During the past decade, much ink has been spilt in both professional and lay church literature over the topic of "how should we worship?" The popular term "worship wars" is unfortunately no great misnomer as congregations and some religious organizations have been split over the issue of liturgical style. On the local level this has often meant the death of long-established congregations, the rise of renegade groups which secede to form new congregations, or the schisming of communities based upon which worship service each member attends. At the jurisdictional and national levels it has meant the separation and categorization of congregations along "traditional" and "contemporary" lines. These descriptions nominally depict the congregations' styles of worship, but in reality they shape much of the church hierarchy's set of accompanying expectations about the life, health, and future prospects of these congregations. Significantly, these expectations radically affect that hierarchy's allocations of ever-more scarce financial, intellectual, and human resources, and consequently the entire life and witness of the church.
But what do these terms "contemporary" and "traditional"—which many assume they understand, but which few can formally define—tell us about how we view the worship life of the church and indeed the very act of worship itself? What is it about the words "contemporary" and "traditional" and the phenomena of worship associated with them that tailors the sorts of expectations we have of congregations depicted as such? What elements might a working definition of "contemporary worship" include? What theological and sociological understandings would it include and preclude as premises for its further extrapolation? How might we evaluate the plethora of resources available for contemporary worship, discerning what is valuable in them and discarding the rest? These are the questions on which I shall render an opinion in this paper. I shall do this by charting in a brief way the history of the contemporary worship movement, examining and defining the words "contemporary" and "worship", critiquing some of the literature and prevailing philosophies surrounding contemporary worship resources, and proposing some essentials as a starting point for a theology of contemporary worship.
The roots of the "contemporary worship" movement may be traced to the 1960's. That decade's zeitgeist of experimentalism extended itself to liturgical and pastoral theological thought. "Folk" and "jazz" masses, pastoral counseling sessions which dealt less with theological and moral issues than psychotherapeutic ones, and experiential learning retreats which bore a close resemblance to group therapy were all advents of this era which opened up new vistas in pastoral theological thought and practice. As the optimism about cultural change and the cohesive social and intellectual viewpoints which characterized the important movements of the sixties gave way to the concurrent, widely disparate searches for meaning which were the hallmark of the 1970's, the previously stalwart damn of intra-denominational worship tradition was already leaking, and the flood of contemporary worship would soon wash across the global consciousness of the church. The meteoric rise of such monolithic "mega-churches" as Willow Creek Community Church and Saddleback Community Church attracted much attention from parish pastors who saw the steady decline of their own congregations continue in the wake of the anti-institutionalism of post-Watergate America. Literature on contemporary worship, primarily in the form of how-to manuals for parish pastors from evangelical Protestant sources, became widely disseminated, and as the 1970's became the 1980's, contemporary worship became a force with which to be reckoned in the global consciousness of the church. Movies such as Sister Act added popular appeal to this burgeoning awareness. In one scene, Whoopi Goldberg (the icon of impetus toward contemporary worship stylings) is confronted by the Mother Superior of the convent who, concerned with her unorthodox use of Motown musical styles in the mass, asks Whoopi the question:
Mother Superior: "Are you thinking of the glory of God, sister?" Whoopi Goldberg: "No, I was thinking more like Vegas; you know, get 'em in the house."Whoopi's character seems to assert that "people who aren't in the pews can't hear the News," and more and more pastors who found it difficult to proclaim the Gospel to people who did not show up on Sunday morning found her logic compelling. Contemporary worship, particularly that variety whose focus was on attracting the spiritual "seeker" (people who lived primarily outside the active life of the Christian community), grew, gaining a broader audience among mainline denominations.
Finally, as this century draws toward a close, contemporary worship has made the transition from evangelical tool aimed at producing a personal conversion experience in the "seeker" to mainline denomination programmatic tool aimed at church growth. Although shorn of much of its fundamentalist theological lineage, the acceptance of contemporary worship and its concomitant values of church growth, outreach to an "unchurched" society, and "cultural relevancy" is a fait accompli in even the most theologically liberal denominations who would shudder at the conversion language of decision-theology.
It is at this point that I must level my first criticism at the contemporary worship movement and most of its literature. Put simply, my objection is this: there are very few resources devoted exclusively to the matters of music choice, worship structure, and theological sensitivities as they relate to contemporary worship. Most of the literature available on this topic is bound up, implicitly or explicitly, with new structural and teleological understandings of the purpose of the church and its worship. These are the "church growth", "church management", and "church marketing" philosophies which are such a dominant force in the current life of the church. I believe the cause of this may be traced to the cultural and theological roots of the contemporary worship movement.
