Saturday, September 28, 2013

"Blended" Worship?

Over coffee one afternoon, a new pastor to our area confided to me that the worship service he inherited was, in a word, “chaotic.”

I offered to pay him a Sunday morning visit and, if he wished, give him my critique. Please note that a “critique” is not necessarily negative, but in this case it was difficult to get out of the minus column.

To start with the positive: The young man’s sermon was strong and meaningful. The church organist led the congregation in the singing of one wonderful hymn. Communion by intinction was reverently accomplished. The end.

Otherwise, the pastor was right: It was chaotic.

The “praise” singers arrived late, scattered their guitar cases and coats around the platform, and grabbed mikes to sing and sway. The music they sang was old, and vapid, in the 7-11 category (seven words sung over eleven times), with totally forgettable melodies, the shelf life of which ended before anyone arrived in the parking lot. The “children’s sermon” was spoken over a mike by a person invisible to the congregation except those small people before whom she knelt. During the sermon, the singers left the room. For most of the service the organist did nothing. The order was random, except in its broadest outline. And so forth.

The pastor and I had a chance to debrief some weeks later. It became clear that there was no truce in the Worship War for this congregation. It was the generation gap—the geriatric section wanted the “traditional” style, while the younger people clamored for the “contemporary.”

What the pastor hoped to accomplish was a “blended” worship experience, drawing from the best of both generations. It was, at least for him, an uphill climb.

As I listened to him describe what the two groups wanted, it occurred to me that they were both searching past each other, and not likely either the old folks or the youngsters would get what they wanted.

The gray-haired generation was looking back to the “good old days.” The familiar hymns brought the chills of nostalgia. Some liturgical formality, in vestments and language, gave authority to the proceedings. Quiet and peaceful worship was healing and spiritually soothing.

The younger people were looking forward to more lively worship, less formality, new more entertaining music, and some real challenges that “rock.” They want it to look like it belongs in the 21st century, not the 19th.

What people who advocate for either of these positions do not seem to know is that Christian worship is a living, growing experience.

You cannot recreate the past, because it’s gone.

Neither can you replace what we have now with liturgy that is completely new.

In both instances people fail to realize that what we have is a living experience, ever changing, constantly growing or needing repair. The Protestant Reformation was not a one-time experience. When it comes to Christian worship, the need for reformation is perpetual.

But reforming and renewing worship now does not happen without knowledge of where we’ve been and what the world looks like down the road ahead of us.

So, the only hope for my friend, and many of the rest of us, is to learn about the liturgical heritage our ancestors left us, build on it, and reshape next Sunday’s experience accordingly. There is desperate need these days for liturgical education—not just among pew-sitters, but for musicians, church leaders, and even for the clergy. Chaotic worship happens when nobody’s paying attention, and what we do is perfunctory and thoughtless.

If there is such a thing as “blended worship,” we don’t get there by sticking two things together that have nothing to do with right now. Rather we grow into it, letting the Spirit work to bring to life what is fresh and new.

How does your worship get evaluated and reviewed to see what needs to be better understood by the people, by musicians, by leaders and clergy?