This entire series was inspired by a blog post from Michael Spencer, also known as the Internet Monk. Spencer’s writing intrigues me because he will occasionally offer a bald observation that most other writers on church culture are too guarded to make. This post was a particularly good example, and I will begin by pointing out the passages that struck me and why.
The premise of the post is that recent shifts in the common pattern of evangelical worship are likely to destroy the entire evangelical movement.
We have, within a matter of 50 years, completely changed the entire concept of what is a worship service.
This is true, but by itself I don’t know that it is especially remarkable. In the short 200-year history of modern American evangelicalism the understanding of what Christians should do when they meet has changed constantly, first as a reaction against the patterns of the traditional institutional church, and then soon enough against the patterns of earlier evangelicals. Even fifty years ago there were many, many different patterns for gathering, and taken together they had almost nothing in common, except perhaps the sermon.
We’ve adopted an approach that demands ridiculous levels of musical, technical and financial commitment and resources.
This is true, if you substitute ‘ever-greater’ for ‘ridiculous.’ But historically the levels of musical, technical, and financial commitment have run the gamut, from being deliberately set at zero by the Old School Baptists, to being ratched up by the more respectable churches in town that could afford such things, and then even further by revival-style gatherings. It is astonishing how many years and dollars are needed to prepare for a single Billy Graham crusade.
For Spencer, the levels crossed over into ridiculous territory sometime in the past fifty years; for others it did so when the first instrument was introduced, or the choir, or the seminary-educated pastor, or the overhead projector, or the sound system, or the band, or the auditorium. For some it has yet to become ridiculous, and may never reach that point.
We have tied ourselves to the Christian music industry and its endless appetite for change and profit.
This is true, but is it the first time that the Christian life has been tied to a money-making operation? How many dollars have been spent on buying learned books, attending conferences at which Christian celebrities lecture us, staging “revivals,” paying career men to fill our pulpits, building denominational organizations, paying people to minister in foreign countries?
Still, I will grant this: it may be only lately that we’ve tied ourselves to money-making operations where the models were developed and refined in the secular arena. Celebrity musicians and lecturers have always been with us, but only lately in sanctified form, and I don’t doubt that Christians are way more pliable and gullible as consumers than their secular counterparts, who don’t see their purchases as somehow pleasing to God.
We have accepted that all of our worship leaders are going to be very, very young people.
This is true, but how long has it been that we have expected anyone in church leadership to be old enough to credibly shoulder the responsibilities we place on their shoulders? Spurgeon became a pastor at sixteen, Jonathan Edwards was installed in Northamption at twenty-four, Calvin selected as pastor at twenty-eight. For the past couple of hundred years most men have begun their pastoral careers at a very young age—much too young to have exhibited most of the qualifications for elder, or to have become wise enough to shepherd a real-life flock.
Traditional worship—a la Tenth Presbyterian in Philly—is on the verge of becoming a museum piece.
I suppose this is the sentence that started me thinking at length about the entire post. First, I commend Spencer for risking a concrete illustration of his thinking; most writers would have left it as “traditional worship” without providing an example, leaving it vague so as not to be challenged on the point. I could write lovingly about the “good old hymns” and the “great old hymns,” and without being more specific the reader will naturally fill in his own favorite understanding of these.
But if it turns out, as Leonard Payton writes, by “the good old hymns” I mean “any congregational song composed between 1850 and 1950, in a style fitting for the circus, reminding us of our parents’ and grandparents’ hokey churches,” and by “the great old hymns” I mean only A Mighty Fortress, All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name, and Crown Him With Many Crowns, then I have revealed a profound ignorance of church history that is worth challenging.
I think a similar thing is going on with Spencer’s notion of traditional worship. If we take a look at a Tenth Presbyterian order of worship (I am looking at the August 16, 2009 bulletin), we will see a pattern that is quite familiar to most of us: two organ pieces as prelude, announcements, call to worship, doxology (singing the Old Hundredth), invocation, hymn, responsive reading, Gloria Patri (sung), Apostles’ Creed (recited), prayer, scripture reading, hymn, offertory (with organ music), sermon, prayer, hymn, benediction, organ postlude.
Now, I’ve been in many different churches that follow exactly that pattern. But I’ve also been in others which hardly match up at all with that, even though their own pattern has been in place for one or two hundred years. The church we attend right now proceeds as follows: thirty minutes of songs (while seated), opening statement, song, prayer, then two or three sermons usually begun with a song, closing song, prayer. No special music, no instruments, no offering collected, no responsive readings or congregational recitation. Most of the churches in this area follow a different but very common and fairly old pattern: three hymns, handshaking, offertory with special music, announcements, and a sermon.
