Tom Raabe

Tom Raabe

Tom Raabe is an editor at Eerdmans and a lifelong Lutheran. In this post, he responds to Walter Sundberg’s book Worship as Repentance: Lutheran Liturgical Traditions and Catholic Consensus.

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Just when Lutherans were getting comfortable in their worship services, not having to dwell on their miserable sins and be reminded every single Sunday about how rotten they are inside, along comes Walter Sundberg with his new title Worship as Repentance to tell them that weekly confession of sins is the best thing that could happen to them spiritually, and that it should be the very reason they show up at that church on Sunday morning in the first place.

Talk about a buzzkill.

Worship in certain Lutheran denominations — he’s looking at you, ELCA — is all about celebration these days, Sundberg avers, celebration of God’s love, inclusive and unconditional. Embrace the self, without struggle or soul-searching. Get in touch with your feelings. Walk in the church doors feeling pretty darn good about yourself; walk out of them feeling even better. Celebrate the Eucharist without ever digging down deep and confronting your inner turpitude, your inherent and active sinfulness, in public confession. Liturgy these days is all about participating in the divine, all about unity with God through participation in the Sacrament.

As for that bad old confession of sins — it induces guilt and fear, emotions you want to get as far away from as possible. Confession messes with your head; it ruins the good vibe you have going from your positive self-talk. It takes you to a bad place where you remember how inadequate you are, how powerless you are to deliver yourself from the consequences of your sins; it’s a sad, emotionally dark place where there are no unicorns or rainbows or Tony Robbins DVDs — and you don’t want to go there. And in the ELCA — as well as in other church bodies, including many that style themselves “traditional” and “liturgical” — you don’t have to. Parishioners don’t necessarily confess their sins in public every Sunday — confession is optional in the liturgy — and when they do, they frequently dial it back to Joel Osteen level.

It wasn’t always this way — a point Sundberg explores at some length in his attempt to return repentance to the heart of Lutheran worship. Sundberg traces the history of confession, both private confession and public confession, beginning with the early church. So seriously did the Fathers take grave sin that Christians in the first centuries of the church believed repentance, following baptism, was available only once in a lifetime. This confession and forgiveness developed into a big, dramatic event, a one-off forgiveness ceremony that, understandably, believers deferred until their deathbeds, or shortly preceding, because they wanted to push their one dose of postbaptismal forgiveness to as near their end as possible so as to preclude subsequent transgressions.

Worship as Repentance

Worship as Repentance

One chance to repent in a lifetime remained the rule until the sixth century. But over the course of the seventh and eighth centuries the church, thanks largely to Irish monks, recovered repentance as a repeatable act. They emphasized penance as a gift, a repeatable event in the life of the Christian, done in private between penitent and priest. Christians could examine themselves again and again; indeed, examining oneself became a part of the Christian life.

The Lutheran Reformers embraced the “blessed repetition” of confession and forgiveness, and installed it in the weekly liturgy. Schism and scandal, controversy and contestation ensued, of course, as  sparks fly upward, but — long story short — by 1888 a liturgical form of an order for public confession in the common service had gained widespread consensus.

This played well for the next six or seven decades. In fact, Lutheranism thrived in the first half of the twentieth century, reaching its high point in the 1950s. Writes Sundberg, “Worship grounded in a theology of repentance was a powerful instrument for witness and an engine for growth.” You might say Lutheranism was the perfect theology for the “original sin” moment that arrived in that decade, when the culture was primed to hear a stern message about the predicament of a world mired in sin. “Lutheran worship practice is a penitential piety,” writes Sundberg. “It has to do with a style of devotion that presses to the interior of a person. The ideas, practices, and artistic forms that shape the character of classical Lutheranism are austere and intensely reflective.”

But after the 1950s came — wait for it — the 1960s. How shocking that the decade that gave us balloon-service extravaganzas and silly services and blue-jeaned pastors in their huaraches strumming their six strings and leading folk services from the chancel steps would also give birth to confession-free worship! In the 1960s, just when the sobriety and austerity of traditional Lutheran worship had reached their apogee, everything went squishy. The liturgical renewal movement, for one thing, broke from its Catholic cloister and tempted impressionable Protestant liturgical minds with its nostrums. This movement held that confession in liturgy “leads to a legalistic distortion of true Christian worship, creating a gloomy ‘penitential piety’ that engenders ‘guilt consciousness’ on believers, preventing them from understanding communion as celebration.”

Couple that movement with the secular tsunami that washes over all we see or do, which encourages clerics to make the faith more marketable, less countercultural, more feel-good about yourself and less feel-bad about your sins, more upbeat and Oprah-ific (possibly even Chopra-ific), and repentance-centered worship becomes an endangered species. Self-fulfillment becomes the goal of worship, getting in touch with the divine by getting in touch with your feelings, by thinking holy, warming, welcoming thoughts, by nurturing . . . spirituality.

Sundberg pops that bubble with a few pinpricks of liturgical sanity. He revisits his premise numerous times in this book: the fundamental purpose of worship is to call Christians to self-examination and repentance — “to warn them to be under no illusion as to who they are and how far they fall short when they stand before God and holy things, to teach them to worship God in humility, to feed them the Bread of Life, and to make them ready to give testimony to Christ in word and deed.”

Sober? Yes. Realistic? Without question. Negative? Not really.

Repentance is the gateway liturgical act to the renewed life. It’s bad news, sure. But this bad news opens the door to good news. For grace to be grace, sin has to be sin.

Click to order Walter Sundberg’s Worship as Repentance: Lutheran Liturgical Conventions and Catholic Consensus.