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Forming a Community of Abundance and Generosity

June 5, 2012

Inagrace Dietterich

A key movement in the upcoming Convocation is from viewing worship as something we shape or design to how worship shapes us – the formative power of worship  A few years ago, the pastors of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Northbrook, IL shared their practical experience of how this is beginning to happen in their community of faith.

(Special thank you to Pastors John Berg and Sarah Stumme who contributed to this article)

We acknowledge that our ability to be generous comes from God. We are nourished and fed by Christ, forgiven and set free so that we may open our hands and our hearts not only to give, but also to receive. Our love of God and our love of others are inseparable, and we use our gifts to demonstrate this love with respect and compassion.1


What happens when Christians gather together?  American society is built upon a work ethic. Identity, security, and status are all dependent upon the ability to work, the drive to be productive, and the desire to achieve. Rather than trusting in God’s abundance to give them all that they truly need, people work harder and harder to accumulate the material possessions that promise to bring the “good life.” The problem is that there is never enough.   Read More…

Gift-Based Worship. Gloria Dei is an ELCA congregation in suburban Chicago. As is typical of many mainline churches, Sunday morning worship has always been a priority. Every Sunday is a ritual event that has meaning for Lutheran Christians. Throughout the journey of transformation, the pastors have seen worship as an entry point for the development of an ongoing conversation of discernment and formation.   Read More…

The Worship Table. The real difference at Gloria Dei is the conversation, study, relationships, and community that has been forming and expanding underneath the congregation’s worship. The “worship table” is the name given to the leaders who gather to discern direction and plan for the congregation’s worship. The Worship Table embodies the gift-based orientation to corporate worship.  Read More…

An Umbrella of Mercy. Rather than applying a particular theology of worship, Gloria Dei is living its way into a new sense of worship. One of the pastors describes the experience this way: “I wish we could express a basic theology of worship that everyone could abide by. But we live in a place that is much foggier than that. When you become a community asking questions, wrestling and doubting, it is hard to name a particular theology of worship. There is a yearning for order and security and knowing all the parts that should make up a desired outcome. But we don’t have a theological formula for what happens.” Read More…

Worship as Mission.  Living into a gift-based approach to worship has also had an impact on the pastors’ preaching. They are experimenting with the notion of “missional lectionary,”3 which brings formation questions to the biblical texts for the sake of teaching, learning, and service. It means making connections between Scripture and the vision and mission of the local congregation. Each Sunday does not stand on its own but is part of the larger cycle of shaping the life and practice of the congregation.  Read More…


Questions for Reflection and Discussion

Take a few moments to reflect on what you do in worship. Without getting caught up in “how” you do it (traditional or contemporary for example) reflect on what you do and what difference it makes to form or shape your community of faith.   More Questions…



Forming a Community of Abundance and Generosity

What happens when Christians gather together?  American society is built upon a work ethic. Identity, security, and status are all dependent upon the ability to work, the drive to be productive, and the desire to achieve. Rather than trusting in God’s abundance to give them all that they truly need, people work harder and harder to accumulate the material possessions that promise to bring the “good life.” The problem is that there is never enough. The advertising industry excels in creating insatiable consumers. Believing that they need more and more “stuff,” people become tense and anxious, focusing upon the well-being of their families and loved ones. This view of reality and way of life does not stimulate gratitude and generosity. It does just the opposite, it creates people who get, keep, and protect.

It is hard for contemporary people not to bring this orientation to church with them. As a result, worship becomes a spectator sport. The ideal image of Sunday morning is a large audience seated in atmosphere of an auditorium, being ministered to by professionals who provide enlightening, dramatic, and even entertaining performances. In this impersonal setting, each person is more a passive consumer than an active member of Christ’s body, each participating to the degree with which he or she feels comfortable. Focusing on personal satisfaction rather than on the public proclamation of the abundant love and grace of God, “worship is seen as directed toward human ends rather than the glorification of God.”2

This perspective is very different from the New Testament’s picture of what happens when Christians gather together. For the Apostle Paul the primary goal is mutual edification, the sharing of gifts of the Spirit with one another in the building up and strengthening of the disciple community. The purpose of the community is participation in God’s redemptive mission in the world. The reading of Scripture, liturgy, singing praises, preaching, and partaking of the Lord’s Table are all oriented to the glory of God. The principle focus is not private nourishment or enjoyment, but the visible, active, and corporate “priesthood of all believers” nurturing and utilizing their gifts in mutual ministry in order “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:12).

