Pop-Rock Worship: Making the gospel both familiar and strange

Four Bearded Guys: the Texan, the Crowder, the Stranger, the Man.

(This is part two of a three-part blog entry on a consultation that took place at Calvin College, May 19-21, 2014. See part one here; part three here. The following is one half of a brief reflection I offered to the group on the last morning of our gathering. These thoughts are in rough draft form and were scribbled out just before our session. At some point in the future I'll want to make more of them, but here they are, as is, for now. And, yes, it was a very bearded affair.)

The first thing I wish to say is that each of you is doing good work for which you should be commended and honored. Thank you for persevering in the face of difficult circumstances. Thank you for not giving up, on us, the church, or on the task at hand. Thank you for your faithful labors which perhaps have not always borne visible or quantifiable fruit. Thank you for being willing to try something new and for trusting God at times when that has felt nearly impossible.

As I think of a way to distill the conversations of the past couple of days, a phrase from former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, comes to mind. In a small but densely rich book on the work of reading church history, titled, Why Study the Past?: The Quest for the Historical Church, Williams proposes that the task of a good historian is to discover history, for the reader, as both familiar and strange.

A good historian by this measure avoids seeing history as utterly strange (and therefore having nothing to do with our contemporary selves) or as utterly familiar (and therefore turned into an mere image of ourselves). Conversely, a poor reading of history fails to see our points of continuity and discontinuity with the past—how very much we are formed and influenced by our forebears and how we have, in fact, ventured into new places and experiences.

Towards the middle of the book Williams observes that public worship is an important context for making our life as the Body of Christ both strange and familiar. Applied to our discussions this week, I would like to suggest the following.

While in the Psalter, as Israel’s hymnal, we encounter the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob made both familiar and strange to us, it is in the gospel accounts that we encounter the God of Jesus Christ made even more familiar, even more strange than we ever dared to imagine. Here we encounter an intimate and familial knowledge of God: God as Father, Jesus as our Brother, the Holy Spirit as the abiding Presence.

Here we encounter also the strangeness of God all over again. To paraphrase Bonhoeffer, from a sermon which he preached on the Trinity, on May 27, 1934:

The more we come to know this God, the more mysterious he becomes for us. It is not the God who is furthest away from us who is the biggest mystery, but rather the God who is nearest us in the Spirit of Jesus Christ."

This is equally true, of course, of ourselves: the more we know this God and are known by this God, the more we come to know our true selves as far more familiar and far more strange than we ever thought possible.

To apply this idea to the topic of our consultation: In what ways does pop-rock worship enable the gospel to become both familiar and strange to us? In what way does this particular form of worship, with all its common characteristics and different permutations, enable the church to encounter the familiarity and strangeness of our triune God?

Let me offer three possibilities: with respect to the created realm, the church, and the work of discipleship.

1.     CREATION: if God has vested creation with a near infinite possibility of sounds and combinations of sounds, and provided these as an expression of his love for creation and for the human creature, then in what ways does pop-rock worship music represent a gift to the church?

In what ways might worship leaders give voice to creation’s praise and let these distinctive pop-rock sounds in creation become caught up in the praise of God’s people, and vice versa perhaps?

More specifically: What musical capacities does pop-rock open up for the church’s worship and what does it close down? 

What biblical narratives does it enable the church’s worship to accent? What theological realities might it focus for us? What liturgical activities could it facilitate? What relational dynamics does it forge and what missional inertias will it more likely generate than others?

Matt Boswell, Miranda Dodson and myself.

Myself, Andy Piercy, Latifah Phillips, Graham Kendrick.


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