Ruffati instrument that Berghaus had recently acquired, as well as a few ranks of new pipework. The new Berghaus instrument still has two manuals, but now has 33 ranks of pipes (1871 total pipes) and 33 stops. Its expanded tonal resources are ideal as a teaching instrument. Its robust tone fills the chapel without being overpowering. The new instrument inspires singing and has the gravitas to truly lead the assembly’s song. The organ footprint now takes up both sides of the chancel. The Great and Pedal divisions are to the left where the old Schlicker pipes stood. The Swell division is to the right where the old sacristy/storage room stood.

The organ now speaks directly into the sanctuary, rather than being enclosed in a room that opened only into the chancel. Two more benefits were realized as a result of the organ case’s new footprint: 1) Two additional stained glass windows, previously hidden in the pipe room and sacristy, are now visible to worshipers. 2) The chancel steps have been reconfigured (widened and deepened) so that choirs can now sing from the steps with the organ providing direct support.

Repairs to pulpit and altar were the initial focus of the chapel project. Attention to these primary furnishings expanded to include: altar, pulpit/ambo, processional cross stand, paschal candle stand, pastoral chairs and tables, candle bases, and hymn boards—all fashioned out of white oak instead of blonde laminate. These furnishings were designed by Massmann Studios and crafted by Matthew Staude. The pulpit and altar are both topped with stone, truly worthy of a school of the prophets. Ours is an enduring message!

Doing the project right meant not doing some things at all, for now. We did not enhance the sound system or improve the lighting. Why? No more money in the budget. It was decided that these two elements could be handled at a later date as resources become available.

The Watertown campus has been a blessing to WELS for 150 years. May she serve us well for another 150 years! May the Lord pour out his blessing upon those who preach, play, and sing—that our children would be inspired to tell the children’s children the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord!

By Aaron Christie

Pastor Christie serves at Trinity, Waukesha, WI, where he plans worship and plays organ and piano. He is a member of the Commission on Worship and the Institute for Worship and Outreach, a presenter for the Schools of Worship Enrichment, and chairs the Hymnody Committee of the WELS Hymnal Project. He holds the Master of Church Music degree from Concordia University Wisconsin and served as a consultant for the Luther Prep renovation project.


Renovation pointers learned from the LPS chapel project

These pointers apply to any renovation project.

  1. Focus not only on the initial impetus for renovation. Keep an eye on what the proposed renovation does to the entire worship space.
  2. Keep your ear on acoustical issues. Good acoustics can easily be destroyed. The new carpet under your feet will look nice and sound terrible. Spend the money to get an acoustical study done early in the project. It is money well spent. Opt for floor coverings that both look nice and sound nice. (Hint: tile)
  3. Don’t cut corners. Instead, view your renovation as one chapter of your sanctuary’s entire lifetime. Accomplish what you can with excellence. Leave the rest for a separate phase that can be done when God provides the resources. One project, well-done, often serves as an encouragement for additional upgrades in the future.
  4. Don’t be afraid to enlist professional consultants and/or worship leaders in WELS. They are here to serve. An outside set of eyes and a lifetime of different experiences often prove helpful to building committees that are seeing things up-close and very personal.

Worship Conference Resources

Various items are available at the Worship Website: workshop handouts, service folders, repertoire lists, presentation files (both PowerPoint and PDF versions), and photos. A double CD of musical highlights should be available in December – a great gift-giving option. Check NPH for the title “A Mighty Fortress.”


1 See Worship the Lord #21, September 2006, available in the WTL online archives. The LPS chapel dedication worship folder is available at https:/worship.welsrc.net/ download-worship/worship-the-lord-renovation-projects/. Numerous photos of the LPS project are at https://www.lps.wels.net/page/chapel-renovation-photo- gallery.

2 https://mlc-wels.edu/history/chapel-of-the-christ/


 

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Renovation: Green Bay, Wisconsin

 

Our congregation’s chancel renovation story isn’t a success story. It’s just a story. But it’s a story about God’s work among his people, and that makes it a story worth telling.

A Generous Offer

St. Paul was founded in 1883 by a faithful band of Lutherans who were on the orthodox side of the election controversy. Since 1953, services have been held in mid-town Green Bay in a beautiful, stained glass-bedeckled neogothic building with gray concrete walls reminiscent of a castle. The congregation saw visible growth in the early to mid 20th century, but there was a Protéstant-related shake-up in the early 1980s, and the aftershocks were felt for some time. Though faithful leaders and dedicated laypeople continued to do their best with gifts the Lord provided, and though the congregation continued to enjoy a number of bright moments, a slow and steady decline in membership and worship attendance over the next few decades led some to become worried. Is the Lord still at work among us?

In 2012, a generous member anonymously offered $200,000 in matching funds to renovate the front of the church. There were practical reasons for the offer. The wood finish of the chancel furnishings and reredos were showing signs of age. Communion traffic patterns and a short communion rail meant that Communion distribution occupied an unnecessarily large block of service time. A number of aging members were struggling to climb the three steps into the chancel to approach the rail. Though the person offering the gift preferred that the renovated space look a certain way, he also graciously expressed his desire that the congregation work through the matter, support the effort, and decide how the chancel should look.

Encouraged by the anonymous offer, the conversation attracted more voices, together with more expressions of personal preference, all of which fell neatly into one of two categories, either It’s time for a change! or I wouldn’t change a thing! And while there were practical reasons to renovate, there were also practical reasons to spend money in a different way. An aging building like ours needed attention in other places just to function properly.

But the conversation kept moving forward. Since our aging chancel furnishings were covered by a thin wood veneer that wouldn’t allow for refinishing, and since it was desirable to receive Communion on the main floor level, we talked about new chancel furnishings and new flooring up front. It wasn’t long before we were talking about new flooring for the whole church, more space between pews, a balcony redesign, and lighting improvements. The plan took shape, and the work began. During the renovation we were able to move the pews downstairs to the fellowship hall and temporarily hold services there.

A Principled Approach

A congregation that had seen relatively few changes over the past number of decades now found themselves dealing with a number of changes all at once. It wasn’t just the proposed changes to our worship space. New staff was serving in leadership positions. An increasing number of Latinos and other ethnicities made for a changing demographic in our church neighborhood. Some who had been worried in the past were now excited. But another group was alarmed by so much change, and now they were the ones dealing with the temptation to worry. Is the Lord still at work among us?

Before (See After above.)

It’s the root of all congregational worry, isn’t it? Whether the perception is that the changes are too many or too few: Is the Lord still at work among us?

We knew Scripture’s answer. The Lord was at work among us through his means of grace. There may have been disagreements over how much should be changed, but we all agreed on the blessings of Baptism and the power of Communion. We all believed that God’s Word would not return to him empty. The renovation of font, altar, and pulpit was the perfect time for the congregation to remember the doctrine of the means of grace, and we did so in our sermons, our Bible classes, and our conversations. It was freeing to remember that this project was not primarily about preferences. It was about the Gospel.

It was freeing to remember that this project was not primarily about preferences. It was about the Gospel.

Even our decision about flooring was related to the means of grace. We wanted to let the word of Christ dwell richly in people as they taught and admonished one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit (Colossians 3:16). A sound system can help people in the pew hear the preacher up front. But no sound system in the world can help people hear those sitting in the pews around them. We needed a space that was acoustically reverberant. A liturgically-minded acoustical consultant encouraged us to take out the carpet that was in our chancel and in our aisles and to install hard-surfaced flooring material. Some people weren’t so sure about this idea. Some members were afraid church would become too noisy, or that the floor would be slippery in winter. The tech who tuned our sound system counseled us to add carpet, not take it away. Even the workers who installed our new floor said, “Are you sure you want this?” But we stuck to our guns.

We needed a space that was acoustically reverberant.

A Blessing from God

This principled, means of grace-focused approach to our renovation was a true blessing for us all, but from a pastoral perspective it didn’t make the work any easier. Just the opposite. To actively encourage a means of grace emphasis meant being involved with the whole project, which required a staggering time commitment. And the pressure involved in bringing people together sometimes has a way of leaving a leader feeling trapped in the middle.

In fact, as wonderful as the project was, it wasn’t easy for any of us. When a congregation receives a large gift, it is indeed a great blessing from God’s hand, but perhaps not in the way some expect. To those who are given much, much is required. In our setting, people were forced to wrestle with painful questions. Are we too stuck on memories? Are we too intent on making ourselves look awesome? Are we too worried about what other people think of us? Are we not worried enough? Behind them all was one big question that none of us could escape: What is most important to you?

The Lord was uncovering false gods in our hearts and refocusing us on the means of grace.

Through it all, the Lord was at work. He was at work most clearly and most powerfully week after week through his means of grace. This would have been true whether we renovated or not. But he was also at work in the project itself, especially in all the fine messes we got ourselves into. In every discussion and disagreement, he was uncovering false gods in our hearts and refocusing us on the means of grace we intended to highlight in our project. Tears were shed. Forgiveness was spoken.

The cross in the floor assures us of why it is that we sinners can approach God’s throne of grace.

In January of 2016, we dedicated the renovated space with a special service focusing on God’s gracious promise to be present among us in Word and Sacraments. Attractive new ceramic tile covered the whole floor. Lighting in church was not brighter, just less yellow, and the change in hue made everything look better, including printed words on the page. The former altar was now a part of the reredos, and a new free-standing altar stood in the middle of the chancel. The matching pulpit and lectern which had occupied each side of the chancel had been removed and replaced by a new baptism font and ambo. Next to the font stood a paschal candle. Next to the ambo stood a processional cross. The chancel floor design visually connects the altar to the place in front of the first pew from where people would receive Communion. Ambo, font, and altar were finished in a darker color, the color of the church ceiling, to set them apart from the lighter-colored reredos behind them. The cross in the reredos was visually tied to altar, font, and ambo by means of that same color. The reredos and the candelabras in front of it were touched up in their original lighter color. It was a day of thanksgiving and great joy.

An Ongoing Challenge

Now that our project is done, we have an ongoing challenge before us, a challenge we were facing already before the renovation. We can’t let the furnishings and the symbols in our church become more important to us than the message they’re intended to convey. We must continue to find ways to teach the meaning of our symbols and the purpose they serve, lest any of us begin to value created things more than the Creator.

We must continue to find ways to teach the meaning of our symbols.

The challenge isn’t ours alone. Whether you are worshiping with a large, established congregation or with a little band of new Christians, whether your space for gathering is ornate or sparse, people benefit from explanations of why they do what they do and why their church is decorated and furnished the way it is.

The following paragraphs were originally printed in our dedication booklet to explain the symbols in our church. (This booklet, with numerous photos, and the dedication worship folder are available at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/worship-the-lord-renovation-projects/.)

CROSS: He was pierced for our transgressions—Isaiah 53:5

A cross occupies the central place in our chancel. Our life in this world and the next depends on what Jesus accomplished for us by his suffering and death. By the shedding of his blood, he has atoned for the sins of all people.

FONT: All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ—Galatians 3:27

Martin Luther said, “Baptism is so full of consolation and grace that heaven and earth cannot understand it.” Though a person is only baptized once, Holy Baptism brings daily blessings. Every day our sinful nature needs to be drowned in repentance before God, and every day our Baptism is a resurrection from the dead (Romans 6:3-6). In our struggle against sin, our Baptism tells us who we are, children of God, through faith in Jesus. The victory is already ours. The font is a symbol for all this. Even before a word in church is spoken, the Baptism font speaks for itself.

PASCHAL CANDLE: Because I live, you also will live—John 14:19

Located near the Baptism font, the paschal candle is a symbol of the resurrection. It is lit on the Sundays of Easter and whenever there is a baptism or a funeral. Christ is risen!

ALTAR: This is my body; this is my blood—Matthew 26:26,28

Sacrifices offered on Old Testament altars foreshadowed the one sacrifice by which Jesus atoned for the sins of the world. The altar in our church is more than a table from which we serve Holy Communion. The altar serves as a symbol of Christ’s atoning sacrifice and of God’s abiding presence. Our freestanding altar allows the pastor to face the congregation as he consecrates the bread and wine.

AMBO: The Lord said, “Say whatever I command you”—Jeremiah 1:7

Good preaching takes hard work, but it is not the preacher that gives a sermon its power; it is the Word of God that he preaches. An ambo is a symbol for the proclamation of God’s Word. It functions as both a lectern (from which scripture lessons are read) and a pulpit (from which sermons are preached). When a preacher stands behind the ambo he is inviting the congregation to remember that the message they are hearing from him didn’t originate with him. He is preaching the Word of God.

PROCESSIONAL CROSS: We preach Christ crucified—1 Corinthians 1:23

Next to our ambo is a raised cross, signifying to all that the suffering and death of our Savior Jesus Christ is at the heart of every sermon preached. When the cross is used in procession, we are reminded of Jesus’ gracious promise to be with us who have gathered in his name.

NEW FLOOR: You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood—1 Peter 2:9

Each believer has the privilege and the responsibility of proclaiming what God has done for them in Christ. When believers gather together in worship, that message is begging to be heard from them. By replacing carpeted areas with ceramic tile, we’ve livened our acoustical environment in a way that enables worshipers to hear not only the preacher who stands up in front of them but also the preachers who are speaking and singing in the pews around them.

CHANCEL: The front of our church preaches a sermon without words. Baptism, Communion, and God’s Word are symbolized by three furnishings of matching color. Each of these three pieces is connected in color to the central cross above and behind them. If God’s Son Jesus had not gone to his cross, Baptism could not save us, Communion could not feed our souls, and God’s Word could not set us free. But Jesus has suffered and died for us, and now every promise of God is “Yes” in Christ.

When you come to church and your endurance has been stretched thin by the troubles of this world and your heart is weighed down by sin and guilt, “listen” to that sermon with your eyes. In your baptism, God has proclaimed you his child, clothed in the righteousness of Jesus. In Communion, the Lord sets his table for you and serves you the forgiveness and the fellowship with him for which you long. The Word of God you will hear is the truth, and the truth will set you free. Each of these symbols is located in a space that spills out onto the main floor, on which a tile floor cross invites you and all your fellow worshipers to approach God’s throne of grace with confidence so that you may receive mercy and find grace to help you in your time of need.

A Story Worth Telling

Over a year has passed since our dedication service. Concerns about the floor being slippery or the space being too noisy were completely unfounded. Congregational speaking and singing is noticeably louder and heartier. Replacing the floor provided us an opportunity to install a hearing loop, which has been of benefit for many. We’ve created means of grace focal points by means of color and careful placement and by condensing the pulpit/lectern combination to just one ambo. But what do people think of the chancel? Does everybody like what we did? The majority of people are happy and appreciative of the end results, including many who weren’t so sure to begin with. Still, if everybody loved what we did, it wouldn’t be ministry, would it? Though the debates and arguments have gone away, some are still quietly concerned that too much is changing around here, and others are quietly concerned that we aren’t changing enough. But like every other ministry story, this one isn’t about what people like. It is a story about God’s work among us, and that’s what makes it a story worth telling.

If everybody loved what we did, it wouldn’t be ministry, would it?

Whether you have an opportunity to renovate or not, the Lord is always at work among his people. What a blessing it is to know that his church everywhere will not only survive, it will triumph! Under his blessing, every mess is worth it, every tight spot, every extra bit of effort expended to bring God’s people together around what is most important each week. Our labor in the Lord is not in vain!

By Jon Zabell

Pastor Zabell serves St. Paul, Green Bay, WI. He is chairman of both the WELS Commission on Worship and the WELS Hymnal Project and is a consultant for the synod’s Schools of Worship Enrichment. He was a member of the Hymnal Supplement Committee and chaired the Supplement Introduction Committee.


 

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Renovation: Woodbridge, Virginia

“Will it have bathrooms?”

This was a key question. Our congregation had been meeting in a rented, one room, 1850 church building without running water. Now we looked to purchase and renovate a previous day care facility as a church. The answer was “Yes”! The purchase was made. But then the work of renovation began.

Our previous 1850 building, which had doubled as a hospital in the Civil War, lacked many basic and functional components of a worship space. But at least it looked like a church. The space projected a sense of reverence when worshipers entered. Granted, that sense might be skewered when they sat on a loose nail in a 100-year-old pew, but overall the facility proclaimed itself to be a place of worship.

The new building didn’t look like a church.

The new building didn’t look like a church. There were no high, arching ceilings or obvious sanctuary space. And the bathrooms? They had running water, but the toilets were designed for the average two-year-old and were only about 18 inches high. The facility was located on land that a teenage George Washington had once surveyed. As we surveyed the scene in present day, we realized that a top to bottom renovation was needed.

“Where do we begin?”

Every room in the building needed to be addressed. Walls needed to be knocked out. New toilets needed to be installed. New flooring and paint and ceilings and doors needed to be ordered. It was exciting!

But it was also daunting. How would we make a one story, former daycare into a space that encourages worship and fellowship? How would we make the sanctuary appear to be a place for worship, and not just a converted cafeteria or multipurpose room?

How would we make all of these decisions? How would a volunteer building committee, the members of which had high demand day jobs in the shadow of Washington, D.C., wade through the scope and sequence of such a project? How would we work together and divide the duties without the duties dividing us?

How would we work together and divide the duties without the duties dividing us?

And, since we were a growing but still relatively small congregation, a WELS mission outpost, how would we pay for all of this?

We realized that we needed help. We decided to search for a consultant to guide us.

Soon after, we learned that not all consultants are the same. Some did not return our phone calls (probably due to the relatively small size of our congregation). Some spent a few minutes in our facility and suggested we simply carpet everything, sanctuary included, because “it would be the cheapest.” One consultant, who had worked on designing exhibits at the Smithsonian Institution, suggested that we install a six foot high white marble monument with baptismal font. It was a nice idea, but would have blown our budget before a single drop of water graced our basin. Some suggested we install as small of an altar platform (or “stage”, as they would often refer to it) as possible to cram as many people into our sanctuary as possible. In the end, most of the potential consultants that we interviewed had never seen a typical Lutheran worship service nor seemed interested in listening and learning about what would truly enhance our worship space.

We learned that not all consultants are the same.

That changed when Paul Barribeau of Groth Design Group, Cedarburg, Wisconsin, returned my phone call. We talked for an hour and a half during our first conversation. He listened. He learned about our space and goals. He considered the limitations and opportunities that our budget afforded. He understood what liturgical worship that strove to balance reverence and relevance would require in a facility. Having obtained a degree in classical languages, a Master of Divinity, and a master’s degree in architecture, he understood both mission minded, excellent liturgical worship and a balanced budget. We knew that we had our man.

…both mission minded, excellent liturgical worship and a balanced budget…

His first step was to visit us onsite. During this visit, he gave a presentation to the congregation which explained the principals of church renovation and shared success stories complete with before and after pictures of previous projects. You could feel the excitement in the air as our congregation began to dream of the future of our space. Questions of “how are we going to do this?” became replaced with excited exclamations of “I can’t wait to see how it will turn out!”

Soon after, we used our Sunday morning Bible study to consider the principles and purposes for our project. We studied God’s blueprints for the temple, not to try and replicate what the Israelites had done, but rather to reinforce the truth that God did not apologize for calling his people to use the best gifts at their disposal for the house that would represent his name. We studied Haggai and considered how both the furnishings and financing of our facility could serve to proclaim our faith and to honor God. As the Israelites of old, we were comforted by his promises to be with us as we moved forward. We considered what aspects of our well-furnished homes would also work well in God’s house. For example, many of our homes have high end, top quality countertops on which to prepare peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. What, then, should the table that holds the sacrament in God’s house be like? How could it honor God and draw attention to the gifts he wants to give us?

We emphasized that the purpose of our project was to honor God and give glory to his name, not our name. We pondered how our facility could be a visible witness to the world around us about his love for us and our love for him. This helped move mindsets from questions such as “What would be good enough (and least expensive)?” to questions such as “How can we responsibly yet reverently use our resources to honor our Redeemer? What is the best that we can do to thank him who gave us all?”

“What is the best that we can do to thank him who gave us all?”

As we studied God’s Word as a congregation and worked with our consultant as a building committee, we were able to formulate a plan and procedure for the decision-making process. Our consultant knew which decisions needed to be made first. Much in the same way that a pastor systematically knows the steps needed to create and craft a sermon, our consultant knew which decisions needed to be made in what order. He was able to break these steps down into manageable portions for our committee in a sequence that would address the most impactful decisions first.

At each step, he provided our design committee with two or three possibilities for each decision, explaining clearly the pros and cons of each. As our committee met and systematically worked through each decision in the weeks and months to come, an excited momentum formed. Committee meetings were filled with enthusiasm and anticipation. As decisions were made, a sense of progress and accomplishment grew. That progress, and, as much as possible pictures of the progress were shared with the congregation through periodic emails, announcements, and bulletin inserts. And yes, we kept everything in budget!

What was the result? A space that conveyed relevance and reverence. A place of worship and welcome.

What did that look like for us?

