March 20, 2007

Emerging Worship 3

Category: Theology - Liturgical :: Permalink

A while back, I read Dan Kimball’s Emerging Worship and made a few comments about it.  The book is due back at the library soon, so I guess I’d better finish up what I want to say about it while I still have the chance.

There were some things that pleased me about what Kimball says.   He points out that a lot of contemporary worship is man-centered, not Christ-centered (95).  I appreciate that his congregation places the worship band in the back so that the musicians aren’t “on stage” as if they were performing for the congregation but are rather with the congregation, assisting them in singing (92).

I’m delighted to hear that the emerging churches often partake of the Lord’s Supper every week and that it’s becoming a central part of worship again (94).  I was glad to read that there’s “a revival of liturgy,” and an interest in the music of the past (92).  Kimball says,

Interestingly, among emerging generations there is a fascinating revival of interest in singing hymns as part of worship.  The lyrical content of many hymns is rich and deep, something emerging generations desire.  The fact that we can become part of the church’s story by singing songs that are hundreds of years old demonstrates that Christianity is not a modern religion, but has deep historic roots.  Some nineteenth and twentieth century lyrics are steeped in modernity, but many beautiful ancient hymns are worth including in emerging worship (pp. 93-94).

All of that was encouraging to me as a guy who’s trying to plant a liturgical church that sings lots of psalms and pre-19th century hymns.  And yet….

At times it sounds as if Kimball and the emerging churches he’s describing are simply grabbing at whatever looks good to them.  I notice that when Kimball talks about liturgy, he talks about it as an ancient practice.  He speaks of the emerging generations’ “desire to seek the ancient” (92) and a sentence later uses the word “backlash,” which is what I’m afraid this is.  It sounds as if the emerging church, in a backlash against sterile modernism (e.g., the church in a building that looks like a gym with a pastor in a business suit) is hungry for “cool old stuff.”

Cool old stuff,” I say.  It’s not just that they want everything ancient.  It’s not that they want to adopt, for instance, the Book of Common Prayer and use that.  It’s more that they think candles are cool or that Celtic crosses are cool or that prayer stations are cool or that “liturgy” is cool.  It may be a backlash against modernism, but it doesn’t always appear to me from what Kimball says that it’s a backlash against the pursuit of the cool.

Another term for this “pursuit of the cool” might be the one Alexander Schmemann uses: mysteriological piety.  In the mystery religions, people performed certain rituals because those rituals would create a sense of something “special,” something mysterious, something transcendent, or whatever.

The early church fell into this kind of piety when, for instance, it stopped doing baptisms immediately upon conversion or upon the birth of a covenant child and instead made Easter the day for baptisms.  Why?  Because baptism symbolizes death and resurrection and wouldn’t it make it more special to be baptized on the day we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection?  Wouldn’t that make the symbol all that much more glorious, meaningful, and (if I may say it) “cool”?

Though Kimball says early in the book (I’ve lost the page) that he and his elders studied the Scriptures and jotted down all kinds of things from the Bible about worship, that study of Scripture is not evident in his discussion of worship.  The Bible is rarely mentioned, in fact.

There are lots of quotations of Scripture in the margins, along with quotations from men such as A. W. Tozer, John Piper, and even John Calvin (“Lawful worship consists in obedience alone”: 149).  But Kimball doesn’t present a biblical argument for any (that I can recall) of the practices he mentions, leaving the impression that what you do in worship is simply up to you.  You might ransack history to find things you think are worthwhile if you have that “desire for the ancient” or you might dream up something new.

There are good reasons for some of the “ancient practices” Kimball mentions.  There are good biblical reasons for weekly communion, for having candles on the communion table, and for following a liturgy (and not just any old liturgy), but there are also good biblical reasons for not following some ancient practices, reasons that our forefathers were right to point out.  But Kimball doesn’t seem interested in reasons; he seems interested merely in reporting and celebrating diverse practices, and that’s disappointing.

What’s also disappointing to me is the individualism that pervades the emerging churches’ worship as Kimball describes it.  He talks about churches allowing people to paint or write poetry or draw or sculpt clay during worship (85), which, I’m afraid, reminds me a bit of an elementary school art class, not worship.  He mentions prayer stations: people move around the room and go to little enclosed areas where they can pray, and each one has something different in it, an object to handle or a project to do or a passage of Scripture somehow related to the theme of the service (86).

He stresses the importance of prayer in the service, but again it’s largely individual and spontaneous prayer: “Plenty of time is given for people to slow down, quiet their hearts, and then pray at various stations and with others” (94).  Interestingly, he seems to associate the Spirit with contemplation and slow, meditative music (89, 94), though in the Bible the Spirit produces vigorous rhythmic music to say nothing of corporate music.