It is perhaps not surprising that it was extensively in the fundamentalist sects—with their primarily Anabaptist roots, habitual disdain for the "hidebound" fealty to their historical traditions of mainline denominations, and focus on the personal conversion experience—that the bulwark of thought about contemporary worship was built. In particular, the fundamentalist focus upon the personal conversion experience made their theology ripe for an understanding of worship wherein the primary considerations were the feelings, tastes and attitudes of those yet to be converted. The personal preferences of unbelievers (commonly referred to as the "unchurched" or "seekers") were to be accommodated in the areas of liturgy, music, and presentation by the church in order to help the individual worship attendee reach the all-important moment of choice wherein they declare their "acceptance of Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior."
This theology adopted the strategies of another field of human endeavor which shared its concern with numerical outcomes and quantifiable results—the marketing departments of Madison Avenue. In the world of business marketing, results are the measurable gauge of one's success and efficacy is its own rationale. INSERT QUOTE Decisions about the structure and content of advertisements are made on the basis of the numerical results they produce; the sole purpose of advertisement is to inflate the consumers opinion of the proffered goods and induce them to become new or increased consumers of those goods.
When grafted onto a theology of worship, this primary focus is not lost. The result is a theology of worship wherein if a particular style or structure of worship service produces a growth in donations, church attendance, or people weeping at the rail during the altar call, then it is considered "good", whereas lesser results in this same area are considered "bad". Worship is therefore seen primarily as an advertisement for God and a marketing tool for a life of discipleship.
That the ultimate goal of the Christian life and Christian worship specifically is to create more Christians is not only explicit, but implicit in this theology. Even when supposedly adapted to more traditional or orthodox understandings of the purpose and nature of worship, viewing the worship service largely as an advertising device is apparently inescapable. Read here the words of Sally Morganthaler in the introduction to her book Worship Evangelism: Inviting Unbelievers Into the Presence of God:
All the technique in the world cannot produce worshipers. It cannot produce worship. The time has come to make technique the servant of spirit and truth (John 4:23-24). Only then will we be able to engage believers in heartfelt, active response to a living God. Only then will worship be genuinely attractive to the seeker who is hungering to see what a supernatural relationship with God is like. Only then will our worship produce the by-product God intended: a witness to Christ.
Here we recognize some fairly orthodox understandings of worship. She states that worshippers respond to God's grace and that the act of worship transcends the style and technique in which worship is conducted. Yet, although it is denigrated to the status of by-product by Morganthaler, it is clear that these orthodox notions are married to a vision which sees the ultimate goal of worship as that of producing a witness to Christ—specifically a witness which attracts unbelievers. "A witness to Christ" is after all, what "God intended" worship to be in the first place. Once again we are presented with growth as a rationale for action and (implicitly) marketing as a strategy for that growth. In denominations sensitive to decision-theology language, the word "growth" has been widely adopted to replace the emotionally-charged words "accept Jesus Christ", but its meaning—the unbeliever changing their theological, emotional, and intellectual allegiance to match that of the community of believers—is nearly identical. Apparently, the impetus behind the contemporary worship movement is nearly inextricable from its decision-theology roots; The "unchurched" have a choice to make, choice implies competing alternatives, and competing alternatives require the church to view the weekly worship service as its primary contact with a potential market—the primary and best opportunity to employ marketing strategies and techniques for the sake of God's kingdom.
Why contemporary worship should be so often bound up with new church management concepts is less obvious. I believe it has much to do with what is en vogue in the business literature of our day. Because of the previously mentioned adoption of marketing techniques, the church's growing reliance upon the secular social sciences, and because so many new pastors in the church are embarking upon a second career after a sojourn in the secular economy (approximately 65% in the E.L.C.A. according to Jeanne Nunamaker, the registrar at LTSG), the language of modern business management has become part of the consciousness of the church political machine. Hyphenated management phrases such as "paradigm-shift", "consumer-driven", "permission-granting organization", and "principle-centered" are introduced to church culture via the aforementioned routes and then later whole-heartedly adopted as the rising stock prices of companies employing these concepts seem to indicate their effectiveness and vindicate their use. The new management thoughts, structures, and practices proposed by this language have little in common with the ecclesiastical history of the church or the traditional understanding of the Gospel. But as the contemptuousness for tradition which is the legacy of contemporary worship's Anabaptist roots was awakened by the institutional distrust which is part of our cultural heritage as Americans, once again the end came to justify the means, and business management concepts were adapted for ecclesial use.