We wanted a look that was clean and timeless. We wanted a feeling of reverence and relevance. We wanted to project a sense of warmth and connection. Many of our people work among millions in massive Washington D.C. buildings, including the United States Capital and the Pentagon. They aren’t necessarily looking for that same experience on Sunday morning. Many are not looking to worship amid thousands or even hundreds in a huge building on a Sunday morning. They appreciate the feel of community that a smaller space can bring. They want to feel connected to others.

For a secular example, consider the popularity of Starbucks. Most patrons are not excited about drinking a latte in a facility that seats 600 people. Instead, they will gladly seek a Starbucks not only for the quality of coffee but also for the feel of comfort, coziness, and community in the space. This same desire for closeness and community is often expressed by those commuting in our community of millions.

That being said, our people and community also like things that are well done. They see through the tacky and trite. They want timeless.

To implement these goals, our seating was positioned in three sections around the altar platform. The three sections of pews remind us that we gather together around the Word and sacrament in worship. While our focus remains on the altar and cross, this seating arrangement also helps us to see one another and provide mutual encouragement and interaction in our worship experience. This three-section layout of seating around the altar echoes some of the earliest church designs in Christianity.

Altar in front of reredos wall

A clear maple wood reredos wall was installed which suggests an open book or the opening leaves of a door. The angle of the wall centers attention on the cross, while the door image reinforces the hospitality of the congregation and the call to worship. The book-like image reminds us that we have a faith founded on the Word of God, and are called to share that Word with our community.

Practically speaking, the hard wood bounces sound back to the congregation when prayers are spoken or psalms are chanted in the direction of the altar.

The windows have no coverings. This helps to bring in as much natural light as possible, reminding us of Christ, the Light of the world, who shines upon us. It also reminds us that we are to share the message that is proclaimed in worship with the neighborhood and world outside of our building, inviting new faces to join in the assembly of the blessed.

We installed a large, white oval around the ceiling in our rectangular, four cornered sanctuary. This oval, with recessed lighting and a dark blue ceiling to frame it, gives the visual impression of a higher ceiling. Historically, the square or rectangle is the symbol of the earth or of the mortal realm. (Think about how we still use language of this: the earth has “four corners” and “four winds.”) The symbol of the divine or eternal is the circle or oval—a shape without beginning or end. The oval within the rectangular shape of the room acknowledges that in worship the earthly and heavenly/divine meet, as Jesus himself is with us in Word and sacrament.

We used high quality, vinyl tile flooring that does not require buffing or waxing. It was very important that we avoided carpet, as any fabric in a one story room would easily deaden the sound so that we could not hear each other singing. Consider how this is purposefully accomplished in a funeral home, where heavily carpeted, one story rooms serve to muffle the sounds of crying from the assembly. The laminate flooring also works well for clean up in a congregation full of Cheerio-eating toddlers.

Hand-blown glass font

The light wood tones of our altar allow the color of our paraments to pop. These paraments were hand-sewn in Belgium and picked with the aid of a liturgical consultant. Especially striking is a hand-blown glass baptismal font, in a vibrant blue with a texture that looks like flowing water. This font is uncovered and in prominent position in the sanctuary.

In our entire facility, you will not find a single white, off-white, or beige wall. Why? These colors, though often considered “safe” or “light” by some, actually tend to convey a sense of institution and harshness. We wanted to project warmth and welcome. Our walls are a combination of tans, rich blues, and greens. The paint colors were suggested by our professional consultant, and planned to work in harmony with each other throughout the entire facility. This use of warm colors is one of the most consistently noticed and appreciated features of our building by first time visitors. To return to a previous illustration, think about what color scheme you see at your local Starbucks or Panera. You don’t see white walls. You see a palate of warm colors that work in harmony throughout the building, encouraging visitors to linger.

What did we learn through the process?

We learned that it is important to recognize what will work well and be appropriate for your own space and place. Most people think about what a church should look like in terms of the church they grew up in, and for many WELS members, that is a large, stained glass laden neo-gothic mini cathedral in the upper Midwest. The same design elements that make such a building beautiful there might not work in a smaller building on a smaller scale with a smaller budget on the coasts. That is fine. Timeless beauty which directs eyes, minds, and hearts to the timeless truths of the gospel can still be accomplished in a smaller, non-traditional space. Small steps on limited resources can still lead to someplace wonderful!

Timeless beauty … can still be accomplished in a smaller, non-traditional space.

Small churches might think that consultants are for big churches with big budgets. I would argue the opposite. The more limited your budget, the more important it is to make decisions that will bring you the most value for every dollar spent. A consultant can not only help you to spend your money wisely, but spend it in ways that will actually equip and enhance your endeavors for years to come. As a side note, the few decisions that we made without the aid of our consultant, though not greatly important, took much longer and resulted in much more toil and agony. When a committee of volunteers with full time jobs and no professional training in large scale, multi-use public building design and decoration needs to formulate ideas from scratch (and attempt to agree on those ideas), the process will often be painful and the result will usually be less than desired.

The finished facility has allowed for consistently increasing worship attendance, educational programs, and fellowship. More importantly, it has encouraged us to gather around Word and sacrament and proclaim God’s love to the world around us. Our congregation’s habits have dramatically changed on Sunday mornings, as well. Instead of entering worship at the last second possible and then hustling out of a cramped, one room 1850 church building as soon as possible after worship to find a facility with bathrooms or recover from pew wounds, our congregation lingers before and after worship and enjoys fellowship with one another. In fact, they enjoy fellowship in our facility so much that at times it is a struggle to get worshipers to enter the sanctuary on time, as they are so happy to talk with one another in the comfortable, warm, well-appointed narthex or fellowship hall. On the flip side, some take an extended time to exit the sanctuary after worship, as they enjoy being surrounded with visible symbols of their Savior’s love, post service music that rings in an acoustically excellent environment, and the welcoming atmosphere of their family in Christ.

We give thanks to our gracious God, who allowed us to renovate an existing space into a place brimming not just with bathrooms, but with beautiful symbols of Word and warmth.

By Jon Bergemann

Jon Bergemann has served as pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Woodbridge, VA (near Washington, D.C.) since graduation from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in 2003. He serves on the Commission on Adult Discipleship and the North Atlantic District Worship Committee. He is also a member of the NIV2011- ESV-HCSB translation review group, a consultant for the Commission on Congregational Counseling, and a mentor in the Pastor Partners Program. 


Additional photos of the renovation project are available at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/worship-the-lord-renovation-projects.

 

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Renovation: Morton Grove, Illinois

Jerusalem, Morton Grove was founded in 1902 on the north edge of Chicago. Back then it was a farming community made up of mostly German immigrants. A first sanctuary was built in 1903 and renovated in 1929 after a fire destroyed much of the interior. Arch-shaped, stained-glass windows were added at that time. They were fabricated by the Milwaukee studios of Carl Reimann, who provided many Wisconsin Synod sanctuaries of that era with iconic, biblical scenes as depicted by German artist Heinrich Hofmann.

After the Great Depression and World War II, Morton Grove ceased being a sleepy, farming village and instead became part of a bustling, metropolitan area. Families snatched up the tidy rows of new suburban housing. Many new residents were Lutherans seeking a new church home. Baby-boom families flocked to utilize Jerusalem’s quickly growing grade school. The membership swelled to nearly 800 at its height, and soon the old 1903 structure was deemed inadequate and in need of replacement.

Under the leadership of Pastor George Boldt, who had been installed in 1955, the congregation resolved to build a new sanctuary, laying its cornerstone in 1963. The new church would double the congregation’s seating capacity and provide additional room for the school’s gospel ministry as well. Reimann’s stained-glass windows were preserved and set within a panoply of multi-colored rectangles along the west wall of the worship space, but everything else was new.

This new sanctuary served the congregation well for forty years, but by the turn of the millennium what had been new was no longer. The basic structure of the sanctuary was still solid and sound. In many ways it was even timeless, with its red-brick walls and rich, wooden ceilings. But what was considered cutting-edge in the 1960s was no longer modern, and what had once been considered an ecclesiastical luxury—such as red carpeting down the aisles and in the chancel—was now identified by leaders as a serious impediment to both ministry and maintenance.

The intervening years had also taken its toll on Jerusalem’s membership, due in large part to a steep rise in the cost of residing in an inner-ring Chicago suburb. Pastor Boldt famously joked about “Mortgage Grove,” but the flight of Jerusalem members to Chicago’s far-reaching suburbs and a severely-declining birthrate now compelled the congregation to view gospel ministry differently. By the early 2000s, Jerusalem’s membership numbers had fallen to less than 400, and worship attendance had fallen in kind.

It was becoming clear that the congregation could no longer rely on growth from within. The Lord Jesus was graciously leading his people in Morton Grove to reach out with the gospel in a determined way. And what opportunities he was providing! The surrounding community now included mostly-professional people from all walks of life and from many tribes and nations. In recent years, many immigrants from East Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Mideast have moved into the area. This required the members of Jerusalem to reconsider their approach to ministry and mission through their church and school. As part of the overall ministry reconsideration, it was time for the congregation to evaluate its worship space and to ask questions about our current sanctuary’s function and form. Many members desired to improve the function of the sanctuary, to allow for more flexibility of use, and to enhance the beauty of the sanctuary.

Lighting

When the new sanctuary was built in 1963, the latest technologies in lighting were utilized. While the congregation experienced an improvement over the lighting provided in the 1903 building, this system still left the sanctuary quite dim. Dark red carpeting was placed in the aisles. The only natural light into the sanctuary was mostly provided through the west-facing stained glass windows, meaning that morning services saw little in the way of sunshine. Older members had difficulty seeing their hymnals, and the shadowy sanctuary was less than inviting to the visiting eye.

When the first phase of sanctuary renovation work began in the summer of 2008, the lighting system was the first item addressed. New pendants shed much additional light on the floor, adding vibrancy the space. Perhaps most striking, however, was the light these pendants cast upward on a lovely sanctuary ceiling that had too long dwelt in darkness. Proper lighting alone has done a world of good and enhanced the congregation’s worship greatly.

Before: a dark 1960s chancel

Small spotlights were also installed which highlight three stone reliefs symbolizing the Trinity on the east wall of the sanctuary. Cove lighting along the sanctuary perimeter provided additional warmth to the worship setting. An easy-to-use control panel made lighting entirely dimmable. This panel makes it possible to set up a variety of lighting levels for the sanctuary as well as to focus spot lighting on select areas. This has enabled us to have a variety of lighting schemes for special services such as Tenebrae on Good Friday and Candlelight Services on Christmas Eve.

Before the installation of new lighting, the chancel area was rather dim. New spotlight track lighting brightened the chancel significantly. One long time member commented on how he never realized how beautiful the brick and stone work looked in the chancel area until after the new lighting was installed. Another member expressed that the chancel has a more comfortable and intimate feel when going to communion.

Seating and Flooring

After: a well-lit and inviting space

The second issue to be tackled was seating. The 1963 sanctuary was designed to provide comfortable seating for an assembly of 300 people, all with affixed pews. But with attendance in a single Sunday service now rarely exceeding 125 people, a former ministry necessity had become a ministry hindrance. Worshipers would often be welcomed to an empty-looking sanctuary, giving the wrong impression that Jerusalem was a less-than-vital congregation. Some longtime members had also become accustomed to sitting in the rear of the sanctuary under the balcony, meaning that the main seating area was often sparsely populated. The pews had been placed closely together which made it difficult for some members to get in and out of the pews.

Ultimately it was decided to remove the pews from the under the balcony to bring worshipers together in the main seating area. This also provided a flexible gathering space in the back of the sanctuary that could be used for overflow seating, classroom space during the week, and small fellowship gatherings. Several rows of pews were removed from the main seating area to provide more comfortable leg room. The pews nearest the chancel and those in the balcony were replaced with interlocking, upholstered chairs to offer flexibility, especially for musicians and other service participants. Space was also provided throughout the sanctuary for physically-handicapped seating, when necessary.

This second phase of renovation commenced in the summer of 2009 and included new sanctuary flooring. The red aisle carpeting was completely removed along with the crumbling asbestos floor tile under the pews. In its place ceramic tile was laid, with different colors and sizes for the aisles (large gray tile) and under the pews (standard cream-color tile). A checkered border between the tile added aesthetic interest, as did a mosaic of the Luther Rose near the entry.

The Luther Rose mosaic near the entry serves as a focal point as worshipers enter the center aisle. Some first-time visitors have noticed it and asked what the symbolism is all about. One member says that when she invites a friend to church, she points them to the Luther Rose mosaic and explains how it symbolizes our faith in Christ and the blessings he brings.

When the chancel flooring was similarly replaced during a third phase in the spring of 2011, two mosaic Jerusalem crosses added to the sanctuary’s Christian symbolism. Not only did the ceramic tile provide beauty (especially through light refraction), durability, and ease of maintenance, it improved the sanctuary acoustics dramatically, making electronic amplification virtually unnecessary.

A member commented about acoustical improvement after the new tile flooring was installed: “When we first came to Jerusalem, I was dismayed by the acoustics. I thought the congregation just wasn’t much for singing. After the changes were made I realized that the carpeting was soaking up all the sound!”

Musicians have commented that the improved acoustics have made playing more enjoyable. The sound of singing and instrumental music is definitely more lively. Before the renovations, one musician would often hear from worshipers that they had trouble hearing any instruments. Another musician, who plays violin, notices the difference. She comments about how she “appreciates the presence the violin now has; it’s there, giving me feedback, resonating through the sanctuary, the natural tones of my instrument flowing out and returning to me, lifting my playing.”

Artistic and Musical Enhancements

Over the next several years, the congregation concentrated on smaller projects that would enhance the worship space through artistic and musical expression. New banners were purchased to highlight the changing seasons of the Church Year and their different biblical themes that symbolize and inform the Christian life. The sacristy was renovated to provide a better working space for the altar guild, including cabinetry to store the paraments and banners. A grand piano was placed near the chancel to provide variety in the leading of worship. An historic 1904 copy of Heinrich Hofmann’s Christ in Gethsemane was restored and regained a place of prominence in the sanctuary. This painting had hung behind the altar in Jerusalem’s first sanctuary and was spared in the 1929 fire. For many years it had been relegated to a balcony stairwell, collecting dust and going unnoticed. Now it was hung again in the sanctuary, viewable upon entry as an explicit reminder of Jesus’ patient suffering for our salvation.

Stained Glass Window Renovation

Stained glass windows

A final touch to Jerusalem’s sanctuary renovation work was provided in 2015 when the stained glass windows were repaired and expanded with the help of the Conrad Schmitt Studios of New Berlin, WI. The biblical scenes that had once been set in arched frames in Jerusalem’s first sanctuary now received similar artistic settings that outshone their predecessors, as the Hofmann depictions were supplied with their original context. The addition of south-facing windows that illustrated Jesus’ birth and crucifixion, alongside scenes of his baptism and institution of Holy Communion, highlighted significant events in his work of salvation that had not been included in the original set of 1929 windows. These high vertical windows in the rear of the sanctuary were crowned with scenes of the two great kings of Jerusalem, David and Jesus, a reminder of the heavenly Jerusalem to which the eyes of faith are fixed and over which our Savior reigns forever and ever.

The beauty of the windows attracts the eye’s attention and provides good talking points with visitors, members, and children—much like the Luther Rose mosaic. Some visitors have commented on the windows and asked about them. This provides an opportunity to share the gospel message which the windows convey and that the members of Jerusalem want this good news to be the heart and focus of our mission, ministry, and worship.

Conclusion

When some of the changes to the sanctuary were first proposed, some felt that they were not needed or at least didn’t need to be a high priority. The thought was “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” After the work was complete, one member commented on changed attitudes: “The renovations have helped many people, especially myself, realize that change can be good when trying to give God our best and reach out to the community. Many people who visit say, ‘Your church is beautiful.’ While the church’s goal isn’t to be materialistic about the beauty, artistry can give glory to God and serve as a ministry tool. It can be appealing for people who come in off the street and see what’s inside.”

Cultural expectations are high in Morton Grove. Many improvements have made Jerusalem’s worship space inviting for members and visitors while also providing facility flexibility for gospel ministry in a fluid, metropolitan setting.

Written by Peter Prange

Peter Prange is pastor at Bethany, Kenosha, WI. He previously served at Jerusalem, Morton Grove, IL when a renovation project was begun. His service to the church at large includes the committee that prepared Christian Worship Supplement and co-authoring Jars of Clay, a history of Wisconsin Lutheran seminary. He served on the Commission on Inter-Church Relations from 2004-2017.


The final renovation work at Jerusalem wasn’t finished until after Prange had accepted a call away. Some insights into the blessings of the completed project, woven into the article above, come from Jerusalem’s current pastor, Jonathan Kehren.

Additional photos of the renovation project are available at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/worship-the-lord-renovation-projects.


Acoustics in the Worship Space

A nine-part series of articles by consultant Scott Riedel is available at riedelassociates.com. Riedel’s company has served numerous WELS clients (and not only regarding acoustics), including Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Martin Luther College, Luther Preparatory School, and Michigan Lutheran Seminary.


Renovation, gospel impact, challenges, blessings

Pastor Prange comments on measurable outcomes from this remodeling project, one that didn’t have a simplistic “build it and they will come” strategy.

Jerusalem’s everlasting struggle will be its low visibility and trying to do ministry in what has become a strongly secular community with a very low tolerance for basic biblical truths, much less those that are more challenging.

The truth is that, in terms of gospel ministry impact, a school renovation Jerusalem undertook had a much greater positive impact on their ministry than the sanctuary renovation, opening some doors for introducing people to Jesus and/or deepening their understanding of the gospel. Even now, school enrollment is maxing out, while the membership and worship attendance continue to decline (but with a slight uptick in 2016). Transitioning people from school to church has been a challenge.

If your congregation is unsure about what priorities should receive highest attention and when, check out various options from WELS Commission on Congregational Counseling, ccc.welsrc.net. For a variety of resources to help with improving transition from school (LES or early childhood) to church, find “Telling the Next Generation: Utilizing Schools for Outreach” at cls.welsrc.net.

Here are three resources that might be helpful when people have questions about the value and cost of excellence. All are available at worship.welsrc.net.

“Sermon at the Dedication of the Seminary Chapel Organ,” by James Tiefel, Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly, Fall 1991, v88.4. Look under “Valuable Worship Reading.” Excerpt:

So, when we dedicate ourselves to what is lovely and worthy of praise, we are really doing it on the basis of nothing less than an apostolic encouragement…. We do not have to invent some convoluted defense for the joy we feel as we pursue art and music—and that is right, when we pursue a musical instrument—which are lovely and worthy of praise…. We can enjoy and strive for those things which even unbelievers—to say nothing of countless believers—consider to be among the highest forms of artistic expression known to man and among the noblest contributions western civilization has ever made to society…. We can use our time and engage our energy and spend our money on what is also lovely and praiseworthy among human beings.

“Excellence for Christ in All Things,” by Aaron Christie in Worship the Lord No. 42, May 2010. Excerpt:

When our new sanctuary was built, a few voices raised questions about the granite top on our altar. But dozens of members’ homes have granite counter tops. If dozens of members’ children eat Cheerios at a granite-topped breakfast bar, might the Lord’s Supper be worth the same level of quality? The granite top on the new altar wasn’t opulent. It is simply putting into practice what David said to Nathan: “Here I am, living in a palace of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent” (2 Samuel 7:2). In our suburban American context, the granite altar top was excellent, not opulent.

“Excellence in Worship,” by James Huebner, the keynote address from the 1999 WELS national worship conference. Look under “Valuable Worship Reading.”

 

 

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Renovation: Maumee, Ohio

Resurrection’s first service was held celebrating Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday, 1983. After worshiping at a fire station, shopping center, and YMCA, our sanctuary was constructed in 1991. Rather than building a WEF facility (worship-education-fellowship), the congregation pushed to build a sanctuary that would be large enough for the church to grow into. The tradeoff for more square footage was used furnishings.

The century-old altar was from a WELS church in Michigan. It was painted white with gold accents and had a reredos with intricate carved spires. The altar, along with the matching pulpit, lectern, and font, was beautiful, but out of place in the architecture of the rest of the building. The pews were from a Catholic church, and seasoned members knew which seats to stay clear of to avoid being pinched. The vacuum-tube organ was a hand-me-down from a church that had itself received it as a hand-me-down, and the Communion rail was from a church in Green Bay. Even before the sanctuary was dedicated, there was hope that when the time was right the furnishings would be updated.

Ten years later, it was time to start work on another building project—an expansion including a fellowship hall, four classrooms, offices, bathrooms, and an excellent kitchen. Renovating the sanctuary at the same time was also considered, but an expansion and a sanctuary renovation were too much to do all at once. The fellowship hall expansion was dedicated in 2006.

When I arrived in 2010, the members were eager to see if it might finally be time to complete the renovation. They had heard enough visitors over the last four years remark, “What a nice kitchen you have!” While well-intended, those words were the kind of backwards compliment that sticks in the craw of Lutherans who want the most memorable part of Resurrection to be our worship life together in the sanctuary—not the kitchen.

