catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 7 :: 2005.04.08 — 2005.04.21


Good worship

The wars, the world and the Word

I have been a member of churches and their worship groups from a wide variety of denominational traditions in five different cities in South Africa and Canada, from Pentecostal through mainline to house church with a few things in between. Currently, I lead worship in Grace West, a small church plant of the Presbyterian Church of America in Oakville, (Ontario, Canada)—a sprawling suburb of the Greater Toronto Area, where the immigrant populations are about one quarter of the more than 800,000 people. Consequently, Grace West aims to reach a culturally and ethnically mixed group of people from a doctrinally Reformed position with a passion for the non-believer.

The subject of ?good worship? has evoked heated discussions in most churches particularly in the past fifty years. For the purposes of this short article, the shortest definition of ?good worship? that would be embraced by the broadest scope of biblical Christians, is:

Good worship should be biblically grounded and musically excellent.

How this definition translates into weekly worship however, can differ from church to church like day and night. We shall ignore for the moment those many sincere worshippers who would even disagree with the above definition in preference for any versions of the following: good worship must be truly ?meant from the heart??musical excellence doesn?t matter too much or must be ?led by the Holy Spirit? or must fit into a one hour time slot or should not be broken up by ?speaking? between songs or should come only from the denominational hymnbook or should leave the worshipper ?feeling better? by the end of the service or should not be led by anyone visible so as to avoid distractions. And so on.

The worship arguments of late are usually described as a tug-of-war between ?contemporary? worship (code for: what Christians are listening to in their cars at the moment) and ?traditional? worship (code for: what people think their grandmother would have listened to if she had a CD player in her car). This is a false dichotomy and has rendered the adjectives ?contemporary? and ?traditional? useless for this discussion. The dictionary definition loosely defines the term contemporary as ?from the current time? and traditional as ?what has been part of the practises before.? To be accurate, it then follows that in the 1700s, Bach wrote ?contemporary? music in the Baroque style and in the 1970s, the Beatles sang contemporary folk/rock music. Calling songs from the 1980?s ?contemporary? (as most worship leaders do) is simply untrue. ?Traditional? worship music can reasonably be understood to mean ?all worship music that has been sung in the Christian tradition,? but worship leaders usually mean ?what was sung in church in 1950.? The latter notion is again untrue. In my opinion, this tension is not merely a case of ?traditional? pitted against ?contemporary.? The real challenge is far bigger. It?s time to change the terms and scope of this conversation. Specifically, I would suggest that worship that strives to be trans-cultural, cross-cultural, counter-cultural and contextual reflects a more biblical vision of worship.

Let me explain:

The Lutheran World Federation Study Team on Worship and Culture in January 1996 in Nairobi, published an excellent document that can be summarised as follows:

1.3 Christian worship relates dynamically to culture in at least four ways. First, it is trans-cultural, the same substance for everyone everywhere, beyond culture. Second, it is contextual, varying according to the local situation (both nature and culture). Third, it is counter-cultural, challenging what is contrary to the Gospel in a given culture. Fourth, it is cross-cultural, making possible sharing between different local cultures. In all four dynamics, there are helpful principles which can be identified.

These four principles help to explain why I do not think we are in a two-sided war. Appropriately designing and leading good worship is far bigger and far more complex than avoiding arguments between Fanny Crosby hymn supporters and Shout to the Lord! fans. The framework of contextual, counter-cultural, trans-cultural, and cross-cultural provides an excellent grid from which to evaluate what we do. May I offer a few possibilities from a quite limitless reservoir that different leaders can explore in their particular congregation and denominations.

If we think about being contextual, we ask ourselves how our worship should reflect the context in which we worship. Worship should celebrate the good things in a given culture, as it should critically reflect the bad things in the culture, and this will be different from culture to culture. Christians cannot be complacent or unthinking about the culture they live in. We have a God-given responsibility to nurture both gratitude and careful judgement about our context. North American culture worships at the feet of the gods of individual choice, materialism, and consumerism, to name a few. South America, Africa, China?every nation has their particular ideologies. Choices made for weekly worship must translate a biblical reflection in song and liturgy of the truth as well as the falsehoods of that context. The American band Third Day?s King of Glory might well be a great example of how rock music, a recent contextual musical style, can explode the words of Psalm 24 into awesome song. Handel?s Messiah used the musical taste of his day to proclaim God?s sovereignty. Chinese Christians sing about God being the rice of life. And who can deny the contemporary gift of good microphones in large congregations?

