A Beautiful Mess: Can worship be contemporary AND liturgical?

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“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.

Changing your church: The difference between attractive and bizarre

 

photo credit: oddee.com

photo credit: oddee.com

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I had a great case of teenage acne. My doctor prescribed one tetraclycline tablet per day to clear up my skin. It worked; my skin began to clear up. A big dance was on the horizon, though, and I wanted to ask a girl that I found to be particularly fetching. In my internal dialogue I wished my face looked better before I stood before this beautiful thing to ask her out. I thought, “If some tetracycline is making my face better, a bunch of tetracycline would make it much better. What I didn’t realize was that too much of a good thing has some pretty ugly side effects – such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and my skin turning yellow.

In his old book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes the unintuitive fact that the difference between abject failure and runaway success is razor-thin. Gladwell powerful articulates that success is not additive but multiplicative-like a flu epidemic. He gives a dozen cases of small ideas that became iconic (like Sesame Street, Gore-Tex, and Hush Puppy shoes to name a few) when they “tipped.” He exposes the small tweaks that were key to getting diseases, social trends, events, and companies to “tip.” We have much to learn from Gladwell in the church – in particular his genius for mining data for what is actually there rather what we expect to see there.

Another area we could use Gladwell’s help with in the Episcopal Church: The razor thin difference between being attractive and being off-putting for the majority of seekers. Both involve change. But one change creates a fragrant aroma that draws you in. The other is a bridge too far. One is like cookies baking in the oven. The other like someone forgot to take out the trash. The first makes one interested in stepping further in. The other repulses.

Here is the principle that stands between the two: one standard deviation from the expected makes something attractive. Two standard deviations makes it bizarre. As an example, young men right now are really into big ol’ lumberjack beards and mustaches. But when one does what the fellow in the photo at the top of this post does with it, it is one standard deviation too far. It goes from attractive to bizarre.

You can see this in churches: A church that changes its music or preaching grows wildly. Change them both to something that runs counter to the expectations, and you become a bridge too far and are preaching to an empty room. You can become a socially engaged evangelical church (like Mission Community in Queen Creek, AZ) and explode, or liturgically evangelical (like New City in downtown Phoenix). Do both at the same time and it closes the front door rather than opening it.

You can see this in seminaries: A seminary that teaches the standard, expected evangelicalism starts an “Anglican Formation” program. These have become the fastest growing programs at more than a dozen evangelical seminaries across the country, while our seminaries continue to struggle for students. Why? One reason is that our seminaries tend to teach experimental theologies, community organizing, and a minimum of the expected biblical languages, scriptural foundations, and exegesis courses. We are two or three standard deviations past “attractive.” This makes our seminaries “scary” to gifted but unaffiliated students.

In another example, I started a church that had a difficult time generating momentum for a host of reasons. One significant issue was trying too many things at once. We were multi-ethnic and liturgical. Either one of those was attractive in our context. But being both liturgical and tri-ethnic in our leadership teams was a very difficult balance that kept many who were game for either/or but not both away from us. In addition, we had a third deviation from the norm: we were in a neighborhood of immigrants who had never heard of the Episcopal Church. And a fourth: We were a training ground for young adults in leadership, so our service quality was pretty uneven. Being “different” made people want to come. But we were often a too different for folks.

The church often gets lured into the fallacy that more of something successful is better. “Progressive politics helped us, so lets have progressive liturgies, and progressive theology.” (You could very easily substitute the word “conservative” here. Or most any other word, for that matter.) How do we avoid becoming bizarre?

Take aways:

-Ask good questions.

-Listen to both what those who are and those who are not visiting your church are saying.

-Know your culture.

-Ask the question, “What do we offer the body of Christ that is unique to this place and time?

-And don’t get lured into thinking that if a little of something works, a lot of that something is even better. More isn’t always better.

 

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