And so, the idea of renovating the sanctuary was on the table at the council meeting nine days after I was installed as pastor. Within four months, a committee was working to design a sanctuary that would emphasize Christ. Our architect and liturgical consultant understood that Lutheran worship centers around the means of grace and were able to help us design a layout and furnishings that fit with and proclaimed our faith. Two and a half years later, on Easter Sunday 2013, we celebrated our 30th Anniversary in our new sanctuary.

A Building & a Church

One of my seminary classmates reminded me recently: “Building the building is a lot easier than building the Church.” That’s because the Church isn’t made out of bricks and mortar. It’s made out of people. As difficult as it is to have 160 people agree about paint colors, it’s even harder to change one human heart.

One of the dangers of an article like this is that it can come across as a rosy fairy tale of success. Yes, we completed our sanctuary renovation, and yes, I’m happy to share some of our joys. But a renovated sanctuary has not solved all our problems, because in the end our greatest struggle at Resurrection never was the fact that our sanctuary couldn’t live up to the kitchen.

The greatest struggle is in applying God’s Word to people’s hearts. No building project can do that; it has to be the Holy Spirit’s work. That work was going on here at Resurrection long before we updated our sanctuary, and I’m praying it will continue long after. Then why renovate? Because our building is a tool to use in ministering to people. We want a sanctuary that, to the best of our ability, points people through Word and sacraments to Jesus Christ and the forgiveness and hope we have in him.

Things That Needed Some Work

One of the challenges of a renovation is working within the constraints of what already exists. For us, that meant the exterior walls and the steel posts supporting the roof had to stay put. But inside, we had much more flexibility. Because of our history, no one here at Resurrection was emotionally attached to the pews, and there were no “gewidmet von” plaques on the candlesticks. Not that the whole process was emotionally easy…we had plenty of things to work through together. But for the most part we had a blank slate as everything needed an update. Here are some of the areas we addressed:

Font, Altar & Pulpit

The new font, altar, and pulpit are now in a line on the central aisle. As you walk into the sanctuary, the means of grace are visually emphasized one after another: Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, God’s Word. After seeing the limited options in church furniture catalogs, it was exciting to design our own furnishings with our consultants. The pulpit can be popped up on castors and moved for special events (for example when the Seminary Chorus came for a concert). The free-standing altar and the font share a matching octagonal design. The heavy sandalwood stone tops are from a quarry in Colorado. Neighboring Toledo is nicknamed “Glass City” because of the history of that industry here, so we had our font bowl handmade by a local glass artist. On the ring of the bowl is a paraphrase of Romans 6:4,5…one more way to emphasize the resurrection at Resurrection.

Artwork

Altar and font – before

Aside from the chancel furniture and a pair of vinyl-on-canvas banners, our sanctuary didn’t have any artwork. Our architect liked to refer to the huge, bare, back wall as the “sea of drywall.” Our renovation addressed this in two ways. First we added architectural detail—the kind of things that bring the room together without demanding your attention. Wainscoting wraps the room. Pilasters ring the back half, and a stained oak organ chamber façade has replaced the “sea of drywall.” We saved the eye-catching artwork for emphasizing Christ Jesus, crucified and risen, and the means of grace. A crucifix is suspended over the altar, and a new stained glass window of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene on Easter gives the whole space the flavor of Resurrection. In the year after the renovation we were able to add new paraments on the pulpit, banners flanking the stained glass window, and a paschal candle. While it’s easy for artwork to be the first thing to be cut from a budget, I’m glad we were able to keep these as part of our renovation. Our art preaches a silent sermon at every service and is now part of the mental image when people think of Resurrection.

Instruments

At one committee meeting, I presented a report on my dream instruments: to replace our aging upright piano with a Yamaha C2 grand piano, and to replace our vacuum-tube organ with a pipe organ. The very next meeting, one of our committee members reported: “I know a guy who wants to trade his Yamaha grand piano straight up for a Harley.” While we didn’t have a Harley to trade, it was true that a man 45 minutes away had bought a new Yamaha for his new recording studio. The studio had folded, leaving a man who didn’t play piano with a Yamaha C2 in his living room. It has amazed me again and again how God has a way of meeting our needs in ways we never knew were so close to home. We’re still waiting for the organ, though as part of the renovation we did finish an organ chamber that’s ready to receive pipes someday.

Acoustics

It takes some careful thought to find the acoustical sweet spot that’s clear for speech and at the same time reverberant for music and congregational participation. After receiving recommendations from our acoustical consultant, we replaced carpet with tile, thickened the drywall on walls and ceiling, and added 3D architectural features to diffuse slapback and flutter echoes. We added an audio loop system for people with hearing loss and worked to improve my mic’s performance in our sound system. It’s hard to say exactly how the new space would sound without those changes, and some of our members would prefer a lower reverb time. But for me proof came the first Sunday in the new sanctuary. On the way out, someone asked, “Was the piano mic’d?” I responded, “No. That’s just the room.”

Sanctuary – before

Layout

Previously, the choir gathered in the back corner around the piano. The computer desk and AV equipment were out in the open with wires all over the place. Two small sacristy closets provided limited storage but had no function for worship. Now, the old pews have been replaced with moveable seating. We have a dedicated music area made possible by removing the sacristy closets. Our new AV room is organized and can be locked.

Lighting

Buzzing fluorescent lights and can lights in the ceiling were replaced with LED spotlights, halogen uplights, and fluorescent pendants. All the fixtures are dimmable for special services.

Flooring

Worn carpet was replaced with tile. A favorite detail in the project is how our architect patterned the tile to emphasize different areas of the room. It’s like a map directing the flow of worship and drawing your eyes to the font and altar.

Four Things I Wrestled With

We’re not the only ones who have addressed these sorts of things. So rather than going into more detail on any of them, here are four things I wrestled with specific to our renovation but common to many projects:

One Room Or Two

One of our first major decisions was how to lay out the new sanctuary. Many churches are long, narrow rectangles with the means of grace set off behind a railing at one end. Some call this a “two room” design. While I haven’t seen WELS churches with a rood screen or iconostasis (as in some Anglican or Eastern Orthodox churches), I have seen churches where the pastor’s chair and the altar are separated from the congregation by not one but two sets of railings. To what extent should the pastor and the means of grace be separate from the people?

In a one-room design, the means of grace are placed among the people. A one-room design can still be a rectangle. But instead of a chancel at the end of the rectangle, font, altar, and pulpit are in the middle of one of the long sides with the people gathered on three sides. (Think of the MLC and WLS chapels.)

Since our existing footprint was basically a square, our best one-room design option was to place font, altar, and pulpit on the center aisle axis. Much more could be written about the pros and cons of each design, but one thing I like about the one-room design is how it brings people closer spatially to the means of grace and closer to one another. It is the same Baptism with the same blessings whether the font is far away behind a railing or within arm’s reach every time you enter the room. But psychologically there’s a difference between the two.

However, that closeness brings with it another question:

Solitude & Community

Sanctuary – after

Along with being a mix of young and old, men and women, rich and poor, our congregation is a mix of extroverts and introverts. Some people thrive on being with others; others want to blend in, be anonymous, and hope that no one outside their circle of close friends will stop to talk to them. So in designing a place for people to be together for worship, to what extent should worshipers be aware of the people around them?

In some designs, it’s possible for someone to sit in a pew and see nothing but backs of heads for the entire service. Not that the focus of worship is on each other. The focus is on Christ, crucified and risen, given through the means of grace. That, however, doesn’t exclude awareness that public worship is about more than just my personal relationship with God. We are members of the Church. In my daily devotions it is just me and God. But on a Sunday morning it is not just me. I am together with my Christian family.

In our sanctuary, pews are at a 45° angle to the main aisle, and two smaller banks of chairs face each other directly, with the altar in the middle. We don’t spend the service staring at each other, but we do see other faces. We commune in a complete circle around the altar, so that the crucifix is above, Christ’s body and blood in the middle on the altar, and fellow Christians on all sides. This has been a significant adjustment for people who would prefer not to be noticed. As I’ve worked through this pastorally, I still wonder: is this too much to ask of an introvert?

Empty Cross Or Crucifix

One of the most difficult decisions was whether to have an empty cross or crucifix. As Americans, it’s hard not to be influenced by the Reformed compunction about images. “It’s too Catholic!” Others wondered why we couldn’t just have Easter. I was expecting those two objections and felt I needed to push back somewhat, especially against the theology of glory embedded in the second.

The more I thought about it, however, the more it hit me that it’s also a matter of law and gospel. Every time I watch The Passion of the Christ, I feel that Mel Gibson is trying to make me feel guiltier and guiltier as Jesus is struck again…and again…and again. I saw plenty of crucifix designs where Christ is contorted in agony, as if it were a competition in the grotesque. “This crucifix ought to make you feel really, really bad!” I think for many people a crucifix is a symbol of law. They miss God’s love and grace there. If that’s the case, why would you want to hang a reminder of your guilt in your church? Doesn’t your conscience do that already?

In the end we do have a crucifix. Our renovation committee and the majority of our congregation were in favor. But I still wonder if I could have done more pastorally for those who were or are troubled by it. It hangs prominently over our altar as a visual reminder that, although many in our world may not, we boldly preach Christ crucified. It is balanced by a stained glass window of Jesus on Easter, so that Christ crucified and risen really is the focal point, not only of our message, but of our artwork as well. I’ve made it a conscious goal in my preaching to reference Christ on the cross: while people may think of their sins when they see the crucifix, they may think even more of God’s love and absolution.

Planning & Giving

Throughout our renovation I wrestled with the Catch 22 between giving and planning. The circle goes like this: You can’t draw up realistic plans without knowing how much people are able and willing to give. At the same time, people have a hard time giving without seeing the plans. So how do you begin?

In our renovation, we had to just jump in that circle and work through several cycles of planning and giving. We still have a large mortgage from the 2006 fellowship hall expansion, so we needed to complete the project without borrowing. It would have been easier if we would have known we were borrowing a certain amount of money, and that therefore was our budget. Instead, we needed to continually update plans to the unknown—what our congregation would be able and willing to give. That’s not the most efficient process. It means we had to rework the same plans several times. But sometimes working together with others is more important than efficiency.

Why Renovate Old Churches

It’s been four years now since we finished construction. Sometimes the question still haunts me: Was it worth it? The time? The financial and relational stress on our congregation?

It’s been four years now since we finished construction. Sometimes the question still haunts me: Was it worth it? The time? The financial and relational stress on our congregation?
Recently at catechism class two kids, a sixth-grader and a seventh-grader, started talking about the renovation. I didn’t prompt them. They would have been second and third graders at the time. They talked about the old pews. About the old, white altar. About the canvas banners. They talked about how glad they were that we renovated the sanctuary. That they liked to worship there. If for another generation Christ crucified and risen can be proclaimed … that’s why we renovate old churches.

Written by Timothy Nass

Timothy Nass has served at Resurrection in Maumee, Ohio since 2010 and is a member of the Michigan District Commission on Worship.


2017 National Conference on Worship, Music, and the Arts

Kenosha, WI (June 13-16) and Irvine, CA (June 27-30). Worship enrichment for everyone: laypeople, musicians, pastors, teachers, and youth. wels.net/national-worship-conference

 

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Redesign and Creative Use: Hugo, Minnesota

This architectural series is intended to present the experiences of renovating churches as they seek to make new use of existing structures for expanded ministry. As such, one might wonder why a new build facility is included in the series. But while the Hugo project was not a renovation of an existing structure, it is an example of meeting challenges through redesign and creative use of multipurpose space.

A Little History

Christ Lutheran was a founding church in the city of North St. Paul in 1887. After 115 years of faithful ministry in the community, 2002 brought an opportunity to expand Christ Lutheran’s reach to a growing community 13 miles to the north.

Hugo, Minnesota, had been a sleepy little crossroads town settled in 1850 and organized in 1870. Over the next 130 years, it remained largely agrarian and unchanged. But urban sprawl and improved roads brought suburban development. By the time of the millennium, population growth projections forecasted an exponential increase over the next 20 years. Clearly, this was a golden opportunity to connect people with the gospel.

And yet, this potential mission field was not within the parish reach of any WELS church. In fact, there were just three existing churches of any denomination within city limits. Christ Lutheran leadership recognized an opportunity for multi-site ministry, and by late 2005 a group of worshipers was meeting in the gym of the local public elementary school.

It wasn’t long before the anticipation of increased enrollment led the local school district to build a second elementary school. It would be a state-of-the-art facility and would include a cafetorium—a large gathering space serving as both cafeteria and auditorium. Its vaulted ceilings, chandeliers, polished woods and terrazzo floors would be ideal for Sunday worship. We were blessed to be able to secure Sunday morning rental of the new facility.

When the facility became available to us, it lived up to the hype. There was plenty of space for gathering, worship, and fellowship. The school provided chairs for seating, tables for eating, and even decent acoustics for singing. And if all of this wasn’t enough, the entrance was through a cross-bearing clock tower.1 Our first gathering for worship in the new space was two days before the school opened for students. For years members would joke that it was our building and we just let the school district use it during the week. It was a blessing for which we are thankful, but it did set the expectations for facility rather high if we were to ever build a Hugo campus of our own.

A Vision

As time passed and the Word was proclaimed, it became clear that there was an opportunity to be seized and a need to be met. While we made use of local gathering places like coffee shops and the community room at a local credit union, meeting space during the week was sorely needed. Guests and members alike expressed hesitance to commit to a church that continued to rent a facility rather than build. Further, families in worship, demographic research, and outreach events helped us to see the growing opportunity for sharing the gospel through child care and Christian education. Work began in earnest to develop a vision for the future long before the purchase of land for future ministry. Hugo outreach opportunities looked like they would come through childcare and a permanent presence in the community.

Facility to support this vision included a dedicated sanctuary for worship, childcare facilities for 100+ children, as well as 16 classrooms and a gymnasium for a Lutheran Elementary School. It was fun to dream, and we pray that this all-inclusive vision can one day be realized in God’s time and way. But available resources dictated a phased approach over ten to fifteen years. That left us with the challenge of seizing the childcare opportunity in a timely way, yet providing gathering space for worship and midweek events—and on a limited budget.

A Challenge

We were blessed to work with local architectural and building firms with excellent reputations. The architect helped us design a facility that would meet our needs. But it didn’t come without challenges.

Childcare facility regulations are specific regarding square footage and accoutrements. So many square feet are needed for each student and each level. Teacher-to-student ratios dictate the needed number of classrooms. Bathrooms, security requirements, kitchen regulations, and a host of other factors were largely set for us. In fact, this part of the building would prove the easiest to design. But the challenge was designing a building that would meet this specific ministry need while remaining flexible for church use throughout the week and ready for future expansion.

Working with our architect, our building committee set to work designing meeting, office, and multi-purpose space. This proved to be difficult. How do you provide gathering space that is suitable for Sunday morning worship, yet also suitable for play space during the week? How do you offer a secure facility for children, yet make the building accessible for guests and members? How do you build a kitchen space that can serve regulated meals for childcare students during the week, yet convenient enough for church fellowship events? How do you design a worship space that clearly proclaims the power and permanence of the Means of Grace, yet is flexible enough to host a community dinner or a childcare center kiddy dance?

These and similar questions kept our architect and building committee in near constant discussion. Multiple plans were drawn. Rooms were moved and re-shaped. Height, space, acoustics, technology, security, and a host of other aspects all needed to be considered. We knew God had a path for us, but we seemed to be stuck.

Centered on Christ

There is a phrase that has been proposed in the design of ecclesiastical buildings: Form follows function follows faith.2 Basically, the design of the building supports the ministry of the congregation. The ministry of the congregation is reflective of the faith which the congregation confesses. To this point, our building committee and architect had embraced “form” and “function.” But it wasn’t until we had some help and fully embraced the “faith” aspect of the phrase, that our design finally came together.

Form follows function follows faith.

The “help” came in the form of a liturgical consultant. Whether you’re renovating existing space or building new, a liturgical consultant is a tremendous help. The liturgical consultant team helped us clarify and prioritize what was truly needed to carry out the ministry we intended in the worship space. They asked thought-provoking questions. They educated our team on how light, color, and materials communicate the message of our faith. They pointed to symbols, shapes, furniture, art, and placement of such things as opportunity to point to Christ. These conversations led us to a focal point from which everything else would find centrality.

Hugo, MN - Baptismal Font

A living water font in a prominent location.

In Hugo the dominant spiritual influence is a non-denominational church with Baptist roots. This multi-campus mega-church welcomes thousands on a Sunday yet downplays the gospel in Word and sacrament. We knew early on that our confessional stance on the Means of Grace would make us distinctive in the community. We knew that we had a remarkable opportunity for future baptisms through the childcare center, and we wanted a living water font in a prominent location. The design came together when our liturgical consultants suggested a particular placement for the font. This became our focal point.

The suggestion was to place the font at the intersection of two axes: 1) the axis between the main entrance and multi-purpose space altar; and 2) the axis between the childcare center and a dedicated sanctuary to be built some time, and Lord willing, in the future. This concept shifted some rooms and moved some walls, but the placement of the font and subsequent building design would form a geometric cross. Driving the point home, the consultants further suggested hanging a suspended cross over the font. Above both, emphasizing our focal point, would be a clerestory. In the completed building the font and cross will be visible, whether from the altar, the main hall of the childcare center, or the entrance. Parents bringing their children to the center will pass within feet the focal point. These three features (font, suspended cross, clerestory) combine not only as the focal point for everyone who enters the building but also as its symbolic and geometric center, clearly proclaiming that baptism is at the heart of our mission and ministry at Christ Lutheran Church and Cornerstone Childcare Center.

Font at intersection of two axes in three phase plan.

Font at intersection of two axes in three phase plan.

Multi-Purpose—What Does This Mean?

With the placement of the font, the rest of the building fell into place. There was one exception: the multi-purpose space. We already knew that the space would need to include the typical furniture found in a Lutheran sanctuary. We also knew that we wanted these pieces to have a certain gravitas, emphasizing the power and permanence of the gospel. And yet much of it had to be movable to allow for multiple uses of the space throughout the week.

This led to a frank discussion about how the room would be used (actually, not just potentially) both by the congregation and by the childcare center. The question that needed an answer was this: Would the childcare center need the multipurpose space for active play? In other words, did it need to serve as a gymnasium as well as a sanctuary? As it turned out, it didn’t.

In order for the multi-purpose space to be considered as play space for the children, it had to be within the center itself and its security features. But because of design needs, the multi-purpose space would have to be outside the security features of the childcare center. By regulation, then, any time spent in the multi-purpose space would be considered a field trip and the space would be unusable for regular play. This was welcome news for the building committee as it struggled to balance church and child ministry. But there was more work to be done.

Not needing the space to serve as a gymnasium didn’t mean that flexibility within the space was no longer necessary. It just meant that we no longer needed to be concerned with flying discs and bouncing balls damaging furniture and walls. The space needed to be designed for acoustical balance, technological advances, positional seating, movable appointments, and adjustable lighting. It needed to be a do-it-all kind of room. A seemingly impossible task.

Bringing It All Together

It is important to note at this point, that we had a great team: architect, liturgical consultant, builder, and building committee. As a team we brought it all together through frank discussions, open conversations, and willingness to see alternative perspectives. This became increasingly clear when we hooked into a major snag.

We had finalized a design which included three phases:

  • Phase 1 – Childcare center with meeting and multi-purpose space for worship
  • Phase 2 – Dedicated sanctuary and gathering space for worship
  • Phase 3 – Classrooms and gymnasium for the addition of a grade school

It was a beautiful design giving us everything we were looking for. But when the job was put out for bids by the builder, the bids came back significantly higher than the architect and builder had anticipated. A slight increase in bids might have been expected, but the recession of 2008 had forced many contractors to scale back their workforce or to shut down completely. Consequently, though there were fewer building permits being pulled, there were also fewer workers to do the building. Contractors were able and needed to charge more for the work.

There was nothing we could do. We didn’t have the funding to build what we had designed. We had to go back to the drawing board and scale back on the features, materials, and square footage in order to bring the cost of Phase 1 into line with our budget.

This is where “team” became so important. After some tense moments of questioning and head scratching, we were able to begin redesigning together. The architect went to work moving walls and adjusting space in conjunction with building committee priorities. Building committee members reassessed technology needs and worked with designers to adjust and reposition components and access points. The liturgical consultants went through several drafts of furniture design in order to balance our desire for gravitas with our need for mobility. Musician space, traffic flow, ceiling height, window placement, and a long list of others factors all had to be reexamined and modified. It was stated above that while the Hugo project was a new build, it ended up being a near-complete redesign, one might even call it a renovation. Yet by God’s grace, the building once again took shape. In the final analysis we were still able to incorporate nearly everything we had wanted.

Worth It

As mentioned above, our desire was to have a living water baptismal font. This proved to be quite a challenge with an elegant solution. The floor of the multipurpose space is stained and polished concrete. Only around the base of the font, however, is the concrete stained in a design that highlights the cross and four gospels, thus designating the space as something special. Centrally recessed in the concrete is access to electricity. The font is designed to rise above it. Within the base of the font is a reservoir for distilled water. The water is pumped up to pool in an art-glass bowl. From there, the water gently spills over the sides, running down into another bowl. This bowl is formed in the hand-chiseled stone top of the font base. From there, the water returns to the reservoir. Because all of this is enclosed within the font, it can moved, if necessary.

