March 2009


Marva Dawn’s 1995 book Reaching Out without Dumbing Down carried the subtitle “A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the Century Culture.” Thus she condemned her helpful book as obsolete when the century turned five years later. Still, her cautions about discarding worship tradition and doctrine for the fads, fun, and frolic evident in so-called “contemporary” worship services remain valid.

I know a wise young church Elder (ordained in his mid-20’s) who once compared the worship he grew up with as a wholesome feast, while attempts at pop-culture worship seemed more like eating just dessert. (I’ll let the pun go by, except to say that there may be some “just desserts” awaiting churches that reduce worship to little more than a glorified service club meeting.)

The purpose of my previous entries was to assure whoever reads this that I am not just a retired old preacher who has always liked the way “we used to do things in the good old days.” In fact, I hope I made it clear that I appreciate the imaginative in worship, I value variety, I crave creativity, and I encourage the singing of new songs to the Lord!  I love both the festive and the contemplative elements of worship. I value the visual elements of ancient symbol and digital projection. I still find the well-played pipe organ a magnificent instrument of passionate praise and soothing meditation. But I am also intrigued by the newest digital effects that add to the organ’s keyboard the sound of the ocean’s waves, the falling rain, or laughing children. And I love jazz, too. If the Presbybop Quartet were available every week, I’d welcome piano, sax, bass, and drums to the choir loft!

Bright banners or somber ones…short cinema excerpts in the sermon…liturgical dance…dramatic readings…silence. All these help me connect my life’s journey to the One who put me here, the One with me, within me, behind me, before me, beside me, beneath me, and above me (to paraphrase St. Patrick). Lively liturgy, quiet solitude, congregational gatherings or private meditation — all help me worship, that is pray, listen, sing, hear the age-old, always new word, and respond. There is prayerful planning that lets the elements of worship come together, and there is mystery, deep mystery, that Creator and creatures come together when worship “works.”

When I was in college, a Presbyterian College that (at that time) as much as demanded daily worship in the chapel, I made an appointment to see the college chaplain. As a pre-ministerial student I was becoming increasingly disappointed that those many occasions of worship held little meaning for me. “I’m not getting anything out of worship,” I told Jud McConnell. I remember his quick (but caring) response: “What are you putting into it?”  Oh. It was an epiphany. I realized that worship wasn’t about me. It wasn’t something I was to consume, but to contribute to. Instead of getting something, I was to give. And I think Jud’s point was that that giving was to become as natural as breathing. Worship is an always and constant activity of daily life for the believer who recognizes the always and constant blessing that is life. Grace. Unconditional love. From crosses carried to resurrection romps. Inspired by the glow of a Christ candle or the brilliant shards of light that stream from cathedral windows, our everyday moments shine with glad purpose and divine call. When we give God our true worship.

Almost every year for the past thirty years, my wife (the church musician) and I (the minister of Word and Sacrament…but never at the same church as she) have found our most thrilling and energizing worship at the annual Montreat Worship and Music Conferences. Montreat is a kind of Presbyterian Mecca. It is a conference center amid the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. And the worship conference has become so popular that one week can’t accommodate the crowds. The organizers added a second week, identical to the first, and each is nearly full to capacity, that is over a thousand participants each time, including hundreds of children and youth! And no one is ever bored.

Each conference has a theme that is celebrated with word and music, worship and workshops, liturgy alive with creativity and spiritual vitality. Some words are more helpful than sentences here: festival, glorious music, visual feast, some theater, solid proclamation, personal enrichment and social justice, concerts and, appropriately for its majestic geographical setting, mountaintop experiences.

The adult choir numbers 600 or so; the youth choirs and bell choirs include a few hundred singers and ringers. There’s a chamber choir, as “professional” as serious singers can be. And instrumental ensembles, from brass to woodwinds to percussion. They play for worship and for fun. They accompany hymns, yes, but a highlight of the week for many folk is the sound of various ensembles echoing across Lake Susan from various Montreat locations, sometimes playing Christmas music in June, or gospel hymns, or Vivaldi and Gabrieli.

The daily worship services there are offered in the Reformed Tradition, and so “traditional” that some elements pre-date the Reformation. As do the Psalms, the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and most liturgical elements! The story-telling preachers are so engaging, they need no video clips, and the choirs so well-rehearsed they need not resort to simple ditties. There is art, drama, movement, with everything offered as our gift to the One who has gifted us with life.