Counter-culturally, we must sing and speak as we gather each week in such a way that we reflect the biblical vision?a vision that is revolutionary and often diametrically opposed to the surrounding culture. Even today, when white Christians in Mississippi use African-American spirituals to pray, they can reflect the biblical vision of race equity. When Friends First, a South African band from the 1980s sang a version of the Isaiah call to free the oppressed, done in an anti-apartheid street march genre, they were prophetically focussing on the specific political ideologies in that context. When Serbs and Croatians sing each other?s songs, they are acting out Jesus? command to forgive one another. When Canadians learn to move while they sing ?Siyahamba,? they are allowing the African body of Christ to teach them about bringing their whole body to worship. And when teenagers learn to sing Agnus Dei in four voices, they are flying in the face of the individualistic and spectator mentality of their surrounding culture.

How shall we worship trans-culturally? By diligently using worship music that crosses the more than 2000 year span of which we are a part, we affirm our belief in the timeless shared biblical aspects of worship: God calls, we answer, we gather, we confess, the Bible is read or heard, there is preaching, prayer, communion, baptism, offering, blessing and a commissioning. Across time and across the globe, Christians share a common belief in the great narratives of Jesus? birth, death and resurrection, the Triune Creator God, and a number of common creeds. Everything we do during worship should also affirm the trans-cultural aspect of the great truths that we share. These remind us that we are a part of a very old and larger story, which is both sobering and comforting. It is essential for Christian unity and rootedness that we rediscover the common connections with the body of Christ. This can mean rethinking how often communion should happen, or whether to follow the liturgical year, or using liturgies and prayers from 300 AD. Reading or reciting the creeds, whether you are Pentecostal or Anglican, is like feeding your worldview its monthly fertiliser rather than waiting for the winds of modernism to threaten the security of your beliefs. Some of the most fun I have is taking the trans-cultural aspects of other denominations, like singing the Kyrie Eleison, or gathering the people of God in a engaging song, and using that denomination?s particular way of enacting that part of the liturgy. We often gain a new perspective on an old truth. Giving trans-cultural aspects a strong profile also provides a solid base from which to focus the local contextualisation. If you don?t know how you are the same, you can?t know how you are different.

Cross-culturally, in today?s immigration-rich communities the world over, there is no excuse for worship leaders to keep their congregations on a narrow diet of beef and potatoes. On any average Sunday, I use up to twenty different books and hymnals, many of them with worship music from all over the world, often with guidelines on how to play and sing them authentically and where to use them in the service. Even the quietest rural congregation usually has someone from ?far away.? They can teach their songs firsthand to the congregation. Most Sundays, Grace West will use songs, prayers and confessions from at least six parts of the world, and from a number of different historical eras. The biblical reasons for this are simply that we are a global body of Christ consisting of many different languages and races and cultures, as Revelation 7:9 explicitly states.

The gospel enters a culture and is contextualised in that culture, even as that culture is redeemed by the gospel. The differences between cultures can be a wonderful gift from one to another, as the particular strengths of God?s redemption in that culture can be shared. The Spirit uniquely gifts different groups and we have much to learn from each other. Singing the languages and songs of other countries reminds us of the persecutions and struggles that our brothers and sisters face in other countries and their courage exhorts us. This is also a way of walking with them, and praying with them. For example, a Toronto church I know had learned a song from Zimbabwe. A few months later, terrible floods struck Zimbabwe and that Toronto church sang and prayed through that song for the people in Zimbabwe in a way that is difficult to improve. (They also sent physical help.) Gregorian chant teaches us about contemplation and simple focus in worship. Using a Russian Kyrie Eleison, we sing a confession with our brothers and sisters in the Soviet Union?another nation that has gone through so much. Keeping silent, we learn from the Desert Fathers about the spiritual discipline of listening to God. Much South American music shows us how to fiesta despite great suffering, pointing to the Great Fiesta to come. Done well, African music draws natural song, harmony and rhythm from even the stiffest congregation. When we sing Isaac Watt?s ?I sing the almighty power of God that made the mountains rise,? we realise that what his congregation understood about God in England in the 1600s remains true for us today. Traditional Jewish music in Hebrew reminds us of the first chosen people who walked on the bed of the Red Sea and then danced with tambourines after their rescue.

This is why I have no time for a two-sided war. It is a huge challenge both musically and even theologically to play and lead worship in a wide diversity of styles. It is certainly harder work to design and play well, and let?s not forget the delicate task of educating the congregation about the biblical legitimacy for diverse worship. It requires tenacious and sensitive leadership to educate and nurture worship in congregations who have only sung five verse hymns with hymn book firmly in hand, or in congregations who can no longer remember how to sing because a full-throttle band has been all they could hear during worship since they can remember. Worship that is globally and historically all-encompassing often requires strong congregational singing and harmonisation, memorization, learning of new sounds and re-learning cues from worship leaders. Challenging as it is, this is exhilarating and rewarding?typical biblical qualities. Bring it on!

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