A New ELCA Worship ‘Book’

Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW), published in 2006, is the new primary worship resource for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), also serving the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.

The first thing you notice is that that word “book” is missing. It’s a new day. A church’s worship treasury is no longer contained only in a book. Yet, there is a new book. And the book continues to be valued by many.

The second thing you notice, as you explore the resources about Evangelical Lutheran Worship and its introduction, is that the words “comprehensive” and “exhaustive,” which were prominent in previous generations, have been replaced with “core” and “primary.” No longer is one collection of texts and music expected to serve all worshiping communities in all contexts at all times.

A little history

The story of Lutherans in North America is a one of immigration and merger. Lutherans came to this continent in waves of immigration from different parts of Germany and Scandinavia, settling in many parts of North America. Each group brought their own pieties, structures, and worship practices. Over the past few centuries, these small church bodies have gradually merged in various configurations. Most recently – 1988 – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was formed from three predecessor churches, resulting in the largest Lutheran church in North America.

An interesting thing about this pattern of immigration and merger is that most of the formal mergers were preceded by cooperative work on common worship materials. For example, the ELCA was formed in 1988 following the 1978 publication of Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW). The American Lutheran Church was formed in 1960 and the Lutheran Church in America was formed in 1962. The Service Book and Hymnal had just been published in 1958. Similar patterns of working toward worshiping together leading to structural merger can be traced throughout Lutheran history on this continent.

ELCA Liturgical Review Policy

ELW was the first major project of its kind since the formation of the ELCA. Therefore, it was the first significant test of this church’s Liturgical Review Policy which guides such work. The policy requires transparency and extensive participation. Both of these criteria were evident in the development of ELW.

The policy states that “the three general criteria for judging material for public worship and liturgical use shall be fidelity to the Word of God, consistency with the Lutheran confessions, and respect for the nature of the liturgical assembly as the gathering of God’s people.” After extensive detail about how the process may unfold, the policy concludes with stated Degrees of Endorsement:

A. Interim
1. Provisional
2. Proposed
3. Other
B. Market-specific
1. Available
2. Recommended
C. Encouraged
1. Commended
D. Authorized
E. Other endorsements

What’s interesting is that ELW (and LBW before it) does not carry the “Authorized” status. That designation is reserved for the rites for making pastors and bishops, which carry with them requirements from our full communion agreement with the Episcopal Church. This church’s primary worship resource (at this time, ELW; although LBW still maintains the same designation) is “Commended” for use.

Lutherans maintain a high value for “evangelical freedom,” making it nearly impossible to require many specifics in regard to worship practice. This is both a blessing and a challenge, and no two Lutherans would agree which is which.

Development of ELW

Work on the new primary worship resource (to become ELW) began officially in 2000.  However, a great deal was already happening during the 1990s that influenced the project, including:

  • Revised Common Lectionary (approved for ELCA in 1994),
  • With One Voice (a supplemental worship book and song collection; 1995),
  • The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament (1997),
  • Libro de Liturgia y Cntico (Spanish language worship book and hymnal; 1998),
  • This Far by Faith (African American resource; 1999), and
  • Worship and Praise (a collection of “contemporary” song; 1999).

Worship Jubilee 2000 was a large Churchwide gathering that officially kicked off the Renewing Worship project. “Renewing Worship” was the umbrella title for many layers of work over the next 6 years, resulting in the publication of ELW.

The first task was to develop Principles for Worship, as a supplement to The Use of the Means of Grace, in four specific areas: language, music, preaching, and worship space. This work was done by large consultative groups representing the diversity of this church. The Use of the Means of Grace and Principles for Worship were the foundation for all aspects of the Renewing Worship project.

As is true with all stages of this project, drafts of the principles were made public to the entire church for review and comment. Many people and congregations took advantage of these opportunities, rarely resulting in a unified opinion. It was, however, always valuable input to the project. Unfortunately, many chose not to engage the project until the final product was available.

Smaller editorial teams were gathered to do the more detailed work of actually producing materials (rites, texts, and music) in various areas:

  • Holy Communion & Related Rites,
  • Holy Baptism and Related Rites,
  • Church’s Year,
  • Daily Prayer,
  • Life Passages,
  • Hymns and Music, and
  • Liturgical Music.

Each of these teams, surrounded by a larger and more diverse developmental panel, created material that was distributed to the whole church for trial use and review.

As all this work was unfolding, many opportunities for conversation about the project, as well as video and online resources for study and conversation, were made available. In addition, there was an open call for contribution of materials, designated reviews in addition to open reviews, intentional input from the Conference of Bishops, Church Council, the network of seminary liturgy professors, and so forth.

One additional team was at work throughout the whole process. The Resource Proposal Group was charged with the task of taking all reviews, opinions, factors, contexts, and ramifications into account and make the official proposal for content.

As required by the ELCA Liturgical Review Policy, it was a process of great transparency and participation.