More important, of all the elements that appear in one or another pattern, many of them were obviously innovations introduced at some point beyond the first century, and many of the rest were possibly so. The sermon as we know it wasn’t firmly established for a couple of hundred years. The presence of instruments has come and gone at various times. Use of the vernacular is a relatively recent innovation. And I was surprised to learn the other day that the offertory (i.e. collecting money during the service), surely a tradition if there ever was one, was in fact a twentieth-century innovation.
So I think that Spencer is wrong to imply that there is somehow a single traditional pattern of gathering involved here—although understandably wrong, since just about everyone who deplores innovation in this area speaks of tradition in about the same way. Why? Aside from simple politics (in the mind of many people tradition automatically carries far more weight than innovation), there is something in us that yearns to adhere to the one true tradition, that pattern that will surely please God. Admitting that the pattern of meeting is grossly underspecified by scripture, and that consequently there are many equally valid patterns that could be followed, leaves too much of the responsibility in our own hands for choosing (or fashioning) a pattern.
But it is still a good thing to question the value of the innovations, and to worry about potential dangers, as long as we keep in mind the nature of innovation, and that these innovations that worry us are crowding out things that were likely innovations themselves at one point. And there may actually be good reasons that the new has come along to crowd out the old.
For convenience’s sake, I’ll repeat the three-fold observation about innovations that I made earlier:
Innovations are not additive, but transformational. Any innovation does not simply bring something new to the table, it changes the game. Some old options are closed off, and other options are opened up.
As activities adjust to the changes, further changes occur, resulting in further adjustments, and so on.
Because of the cascade of changes, the innovation is not reversible; undoing the original innovation will not undo the changes it caused but will instead lead to further changes, resulting in a new situation that may or may not resemble the original one.
Let’s look at a few of Spencer’s objections about recent innovations.
The reformed—of all people—have led the way in this revolution. I attended a seminar last week where a room full of reformed were instructed in why the optimum worship leadership option was “the band.” Not the choir, the worship team, etc. But “the band.” Does anyone realize what that means for public worship?
Diversity, generational compatibility, even simplicity are all being blown up.
I doubt that Spencer is surprised that the reformed would be leading a revolution in this area, since they spearheaded one of the most notable changes, namely switching the center of the service from the altar to the pulpit. Lately the reformed, or at least a small portion of them, have been active in buttressing liturgical worship, such as that practiced at Tenth Presbyterian, and pushing it ever further into the realm of mystery. And music, at least of the European high art variety, has always been an important component of Reformed worship when instruments are allowed.
I have to assume that Spencer is surprised that the reformed are leading the way in introducing and legitimizing a certain sort of music for use in worship, essentially a variety of CCM where the words pass doctrinal muster. I’m surprised as well—but I suppose I’m not surprised that the reformed gatekeepers determined that the problem with CCM was theological soundness, and were willing to grant entry once that was rectified, not concerning themselves with other possible drawbacks, such as the ones that Spencer mentions—diversity, generational compatibility, simplicity.
(Of course, we could also ask if the new trend has made worship any worse in these areas. Is, say, the worship at Tenth Presbyterian any more diverse, generationally compatible, or simple then the contemporary form? It seems to me that their formal, liturgical, high-art-music approach could alienate as many people as a contemporary service can alienate—just different ones.)
Spencer goes on to make an observation that is quite accurate, but at the same time is completely unreflective.
Worship is now a major audience event, led by skilled entertainers, aimed at a demographic and judged by the audience reaction.
Quite true. But when was traditional worship ever different? The worshiper at Tenth Presbyterian spends maybe 10% of his time participating (in a strictly controlled manner) and 90% watching/hearing someone else, the organist or the choir or the preacher, all of them specially trained and I’m sure very skilled. Ever since Protestants abandoned the parish model, churches (and denominations) have catered to demographics, with the mainline social ladder in many towns climbing roughly from Baptist to Methodist to Presbyterian to Episcopalian, and a scattering of independent churches catering to various tastes in enthusiasm, doctrine, music, or social custom. And all of those churches have stood or fallen based on how well they serve their particular niche, i.e. audience.
Treating the gathering of the saints as a performance event is a serious problem, and I am not trying to minimize that aspect of the new trend by pointing out that “traditional” patterns suffered from the same defect. Instead, I’m trying to emphasize that anyone who sees this as a newly introduced defect hasn’t spent much time thinking about this aspect of gathering, since it has been a central aspect of worship services for most of Christian history. Those who criticize the new trend on this basis need to be clear exactly where the threshold of unacceptability lies, since new and traditional only differ in degree.
