Midwives of Word and Sacrament

[1] The currently commended worship resource in the ELCA, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, describes the pattern for the weekly gathering of believers around word and sacrament centered in God’s action:

“The Holy Spirit calls us together as the people of God. God speaks to us in scripture reading, preaching, and song. God feeds us with the presence of Jesus Christ. God blesses us and sends us in mission to the world.”1

Within the worshiping assembly in any time or place, God’s grace-filled action toward the people of God works through the unique constellation of the gathering of believers. The cultural reality of the assembly in any particular time and place shapes worship practice so that the manifestation of God’s action in worship clearly proclaims the unfolding purpose of God in Jesus Christ for the sake of the world. A tension exists between proclaiming the age-old, time-less Gospel in distinctly time-bound assemblies of the people of God. The church, defined by the Augsburg Confession as the assembly of believers gathered for word and sacrament, holds the sacred responsibility of stewarding God’s action of grace in word and sacrament in ways that honor varying human cultural realities that influence the practices of word and sacrament.

[2] Culture can be described as the means by which human beings orient and organize themselves in a given time, place and set of circumstances.2 Culture encompasses everything that makes up the social environment, including language, rituals, ideas, beliefs, institutions, artifacts and practices.3 Just as Jesus Christ was incarnated to a real time and place, so the church — the body of Christ — lives in and is affected by culture in every time and place. Worship, in particular, is a place of intersection between God’s action in grace and culture, as the gospel is proclaimed and the sacraments are administered by means of the stuff of human culture: people, books, bread, wine, language and ritual.

[3] Examining the gathering of the church around word and sacrament as a means of evangelism and as integral to God’s mission in Jesus Christ for the sake of the world highlights the importance of the relationship between God’s grace and the context in which that grace is revealed. Worship is both responsible to the presence of God in word and sacrament and responsive to the community in which word and sacrament reside. Worship practice in a particular time and place neither ignores nor is subsumed by cultural realities. Rather, the dynamic interplay between the timeless, ubiquitous gospel and the reality of human culture is cultivated and explored. The question is not whether worship is “traditional” or “contemporary.” Rather, the question is how the the gospel continues to be preached and sacraments administered in ways that both stand in the time-tested trajectory of worship practice over centuries and continue to be shaped by ever-changing human culture.

[4] In practice, maintaining the dynamic interplay between God’s action and finite human action in worship may perhaps best be understood as a caring for and facilitating of word and sacrament in much the same way as midwives care for and facilitate the miracle of birth. Education supports the midwife’s understanding of the process of birth. Experience shapes general expectations of the event. Careful observation skills lead to creative adaptation to the unique circumstances of each birth. In turn, each experience then informs a deeper understanding and refinement of ways to care for and facilitate the next birth. The midwife always adapts to the birth event, rather than the birth event adapting to the wishes of the midwife.

[5] Those who care for and facilitate the practices of word and sacrament in the church also care for a process that lies outside the complete control of humanity: the mission of God in Jesus Christ for the sake of the salvation of the world revealed in word and sacrament. Savvy midwives of word and sacrament understand the role as caretaking and supporting God’s action in the gospel. Education about the confessional understandings, liturgical theology and historical practice of Christian worship provides both foundational information and wisdom about how the traditions of the church serve the centrality of the Gospel truth. Experiencing both the grace of God and human culture shapes expectations of the finite event of any particular worship service. Careful observation skills lead to the discovery of places where gospel and culture intertwine, thus bringing about the creative adaptation–or contextualization–of worship in the unique situation of a particular worshiping community. Even more, a cultivated practice of reflection about the experience of worship leads to deeper insights and wisdom for shaping the practice of future encounters with the gifts of word and sacrament.

[6] Applying a midwifery paradigm to worship planning and practice by leaders in the church maintains the centrality of God’s salvific action and gracious presence in word and sacrament as undeniable and uncontrollable events of the mercy of God for the sake of the world within the worshiping community and beyond. Our human participation by means of people, their God-given gifts, bread, wine, water, music and more are properly located in roles of support and facilitation. The individual and the unique community are pushed beyond their own self-centered tendencies with the recognition that God’s action, not human action, is primary. Gospel values indicated by the theological grounding in word and sacrament dictate and shape the use of human or cultural elements. Worship practice shaped by cultural elements adapts to the gospel, rather than the gospel adapting to the cultural elements.

[7] For example, apply the paradigm to the use of multimedia technology in worship. In contrast to the perspective that using multimedia technology is “current,” “hip” or culturally relevant, an understanding of God’s primary action in worship leads to the question, “How do the current cultural uses of multimedia technology support word and sacrament?” Observation of both historical practice in worship that has employed aural, visual and tangible means to proclaim the word of God and the current means by which culture communicates important values offers insight both into God’s action in worship and how worship is supported and facilitated. As decisions are made about the practice of worship, any use of technology that may be employed in worship for the sake of the Gospel–from musical instruments to sound amplification to visual projection–gives first consideration to God’s action in worship that may employ culturally determined practice according to the unique situation of the particular worshiping community. Multimedia technology becomes a tool that may or may not support the primary action of God in a particular unique worshiping assembly. The wisdom, experience and observation of the midwives of word and sacrament will reveal what means may be tried and what means should be left by the wayside. Constant reflection about worship and media support the adaptability and flexibility that may suggest different means in another time, place or community.

[8] Understanding worship as an incarnational event with God’s presence and action in word and sacrament at the center, supported by worship practice informed by the cultural reality of each worshiping community, offers worship leaders and planners a solid foundation upon which creative and flexible worship practice may be constructed. Worship leaders and planners attending to word and sacrament serve as midwives. The miracle at hand is skillfully cared for and supported by learning, observation and creative adaptation to the unique circumstances of each blessed event. Whether worship leaders struggle with such culturally determined questions such as styles of music, the use of technology, the arrangement or adornment of worship space, the formality of language, or other concerns the primary question remains, “How is God acting in worship and how is that action best supported in this time and place?”

Author’s note
The Lutheran World Federation’s 1996 Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture is a tool that offers a framework for examining the interplay between worship and culture with four observations: worship is trans-cultural, contextual, counter-cultural and cross-cultural.

1. Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006) 92-93.

2. Karen Ward, “What Is Culturally-Specific Worship?” in Thomas Schattauer, Karen Ward, and Mark Bangert, What Does “Multicultural” Worship Look Like?, Open Questions in Worship, vol. 7 (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1996) 18.

3. Thomas Schattauer, “How Does Worship Relate to the Cultures of North America?” in Thomas Schattauer, Karen Ward, and Mark Bangert, What Does “Multicultural” Worship Look Like?, Open Questions in Worship, vol. 7 (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1996) 6.

Jennifer Phelps Ollikainen

The Rev. Jennifer Phelps Ollikainen is Associate for Worship Resources in the Worship and Liturgical Resources unit of the churchwide office. She holds a Masters of Divinity, Sacred Theology Masters in New Testament and Doctor of Ministry in worship from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. Before seminary, she was a music therapist working with people dually diagnosed with developmental disabilities and mental illness.