Worship for Postmodern Times
by Marva J. Dawn (May / June 1998 — Volume 14, Number 3)
How does the church minister to people in postmodern times? What kind of thinking should we be doing about worship as the third millennium approaches? What's at stake is the truth of Christ
Frequently on airplanes I meet persons who claim to be very absorbed in "spirituality," but have no interest in institutional churches and their worship services. "Churches don't meet my needs," they exclaim and consider the subject ended.
Friendly conversation, however, often reveals that they have hidden their genuine needs even from themselves. I think particularly of a gold-bedecked professional gambler sadly departing from a visit with his son in the Midwest, of a fidgety lawyer trying to beat the plane to Anchorage, of a discourteous twentysomething "needing" fiercely to be entertained, and of myself in my own frustrations over various "worship wars."
How does the church minister to people in postmodern times? What kind of thinking should we be doing about worship services as the third millennium approaches? Within the limitations of this article I cannot nuance things as carefully as I would like, so please recognize these comments as broad brush strokes as we briefly explore here the nature of the postmodern condition and implications for the church's worship.1
The Postmodern Condition
The term postmodernism is used in a wide variety of ways and covers a wide variety of ideas. In university history departments, postmodernism leads to revisionist accounts of events and an ever-increasing fracturing of society into victim groups demanding their own stories. Postmodernist philosophers absolutize the relativity of truth, stress playfulness, and speak in random aphorisms. English teachers and visual artists who accept postmodern theories claim that there is no meaning in texts or paintings except what the reader or viewer brings to them.
My concern here is for how postmodern notions — often without our awareness — hit the streets, affect our children, and influence the people in (or absent from) our churches' pews.
The postmodern spirit was really inevitable, since modernity believed so firmly in the faulty Enlightenment notion of progress. With the rise of science and technology, and economics and communications, the modern spirit insisted that everything would get better and better — that we could solve the problems of the world with enough scientific discovery and technological fixes.
What the 20th century gave us instead was disastrous world wars and depressions, the horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, contemporary ethnic cleansing and tribalism, economic chaos in the face of massive global joblessness, the emptiness and ennui of entertainment that keeps dramatically escalating in violence and immorality, and the obvious loss of any moral consensus or commitment to the common good.
The failure of "progress" leads to postmodernist spirals of despair and hopelessness. The poor outlook for jobs leaves young people without any reason to learn, even as their entertainments deprive them of the brain space or skills to do so.2 We might as well amuse ourselves to death.3 One very visible indicator of postmodern anomie is the immense proliferation of gambling casinos and lotteries.
Most important of all, the failure of the hyped-up promises of science and technology accentuates the loss of truth already inherent in modernist relativizing and in the rejection of authoritative structures or persons with moral authority. Consequently, the major characteristic of the postmodern condition is the repudiation of any truth that claims to be absolute or truly true.
"Christianity might be true for you, but not for me," our children used to say with modernist relativity — but now they are learning in their schools and from the media that any claim to truth is merely a means to hide an oppressive will to power. The result is the malaise of meaninglessness, the inability to trust anything or anyone, and the loss of any reference point by which to construct one's life.
In response to the downward trend in worship attendance that accompanied the massive changes in U.S. society in the 1960's,4 many congregations took drastic turns without adequate thinking about the theological and ecclesiological implications.
Though the following list is far too cursory, it summarizes some of the moves that should be questioned:
- In the face of the relativizing of truth, some pastors and musicians dispensed less truth instead of more, becoming therapeutic instead of theological; with the proliferation of entertainments, some worship leaders sacrificed content for form and confused worship with evangelism and evangelism with marketing.
- As society became more openly pluralistic and less supportive of Christianity in particular, some congregations blurred their unique identity as the people of God instead of accentuating it with loving commitment;
- As the culture became more and more rootless, some denominations and individual parishes gave up their heritage as communities with long histories and global connections;
- In the face of the culture's loss of moral authority, some churches became tolerant to the point of ceasing to be a people formed by the narratives of Scripture;
- In response to the increasing clamor for choice, some congregations fostered consumerism according to "felt needs" instead of embracing what is truly needful.
The Best of Old and New
Please do not think, on the basis of the foregoing list, that I am advocating a wooden traditionalism. Jaroslav Pelikan's distinction is forever apt: traditionalism is the dead faith of the living, whereas tradition is the living faith of the dead.