None of this is intended as a blanket critique of the church adopting and adapting the best of what the secular world has to offer. Such criticism would be beyond the scope of this paper. I am being intensely critical of the way these concepts seem to be inextricably married to issue of contemporary worship. I believe that for the issue of "contemporary worship" to be handled with integrity to the church's confessional understanding of the Gospel, we must develop a theology of contemporary worship which addresses both our understandings of the purpose of worship and what characteristics define "contemporary", without devolving into discussions of what particular components might find a home in a "contemporary" worship service in this time and place.
Put plainly, just as the Church's confessional understanding of the Gospel does and should properly transcend this particular historical moment of time, so too must our understanding of "contemporary worship". The historical crises and intellectual fads have always been part of the life of the Church and have plagued her history since her birth. The fleeting intellectual breezes of today are no different. The church has not always been concerned with growth or marketing, and a perusal of the shelves at Barnes and Noble teaches us that managerial philosophies and techniques come and go with amazing rapidity. But through all the vagaries of the life of the church, throughout the history of the church's intersection with the world around it, God does not change and the truth does not change. Consequently, what I am calling for is the church to bring the measuring stick of its timeless truths—the Gospel—to bear upon the issues of music choice, service structure, worship practice, and perhaps most importantly, the purpose of worship.
Here we reach the point where I shall make an attempt to begin that process by seeking a more objective definition of the words "contemporary" and "worship" as well as proposing some basic criteria for evaluating resources for designing and implementing contemporary worship services.
What is meant when someone defines a worship service as "contemporary"? Contemporary is a word which relativizes a specific moment in history. Consequently, it is clear that any definition of "contemporary" at which we arrive will make reference to the world beyond the church community. It will cite the standards and values of the secular world in which church serves as the kerygmatic witness of God's in-breaking kingdom. Realizing that our definition will deal with the intersection between the internal life of the church and the life of the world beyond, it quickly becomes apparent from the available literature that there are two primary components to be considered in any definition of contemporary worship; musical styles and liturgical actions.
From its inception, musical choice has been one of the defining elements of the contemporary worship movement, and one which has caused much acrimony between those of conflicting tastes and aesthetic sensibilities. When attempting to assess what elements demarcate music as contemporary, one might expect to arrive at a definition which would necessarily alter with time, a constantly shifting understanding reflecting the vicissitudes of popular culture, specifically the mercurial changes characteristic of the music and entertainment industries.
Surprisingly, we find this is not so. Indeed, from the beginning, the contemporary worship movement has utilized music whose styles have not been at all reflective of what was popular in mass music market, just as music labeled "Christian contemporary" intended for public distribution and sale has not reflected these styles. Although the music being played by the FM popular-radio market has undergone several stylistic shifts in the last 30 years, a quick sampling of the contemporary Christian music available both for worship and private listening throughout this period reveals a remarkable homogeneity of style and arrangement. Most of this music is characterized by simple, regular rhythmic patterns, fairly pedestrian harmonic progressions, lushly orchestrated arrangements, and closely-stacked vocal harmonies. In fact, it has much in common with the "crooner" music of the mid to late 1950's. It bears a far stronger resemblance to Patsy Cline, Perry Como, and early Elvis than it does to Fleetwood Mac, the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Bon Jovi, Debbie Gibson, Madonna, or Garth Brooks—all of whom, at one point or another, have been considered at the pinnacle of what might deemed "contemporary" music throughout the history of the contemporary worship movement.
So, exactly what is meant by the term "contemporary"? To find our answer, we must look once again to the evangelical theology underlying the contemporary worship movement. Since one of the primary goals of contemporary worship has been to attract the unbeliever, and the use of marketing strategies is a natural outgrowth of this theology, processes which would be called "target-marketing" in secular circles are used in the selection of elements of the worship service, especially music. Incumbent upon the worship planner in such a model is a knowledge of one's "target audience", and the target audience of contemporary worship from the beginning has been the fallen-away "baby boom" generation. Consequently, it is the tastes of this generation and what it defines as "contemporary" that have molded the musical tastes and values of the contemporary worship movement.
