"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 profoundly throughout American Christianity, there are profound commonalities as well.

Zimmerman reminded the room of nearly 200 attendees that attitudes toward change are as complex in Catholicism as they are in Protestantism, ever since Vatican II charted a course for renewal in the 1960s. "We have had adaptation in worship, but very little real renewal," Zimmerman said. McLaren said that in the church he pastors, worship has gone from being oriented toward individual experience and evangelism to embodying a more holistic mission, including "the formation of real disciples" and "concern for justice." Peterson said he's "always been very local; I don't have a big picture," and emphasized that worship has to reflect the unique character of each congregation.

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Sibley traced the history of Presbyterian worship to the Geneva liturgy of the 16th century but noted the influence of the American free church tradition. "Presbyterians seem to be recovering frontier revivalists," Sibley said. "We're in the midst of this movement either to deepen the frontier tradition or find ourselves back in the Geneva tradition." Beach traced Willow Creek's own progression over its 30-year history, and said that Sunday morning seeker-oriented worship has become less distinct from Wednesday night worship for believers.

Aymer's statements may have summed up the cautious optimism of the panel as a whole. While sparing no critique, Aymer identified what he called "five hopeful signs" in worship changes over the last 30 years:

  1. "the revising of the liturgy in such a manner that makes liturgy intelligible and meaningful to worshipers yet preserves historical heritages." Aymer said that while he sometimes tells his students, "you all conduct worship as if worship started last week," overall, meaningful and historically faithful liturgical renewal has taken place in the last three decades.

  2. "the introduction of new and meaningful songs." Aymer said that while some worship music has taken a turn toward the spiritually shallow, "I'm talking about those new songs that are really well thought out, grounded solidly in the tenets of our faith, because that is the legacy that we will pass on."

  3. "the more meaningful involvement of the laity in worship." Too often, laity are not trained or prepared for their role in worship, Aymer said, but the exceptions are encouraging.

  4. "We are recapturing the awesomeness of the conduct of the sacraments; they are no longer perfunctory and ordinary and casual."

  5. the building of a "bridge in worship the contemporary with the traditional, ancient cultures with modern culture; we don't have to negate the one in order to observe the other."

As the day ended with a discussion of the most important virtues, resources, and theological convictions for the next 30 years of worship, Beach commented, "I can't say enough about this kind of gathering, because I think one of the most important virtues that we could walk out of here with [is] humility and grace towards one another. I see too many Christians shooting their own, and I don't understand that."

Beach added that we all must confess "when we make judgments we don't know enough about. We need to believe the best about each other."

Nathan Biermais communications and research coordinator for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and writes the weekly "On Language" column for the Chicago Tribune. His first book, Bringing Heaven Down To Earth: Connecting This Life To The Next, has just been released by P&R Publishing.

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