Yet as impressive as the design is in its elegance and functionality, we were overjoyed to see how the glass bowl reflects the natural light, how the water dances down the sides, and how the solidity of the font captured the very gravitas we sought. Even so, the greatest joy was yet to come.

Around the inside lip of the stone bowl is chiseled a summary of Galatians 3:27. It reads “Baptized into Christ + Clothed with Christ.” These words were chosen both for the miracle they describe and for the simple explanation they provide for the emphasis we place on baptism. It was our prayer that these words would serve as a focal point and conversation center for discussions with parents about the baptisms of their children.

The conversations started immediately and continue to happen. Children love to stand at the font and watch the light play with the water as they are reminded of their own baptisms. (And yes, the occasional hand reaches out to touch the water.) Guests to the childcare center often ask of the significance of the “fountain.” And parents bring their children to be baptized. One couple connected with the childcare center asked about the font. Standing alongside it, one of our pastors was able to use the passage and the font to describe the miracle that takes place through water and the Word. The couple shared that they had sporadically attended the local mega-church. But they also admitted that they had been uncomfortable with that church’s teaching on baptism. Both felt that there was more to baptism than an ordinance of commitment. Only a few weeks later their daughter was baptized.

This is what kingdom work is all about. In the midst of challenges it can be difficult to see what the Lord has in store. He calls on us to cast the net of his gospel, promising that the results will be according to his will. Today, the childcare center is full. Dozens of souls have been washed clean through water and the Word. Thousands of souls have received nourishment through Word and sacrament. Souls are saved. Hearts are healed. Eternity is assured. It is our prayer that in this way the Lord continues to use the font, the facility, the members, and the ministry of Christ Lutheran to proclaim the gospel and share the good news of salvation through Jesus.

Written by Joel Gawrisch

Joel Gawrisch served for 14 years at Christ Lutheran before taking a call to New Life in Shoreview, Minnesota. He serves on the Minnesota District Worship Committee, the Schools of Worship Enrichment team, the Rites Committee for the new hymnal project, and with the Commission on Congregational Counseling’s Self-Assessment and Adjustment Program.


1 A local developer team of brothers had donated the property to the school with the stipulation that the building would incorporate a clock tower of their design. The sons of a Methodist pastor, the developers designed the tower to clearly incorporate a cross behind the clock face.
2 The original concept “form follows function” was first authored by American architect Louis Henry Sullivan (1856-1924). Sullivan is considered to be the “father of skyscrapers.”


2017 National Conference on Worship, Music, and the Arts

Kenosha, WI (June 13-16) and Irvine, CA (June 27-30). Something for everyone: lay leaders, musicians, pastors, teachers; Children’s Choir and High School Honor Choir. wels.net/national-worship-conference.

 

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Renovation: Liverpool, New York

“Was this a house before it became a church?” “Isn’t that a dentist’s office?” “I didn’t know there was a church there.” Back in 2005 when we restarted Cross of Christ as a mission, one of the biggest challenges was establishing a community identity. After ten years without a full-time pastor, the congregation’s identity in the community was that they worshiped in a very small, dark brown building set far back from the road with a giant maple tree towering over it. To those in WELS circles, we were striving to re-establish our identity in the community while maintaining a classic 1981 WEF unit that still had the original orange carpet.

A Practical Concept with Unintended Consequences

During the boom years of planting missions back in the 1970s and 1980s, a WEF facility (Worship-Education-Fellowship) was the typical “next step” for WELS mission congregations when they transitioned from rented space to their first permanent space. At the time, the WEF unit was a practical concept that was intended to be a flexible “starter” facility for missions which would expand their multi-purpose building as they grew. Unfortunately in many cases, this practical concept had unintended consequences.

WEF congregations often found themselves saddled with debt, which hindered timely expansion. This often resulted in the “starter” church unintentionally becoming permanent and future phases being put on the back burner. Because they were intended as transitional buildings, WEF units were not typically designed with the best quality. They became difficult to maintain after years, even decades, of wear and tear from multi-purpose usage. As congregations grew, the WEF unit’s size, typically under 2,100 sq. ft., often limited the available space for growth and flexibility in worship, education, and other areas of ministry. In fact, it was not unusual for a mission congregation to already be outgrowing its WEF by the time the facility was dedicated. As you can imagine, restarting a mission with an aging WEF unit was going to be a challenge.

The Need for Space

Some improvements provided a clearer identity to our community that benefited our outreach efforts: clearing trees, repainting the building white with brown trim, and paving the parking lot. But these improvements did not address the key weakness of a WEF unit—available space for worship, education, outreach, and other areas of ministry in a growing congregation. Within five years of the restart, it became clear that an expansion and renovation of the facility was desperately needed. Whenever attendance reached 60-70, our gathering space and musical space diminished considerably. One Easter Sunday the choir had to stand in the back corner tucked around the organ and piano since there was no other room to stand. Fellowship after worship, which played a key role in post-worship contacts with guests, required breaking down a sizable portion of the worship space to make room for standing and chatting over refreshments with scant room for tables and chairs for seating. During the late spring through fall, this issue could be somewhat relieved if people stepped outside, but winters in Central New York can be harsh when large amounts of snow descend on the area.

Our study committee sought an approach that we described as “Lutheran flexibility.”

As the Lord blessed our mission efforts and with these increasing challenges in mind, Cross of Christ formed a study committee in 2011 to determine what we would need to do to expand and renovate our WEF facility for a growing congregation. We determined that we needed “a clearly defined and liturgically-themed sanctuary that has some flexibility for other uses, with the WEF being converted into multi-purpose ministry space.” At the same time, we were mindful of the fact that our budget would be limited. As we discussed the concept that we would present to potential architects, our study committee sought an approach that we described as “Lutheran flexibility.” This would be demonstrated in the design of a dedicated worship space, which focused worshipers on the cross and on the means of grace with font, altar, and ambo, while providing flexible seating for 150-200 using interlocking chairs. The worship space would be designed with an emphasis on “beauty in simplicity” with natural light built into the design—a necessity in our area especially in winter. More adequate space would be provided at the rear for musicians, instruments, and choir. The WEF unit would be converted to flexible education, fellowship, outreach, and gathering space, while needed offices and storage would be part of the link between the buildings. Most importantly, we wanted our finished facility to clearly and unmistakably identify us as a Christ-centered church in our community. Thankfully the Lord provided a local architect, who was willing and able to work with us to develop our concept, even though ours was the first church he ever designed.

We wanted our finished facility to clearly and unmistakably identify us as a Christ-centered church.

Three years of ups and downs, challenges and blessings, passed before shovels went in the ground for our expansion and renovation. Unexpectedly high costs for the original design and some confusion with the financing led to downsizing that design and a one-year delay on the project. That extra time, however, allowed us to gain valuable knowledge in an architectural design that beautifully emphasizes the use of the means of grace while providing flexible functionality for all areas of ministry. In late 2014, with financing approved, Builders for Christ1 came onboard to assist us with renovating our WEF and adding 2,600 sq. ft. of worship and office space. Upon that approval, sub-committees were formed to make decisions for the interior of the sanctuary, the interior of the renovation, the exterior of the building, and for construction.

More Than We Imagined

We broke ground on Easter Sunday 2015 and work went quickly. What resulted from all that planning and studying and deciding and building was breathtaking for everyone who knew the former facility.

350x263-article-worship-liverpoolexteriorold

Exterior before

Our original worship space was a rectangular box with tight aisles and metal folding chairs that typically seated 50-60 people and no more than 80. Our new sanctuary fans out around the main focal point of the raised chancel area. Rows of flexible interlocking chairs provide seating for 90 with room for up to 150+. The wide aisles and the increased space between seating rows provides much more freedom and flexibility of movement, especially for families with young children.

Our original worship space had four narrow windows that provided limited natural light. Our new sanctuary is bathed in natural light from a large 10’x10’x10.5’ cupola that opens above the center of the sanctuary at the peak of the roofline drawing your eyes heavenward as you walk into the sanctuary. Twelve 4’ tall windows ring the cupola providing natural light at all times of day. At the rear of the sanctuary a set of 10’ tall windows brings in the morning light and allows passers-by to see into our sanctuary. Probably the most unique feature that brings in natural light is the two 9’x6’ cross windows that stand on either side of the raised chancel area. Both were originally installed with frosted glass, but a member with training in stained glass design is creating panels that will be installed on the interior side of the windows. During the day natural light shines through them into our sanctuary. At night, both cross windows are lit up from the inside for the passing public to see. Even during construction, the visible cross windows were the most recognized aspect of our design that people in our community have mentioned.2

At night, both cross windows are lit up from the inside for the passing public to see.

350x263-article-worship-liverpoolexteriornew

Exterior after

Our original worship space had small pendant lights hanging from an elevated ceiling in one half of the main room, while the back half had fluorescent lights in a dropped ceiling. The new sanctuary is much more well-lit and balanced with its lighting. Two rows of tall pendant lights follow the seating line towards the chancel area. Two pendant lights above the chancel area shine directly above the ambo and the font on either side of the altar drawing the eye to these symbols of the means of grace. An LED directional light shines on the large wooden cross hanging on the back wall of the chancel. Bronze-colored wall sconces ring the sanctuary with indirect light and LED strip lighting provides indirect light upwards from the base of the cupola. This new lighting design proved to be particularly powerful during our Tenebrae service on Good Friday as the different sets of lights were dimmed during the service, while one single light shone on the cross at the end of the service.

Our approach to chancel area design was “beauty in simplicity” with a clear emphasis on what God accomplishes through the means of grace.

350x263-article-worship-liverpoolinteriorold

Interior before

The chancel area of our original worship space was set tight against one wall at the end of the main room. There was limited space for liturgical movement largely due to the amount of furniture in that space—a very wide pulpit, a sizable lectern and altar, a font that was not part of the original set, and a set of unwieldy communion rails that had been donated from another church. During the Christmas season, the space shrunk even more with the addition of a Christmas tree. The new chancel is spacious and allows for easy movement from ambo to free-standing altar to font—even during the Christmas season and even with the construction of a small sacristy at the back of the chancel. During construction, the decision was made to eliminate communion rails from the chancel area due to certain space needs. This decision was welcomed by elderly members since it was difficult for them to kneel for the Lord’s Supper in our previous sanctuary.

Our approach to chancel area design was “beauty in simplicity” with a clear emphasis on what God accomplishes through the means of grace. WELS artisans Charis Carmichael Braun and her husband Andrew assisted with the design of chancel furnishings that are both modern and timeless with a prominent ambo and font stand3 that frame the free-standing altar. A Waterford crystal bowl serves as the baptismal font with the paschal candle on a dark wood stand behind the font. Behind the free-standing altar hangs the primary focal point of our new sanctuary—a 9’ tall cross made of white oak with dark walnut inlay matching the other furnishings which were created by Bill and Helen Rose of Builders for Christ. Wood colors were chosen to set off the vivid liturgical colors of the paraments. The center cross is framed by the two cross windows serving as a visual reminder of the three crosses on Golgotha, while also serving as a visual reminder of the triune God. The center window in the cross on the left has an open hand that symbolizes God the Father, while the center window in the cross on the right has a dove that symbolizes the Holy Spirit. The center cross serves as a reminder of what Christ accomplished on the cross.

350x263-article-worship-liverpoolinteriornew

Interior after

Our original worship space had fair acoustics. Years before the restart, the ceiling over the primary worship space was raised using dry wall, but a dropped ceiling remained at the rear of the worship space. Being such a relatively small space for a congregation that has always enjoyed singing, poor acoustics could be overcome, although the farther back you sat, the worse the sound got. The piano and organ were also located in the back corner of the room. After the dry wall went up, we discovered how live our sanctuary was with its 12’ high walls, elevated ceiling, concrete flooring, and fanned-out angles. For people sitting on either side of the sanctuary, there was even a noticeable delay, and our elderly members had difficulty hearing due to the reverb. For flooring we selected luxury vinyl tile with a wood grain finish over the raised chancel area and for the large center aisle from the chancel area to the entrance of the sanctuary. Under the seating area, high-grade commercial carpeting was installed. The flooring materials combined with the interlocking seating provided just enough control of the acoustics to provide a reasonable balance for sound—both musical and spoken.

We did not have a functional sound system in the original sanctuary. With the new sanctuary, a basic sound system was installed, piping sound to a new cry room and classroom area, and we began using an over-the-ear mic. We also installed an Audio Induction Loop System to provide clear sound for people with T-coil equipped hearing aids. We continue to tweak our sound system and have plans to expand our live streaming capabilities. A dedicated “organ nook” was created at the rear of the sanctuary. We also received the gift of a new Yamaha upright piano to replace one that had served for many years in the original worship space.

The interior of our original facility was rather dark with lots of dark oak or dark wood trim and finish. So the expanded and renovated facility was intentionally brightened up with light colors in every room. In the new gathering area, which used to be the rear of the main WEF room, the dropped ceilings were raised with new indirect lighting hung from the ceiling brightening up the entire room. New commercial carpeting replaced the original orange carpeting. The new larger gathering area is now a bright and pleasant space that serves a variety of purposes from fellowship after worship to education and meeting space at other times throughout the week.

With the assistance of Builders for Christ, kitchen space was redesigned to be more open while providing twice as much cabinet and countertop space and new appliances. Classroom space went from temporary dividers set up around tables in the back of the WEF to a new classroom area where the former chancel used to be. While the main entryway remained the same size, it was redesigned to improve the flow of traffic for adults and children. New storefront doors with large window panes replaced doors that had very narrow windows and allowed very little light. Ceramic tile replaced aging linoleum in the entryway. Around the exterior of the original WEF doorway a member installed a beautiful stonework design. A 6’ white cross stands atop the cupola and is visible for all who travel past our busy intersection.

A Clear Identity

Seven months after groundbreaking we celebrated the dedication of our new facility along with the fortieth anniversary of our founding. This writer enjoyed seeing the “Wow!” reactions of so many friends and former members who remembered the original facility and were amazed at what they saw the Lord had accomplished. It was a most joyful event with nearly 150 people joining us for our celebration—and every one of them fit comfortably in our new sanctuary.

In the year that has passed since our dedication, we have had many opportunities to chat with neighbors in our community. No longer do we find the confusion that people had years before. Our neighbors know who we are. They had watched as our new building went up and they were generally pleased to see it happen. People have pulled into the parking lot just to look at the crosses. We always tell them it’s even more beautiful on the inside. While buildings shape who we are, we pray that this new building clearly identifies who we are in Christ—his people gathered around Word and water and meal and sent out to take the saving message of Christ crucified to our world.

Written by Jeremiah J. Gumm

Jeremiah has served at Cross of Christ in Liverpool, New York since he graduated from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in 2005. He currently serves also as secretary of the North Atlantic District and as a member of the seminary’s Pastor Partners Mentoring Leadership Team.


 Additional pictures are available at http://worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/worship-the-lord-renovation-projects/.

1 www.kingdomworkers.com/buildersforchrist.php
2 The cross windows were a late addition, suggested by a member at a Q&A session during our pre-building Capital Campaign.
3 The matching design of the font stand and the base of the ambo was inspired by the font at Calvary in Dallas, TX presented in the March 2007 issue of Worship the Lord. worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/wtl-church-architecture/


The Wittenberg Psalter

A new way of singing psalms is available for free download at worship.welsrc.net. This collection features resources for celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and beyond. It uses the concept of “formulary tones” (as developed by Paul Bunjes) to set psalm texts to music derived from Reformation-era chorale tunes, many by Martin Luther. The texts are identical to those in Christian Worship, but without refrains. The composer, Steven J. Rhode, states: “The Wittenberg Psalter is a collection of unison psalm settings for congregation, choir, and/or soloist.” He recognizes that—due to perceived difficulty—they “may not be appropriate for every congregation” and provides various options for usage. Be sure to read “About the Wittenberg Psalter,” provided by the composer.

 

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Renovation: Hartford, Wisconsin

This issue launches a new series on renovation projects. It will feature projects from churches small and large. Often the concepts, goals, and process behind a renovation are most important, not the particulars of design or size. These are transferable and helpful for churches of any size.—Bryan Gerlach

Designing and constructing a brand new church building is an exciting endeavor for a congregation. Consider the average mission start-up. After worshiping for years in a rented facility—setting up and taking down, week after week—it is exhilarating when members get to sit in real pews in a real church they designed and built from the ground up. Every detail of that new construction was carefully weighed and researched. All that meticulous work resulted in a brand new church that stands ready to meet the needs of God’s worshiping people.

That’s the opportunity for mission start-up congregations which have recently built or eagerly anticipate a new build in the future. They get to start from scratch. However, the vast majority of our churches are well past the start-up phase. The average age of a WELS congregation is 70 years old. If the unique character, design, or size of an aging sanctuary presents challenges to worshipers, starting from scratch and building a brand new church isn’t a reasonable option for most congregations. A smart, thoughtful renovation just might be the answer.

A smart, thoughtful renovation just might be the answer.

If you’ve spent time surfing the Internet looking through the residential properties for sale in your community, you’ve noticed that a huge selling point is to have a recently renovated kitchen or bathroom. Those two rooms are seen as vital assets in a home. Getting those two rooms right makes a huge difference in the real estate world.

What is the most vital space on your entire campus? It’s the church sanctuary. Because of the amount of invaluable time members and guests spend within its walls, the sanctuary is most important. Because of the divine gifts that God gives us in that sacred place, the sanctuary is most important. Getting this worship space right has always been the goal of our Lutheran congregations, whether starting from scratch, maintaining an established church, or tackling a renovation project to enhance an aging building.

Saving the Best for Last
Hartford WI - Before

Hartford, WI – Before

Peace Lutheran in Hartford, Wisconsin is a large congregation with a large sanctuary. Over the past several decades, substantial improvements have been made to the campus. But the sanctuary itself had undergone only a handful of minor, cosmetic changes. Within recent years our members constructed a large and useful gathering space, added extra bathrooms and a new office wing, expanded our school by building an early childhood addition, made improvements to our athletic fields, and redesigned the parking lot. The majority of our campus was appropriately maintained and kept up-to-date. At the very center stood the sanctuary, the most important space. It was functional. But it was outdated. While the congregation was not eager to embark upon another capital improvement project, it would move forward if there were smart and compelling reasons to do so.

We needed to answer the question: What does “outdated” mean? Was it just a matter of replacing some worn carpeting and painting a few walls? Or were there deeper challenges our people faced because of an aging building? Were we just getting tired of the décor or was the design of the building presenting obstacles to our worshipers?

It was functional. But it was outdated.

It should be noted: Our committee was made up of a cross section of church members. None of us entered this task with any preconceived notions. In fact, to a person, we all loved our church and could be content to keep everything as is. At the same time, we were eager to begin looking at our sanctuary with new, objective eyes.

Problems that Needed Attention

It didn’t take us long to realize that we wanted and needed more than new paint and carpeting. Yes, our sanctuary was still beautiful, functional, and well-maintained. But some elements of a 1960s design were not just out of style but in the way. We knew it would be wise to make some improvements, but it was eye-opening when we started to list all the deficits.

Some elements of a 1960s design were not just out of style but in the way.

  • A fifty year-old building meant fifty year-old wiring and light fixtures. Our worship space was dim, making it difficult for some to read or see the minister’s face. Because of this, the videos posted to our website and recorded for our shut-ins were poor in quality.
  • The majority of the sanctuary was carpeted. This created a comfortable environment, but it also deadened the acoustics.
  • The wooden pews were beautiful. However they were starting to show substantial cracking and signs of wear. In addition, the fixed locations meant narrow aisles, little flexibility, and few locations for special needs seating.
  • The baptismal font was functional, crafted decades ago by an accomplished carpenter. But it was brittle and worn, even after several attempts to spruce it up.
  • Our communion practice required members to navigate steps on the way to the communion rail, to kneel, and then descend the steps afterwards. This was a challenge for many of our senior members.
  • We weren’t heavily using projection or other technologies in worship. But in order to make that a viable option, we’d need some thoughtful improvements.
  • There were some visual distractions: When big giant speakers were en vogue, we installed two. They sounded great, but they hung right over our chancel—two big, bright white speakers that caught the eye when we really wanted the cross to catch the eye. We also had several sprinkler pipes that wrapped around our gorgeous wooden beams, causing an out-of-place industrial look.

These were some of the challenges and obstacles we hoped our renovation project would tackle and solve. Right from the start we realized this was more than a makeover. We weren’t just redecorating for a fresher look, scratching the itch of newer is better. Instead, we were making improvements that would improve the worship experience. Certainly we wanted the sanctuary to be visually appealing, but above all we wanted any and every change to help worshipers to see God’s Word better, to hear the proclamation of God’s Word more clearly, to receive the sacrament more easily, and to focus on Jesus more centrally.

We believe we have accomplished these goals.

A Warmer Well-Lit Space

With the help of a lighting engineer, we vastly improved our lighting in ways that were practical, aesthetic, and dramatic.