Often, people's musical tastes and preferences become largely immalleable during the years of their teens and twenties. During these years, in the course of the individual's struggle to establish an identity separate and distinct from the family traditions which spawned it, musical choice is often largely made based upon what is different from that which is endemic to or acceptable within the family context. It could be said (albeit somewhat cynically) that for every generation "contemporary" music is best defined as "whatever pissed my parents off." This vagary of human behavior is true of the baby boom generation, and it has resulted in the currently widely applied standards of musical choice which define the contemporary worship movement.
But is there a better way to define "contemporary" music as applicable to the subject of contemporary worship? Can we define it in less relativistic terms? Is there a better measurement of what might be considered contemporary than the rising and falling albums on the Billboard Charts?
Today, as we approach the new millennium, the conventional wisdom regarding popular music consumption and marketing is breaking down. Often, big-band styled "swing" tunes will share the same airwave space with rebellious grunge anthems, syrupy sweet Celine Dion ballads and Mariah Carey disco-esque dance tracks. Contemporary Christian music too has become far less parochial. The music found for sale in your average Christian bookstore is far more stylistically and theologically diverse than would have been the case five let alone ten years ago. Styles that were once considered radical departures in the world of contemporary Christian—ska, reggae, grunge, doo wop, country western, hip hop, Gregorian chant—are now marketed with aplomb next to the more traditional "easy listening" Christian music.
This new stylistic openness within much of Christian musical culture is just beginning to be reflected in contemporary worship practices. "Generation X" worship services are beginning to be delineated from "Boomer" worship services, with separate and distinct resources being marketed to those wishing to offer worship services intent on attracting this group. Yet the language of "contemporary" worship (as contrasted to "traditional" worship) seems to be rarely associated with "Gen X" worship. Is this because it is a perceived need just now being recognized and therefore addressed, or is it because, as has already been noted, the diverse stylistic tastes of Generation X defy the easy categorization characteristic of the Baby Boomer generation? Whereas churches like Willow Creek have had great success with Generation X services that resemble grunge rock concerts, taizé and other similarly meditative services are extremely popular on college campuses. High-church congregations like XXXX attract huge crowds of under-30 parishioners with smells and bells worship, and Catholic orders which are relatively conservative (both theologically and in worship practice), generate many more vocations than their liberal, more modern brethren. In addition, a huge pilgrimage of congregants from evangelical Protestant churches to strongly liturgical-based churches like the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox has been recorded in recent years. Beyond this diversity, "Buster" generation worship is the new catch-phrase, with many self-proclaimed experts already claiming they can predict the musical and liturgical styles it will incorporate. What all of this disparate data suggests is that any definition of "contemporary" music which has as its foundation any description of specific musical elements will be misleading and necessarily narrow, not to mention more quickly outdated than last year's PC.
A better definition of "contemporary" music is needed. Since we have noted that "contemporary" is a necessarily relativistic, evaluative word, the question is "against what set of necessarily changing criteria should we measure a given piece of music in order to define it as contemporary?" What I am proposing is that we might define music as contemporary when it is stylistically congruent with that music in which any given culture or subculture would be fluent and to which they would be frequently exposed. This definition frees us from the need to follow the specific movements of the music industry by switching the focus of our definition being musically descriptive to being culturally descriptive. Since cultures change more slowly than the musical trends of which they are the genesis, this also gives us some descriptive stability while maintaining the relativistic qualities already identified as necessary to our definition.
Having a working definition of "contemporary" music opens up several questions for us when we consider it in the context of "contemporary" worship. How and when should we apply this criteria to worship music selection? Does applying this standard frequently narrow and congregations experience of (communion with) God in worship? Ought we to use the standard of "contemporary" as a guide to our worship music choices at all?
Answers to these questions of application can only be proposed within the context of a broader theology of worship. What is worship? What is its focus, purpose, and means of execution? What criteria might be applied in making decisions about what elements will be included in any given worship service? These are some of the questions which must be broached in order to develop a working theology of worship.
