Another take on worship wars

Chris and one of his readers have an intriguing dialogue about the welcoming effects of "contemporary worship" vs. "the rich deposit of the past" going on his blog. Without getting into this battle, which has been waged for far too long, I think there are more helpful ways to look at the question.

First, is the style of worship authentic to the community? (And by that I mean not just the gathered congregation, but the community God has placed it in.) In coming among us humans, Christ took on our form, our limitations, a specific culture and langauge, and a trade far beneath him in order to communicate God's message to those God sent him to. In Christendom the church saw itself drawing people out of their culture into "church culture." But our experience is that that isn't what is happening today; Reggie McNeal, in "Present Future," writes that church culture is pretty much tapped out in our world. But if we think like a missionary God, and try to embed incarnationally into a community, we will want to use the language and idioms of the people in that community.

Does this mean that a church needs as many services as there are radio formats on the dial? No, because that assumes that music is the only way of connecting -- and, truth be told, many newcomers would perceive most services...contemporary or traditional...as a talk station, anyway. But it does mean that in a world where many people are not ignorant of Christianity's message but skeptical of it or even hostile to it, our way of singing, our way of speaking, who gets to speak, etc. -- the ethos of our gatherings -- can either reinforce their disconnect with the church or earn us the right to say more because we honor where they are. If the Creator found it necessary to do this, who are we to think it is not necessary for us?

In a lecture delivered at Valparaiso University this spring, Gordon Lathrop (a preeminent Lutheran figure in the liturgical movement) explored what it would look like if we viewed Christianity as a "meal-fellowship."
Let it be the gospel that is set out as food, in the food, and in the relief to the poor.
He goes on to say that we all -- priests, pew-sitters and passersby -- are "beggars," the poor for whom the feast of the gospel is spread, by God. And that serving at that table is our faith's "unique idea of leadership."

If we invite our neighborhood in for a meal, do we serve our favorite dish? Or theirs? What music would we put on? How would we relate to them? For people to receive the costly and challenging feast of the gospel that we want to give them, they must be comfortable, welcome and safe first. Jesus knew this, which is why he invested his presence with people. Come to think of it, maybe the worship question misses the point entirely ... if we want to be "welcoming," how do we be with the community in a way that makes the gospel lifestyle a possible answer to their questions about purpose and direction?

That leads into the second way of getting at the question, which is does worship do what it is supposed to do? The prophets are pretty clear (Amos 5, Micah 6, Isaiah 1) that in God's view, neither historic texts and otherworldly music nor free prayer and electronica are enough in themselves. "Does God want a flawless high-church service or high-entertainment value show?" one can hear Micah asking. "No, he wants you to live the gospel and seek justice for my people." When the community is not living into this calling, it's clear that no worship is acceptable:
Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. (Isaiah 1:13)
Worship brings people together in humility to be fed the gospel, Lathrop says, and it also sends them out to spread the feast for all whom they encounter. If partaking of God's feast changes people so that they live in the way of Jesus, then the worship of those people will likely resonate with not-yet-Christians as authentic, whether it's high-church, a dance party or mostly silent. But if it is a Sunday entertainment -- whether a classical museum piece, slick pop or a grunge concert -- that asks nothing and confirms the safe spot people are in, then it will have nothing to say to those who are outside and hurting.

So while we spend a lot of words and energy on "style" and "shape," "substance" is more important. Chris' correspondent, Dwight, is right when he says "The serious questions reside in the details -- e.g., what word do they hear and speak?" But it's tragic when we decide we have the "right" word and deliver it in a way that requires years of inculturation and, in the case of emerging generations, a shift in the way they understand, in order to "get it." Can we use the prayers of the early Fathers and Mothers? Enlarge the symbols of our tradition? Use chant, rap and electronica? Silence and prayer postures? Yes, as long as they are accessible and we keep expanding the circle as people bring new gifts and experiences to the community. But if we're assuming what works for us works for others, and that LBW setting 2 is all w need...think again.

There are certainly questions for discussion about how to engage people where they are, but that we do it should be without question. Dwight questions the assumption that there can be "easy transitions" to new technologies and styles. That's always been the case: Organs were once seen as evil innovations, as was using saloon tunes and speaking and reading scripture in one's own native language. We have also survived the introduction of sound systems that gave priviledged voices the prominent place in the assembly (exactly the charge that is often leveled against screens in worship.) It has also been true that the message of the gospel has been able to incorporate and use these and many other changes because it is a living, breathing message aimed at real live people.

We don't have to protect the gospel from screens and bands, or from organs and archaic language, from free-wheeling discussion or even from talking head sermons. Following God's model is to pour it, and ourselves, out, every drop, for the blessing of the world.


scott bader-saye said...

Hi Bob,

Karen Ward directed me to this blog. I am involved in emerging church conversations in the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem (a bit north of you) and would love to be in touch. You may contact me at badersayes2@scranton.edu. Thanks!

Lutheran Zephyr said...

Hey Bob,

Wow. Very thoughtful post. Thank you for your reflections. I like the language you use about making the Gospel and worship "accessible" to others, to outsiders.

But most importantly, perhaps I like best your references to Micah, which calls us to move from/beyond worship to a life of justice, life of grace, life of humble living for others.

Several years ago I asked a Roman Catholic priest how I might nurture my prayer life. His response? "Let your life be a prayer."

Too often we worry about how we pray (or worship). These things are important, but they are not the end-goal. Rather (in a 3rd use of the Law kind of way, perhaps) I think that our whole lives can be a prayer, our whole lives can be worship. That's the tough part, for sure (it's easier to write a liturgy than it is to live a liturgy), but that's our calling.