Lutherans always seem eager to deepen our understanding regarding worship practices. We’ve seen congregations go through so-called worship wars; we have created a constellation of fairly new worship resources to enrich our practice; and we continue to discuss worship in workshops and conferences, such as this summer’s ELCA Worship Jubilee (“Called to be a Living Voice,” July 19-23 in Atlanta).
Some of us have strong ties to traditional Lutheran forms of worship and music. Others explore emerging church realities and find ways to bring new life and insight into our worship practices.
For this particular conversation on worship, I’ve invited Justin Rimbo to help us understand some emerging trends in Lutheran worship today. Rimbo is a young church musician who is a frequent workshop and conference leader.
Schmit: Justin, to set the stage for our conversation, please tell us about your cultural identity. Do you consider yourself a millennial?
Rimbo: Well, yes, I’d consider myself to be one, but I can’t say if experts would agree. If we’re talking strictly in terms of year of birth, I’m probably not a millennial. But it’s easier for me to resonate with millennial ways of doing things than with older generations.
The issue is more a culture gap than an age gap.
Schmit: As a worship professional, how do you describe your work?
Rimbo: What I love doing most is building worship experiences. That doesn’t only mean leading music or directing a worship band, although I enjoy that. It’s also about caring for the theological implications of the elements of worship. Things such as the use of visual art, light, sound, the flow of the ordo (church year observances), room temperature and so forth.
My work also includes developing future leaders within my scope of influence. And I spend a lot of time scouring the Internet for new materials to introduce, like original songs or experiential elements. I’m kind of an aggregator, to use a technological term. It’s also akin to being a curator for a museum exhibit, but with a deeper grounding in theology.
Schmit: You came from a traditional worship family.
Rimbo: I did. And I’m grateful for that. My dad (Metropolitan New York Synod Bishop Robert Rimbo) is pretty widely respected as a liturgical theologian, writer and lover of all kinds of worship, but especially traditional liturgy. I like that too. It’s good to know where you come from.
Schmit: How did you move from your traditional roots to where you are today?
Rimbo: I’m not sure I’ve moved all that much. I still have a deep appreciation for hymnody and good order. As I grew up, especially in places like camps and youth gatherings, it was easy to learn how other people were doing things. When you experience new things you’re given the option either to dismiss what’s different from your experience or look for the value in it, even if it has to be adapted to fit your context. So that’s what I chose.
Schmit: How would you define what your work in workshops and conferences is about?
Rimbo: I’ve been thrilled to lead workshops in several synods on what I’ve seen and experienced with regard to worshiping in millennial communities. The people who show up want to know what folks on the other side of the generation gap are looking for in worship.
I think the first step in re-examining the way our congregations plan worship is to recognize that there’s been a shift in the way young people perceive things. It’s not necessarily about a change in theology or style, but in the way they process experiences.
For example, millennials prefer images to text. They appreciate flexibility in worship spaces and in technology. They’ve reclaimed the value of experiencing worship with the whole self instead of being satisfied merely with a cognitive understanding of God. They propose that God wants us to be whole in body, mind and spirit, and they want to use that reality in worship. Crazy, right?
Schmit: Not crazy. But it does give people of my generation, or my parents’ generation, pause as we try to find ways to accommodate the cultural shift you mention. Is there any common ground millennials (if we dare generalize about their tastes and attitudes) find with people of other generations?
Rimbo: Yes, the cultural preferences are merely the outward trappings for what is being sought in worship. There’s something unchanging beneath that is really what millennials are after. They want to be part of a healthy, sacred community. They want to serve their neighbors. They want to be known by God and each other.
Schmit: What parts of our Lutheran worship heritage do you hold onto? What is at the core?
Rimbo: Word and sacrament. All else — hymns, prayers, projectors — are tools to make those happen.
And we don’t want to make those tools the object of our worship. Congregations often use those things to build walls between “styles” of worship, and that’s when we start distancing ourselves from those who attend traditional services. Worrying about worship style is a red herring. Style is beside the point. We’re past the point where words like “traditional” or “contemporary” are useful in describing our modes of worship. What kind of worship is not contemporary? Isn’t all worship done in the present, making it contemporary by definition? I’m not sure “blended” is any better. Let’s just agree to call it “worship.”
My favorite experiences of worship are ones where I can be sent out without knowing what style of worship it was. And “style” isn’t the right word either …. You’ve used the word “idiom” before as a better option.
Schmit: I use the term idiom because style suggests something can be “in style” or “my style.” That immediately drives the conversation off the rails. We may employ different idioms of music in worship, but we do so within familiar frameworks.
My hope would be that worship, especially within a shared tradition like we have as Lutherans, would always have both a familiar quality and that it be filled with creativity, employing the tremendous spiritual gifts of the artists that God places within our communities of gathering. When we enrich worship, rather than seek to change it to something unfamiliar, we have the capacity to make worship come alive in fresh ways, even if we use well-known formats.
We should seek both constancy and diversity in worship. It can always be familiar or traditional, yet also filled with newness and innovation.
What would you like to leave the readers with?
Rimbo: How about “be not afraid”? We might be afraid of change, or of losing our Lutheran identity, or organ music, or drums, but as someone who’s spent a lot of time observing what’s happening in the Lutheran camps and elsewhere, it’s an exciting time to worship together.