Shooting from the Hip
Below I'm reprinting the basic content of an e-mail I sent recently. It is very possible that my thoughts here are slapdash, but my suspicion is they are not, but represent the general direction of my thinking on the question of contemporary worship. I welcome all comments and critiques!
Very well said. Here's a quote I've been pondering that I think applies to
our decision about worship on Saturday evenings.
"The postmodern reply to the modern consists of recognizing that the past-
since it cannot really be destroyed, because its destruction leads to
silence- must be revisited; but with irony, not innocently."
Umberto Eco, postscript to The Name of the Rose
As a pastor trying to be true to the tradition while at the same time doing
something new in the present, I've been struggling with what is appropriate
to the gospel in terms of worship. I think Eco's quote holds much truth.
For example, it is probably an innocent move to simply say, "Well, the Roman
Rite prior to the 14th century was the perfect form of worship, so let's
just go back to that and appropriate it without any real changes." It is
also innocent, and somewhat Romantic, to say, "Well, we finally figured out
how the ancient church worshipped, generally, we put that in the LBW, so
let's just use that." But it is probably a modernist tendency- what you dub
the 60s phenomenon- to want to simply dump the past. A lot of
"contemporary" worship has tended to do that, to embrace the new for the
sake of the new without faithfully attending to the long history of faithful
worship in the church of Christ.
I'm not convinced that the blue worship book (the ELCA's supplemental worship book title With One Voice)is "in the box", for example.
It's very contemporary, because it tries to do multi-cultural worship, it
tries to embrace ecumenical worship styles, etc. Plus it's only eight years
old! I think any worship book that is only 8 years old can't yet be called
entrenched, yes? Lots of the songs we do that are praise songs are much
older and traditional than that! Seek Ye First is 40 years old, for
example. WOV is contemporary also in its tendency to not use Lutheran and
Trinitarian hymns. That's a radical break with the history of Christian
hymn singing. It isn't contemporary in the sense that it doesn't use praise
choruses (ala the Worship & Praise book), but that style of song, the praise
chorus, is very culturally limited. It's done in white boomer congregations
and not much elsewhere. WOV is also not contemporary in that it also
doesn't have much in the way of Hispanic or African-American music, which is
why our church more recently came out with worship materials for those
So, if we are going to be faithful in our worship, but also postmodern,
we'll need to eschew innocent appropriation of the past on the one hand, and
and destruction of the past on the other. The middle road, according to
Eco, is to revisit the past, but with irony. What would that mean?
For St. John's Lutheran Church, I think it would mean the following things.
1) Make our Saturday evening worship more multi-sensory. Lighting might
change throughout the service. We would use more candles, and per Gudie's
suggestion, for example, more incense, or other smells. Music would be
diverse in nature, and as participatory as possible, so that the band, the
congregation, and the pastor all sing together and do different actions.
There might be dance, or movement around the sanctuary.
2) The service would be faithfully laid back. I know a lot of people like
Saturday worship because it is less formal. I think you can have it be less
formal while at the same time remaining beautiful and liturgical, but that
would be hard to do. It would take a lot of thinking and work and planning
on the part of the worship team.
3) We would ironically appropriate ancient forms of liturgy. I think we
already do that by using Holden Evening Prayer. Vespers is an ancient form
of worship, but Haugen has made it accessible, singable, and beautiful for a
4) The sermons would be longer, not shorter, because in the post-modern
situation, like in the pre-modern situation, most of our congregation
members get their information and insight into the faith not by reading, but
rather by listening, and the sermon may be the main place where that
happens. The sermons would be more participatory, though, with people
actively bringing their Bibles, reading along, taking notes, etc.
5) We would continue the central things of the faith, the reading and
interpretation of scripture, communion, and baptism, because these are the
places and ways Christ has promised to be present for us, and not otherwise.
6) We would not let aesthetics divide us. Everybody has their opinions and
tastes re: music. If our aesthetics dictated whether we believed a worship
service was faithful and spiritually uplifting or not, we would be in
trouble. All of us (including myself, a liturgical snob who likes chant
more than praise choruses- including you, a 60s guy who likes folk music)
would attend worship not for the style, but because Christ has promised to
be there in His Word & Sacrament. We would always teach and lead worship in
this way, so that style does not trump substance, but rather become the
vehicle through which substance is communicated.
We could probably all add to the list. But I do believe that the new people
moving out to Oregon, the generation now coming to Dane County, is less like
the Boomer generation who helped build churches like Willow Creek, and are
actually more ancient-future in their faith, interested in a post-modern
appropriation of the tradition. In fact, Community Church of Joy, a church
that flourished during the Boomer boom, is now holding a conference on
Ancient-Future faith that presents some of these main ideas. This is the
direction I'd like to see our worship go at St. John's.