Old Paths and New Ways

Negotiating Tradition and Relevance in Liturgy

by Robert Lilleaasen (Author)
©2018 Monographs XVI, 324 Pages
Series: American University Studies , Volume 362


The relationship between tradition and relevance is a core feature in religious practice in general and public worship in particular. On the one hand, worship is a bearer of religious traditions, i.e. traditions are maintained in the practice of public worship, and the worship enables individuals to connect with these traditions. On the other hand, it is a quest for relevance in public worship. In order to maintain existing worshippers and attract new participants, congregations have to consider their ability to connect their core values to the needs and expectations of existing and potential participants. This dual purpose of the worship causes a need for negotiation, and it is this negotiation between tradition and relevance that this book investigates. Old Paths and New Ways is a case study of the negotiation between tradition and the quest for relevance in liturgy.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Foreword
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Chapter One: Introduction
  • Chapter Two: Theory
  • Chapter Three: Methodology
  • Chapter Four: Case Study Worships
  • Chapter Five: Worship—Key Characteristics
  • Chapter Six: Interaction Ritual Ingredients and Outcome
  • Chapter Seven: Main Characteristics of Relevance
  • Chapter Eight: Traditional Reasoning
  • Chapter Nine: Negotiation
  • Chapter Ten: Reshaping a Tradition
  • Chapter Eleven: Summary of Main Findings
  • Chapter Twelve: Liturgical and Practical Theological Perspectives
  • Appendices
  • Bibliography

← viii | ix →

List of Figures


Figure 2.1  Randall Collins’s Interaction Ritual (IR) theory

Figure 2.2  Customized model of IR ← ix | x →

← x | xi →



At the heart of this fascinating study sits a very particular methodology, that of ethnography, the long term, intimate study of two very specific congregations. It is the depth of understanding and the critical compassion that comes from many months of worshipping with the two congregations that underpins all the important findings that are clear within this work.

Worship is not simply something that is written on the page, it is not even something that is “done”, it is something that is experienced, that engages the whole person, and that changes lives. It is not only at the individual level that this occurs either. As Robert so clearly shows within this study, it is something that moulds communities and impacts on the wider social life of those who engage within it. It is because of this engagement and impact that worship cannot be studied as just another activity within our wider social context. The researcher has to get alongside the worshippers, inside the experience of worship, and has, in a very real sense, to experience the changes that worship can make for himself. This is exactly what Robert has done, in choosing to focus on two very specific congregations, and spending considerable time getting to know them, and participating in their worship. This gives the ensuing study, and this publication, a level of understanding and empathy that is rare in studies of Christian worship.

While learning about different styles of worship is always interesting and, for one who is not familiar with the specific history of the Norwegian churches, ← xi | xii → incredibly fascinating in itself, the real benefit that Robert gets from applying his methodology goes way beyond description. This work places that worship within the wider transformations of both the church and the world. It recognises the importance of change and addresses the ways in which the congregations both engage with the changes among them, and around them, but also how, at times and in different ways, they resist it. This is not a situation that is unique to these two congregations, or to Norway as a society, it is something that Christian communities across the world are facing, and facing up to.

It is too glib, perhaps, to say that we are currently facing a time of unprecedented change, but that is certainly what the current situation feels like to many in our churches. The changes in society, the impact of social media and the internet, the consequences of globalisation and, in Europe at least, secularisation, are clear and ever present. Perhaps, not since the Reformation, and perhaps not even then, have churches experienced such powerful forces for change. However, as in the Reformation, and as shown so clearly in this study, it is not just the “new” that matters, it is also about continuity, tradition, and how we remould our understandings of the past. Continuities are as important as the things that change.

What Robert does in this text is to recognise that situation, to listen carefully to the voices of the members of the congregations he is studying, and then brings that into conversation with a range of theoretical models that enables us, not only to state that change, or tradition, is important, but that shows very explicitly how the congregations actually use their worship to engage with change and tradition. He gets beneath the surface, highlighting processes that are not just relevant for the two congregations being studied, but that have the potential to be applied more widely, to Christian congregations and communities in many different situations. That is the sign of an excellent piece of practical theology, or liturgical study. However, it is, of course, for others to take what they learn from this work, and apply it in their own situation.