As I attempt to codify a basic theology of worship, I find a set of distinctions made by Gordon Lathrop to be a particularly useful one. In the introduction to his book Holy Things - A Liturgical Theology, Lathrop distinguishes between primary, secondary, and pastoral worship theology, which he refers to as liturgical theology. (Because it is my intention to come to an understanding of worship without the emotional and intellectual baggage which accompanies the words "liturgy" and "liturgical", I will be using Lathrop's thoughts on "liturgy" in the context of an understanding simply of "worship." Although I recognize that all worship actions ultimately fall under the denotative definition of the word liturgy, by speaking simply of worship, I hope to avoid the connotations which so plague this term. I will also speak of worship not only as the action of an assembled group of believers, but as an activity in which the individual believer may engage without any outward actions at all.)
According to Lathrop, primary worship theology is "the communal meaning of the liturgy exercised by the gathering itself." In other words, it is the meaning attributed to the words, symbols , and actions of worship in which the worshipping community participates. It is furthermore the first-person encounter of communion with God and participation with the Holy Spirit in the act of worship which that community and the individuals which comprise it experience. As such, this experience can never be fully or sufficiently explained to one who is not part of the worshipping community. It is an experiential theology, accessible only to the participant in worship.
Secondary worship theology is then the admittedly inadequate discussion about and explanation of primary worship theology. Lathrop describes it in this way;
Secondary liturgical theology, then, is written and spoken discourse that attempts to find words for the experience of the liturgy and to illuminate its structures, intending to enable a more profound participation in those structures by the members of the assembly.
The last element of Lathrop's definition is the critical one. The purpose of secondary theology is not merely to describe the events, actions, words, and symbols of worship, nor even to explain their significance. While secondary worship theology does these things, it does so for the purpose of allowing worshippers to engage in the act of worship more fully. The critical application of secondary worship theology to the worship experiences of a given time and place in the context of the broader Christian life is defined by Lathrop as pastoral liturgical theology. It should be noted, nonetheless, that both secondary and pastoral worship theology serve the purpose of inviting believers into an experience of primary worship theology wherein God may be permitted to make the meaning of the act of worship evident without the interpretation, divination, and obfuscation of secondary theological sources.
That said (and our limitations as purveyors of secondary worship theology acknowledged) we must first recognize that all other postulations we make about the structure and practice of worship must flow from the answer we discern to the critical question "what is the purpose of worship?". Geoffrey Wainwright in The Oxford Companion to the Bible says in its introductory paragraph on worship:
As creator and redeemer, God calls for worship on the part of humankind. Human salvation consists in communion with the beneficent God. The first commandment is to worship the Lord God alone (Exod. 20.1-6 = Deut. 5.6-10; Matt. 4.10 = Luke 4.8). The content of that worship according to the Shema, is total devotion: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and might" (Deut. 6.5; Mark 12.30 par.).What is clear from this definition is that the primary purpose of worship is devote oneself wholly to God, specifically in a particular time and place set aside for that purpose in the act we call worship. This devotion is to be a sacrificial one, a sacrifice of physical items (including one's own body), emotional effort, and spiritual energy to be done out of a love for the God who inspires and commands this worship. As Wainwright continues in an explanation of the Pauline concept of worship:
Since for Paul the greatest spiritual gift was love (1 Cor. 13), like the prophets he implied an ethical test for true worship. He used cultic language to exhort Christians to appropriate conduct: "I appeal to you . . . to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship." (Rom. 12.1; cf. 1 Cor. 6.18-20; 2 Cor. 6.6-7.1). (emphasis added)
One point made clear by this ethical criteria of what constitutes the truest Christian worship is that the emotional satisfaction we garner from it is of little consequence. To sacrifice that which is precious to us will in all likelihood be an unpleasant experience, one which tests us rather than gratifies us emotionally. I do not mean to imply that worship must be an unpleasant experience to merit the title "profound"; the classical Christian conception of worship is not Kantian in its character. What I do mean to say is that there are times when sacrifice will seem pleasant to the worshipper and they will give what is dearest to them willingly, and at other times such oblation will cost the worshipper more dearly in emotional terms. In any event, the emotional reaction of the worshipper is no accurate measure of the profundity or appropriateness of the worship experience.
This is not to say that the emotional content of a worship experience has no significance. The individual parishioner's emotional reactions during the act of worship will profoundly influence their understanding of primary worship theology. Even so, although the fundamental goal of secondary worship theology is to help the assembly engage in the primary theological act of worship, and the emotional reactions of the assembly to specific elements of worship may well be a concern of pastoral worship theology, such emotional reactions are ephemeral and inappropriate criteria to use in defining the basic act of worship.