Directional lighting in the chancel now draws attention toward the font, the cross, the altar, and the ambo. The gospel in Word and sacrament are literally in the spotlight! Improved lighting up front helps people to see better the preacher’s facial expressions, which also come across nicely on our video feed that is sent to the parent’s room and eventually to our website.

With a combination of dimmable direct and indirect lighting in the nave, the space is now a brighter environment that conveys warmth, energy, and vitality. Plain and simple: light helps people see, it draws attention to important things, it provides warmth and vibrancy, and it can even add a bit of drama. Imagine the options for a candlelight, Tenebrae, or sunrise service.

In addition to the aforementioned benefits, we see a cost savings in utilities as a result of new fixtures and energy efficient bulbs.

Helping Others to Hear and Be Heard

Verbal communication, whether spoken or sung, is crucial in our Lutheran worship.

  • God speaks to us through his Word and through his called servants.
  • We speak to God with our prayers and praises.
  • We speak to and encourage each other as we join our voices in word and song.

It is vitally important that all these channels are clearly heard by all. Three areas offered big gains for us in the sound department.

Flooring: We went from predominantly carpet that gobbled up sound to a solid surface throughout—a mixture of ceramic tile and “luxury vinyl”1. In the planning stage there was concern that the hard surface would give a sterile, institutional feel and create an echo chamber of clippity-cloppity sounds from shoes and high heels. I am happy to report that neither concern was legitimate.

Technology: We eagerly traded in our refrigerator-sized speakers and installed a pair of low profile speakers, our pastoral staff shifted from the lapel microphone to a head-worn mic, and our sound system was completely overhauled. An Audio Induction Loop System was installed under our flooring tile. This allows people with T-coil equipped hearing aids and cochlear implants to receive a clear audio signal wirelessly from the church’s sound system.

Experts: To make sure our new acoustically live space didn’t impede intelligibility, a consultant worked with us and our A/V contractor. Strategically placed sound diffusion and absorption features were added. Experts using measurement tools and software were able to make all the proper adjustments and set the calibrations just right for both speaking and singing. The results have been positively noticeable and energizing. Choir and congregational singing has never sounded clearer or better.

All Are Welcome

Because of the steps and the communion rail, our previous traffic pattern for receiving the supper excluded some from the flow and made it difficult for many others. That was remedied by moving the reception of communion down to floor level. Now almost every single member is able to approach the table—with wheelchairs, walkers, and crutches—without having to navigate steps.

One slight drawback is saying good-bye to the practice of kneeling for communion, which was dear to many. However, the inclusiveness and ease of our new pattern has overshadowed that one concession.

While our old, beautiful pews could have been reused, they were replaced with new, sleeker versions, which in turn offer a bit more space to sit and stand. The pews were also angled slightly, promoting a sense of community, offering better sight lines as we communicate with each other, and encouraging congregational singing. Pew chairs make up the first few rows in the front and in the back of church. This creates additional and moveable locations for those with special needs and offers much flexibility for funerals, weddings, children’s services, etc. This past Easter we squeezed 560+ people into our sanctuary for one service. It wasn’t optimal seating for such a large group, but the flexible pew chairs permitted us to maximize the use of additional folding chairs. We got more out of our square footage than our old fixed pews would have allowed.

Choir and congregational singing has never sounded clearer or better.

Highlighting What Matters Most

The eye-sore sprinkler pipes were repositioned and covered with beautiful wooden beams. New doors replaced old and weathered ones. Stained glass windows, outlined with a dated aluminum border, received fresh oak fascia. However, the project was not about covering up some unsightly elements. It was about bringing into plain sight those things which matter most.

Hartford WI baptismal font

Hartford, WI baptismal font

We had the privilege of working with a Lutheran firm that listened to our ideas and designed customized chancel furnishings: a 13-foot free-hanging mahogany cross, a 9-foot by 4-foot free standing altar, a baptismal font with a 350 pound Bedford stone bowl, and a prominent ambo. All handmade, inscribed, etched, and inlaid with liturgical artwork—these fixtures are the visual focus of worship. They are appropriately lighted as a vivid and beautiful reminder of the ways Christ comes to us. Although not visible from every pew, the inscriptions and artwork when seen up close preach sermons all on their own.

Full Circle

At the start of the renovation process, our leadership told our members: “We are speaking with experienced consultants about making some common sense improvements to our worship space, which may include better lighting, easier access to communion, acoustics/sound/video enhancements, and updated chancel furnishings.”

Today, descriptive words like shadowy, dim, outdated, and inaccessible have been replaced with words like inviting, vibrant, and alive. As Lutheran designers, builders, and remodelers have done in the past, we have tried to glorify God and adorn his house with a Christ-centered focus. Because the sanctuary is the room that is most important, we worked to get it right. For the members of Peace Lutheran in Hartford, Wisconsin, a smart, thoughtful renovation was the answer.

We have tried to glorify God and adorn his house with a Christ-centered focus

Written by Aaron Steinbrenner

Aaron serves at Peace in Hartford, Wisconsin and currently is circuit pastor in the Hartford Circuit.  He has also served in the South Central District at Redeemer in Edna, Texas.


1 A high level of quality allows vinyl to be a legitimate surface for church projects. Just like laminate flooring some years back, vinyl now comes in more options that resemble natural solid surfaces (stone, woodgrain, etc), and it is available in different sizes (squares, rectangle tiles, and larger panels). homerenovations.about.com/od/vinylflooring/ss/Luxury-Vinyl-Tile.htm


Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

It’s important for church leaders or renovation committee to communicate clearly and often with the people.

Church renovations can be polarizing endeavors. What’s wrong with our church the way it is? We’re not going to change anything, are we? Couldn’t we spend this money on something else more necessary than a remodeling project? These are questions even the most well-intended and connected member may have. They require careful answers.

Renovation committee members aren’t church sanctuary experts. But after months of study and countless tours to other churches, they absorb a huge amount of information about liturgical worship and the worship space. What took months to be absorbed by a committee member cannot be shared with others through one or two bulletin inserts.

Once the project starts, show pictures of every stage of the process (demolition, construction, flooring, pew installation, arrival of furnishings). If volunteers show up to clean the work area or provide services that defray the overall cost, highlight those efforts.

When the project is complete, consider creating a commemorative booklet that explains the changes and the new furnishings. (Ours is available at worship.welsrc.net in the Worship the Lord archive, along with additional photos.)


Assistance from Trained, Outside Eyes

We found working with consultants not merely helpful but necessary and worth the extra cost.

On one tier, we brought in consultants from our WELS circles. With just a phone call to our district worship coordinator, we were able to bring in a brother with helpful insights into Lutheran liturgical worship. He attended one of our services and gave us honest and objective feedback. At our request, he addressed our committee, walked us through a Church Renovation for Dummies presentation, and helped prepare us for the upcoming phases of our project.

That led to the second tier. When it comes to remodeling kitchens and bathrooms, a skilled DYI’er can tackle it. He can call in a friend or look up a YouTube video if he gets in over his head. Remodeling a sanctuary is in a totally different class. We hired a consultant who had both new build and renovation experience in liturgical worship spaces. He understood the centrality of the means of grace, and he assisted us in highlighting the gospel. We didn’t use his full slate of services. But even his partial involvement brought a cache of great ideas, just the right amount of penetrating questions we needed to answer, and volumes of resource information—for example, contractor leads, updates on latest code regulations, and decoration insights.

The third tier of consultants also proved invaluable. Experts and consultants in lighting and acoustics helped us achieve just the right balance in both of those crucial areas.

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Worship and the Right Brain

So, Honey, what did you think about that service?” his wife inquired as the family drove home after Ash Wednesday worship. Their congregation included the imposition of ashes for the first time, and it seemed like a natural topic to bring up on the way home.

“I’m not sold on the ashes yet. I mean, I don’t think there was anything wrong with it, but it just didn’t do much for me. What did you think about it?”

“I loved it! It was so powerful seeing all of God’s people come back to their seats with cross-shaped ashes on their foreheads. And I got a little emotional when the pastor said to me, ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ But I thought it was a powerful message of repentance.”

Their teenage son chimed in from the back of the car: “I thought it was a little creepy that the pastor was basically telling each one of us that we’re going to die. And did you hear him get choked up when his kids came up?”

“It was a little uncomfortable having him stand so close to me to put the ashes on my head, but I liked it,” their recently confirmed daughter said.

Their fifth grade son finally added his two cents worth: “I liked that I could participate. It was different, but it was kind of interesting.”

The preceding family conversation may be fictitious, but it does reflect some of the different reactions worship leaders will encounter when their congregations enter more deeply into the realm of rite, ritual, ceremony, and symbolism in worship.

Do you like artistic expression in worship, or do you prefer the service to be simple and straightforward?

Experiences like the imposition of ashes and other worship rituals are often discussed as a dichotomy: Do you like “high church” or “low church”? Do you like artistic expression in worship, or do you prefer the service to be simple and straightforward? To those dichotomies, add discussions about emotions in worship or the concern that some ceremonies might be misunderstood, and you can see how this topic is ripe for debate!

We best understand and appreciate worship’s ceremonies, symbols, and rituals when we understand them as forms of communication.

There is another way to consider this topic that will avoid false dichotomies and move the discussion into a more profitable sphere. We best understand and appreciate worship’s ceremonies, symbols, and rituals when we understand them as forms of communication. Different forms of communication interact differently with the two hemispheres of our brain. Understanding how the mind processes information, we see how rituals and symbolism in worship are uniquely designed to communicate to the right hemisphere of the brain, while the words of worship communicate to the left hemisphere.

Rituals and symbolism in worship are uniquely designed to communicate to the right hemisphere of the brain.

Two Hemispheres

In popular language, people sometimes speak about the “left brain” and the “right brain.” In reality, of course, we do not have two brains, but two hemispheres that serve unique purposes and that work together to help us function. The psychologist Bessel van der Kock gives a concise summary.

We now know that the two halves of the brain do speak different languages. The right is intuitive, emotional, visual, spatial, and actual, and the left is linguistic, sequential, and analytical. While the left half of the brain does all the talking, the right half of the brain carries the music of experience. It communicates through facial expressions and body language and by making the sounds of love and sorrow: by singing, swearing, crying, dancing, or mimicking. The right brain is the first to develop in the womb, and it carries the nonverbal communication between mothers and infants. We know the left hemisphere has come online when children start to understand language and learn how to speak (The Body Keeps the Score, p. 44).

Not only does the right hemisphere begin to develop earlier than the left, but it also reaches its full development much sooner: the right hemisphere reaches its full development around age three, while the left may continue until age 29. In other words, the affective or emotional side is at its full potential long before the cognitive or logical side is even close to half way there. (This goes a long way to explain toddler temper tantrums and the sometimes illogical choices our teenage children make!) Finally, by God’s design, each gender tends to favor one hemisphere over the other: a woman’s right hemisphere is generally more dominant than the left hemisphere, while the opposite tends to be true for men.

We recognize the importance of engaging both hemispheres in various aspects of our ministries. Seminary students learn to develop Catechism lessons that achieve a cognitive goal (students learned the main point) and an affective goal (students deepened their appreciation for God’s grace). As preachers, we deliver sermons that are not just aimed at the “head” (left brain) but also at the “heart” (right brain). In the same way, worship will best communicate to all of God’s gathered people when it seeks to speak to both the left and right halves of the brain.

Some challenges

We in WELS are blessed with a ministry educational system that is second to none—high standards and rigorous curriculum for future pastors. Four years of Greek, two of Hebrew, and a well-balanced liberal arts education precede our seminary years, where we then hone Greek and Hebrew exegetical skills so that we can say with confidence “Thus saith the Lord.”

As we shape and sharpen our skills, notice which hemisphere of the brain is primarily active: the left. A great deal of our pastoral work involves the left brain—sermon studies and writing, Catechism instruction and Bible classes, reports, newsletter articles, and more. Because so much of our work is left brain activity, it is understandably easy for us to omit consideration of engaging the right brain equally in our worship life.

Our background also leads us to favor left-brain thinking. Past generations of Lutherans often viewed ceremony and ritual as Roman Catholic instead of universal catholic or a tool to engage the right brain in worship. August Pieper’s (d. 1946) rebuttal to the liturgical and ceremonial tendencies of the Missouri Synod shaped synodical thinking: “Wir sind von dem Wisconsin Synode; wir machen kein ‘show.’” Ceremony, which engages the right brain, was simply not seen as a part of WELS practice. On a larger scale, post-Enlightenment Western culture tends to value the activity of the left brain over the right. Notice that when public school budget cuts are proposed, music and the arts are the first to take a hit!

Even with these challenges, we still recognize the importance of the right brain in communication and interpersonal interactions. How many friendly conversations over email or social media have taken a turn for the worse because a statement read by the recipient was not interpreted through the emotions of the writer? A winking emoji might help, but typed text is a difficult medium for communicating emotions, and the emotional content of a message carries a great deal of meaning that nuances a literal reading of words. Sometimes it takes a follow-up phone call where voice inflection can be heard, or a meeting over coffee where facial gestures can be seen, to adequately clear up the confusion. As further evidence, consider the advertising campaign of a Phoenix firm that makes video recordings of court depositions. Three pictures depicting different facial expressions strongly validate the ad’s headline: 93% of communication is non-verbal. Why use the firm’s recording services?  A typed manuscript of a witness’s statements gives only a small portion of their overall communication. Their eye rolls, sighs, and shocked looks on a video tell far more than quotations on a sheet of paper.

93% of communication is non-verbal.

Right Brain and Everyday Life

Right brain communication can be as simple as a smile. The verbal greeting, “Welcome!” carries more weight accompanied by a smile and a warm tone of voice than the same greeting offered with a monotone voice and an expressionless face. When my children run to the front door and shout “Daddy’s home!” or when my wife greets me with a hug and a kiss at the end of the work day, I sense warmth, love, and sincerity far more than if my entrance were met only with words. In fact, if those end-of-day gestures are missing, I might surmise that something is wrong. Every gesture, facial expression, vocal inflection, and simple ritual that is a part of our default daily routine speaks messages that are often louder than words, and these messages are comprehended by the right brain.

Symbols such as the American flag carry great meaning when we view them from the perspective of the right brain. Hardly anyone views the flag’s 13 stripes and 50 stars as only a statement about 13 original colonies and 50 present states—and if they did, they would be viewing the flag from an exclusively left brain perspective. The veteran sees a symbol of the nation he loves and the ultimate sacrifice fellow soldiers made to defend our nation. The flag in procession in an Independence Day parade may bring that veteran to tears, because the flag says so much more than 13 colonies and 50 states. The immigrant who has begun the path to citizenship sees the flag as a symbol of the freedom that he now enjoys in the United States.

Ceremonies have a way of saying “This is important!” far more powerfully than if we simply state “This is important!” When the boyfriend ceremonially gets down on one knee and opens the little box toward his beloved while gazing into her eyes, he will do well not to explain the symbolic statement of kneeling or the symbolism implied by diamonds set into a gold circle. If he actually engaged in left brain communication during the marriage proposal, at best he would be accused of being a romantic clod, and at worst he might lose the girl!

We even use ceremonies to express the (relative) importance of a sports championship. Pomp and circumstance surrounds the presentation of the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the Super Bowl. As the appointed “processional music” begins, a previous Super Bowl MVP, often “vested” in his Hall of Fame jacket, processes forward with the symbolic object to the “chancel” (stage), where it is presented to the team owner as a symbol of victory. Imagine the reaction from fans if someone suggested getting rid of the post-game ceremony. I doubt the idea to ditch the ceremony would be well-received! We engage in ceremonies like these to state the significance and importance of the event we are celebrating. Words alone seem insufficient.

Right Brain and Lutheran Worship

If gestures, tone of voice, symbolism, and ceremony are effective right-brain focused methods of communication in secular settings as diverse as public parades, marriage proposals, and sports championships, it goes without saying that all of these things can also be effective means of communication in public worship.

Our Creator God, who designed the human mind, certainly encouraged the proclamation of his gospel message through right-brain communication. Consider the daily sacrifices in the Old Testament and the message those sacrifices proclaimed. Consider especially the Day of Atonement. The bull and the goat that were slaughtered and whose blood was sprinkled on the atonement cover; the scapegoat that had the people’s sins “transferred” to it and then was carried out into the wilderness to die—these God-prescribed ceremonies from Leviticus 16 surely made an emotional impact on the people who witnessed them! The writer to the Hebrews connects the dots and reveals the meaning of this visually impactful ceremony: “[Jesus] did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (9:12). Old Testament believers didn’t have had the benefit of New Testament 20/20 hindsight, but they did have the vivid and striking visual sermon of the sacrifice whose blood would be shed and the substitute who would take on their sins and be led out of the community to die on their behalf.

Old Testament worship is descriptive for us, not prescriptive. But even though it is only descriptive, it is nevertheless instructive for us as we plan worship in ways that will communicate to both head and heart. Permit a personal example to show how we can make a right-brain impact in worship while still faithfully communicating the words and message of the gospel to the left brain.

Old Testament worship is descriptive for us, not prescriptive. But even though it is only descriptive, it is nevertheless instructive.

On June 29, 1997, worship at Grace Lutheran Church in downtown Milwaukee celebrated that day’s minor festival, the Commemoration of Saints Peter and Paul. I was there as a guest for the service, which was held in conjunction with a conference sponsored by the Commission on Worship. The order of worship included a bit more liturgical music and ceremony than a typical summer service at Grace. Seeing a procession during the opening hymn and celebrating a minor festival were new experiences to me, and I still remember the day as if it were yesterday.

The recessional hymn, “Lord, When Your Glory I Shall See” (Christian Worship, 219), made the most impact on me. With Christ’s cross was held up high, we concluded a service that remembered two great saints whose examples of faith were held up for us to emulate. As we sang the hymn, so many elements of the service struck me in a unique way. The closing hymn tune is by Kurt Eggert, under whom I had the privilege to sing in the Lutheran Chorale of Milwaukee during his last year as its director. The hymn brought to mind a pastor whose example I appreciated and wanted to emulate—a fitting personal application on a day when we considered Peter and Paul and their examples of faith. The dignity of the recession, the beauty of the processional cross, the message of the morning, the festive celebration of the Sacrament, and the personal connection of the hymn all combined to create an emotional and memorable moment for me.

The beauty and artistry of the service proclaimed the good news of Christ to my heart affectively even as Scripture, sermon, and song texts proclaimed that same gospel to my head cognitively.

But that moment was more than a modest tear-producing conclusion to a service. With a number of devotional and personal thoughts swirling through my mind as the assembly sang the closing hymn, the beauty and artistry of the service proclaimed the good news of Christ to my heart affectively even as Scripture, sermon, and song texts proclaimed that same gospel to my head cognitively. The service demonstrated that speaking to the head and heart is not either/or but both/and.

Instead of listing practical ways to add ceremony to your services, I’ve shared a personal anecdote. Why? Because the focus of this article is not so much on ideas for worship as it is about the impact of right brain communication. Right brain communication in worship is not about following the rubrics as much as it is about confidently using gestures, symbolism, and ceremony, and allowing them to speak for themselves to God’s people gathered for worship. How that looks may differ from Citrus Heights to Cedarburg. But when we consider how much of communication is non-verbal (and therefore aimed at the right brain), and when we also consider the large percentage of worshipers who are right-brain dominant, we will be less inclined to view this discussion along old dichotomies and more encouraged to see the beautiful possibilities that lie before us in Lutheran worship.

God bless your left- and right-brain communication efforts to his glory!

By Johnold Strey

Pastor Strey served congregations in California for 15 years before accepting a call this summer to Crown of Life in Hubertus, WI. A 2001 graduate of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, he received a master’s degree in Pastoral Liturgy and Liturgical Music from Santa Clara University in 2009. He served as the Arizona-California District Worship Coordinator for ten years, and presently serves as a presenter for the Schools of Worship Enrichment and as a member of the WELS Hymnal Project’s Rites Committee. He is currently writing a book on worship to be published by NPH.


 2017 Worship Conference

June 13-16, 2017 – Carthage College, Kenosha, WI
With smaller satellite sites later in June and July at Sharpsburg, GA (near Atlanta) and Irvine, CA (Orange County).
See wels.net/events/worshipconference for more information.

Previous Conferences

Resources—presentation outlines, worship folders, photos, audio excerpts—are available at worship.welsrc.net.

 

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Weddings

God does not prescribe the forms of full-time representative ministry, but the most common and most all-encompassing form in our circles is the parish pastor. What are the responsibilities of the typical pastor? “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction … do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tm 4:2,5). A pastor is to use the Holy Scriptures “for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness” (2 Tm 3:16), and “to equip God’s people for works of service” (Eph 4:12), and much, much more.

Some days the pastor is primarily the presider and preacher. Some days he is primarily a teacher or consoler of souls or equipper of saints or rebuker of the impenitent. Some days he is primarily an administrator. But one ministry situation requires all possible pastoral roles at the same time: weddings. Yes, he is the presider and preacher during a wedding and in that setting also doing the work of an evangelist. But wedding preparation calls for all of his pastoral and professional gifts and skills.