Professor Martin Stringer

Swansea University

← xii | xiii →



Many people have helped shepherding this project along its way, and it is a joy to publicly thank them for their help. I am grateful to Peter Lang Publishing, and a particular thanks to acquisition editor Meagan K. Simpson.

This book began as a doctoral dissertation at MF Norwegian School of Theology, and I am indebted to my supervisor Harald Hegstad, who more than anyone has helped realize this project. Thank you for guiding me, for wise ideas, crucial inputs, and insightful comments on the many drafts. I also wish to thank Geir Afdal, Lars Johan Danbolt, Pete Ward, Martin D. Stringer and Bernice Sundkvist for important comments and feedback.

A further acknowledgement goes to Fjellhaug International University College. I am grateful to the board and management; thank you for the trust, opportunity and facilitation. I would like to thank my colleagues at Fjellhaug for stimulating conversations and kind encouragements.

A special thanks to Revetal Menighet and Misjonssalen Aalesund for allowing me to study your congregations. I truly enjoyed visiting your worship practices and getting to know you, I also appreciate the interest you took in the project. I am grateful to the informants who took time to share their thoughts on my questions and their worship, the congregational leaders that in addition answered e-mails, and provided various documents and information. A further thank you to my two outside informants Hanna and Elin. ← xiii | xiv →

I would also take this opportunity to thank my parents, Laila and Gunnar Lilleaasen, for introducing me to Christian faith and practice. This study is influenced by your kind interest in other people; their life, faith and background.

Last but not least I will thank my family. My wife Kjersti, for your love and faith in me, and our children Noah, Filippa, and Isabel, who all are born during this study. You have all in a positive way distracted me from the research when at home and in this way helped me live a normal life these years—although I do realize that at times I have faded out of dinner conversation and into a practical theological problem. This probably will not get any better in the years to come.

Oslo, June 2017

Robert Lilleaasen

← xiv | xv →

List of Abbreviations


Church of Norway:      CoN

Fjellhaug International University College:      FIUC

Interaction Ritual:      IR

Norwegian Lutheran Mission:      NLM

Norwegian Mission Society:      NMS

MF Norwegian School of Theology:      MF

Statistics Norway:      SSB ← xv | xvi →

← xvi | 1 →




1.1  Field of Inquiry

“For where two or three come together in the name of Jesus, there is disagreement.” I no longer remember who first shared this misquote of Matthew 18:20 with me, but I find the ironic comment both amusing and interesting. The original quote of Jesus, according to Matthew, is: “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” In my view, the original quote provides a good point of departure for ecclesiology and liturgical study; church is the coming together in the name of Jesus.1 In terms of liturgy this suggests the actual coming together is the most distinct and specific expression of local ecclesiology. To some extent the worship is an essence of the ecclesiology, in other words, if it is important to the congregation it is visible in the worship. This connection between church and worship is reflected in various ways and on various levels. In everyday language the link between ecclesiology and liturgy is expressed with phrases such as “going to church” which in most cases means attending worship. Likewise, the seventh Article of the Augsburg Confession, “Concerning the Church,” connects church to worship in the very definition of the church.2 These perspectives highlight the importance of worship practice, and suggest why in many cases it causes tension and disagreement. In my experience there is some truth in the ironic misquote above—worship practice is a ← 1 | 2 → source of disagreement and tension. Worshippers may disagree on “everything” —from decoration and style of music to core theological issues such as baptism and Eucharist. This link between liturgy, ecclesiology and theology makes worship practice an interesting phenomenon.

This study focuses on the relationship between tradition and relevance in the practice of worship in two local congregations. The relationship between tradition and relevance is a core feature in religious practice in general and public worship in particular. On the one hand, worship is a bearer of religious traditions, i.e. traditions are maintained in the practice of public worship, and the worship enables individuals to connect with these traditions. On the other hand, it is a quest for relevance in public worship. In order to maintain existing worshippers and attract new participants, congregations have to consider their ability to connect their core values to the needs and expectations of existing and potential participants. This dual purpose of the worship causes a need for negotiation, and it is this negotiation between tradition and relevance I will investigate in this study on worship practice. The main problem of the study is: How is worship practiced in the negotiation between tradition and the quest for relevance?