This does lead us to a fundamental understanding of worship which perhaps should seem obvious, but as a wide range of sources (many of them on "contemporary worship") indicate, is apparently not so. Worship, in its primary theological sense, is a verb. We frequently use the word worship as both an adjective (i.e. Let's talk about the worship life of the church.) and a noun (i.e. Two hundred people attended worship today.). In worst cases we use phrases like, "our church worshipped 350 people today. How many did you worship?" (Here the only proper direct object of the verb "worship"¾namely, God¾has been replaced by those assembled to do the worshipping. A cynic might call this a Freudian slip of the first order.) As these examples indicate, it is extremely easy to lose sight of the fact that when we are developing a theology of worship, we are speaking of the worshipful activities of the gathered assembly. Individual members of the assembly are not experiencing worship in the primary theological sense of the word unless they are engaged in the activity of the assembly—unless they are worshipping.
This is no insignificant point given that many of the models of contemporary "worship" cast the average congregant in the role of passive observer rather than that of active participant. Whereas the Biblical model has individual members of the assembly contributing sacrificially to activity of worship, these models encourage the individual congregant to passively receive the fruits of other people's "worship", namely that of the worship leaders. (More on whether even these people truly worship will be discussed below.) The Biblical model encourages singing (Ps. 141), these passive models encourage listening to someone else sing. The Biblical model encourages drama enactment—moving down the aisle, kneeling, receiving the Eucharist, raising one's hands, crossing oneself—while the passive model encourages watching professionally acted dramas. The Biblical model encourages responding to the hearing or reading of the Holy Scriptures, whereas the passive model may remove the scripture readings altogether with the rationale that their inclusion is boring or only tangentially relevant to those assembled. The Biblical model encourages reflection as a means of giving to God our total devotion (Ps. 46.10), and the passive model encourages little mental activity as active as reflection. In short, the Biblical model of worship is one wherein the congregant in the act of giving to God "all of their heart, mind, soul, and strength"(Mark 12.30) participates with God's grace in order to fulfill God's primary commandment, and so is included in the inner life of God. In the more modern passive model, the congregant is cast in the role of outsider—reduced to the role of a voyeur observing the intimacies of God's interaction with those engaged in the act of worship.
None of this is to say that such events, which invite passivity of those assembled, cannot be extremely effective pedagogical and evangelical tools. It is to say that many services held by well-meaning churches founded on this model are not faithful worship. Those assembled never engage in "primary worship theology."
Some proponents of such services have recognized the limitations of such services to engender true worship. Walther Kallestad of Community Church of Joy, Pheonix, Arizona has coined the term "entertainment evangelism" to replace that of "contemporary" or "seeker-sensitive" worship. I believe this term to be a far more intellectually honest assessment of the focus of these services. Unfortunately, Kallestad fails to recognize the need for such services to eventually lead those attracted into a primary theological experience of worship, and that these evangelical services are not truly worship because they do not focus on God.
All of this observation of the distinctions between the Biblical vision of worship and the vision of much worship that is labeled "contemporary" or "seeker sensitive" begs the question, "for whom is the energy of the worship leaders primarily being expended?" Surely, worship leaders in all times and places have put enormous thought into how their words, actions, and use of symbols affect their parishioners, because such effects necessarily influence the quality of worship those congregants can offer to God. This sort of consideration is radically different from that of much contemporary worship, which seeks to produce an emotional response in the congregation. This emotional reaction can then be utilized to teach, to rebuke, or to produce the overridingly important "conversion experience" in the assembled. The first seeks to enable the congregation to participate in the ultimately self-less act of worship, the second seeks to motivate the congregation in regards to the selfish (self-oriented) experiences of increasing one's knowledge, experiencing contrition for one's sins, or procuring for oneself eternal salvation.