Receiving the work of the Resource Proposal Group, through the Church Council, the 2005 Churchwide Assembly gave the official go ahead. This resulted in the publication of Evangelical Lutheran Worship, in print and electronic formats, in 2006. The 2007 Churchwide Assembly formally received the new resource and gave it the “Commended” status.


It is interesting to note how differently people respond to the exact same material. For many, it appears that not much is new. It’s the same format of previous books, the historic liturgy is intact (with some fresh language and music) and the church’s year is well represented in hymns and songs. This is either reassuring or disappointing. Another can view the same material, noticing only the changes to texts and tunes, making them feel like everything is new and the rug has been pulled out from under them.

The content and format of ELW does follow previous Lutheran books closely.

  • Calendar, propers, prayers
  • Holy Communion (with ten diverse musical settings)
  • Holy Baptism (and related rites)
  • Lent and the Three Days (appearing in the pew edition for the first time)
  • Life Passages (healing, funeral, marriage)
  • Daily Prayer
  • Assembly Song (psalm, service music, hymns & song)
  • Additional resources (daily lectionary, article on the role of scripture in worship, catechism)

Among the principles that are most evident in ELW is the desire to expand the images used in liturgical language, rather than replacing existing texts. For example, at the beginning of Confession & Forgiveness before the Holy Communion liturgy, there are two options:

In the name of the Father, and of the  +  Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Blessed be the holy Trinity,  +  one God,
who forgives all our sin, whose mercy endures forever.

Flexibility is a hallmark of ELW. It’s really not new. The introduction to LBW spoke of the “freedom and flexibility” in Lutheran worship.  ELW, however, goes to greater lengths to help make this clear. For some this is refreshing and welcome. For others, it is simply baffling and confusing.

As a tool for helping this happen, each section of liturgical material is preceded by a Pattern for Worship, showing the basic logic to the pattern of the rite with some prioritization of primary and secondary elements. Along with this are “soft rubrics” which, rather than simply give directions, are worded to also teach about the meaning or intent of an action.  For example, at the Gospel Acclamation the rubric reads, “The assembly stands to welcome the Gospel.”

The ELCA stands at the ecumenical epicenter in North American Christianity, being in full communion with six different denominations, as well as being engaged in many more dialogues and ecumenical partnerships. This means that ELCA Lutherans are often worshiping with Christians with widely divergent traditions. Those experiences often shape expectations regarding worship practicing. Therefore, in the ELCA today, is would common to find ministers wearing full Eucharistic vestments, sprinkling water in remembrance of baptism, censing altars and Gospel books, and so forth. On the other hand, it is common (sometimes within the same congregation) to hear bands leading medleys of praise songs, ministers wearing street clothes, with texts projected on screens. The spirit of ELW embraces the possibility of all of these options within the common, inherited framework of the liturgy. Sometimes this works. Sometimes there is work to be done.

In previous generations, it was often felt that the covers of a worship book functioned as a fence of sorts, and everything within it was somehow appropriate “Lutheran worship.”  Those who tired of the restrictions, however, found themselves hopping over the fence and disconnecting themselves from the rest of the church and history. The challenge before us is to help planners tear down the walls while hanging on to a solid core, stretching their assembly as far as they are able and in whatever direction is appropriate for their unique context.


Evangelical Lutheran Worship made its debut in October 2006. In the year following, each of the 65 synods sponsored numerous one-day introductory events, led by synodical pastors, musicians and lay people who had been prepared by a churchwide team. Over 300 of these events were held with over 40,000 people attending. Each congregation also received an introductory kit with a wealth of text, audio, and video files to aid with introduction locally.

As of this time, three years later, 1.2 million copies of the pew edition have been sold.  The best  guess is that approximately 50% of ELCA congregations purchased the pew edition. It is impossible to know exactly how many congregations are using ELW. Many may be using supplemental materials with ELW or, perhaps, ELW is serving as a supplement to something else. Many are using the electronic version, with or without the books in the pews. It’s hard to know exactly.

The anecdotal stories of introduction and reception continue to be the best gauge to “success.” It’s no surprise that a project like this is very controversial for many. (Perhaps that’s true in other denominations, as well?) Although we do get our fair share of disgruntled Lutherans, the good news is that for someone to bother to get upset, they must actually care about worship! However, there have also been countless voices expressing gratitude not only for the finished product, but also for the transparent and participatory process. It is a joy to hear from those who, Sunday after Sunday, continue to discover new treasures (and some old ones).

Since Evangelical Lutheran Worship was designed to be an open and ongoing project, we work and wait and wonder what will be the next development in worship, while continuing to form faithful, connected Christians gathering around God’s Word and Christ’s Meal each Sunday.

Scott C. Weidler
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Associate Director for Worship and Music


  1. Though the process described here is for a national book, not one used in 11 countries in various parts of the world (and as a basis for language groups other than its own), it would be interesting for an ecclesiologist to compare this process/implementation with the process/implementation of the new English translation, in terms of the ecclesiology it manifests.

