A Beautiful Mess: Can worship be contemporary AND liturgical?


Snark MeterrealMID.003

“What is a high church guy like you doing worshipping in a contemporary service like this?” It sounds like an ecclesiological pickup line, but her implied question was, “Liturgical and contemporary? Isn’t that an oxymoron?” Here are a few ruminations on the subject of contemporary/liturgical worship by someone with a strong appreciation for chant and incense…

“Contemporary” worship, or “worship” understood as a block of contemporary songs, led by a musician and backed by a band, is a very late arrival, unknown before the charismatic renewal of the late 1960s. Prior to this, Christians either worshiped in the pattern of Word and Sacrament developed over the first four Christian centuries, i.e. “the Mass,” or in the pared down  “regulative principle” worship developed in the sixteenth century by our Reformed and Anabaptist brethren. The “regulative principle” says that only what can be prescribed from scripture is to be present in the church’s worship (such as readings, prayers, singing, preaching, and communion). The older traditions had a broader understanding, the “normative principle.” In the “normative principle,” whatever is edifying, as long as it is not explicitly prohibited (like cense, incense, and musical instruments to name a few) is fine. The charismatic renewal, taking the normative principle and running with it, brought a completely new idea: Worship that mimics current cultural performance forms…with historic theology even if no historic forms are present. This was a redefinition of worship, not as “scripture and sacrament,” but as “song then sermon.” Gone was the complex pattern of reading, praying, proclaiming, and responding to the Word, with singing the Word woven throughout. In were songs that sound like the music on one’s Spotify, grouped together in a “song set.” A contemporary worship service, since it has both feet in the current culture, is expected to have an element of “freshness.” In fact, if a “contemporary” service does not change playlists, genres, and instrumentation, before long it is no longer “contemporary.” It simply becomes a more recent “tradition.” Therefore, contemporary worship is umbilically tied to the contemporary Christian music industry, its’ source of new material. This goal of this form of worship is to allow the Holy Spirit to “speak” to the emotions. It is led by a song leader functioning as worship leader.

Anglicans may not be better worshippers than other Christians, but we probably think about it more than others. The Episcopal church, founded by Queen Elizabeth’s shoehorning of Catholics and Reformed Protestants together and telling them to pray the same words, have the freedom to embrace a wide spectrum of practice. Given our origins in state mandated, “Can’t we just all get along?” it should be no surprise that worship in the Episcopal church is informed by all three streams of Christian worship tradition: Word, Sacrament, and Spirit. In worship, Anglicans believe we are to be formed by God’s Word, fed at God’s table, and filled with God’s presence. Those three streams can come together in a worship service that can be without music, or undergirded by organ and choir, or driven by a band. That is why it seems to be perfectly appropriate for worship to be informed by the charismatic stream of the church. “Filled with God’s presence” is, after all, one of the three streams. The sad and frustrating part is that relatively little of contemporary worship seems to include being formed by God’s word, and nearly none, fed at a Eucharistic feast. Rather, worshippers get an “application based message” and (snark alert) the table of narcissism containing a loaf of “tear off a little Jesus-to-go.”

In the intersection of theory meets practice, at St. John the Divine, we have traditional liturgical services and contemporary liturgical services. You will notice they both have “liturgical” in common. For us, it is important that our contemporary services be contemporary while remaining scriptural, liturgical and sacramental.  In other words, we are intentionally embracing all three streams. We are not simply chasing the contemporary culture. Liturgical worship, based around Word and Table, is meant to be formational and sacramental. It puts words on our lips, and thoughts on our hearts. It allows us to participate in worship, not just through the singing of words unheard over other’s amplified voices, but through movement and joined prayers. It both preaches the Gospel, and feeds us on the living presence of the God made flesh in Holy Communion. So we use contemporary music and instrumentation, but we maintain the ancient Christian pattern of worship.