Wedding preparation calls for all of his pastoral and professional gifts and skills.

Some couples are prospects, or one is a member and the future spouse is not, and the “evangelist hat” is on during Bible Information Class. All too often couples are cohabitating before marriage, requiring the “rebuker hat” and “patient-loving-instructor hat.” Pre-marriage instruction time involves his “teacher hat.”

But when emotions are running high in anticipation of the big day, “The day I’ve dreamed of since I was a little girl,” and bride-zilla has a chorus of strong-willed cheerleaders from her mother to her bridesmaids to back her up, every ounce of pastoral care and tact is needed to hang on to the mast of a Christ-centered wedding amid the wind and waves of the wedding preparation storm.

Every ounce of pastoral care and tact is needed to hang on to the mast of a Christ-centered wedding amid the wind and waves of the wedding preparation storm.

Whether you have only one wedding each year or whether half your Saturdays are filled with weddings, the pastor will have a wedding planning meeting with each couple. The goals include getting better acquainted and planning the particulars of date, time of service, size of the wedding party, little kids or not, facilities-use guidelines—and especially making sure the worship is Christ-centered. And that, dear brothers, is the key.

For that reason—that is, to keep Jesus at the center of wedding worship—we ask couples, who giddily announce their engagement, for three things: a date for the wedding, attendance at the pre-marriage seminar (and non-members to give serious consideration to the Bible Information Class), and a Wedding Checklist meeting. It’s that last one where all pastoral and professional skills come to bear, and it’s the tone of the pastor, his listening ear, his caring heart, his winsome smile, and his patience that make all the difference.

Compiling a list of items for the Wedding Checklist meeting is not brain surgery. After hearing the couple’s “story” and getting better acquainted (if both are not life-long members or if the pastor is rather new to the congregation), the Wedding Checklist includes:

  • Name, address, phone numbers, email. The pastor is able to address a live-together situation or offer congratulations for going God’s way and not living together.
  • Date and time of the service. Offer advice about a lengthy lag between worship and the evening meal—no mandates but simply consideration for out-of-town guests who will wonder what to do for three hours between service and reception and for aging relatives whose evening meals are earlier than 7:45pm…after the father of the bride, the bridesmaids, and groomsmen have delivered their TMI speeches.
  • Photographer. I am only interested in whether the pictures are before or after the service (or both) since that helps guide advice about the time schedule for the day. The couple does not need to hear cautions about the photographer disrupting worship by wandering down the aisles and peeking out between the groomsmen to get a good angle of the bridesmaids. That conversation is directly with the photographer on the day.
  • The service (see below).
  • Printed worship folder. While Christian Worship provides the order of worship, printing the “Call to Worship” and prayers with the rest of the service in outline fashion helps non-churched guests follow along. This part of the conversation can deal with a couple’s inquiry about writing their own vows. I also state that they may print their own folders, but I ask them to use our template. I mention that if they desire and purchase special paper, we will print the service folder for free.
  • Number of attendants.
  • Number of ushers.
  • Children. The three-year-old niece may be cuter than a button in her little dress while tossing silk flower petals, and the five-year-old nephew may be handsome in his mini-tux carrying a pillow with a (fake) ring attached. But because of humorous or disruptive experiences, I suggest that any child eight or younger can walk in before the bride but will need both a “starter” and a “target” to sit with during the service.
  • Procession. The Wedding Checklist describes two options for bridesmaids: 1) walk in alone, or 2) walk in escorted by groomsmen. I note the couple’s decision so that the rehearsal goes smoother with such predetermined decisions not debated during the rehearsal.
  • Facilities use guidelines. By expressing concern about Aunt Matilda slipping from her walker on rice that has been thrown and concern for the bride getting birdseed in her hair or eye, the pastor can share guidelines which include no throwing of rice or birdseed and no moving of chancel furniture.
  • License. Share the latest state regulations regarding how and when to acquire a marriage license.

The heart of the Wedding Checklist meeting revolves around the service. I begin with a brief overview of the purpose of worship—to proclaim the saving love of the Lord Jesus—which occurs best in a vertical dialogue as God comes to us through his holy Word, and we respond to him in prayer and praise. (By praise I mean congregational participation that proclaims the truths of God’s saving love). I then make it clear that everything we do in wedding worship from start to finish is designed to be vertical, God to us and us to God. The message goes like this:

While you wouldn’t be getting married if you didn’t love each other [chuckling while saying that], that relationship is horizontal and is highlighted at the reception. So, the other expressions of love between you (the couple) and parents and family members, like handing out roses to parents, are best saved for the reception because you want wedding worship to offer to your family and guests a testimony of how much the Lord Jesus means to you…which is exactly what happens in Christ-centered, vertical worship.

Everything we do in wedding worship from start to finish is designed to be vertical, God to us and us to God.

I then share the service outline: call to worship, lessons, sermon, marriage rite, prayers, and blessing. Then I say:

We typically insert two hymns into the order of worship, and we encourage people to use hymns instead of solo singing. Many weddings tend to be passive experiences: the guy up front does all the talking, a woman in the balcony sings a solo, and all the people do is check their watches for the reception start time. By using the Christian Worship order and hymn singing, people get to participate in the call to worship, hymns, and prayers. Many guests, even non-Lutheran guests, have commented afterward, “That was different. We worshiped!” So, we’ll assign a musician to your day. That person will plan amazing Christ-centered music for walking in (processional), hymns, and walking out (recessional). If you would like to give input, you can contact that musician who will even meet with you and play some samples so you can join in choosing the processional, hymns, and recessional. [At this point I sometimes digress into a description of how planning Christ-centered worship can be done under a unified theme: e.g. the Schübler chorale by J.S. Bach, Wachet auf as the processional with the congregation singing CW 455 as the first hymn; or CW 237 after the marriage rite with Paul Manz’s God of Grace and God of Glory as the recessional; and I let the couple listen to a portion of the music from my laptop.] Some hymns are known beyond Lutheran churches and capture both the good news about Jesus and also your praise and thanks to God. Keep in mind that it is good form to remember the musician(s) with an honorarium (that’s a money gift), and at our congregation the typical rate for an organist for a wedding is $ ____.

Many guests, even non-Lutheran guests, have commented afterward, “That was different. We worshiped!”

At this point, the couple may have other questions. If they don’t bring them up, neither do I. But just in case:

  • “Can my college roommate play violin?” This is a wonderful opportunity to avoid the simple “No! That’s against WELS rules” and to share the biblical doctrine of church fellowship, something like this: “May I ask where your roommate regularly attends worship?” And after the response: “I’m sure your roommate would be honored, and it would mean a lot to you for her to participate. But the Holy Scriptures lead to the conviction that participation in worship in such a role is an expression of oneness and unity with what we believe, teach, and confess, and you would hate to put your roommate in a position to indicate that she agrees with us when she hasn’t had time to check it out or has beliefs similar but not in complete agreement with ours. A great way to involve her would be to ask her to play a piece right after the dinner speeches at the reception.”
  • “Can we have a unity candle?” Response: “Yes. But keep in mind, that only about 10% of weddings at our church have a unity candle. You are not required to have one. There is no historic Lutheran worship precedent for unity candles. Some feel that it’s a nice custom, so you can certainly have one. My concern is that it functions properly; I have seen the bride and groom light the center candle from their two, walk away, and then it goes out, bringing a wave of giggles. So, you can have one, but since there is no room in the chancel for a unity candle because of the chancel furniture and the wedding party, we position it on a pedestal in front of the first pew. When the service concludes with the blessing, you simply turn to each other, step down to the candle, light it, and then continue down the aisle. That way you won’t have to worry about negotiating the steps again in your long gown and wait for the maid of honor to straighten it again.”
  • “Can we have an aisle runner?” Response: “Sure! But we don’t have one. You’ll have to rent or buy one from the florist. By the way, do you know how that custom got started? It began in the days when streets were dirt or gravel. An aisle runner kept bridesmaids’ and bride’s dresses clean. Since our streets and sidewalks are paved, you’re not required to have a runner.”
  • “Can I kiss the bride after the blessing?” Response: “Why are you asking?” After their response: “Nothing in Scripture prevents that. But keep in mind that your kiss is an expression of the horizontal love between the two of you which will be highlighted at the reception. So, sure. Go ahead. But consider whether that will disrupt the flow of thought and the Christ-centered vertical message you have generated throughout the service.”
  • “Should my mother stand when I begin walking down the aisle?” Response: “Wedding services in some places tend to be bride-and-groom-centered instead of Christ-centered. That’s why I’m not a big fan of the mother standing to cue everyone. But whether she does or not will be a moot point. All your friends from work, sitting in the back, will stand before she does.”

Some additional matters to keep the focus on Christ and to honor the order in Christian Worship:

  • Gone is the question to the bride’s father standing in the aisle: “Who gives this woman…?” He just walked her down the aisle. We know—and the worship folder indicates—who he is.
  • Gone is the announcement after the blessing as the couple turns to face the congregation, “I now introduce to you Mr. and Mrs. ____________”…as if someone in the fourth pew will say, “Oh, that’s who that is. I’m at the wrong wedding.” And if anything will break the mood of Christ-centered worship, it’s an announcement guaranteed to bring a roar.

One final important part of the Wedding Checklist meeting: the rehearsal. Brides and grooms are bombarded by the wedding industry and by what they see in media with images that detract from Christ-centered worship and fix the focus on the bride (and sometimes the groom, too). They expect careful scripting of every movement of their hands and feet from procession to position at the chancel. The pastor who makes a big deal of the rehearsal—who allows for the bridesmaids and mothers to debate and dictate how the wedding party walks in and where they stand, who spends excessive time assuring proper spacing between couples (or bridesmaids) walking in, who needs the musician present to play the full processional twice (or more) for extra procession practice, who puts dimes on the floor where bridesmaids and groomsmen are to stand, who speaks through the entire service including practicing the exchange of vows at least once if not twice, and who scripts the exact timing for the bride to hand flowers to the maid of honor and the best man to hand rings to the groom—is playing right in a bride-centered culture.

Several years ago we moved wedding rehearsals to an hour and a half before the wedding. I introduce the concept at the Wedding Checklist meeting this way:

I hope you’re planning for a rehearsal dinner or groom’s dinner the night before. You are? Wonderful! That’s an excellent way for your wedding party and their significant others to get acquainted and to meet your parents. What a special night! But here’s the good news. You won’t have to arrange your time together that evening around a rehearsal. We do the rehearsal on the day of the wedding. Don’t worry! There’s really no need for it the night before since it only takes five minutes. I simply line couples (or bridesmaids if unescorted) in the aisle so they can see the order, tell them how much space to leave before following the couple ahead, and show them where to stand at the chancel step. They don’t practice walking all the way in but move up-tempo from their aisle line-up position to the chancel. Then I tell the groom where to stand. That’s it. Beyond reminding them to be comfortable by shifting their weight and describing how to meet their escort for the recessional, they do not need to know any more or practice.

Several years ago we moved wedding rehearsals to an hour and a half before the wedding.

This generates a common question: “What about not seeing the bride before the wedding?” Response: “We don’t need the bride for the rehearsal.” Then speaking to the bride: “That’s because your job is the easiest. You walk in with Dad and stand by the groom.” Most brides (and grooms, too) are relieved and thrilled. For the nervous-Nellie bride I say, “If you absolutely have to walk through the details, I’ll meet with you and your fiancé after worship the Sunday before the wedding and explain it all.”

Some future brides and even some pastors might wonder, “How will we know the timing of the processional?” Response: “If the wedding party is large and the musician has come to the end of the processional, the musician will repeat some of it. If the wedding party is small and the musician has not completed the piece, we’ll stand in the chancel and wait. We’re not in a hurry.”

For skeptics who are thinking, “I do two weddings a year. I can’t convince families to have the rehearsal on the day of the wedding.” Fine! But my encouragement is the same for a night-before rehearsal. Don’t let it play into the bride-centered culture and mindset. Keep the rehearsal at 5-10 minutes, and keep the focus on Jesus.

How many times have you heard a brother pastor say, “I’ll take ten funerals over one wedding”? I imagine one reason is that people at a funeral are more focused on the message, and wedding guests tend to be more focused on the party (reception). Why not take another look at how to work with couples and wedding preparation? See this as an excellent opportunity to put all your pastoral and professional skills in motion for one main objective—to proclaim the saving message of our crucified and risen Lord and to keep that the center of every wedding. God bless your service to his people!

Written by James Huebner

Pastor Huebner has served at Grace, Milwaukee since 1982 and has presided at nearly 300 weddings. He was elected First Vice-President of WELS in 2009 and continues to serve in that position.

 

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Keep the Symbols Alive

The Twelve Days were nearly over. It would soon be time to pack up the ornaments and take down the Christmas tree. So for a few more minutes that evening I sat staring and pondering. I considered my (pseudo-) tree’s evergreen (like) branches and their connection to the Tree of Life and eternity. I squinted at the strings of lights and thought, “Jesus is the Light of the world…” “The light shines in the darkness…” I took in the glassy bulbs reflecting the Light to the world and the crafted ornaments picturing the details of the Christmas story or pointing to the cross. I enjoyed the beautiful Christian symbolism of the tree that took me a little farther into my celebration of Christ and of Christmas.

How many people who put up Christmas trees in their homes think about—or even know—the symbolism there? I’m guessing that it’s not a really high percentage. Many Americans put up a Christmas tree out of habit, because it’s what we do in our culture. It’s part of the appropriate “decoration” for the season.

So, is the symbolism of the Christmas tree dying? It’s certainly not as meaningful anymore. Symbolism is not effective if nobody thinks about or understands it. The symbol becomes mere decoration.

We don’t want this to happen to symbols in our worship. We can’t let them die. Many congregations have symbolic artwork in their worship spaces. Are those art pieces effective? Do members appreciate what the symbols represent? Do they even notice them anymore? The symbols in our churches are more than mere decoration. Worship lives can be deepened by symbols, but only if worshipers are tuned in to the bigger thoughts behind the art they see.

What Makes a Symbol?

Before we go further, what makes a symbol? It is helpful to think about the distinction between a symbol and a sign.

planeThis airplane shape is a sign. It’s a simple, literal representation of something we know, something tangible. Even somebody who hasn’t been educated in the meaning of this graphic has a pretty good idea the image is telling her that she is close to an airport. There is nothing more to it than that.

power buttonThis power emblem is more of a symbol. Because power is an intangible concept, not something we can easily picture, a clever graphic designer developed this set of shapes to represent the idea. Now a widely used identifier, this image is helpful to those who know that you can power up your electronic device by pressing such a labeled button. It is, however, not so useful to anyone who doesn’t understand what the shapes represent. (It’s also not a very deep symbol. The concept of electrical power has lost a lot of its mystery as we have become more dependent upon it in our everyday lives.)

Symbols open us up to concepts that are difficult or even impossible for us to understand.

While signs are meant to be easily read, symbols are designed to take one deeper. That’s the beauty of them. Symbols represent ideas, and their visual connections open us up, if even slightly, to concepts that are difficult or even impossible for us to understand.

Making connections—this is the blessing of symbolism in our worship lives. Since the God we worship and so many aspects of faith are beyond words and pictures, beyond reason and understanding, symbols can help build bridges between our lives of reality and our lives of faith and thus strengthen our worship. We have a cross symbol in the chancel to help us think about Jesus and his sacrifice for us. We have the open book symbol on the lectern to picture God’s Word as a means of grace and a guide for our lives. We have the descending dove on the font to remind us of the Holy Spirit and his saving and sanctifying work in us through Word and Sacrament. We have….

Symbols can help build bridges between our lives of reality and our lives of faith.

What do you have? What are the symbols in your worship space? Look at them again with a fresh eye. Ponder them and consider how you can use them to make connections in worship.

The Need for Symbol Education

Many people will look right past worship symbols unless they are taught and reviewed often. A good number of our Christian symbols come from the early Christian church and the Middle Ages, when symbols were used and taught regularly. Most people of that time were illiterate—that is, not able to read and write—but they were quite biblically literate and knowledgeable about the symbolic images that were before them; the church used art to teach truths and to direct spiritual thinking.

That is not the case today. While we live in a very highly text literate and visual culture, we don’t live in a symbolic culture or a symbolically literate culture or a biblically literate culture. Of the thousands of images that come at us every day in print or on screens, most are straightforward and meant to be read easily; few are fashioned to be considered for deep meaning or even to be looked at for more than a quick couple of seconds. Today’s image-overloaded Americans are not accustomed to symbolic thinking—or they don’t take the time for it.

Today’s image-overloaded Americans are not accustomed to symbolic thinking.

quatrefoilPowerful symbols can be right in front of us and go unnoticed. It took me years to understand that, in the sanctuary at St. John, Jefferson, the quatrefoil, a four-lobed leaf or flower, is the dominant symbol. Oh, I saw quatrefoils…everywhere. They make up the shape of the windows in the doors that separate the narthex from the nave.

They are carved into the altar and the reredos behind the altar. Dozens of quatrefoils ring the tops of each of our light fixtures. Dozens more line the molding that transitions the walls to the ceiling. Flowers with four petals are the focal point of the stained glass windows in our transepts. When I saw them, though, either I didn’t think about them, or I thought about them as a dominant decorative motif for the sanctuary—but not as symbols. I’m sure most of our members were of the same mind. Once I learned that the quatrefoil is a symbol of the gospel, the four lobes representing the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, I was surprised both at how oblivious I had been and at how beautifully our church designers worked to show the predominance of the gospel in our worship by including not just one, but hundreds of these symbolic shapes in our worship space! Now I love the quatrefoil symbol; I think about it often and point it out to others, too.

I was surprised both at how oblivious I had been and at how beautifully our church designers worked to show the predominance of the gospel in our worship.

In Practice

So, how do we guide 21st century Christians to such “Aha!” moments and deeper worship through symbolism? Here are a few practical thoughts for symbol education.

As Jesus used much symbolic language in his teachings, much of our Christian symbolism is borrowed from his words. Vine and branches, bread, light, salt. Filling ears with Jesus’ picture language in lessons and sermons is natural in worship, and it is also easy to direct eyes to a connecting image in a stained glass window or on a banner. Pointing out a sanctuary symbol in the introduction to a service, a hymn, a sermon, or a lesson decodes the presence of that symbol.

A good portion of our symbolism ties to the church year. When we enter a new season, my pastor, as part of his introduction to the service, points out that the paraments in our chancel have changed and gives a brief explanation of the new color’s meaning. There are ample opportunities to teach just like this in each passing season: explaining the Advent wreath as part of the midweek Advent service’s candle lighting ceremony; noting your altar’s empty cross on Easter; highlighting your stole’s intertwined rings on Trinity Sunday.

Worship folders and bulletins provide a great space for printed images along with explanations, especially if one’s worship space does not house a lot of symbolic artwork. A worship folder’s cover art with symbolism that ties to the week’s lessons or hymns helps set the theme of the day; a sentence or two about the artwork will help make a secure connection. With today’s word processing software and in our Google Image age, copyright-free graphics for Christian symbols are easy to find, copy, and paste into several sections of worship folders and bulletins.

After thinking about and presenting on the topic of Christian symbolism at the 2011 Worship Conference, I started a special section in our bulletin called “Symbol of the Week.” Here’s the first entry, from the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A:

psd-shiny-white-pearl-icon 2Symbol of the Week: Many of our Christian symbols come from Jesus’ teaching and parables—like the parables of the treasure, the net, or the pearl that we hear in today’s Gospel lesson. The pearl “of great value,” which in Jesus’ parable symbolizes the kingdom of God, has also come to represent anything that is rare and of great value in our spiritual lives, including the Word of God and even Jesus himself. Enjoy the pearls that come to you today in your worship.

Most of the time the “Symbol of the Week” was connected to the theme of the day or to a reference in one of the Scripture lessons. Other times the highlighted symbol was seasonal or one of the symbols in our worship space that would otherwise not be reviewed. This section was included in the bulletin for the rest of that three-year cycle of lessons. It will probably come back again someday, but maybe, for variety’s sake, as an educational piece in our church’s monthly newsletter.

Like other spiritual education that the church provides, opportunities for symbol teaching will come outside of worship time, too. Bible study sessions provide opportunities to present Christian symbols and their explanations in many discussions. As a visual learner and lover of art, I like to include some type of image on nearly every PowerPoint slide in my Bible study presentations. I can’t help then but regularly take a minute to point out symbolism or connections. I often get a thoughtful “Oh…” when we make the picture a part of our discussion. Sometimes, even before I get to it, somebody will comment on or ask a question about an image.

Once in a while—again, because I love art and my Bible study attendees appreciate it—an “art break” occurs in the middle of a lesson to show photos of artwork (famous or not-so) that connect with the section of Scripture we’re discussing. It’s a good way to point out symbolism in the art that is not commonly used in our churches today.

Of course, a full study on Christian symbols, their origin and their meaning, is good to have every once in a while on a Bible study schedule. The resources listed with this article give information on materials that would be helpful for such a study.