  2. Am I correct to assume that none of the texts for the Lutheran liturgy are caught up in copyrights and permissions?

  3. Among the principles that are most evident in ELW is the desire to expand the images used in liturgical language, rather than replacing existing texts. […]

    In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
    Blessed be the holy Trinity, + one God,
    who forgives all our sin, whose mercy endures forever.

    From a Catholic standpoint, option two would be an invalid trinitarian formula. I understand that option two is an attempt at an inclusive language alternative to the trinitarian formula that does not change the persons of the Trinity (instead, the persons are obscured). The second blessing described above departs from ancient norms of trinitarian blessings in worship and would constitute an invalid baptismal formula from a Catholic viewpoint.

    Does the ELW baptismal rite require pastors to baptize in the traditional trinitarian baptismal formula, or may pastors choose the second option?

    1. I was brought up with three creeds, one of which quite eloquently explained the Trinity, but the Athanasian Creed is not included as something to be used in worship.

  4. Yes, I do see that the second formula is intended as a greeting. However this second greeting is incongruous with the ubiquitous and unchanging expression of trinitarian doctrine and sacramental action in Eastern and Western Christian liturgy. Until quite recently, Christians have never deviated from the orthodox trinitarian formula when performing greetings, blessings, and sacramental actions.

    Conscious neglect of continuous trinitarian expression in worship and sacrament (including Baptism) could result in a disintegration of the exact meaning of the Trinity and the introduction of heterodoxy.

    1. Well, the opening Sign of the Cross didn’t exist before the 14th century, and then it began to be added before the Prayers on the Way to the Altar which eventually became the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar. There was no opening Sign of the Cross at the beginning of Mass until Paul VI added it after Vatican II.
      I don’t care for the alternative texts personally, but for Pete’s sake, the heterodoxy charge is absurd, as anyone who has read, eg., Gail Ramshaw, well knows.

  5. >>>a disintegration of the exact meaning of the Trinity <<<
    One might offer that enriching and expanding Trinitarian language in liturgical greetings and so on might remind us that the Trinity is, above all, a MYSTERY and that we do not know "the exact meaning of" it.

  6. I usually don’t involve myself in other “communion” issues, but it does seem to me that the paranoia to in any way offend people through masculine images for God degenerates into phrases like, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier or as in the Lutheran alternative, “Blessed be the Holy Trinity, who forgives all our sins, whose mercy endures for ever.” Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the Most Holy Trinity, is Who God Is “I AM”. The other two are what God does. I suspect we should value God first for Who God is and then secondly for what God does. It is an invalid baptism that uses the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Holy Trinity, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. I guess a materialistic people love God for what He does and not as much for Who He is.

  7. Mystery is not license for experimentation. A church that affirms the Nicene Creed (381 CE) and affirms the patristic and conciliar condemnations of modalism and Arianism bind themselves to the orthodox trinitarian formula. Churches that insert modalist or obscurant formulas into the sacraments place themselves outside the basic doctrinal definitions that define most Christians.

    I respect that some consider “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” a gender exclusive formula. No easy solutions exist. A Christian church could use alternative trinitarian formulas and risk placing themselves outside of formative Christian doctrine. Alternately, a church could affirm the ancient formula even if some in the community consider the orthodox formula inappropriate. I contend that churches and individuals cannot tamper with basal doctrine and retain historic and orthodox Christian identity.

  8. Word for word translations, without seeing that the meaning of the words remains, does not take into account any of the 3 criteria above…if we have only approved formulations, where is the ability to grow & express our knowledge of who God is within God-self and of who God is in relationship to/with us??

  9. As a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I am very disappointed in the new ELW. I continue to use the Lutheran Book of Worship because the new book compromises orthodox Trinitarian theology for the sake of inclusive language. “Father and Son” have been removed from the ancient proper prefaces, the language of catholic creeds has been altered and, even the Psalter is not spared. This new book simply waters down our theology and promotes sectarianism. It is very tragic. Orthodox confessional Lutherans do not want anything to do with this travesty.

    1. Exactly why I no longer worship in a Lutheran church. With this new style of worship I feel like Pelikan who said “When the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod became Baptist, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America became Methodist, I became Orthodox.”

      I’m still Lutheran, but I cannot worship in a Lutheran church that no longer believes the doctrines that were instilled in me when I went to confirmation class. If it is true that as we pray so we believe, then what do ELCA lutherans believe?

  10. RE: the trinitarian formula (question raised by Mr. Zarembo)

    The bishops’ conference of the ELCA did legislate (in 1991, I believe) that ALL baptisms in the ELCA were to be done in the Trinitarian name (Father/Son/Holy Spirit). I’m not sure if this is unique, but they doesn’t often make pronouncements, giving this one some important standing.

    For more on the ELCA’s stance on language, see: http://www.elca.org/Growing-In-Faith/Worship/Learning-Center/FAQs/Language.aspx

  11. Orthodox confessional Lutherans do not want anything to do with this travesty.

    Indeed. With its continual liturgical and doctrinal tinkering the ELCA will continue to bleed out members. There are now three former ELCA Lutherans in my wider family, myself included.

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