Later in the book, he describes a service at a church called Matthew’s House, where “They also take communion each week, and people can partake in communion at any time in the service when they are prepared to do so” (203).  In other words: It’s up to you to partake if and when you want.

As he describes emerging churches in England, Kimball notes that there’s even less overt teaching and corporate singing than in North America.  People are encouraged to “discover things for themselves” (214), which may fit with Kimball’s earlier statement that “Emerging preachers see themselves as fellow journeyers.  Preaching is no longer an authoritative transferring of biblical information” (87).

Furthermore, these English emerging churches, Kimball says, have informal beginnings and endings.  You come and go as you please.  There’s some corporate stuff, but “it’s typical to say at the beginning that people don’t have to take part in anything if they don’t want to….  The event becomes a worship experience that one walks into and stays as long as one wants to” (214).

It strikes me that if Kimball truly wants a backlash against modernism, then this might be the place to start, with this sort of modern individualism with which our society is poisoned.  Instead of fighting that poison and providing an antidote, however, these sorts of churches seem to be encouraging it.  People are to come and feel free to do as they please; they aren’t to be compelled to join in a corporate song or a corporate prayer or a corporate anything. 

Which is to say, they aren’t functioning in worship as a body.  They draw near to God and worship, not as the one body of Christ, acting corporately, doing things together whether they feel like it or not because it’s what the body is doing and it’s what Christ the head wants the body to do, but as individual marbles who happen to be in the same bag at the same time.

It may be that these churches work well as a body during the week.  They may exhibit more “body life” than many other churches.  I don’t deny that.  But the individualism that pervades Kimball’s description of emerging worship is at odds with the church’s true nature as the body of Christ.

The good news may be that if there truly is a backlash against modernity, if people are open to “the ancient” and to liturgy and to Christ-centered preaching and to great old songs and to history, then there’s a great opportunity for the emerging church, perhaps after some adolescent struggles, to break free from the pursuit of the “cool,” to escape mysteriological piety, and most importantly to escape individualism and discover biblical corporate liturgy.  If you put their zeal for authentic biblical community together with authentic biblical liturgy, you could have a potent combination.

Posted by John Barach @ 12:19 pm | Discuss (3)

3 Responses to “Emerging Worship 3”

  1. duane vandenberg Says:

    I was out at a men’s retreat this weekend, hosted by a little community church, but held in the Rockies. They did a lot of singing before the start of each session- mostly modern music, led by a guitar. Not quite 7-11, but a lot of repetition. Their style of music seems to be a search for feeling, but I’ll not criticize any of the words, because they were praising God. Ironically though, the best singing was when they pulled out “How Great Thou Art” just before communion. Men sung that song with PASSION! Everyone knew the hymn, and you could tell.
    As someone who likes to sing harmony, I don’t like having the words to a new hymn put up on the overhead without the tune- it let’s the band do whatever they want with the tune and the people never know were it’s going.


  2. Jake Says:

    Excellent review, John, thanks for that. I read Kimball’s other book last year, The Emerging Church (I think it’s just called that), as part of an independent study on the movement, and I found similar things to what you’re saying here. I think one of the issues here is that Kimball is just a pastor. Let me explain—he’s a young gun pastor of a young church who very quickly hopped on a young bandwagon. His writings show very clearly that he has not probed the depths of the notion of worship and how it is to be reinterpreted within a “postmodern” framework.

    I don’t want to insult Kimball, or demean him in any way. He just, like you, lacks an understanding of the depth and importance of worship.

    But I think we need to be patient. It is true that the Emerging Church is in adolescent stages, times that are awkward for it and times that it is trying hard to define itself. It’s the perfect time for critiquers to step in and say, “Hey, listen folks, there needs to be some realignment with a biblical understanding of worship here,” etc. A lot of the notions of the movement have potential, and the movement has promise of being a major player in 21st century Protestantism.

    If there’s lots of mistakes here, I’m sorry, I can’t really see what I’m writing with the reflection of the sun on the computer screen 🙂

  3. Adding Cool Stuff to Liturgy | Cogito, Credo, Petam Says:

    […] Many who are attracted to traditions of Christian worship that use a richer set of gestures and ornaments like the symbolism of these things. Often they believe these traditions to be superior for that very reason to those which are sparser. I disagree. There are some who mistakenly think unintelligible symbolism makes worship deeper and more mysterious. More mysterious, maybe. Deeper, no. Unintelligible signs – signs whose meaning no one can agree on, and whose effect is not rational – are useless to Christian worship, which relies not only on a relationship but also on the historicity of certain events and the truth of certain doctrines. But even symbolism as a system of conscious signification has its own hazards. The danger, not least in our own time, is that symbols cloud rather than enlighten the mind. As John Barach says, […]

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