Virtual Service, Real Liturgy

By Nathan Jensen

I was about ten years old when the green Lutheran Book of Worship was published. The son of an ALC pastor who through the Lutheran merger became an ELCA pastor, I was at that time discovering music as a passion in my life. It was while I was in fifth grade that my piano teacher at the time, Kathy Hanson, wife of Handt Hanson who would go on to write the wonderful hymn “Good Soil,” decided she had taught me all she could and recommended my parents another piano teacher for me. This new piano teacher introduced me to J. S. Bach, a noted Lutheran you might say, and from there my interest in music, as well as church music, increased.

My family moved to Southern California around the time Reagan left the state capitol for the nation’s capitol. My father had likewise taken a promotion, going from associate pastor to senior pastor. Myself, I happened to acquire a preeminent piano teacher who was able to teach me what I needed to learn through both Jr. High and High School.

But the early eighties were strange, often awkward years for the development of music in the mainline church. Some of you might be aware of the Second Vatican Council of 1963 and the unprecedented reforms which in an instant transformed Catholic churches across the world. The change was massive. In a nutshell, the most important changes were these: No more Latin, no more organ. Well, that’s a pretty gross simplification, but the fact is that throughout the seventies guitars started creeping in to Protestant services and by the time the Lutheran Book of Worship was published there were a host of what we would now call “hymnal supplements” popping up for those guitar players and home-grown praise bands. The Maranatha song book, Bill and Gloria Gaither made their name in this era, and there are plenty more examples.

I can remember my father trying to balance these two forces. He did what I believe most pastors at the time with really large Protestant churches did. He used the Lutheran Book of Worship for one service and the praise music for a different service. The LBW was still quite new – it wouldn’t be right for a large Lutheran church to push it aside. And moreover, Lutherans, like all Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, are liturgical. And there were “liturgical settings” to be found within the green covers of that large hymnal.

So this is the lens through which I was exposed to liturgy while growing up. A praise service, supposedly non-liturgical, and an organ service, supposedly liturgical because they used a “liturgical setting.” With only two “liturgical settings” (and a third one which was never used) and only one option for each musical component in each setting, the service music became somewhat monochrome.

Especially when compared to the budding praise bands trying out a variety of brand new music. Assuch, it’s not hard to see how a pastor might think that his (or more recently, her) church would be “liturgical” so long as they used a “liturgical setting” in their service. For me, it wouldn’t be until the late ‘90’s when I was taught and began to understand a fuller meaning of liturgy. Lutherans like to point out that the word “liturgy” comes from the Greek and means “work of the people.” They especially like to point this out in reference to the state of the church around the time of Martin Luther. Martin Luther translated the Bible into the language of the people so as to put the Word of God in the hands of church goers and non-church goers alike. No longer would parishioners simply observe the priestly class go about the words and institutions of the church – the “Hocus Pocus” which they couldn’t understand. No, in Luther’s church they would be included in all parts of the service. Hence the “work of the people.”

But in fact, this definition of the word, though convenient for Lutherans, does not convey the full thrust of the word’s meaning. My understanding of liturgy I like to credit to Peter Hallock who invited me to his house in Fall City in 1999 and explained to me over the course of a couple hours the mechanism of liturgy. I’d like to try to encapsulate that here Liturgy, though not itself drama, can be understood best by the mechanism of drama. This is because good liturgy, like good drama, has a story to tell. In the case of the church, it should be understood that the story is the life and teachings of Christ. Perhaps you’ve heard the description “People of the Story.” Liturgy is the vehicle by which this story is conveyed.

Through today’s global pandemi we temporarily suspend the thousands-year old tradition of meeting in person as a group. But this by no means puts an end to the story. Indeed, the storytelling goes on

– Nathan Jensen


Every drama has a script. Our story has four scripts – Mark, Luke, Matthew and John. The similarities of the first three gospels are enough that we refer to them as the “synoptic” gospels. This is because a general synopsis of each of the three more or less lines up as far as the story is concerned. The gospel of John is non-synoptic as it happens to leave out things, include other things, and generally wander far afield compared to its three counterparts. As such, our current lectionary is divided into A, B and C to reflect emphases on the three synoptic gospels.