Participating in a missional transformation process, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church is endeavoring to form a community “passionately pouring out our lives in grateful response to God’s abundant grace.” Recognizing that worship is at the heart of the life and ministry of the congregation, the pastors and lay leaders have focused upon how Word and Sacrament shapes a God-centered view of reality and way of life.

Gift-Based Worship. Gloria Dei is an ELCA congregation in suburban Chicago. As is typical of many mainline churches, Sunday morning worship has always been a priority. Every Sunday is a ritual event that has meaning for Lutheran Christians. Throughout the journey of transformation, the pastors have seen worship as an entry point for the development of an ongoing conversation of discernment and formation.

A snapshot of Sunday morning worship may not show any visible difference from five years ago at Gloria Dei. Worship is still built around the Lutheran form of Word and Sacrament. But what has changed are attitudes about and approaches to worship. Rather than “expectation based,” worship has become “gift based.” For example, as the pastors and other leaders spent time together planning a Christmas Eve service, the focus of their discussion was not on what to do in the worship service that constitutes proper worship or will help people feel good. Instead they focused on thinking through and imagining what God is doing and how they could proclaim and embody that reality with their gifts. As they spent time with the Gospel text, Luke 2, various members brought diverse gifts to the conversation: one theological reflection, another artistic sensibilities, another concern for the neighborhood and surrounding world, and another creative input and appreciation for people’s differences. Together they asked: “How can we proclaim what we know to be really wonderful and outrageous about how God entered the world?”

Becoming gift-based in an approach to worship is neither clear cut nor easy. It involves time and conversation for truly getting to know each other and hearing the Gospel message. This kind of engagement leads to discerning what it is members have to offer as gifts. An example is the praise team which began as a part-time group six years ago and has evolved to an every week offering of gifts in worship. Each week the team takes time for Bible study along with rehearsal, reflecting on what the text brings to the congregation’s worship along with its music. Through deliberate discernment the praise team understands its intent not as a performing group, but as members of the congregation discerning the gospel and sharing their gifts with the congregation. On a regular basis, this team has the responsibility for writing and offering the prayers of the church within the worship service. The prayers are their words and from their hearts. Simple and clear, these are truly prayers of the congregation.

The Worship Table. The real difference at Gloria Dei is the conversation, study, relationships, and community that has been forming and expanding underneath the congregation’s worship. The “worship table” is the name given to the leaders who gather to discern direction and plan for the congregation’s worship. The Worship Table embodies the gift-based orientation to corporate worship.

To illustrate this approach, the pastors relate the experience of a “worship convocation” for all those serving in the worship ministries of Gloria Dei, more than 60 people in all. “We did a Bible study on Micah 6:6-8, the text chosen for the ‘sending’ each Sunday in the coming year. We explored worship as engaging heart (our will), mind (our intellect), soul (our emotions), and strength (body). We talked together about our experience in worship, and how our worship ministries are organized. We posed again the key questions that are asked in every worship-related meeting:

  • How are the Scriptures directing us and how are we responding?
  • How do we evidence the hospitality of Christ and God’s grace through our welcome and hospitality?
  • What gifts of Grace do we have to offer and proclaim?
  • What do we want people to learn from this worship experience, think, feel, and do?  How are we being shaped into the image of Christ?”

The purpose of the Worship Table is to create the space and time for discerning what God is saying and what resources can be utilized to connect people with God’s grace. “We ask, ‘What do we think God is doing and how is God asking us to respond? How can we communicate that and connect people?’” So, very concretely, worship planning is no longer simply about the nuts and bolts of worship, but is an ongoing discernment of the power of the Gospel message and how best to share that with the congregation.