In the worship wars between the "traditionalists" and the "contemporaryists," I am opposed to both polarities and want the best from both sides, since the church's treasure house is filled with both old and new. Since our congregations are linked to all God's people throughout space and time, we need both continuity with our heritage and constant reformation using new forms and words and musical styles.
Also, I am not advocating biblicism or biblical idolatry. When I call for more truth and not less, I yearn for that truth to be presented without oppression or violence, with genuine care for the listeners, in vital forms, with the honest and humble recognition that we know truth only partially.
Most of all, do not think that I am not interested in evangelism. I am, however, really worried about some misconceptions that are thriving on the lecture circuit these days. Audiences are being told that we "should have two points of entry into our congregations" — at least two kinds of worship styles to attract (especially the boomer generation) to our churches. Wrong!5 Worship is not the "point of entry." You are!
Nowhere in the Bible does it say, "Worship the Lord to attract the unbeliever." Nowhere! We worship the Lord because God is worthy of our praise. Instead, the Scriptures frequently tell us that we are witnesses. Evangelism happens in our daily lives, our regular encounters, our simple conversations and carings (or at evangelistic events which have a focus different from that of worship) — in order that we can bring others with us to worship God.
Think of the difference between evangelism and worship with this simple analogy: imagine how I describe my beloved husband to audiences when I use him for an example in my presentations and then how I speak to him when I get home after being on the road for my work.
Worship is the language of adoration addressed to God and the language of God's instruction to equip us for life and witness. Good worship will be evangelistic, but that is not its purpose, for worship is directed to God as its subject and object. Good worship will both nurture the character of believers and the community and also form us to be the kind of people who will reach out evangelistically and in service to the world around us.
Another misconception frequently touted is that worship should be user-friendly. I am certainly not advocating worship that alienates or is totally inaccessible, but the Scriptures help us see that being confronted by God is not always comfortable or comforting. God is not easily understandable, nor is it cozy to be a disciple. We must be careful that it is not God's earthly servants who offend, but the Lord of the gospel himself is a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense. User-friendly worship seems to me to sacrifice an awe-full lot of God.
|Nowhere in the Bible does it say, "Worship the Lord to attract the unbeliever." We worship the Lord because God is worthy of our praise.|
Worship Needs Truth
What we need in worship is the Truth — the whole truth, nothing but the truth, so help us, God! That oath from the witness stand gives us good guidelines for the witness that takes place in our lives and in our worship services.
The truth that the church has to offer to people caught in the postmodern condition must be shared in all its wholeness. To those who criticize Christianity because it has been (and sometimes now is) violent and oppressive, we must respond with the acknowledgement that they are right.
Beyond accepting the blame for Christians' failures in history, we must recognize the whole truth that we remain sinful and fallible. The Scriptures teach us thoroughly that our nature is helplessly sinful, hopelessly lost. That truth forces us to see that we cannot know the truth entirely, that our eyes are blinded by sin, that our understanding of God is only partial. But that does not negate the truth of God nor our recognition of Christ who is the truth, the life, and the way.
Against the postmodern rejection of meta-narrative — that is, of the possibility that there is any universal, overarching truth true for all people in all places — I believe that Christians can humbly suggest a non-oppressive, all-inclusive story of a triune God who creates, redeems, and unifies as manifestations of a perfect love for the whole world.
The Christian meta-narrative is the account of a promising God who always keeps his promises — a truth clearly seen in the First Testament history of Israel and most clearly seen in the history of Jesus of Nazareth, who died and rose again in fulfillment of God's promises. We believe that this meta-narrative will reach its ultimate fulfillment when Jesus comes again to bring God's promised gracious reign to fruition — and thus the meta-narrative of God's kingdom already initiated gives us all that we most deeply need of hope, purpose, and fulfillment in this present life.
This God of eternal mystery condescends to reveal himself to us — a process to which he invites us by drawing us to worship him. That is why our worship needs to be structured as richly and deeply as possible, so that we never lose sight of the fact that God is the one who enables us to come to worship and the one who receives our praise.
Furthermore, our worship must contain nothing but the truth. Music, songs, Scripture lessons, sermons, liturgical forms, architecture, and other accoutrements of art and gesture and ambience are all means by which God invites, reveals, and forms us.
