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Leadership today's people into God's presence.
Spring 1999


Post-Contemporary Worship

Worship forms have changed dramatically in this generation.

What should we be prepared for as boomers age and yet another generation makes its mark? Daniel Harrell, who has led innovative efforts to reach young adults at historic Park Street Church in Boston, suggests the hints on the horizon.

Last fall I attended a conference sponsored by Leadership Network that focused on the "post-modern reformation." We looked at issues related to Generations "X" and "Y." Worship times were led by teams from "post-modern" congregations.

Entering the chapel, the room was dark except for the dim flicker of dozens of carefully placed candles. The screen above the stage displayed an image of an Orthodox icon of Christ. The mood was somber yet expectant. All that was missing was a waft of incense.

The electric guitar and percussion-laden worship band struck up a surprisingly gloomy tune and invited those gathered to rise and praise God—a stark contrast to the upbeat tones typical of most contemporary worship services.

An older man leaned over to me and asked, "What is all this witchy-poo stuff?" I had to laugh as I imagined the coronaries that such an approach would have elicited at my church.

It was easy to be cynical. Yet by the end of the conference, despite the skepticism, many claimed to have met with God.

Blending the traditions

The services, one conducted by a church from Seattle called Mars Hill Fellowship and another by Pathways Church near Denver, were similar. Both revealed the latest "cutting edge" of worship, a style rife with irony:

Alternative rock proliferates in an atmosphere conducive to Gregorian chant.

Candlelight illumines the sanctuary while high-tech LCDprojectors display poetic song lyrics and glimpses of medieval art (downloaded from the Internet).

Denim-clad worship leaders address God in King James language ("Thy, Thou, Thine").

Seeker-sensitive worship leaves
many young people longing for mystery.

Wine is served from common cups during Communion alongside grape juice.

Liturgical snippets borrowed from Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy entwine with Protestant pietism and charismatic fervency. Some dance while others kneel.

The practice of community is highly encouraged (through group prayer) alongside the practice of silence.

In accordance with post-modern form, there are no rules. Anything is allowed provided it feels "authentic."

Reaction to stripped-down faith

If this conference was any indication, the post-modern reformation (especially in regard to worship) is gathering steam.

Calvin College's John Witvliet asserts in a recent Books & Culturearticle, "With the possible exception of the first centuries after Christ, never before has the church been reforming its liturgy [worship practice] in so many directions at once."

The catalyst for much of this materialized in the 1980s as a movement within evangelical Protestantism replaced "traditional" forms with forms attempting to eliminate church-constructed obstacles to God. Such obstacles were identified as arcane practices (formal liturgy and language), architecture (ornate sanctuaries and wooden pews), music (played by organs and sung by choirs) as well as enigmatic symbols not readily interpreted and understood by those with no church background (crosses, vestments, colors).

This was done in order to remove inherent religious ambiguity for the sake of evangelistic clarity. It featured a basic gospel message in easy-to-understand cultural vernacular with a recommitment to excellence. Many churches witnessed resurgence in attendance and congregational life as a result.

Surprisingly, from the standpoint of younger generations, this new "seeker-sensitive" version of Christian worship left many longing for some of those things that had been identified as obstacles. Is this "younger hunger" spiritual in nature or simply a function of adolescent rebelliousness deliberately seeking contrary expression? Probably a bit of both. Whatever the reason, many younger leaders are turning from seeker-sensitive forms toward recapturing ambiguityand antiquity.

Ambiguity makes room for both awareness and unawareness of God to exist simultaneously. Given that God is by nature infinite, even knowing everything there is to know about Him leaves infinitely more to discover. That God remains veiled in mystery enhances awe and humbles any spiritual pride. Thus worship in this vein concentrates less on trying to understand God and more on encountering Him.

Tolerance of ambiguity influences preaching as exhortation takes priority over education, and passion proves more persuasive than reason. The most effective sermons for this generation are those that seek to convict rather than convince; that challenge people to act rather than simply expand their knowledge base.

Tolerance of ambiguity shows up in other ways, too. The assumption seems to be that no one denomination or tradition has it exactly right. Everyone needs to learn from each other. Liturgical expressions that have been rehearsed for centuries—whether borrowed from Canterbury, Rome, or Constantinople—are seen as providing needed maturity as well as a connection to the faith of the church historical. High church traditions and their preserved links to ancient church practice maintain mystery and ambiguity. Consequently, crosses, icons, candles, and colors are dusted off and returned to center stage. Their proven constancy as metaphors for Christian truth amid cultural change lend depth and meaning. The sense seems to be that anything that has persisted over such a long stretch of time must be important.

Joining authority and authenticity

This brings us to the theme of authenticity, the ultimate measuring stick of this reformation. Every reformation of Christian worship strives to be an authentic expression of the church's relationship with God. However, unlike previous worship reforms that generally stressed authenticity in terms of spoken words conforming to truth (grounded in Scripture), the focus now is on authenticity of religious experience: "it's got to feel real."

This should not be construed as merely an episode of positive, subjective feelings, but as an unmistakable engagement with the numinous—the self-validating presence of God in the midst of his gathered people. This does not replace the primacy of Scripture, but it is viewed as an essential companion.

Much of what I witnessed at the conference I have seen firsthand in our church in New England. Attendance was dismal in our traditional evening service seven years ago, and we eventually adopted a seeker-sensitive strategy one night per month and saw immediate results. Attendance nearly tripled. After five years, however, we began to witness a waning willingness to invite friends to church on those outreach-centered nights.

People claimed that the seeker experience was too different from the one they knew as believers on the three other Sunday nights of the month. They appreciated the attempt to demonstrate the applicability of Christianity to modern life, but for them it wasn't church (the very thing they had invited their friends to in the first place).

So we reexamined the whole thing and concluded that our critics had a point. In our zealousness to reach out with relevance, we unintentionally hid the gospel by cloaking it in cultural attire. Fearing offense, we had domesticated the radical character of Jesus' life and words, depriving our message of its force.

So we set aside our seeker strategy and intensified our eclectic style of Anglo-Catholic liturgical cues, Pentecostal rock-n-roll rhythms, high-tech segues, Reformed preaching, and Quaker collectiveness (both the silent and participatory varieties), all within the confines of a 200-year old Congregational meeting house. Attendance jumped again.

Whether these are just isolated incidents or a trend—it's too early to tell.

As a good Congregationalist, I fully expect the Holy Spirit to vitally and actively form, inform, and reform my relationship with God as I stand before him in the company of his praising people. Regrettably, there continue those in the hunt only for the latest worship fad.

I sat in on one workshop at the conference where a pastor simply wanted to know how he could find "his own worship edge." As if he desired only for others to think his church was cool. He forgot, I'm afraid, that however we worship, the most important audience remains the Triune God.

Daniel Harrellis associate pastor at Park Street Church
1 Park St.
Boston MA 02108

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