An Umbrella of Mercy. Rather than applying a particular theology of worship, Gloria Dei is living its way into a new sense of worship. One of the pastors describes the experience this way: “I wish we could express a basic theology of worship that everyone could abide by. But we live in a place that is much foggier than that. When you become a community asking questions, wrestling and doubting, it is hard to name a particular theology of worship. There is a yearning for order and security and knowing all the parts that should make up a desired outcome. But we don’t have a theological formula for what happens.”

An “umbrella of mercy” is a guiding reality for the Worship Table. The term comes from a quote in a worship book and it caught the imagination of the group. “Most of the time we need that huge umbrella of mercy to shelter each other. We are taking risks, trying new things, and there is always the possibility of failure. Sometimes we become exhausted. There are times when we are criticized. When the going gets tough, when we get too lost, we say, ‘Let’s just stop and give glory to God.’”

Involving many people in planning for and carrying out Sunday worship has many benefits. Participants in the Worship Table have learned a great deal about worship, they have contributed their gifts to the congregation, and they have experienced a profound sense of community with one another. But it also brings challenges. A great deal is being asked of people busy with jobs, family, and other commitments.

It also calls for a significant preparation and guidance from the pastors and other key leaders. “The preparation time triples when you seek to involve others, bringing them in, encouraging them, preparing, supporting, then letting them fly. But we have never gone wrong when we’ve invited a member of the congregation or a guest to share a story, experience, or testimony to God’s working. We have had the most surprising and powerful moments! It’s amazing, people learn things about each other they never knew. When someone is invited to lead or share, new energy is released in the community.”

Worship as Mission. Living into a gift-based approach to worship has also had an impact on the pastors’ preaching. They are experimenting with the notion of “missional lectionary,”3 which brings formation questions to the biblical texts for the sake of teaching, learning, and service. It means making connections between Scripture and the vision and mission of the local congregation. Each Sunday does not stand on its own but is part of the larger cycle of shaping the life and practice of the congregation.

Worship within a community of gratitude and generosity is not simply an end in itself, nor is it only for the benefit of those who participate. Worship that offers glory to God is worship that seeks to discern and participate in God’s redemptive mission for a broken and alienated world. In the congregation’s new Guiding Vision, one key element envisions a community in which “knowing and being known” is practiced.

Jesus reached across all boundaries, including those of age, class, gender and ethnicity to extend God’s love and invite people into God’s grace. Following Jesus’ example, Gloria Dei is called to invite all people, both stranger and friend, into God’s love and grace by offering our gifts of hospitality and care.

There is a growing sense that Gloria Dei congregation is being called beyond “coffee-hour relationships.” “We are truly opening new doors to one another. But ‘knowing and being known’ is not just for our sake, it is part of what it means to become a community sent on God’s mission. The worship table is growing in its understanding of itself as stewards of inviting and involving the congregation into relationship with one another around the table, into offering gifts with glad and generous hearts, into God’s mission.”


Questions for Reflection and Discussion

1. Take a few moments to reflect on what you do in worship. Without getting caught up in “how” you do it (traditional or contemporary for example) reflect on what you do and what difference it makes to form or shape your community of faith.

2. We sometimes get caught up into thinking that the “kind of people” we want to attact should influence what we do in worship (e.g. tech-media oriented people vs book and print people). What if it were the other way around: What we do in worship was to shape what people will become?

3. For Gloria Dei, gathering every week around the Lord’s Table means to cultivate the congregation as a community of gratitude and generosity. What does your faith community do week after week that serves to shape the hearts and minds of your congregation? What do you find is involved? Share your story (use the comments box, below).



1 An excerpt from Gloria Dei’s Guiding Vision. For more information go to their website: www.gloriadeinorthbrook.org .

2 Frank C. Senn, The Witness of the Worshiping Community: Liturgy and the Practice of Evangelism (Paulist Press, 1993), p. 28.

3 Bob Rognlien, Experiential Worship: Encountering God with Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength (NavPress, 2005).


The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

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