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.