When considering what acts we should engage in while leading an assembly in worship, the distinction between what leads a congregation toward selfish acts concerned with their own spiritual well-being and what leads them toward the selfless act of worship is often fine and difficult to discern, but it is extremely important to do so. It is important because it addresses an issue central to our definition of worship; What—or rather who—is the focus of worship? Clearly, the answer to this question is God, but how do we define worship in such a way that it keeps God as the focus? Marva Dawn, in her book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, makes a marvelous attempt to do this by defining God first as the subject of worship,
It is absolutely essential that the Church keep God as the subject of worship since to be Christian means to believe that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is everything to us — Creator, Provider, and Sustainer; Deliverer, Redeemer, and Lord; Sanctifier, Inspirer, and Empowerer. Friendship, instruction, and other aspects of the gathered community are important, but we lose our reason for being if we do not constantly remember that God has called us to be his people and that our ability to respond to that call in worship and life is totally the gift of God's grace.and then as the object of worship. Worship is about offerings or sacrifice. Jesus manifested what worship means in his complete act of sacrifice on the cross (Gaddy, p. xvii). The gifts of worship flow from God the subject and return to God as the object of our reverence. Gaddy summarizes, ". . . the worship of God consists of offering gifts to God" This concept of worship, which avoids the heresies of Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism, is nothing new to classically orthodox Christianity. Brilliantly, Dawn concludes her description of God as both the subject and object of worship by quoting at length from C. Welton Gaddy's book The Gift of Worship.I n reply to the question "For whom is worship?" Gaddy insists, "Worship is for God. Only!" The chief aim of worship is to please God — whether by adoration and praise, prayer and proclamation, confessions and offerings, thanksgivings and commitment, or by all of these actions combined." The point of worship is to recognize that God alone matters" (p.201).
I could not agree with Gaddy more, and to his response I would add, "The purpose of worship is to worship. Only!" Although worship produces changes in people and has side-effects which can be observed by outsiders to the worship experience as well as felt by the worshipper, these side-effects are diverse and the result of our participation (in some small measure) in God's inner life, not, as Morganthaler asserts, "by-products intended by God," the quantifiable evidence of which can be used as a gauge by human beings to judge whether or not their worship has been faithful. It is a great temptation in our attempts to understand God to import motive where none is implied. God's command is to worship. Our speculations as to why God might so command us may be mind-expanding or spiritually fruitful, but they must never be mistaken for God's own Word. If God intended an ancillary purpose for worship, God has had abundant opportunity to make that evident. Yet, the command is simply "worship," and we are beholden to obey.
What does all this mean when we reach the point of needing to make important decisions regarding the content and shape of worship, specifically contemporary worship? Since we have seen that the word "contemporary" is a linguistic dopplegänger, changing meaning each time we try to formally stylistically define it, shall we dispense with the notion of "contemporary worship" altogether, as Marva Dawn suggests, replacing it with worship whose style reflects the totality of the Church's history rather than that endemic to our own specific time and place? Such thinking certainly appeals to me in many ways, but it is problematic in several important respects. One, by proposing an alternative to the concept of "contemporary", Dawn fails to realize that, with the plethora of resources available on "contemporary worship" and with the church hierarchies of many denominations more and more often adopting marketing strategies in their attempt to reverse the tide of church desertion which has haunted them since the 1960's, the concept of contemporary worship is likely to be a powerful force in the consciousness of most parish pastors for some time to come. Two, it ignores the fact that an average parish pastor has not the musical or liturgical resources to lead worship in a manner which authentically reflects the diverse history of the church. Three, such a vision of worship, while certainly inclusive, can never be inclusive enough to do what it proposes to do—enable the congregants to worship in solidarity with the whole communion of saints throughout time and place. The history of the Church is simply too rich and varied. Most importantly, if worship is to be defined as the total devotion of the assembled to God "mind, body, and spirit," Dawn's model does not necessarily promote this end. Will the effort expended by a congregation to faithfully navigate the quarter-tone melodies of inner China or the modal harmonies of Palestrina lead them to a more selfless adoration of God, or will it lead to a concentration or frustration which removes the mind farther from a focus upon God? Will adopting liturgical actions and symbols whose significance springs from events of the time and place wherein they have their origin increase a congregation's awe of God and willingness to glorify him accordingly, or will they muddy the liturgical waters, producing confusion where clarity would better serve? Will the use of unfamiliar, abstruse language encourage new realizations of God's holiness, resulting in a spontaneous, sacrificial offering in response to that God, or will the congregation be left wondering why they ought to offer something to God at all?