Consider also how important it is to teach Christian symbolism as part of Catechism lessons and Bible information classes. The growing Christians in these classes can greatly benefit from visual education tied to the doctrines they are learning. Catechism books include a lot of graphics already. Handouts or other visual aids can include more.

We let symbols live by making lessons on Christian symbolism part of the curriculum in our Lutheran elementary schools. Where do these lessons fit? Are they part of Bible lessons, devotions, classroom decoration, art classes? One principal under whom I served had a unit on Christian symbolism as part of his upper grade religion course each year. The study of Christian symbols became such a special topic to him that he has explored more deeply in personal study and has given well-received presentations on symbolism at churches in our area.

Don’t Assume

Teaching and reviewing Christian symbolism is beneficial at all levels. Even our most faithful members may not grasp basic presentations of symbolism. For our last Reformation Festival I set up a symbolic display of the means of grace: the baptismal font on a stand, a big open Bible next to it. Somebody asked our congregational president what was going on, why the font was raised up. Our president relayed this conversation and asked me to be sure to explain whatever symbolism is presented, no matter how simple. I was a little surprised, but I should know better.

You see, I can present artistic symbolism in banners, sanctuary displays, graphics—I can even challenge with uncommon symbolism, like a pelican (Christ’s atonement) or pomegranate (the Resurrection)—but those efforts are wasted if the connecting meaning is only in my head and in nobody else’s. I can’t be like the pop singer who writes cryptic ballads filled with figurative language and then brushes off the baffled questions of fans with, “Whatever it means to you is what it means.” In worship, symbolic meaning is not open to interpretation. It must be explained. It must be clear.

Only then do the symbols live.

Efforts are wasted if the connecting meaning is only in my head and in nobody else’s.

Back to the Tree

The Christmas tree I was pondering had an unusual ornament perched on it—a goldfinch. I happened to find the tiny bird ornament two summers ago at Bronner’s Christmas Store in Frankenmuth, Michigan, not long after I had learned about its symbolism. While visitors to my house might look at the ornament and say, “Hmm. Beautiful bird,” I look at it and think: Goldfinches eat thorns and thistles—yes, those thorns and thistles listed as consequences of the fall into sin in Genesis 3. Goldfinches devour them, destroy them, just as my Savior Jesus destroys the curse of sin for me. I have another symbol that I now love.

I have put the goldfinch ornament away. But I’ll think about what it means to me when it comes out again next year. That symbolism will live with me every time I see it.

Written by Peter Schaewe

Peter is staff minister and art teacher at St. John, Jefferson, WI, and has served as the Worship Arts chair for the last five worship conferences. He is a graduate of Martin Luther College and holds a B.F.A. in painting and drawing from UW-Milwaukee.


Symbolism Resources

Books:
  • Murray, Peter and Linda. Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art. Awesome resource…not just for symbolism, but for any topic related to Christian art.
  • Gray, Doug. Christian Symbology. Much of this book is on christiansymbols.net.
  • Fergusson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. —Very comprehensive. It seems like a lot of the websites I found on Christian symbols are “quoting” from this book.
  • Baldock, John. The Elements of Christian Symbolism. The first part of this book is more philosophical with a good explanation of the nature of symbolism.
  • Steffler, Alva William. Symbols of the Christian Faith.
  • Stoner, Marcia. Symbols of Faith: Teaching Images of the Christian Faith. This book includes symbol patterns and activities for teaching symbolism. The cover says that it is “for intergenerational use,” so don’t think that it’s just fun stuff for kids.
  • Taylor, Richard. How to Read a Church: A Guide to Symbols and Images in Churches and Cathedrals. In addition to information on symbols, this book has summaries of Bible events and people that one might encounter when looking at art in churches.
  • VanderMeer, Harriet. Rings, Kings, and Butterflies: Lessons on Christian Symbols for Children.—Comes with a CD with of images you can use for your publications
  • Whitemore, Carroll E. Symbols of the Church. A thin but full book… It’s a quick reference.
  • Dover Publications has a book called Christian Symbols that includes a CD with 456 royalty-free pieces of clip art.
Internet:
  • paramentics.com
    WELS member Ian Welch is a graphic artist with a site full of art for your worship folders for each Sunday of the church year along with information and art on symbols.
  • welsstainedglass.org
    View symbols from the stained glass windows of WELS churches. Photographed and posted by Pastor Robert Koester.
  • christiansymbols.net
    See Christian Symbology by Doug Gray above… It’s the same thing.
  • planetgast.net/symbols/
    A fairly comprehensive listing of symbols with information, pictures (not great but usable) and available patterns for free by email or for purchase on CD.
  • google.com (Images)
    Type in key words, and you’ll find resources and images that you can copy and paste into documents for educational purposes.
  • http://worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/2014-worship-conference/ A Catalog of Christian Symbols—my presentation handout from the 2014 Worship Conference.

 

 

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Freeing the voice


 A physical therapy analogy

The current series of WTL articles is a potpourri of practical items for pastors, musicians, and worship planners. Here’s an article that is valuable equally for pastors who speak (and sing) and for choir directors, cantors, soloists. It contains a wealth of practical advice—advice, however, that may be rather technical, causing the reader to wonder if improvement can come without coaching. Some ideas will be helpful without much struggle. Some will require focused attention. Some might prod the speaker or singer to seek assistance from a qualified vocal coach. The online videos mentioned on page four can be helpful.

Think of a person experiencing shoulder trouble. The physical therapy solution requires doing just the right exercises in just the right way. Correct form and weight are critical to resolve the problem and avoid further pain or damage. – Bryan Gerlach


Freeing the Voice

A pastor once shared with me the vocal challenges he faced each week. He preached for the early service, taught a Bible class, and then preached for the second service. Add to this an evening service during the week and other classes. He developed a hoarse voice each week in his attempt to communicate emotion by raising and lowering his pitch. This left him wondering what he was doing incorrectly as he projected his voice.

In the past two years I have worked with two called workers who were seeking to take voice lessons to correct their vocal technique. Their voices were tight, sore, and exhausted. I found one common thread while working with both pastors and a Lutheran elementary school teacher. Their overall body tension and unregulated air flow caused them to “over” sing or speak in order to project their sound. One pastor needed complete vocal rest during the week. The teacher had to wear a microphone while speaking in the classroom.

The point to these stories is that many people experience faulty vocal techniques and are unsure how to correct them. This article offers guidance to help you “free your voice.”

A voice teacher once told me, “The human voice is the only instrument that you have one opportunity to care for. If you damage your voice, you do not have the opportunity to replace it.” This is an important concept for us who use our voices to the glory of God both in worship and for our profession. We need to use our voices in a healthy manner each time we sing or speak.

What does healthy mean?

Healthy means using your voice to the best of your God-given ability. It’s a stewardship issue similar to other ways we take care of the body and health that God has given us: diet, exercise, rest. The goal is a healthy voice for a lifetime of faithful use and service. You can accomplish this goal by understanding the anatomy involved in freely resonating your voice.

Healthy means using your voice to the best of your God-given ability.

Alignment

Good alignment in how you stand or sit can affect how your body produces a singing or speaking tone. Poor alignment can cause undue pressure on your larynx (voice box). Alignment starts by lengthening your spine which will in turn release tension in your lower back muscles. This happens because the abdominal and lower back muscles are supporting your skeletal structure. You help the breathing process by widening your shoulders and allowing your rib cage to expand. You reduce tension in the muscles where your skull and vertebra are connected by lengthening them along the back of your neck. This lengthening also allows your chin to stay level with the floor as you produce vocal tone. Your vocal tract works freely and consistently when you take time to align yourself.

Breathing

Well-supported breathing is another area that needs to be addressed in order to free the voice. Irritation in the vocal folds and cords may be caused by too much air being expelled while singing or speaking. Expelling too little air produces a harsh tone in your voice. This is sometimes referred to as a “glottal attack.” Both techniques—too much or too little air—can cause serious and even permanent damage.

How can you regulate air flow while singing or speaking?

WTL-illustration-Converted

Diaphragm illustration

The diaphragm is an important muscle that separates your abdominal muscles and your thoracic cavity (the area that contains your heart and lungs). What does your diaphragm do? It is a muscle that is involved during the inhalation process of your breathing. If you release your lower abdominal muscles in an outward and forward motion, your diaphragm would contract (drop down as the abdominal muscles are displaced outward). Your body then would naturally form a vacuum which draws the air into your lungs. As you sing or speak, your diaphragm relaxes in an upward motion and eventually rests in a domed shape under your rib cage. Your abdominal and lower back muscles slow down the process of your diaphragm returning to its resting position. This process supports your vocalization and evens out your airflow.

An exercise that you can use to perform “diaphragmatic” breathing begins with proper alignment. After your body is aligned, blow air through your mouth as if you are trying to cool off a warm beverage. At the same exact time, you should feel your abdominal muscles relaxing upward toward your ribcage as the air is leaving your body. It’s as if the air is slowly leaking out of a balloon while it deflates. Inhalation begins by releasing your lower abdominal muscles and allowing the navel to spring outward. As this happens, air will quietly enter the lungs through your nose and mouth. You are harnessing your air and are ready to support your vocal tone. This process should continue through each vocal phrase.

Resonance

Many people believe if we use more air, we produce more sound. It is not the amount of breath that determines whether we are heard at the back of the room. What matters is how we use that breath, combined with the skill of developing natural resonance.

Resonance is defined as amplification of the original sound.  Natural resonance allows a person to carry their vocalization over the space they are trying to fill. The path of resonance begins with an even airflow through the larynx. The larynx makes a buzzing sound which travels up the back of the throat to the mouth. Three areas in the mouth that affect your vocal tone are the soft palate, the hard palate, and the tongue. The soft palate is the soft tissue constituting the back of the roof of your mouth. The hard palate is the dome-shaped roof of your mouth. It is a sensitive surface that can be a focal point for the sound wave arising from the vocal folds. This is the area where the sound wave converts into vocal tone. The sensitivity of the hard palate is a very useful tool for enhancing the speaking voice when lecturing or preaching, and it is essential for singing.

Freeing up space between the tongue and the hard and soft palates is the key to making resonance successful. This space allows vocalization to amplify without adding tension or stress to the vocal tract. Your vocal tone exits your body through two areas: your mouth and your nose. Here are some issues that can develop bad vocal habits and also how to correct them.

MOUTH – Vocal tone is distorted or strained if the tongue is pulled back and away from the opening of your mouth. The tongue arches upward toward the back of the throat. This improper use of the tongue is visible when the pitch of your voice is in the higher range of singing or speaking. You can see space between the tip of the tongue and the lower front teeth. This unnatural position will lift the larynx into a higher position in your throat because of connective tissue and ligaments. This is detrimental to your overall vocal health. In choirs, you may see an indicator of this when people lift their eyebrows while singing. One obvious visual cue that a director can notice is when singers lift their chins and you see the muscles straining around the larynx. This usually happens in an attempt to sing higher pitches in the vocalist’s range. If a public speaker or singer continues to use their higher range in this manner, they will develop permanent damage to their voice.

How do you correct this misuse of the tongue and larynx?

You need to connect coordination between the tongue and the jaw. The goal is to relax the tongue and allow it to lay flat in a neutral position across the lower teeth and jaw. The tongue should be as “flat as the state of Texas”—both broad and wide. Each time the jaw releases to vocalize vowels, the tongue should move fluidly with the lower jaw. This assures that the larynx remains in a low position and is relaxed while singing and speaking. A recommended exercise to build tongue and jaw coordination is “Hee, ah.” The tongue lies flat in the mouth as you fluidly move the jaw between the vowel sounds of “ee” and “ah” (Example 1).  You ascend each time you sing the phrase by half-steps.

WTL-JanFeb16Ex1

Example 1

NOSE – Vocal tone sounds nasal if you allow the sound wave to travel through the nasal cavity and the mouth.

How do you close off the area to the nose so that the sound wave is distributed through the mouth?
The soft palate needs to be lifted to close off resonance through the nasal cavity. It is like a trap door. The sound wave will travel directly to the hard palate if the soft palate is lifted. An easy way to lift the soft palate is to say the word “hung.” Now add the syllable “ah” after the word hung, which sounds like “hung-ah”. You will feel the soft palate lift and lower itself in the back of your hard palate. The “Ng” hum is an exercise used to strengthen the soft palate to stay in an upright position. Pick a neutral pitch. I suggest G below middle C for the men and G above middle C for the women. Sing the word “hung” and hold the “ng” sound as you descend down the 5 note scale. Keep the tongue flat and relaxed in the bottom of the mouth. This is very important. (Example 2)

WTL-JanFeb16Ex2

Example 2

This exercise develops the ability to keep the soft palate lifted in a dome shape across the back of the throat. By simply learning to include an appropriately domed soft palate in every vowel shape, the singer or speaker can close off the resonance through the nose and de-nasalize the voice.

Resonance is the end result of a developmental process. It is not something we either have or don’t have. We can build a resonant singing or speaking voice. Opening your vocal tract by freeing up the space in your mouth will allow you to resonate naturally, easily, and fully across the space that you are trying to fill with sound. This illustration shows what an open vocal tract looks like.

WTL-PathofResonance2

Path of Resonance

Summary

A review of the information above in a simplified manner is as follows:

  • Align your body
  • Utilize diaphragmatic breathing to even out the airflow which passes through the larynx
  • The larynx buzzes producing a sound wave
  • The soft palate should be lifted
  • The tongue should be flat and relaxed, moving fluidly with the jaw over vowel sounds
  • The sound wave is focused on the hard palate and converts to vocal tone
  • Vocal tone resonating from the hard palate allows sound waves to travel through the mouth and amplifies the voice in a relaxed manner

These seven components take time and practice to coordinate. Each one is essential to opening up the vocal tract and “freeing the voice.” Together they will allow you to resonate efficiently and to the best of your God-given ability. If you do have vocal issues that cause discomfort or pain, please seek medical assistance. Do not wait. You have been given only one voice to use for God’s glory. God bless your continued efforts in sharing the Gospel through Word and song.

By Natosha Cole

Natosha Cole is a voice teacher and the Cantate Choral Director at Manitowoc Lutheran High School with over 20 years of experience teaching voice. A member of the distinguished National Association of Teachers of Singing, she is a 1996 graduate of Martin Luther College and studied vocal performance at Arizona State University.


Additional resources

Natosha Cole provides video content at the link below. If you are accessing this from a paper copy of WTL, search YouTube for the title: Improving Vocal Resonance and Freeing the Voice   (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CfnGFSKA6MI)

The first 15 minutes explore concepts described above. Then follows additional content especially helpful for singers and choir directors. Two additional videos are available on YouTube from presentations to WELS choir directors.

The Voice – Pedagogy and Technique

Choral Director and Voice Teacher: Working Together

Four resources from Natosha Cole shared at the 2014 conference are available at worship.welsrc.net. Follow the “Worship Conference” link and then click on “2014 Conference on Worship, Music, and the Arts” to open up a list of all available handouts.

See also under “Worship the Lord Newsletter” numbers 53 and 54 in the series “Challenges for the Lutheran Church Choir.”


Preacher testimonial

I remember occasionally having a sore voice after preaching. The main reason I sought voice coaching, though, was because I wanted to become a better singer.

I was amazed at what voice lessons did for me over time. I didn’t know how to “sing from the diaphragm.” But voice lessons helped me to understand and put that concept into practice. I’m still a novice. But after practicing for a year, I can feel the air expand my ribcage when I breathe in. I’ve learned to regulate the exhale. In choir I’ve noticed a dramatic improvement. I can sing more than one line without taking a second breath. Singing high notes is also easier.

Voice coaching has taught me that the proper use of my voice does not require major effort. To sing or speak loudly, I used to make the effort from my throat. Now, I simply let the air release from my ribcage, open my mouth wider, and the sound comes out louder. Through voice lessons, I now appreciate that my voice is like a natural wind instrument.

Besides singing improvement, I feel the timber of my speaking voice has improved. To my ears, my voice sounds richer. Since voice lessons, I have not had a sore voice from preaching. I highly recommend voice training for called workers.


Teacher testimonial

About six years ago, I began experiencing pain in my vocal cords and dealt with voice loss almost every month. I would feel relief on the weekends. But after an hour of teaching on Monday morning I would begin losing my voice again and feel the pain in my vocal cords. Even normal talking in conversations became difficult. After seeing an ear, nose and throat specialist, who informed me I will always struggle with swollen vocal cords, I decided my last option was voice lessons. I took one year of voice lessons and faithfully did the exercises needed to improve breathing habits and to relieve tension as I sing or speak. Lessons were once a week, and I was able to go the entire year without losing my voice. I could project more, and it was easier for me to be heard.

But now this year my schedule does not allow time for the lessons, and I am struggling with chronic voice loss and the pain of swollen vocal cords again. I have not been consistently using the exercises this year.

There is definitely a correlation between strength of voice and exercises for it.

 

Print out the latest edition of this newsletter to share with your congregation.

Voices raised with keys and strings

“How will it go? What will people think?” These questions were on my mind prior to making a presentation at our synod’s 2011 National Conference on Worship, Music and the Arts. With the kind assistance of Dr. Kermit Moldenhauer, I had prepared new musical settings of the canticles found in the historic liturgy, settings written for piano and guitar. 1 Being far less than professional in both guitar and vocal performance, the thought of playing and singing in front of a group was doing a little number on my nerves. All in all, it turned out that the two sessions went well.

Four years later, this article reviews a 2014 worship conference presentation which expanded on the one just described. With Mr. Mark Davidson on the piano bench, I led two groups through 24 samples of hymns and songs written for piano and guitar. 2 Based on that event and other experiences, it is a privilege to share a few observations.

Repertory and Instrumental Performance

There is no shortage of worship music written for “keys and strings.” With the stipulation that texts must be scripturally sound, the question becomes, “Which solid titles/texts have music written for both instruments?” Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal included guitar chords for only 12 of 623 hymns. The guitar edition for Christian Worship: Supplement had a much higher percentage: 70 of 85. To be noted, however, is that not every one of those 70 supplement hymns was written with guitar accompaniment in mind. The same is true of any number of recent hymnals where guitar chords are available for every hymn or song. Without delving into technical detail, it is true that someone can analyze the chord structure of the keyboard settings and manufacture matching guitar chords. The questions become whether or not the resulting combination works musically, and whether or not the guitarist can actually manage to play the matching chords.

One of the main purposes of “Voices Raised with Keys and Strings” was to provide a sample playlist where such questions were taken out of play. The guitar chords of the sample pieces were accessible to guitarists who play at an average or less than average skill level. The hymns and songs featured in the sessions were written in such a way that both instruments were intended to be combined.

That intent may not always be readily apparent. Early in the first session, an example arose which put a smile on my face because I expected it to happen. Rather than playing strictly from the accompaniment, Mr. Davidson was improvising the piano performance in a way that better suited the guitar accompaniment. Noting that the piano score was different, one attendee asked which score he was using and where it could be acquired. I had to acknowledge that not every congregation will have a keyboardist who can improvise in this way.

This is, however, part of the mix in seeking to have keys and strings accompaniment for worship. The well-known tune HYFRYDOL (CW 365) is available from Oregon Catholic Press (OCP #91192) as a score for unison singing, keyboard, guitar, and trumpet in Bb. The lead sheet (text, guitar chords, and melody only) carries this note at the bottom of the page: “When guitar and keyboard play together, keyboardists should improvise using the guitar chords above the melody.” While such a note does not mean that this is the only way that such tunes can be played, worship planners with limited musical background will benefit from understanding whether or not their congregations’ musicians can improvise.

Perhaps one of the easiest test cases for exploring a piano/guitar combination in worship is two pieces from the version of Morning Praise published by NPH in Christian Worship New Service Settings (M. Haugen; downloadable instrumental parts OL-033039E). Both the Venite and the Te Deum have an easy complementary guitar arrangement.

That brings up one further item to address in terms of WELS worship planners and repertory. Of 24 pieces sampled during the session, only four came straight out of Christian Worship resources, and less than half were Christian Worship titles. As we walk together in a synod, I have the confidence that Christian brothers and sisters will devote themselves to choosing texts which match our Christian and Lutheran confession. As worship planners search for solid texts which are also available with the instrumentation under discussion, where can we best point them?

Just to be clear (if it isn’t obvious), the sample playlist of our session had no intention of being comprehensive. After vetting the texts, the titles were chosen primarily on the basis of a compatible arrangement for both piano and guitar. An ongoing question for WELS worship leaders is: “Do we give people a fish or teach people to fish?” Do we best tell people where to look for quality piano and guitar worship music, or do we generate a list and put individual pieces in their hands?

I don’t believe it’s wrong to ask that question. Nor do I believe it’s necessarily the right question. Some congregations have people who, without advice or assistance, know where to go and who can secure quality worship music for this genre of performance. Other congregations have people who would prefer not to be given directions where to go but who would derive greater benefit from being given specific titles, links, etc.—the actual music. A difficulty with the latter is that subjectivity will always be a factor, both for those who generate “the approved list of materials” and for those who are on the receiving end of such lists (“Why did or didn’t they include such-and-such a title?”).

