Part two of two parts; click here to read part one.
But there are no gimmicks. Priestly leadership is not a set of learned theatrical skills. As pastor-priest, we bring to the congregation the glory of our encounter with God. Having spent long, enduring time in the Lord's presence, we speak to our congregations out of those encounters. As I think carefully how I translate the elements of this encounter to my people, I create forms that express where I have been. A friend described to me his experience worshiping at All Souls Church in London when John Stott was preaching. For the entire service until the sermon, Stott was on his knees in prayer. And then when he spoke, he brought to his leadership the freshness of being in God's presence.
Evangelical exhortation and ethics now demand a supplement through worship that facilitates divine encounter. It must evoke deeper mysteries. It must lift us. And as we worship, liturgists and leaders become a priesthood, mediating God, showing the depth of their own experiences, radiating God's glory, pointing weary souls heavenward.
But I think there is another element to this worship experience that cannot be missed. Our evangelical tradition has taught us to champion spontaneity and to make a virtue out of informality. Some of us are sure that God cannot hear written prayers. Corporately spoken creeds, prayers, and liturgies stifle us and the Lord, or so the argument runs.
Here I have again changed my mind. Yes, there are liturgies that are memorized and meaningless. But what I have in mind are repetitive speech-forms that accompany every service. That is, when I introduce worship, when I offer the Eucharist, when I baptize, even when I bury, I employ familiar, dignified forms that evoke a history and an importance among my listeners.
I have noticed, for instance, that both the marginally churched and the faithful Christian want to hear the Twenty-third Psalm recited at a funeral and 1 Corinthians 13 at a wedding and the hymn "Amazing Grace" sung at thresholds of crisis. There is something reassuring in this recitation of old things, something that links us with history and tradition. It is like holding a book well worn by your grandparents' fingers. In some mysterious way, we feel strengthened.
I recall a pastor who created his own liturgy for every infant baptism. He would hold the child aloft and introduce him or her to the congregation, saying, "This is your new family." But then he would begin to recite an artful, dignified paragraph about this child's vulnerability and God's love. He spoke about how God loves us before we are even able to know him, before we can see beyond our own fingers. He recited this verbatim for every baptism, and each time it sounded as if it was his first time. Imagine the wedding of imagery and theology here! People looked forward to these baptisms, for they spoke not just of cute babies, but of us, our vulnerability and our near-sightedness, and God's redeeming, forgiving love.
The same is true for benedictions. Recitation is a reminder of what is profound and important. Recitation assures us that we are where we should be. Recitation carries us with familiarity when sometimes we cannot carry ourselves.
I started a tradition in one of my theology classes that now won't die. I learned that our students had never heard of Israel's great Shema Isra'el: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" (Deut. 6:4-5). So we began reciting it in Hebrew at the start of each class period. At first they thought it was odd. Then they knew that they had inherited it. And then they would not let me begin class without it. Was it novelty? Not by the twelfth week. It set the rhythm, it moored us theologically, it centered us in a tradition as old as Moses.
My students and colleagues are
looking for worship that weds
dignity and spontaneity, worship
that is theologically informed
and liturgically intentional.
I also see it on the faces of students when I lead them on trips to Israel. When we stand near the Sea of Galilee and recite the Beatitudes near where Jesus said them, I am anchoring them. I am giving them a treasure, a gift of vision and sound to which they may turn in memory for many years. I also prepare them in advance. Perhaps I will have them memorize the Twenty-third Psalm and then hold it in abeyance until they enter the desert, only there to recite it alone as biblical shepherds often did. To sit in the desert, to feel the jeopardy of a sheep in the wilderness, and to recite an ancient hymn of God's provision is to cultivate divine words that will serve for life.
Therefore, my plea is for worship that becomes familiar but not trite, that employs dignified language but is not stilted, language that is planned but is not mechanical. As a child, I grew up in a Lutheran tradition that still stays with me today. After 40 years I can still recall the melodies of the liturgies, the cadence of the Nicene Creed, even portions of the set Eucharistic prayers. When I have little else to fall back on, these deep-set foundations become my security. Evangelical worship must begin building immovable foundations.
All of thisworship that is a divine encounter, pastors with priestly skills, language that is liturgically richmeans that we build a service that is centered on God rather than the human community. This sort of worship does not merely tell people about God, it invites them to meet and engage God in his presence. This worship makes us less aware of the people sitting nearby and more aware of God who is above. Above all, this worship is creative as it permits men, women, and children to express themselves through their giftedness. And it employs numerous avenues of expression: from creative use of sound to expressive uses of color and movement. But the aim is never to entertain or inspire the congregation. The aim is worship with abandon, worship that solicits no spectators.
My students and colleagues are looking for worship that weds dignity and spontaneity, worship that is theologically informed and liturgically intentional. My students and friends are migrating to new spiritual homes. They are looking for pastors who can be priests, liturgists who can evoke the divine Word and vision, worship services that do not push them into the world merely to be better Christians, but services that become a divine refugea divine encounter that lifts their lives and souls to an entirely new plateau. And to that I say amen.
Gary M. Burge's most recent book is The NIV Application Commentary on the Epistles of John (Zondervan, 1996).