With these four wonderful scripts, we could all just sit at home and read and enjoy them by ourselves in the comfort of our houses. (In fact, it was Martin Luther that made that possible. Before Luther, if one wanted to read the Bible one would have to go to a monastery and learn first century Greek.) But dramas, whether Greek tragedies or Shakespearean comedies, were never intended to be experienced this way. So too, our story is best expressed with story tellers. This means people doing the work of story telling and, quite naturally, other people doing the work of listening.

So is that all? Could “liturgy” be boiled down to the like of reading aloud from a book? Possibly, but that would be about as interesting as a read-through of a play. With a good story, with people eager in sharing it and people interested in hearing it, there is something that almost naturally arises.


If you think of the story as the spine, the brain, the spirit of drama (or in our case, worship) then everything else which might be used to help further its telling must be arranged into one kind of form or another. In a drama these would be acts and scenes. In worship , early Christians used the forms understood to them, the general structure of Jewish services at and before the time of Christ. Singing, readings, an explanation of the readings by a teacher or “rabbi,” and more singing. In fact, one of the most important things we as Christians inherited from the Judeo- side of our Judeo Christian background is our form of our worship. People meet somewhere – they sing – they read from the old book – someone stands up and helps make sense of it – satisfied, people sing some more. They leave. If you’re Lutheran, you may even follow that up with a potluck.


To be clear, music is not a necessary part of liturgy. The story, expressed through some sort of form, is essential. But music is not necessarily essential. Liturgy is still at work in “The Service of the Word” where no music might be used. Or any number of other services where nobody sings and no instruments play. However, from ancient times music has been used as an effective tool for expressing elements of the story. And not just in our religious culture, but most religious cultures. To be honest, I’m a bit envious of how music is used in the Islamic faith. The ENTIRE Quran is sung and it is sung on a regular basis. Our only parallel in scripture is the Book of Psalms, David’s hymnal, for which we have no music but a few instructions for the music director, such as the word “Selah.” Our Christian culture makes up for this by way of hymnals. The first printed hymnal, the Liber Usualis, came about in the 11th Century just as the invention of how to write music was being developed across Western culture. Back then, and for centuries before they were committed to paper, chants were employed religiously for the daily services of each canonical hour. Some of these very old chants we still sing – “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” Notice in this Advent hymn, across 8 verses, how the story is expressed through song, somehow expressing things that a simple reading the text does not accomplish.

I’m sure I could bore you to tears with the music history after the Liber Usualis, but let’s zoom to Martin Luther in the early 16th Century. Martin Luther himself was a hymn writer. More than that, he was also a reformer of music. I was raised being told that Martin Luther was such a reformer that he used bar tunes as music for his church hymns. “A Mighty Fortress” is sited as being a bar tune that he used. I’ve since learned, thanks largely to today’s Wikipedia, that this is only half-true. Church music before the Reformation was largely chant, as I pointed out. Many, many notes, or neumes, might be scribbled together onto a stack of lines for some poor monk to sing before he could catch a breath and sing the next word or phrase. Meanwhile, just outside the monastery, lively dances were being played on the lute or hurdy gurdy each with easily understandable dance like four-bar phrases. In fact, these ‘bars’ as they came to be known, were vertical lines that were written into the horizontal musical staff lines and they were used to help the instrumental musician count. For if you can’t count accurately then you would be of no use to dancers. In Martin Luther’s reforms, these ‘bars’ were introduced into church music for the first time. All of a sudden, the German Chorale was born. These clean and tidy 4X4 musical phrases were not just easier to sing and sounded pleasant on the ear, they also looked good when put on the printing press. So that is what is really meant when we say that Luther used “bar tunes.”

Church music has developed significantly beyond all this. In fact, our hymnals, both new and old, are extraordinary time capsules which chart many developments over time. But something else hymnals are – they are cultural and theological soundboards. And most mainline Protestant hymnals are also liturgical. I can say this because they tell the story and have a clear form.

