How & Why to Worship God
What is the common thread you've observed most in the American Church today related to worshipping God? And, what in your opinion should the worshipper expect from the Church to make his or her worship experience more authentic and relevant to their lives and more honoring to God?
(Response by Dr. Sally Morganthauler)
The contemporary, late twentieth century church developed prototype ministry into an art form. (Prototype ministry: ministry designed for a specific cultural profile or stereotype vs. ministry designed for actual people.) We know prototype ministry best as church targeting…ministry oriented to the dominant people group in an area (most usually, the people group most like the core leadership of a congregation).
Based on the concept of affinity (grouping people according to lifestyle, economic status, age, and ethnicity), prototype ministry has proven helpful in jumpstarting communities where people need the initial safety of sameness. Unfortunately, prototype ministry has severe limitations in establishing long-term, self-perpetuating communities. (In sociological terms, those that are connective across a multiplicity of affinities.)
Jesus came in human form and ministered to people in all their specificity: prostitutes, Pharisees, lepers, centurions, tax collectors, old and young, male and female, slave and free, rich and poor. How can we do any less?
Historically, human beings are drawn beyond homogeneity to diversity, which is why long-standing, one-dimensional cultures are rare. Eventually, narrowly defined communities implode upon themselves. (Think George Orwell's, Animal Farm, and you get the picture.)
The incapability of the contemporary church to move from homogeneity to diversity is, frankly, its biggest hindrance as it wakes up to an exponentially diversifying culture. Nowhere is this self-imposed handicap more visible than in worship. There is a numbing uniformity to late twentieth century styled services, a predictability and cultural incongruity rivaling any lockstep, mainline liturgy of the mid-twentieth century. With only a few alterations in sequence, the contemporary liturgy (again, contemporary is not to be confused with relevant) follows the same routine nationwide: walk-in music, an enforced-happy welcome, vaudevillian-styled announcements, a twenty minute praise set, special music, message, prayer, offering/song, and a see-you-next-week dismissal.
(If it's a service focused more on seekers, add a drama and cut the praise singing and prayer to bare minimum.) Mirroring the non-descript landscape of late twentieth century suburbia, the contemporary worship space is intentionally generic: off-white, bare walls; worship team outfits; visually predominant technology (wires, screen, sound systems, monitors, speakers, etc.); standardized power point backgrounds; and an absence of all symbols save one: the ubiquitous church logo.
Contrast this weekly mantra of standardization with the 2002 Winter Olympics and one begins to glimpse how far our cutting edge churches actually are from edge. The Salt Lake City experience was tribalism - a celebration of the oh-so-particular - on a grand scale. Ute Indian songs segued effortlessly into the strains of Sting, techno, and the ethereal intonations of a Russian choir. Meantime, the crowd became the locus of the action, wielding everything from multi-colored sheets to flashlights and glow sticks.
In the arena, skaters carved out visual prayer on ice, their lanterns and flowing costumes weaving a tapestry of transcendence and hope. This was anything but generic, as far from homogenous as a public event could possibly get. Yet, these world celebrations were intensely communal and unifying, a veritable symphony of diversity played out night after night. Here were the stories of nations and of nations within nations being told - musically, dramatically, visually - in all their glorious particularity. And, to tell the truth, we relished the departure from the typical Hollywood, American fare.
If there is a call to the American contemporary Church, it is a call back to particularity: the lost, tribal paradigm that Harrisonburg, Virginia and Bend, Oregon have been carved out by distinct histories, narratives, songs, and shared rituals. Not only that, but that each citizen of Harrisonburg and Bend has his or her own story, narrative, song, and life ritual. And finally, each congregation within Harrisonburg and Bend has a singular, unique voice, tuned and shaped by God.
This is, at bottom, an incarnational perspective: God eternal came into our world at a specific juncture in time, as a member of a singular species, race, lineage, town, and gender. Jesus was not born as a prototype and did not minister to prototypes. Jesus came in human form and ministered to people in all their specificity: prostitutes, Pharisees, lepers, centurions, tax collectors, old and young, male and female, slave and free, rich and poor. How can we do any less? Ministry according to prototype is ministry stripped of personal journey, devoid of the very placed-ness and humble descent into the now that continues to characterize God's ministry to us. (See Philippians 4:5-11.)
The question must be asked, what would worship look like without the generic wrapper? What would happen if we truly let worship experiences emerge from the people themselves? If we stopped trying to hit targets, stopped trying to conform ourselves to a theoretical demography, and simply let lived and living stories speak? This would be a brave move, indeed. A move out of worship planned in cubicles to worship planned in community; an escape from worship as music (most often, whatever the worship music industry is dictating this month) to worship as a whole-person, indigenous encounter with God: visual, aural, tactile, kinetic, emotional, and cerebral.
If we welcomed a wild, untamable miscellany instead of a controllable facelessness, we would allow God to surprise us more often: an anonymous painting of the woman anointing Jesus' feet, wrapped in newspaper and set outside our office door; black and white candid photos of mothers and children at a homeless center; poetry of lament written in the wee hours at an emergency room; a fresh, twenty-something version of the Apostles' Creed, penciled on a coffee house napkin; a Redemption mosaic created out of glass shards from a local dump; an interactive video pairing "What Wondrous Love" with U2's, "Walk On" - its creators, a joint team of retirees and high-school tech junkies. Honestly, it might prove difficult to go back to five canned praise songs, church commercials, and a talking head.
About Sally Morganthauler:
Morgenthaler's Worship Evangelism: Inviting Unbelievers Into the Presence of God (Zondervan, 1995) has become a touchstone for postmodern, worship-driven ministry and a work whose popularity spans denominational boundaries. Contributor to six additional books since Worship Evangelism, she is currently writing her next work, The Uncharted Now: Worship in the New Millennium (InterVarsity Press).
Her speaking, teaching, and consulting span a host of denominations including American Baptist, The Brethren Church, Disciples of Christ, The Episcopal Church, Evangelical Free, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Covenant, Missionary Alliance, Missouri Synod Lutheran, Reformed Church in America, Presbyterian Church USA, The Salvation Army, Seventh Day Adventist, Southern Baptist, United Congregational Church, United Methodist, United Presbyterian, Wesleyan Church, and Wisconsin Synod Lutheran.
Morgenthaler has taught both graduate and undergraduate courses at Asbury Seminary, Baylor University, Bethel Seminary, The Conservatory for Praise and Worship, Covenant Bible College, Denver Seminary, Gordon Conwell Seminary, Liberty University, Regent University, Texas Christian University, and The Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle.
Founder of Sacramentis.com ("Re-imagining Worship for a New Millennium") Morgenthaler's vision is to help people bring their real selves to God in worship, moving services beyond presentation (information, performed music, and preaching) to an interactive, sacred experience involving the whole person.
For Further Study:
Worship Evangelism by Sally Morgenthaler
Worship Without Words: The Signs and Symbols of Our Faith by Patricia S. Klein
Worship by the Book by D. A. Carson (Editor), Mark Ashton (Editor), R. Kent Hughes (Editor), Timothy J. Keller (Editor)
Desiring God by John Piper
The New Worship: Straight Talk on Music and the Church by Barry Wayne Liesch and Donald P. Hustad
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