Yes, the music is often challenging to learn and sing. But sometimes the global songs are simple unison phrases that sing themselves for months to come. I’m far from being a musician, but I can hide my voice amid the hundreds in the Adult Choir, and sing as if I had as much voice as heart. I recall one year when the guest conductor seemed strict and too demanding on us. Within the first two days of the conference I had grown to dislike his direction and thought about dropping out. By week’s end, he had won me over, and I slipped a note of gratitude under his door at the Assembly Inn hotel. Another year, a friend from college was the guest conductor. In the choral repertoire for the week was an arrangement of an old gospel hymn, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” Toward the end of the week, conductor Sandra Willetts told us of the tragic circumstances that led to the song, and with 600 voices bringing the song to new life, many of us singers were so moved by the sound that she had to caution us that we couldn’t sing and cry at the same time. “Blow your noses– in harmony or unison, I don’t care– and let’s try it again.”

To be sure, worship at Montreat, inspiring as it is, is not something we can easily take back home to church. The vast majority of us are lucky to have fifteen in the choir, not 500. We may not have a flute player, much less an ensemble. The local church organ won’t sound like the latest edition of the Rodgers Digital instrument played by the world class organists who fill the caverous Anderson Auditorium with stunning music each day. And just try getting a local church choir together to rehearse twice a day! Still, that conference worship experience day by day, summer after summer, is enough to remind all who attend that worship can be awe-inspiring without gimmicks, pop songs, and attempts at entertaining the Sunday morning worshiper.

To be sure, Montreat’s offerings will change with the times. They always have. But God is always at the center, never nudged aside for the sake of post-modern expediency or personal ego satisfaction. At Montreat, we are moved, inspired, challenged, stretched, and renewed. The soul restored, our heart for worship refreshed. We are not the same. And neither is the worship we offer “at home.” God’s Spirit is everywhere we go and everywhere we gather, and our new songs will rise from hearts reborn and voices given new Breath.

I hope that sounds as subversive in our culture as I meant it to be. May worshiping God in spirit and in truth (as Jesus put it)  wise us up as we grow in faith, in grace, and in gratitude.

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That heading is a “mind-full” isn’t it? And a mine field. Even without adding the words “emerging” and “contemporary.”

I enter the mine field, recklessly following in the footsteps of several theologian/authors whose books contribute to the dialogue, the conversation, the debate over how to shape our worship of the Eternal One in the context of our time. No longer tied to one parish, I travel from church to church now, finding myself uncomfortable in one, discomforted in another, rarely finding a place I find “fitting” for my own praise and prayer. I go to one church and find the service stiff and lifeless. I go to another, and the service is entertaining, but I miss even a glimpse of God. Now and then, I find myself at home with the balance of solitude and community that feeds my spirit, enlivens my faith,  and prompts my deepest worship.

I am teaching a unit on spirituality and personality types. I see that who we are in our own human skin and heart determines the shape of our offering of worship to the God who made us, who shaped our inward being. The introvert in me shrinks from services where I am invited to stand and sing and pray with arms waving and body swaying. I attended a service recently where the congregation was invited to break into small groups to discuss the sermon points. I wanted to just be left alone to meditate in silence. Yet, I do value the communion of the Christian household that gathers to join heart, soul, and voice in common worship. I don’t want to stay home and pretend that I can be a Christian in isolation, a hermit discounting the gift of fellowship and family. I value highly the inter-generational gathering of sisters and brothers who pray together, sing in harmony, share in the hearing of the word, and experience the Eucharist of common loaf and cup.

I am glad for my extroverted friends whose fellowship is noisier, whose circle is ever-broadening, and whose worship is so postmodern. I am happy for them that they like looking up at projection screens to read song lyrics, that their praise bands create joyful noise from so many instruments and voices, and that their informality is inviting and welcoming. But as an introvert I am not comfortable with, nor fed by, their enthusiasms. Part of me would be happy to worship Quaker-style, quietly and meditatively…but I would miss the music.

What kind of music? In that regard, I am easy! As long as it is well done, make it classical, jazz, folk, global. Mix it up. (I’m no fan of country and western, rap, or praise jingles;  no judgment rendered…just my personal taste.) The music that feeds my soul and makes it soar is the music I experience at the annual Montreat Worship and Music Conferences. For the most part it is “serious” music, “classical” in its many forms, but also accessible and global and inter-generational.  (More on Montreat in my next post.)

My spirit is nurtured by sermons, thoughtfully and prayerfully constructed, and carefully written, and honestly spoken. My spiritual ancestors may have been “wandering Arameans,” but I’m put off by wandering preachers, both those who think they are more in touch with their congregations if they aimlessly wander around the front of the sanctuary while they speak, and those who wander in word and thought in their content, while they wait for the Spirit to give them their message for the masses. (Does the Spirit not lead them in careful preparation prior to the delivery of the sermon?)