But more than liturgical, three-streams worship, whether contemporary or traditional in musical genre, is sacramental. Sacraments, if you remember your confirmation class lectures, “are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 857). A sacrament is not merely a picture of something, they actually create what they portray. In the same way kissing does not just demonstrate your love for your special someone, kissing them actually creates more love as you do it. So sacraments too create what they signify. Baptism brings us into the Kingdom of God, it is not merely a portrait of it (Romans 6:4, Colossians 2:12). And Eucharist is the meal of the eternal presence of God. It does not just look back to the Last Supper, or just look forward to the marriage Supper of the Lamb in the end of time (Revelation 19), it brings us to the eternal now of Jesus Christ, each and every time we participate in it. In the Eucharistic feast, time and eternity meet.

So we blend the musical genres of the current culture within the ancient container. A liturgical contemporary service, with one foot in the ancient church and one in the culture is values driven (around liturgy as formational and sacrament as reality) and data supported.  It asks, “What things in our culture work with  our values and theology?” Here are a few interesting cultural trends we are seeing:

-Higher tech and higher touch (greater use of technology, yet more personal).

-Respectful yet comfortable in style (including teaching how and why we worship).

-Increased use of art and artfulness (no longer church in a “big-box”).

-Use of symbols: Crosses, tables, baptismal, kneelers…things that say “holy space” to those looking to experience faith.

-Worship as a whole-body experience: sitting, standing, and hand raising…but also kneeling, crossing, and bowing.

-Use of lighting to give variations in vibe and mood during the service.

-Using the Christian year to immerse the family of God in the story of God.

-A wider variety in our musical offerings, what Paul calls, “hymns, psalms and spiritual songs.” (Eph. 5:19) And a wider variety in vocalizations and instrumentation. (You might get an oboe or viola or a mandolin and a djimbe.)

The “what” though, is not nearly as important as the “why.” We will continue to shift and nudge things to remain connected to our culture while staying faithful to our scriptural, liturgical, and sacramental values. In doing so, we are attempting to honor God by praising his name (Ps. 145:21), while creating biblically faithful, outward facing disciples who reach the next generation with the Good News of Jesus.


14 thoughts on “A Beautiful Mess: Can worship be contemporary AND liturgical?

  1. “Institutional Religion” is often leader controlled at about 100-120 words per minute.

    “Private Religion” goes on between me and God. It happens this way. My brain is constantly alert at about 350-500 words per minute, I fill in the extra space between your words with snippets of thoughts, images, sounds, feelings, memories, observations.

    Institutional Religion is ritual. Private Religion is spiritual relationship with God. Those snippets emerge from my life when I’m in contact with God who speaks to me about them. Persons attuned to music have told me that music being played in church while they have been instructed to pray actually distracted them from praying. Hmmmmm?

    • Hi Raymond. As usual, great thoughts! A question: Does classical hymnody (such as in a prelude) or instrumentation as a background for reflection time affect the “distraction”?

      • One person classically trained remarked with most distress about being caught up in the music itself so as not being able to focus on God. In my on tradition, often an over-emotionalized leader would have singing going on and also try to talk over it. Doesn’t happen like that often in today’s services. I had only negative thoughts myself.

        As far as background or prelude I’m sure it depends on the individual. I recall being taught somewhere that we each have preferred modes of “thinking.” Visual, words, colors, taste, auditory, tactile, even the smell of certain odors. But that’s another story.

        The connection of the auditory system of the brain to the rest of one’s body fascinates me.

        I understand from anecdotal reports a mother’s brain generally is more attuned to hearing. If her infant whimpers in the crib at night, she can learn which kind of cry it is. Daddy just sleeps through it all. She immediately is aroused while still asleep. Arises to care for the baby. Decades ago my wife said some women on hearing an infant begin a hunger cry (a different sound) would have breast responses as lactating. There is so much we men simply don’t have a clue.

        Someone with more clinical knowledge than I would have to speak to this. Perhaps a neurologist would be able to address this. And of course as we age most of us have diminished hearing of certain sounds. One might with preparation have various responses from the persons in the congregation. That might be as telling as the clowns around the Eucharist in in photo above.

        • Ah, the Clown-charist. A shame my well-meaning brethren don’t see the embarrassment. You remind me of how much is going on in a worship service. We are proclaiming the Word and deeds of God, we are trying to provoke an individual encounter and a corporate one…as John said, “What our ears heard, our eyes saw and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life.” We do need the neurologists to weigh in!

