Nothing says “Lutheran” like liturgical dance

I had the pleasure of being involved for several years with Confessional Lutheran youth gatherings. The group I was involved with is Higher Things and we had the motto that when we worship, we worship; when we work, we work; when we play, we play. Pastor William Weedon described the worship from last year:

The worship – WOW. Just WOW. Wonderful, graceful, reverent liturgists. Loemker on the organ, the special music provided by the young people, the young folk belting out the hymns, the reverence during the services, and last but not least, the clarity of Gospel proclamation. Wow, wow, wow! Dare to be Lutheran indeed!

One of the things I found interesting from my time with Higher Things was how the non-Lutheran clergy at various campuses where we held the event would respond to the worship services. One year, there was a priest who was just monitoring what we were doing and making sure that nothing was needed in the worship space. By the end of the week, every priest on campus was observing worship and commenting on how reverential it was. They’d spent years trying to incorporate liturgical dance or eastern meditation practices or the like — all in the name of attracting youth. Instead, their sanctuary was empty. But here we were, with traditional Lutheran worship, and the sound of 900 young people knowing the liturgy and belting out hymns was absolutely majestic.

I thought of that when someone pointed out what the Synodical headquarters is advertising for the National Youth Gathering in New Orleans this year:

The 2010 Gathering Dance Troupe:
Choreographed by Diane Wardenburg, the 2010 Gathering Dance Troupe will participate in the liturgical dance movement. Mrs. Wardenburg is a member of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Danbury, Connecticut, and is the Assistant Director of the Lathrop School of Dance in Newtown, Connecticut.

I’m sure Ms. Wardenburg does a great job and I certainly admire anyone who’s a professional dancer. I’m more of what you’d call an amateur dancer, although I love it and teach it to my daughter (who I dream will lead her own dance troupe some day!).

And I’m not even going to say that liturgical dance has no place in the church, although I believe we might call that place “the 1970s.” There are better and worse examples of liturgical dance but the problem with the whole thing is that it is almost unbelievably difficult for it to match with what Lutheran worship is about. Kim Grams, a former liturgical dancer, explained it well:

As I studied Lutheran doctrine, I learned about worship. It’s not about MY performance, but about God giving and me receiving His gifts. Looking back, I’m horribly embarrassed. Now I let my church just be church and my entertainment be entertainment. (As my husband says regarding the trend of turning church into an entertainment showcase: “I can’t find the ‘Jesus of Entertainment’ in the Bible”).

Exactly. And this points to the overall weakness of the worship at the National Youth Gathering. I went to one gathering — Denver, back in the 80s, I think. Maybe 1990. I don’t remember. Anyway, I remember a few things from the event and one of my most prominent memories is of all the youth being gathered in McNichols arena for worship while they flashed logos of all of our favorite sports teams on the big jumbotron. I cheered for my Denver Broncos and my St. Louis Cardinals and there was even a bit of a cheering war going on between some of the top cheer-getters.

And then it all stopped and someone on a donkey rode around the arena. People were confused, disappointed, etc. And then we all “got it.” We were supposed to cheer! The donkey was being ridden by a man dressed up as Jesus! Shouldn’t we cheer for fake Jesus like we cheered for the real Cardinals?

Beyond this being a horrible ploy, a silly and unserious mindtrick on the youth, and it lacked all reverence and was a horrible dose of law that was followed up on with a weak sermon that was more “collection of anecdotes” than a proper division of Law and Gospel.

It also denigrated Lutheran worship by treating the moment as entertainment that we’d be unaccustomed to back at home in our parish.

Why do these national Lutheran youth gatherings fail to promote Lutheran identity in worship? It’s just confusing and unfortunate. And it has precisely the opposite effect of the one intended. Rather than remind Lutheran youth that we have some of history’s greatest theologians and musicians working together to craft beautiful liturgies and hymns, we act like some praise band with songs that are either bland or outright false is preferable. If Synodical leadership doesn’t believe in the gifts of Lutheran worship it should be no surprise if youth return home with less regard for Lutheran worship.

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