See, I know what helps me worship the One, True God, and I confess that there is no one, true way of worship that is right for everyone, except that our worship be “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). And I know that I was raised in a straightforward “mainline” Protestant church in the Reformed tradition, singing traditional hymns and hearing sermons that were both inspiring and intellectual. And I went to a Presbyterian college where those childhood traditions were well-served. I sang “classical” anthems in the college choir, and heard some great “classical” preachers. I went to a progressive seminary where my understanding of worship was broadened, stretched,and enriched. And where I had permission to become more creative in liturgy, while still anchored in the theology of some of the older, more conservative professors.

Musically, the ecumenical Church was playing with folk music and jazz masses, and adding some religious lyrics to popular songs, much the way pub songs had provided the music for new hymn texts 350 years ago. My expertise lay in media in those seminary and post-seminary days, so I added to the newer music projected images and included audio- and video-taped segments to my sermons. Call it experimental, cutting edge, or avant-garde. Or, gimmicky. But it did recognize that what we called then the “young generation” was experiencing the world in ways far different from their elders. TV, CinemaScope, and stereo…transition from vinyl disks to tape formats…rock and roll…and, of course, the vast cultural differences between the 1950s and the 1960s. In the late 1960s, God was pronounced dead. Remember? Some of us thought livelier liturgy would  least wake the dead in the pews, if not revive belief and enliven faith.

All this is to say that today’s 21st century interest in transformational worship in the postmodern era is nothing new under the sun. If it helps someone inhale the breath of the Spirit and grow in gratitude, wonder, worship, and praise, and then go out to serve God by loving the world as God did (does) in Christ — let it be! Amen! But others must find the right “sanctuary” for their own needs, their own personalities, their own spiritual journeys. One size rarely fits all. That’s been true for every generation.

While one person thinks the “passing of the peace” builds community, another thinks it interrupts worship. While one worshipper craves long moments of silence, another gets antsy. One loves the old gospel choruses, but another prefers music from Iona or Taize. While I might appreciate a short mission video during the offering time, the person next to me wants organ music as an aid to personal prayer. Here’s a teenager who has written a rock anthem and who wants his/her guitar to explode with praise through powerful amps and speakers. And there’s a teen who would have preferred a traditional choir anthem. More personally, I prefer non-amplified voices singing strongly in harmony. But many praise leaders these days like using technology to enhance their sound. (I’m sorry, but those microphone/headset contraptions make it seem as if I’m being sung to or preached to by old-timey telephone operators!)

A quick story to conclude this entry:

More than 30 years ago, a seminary classmate was serving a mid-sized church in western Virginia. She asked me to visit one Sunday and “do my thing” (which was creative “contemporary” worship with media and rock music). Her church youth put together a rock band and one teenager wrote a couple of songs for the service. When people were leaving the church after worship, an elderly woman took my hand and said something like, “Well, that was certainly different today! Thank you for coming. I’m so glad the youth had a chance to play their kind of music in church for a change. They have to listen to ours week after week, and we should give them a chance more often!”

Then a teen-aged girl came by, one who had not led the service, but who had been in the pews. When I asked her how she had liked the service that morning, she confessed that she had been disappointed. “It didn’t seem like church today,” she said. “I missed the real church music.”

The gospel according to Sly: “Different strokes for different folks.” Even as we gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing.

So where do we go from here? Separate paths? Or, can we still worship the one God as one people at the same time? Surely I have some ideas.

A few months ago I was invited to be the guest preacher at a church that was trying its best to make itself relevant, worship-wise. The young host pastor wanted his Sunday morning worship service to be “contemporary,” rather than the well-worn “traditional” service outlined in his denomination’s official worship book.

I hadn’t realized how much a fogy I had become,  until I walked into the retrofitted sanctuary. Scores of years ago, the original church architect had thoughtfully designed the sacred space of that Main Street church, incorporating ancient symbols of cross, table, font, and pulpit. I’m not an architect, but my guess is that light and color, shape and texture, and building materials helped create a visually pleasing, even inspiring, worship center.  Through the years, no doubt, some renovations changed that design, perhaps only subtly, and perhaps guided more by modest budget and a  lay person’s well-meaning, but inept efforts. Still, the focus of the space behind the pulpit and between the choir lofts was an attractive bit of well-crafted woodwork in keeping with the Federal style of the building’s original design. Integral to that design was a large cross on the front wall, a symbol that helped generations of congregations remember the Sabbath celebrations of “little Easters” each week.