A better question is to ask about balance. It wouldn’t be desirable to limit congregations’ repertory to 30 hymns which work well with piano and guitar simply because those are the hymns which can be identified or performed or made available. Nor would it necessarily be desirable to always accompany every hymn or liturgical song with these particular instruments (or to endlessly search for such settings), as if the hymns and songs weren’t written with organ accompaniment in mind. Balance comes into play when we recognize that, for both music and available musicians, one genre doesn’t need to cover all repertory. We’re perhaps not doing our best worship planning when, in search of piano and guitar accompaniment, our first consideration is “What can we find out there?”

Seldom if ever is Lutheran worship planning going to be easy. Ask any pastor or music minister how easy it is to pick hymns or line up choir music for a year. It takes time and effort. For two reasons (one of which comes later), I maintain that the best starting point for corporate worship music accompanied by piano and guitar is our church body’s published hymnal and its accompanying resources. The reason for starting there is that we already know what’s there—texts carefully chosen for use in our churches. If we don’t yet have a high percentage of 711 existing hymns, plus liturgical music, written specifically for piano and guitar, I recommend both patience and a commitment to keep working at it.

I will admit that the guitarist part of me would probably prefer to have a complete set of all of our hymns and liturgy songs written specifically for the combination of piano and guitar. But again, ask the members of Koiné or Branches Band (groups which have worked almost exclusively with CW/CWS texts) how much work it takes to produce a strong “keys and strings” arrangement that can also be used by others. It is no small task. It is a task on which the current hymnal project has its eye. While the current hymnal project may not be able to promise “a complete set,” it will be pursuing the matter in terms of both piano and guitar editions as well as other instruments.

Congregational Performance

Making a worship conference presentation is like preaching to the choir. At these sessions the attendees served as the choir. While much of the sample playlist was brand new to them, strong singing voices and ability to read music meant that the selections were well sung. Since this is obviously not always the case at the local congregation, those results were surely a bit skewed.

As much as I personally enjoy playing guitar along with the piano to accompany worship, and as well as the singing at the sessions went, I do not mean to write in a way that puts organ accompaniment in a bad light. Apart from people’s personal preferences for accompaniment and apart from concerns about the ability of the organist, there are strong arguments for putting the organ at the top of the list as the premier accompaniment instrument for public worship. At the same time, at both of my worship conference presentations, 2011 and 2014, it was easy to sense something in the room. While I didn’t take a poll of how many organists were in the room, comments and discussion revealed how some felt: “In addition to the organists who serve our congregation so faithfully and so well, perhaps this is a way that I, a non-organist, can serve the Lord and the church.”

“Perhaps this is a way that I, a non-organist, can serve the Lord and the church.”

Introducing practices into the worship life of a congregation calls for the greatest care and patience. I recall the first time I played guitar in a public service in the 1990s. After the first performance, I didn’t play again for another year, not because it was not well-received, but because I didn’t want to push. I also took things slowly because I was the guitarist. Especially since I was the pastor, I didn’t believe it was my place to play in church just because I could play the instrument. I would rather be asked to serve in that way than to imply that I really ought to be able to serve in that way.

With that kind of “public worship thinking” understood, I would hope that worship conference presentations such as “Voices Raised with Keys and Strings” would lead to congregational conversations about utilizing the gifts of as many of the congregation’s instrumentalists as possible. Some common sense is necessary when it comes to deciding on which instruments are commended or not for use in public worship. In light of different skill levels, the same is true of which instrumentalists are asked to serve (or perhaps, as difficult as it may be, not asked to serve). But as the efforts are expended to educate the congregation in advance and to avoid the pitfalls and to work out all the bugs, watch how much the ownership of and appreciation for public worship increases for both instrumentalists and non-instrumentalists alike as individuals join the congregation’s local orchestra, be they one or two or many.

An article recapping a presentation entitled “Voices Raised with Keys and Strings” would miss the mark if the first two words weren’t also emphasized. To do so, I acknowledge the efforts of the conference presentation keyboardist, Mr. Mark Davidson, and of Rev. Aaron Christie, both of whom serve at the congregation where I now hold membership, Trinity Lutheran in Waukesha, WI. In large part, their worship planning was responsible for many of the selections in this presentation. The ensemble at Trinity ensemble includes piano and guitar, along with mic’d cantors—and also at times trumpet, percussion, digital keyboard, violin, cello, and bass guitar.

In most cases the assembly sings along with the cantors—hymns, psalms, or service music which they have sung before, just with different instruments.

When that ensemble comes together (every other month on average), its selections number between six to nine pieces per service. The selections have never been anthems; they are always either hymns or service music (canticles, psalms, verses of the day). Performing from a dedicated music space at the front right section of a large nave, the ensemble seeks to “raise voices.” In most cases the assembly sings along with the cantors—hymns, psalms, or service music which they have sung before, just with different instruments. Trinity in Waukesha is by no means the only place using this approach. I write favorably about this approach not because I am a part of it but because it is transferable to the Lutheran congregations and schools whose worship leaders are reading this article. This approach focuses on the body of hymns and service music which is common in our church body.

Adequate rehearsal time is essential.

Adequate rehearsal time is essential. None are the times when this ensemble has played without individual and group rehearsal. It takes a lot of work. Few are the times when this ensemble has played that I haven’t spent time figuring out guitar chords by playing piano chords, transposing music to an easier key for the guitar, or organizing and marking up music for performance.

While there are some unique items about the dedicated worship space and the sound system which I could address (such as iPad controlled mixing capabilities), here’s what I appreciate most about this ensemble. It is both set up and executed to involve the worshiping assembly. This is the second reason that the best starting point for corporate worship music accompanied by piano and guitar is our church body’s published hymnal and its accompanying resources. Familiar tunes make for success when leading the congregation with different instruments. With a guitar on my lap and a monitor amp allowing me to hear myself play, I can’t always judge how the singing is going, but comments indicate that it is going well, due in part to good mixing, but due in greater part to the use of familiar hymns and service music. In a setting which is blessed to have a magnificent pipe organ and gifted organists, occasional scheduling of this ensemble has allowed people to find “a new dimension in the world of sound” (CW 248:2).

Familiar tunes make for success when leading the congregation with different instruments.

It has taken a few years for me to become marginally adept at performing most of a service’s worship music as a guitarist, in combination with a pianist, in what remains a familiar Lutheran worship service. Unlike the weeks before the worship conference in 2011, I no longer find myself worrying or wondering, “How will it go?” or “What will people think?” I now find myself hoping and praying for something definitely more significant and decidedly more focused: “Will this strengthen the singing? Will it carry the text more forcefully toward the rafters and more deeply into the hearts of both hearers and singers?” To combine piano and guitar in accompaniment is by no means the only or best way for that to happen, but for that to happen is by all means the best reason to combine piano and guitar in accompaniment.

Occasional scheduling of this ensemble has allowed people to find “a new dimension in the world of sound.”

Written by Michael Schultz

Pastor Schultz has served WELS congregations in Flagstaff, AZ and Lawrenceville, GA. He chaired the hymns subcommittee for Christian Worship: Supplement, compiled its guitar edition, and currently serves as project director for a new WELS hymnal. Some of his compositions, arrangements, and hymns are available at www.forthedirectorofmusic.com.


  1     Throughout this article, references to “piano and guitar” are not intended to be exclusive. Many, if not most, of the arrangements from the conference sessions included options for a number of other instruments. Limiting the language of the article to “piano and guitar” simply reflects the session title and the instruments used during the sessions.

  2     A repertoire list from this presentation is available at http://worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/2014-worship-conference/. Audio samples are available for many of the selections. Recordings from publishers  are not always reliable to show potential in a given parish. The vocal style may be too soloistic or too much a pop style. Your choir or a soloist may use a different vocal style. The instrumentation may be too complicated (and thus too difficult) or too busy. For example, too much percussion may make a song seem less appropriate. But the same song will “work” with less percussion.


Beyond Strumming

Search giamusic.com for three volumes with the title Beyond Strumming. From the publisher’s description: “Liturgical guitar method series. Provides both the music reading skills and guitar techniques demanded of today’s liturgical guitarist. Book includes compact disc.”

Without endorsing every point but noting that much of the liturgical music is transferable to Lutheran circles, readers might be interested to know that Michael Joncas, David Haas, Marty Haugen, and others were featured in a one-hour documentary on KSMQ public television—On Eagles’ Wings: Minnesota’s Sacred Music. Search for the title on YouTube. It’s about far more than guitars. But note this quote at 17:37: “While in some cases guitars were well played and invited the people’s participation, in other places very amateur guitarists played and gave sacred music a bad name.”


“By Faith”

A double CD of highlights from the 2014 worship conference would make a fine Christmas gift for church musicians. Search NPH for the title track (above)—a hymn anthem by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend. Additional tracks are available by free download at worship.welsrc.net.

Print out the latest edition of this newsletter to share with your congregation.

Building Part-Singing Skills in Children’s Choirs

“Lutherans are bred from childhood to sing in four-part harmony. It’s a talent that comes from sitting on the lap of someone singing alto or tenor or bass and hearing the harmonic intervals by putting your little head against that person’s rib cage. It’s natural for Lutherans to sing in harmony. We’re too modest to be soloists, too worldly to sing in unison. When you’re singing in the key of C and you slide into the A7th and D7th chords, all two hundred of you, it’s an emotionally fulfilling moment.”

Singing for Lutherans, Garrison Keillor

Much of my childhood was spent as a “choir orphan.” There are many memories of time spent in a church balcony with my parents, relatives, and family friends who served as choir directors, organists, and various singers in every section of the choir. Family gatherings always included group singing, with repertoire spanning the gamut from beloved hymns to folk songs and other familiar songs common to Americans. As a result of this rich upbringing, there are moments today that I lament the loss of this communal singing tradition in the lives of my fellow Americans. It has been suggested that the church may be one of the last places where people engage in group singing!

Without the tradition of group singing, it stands to reason that children have also lost exposure to part-singing that has been an integral part of the church’s song. While the media inundates us with music and singing in all forms, our children are often merely spectators as opposed to creators of God’s gift of music. Music making becomes something that belongs exclusively to the musically gifted. Yet, in my work with children and high school students, it quickly becomes apparent that choral singing is still an enriching experience for young singers. Combine the Word of God with the beauty of choral singing and watch young singer’s eyes grow wide with wonder! Watch the eyes of congregation members grow moist from the honest proclamation of the Gospel through beautiful treble singing!

How do we establish solid part-singing skills in children, equipping them for a lifetime of joyous praise to our almighty God? Part-singing is a developmental skill that can be cultivated through careful teaching and selection of music. It is easy to assume that if we ask children to open their hymnals to a simple hymn such as “Glory Be to Jesus” and sing the soprano and alto line, they should immediately sound angelic! Nothing could be further from the truth and many a director has left the rehearsal discouraged that their children “can’t sing.” The secret to building good part-singing skills is in the selection of music where the parts are independent, with movement and tonal relationships that qualify each part as a melody unto itself. Traditional hymn settings use parallel harmony, which is challenging for children who have not had training in part-singing. Even alto parts in parallel harmony that hover around three to four repeated notes can confound young singers because they have no sense of a melody taking place.

When we teach part-singing skills, we are developing the ear and its capacity to hear one or more parts while singing another. Unless children (and adults!) are able to acquire these inner hearing skills, part-singing will be a difficult and frustrating experience. Singing experiences that employ independent part writing give children something to “hold on to,” which in turn builds inner hearing. By following a sequence of steps with appropriate repertoire, all children can learn to sing in parts. Think of these steps as a pyramid, beginning at the bottom and working to the top.

Four-Part Parallel Harmony

Three-Part Parallel Harmony

Four-Part Rounds, Canons, Countermelodies, etc.

Two-Part Parallel Harmony

Three-Part Rounds, Canons, Countermelodies, etc.

Two-Part Partner Songs

Two-Part Counter-melodies and Descants

Two-Part Rounds

Ostinato (a short musical pattern that repeats)

Shared Melody Songs

Singing with Beat and Rhythm

In-Tune Singing

Teachers of primary grades (K4-Grade 2) begin this process with the first three steps in the sequence. It is crucial that children become in-tune, independent singers by the time they reach third grade. While teachers of older children can establish these foundational skills, the process becomes more difficult as children age. There is no substitute for attention to the use of head-voice and beautiful unison singing in primary grades! Children begin to build part-singing skills when they sing a song while tapping the beat, rhythm, or simple rhythmic ostinato pattern. Singing a song while performing simple movement is also part singing. Call-and-response songs, echo songs, chain-phrase singing, and antiphonal singing are all examples of shared melody songs that establish a foundation for future part-singing. Examples can come not only from sacred literature but also from the vast body of children’s folksong repertoire.

If solid preliminary work has been done in the primary grades and at least 90% of a group of children are in-tune singers, the real work of part-singing can begin. Rounds are a wonderful way to build part-singing skills and children cannot sing too many of them. Ostinatos are short melodic patterns that repeat over the course of a song or section of a song. Many excellent collections of rounds are available with both sacred and secular examples. It is also easy to create an ostinato from a short phrase of a round.

When introducing songs utilizing rounds or ostinatos, begin with a careful teaching sequence:

  • Teach the main melody until the children are able to sing it confidently without the piano or teacher.
  • Have the class sing the song while the teacher sings the ostinato or second part of the round.
  • Switch parts. The teacher sings the song or leads the round and the class sings the ostinato or second part of the round.
  • Divide the class in two sections and perform in two parts. It is helpful to place a couple of strong singers in the first group to begin the round or sing the melody. These singers will support their classmates while the teacher brings in the second group. The second part in a round or the ostinato is always more challenging for young singers.
  • Switch groups.
  • It should be a goal for the teacher to stop singing with children and simply conduct as soon as possible. The end result should be a children’s performance.
  • Other applications in this process include:
  • Have a small semi-section of children lead the group while the rest of the class follows.
  • Have a soloist lead the group while the rest of the class follows.
  • Have two semi-sections sing the song in parts.
  • Have two soloists sing the song in parts.

All singing of rounds and ostinatos should be done without piano. This enables children to hear themselves and the other part clearly. Good inner hearing skills will be stronger if children hear only themselves and their group. Furthermore, a piano will often “muddy the waters” for many children and they will not know which notes are theirs. The end result of such a cappella singing will be more confident and independent singers.

If children falter, simply try again. If the song continues to fall apart, back up and re-establish the last successful step. Don’t try to complete the whole process in one setting. Most likely, it will take several “chunks” within successive rehearsals to work through this sequence, and there is no need to rush the process. When training the ear, repetition and reinforcement are important. The learning process should be one of joy and discovery, and children will be excited and intrigued by what they hear. If the ensemble is successful at each step of the process, the singers will almost always be self-motivated.

Once singers are successful with rounds and ostinatos, venture into countermelodies, descants, and partner songs. At this point, you can move freely from one compositional device to another. Singers in Grades 4-8 will be successful with these songs if a firm foundation of earlier skills has been established. Songs with countermelodies have a familiar melody (hymn tune) paired with another independent melody. Each melody is introduced separately in unison and then combined together. A descant is a higher melody that is paired with a familiar melody. Partner songs are two established songs that sound good when sung simultaneously. Children love part-singing and will accept the challenge of each song. Once again, a process for establishing skills can be followed:

  • Teach both parts to everyone. Most of these songs have equal vocal ranges in both parts, so there is no “soprano” or “alto.” Use such terminology as “Treble 1 and 2” or “Part 1 and 2.”
  • When putting parts together for the first time, the teacher can sing one part while the group sings the other part. If one melody is a familiar hymn, let the children begin with the hymn. When singers are comfortable singing those two parts with their teacher, switch parts.
  • When children are confident singing in parts with their teacher, divide the group into two parts.
  • If at any point the song breaks down or the harmony sounds “fuzzy,” try again or back up and reinforce a previous step.

Once singers have experienced several types of part writing, simply teach the music in parts from the beginning and employ the previous steps when challenges arise.

What about boys? Part-singing is intriguing and satisfying for boys and can be a strong motivator to keep singing. Encourage (insist!) boys to sing in their “high voice” until vocal change happens naturally around Grades 7-8. Talk to boys about vocal change and the importance of staying in their “high voices” until vocal change occurs. Offer encouragement and support when voices begin to move down. It is often more effective to have changed or changing voices sing the higher part one octave lower if the ensemble is doing two-part work. However, if students are experienced part-singers, it will be possible for a choir to do three-part music with independent parts, including octavos labeled “three-part mixed.” These arrangements can be a perfect fit for changing boys’ voices. How exciting for those young men to have their own part! Furthermore, high school choir directors will be thrilled when well-prepared tenors and basses arrive at their high school program.

As the rehearsal process progresses, take the time to work on other choral skills such as good breathing, phrasing, tall vowels and crisp diction, and sensitive dynamics and articulation. Each of those choral elements will improve intonation and bring warmth and vitality to the choral sound. Children know when they sound good and they will work hard for directors who bring out their best! Aspire for musicality and artistry, and make the connection between the scriptural text and how the composer chose to craft the piece. It is amazing the spiritual insights child singers will bring to their work! The same children will then give heartfelt performances that are truly the “living voice of the Gospel.”

How does a director know if singers are ready to move to parallel harmony in two, three, and four parts? If children are learning multiple songs utilizing independent part writing quickly, effectively, and confidently, they might be ready for parallel writing. When moving to parallel harmony, look for octavos that approach two-or-more parallel parts from the unison and then return to unison writing within a phrase or section. This will ground singers while their ears adjust to the parallel harmony. Warm-ups in solfege (do, re, mi, etc.) using chordal patterns found in the music can help establish the sound in young ears prior to singing it in the music. Utilize past rehearsal process steps when necessary. By this time in the part-singing process, children’s ears will be pretty keen and the process moves faster and smoother.

May these steps to successful part-singing be applied to adult choirs? Absolutely! If an adult choir constantly sounds “fuzzy” or sings individual parts well but cannot hold their parts in a group when singing parallel harmony, it could be that their part-singing skills are not as developed as they need to be for traditional SATB choral writing. Look for music that employs independent part writing in at least part of the octavo. While it can be a treasure hunt, much fine SATB music exists that employs rounds, descants, countermelodies, and partner songs. SATB octavos that employ occasional doubling of the soprano-tenor parts and/or alto-bass parts or voice leading utilizing imitation also lend support to older singers. In addition, two-part mixed or SAB settings can build necessary inner hearing skills. Rounds with more musical substance exist and can be used as part of the warm-up routine. With a little intervention, adult choirs can improve their part-singing skills in musically satisfying ways.

Building good part-singing skills in young singers takes time. It takes time to research the perfect octavo that satisfies not only the liturgical season of the year and the lectionary for a particular worship service, but the appropriate level of part-singing skills for the intended choir. There are many sensitive composers and arrangers of children’s sacred choral literature featured in almost every publisher’s catalog. Careful planning of repertoire and rehearsals will manage learning time efficiently and allow children to grow in their choral skills without being rushed. With patience and time, all children may experience the thrill of making joyful noises to the Lord. Children are most capable of proclaiming a powerful witness of the Gospel through their music. May we lead them to proclaim with the psalmist:

I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations. Psalm 89:1

Written by Marjorie Flanagan

Marjorie serves as the Fine Arts Coordinator and Choral Director at Wisconsin Lutheran High School, where she teaches Freshman Choir, Church Music, and Musicianship through Handbells. She directs the Jubilation Handbell Choir and coordinates several elementary school music activities. She received her Bachelor of Music degree and Kodály Certificate from Alverno College and a Master of Church Music degree from Concordia University Wisconsin.


Children’s Sacred Choral Repertoire Using Independent Part Writing

The following octavos are examples of beginning part-singing literature.

Melody Sharing

This Little Light of Mine
Arranged by Mark Patterson
Choristers Guild CGA1108

The Lord is My Light
Michael Bedford
Choristers Guild CGA878
(There are brief excursions to parallel harmony, but they make so much sense that children are bound to be successful.)

Rounds

Savior of the Nations, Come
Linda Moeller
NPH

Christ Be My Leader
Michael Bedford
Augsburg 0-8006-77439

Descants

Silent Night
Mark Patterson
Choristers Guild CGA 1315

Children of the Heavenly Father
Jeremy Bakken
Choristers Guild CGA 1380

Countermelodies

An Invitation for Advent
Ruth Elaine Schram/Douglas Nolan
Shawnee Press 35029815

The Lord’s My Shepherd
John Eggert
NPH 28N6015

Ostinato

A Christmas Introit (Hodie Christus Natus Est)
Audrey Snyder
Shawnee Press 35029816

What Wondrous Love Is This?
from “Children Rejoice and Sing, Volume 1”
Jeffrey Blersch
Concordia 97-7074
(Both Volumes 1 and 2 of “Children Rejoice and Sing” contain excellent arrangements for beginning part singers.)

Partner Songs

Yesu Kwetu ni Rafiki (What a Friend We Have in Jesus)
Mark Burrows
Choristers Guild CGA 1234

Away in a Manger
from “Children Rejoice and Sing, Volume 1”
Jeffrey Blersch
Concordia 97-7074

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