  2. “Tear off a little Jesus-to-go.” (Love the snark.) I also considered your presentation of the three-legged stool of Word, Sacrament and Spirit superb. Excellent points about the possibility of freshness injected into Episcopal liturgy.

    • Hello to my praying chaplain friend! Sometimes we need freshness. Sometimes we suffer from too much of it. There are places seem to be endlessly experimenting with new theology (rather than new ways of presenting the “old, old story”). …And then there are the folk who want to give us Episcopalians a new prayer book.

        • Thanks for that thought, Raymond. It strikes me as fascinating that various people can follow Jesus, and do similar God-things, regardless of the liturgy. (Or, lack thereof.) I have worshiped in a number of different settings, in a number of different styles. Yes, I am a classically trained pianist, with an undergraduate degree in church music. So, yes. I can relate strongly to your acquaintance who was distracted by the “other” music in the worship service.

          Yet, how much of worship is trappings, and window-dressing? And, how much is God-stuff, and following Jesus, doing God-things?

          I am now a small church pastor (and still identify as a chaplain–all pastoral care, all the time–thus my Twitter handle). However, being raised in a high church/devout Lutheran setting, liturgy is integral to my worship experience. (Not necessary, but important.) And, I don my black robe each Sunday, wearing a stole to suit the liturgical season. Black, partially because my tradition says so. Partially because I relate so strongly to the office of pastor/teacher I hold. Yes, I could wear a white alb as pastor in the UCC. But, prefer the black robe for a host of reasons.

          And, yes. I also follow after Jesus, and try to be faithful in doing the God-things Jesus modeled for me. (Great jumping off point for my ponderings!) @chaplaineliza

          • Some of us can handle input from numerous channels; others of us need only one channel or we crater. Some of us are incredibly sensitive to outside “static.” I noticed myself that way in my own congregation as the musicians made music background during prayers. I could not give “total attention” to God and bounced back and forth. May just be me.

            I’ve worked in several kinds of employment. College physics lab teacher when getting the right courses to enter Seminary. While arrived there, to support us wife was a school teacher and I worked as a geophysicist. Pastor of smaller then larger churches. As a congregation grew, I discovered there is far more opportunity for the growth of “the evil that lurks in the hearts of men.”

            Hospital Chaplaincy for 16 years specializing in Psychiatry. College of Medicine dubbed me part of their volunteer faculty teaching “Religion and spirituality in medical practice.” During that phase of life for several years also saw 8-10 patients weekly for individual or family therapy. I did not do couple therapy. One of my agnostic colleagues dubbed my work as psychology of religion.

            Retired now. I find new learnings daily in the strangest place. I still claim my faith tradition as Baptist although have many differences with mainstream. Suppose I am more of a layman than a minister although was pastor for two decades.

            I have moved through a number of phases of faith that Fowler discovered in his research on “Stages of Faith.” An interesting study. I find that often the laity in our conservative churches are more open to dialogue about personal spiritual growth. Numbers of church ministers are convinced they are “Right” doing the party line for congregational growth. I find deeper sense of purpose working with medical students, mental health professionals, and psychiatric resident physicians.

            My point: each of us has opportunity to move through stages of faith (ala Fowler.) Some do, others fixate at a comfortable stage. The latter often conclude belief systems different from their own may be leaning toward heresy.

            For years I’ve listened to the beat of a different drum. “Witchdoctors and Psychiatrists” by E. Fuller Torrey, MD reveals a number of similarities of the two professions. Might even apply to ministers.

  3. Hypothetical question: Is a song in the style of “Hit the Quan” appropriate for worship? By the way, we do contemporary music in the SJD “traditional service” all the time (not just the “praise song” during communion), even some of the Psalm chants are very new. Also we frequently perform music by composers who are still alive such as John Rutter and Bob Chilcott. They are recently composed and very “fresh”. Rutter likes to incorporate jazz harmonies, for example. Anyway, Marva Dawn has an excellent analysis of what music is appropriate for worship in her book A Royal Waste of Time.

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