Table of Contents

We Christians tend to always look at the back of the book, whether it be the epistles in the bible or the hymn index in the hymnal. But Peter Hallock taught me that it’s at the very front of the book where we might gain a better appreciation for liturgy. The Table of Contents tells you just about everything you need to know about the focus of a hymnal. The contents of the ELW fits on one page and for all practical purposes it captures the essence of liturgy. For the hymnal is intended to be used not just through the church year, but in fact through one’s whole life. There in the Table of Contents you will see how the passage of our lives interweave with the story we share: The Church Calendar, Communion settings, Holy Baptism, Lent and the Three Days, Life Passages such as healing, funeral and marriage, Daily Prayer for morning, evening and night, Songs, and finally Additional Resources such as the Small Catechism and historic documents. After that, see how the hymns are arranged. Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Trinity, Festivals – There’s your whole church year, the story told through music and poetry. This is followed by the story in our lives – through baptism, through communion, through the word, through gathering and sending, through morning and evening, and anywhere else you may turn.

So there is a good picture of liturgy. The story unfolding in our lives, reflected through the structured of service and enhanced with music and poetry. Is there anything else? I would say there is…

Delivery– The Limn

I remember my organ teacher, David Dahl, had a thing for what he referred to as the “Limn Element” or something like that. “Limn” comes from the same Latin root for the word “illumination”and its original use was in reference to the illumination of scriptural texts, such as monks or scribes bringing life to their hand copying of bibles with vivid color and wondrous detail, such as the Book of Kells. The word later was used in reference to many arts, by way of how art is brought to life by the way of color and wondrous detail. It is, in short, good delivery. In theater there are many concepts pertaining to delivery, or the “limn,” which can help elucidate how good liturgy can come to life in service of the story. In theater, for instance, there is something called “The Fourth Wall.” It’s the place between the story teller and the listener where the story is successfully conveyed, understood, and appreciated. This isn’t magic, though a successful illusionist may say otherwise. This “Fourth Wall” in theater is established the moment a curtain goes up. Someone comes out on the stage and speaks or sings. They are now a part of this unsigned contract which audience and performer enter into. The performer, if he or she knows what they are doing, will tend to speak louder than normal volume so people can clearly hear. A talented performer may even have “stage presence,” a curious magnetism of personality matched for the idiom of stage or screen-craft.

All these things are generally present in a church service. Instead of a curtain, the prelude finishes, the priest or pastor will rise and face the assembly. Instead of “performer” and “audience” it is “officiant” and “congregation.” But all these things from theater are still in tact in a standard worship service. The preacher will speak up so as best to be heard. He or she may even have a talent for public speaking – “charisma” as they call it in church rather than “stage presence.”

So where is the liturgy in all this? Again, it’s first the story. It is also the form around the story which give people a framework by which to express the story. It’s the components such as singing, reading, and making sense of the reading, praying, and more singing which fills out the frame-work in furtherance of storytelling. And at last it is the delivery of all this such that the story, complete with its wisdom, emotion, drama, aesthetic, and more, can be kindled within all who partake. Aristotle, in his Poetics, details quite a lot of this phenomenon. He comes up with the idea of “Catharsis” to explain how it is that mere actors can create such an enduring and emotional impact on audience members. By way of a good delivery of a story on stage, the audience member may have something inside of them awakened, something inside them which resonates with the story. As “People of the Story” we become engaged this way through our participation in church. The liturgy, the work of the people, is in fact this engagement. But without the story this engagement would be hollow. Without the form, the engagement would be shallow. And without the music, poetry and art, the engagement would lose color. So what is liturgy? I would argue it is the string between the story and our lives. A string excited into music when put into service.

Virtual Service

With an understanding of these aspects of liturgy, I see no problem adapting a worship service to a video platform. The oldest stories known to humankind were told over campfires millennia ago. Today’s campfire is pixels on a high definition screen. Through today’s global pandemi we temporarily suspend the thousands-year old tradition of meeting in person as a group. But this by no means puts an end to the story. Indeed, the storytelling goes on. And with the help of such ubiquitous tools as modern computers and the internet, so too does good liturgy.

Consider all the points of what consists of liturgy. The story, the form, the music and art, this “Limn Element.” Everything can be done on computers and over the internet. A video is fully capable of continuing the story-telling with much of the familiar form of a Lutheran service. This ‘Limn Element” now stretches a large distance both in mileage and even time. But it is still something that can work in support of illuminating the story. And sometimes with surprising effect.

And where in this online liturgy is the “work of the people?” It is you who send in your recorded reading or recorded prayers. It is you who send in your extraordinary photographs. It is you who record your singing for a virtual choir. It is also you who, through social distancing, watch and listen. You are part of the story.

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