Question:
What should I make with the satis est principle of Augustana 7 and the possible adiaphora of liturgy? I am committed to the traditions of the church and think it is very ecumenical to follow the ordo of the liturgy as we know it in the ELCA. I had a professor lambaste the ELW and traditional liturgies in general because they are just “16th century worship” and we shouldn’t be bound to them. He indicates that this is a Western mode of worship and in the country of his ancestors (India) this is “foreign.” How do we properly “inculturate” the gospel in other contexts. I know that human traditions are not necessary to follow. But, I do feel like something is lost if I would go to a different country and not have the same lectionary or the Kyrie or the Creed or the Sanctus, etc.

Also, the professor lambastes traditional liturgies because they are not “attractive” to the youth. He says the ELCA churches that are growing around him are the ones doing “contemporary” worship and have dropped the liturgy.

Answer:  First I need to explain two concepts you reference. “Satis est” comes from the Augsburg Confession, Article 7. It means “it is sufficient.” It is an ecumenical principle. The Augsburg Confession is asserting that it is sufficient for the unity of the Church to agree concerning the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. Why? Because these are practices are means of grace that pertain to salvation, and such practices are not “adiaphora”—that is, “indifferent matters.” Nothing that pertains to salvation is an indifferent matter. Everything else is adiaphora, which includes most things that the church does, including forms of worship. But note: what one preaches (the gospel of the Scriptures) and how one administers the sacraments of Christ (Holy Baptism and Holy Communion) are not indifferent matters.

Within the forms of worship that constitute liturgy (public service) there will be certain constants: the reading of Scripture (Old and New Testament), intercessory prayer, Baptism with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and celebration of the Lord’s Supper according to Christ’s institution (taking bread and wine, blessing/giving thanks over them for the remembrance of Christ, eating and drinking them). Over the course of the centuries much has been added to this basic structure—prayer texts, movement in large spaces (processions), song (psalms and hymns). The texts, processions, and songs have been culturally conditioned in terms of rhetoric, body movement, and styles of chant and music. While these things are adiaphora, that doesn’t mean they are unimportant. They are important for the engagement and faith formation of worshipers. This means there must be both ritual and theological critique of liturgical practices and content. Ritual critique pertains to how liturgical rites work and whether they are accomplishing their purposes. Theological critique refers to what meanings are being communicated by the practices.

When it comes to relating worship to culture, Catholic and Protestant liturgists have written volumes about liturgical inculturation and different ways in which this is achieved. I highly recommend the book edited by Glaucia Vasconcelos Wilkey, Worship and Culture: Foreign Country or Homeland? (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans, 2014). It includes the Nairobi Report and papers from the Lutheran World Federation Study of Worship and Culture.

You say that your professor is Indian in ancestry.  Does he know what is happening in the churches of India in recent years?  Protestant tradition have lagged behind the Catholic Church in inculturation. Many still use material that has been inherited from the missionaries. Congregations are singing British gospel songs, not Indian chants. Inculturation has been much more thorough in Catholic practice in India and elsewhere in Asia because the documents of the Second Vatican Council called for it. However, the Mar Thoma (St. Thomas) Christians in India, located especially in the Kerala province in south India, have been using an oriental (Syriac-based) liturgy since the fourth century.  Groups of Mar Thoma Christians are variously aligned with the Syrian Orthodox Church (East Syrian) since the 4th century, the Roman Catholic Church since the 16th century, and Protestant Churches since the 18th century. The Protestant branch of the Malabar Church is in fellowship with the Churches of South India and North India, which have traditional Western liturgies. But all branches of the Malabar Church retain oriental chants, vestments, and copious amounts of incense, which I experienced when I preached in a Malabar congregation in Singapore. If your professor wants inculturated liturgy in India, it already exists among the Mar Thoma Christians.  (See the picture above this article for a glimpse of Syro-Malabar liturgy.) Importing into Asia styles of contemporary Christian music that originated in Nashville or from the Hillsong Church in Sydney is hardly inculturating! (See the picture below this article for a glimpse of contemporary worship.)

As he looks around him in the American Midwest (Minnesota?) and sees churches with so-called contemporary worship and lots of youth, your professor should consider some sociological factors. These churches are located primarily in suburbs where there are a lot of families with children and that so-called contemporary worship is what these congregations offer worshipers. In my experience, if pastors of these congregations offer so-called traditional worship it’s not performed with much knowledge of or commitment to the great tradition. I’m a member of a Lutheran congregation that offers traditional liturgy with splendid church music (16th century and 21st century). It supports a parochial school and has lots of children and youth in worship who are learning  Lutheran liturgy quite well. Also, many of the youth who grew up in suburban congregations with praise bands and projection screens are quite taken by traditional liturgy when they discover it in urban congregations. It’s all a matter of what youth are exposed to. Many youth who were formed in contemporary worship or come from evangelical or Pentecostal backgrounds simply haven’t been exposed to traditional forms of Christian liturgy.

I think that traditional-contemporary is a false distinction. Every act of worship done now is contemporary and “traditional” is simply what has been handed on. Contemporary worship has been around since the 1960s and is old enough now to also be traditional (several generations).  As such, it is also subject to decline as the baby boomers advance in age and decline in influence. I wouldn’t stake the future of Christianity on it.

Finally, I should point out to the questioner that the Revised Common Lectionary in its variant forms is used in many churches of several denominational traditions around the world, but not all—including the Lutheran Churches in Europe, which have their own lectionaries. Kyries, Sanctus—yes, some liturgical response and canticles are pretty universal in churches that follow historic liturgical traditions. You would find either the Nicene or the Apostles’ Creed in use in most churches.

Pastor Frank Senn