Worship has now become a musical term. Praise and worship means music. Let’s worship means the band will play. We need to give more time to worship doesn’t mean silent prayer or public scripture reading or any kind of participatory liturgy. It means music.
I agree that this is a problem, but I think it is just a different manifestation of a problem that has plagued Christians for a long time now, namely a dissatisfaction with the meanings of “worship” found in scripture. Alan Knox writes that in the New Testament “worship” is used to translated two Greek words, proskuneō and latreuō, the first referring to devotion, reverence, or subservience to a deity, the second referring to serving a deity, primarily by serving other people.
Unfortunately, neither of these encompasses the kind of thing we like to do when we meet for cultic reasons, namely engage in formal, mystical rituals, rites, and ceremonies. So we end up structuring our meetings as we like, calling it all “worship” without being specific about where the worship occurs. Given that, it’s no surprise that some may think it means praying or singing corporately while others think it means hearing scripture read or a lecture delivered.
Even singing is getting lost in this. As the volume and the performance level goes up, who knows who is singing?
Again, this is a question of threshold. One of the major controversies in the early American church was whether to stick with what was called the Old Way (or Common Way, or Usual Way) of singing, where the singing was done in unison, was restricted to five or six melodies the congregation knew very well, with the words being fed to the congregation line by line by a chanter; or to adopt the Regular Way of singing, teaching the congregation to read music so they could sing many different complicated pieces in four-part harmony.
The primary objection to the Old Way was that it was not sufficiently artful. The primary objection to the Regular Way was that it required uncommon training and skills that would encourage those not trained or less skilled to not participate but simply listen. The Regular Way was chosen, and from that point on the artful quality of the performance has been more important than the active participation of each member. In fact, we might see the new trend as an improvement in this area, since volume and performance level may actually make it more comfortable for the average person to participate, knowing that their own performance won’t be evaluated by others because it won’t be heard by others.
And who can stand for 20, 30 or 40 minutes?
Some can, some can’t, some prefer to stand, some prefer not to. And we need to remember that pews themselves are an innovation. As Wikipedia teaches us,
Churches were not commonly furnished with permanent pews before the coming of the Protestant Reformation. The rise of the sermon as a central act of Christian worship, especially in Protestantism, made the pew an indispensable item of church furniture. Most Orthodox churches do not have pews; they have stands instead.
Spencer begins to wrap up as follows.
We have a lot of happy people right now. They have no idea what Biblical worship is outside of the context of their favorite songs played by a kickin’ band. They have little idea of worship in vocation, in family, in ordinary work or in silence. They credit their favorite songs as major spiritual events.
I have no objection to this, I only want to point out that this is historically true in general if you take “favorite songs played by a kickin’ band” and add to it “or hearing a stimulating sermon, or a stirring choral performance, or a dazzling organ performance, or smelling soft incense, or watching an elaborate ritual unfold, or reciting a prayer, or singing one of the great old hymns, or sitting in a beautifully appointed building, or …” None of those strike me as any more or less spiritual (or worshipful) as singing along with a favorite song.
We have goofed up. Simple, plain liturgy. Diversity and inclusion. Appreciation and full Biblical understanding. Cross generational intentionality and suspicion of the profit motive. Renouncing the spirit of competition. Hearing the prophetic warnings about God’s disgust with much of Israel’s “big show” worship culture. We need all of this.
We need Jesus shaped worship, and we need worship that promotes a simple, direct, uncompromising Jesus shaped spirituality.
Alan Kay once said that he was intrigued with the Macintosh because it was the first computer worth criticizing. It is the same thinking that has led me to look at Spencer’s post in such detail; it is one of the few writings on this topic that I’ve thought was worth criticizing.
But even Homer nods, and in these last two paragraphs the Internet Monk manages to lose me. I can’t disagree with what he says here, because I mostly don’t understand it. To the extent that I do understand, I don’t see how traditional worship has done any better at enabling the Jesus-shaped worship/spirituality that Spencer calls for.
Never mind. It may be coming in more detail in a future post. And even if it doesn’t, I still very much appreciate the good work Spencer has done speaking simply and plainly about what he sees as a real problem with how Christians meet.
I have a few more things to say about how to think about tradition and innovation in the context of Christian gatherings. I hope that I will be able to cover them in one last post.