SIDEBAR: Beyond the Battle for the Organ
Robert Webber calls a truce to the 'worship wars.'
by Richard A. Kauffman
Call it the 30-year wars. Ever since the 1960s, churches in North America have been struggling over worship. The battles have been over style of music and use of nontraditional instruments, freer versus more fixed forms of worship, and even the reintroduction of ancient liturgies. Some churches have tried to bring peace by holding two services, one traditional and the other contemporary. But this tends to divide a congregation in two, sometimes along generational lines, each of which really needs the influence of the other. And it can be a way of mere conflict avoidance. According to Marva Dawn, "the war between 'traditionalists' and those who advocate 'contemporary' styles often becomes a subtle battle for power rather than a communitarian conversation that could result in a blending of the old and the new treasures to be found in the Word and in music" (Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, p. 53).
Onto the battlefield marches Robert E. Webber, professor of theology at Wheaton College for 30 years, prolific writer, and the guru of what he calls "blended worship," a convergence of traditional and contemporary forms. Webber is not brandishing weapons of war, however, but waving a white flag, calling all sides of the conflict to a truce.
Since 1995, this Bob Jones University grad turned Episcopalian has traversed the land, giving his "Renew Your Worship" workshop over 100 times52 times in 1997 alonepreaching the good news about blended worship. (By 1999 he plans to have covered all major cities in the United States and Canada.) He has found church leaders eager for direction.
These workshops, he claims, are not just about worship. "I have the conviction that worship is the key to the renewal of the church," says Webber. He also perceives a deeper revolution in Protestant worship than the debate over traditional and contemporary forms. "Ten years ago, when Christians moved into town they asked, 'Where's the best preaching?'" he says. "Today, when they come to town they say, 'Where's the best worship?'"
The older, traditional style, especially in free and evangelical churches, Webber explains, tended to be pedagogical. The sermon, which was either didactic or evangelistic, was the focal point. The approach was performance oriented: certain persons (the pastor, the choir, the organist) performed for the congregation, which was largely passive. Blended worship aims toward the participation of all the people by using a proclamation/response format. Blended worship, in Webber's mold, attempts to strike a balance between emphasizing the mystery and awe we feel in relation to God's transcendence and the relational intimacy we feel with God's immanence.
Blended worship is not intended as a hodgepodge of the old and the new (although some charge Webber is not discriminating enough in choosing what he "blends"). Yet Webber is critical of a consumer-oriented approach to worship that attempts merely to satisfy the aesthetic tastes of a particular audience.
To be faithful to Scripture and to the early Christian patterns of worship, he maintains there are three aspects of worship that must be considered: content (the gospel), structure (the order and forms of worship), and style (the particular cultural forms in which worship finds expression).
The content of worship is the nonnegotiable aspect, which focuses upon God's acts of redemption in history, from Creation to re-creation, especially the liberation of the people of Israel and their covenant relationship with God, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Webber likes to talk about worship as "the gospel in motion." It is event oriented: we remember, proclaim, enact, and celebrate the mighty deeds of God in the past that were for our salvation.
For structure, Webber draws upon a simple fourfold pattern that he detects in early Christian worship: gathering (we joyfully enter into the presence of God), Word (proclamation in which we hear God speak), Eucharist (we respond with thanksgiving), and dismissal (we are sent out to love and serve others). Word and Table are the centerpieces of worship. And whereas he advocates greater prominence of the Eucharist than is typical of many churches, Webber recognizes that some traditions simply are not going to celebrate the Lord's Supper every Sunday. For them, he suggests alternative ways to respond with thanksgiving to the reading, telling, and proclamation of the Word.
The style of worship varies according to cultural context. It can be as different as singing Gregorian chants or an Ira Sankey gospel song, or hearing the Word proclaimed through an expository sermon or re-enacted through a modern drama. Style is really what all the fuss has been about in worship, and much of that has been about the music we use.
Webber looks for consensus at a deeper level, no matter the worship tradition, a consensus rooted in the proclamation, enactment, and celebration of the gospel, using the fourfold pattern of gathering, Word, sacrament, and dismissal. Only when content and structure are settled can we then talk about style, which is ultimately up to each group. Though Webber believes that a blending of styles is needed in our pluralistic culture, he cautions against forcing a particular style upon people.
Whatever the styleor even order of worshipwe would do well to put our worship to Marva Dawn's threefold test: Does it glorify God, build up the body of Christ, and nurture us for God's mission in the world? Anything else would be less than worthy of the worship due our God and necessary for our faithful discipleship.
Further resources on blended worship
Marva Dawn, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-Century Church (Eerdmans, 1995). Dawn provides an interesting counterpart to Webber. She engages in more cultural analysis, not viewing culture as benignly as Webber, and highlights what is essential to worship: that which puts God at the center, builds believers' character, and upbuilds the community of faith.
Robert Webber, Blended Worship: Achieving Substance and Relevance in Worship (Hendrickson, 1994, 1996). The primer for people interested in the basics of blended worship. Chatty, anecdotal, very readable.
Webber, editor, The Complete Library of Christian Worship (Hendrickson, 1993, 1994). This seven-volume encyclopedia deals with a breadth of issues related to worship. Written simply and organized topically (rather than alphabetically), it provides foundational materials (biblical and historical) and practical aids to worship.
Webber, et al., Renew! Songs and Hymns for Blended Worship (Hope, 1995). This hymnbook is organized according to the fourfold pattern of worship and includes both traditional and contemporary music. Available in two editions, a paperback for singers and a spiral-bound one for accompanists.
Webber, Worship Old and New: A Biblical, Historical, and Practical Introduction, revised edition (Zondervan, 1994). This volume covers much the same territory as Blended Worship, but with more depth, especially on the biblical and historical roots of Christian worship.
Persons interested in attending one of Webber's one-day, Renew Your Worship workshops should write to Box 894, Wheaton, IL 60189.
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