From Smörgåsbord to Smorgasbord

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

Worship planning smorgasbord
A Christmas Smörgåsbord.
Photo by David Castor. Public Domain.

A genuine smörgåsbord, a table full of specially prepared cold foods from Northern Europe, is a true delight. Each family offers its best rendition of its best recipes, lovingly and proudly prepared beforehand, properly chilled, and laid out for all to see and share. Everyone present can sample as much or as little of any dish as one likes, keeping in mind, of course, the word "sample." There are other people to consider, after all. The result is a plate full of cool, refreshing goodness, assembled the way I like it, in amounts I think will be ideal for my particular tastes. Oh, and maybe a side plate for a slice of that chilled strawberry pie made by the strawberry farmer up the road! I take it all back to my table, and start to dig in. A joy!

Of course the term smörgåsbord has been "Americanized" to smorgasbord. Smorgasbord now often refers to any sort of buffet-style meal with a large variety of hot and cold dishes often prepared in large batches and most often served in restaurants. Sometimes the restaurants themselves are called something like David's Buffet Smorgasbord, a restaurant I grew up with in Cincinnati. David's was an upscale buffet, if not quite a proper smörgåsbord. Going there was an event in itself. Alas, it is no more. My guess is the likes of Ryan's and Golden Corral, and then of course Morrison's and MCL in the malls, made it impossible for stand-alone, family-run places not particularly near malls or other major shopping in the city to survive.

The key to smorgasbord as is now exists is less about sharing family pride in the best dishes in the neighborhood, and more about self-service. You get what you like, the way you like it, in any amount you like. And at the restaurants, the amount is AYCE (All You Can Eat). You don't have to think twice about taking that last spoonful of pickled herring. The restaurant will just bring out more.

The evolution of smörgåsbord from refreshing shared feast among neighbors to, in effect, bottomless feeding troughs for strangers, resembles a pattern I'm seeing in how some seem to be approaching planning and participating in Christian worship. Participants in worship aren't expected to bring anything but their desire to be fed. Worship planners and leaders are expected to "serve up" a wide variety of "worship experiences" week after week to satisfy the desires of the expectant consumers for the visuals, music, inspiration, and message they want to see and hear. If the style isn't just right, or the sermon is a little off, or the communion lines get long, worshipers feel like they didn't get what they came for, and their comment cards (or emails, Facebook or Twitter posts) will let the planners, leaders and maybe the whole world know. It's not about us sharing a feast with thankful hearts. It's about me getting what I came for the way I like it.

Or maybe I'll go someplace else.

Someplace where I can get my feed on just the way I like it.

From Smörgåsbord to Sacrifice
I think most readers of this blog will agree a "smorgasbord" vision of worship represents consumerism at its worst, and can barely be called worship at all. Worship isn't really supposed to be all about me. It's supposed to be all about God among us. Worship is the body of Christ, getting together, being re-membered, put back together as a body. As that body we offer ourselves to God in prayer, praise, thanksgiving, confession, listening, and around the font and Table. From the table, fully re-membered, we may are sent into the world, as we pray, to live as "the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood" (Word and Table I, UMH 10).

But what about a Smörgåsbord vision?

Smörgåsbord certainly gets more of it right. Smörgåsbord isn't finally about "me," but rather about us. We come less to get, and more to share the best we have to offer. It's about building community through a shared meal among neighbors, even neighbors who may have been strangers up to now. And as I've noted, even as each individual composes his or her own plates more or less as each likes, there's always a regard to make sure there's some left for someone else who might like to try the same thing, too.

Smörgåsbord strengthens the bonds of old friends, and helps make new ones. It is a fellowship meal at its finest.

But is it a fully apt metaphor for worship?

At our upcoming meeting of the board of directors of the General Board of Discipleship (October 10-12, 2013), the first song we'll sing together in worship is, "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." Most of you will know at least the first verse by heart:

What a fellowship, what a joy divine,
leaning on the everlasting arms;
what a blessedness, what a peace is mine, leaning on the everlasting arms.

Leaning (on Jesus), leaning (on Jesus), safe and secure from all alarms;
leaning (on Jesus), leaning (on Jesus), leaning on the everlasting arms.

(Elisha Hoffman, 1877. Public Domain.)

As individualistic as this classic gospel song is, it begins by talking about fellowship, and its first verse ends by talking about peace. Neither of these things is possible apart from others, the "blessed community." While the words "I" or "mine" appear in it 4 times, and the word "we" never once, this is never a song I imagine singing solo. It's all of us together, rejoicing in that blessed fellowship, that peace we know with each other as well as in our own hearts. It may say, "I" or "mine" but it always sings as "we" or "ours."

Smörgåsbord, then.

Somewhat, but not entirely. In smörgåsbord we all bring our best, most refreshing cold foods to share with and delight each other. Our delight is in our sharing, and in each other.

In worship we also bring our best gifts, but our delight is in our Triune God. We're not praising fellowship when we sing "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" with all our might. We're praising the God who in Jesus has chosen to fellowship with us and the Holy Spirit who makes our fellowship with God and one another filled with a blessedness we could not possibly create ourselves-- all as we lean on, and into, those everlasting arms.

In worship, as this favorite hymn declares, we're not throwing ourselves into each other's arms. We're all together, throwing ourselves into God's arms, bringing our whole selves, "our souls and bodies" to be "a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice" to God (Great Thanksgiving from Word and Table IV, UMH 29).

Though we gather around a meal in our common worship of Word and Table, and though this meal also strengthens our fellowship with each other, as does a smörgåsbord, it does so precisely as a result of offering our whole selves, not for ourselves or to each other, but to God. It is as we offer ourselves, wholly, completely in our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving around the Lord's table that the Holy Spirit makes us one with Christ, and consequently one with each other and one in ministry to all the world (Word and Table I, UMH 10)
In a smorgasbord or even a smörgåsbord, I take what I want and fill my own plate.

In a sacrifice, we empty our plates, and God fills them. We do not take for ourselves, but receive from another, not with what we believe will delight us, but with what God knows will make us, individually and collectively, a holy people.

To be sure, we could use a bit more of joy and even the sense of fellowship of the smörgåsbord in some of our sacrifices. Our fellowship with each other when we gather for worship is also sweet. But whatever sweetness there is or can be in our fellowship, it is the result, as we confess in the gospel song, of our leaning, our throwing ourselves into those everlasting arms.

Not Smorsgasbord, for sure.

Not even Smörgåsbord, rich and refreshing as the real thing can be.


Bringing all we have to love God with all we are, the same God who calls and helps us love our neighbor as ourselves.