Dawn's model will not necessarily result in the increased depth or vitality of a given assembly's worship. I believe the primary force underlying the errors in Dawn's model is her well-founded and justifiable concern with the formation of Christian character and the relative lack of education of the average Christian assembly. While I agree that these are matters of grave import, I believe that factoring them in as a primary concern when developing a theology of worship is a mistake. That Dawn seems to recognize the formation of Christian character as a primary goal of worship, only demonstrates how truly difficult her recognized goal of keeping God as the "subject and object of worship" is. Dawn's rationale that a deepening of Christian character is required for people to more fully devote themselves to God closely parallels the evangelicals' argument that people must be introduced to God before they will worship. Since both of these philosophies argue that worship should be structured according to their primary ancillary concern, both result in somewhat flawed theologies of worship.
This is not to say that elements concerned with character formation or evangelism have no place at all in a worship service. Quite the contrary, many other concerns could be listed along with these two as deserving of note and possible intentional address within the context of a worship service. Pedagogy, proclamation of the Word, growth in discipleship, repentance, pastoral guidance, and calls to Christian service are all important elements of the Christian life which radically affect how a community worships. Nonetheless, in the context of a worship service, devoting attention to any or all of these items must always be done for the express purpose of inspiring, facilitating, and deepening a congregation's actual worship of God.
Therefore, what I am proposing here as a theology of "contemporary worship" is really a theology of worship wherein those elements which define it as "contemporary" are but one of the many considerations about what should be included at all. In other words, we begin with the notion of pure worship—unadulterated devotion to and adoration of God, whether that takes a Dionysian form as in the spectacular ecstasies of the enraptured Pentecostal or an Apollonian one as in the quiet fervor of the meditating Quaker—and ask ourselves which elements, when included in a worship service, will serve to incite and encourage such devotion in those assembled.
Using this criteria, a pedagogical sermon is appropriate when a congregation needs a greater understanding of God in order to be motivated to worship. Music whose lyrics speak of repentance is appropriate when the willfulness and self-centeredness of a congregation prevents them from focusing their hearts and minds upon God and so worshipping him. Evangelical elements are appropriate when the community needs to be invited afresh to the table of God's grace (although the fact that the assembly has gathered for the express purpose of worship assumes that they recognize God's existence and the basic worthiness of God for such worship). Calls to service are appropriate when they help us recognize how privileged we are that God has allowed us to participate in the in-breaking of the Kingdom, and so give greater glory to God. A pastoral sensibility in the presentation of the liturgical elements (language, symbol, and action) is appropriate in order to recognize the strong role emotions play in motivating and facilitating worship.
It is only at this point that we may begin to define our criteria for what elements would be appropriate as part of a contemporary worship service. If we define that which is "contemporary" not according to necessarily inadequate and mutable specific traits, but rather, as I have proposed, as that which is stylistically congruent with elements with which any given culture or subculture would be fluent and to which they would be frequently exposed, we are presented with a much more workable criteria of what elements would be appropriate for inclusion in a contemporary worship service. When we define "contemporary worship service" in relationship to the specific assembled community rather than in relationship to the history of the Church, those cultural elements—language, symbol, art, and action—which have significant meaning for a given community are properly included when they serve to incite, facilitate, and deepen the community's worship. Therefore, contemporary worship might include hymn-singing, organ music, missal shuffling, and lengthy sermons for a community raised at least partially in the classical American Protestant milieu. It might include electric guitar, video screens, and fast-paced multimedia presentations for a community deeply steeped in the transient culture of MTV. It might include salsa music and neo-Roman Catholic liturgical actions and words for a Hispanic culture in the inner city or the most avant-garde use of symbols, music, language, dance, and ritual at a small, exclusive art college. In any case, each element is included only because it is congruent with the community's goal of truly worshipping God; the fact that these elements might be deemed "contemporary" is one nearly inconsequential by comparison.
Obviously, this understanding of "contemporary worship" places enormous demands upon the pastor or other decision-maker about the worship life of the congregation. It requires an extensive familiarity with the culture of the community one serves and a consequently fine degree of fluency in the language, symbols, and actions of that culture. In the modern world, with the increased influence of globalization both economically and culturally, this is no small undertaking. Nonetheless, it is one of the utmost importance and gravity. Worship is the central act of our lives as Christians. It is the "primary theology" around which our existence revolves (Mark 12.30) and about which the rest of our lives as "secondary theology" commentates. So, whether our decisions as worship leaders are made in regard to "contemporary worship", "traditional worship", or simply worship, we must realize that we concern ourselves with the most important of all things, and we must trust that God, who is gracious and abounding in steadfast love, will be honored by our efforts and forgiving of our missteps.
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