Five questions about contemporary worship (Part II)

Miró's Chicago (April 21, 1981)

This is part two of a two-part blog post. See part one here: "Five Trends in Contemporary Worship." See 10 Theses on Christian Worship here. (And if you're really curious, here is Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Four of another series I wrote on contemporary worship songwriters.)

Five questions we might do well to keep asking: 

1. With regard to the worship arts, how might the arts serve the purposes of corporate worship in their own way but not on their own terms? 

You've heard me say this before, and I continue to think that it's a central question for contemporary worship leaders to understand carefully the "logic" of any given art medium in relation the "logic" of any given liturgical action.

2. How do we biblically and theologically understand the notion of "togetherness"? 

The history of Christian worship could be written as one long, high-strung answer to this question. Consider it a free dissertation topic to any willing soul. What, then, are all the different ways in which people might participate together in a corporate act of worship? What are poorer ways in which this might be done? What places in Scripture might show us togetherness in action? And how we might these sorts of togetherness enrich our participation in corporate worship?

This issue, for example, bumps into our understanding of congregational singing, choir-singing, cantor-led-singing, instrumental music, "singing in the Spirit," singing in non-native languages, other art media besides music and so forth, where one or the other has been found wanting in its capacity to promote faithful togetherness.

3. What would it look like if worship leaders, pastors, scholars and artists, including people of all ages and stations of life, worked collaborative on behalf of new worship material? 

If the Anglican pastor John Stott, for example, could pull together a team of lay Christians to help him think through his sermons, might there be a similar practice for pastors, songwriters, scholars, artists and worship leaders? Could we envision a shared responsibility for crafting and leading our worship?

What does it look like to apprentice ourselves, as artists and worship leaders, to the exemplars in church history, to befriend, that is, the saints long gone but still present to us in their faithful witness? How do we begin to take advantage of the storehouse of wisdom which is on offer in church tradition?

Lastly, what might it look like to pursue intentional friendship with worship leaders and artists across ecclesial lines? How might our life of worship be enriched if we shared meals and good conversations with folks who might be "doing worship" differently?

4. What are the implications of regarding corporate worship chiefly as an act of discipleship? 

If discipleship entails disciplines, what sorts of disciplines do we want to acquire to be "good" worshipers and worship leaders?

If discipleship entails maturation, growth and growing up, and the learning of new things (ideas, skills, dispositions, actions), how does a worship leader model this sort of maturing process and how might he or she help a group/congregation continue to grow and learn and mature, even while respecting the "mother tongue" or "primary culture" of that group?

If corporate worship is thought chiefly as an act of discipleship, then it goes without saying that a community will experience both continuity and discontinuity over time, and a worship leader will need to discern carefully when to stretch a congregation and when to hold back, and not to forget that both are essential to "growing into the fullness of Christ."

It also bears mentioning that the responsibility for a community's growth in worship does not rest solely on one person. Allow me to say that more specifically: the responsibility for a church's discipleship by way of its worship must not be placed on the shoulders of the musical worship leader alone. It is a shared responsibility, primarily and finally by the senior leadership, but also by the community as a whole. It is on this issue, unfortunately, that congregations frequently break down.

5. If the whole of Scripture bears witness to the whole work of God, to create, reconcile, redeem and recreate the world in which we live out our various vocations, what implications ought that to have for Christian worship?  

The question, to my mind, along these lines is, What do we mean when we say that worship ought to be in "accord" with Scripture?

It all, of course, hangs on how we construe accord, which in turn hangs on the grounds that inform our answer: our understanding of the Old Testament's relationship to the New Testament; the texts which we privilege as determinative of other texts as they relate to worship practices; the relative role that church tradition plays in shaping our reading of Scripture and our corporate patterns of worship; our exegetical habits, in particular how we read texts as either normative or descriptive for Christian worship; and the cultural, experiential and pastoral concerns which press us in one direction over another.

To say that corporate worship should accord with Scripture is something that the Cappadocian Fathers, R.C. Sproul, Isaac Watts, Chris Tomlin, Aidan Kavanagh, Darlene Zschech and John Zizioulas would all agree to. What they won't all agree to is what they mean by accord. But it's certainly a conversation worth having.

Georgia O'Keffe, "Black Cross, New Mexico, 1929"


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