By the time I visited that church for the first time, the retrofit had begun. Strewn across the raised platform (stage) where the pulpit had stood were power cords, audio patches, and various technical debris, with no effort to conceal the mess. Erected in the middle of the platform, effectively blocking the focal point cross, was a large square projection screen. And where the sacramental furniture of font and table had stood, there were big black boxes housing the speakers that would project pre-recorded praise music and the voices of the amplified choir, five or six singers holding microphones, and looking as if they were contestants on “American Idol.”

The Communion Table ( I honor it with “caps”) was shoved against the hulk of the old organ console, “out of the way.” I don’t recall ever finding the Baptism Font. The Pulpit (yes, “caps”) was utilized as a catch-all table top for extra mics and cords. The contemporary preacher didn’t need the pulpit, since he didn’t “preach” (in the Biblical sense), but wandered around the front of the sanctuary ad-libbing his sermon, as the Spirit led, I’m sure.

The service had begun informally, much like a Kiwanis meeting, but not as well oiled. The pastor performed in the role of emcee, chatting up the crowd like the local weather guy on TV might if he had been making a guest appearance there. Songs were projected on the screen, with lyrics not quite matching what the praise choir was singing — the verses from the computer software didn’t match the order given to the live musicians. During times when the congregation had no need to watch the screen (no hymn lyrics, no scripture texts, no announcements), there were cute clip-art cartoons projected there just in case what little liturgy remained got boring.

Do I sound as if I had a fun time there that morning? Do I sound as if I am of the old school, liturgically-speaking? Do I sound as if I am nearly 65?  Here’s the irony: I invented “contemporary,” media-mediated worship leadership…in 1969. (Much the way Al Gore invented the Internet.) Call it transformation-oriented worship, or whatever the terminology of the day is. A teacher of mine (Dr. J. A. Ross Mackenzie) called it “lively liturgy” back then. I suppose we may as well have called it “experimental,”  forty years ago. But I was on the exalted cutting edge!

Since I wasn’t a pastor, but an ordained minister working with and through media, I was invited by various pastor-friends to come and do “my thing” at their churches. They knew that if things went stunningly well, their parishioners would thank them for inviting me. If we broke some new ground and someone on the church council suggested that some of our experiment might be adopted locally for further use, all the better.  But if the audio-visual technology of the day got in the way of Sunday worship, my friends could blame it all on me, the radical visiting clergy guy, and promise to never invite me back.

Here’s what I did. First, we hid the technology, so we avoided having all our gadgets block out the psalmist’s view of “how lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of hosts.”  The pre-recorded music (often I preached the scriptures as reflected in the hit songs of the day) came from a tape recorder hidden behind the pulpit. I treated the worship space with respect, placing speakers in places where symbols and liturgical furniture weren’t moved or hidden. I used projected slides (in the pre-computer, pre-video projector days), so there were times we needed to erect a screen. It went up when we needed it, and came down when it was simply in the way. Even better, if there were white walls in the front of the church, we projected on the walls, with no screen needed at all. For a Presbytery meeting in a large colonial sanctuary, we made a banner on which to project 35 mm transparencies. It read, “For God so loved the world…” and the “world” was a huge white globe on which projected slides took on new meaning.

We used the projected visuals as part of the call to worship, as background for the singing of hymns, to show where the offering was going, to illustrate scripture readings (no Sunday School art here…we used modern images to re-tell “the old, old story”), and to augment the sermon and its taped rock music. (In the early 1970’s I used the Diana Ross song “Reach Out and Touch” for a sermon on Luke 8:40f, and got an afternoon phone call at home blasting my use of a popular song. The caller tried unsuccessfully to convince me that she would have complained even if the singer weren’t “colored.” It was Richmond, Virginia, I must add.)

I also made certain that I added my media elements to the service order that the church was “used to.”  Rather than throwing out local or denominational or theological traditions, I blended my creativity with the worship elements that guided worshiping “in spirit and in truth.” Without getting in the way of God. That effort was not always successful. At The Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria, Virginia, the host pastor and I had closed the shutters on the sanctuary windows so the slides would show up well. Just before the service started, ushers re-opened all the shutters, puzzled why anyone had closed them up. The slides were washed out. And, though I had dutifully rehearsed my audio cues and made sure equipment worked in the hour before the service, as I hit the play button for the first audio track the tape player shut off. Again and again. I crouched behind the pulpit, re-threaded the machine, and all was well.

Except for the elder who commented on the way out of church, “Well, you wondered why the church doesn’t use media more often? Now you know.”

These days, the use of electronic media in worship settings remains controversial. I remain appalled at how poorly it is done in retrofitted churches, but I also know that worship can be lively, that a media-oriented culture demands some concessions (pop corn, anyone?), and that the proclamation of the age-old, ever-profound gospel is enhanced by effective imagery and creative audio. So, I shall expound more on this in my next entry. Stay tuned.