"There will be a historian in the year 2050 who will be writing a book on the history of Christian worship from 1970 to 2006," said John Witvliet, "who will pay a lot of money for the tape of today's session."

The session—a day-long seminar entitled "The Last Thirty Years: What We've Learned Along the Way" to kick off the Calvin Symposium on Worship last week—showed that the topic was more than a historical curiosity. The most visible changes in North American Christianity over the last three decades have been changes in worship practices. And, as Witvliet observed to open the session, simplistic assumptions that these changes represent unrelieved decline or undiluted progress risk breeding "despair on the one hand or overconfidence on the other—despair that makes it difficult to see what God is doing in the church today, or overconfidence that can lead to a kind of blindness to other ways God may be at work." Such attitudes, in turn, shape churches' ministry in everything from worship planning meetings to outreach programs.

"We hope today we are able to steer between overconfidence and despair, and to see the complexity of North American Christianity in a fresh way," Witvliet said.

The panel sounded like a recipe: one Roman Catholic scholar (Joyce Zimmerman), one Orthodox Presbyterian historian (Larry Sibley), one president of an African Methodist Episcopal Zion seminary with roots in the United Methodist church (Albert Aymer), one reputable practitioner of "spiritual theology" (Eugene Peterson), one pastor from the seminal megachurch Willow Creek (Nancy Beach), and the leading spokesperson of the Emergent church movement (Brian McLaren).

Mix, stir, and what you find is that while approaches toward worship differ ...

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