Tradition and Innovation, Part 6

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.


5 thoughts on “Tradition and Innovation, Part 6

  1. Interesting post. My biggest complaint with modern worship, is the atrocious level of song writing. It seems like religious song writing went into a crash dive somewhere in the middle of the last century. Some recently written songs aren’t bad, but most seem to be written for a couple sisters with guitars, in front of the campfire at Kumbaya Camp. Most are too repetitious and inelegant for congregational singing. Many songwriters seem to have 10 words in their songwriting kit. They don’t really write songs of complexity to take advantage of the best the human voice can do. Another pet peeve of mine is a white congregation trying to sing like they are a black congregation. It often sounds forced. The two cultural styles of singing are equally valid and beautiful. But my Ozark congregation would sound silly trying to sing a negro hymn the way a black congregation would. And a black congragation trying to sing “The Lord’s my Shepherd” negro style, would sound bizarre, since the song was written 2 centuries ago in Scotland. Improvisation is normal and good. But I think people forget sometimes, that the point of worship is not to be clever, but create a mood of reverence, and feeling for the Lords presence among the worshipers. The modern tendency to mix and match this and that style of worship, with little appreciation for tradition and a sense of beauty, has tended to hurt the worship experience in my rather humble but attentive experience.

  2. That whole post was very interesting. The one thing I can figure out from these church posts is that our church doesn’t do a half bad job. Our preaching follows the guidelines you set out a few posts ago, and our music, at least in the morning, has a fairly broad appeal. Please pardon the lengthy comment that follows. I did try to shorten it.

    Are you trying to assess our definition of worship in any liturgical form, or merely to assess, like Spencer, the forms of innovation currently underway? My understanding of what you’ve written leans towards the former.

    As for liturgical form, what I have always liked about our services is that they usually don’t call attention to themselves, perhaps because I was raised in a similar tradition (but the content is better now). I particularly like that there is a specific time for silent praise and confession, with some responsive prompts. These are simply an aid to prayer, which fits the first part of the Knox definition. When our service distracts me, it’s usually because the music or scripture reading is too professional.

    As for the second part of the Knox definition, we do say, “Let us go forth to serve the world as those who love our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Whether we then do that, and do it in the right spirit, is up to us.

    What possibly bothers me about innovations, meanwhile, is not so much that they exist, (because as you point out, they always have) as the focus on innovation as an end it itself, both in the general culture, and as reflected in the church. With rapid innovation, the attention easily shifts to the rate and extremity of change. Specifically, during the past fifty years, churches who try to be hip often find themselves a half-step (or more) behind the cutting edge. When I was in college, I found much contemporary church music embarrassing, so much so that I could literally feel the blood rushing to my face. That was distracting. I think it has improved somewhat now, but still, if you’re going to cater to the hip crowd, you need to be prepared to move fast.

    I find your third bullet point, about innovations not being reversible, especially worth pondering. It sort of reminds me of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s idea that all attempts to return to tradition are really false-postmodernisms (if I understand this idea correctly, which I may not). So, for instance, could a Tenth Pres. Christian go pick up someone else’s church tradition (say, the church in Acts, or the Eastern Orthodox), or would that be neo-traditionalist instead? (This is also Jonah Goldberg’s critique of the Crunchy Con idea.) Is this even what you’re talking about?

    I do wish someone, somewhere, would address the Marshall McLuhan aspects of worship services. (They probably have, but I haven’t seen it.) It’s hard to do this without going beyond scripture, so you’d have to take it with a grain of salt, but I do think that the form of the service affects the content, and the fact that our society is going from print to electronic media culture must affecting the way people are understanding the gospel, both initially and subsequently in their spiritual growth. How can the church respond effectively to a cultural crisis in which the very means of concentrating and communicating deeply are discouraged, or at least not promoted, by our cultural habits? It could be that we’re undergoing as big of a revolution in our media as we did at the time of the Reformation. Christians need to think about the consequences.

    I’d be interested in your thoughts–again, if I’ve understood you correctly and this is even what you’re talking about. I hope I haven’t been too intense in my comment and thrown more on you (or something different) than you meant by your post. If so, please ignore it.

    Thank God he is sovereign and can transcend our limitations. That much hasn’t changed, at least.

  3. Laura,

    I think I will answer most of your questions in future installments. Those that weren’t already on my list are now there, anyway. That may not be much comfort, since the lag between installments in the series is growing. But I want to give the long answers that will require one or more posts.

    One thing, though. These days I view the gathering of the saints not as worship in itself, but as an aid to worship, i.e. something that can help the saints praise and serve, whether in the context of the gathering itself, or after they’ve gone forth, or both. Your description of the service at Redeemer is consistent with this. And I think the church down the road, with its worship band and thirty-minute praise chorus session, is also doing it right—exactly to the extent that they are equipping their own congregation to praise and serve.

  4. Thanks for that helpful clarification on worship vs. the gathering of saints (not that they are necessarily opposed). I’ll look forward to future posts on this and related subjects, whenever you have time for them. No hurry! (That would be the medium shaping the message, don’t you think?)

  5. Rick,

    A very interesting post, but with one glaring ommission. The purpose of music, any kind of music, within the worship service is not primarily to create a mood or manipulate emotions, but to support and supplement sound teaching.

    Thus Paul writes to the Collossian church: “Let the WORD OF CHRIST, richly dwell within you, with all wisdom TEACHING AND ADMONISHING one another WITH psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your heart to God”. Col. 3:16

    I would submit that both traditional and ‘off the wall’ churches, (ie. churches who sing praise music projected onto a screen ;-) ) often fall short of the biblical purpose for music in the worship service. To the extent that we try to whip up enthusiasm through music, we are merely manipulating each other. This kind of emotional manipulation more properly belongs in the marriage bed. Pelvic thrusts for Jesus is not worship. Jesus is not our divine boy-friend. To the extent we tolerate music and lyrics that aren’t reverent in tone, AND doctrinally sound, we are missing the mark. Certainly, there are good examples of modern music that meet those criteria, being uplifting without being titillating. And certainly there are old hymns featuring 1880’s circus music and endless ‘I love Jesus’ pablum. However, we are more apt to find the kind of music that is most appropriate for worship among the old hymns and the psalms of David. The main reason for this is because the broad evangelical church has abandoned sound doctrine in our day, labeling it ‘divisive’. Thus we are left with shallow preaching, inoffensive teaching and music of no real substance. In other words, the church is adopting pop culture as it’s standard of music.

    The bottom line is we need serious music with real doctrinal content if we are to encourage genuine worship. Therefore some degree of professionalism and competence is in order, but not to the point that the congregation is focused on the band or musician and not God. Music is to teach and facilitate, not dominate and entertain. I’ve seen too many worship services which degenerate into concerts punctuated by a short, shallow ‘sermon’. The sheep are being fed lots of sugar there, but no meat and potatoes.

    Anyway, my two cents.

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