The main problem is approached by a case study of two local congregations with their own worship practice. This approach is based on the assumption that worship first and foremost is situated locally, i.e. worship is when people come together in the name of Jesus. Moreover, this assumption suggests that whereas congregations to varying degrees utilize fixed liturgies prepared elsewhere by someone else the actual worship is practiced and shaped locally. An important part of this study therefore is to describe the worship practice of two local congregations.

As such, this is a study on how worship is practiced in the negotiation between tradition and the quest for relevance in general. Moreover, it is a case study of two particular organizations: Misjonssalen Aalesund and Revetal Menighet. Both are Lutheran and evangelical,3 they differ however in terms of worship tradition. Revetal Menighet is a newly established congregation within the Church of Norway (CoN), which means it originates from a mainline worship tradition. In the religious context in Norway, where the majority of the population are still members of CoN, this tradition is referred to as “the church.” The religious context in Norway also features a low-church revival movement organized by various mission societies. The mission societies have shaped worship gatherings in prayer-houses and private homes as a supplement to the main Sunday morning worship in the church (CoN). Misjonssalen Aalesund is a newly established congregation within this prayer-house4 movement, which means it originates from a low-church worship tradition. ← 2 | 3 →

Today the complementary and supplementary relationship between church and prayer-house is changing; there seems to be a movement away from the complementary towards an ideal of “all in one place.” This ideal has manifested itself in both Misjonssalen Aalesund and Revetal Menighet, both of which aim to offer full-fledged worship rituals. This development means the two ideal types of church and prayer-house no longer supplement each other, which suggests in turn that each has to compensate for or replace what is lost in this development. Based on the past complementary cooperation the church has lost the prayer-house and must compensate for what is lost, and likewise the prayer-house has lost what the church offers and must act accordingly. In view of this particular church/prayer-house context, the worship ritual in Misjonssalen Aalesund is a case of prayer-house covering or compensating for the loss of church, whereas the worship ritual in Revetal Menighet is a case of church covering for the loss of prayer-house. One might hypothesize that this development has caused a movement of equalization.5 In the negotiation between the different worship traditions from which the two cases originate and their quest for relevance, Misjonssalen Aalesund and Revetal Menighet are subject to equalizing forces. Equalization is here understood to be features that cause the two cases to develop, and emphasize existing, common understandings and practices; equalization further suggests the traditional differences between the cases being erased.

In terms of academic field this study is situated within the field of practical theology, which may be understood to be a “critical, theological reflection on the practices of the Church as they interact with the practices of the world, with a view to ensuring and enabling faithful participation in God’s redemptive practices in, to and for the world” (Swinton and Mowat 2006, 6). Within the field of practical theology, the study belongs to the particular field of liturgical studies or, more accurately, liturgical ethnography. As such this study is focused on the particularity of the two worship rituals, “the deep structures of thought and feeling that shape their practice and by which they interpret their defining encounter with the living God in Jesus Christ” (McGann 2004, xix). Liturgical ethnography focuses on the complex interplay of music, movement, speech, objects, time, space etc. in worship. I will use ritual theory as a primary lens to explore the liturgy and embodied theology of the two cases studied. Furthermore, in terms of academic field, the study is connected to the field of sociology of religion by its subject matter. Based on empirical data this study is a description of how a particular religious practice is embodied locally, keeping in view the particular relationship between church and prayer-house in Norway. ← 3 | 4 →

1.2  Applied Terminology

Before I introduce the main problem and the thesis further, I shall explain how I will apply some of the basic terminology utilized in the study.

The primary interest in this study is the practice of worship, and the unit of analysis is local worship rituals. Worship could designate any gathering in the name of Jesus, however, in this study it is first and foremost applied to the main gathering on Sunday mornings. As such, worship refers to the overall structure and the sum of everything going on in the coming together. The term worship is chosen as the main designation of the coming together, however, both academically and contextually there are alternatives that I will apply in order to highlight various aspects of the gathering.


XVI, 324
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. XVI, 324 pp., 2 b/w ill., 2 b/w tables

Biographical notes

Robert Lilleaasen (Author)

Robert Lilleaasen is an Associate Professor at Fjellhaug International University College. He received his PhD in Theology from MF Norwegian School of Theology.


Title: Old Paths and New Ways
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