If we use shallow (I did not say simple) worship materials, they will not reveal the truth about God. Instead, these shallow materials will both shape shallow theology and form us superficially. Songs with cheap or sentimental lyrics or banal music belie the coherence and integrity of God. Sermons that draw attention to the preacher's eloquence or merely to the superficial needs of the listeners deprive the congregation of the formative power of the scriptural narratives for meeting our genuine needs for repentant insight, constant forgiveness, authentic security, unconditional love, absolute healing, faithful presence, fruitful freedom, compelling motivation, coherent guidance for daily life, and eternal hope.
Worship can never give us the whole truth, but worship must never give us untruth or less than truth. Our finite minds cannot begin to grasp all that there is to learn about God, but every time the community gathers we have the opportunity to add to our total store of truth what this time of corporate worship contributes. Only by God's grace and in the context of prayer and the whole Christian community can worship leaders prepare services that present as much truth as possible.
Against postmodernity's rejection of the past and of authority, in the church we realize that we are greatly helped in our planning by the wisdom gathered throughout the church's existence, by history's sorting of the good from the less-than-good in hymns and liturgies and interpretations. Now it is our responsibility to sort through what is new in order to choose what is true — keeping God as the subject/object of our worship, nurturing the truthful character of individual believers, and forming the Christian community to be outreaching with the truth that we know.
|In the worship wars between the "traditionalists" and the "contemporaryists," I am opposed to both polarities and want the best from both sides, since the church's treasure house is filled with both old and new.|
Equipping the Saints
If worship stays well focused on the Trinity, participants will become better equipped to be God's witnesses to their worlds. To introduce our families and neighbors and co-workers to God and to God's gifts for them, we need an ever-growing understanding of his promises, his character, his interventions in the world, and his truth that underlies our realities. Out of a character formed by the biblical narratives, by their faithful interpretation, and by resulting sound doctrine will flow love that responds to the love of God. Such a character will manifest forgiveness that recognizes the potency of the Father's grace, actions that follow the model of Jesus, and encouragement and compassion empowered by the Paraclete.
Of course, strong Christian character cannot be formed if the worship hour is the only time the church has to nurture it, but worship's subtle influence on character dare not be misdirected. If we sing only narcissistic ditties, we will develop a faith that depends on feelings and that is inward-curved, instead of outward-turned.
Worship as truth and thereby formative of character is a major issue for me because of so many bad experiences lately in worship services that were flimsy, if not flippant.
In the last two Lenten seasons in various Lutheran churches, I've heard sermons that spoke about our journey and our temptations without once mentioning Christ's; an introduction that suggested we observe a "joyful Lent" this year; chancel dramas that told stories of biblical figures not at all related to Christ's work of atonement or anything else Lenten; the story of Bel and the Dragon (from the apocryphal Daniel) as the main message; songs that were happy and "uplifting" on Good Friday; the sharing of "our stories," again without any reference to Christ; a discussion that focused on our feelings about people and how we can crank ourselves up to love them; and a children's sermon on burying the Alleluia during Lent, without a single statement as to why.
Meanwhile, solid Lenten hymns were sometimes rejected for "upbeat" songs, and Marty Haugen's lovely vespers liturgy has frequently been sung so fast that there was no time to think about what we were singing and the canon entirely fell apart because the congregation couldn't keep up with the pianist. What has happened to Lent?
Can we be formed as a people willing to suffer if we do not reflect upon the willingness of Jesus to bear our sufferings? Are we able to refrain from making grace cheap if we do not pause to remember the agony of Good Friday and the days that preceded it?
I'm not advocating an overly-morose Lent and funeral dirges similar to those some of us might have experienced as children in excessively sober Scandinavian or German congregations. But we need Lent! Our forebears were wise to put its 40 days into the calendar to keep us mindful of the great sacrifice of Christ and the immense love of the Father.
In these postmodern times, sin and failure are almost universally unacknowledged, though everyone experiences or is aware of disillusionment and despair. In response to this anguish, Lent and its fulfillment of the forgiveness of the promising God are great gifts the church can offer the world around it.
I could have picked any other season of the church year to demonstrate the need for carefully equipping the saints with the truths of faith so that they can witness to, and serve, their neighbors. The church needs both preachers and musicians with great faithfulness to give worship participants what they need instead of what they think they need, to offer that which is needful instead of catering to neediness. Ultimately, this meat will be much more satisfying that the pablum of a schmoozy Lent.
II Timothy 3:14-17 invites us to be trained in the Holy Scriptures — to know them and be formed by them and not just "believe" as if that were a leap in the dark, to have habits and not choices. We need that kind of training much more than our parents did, since the society no longer supports it and since so many cultural forces alien to the gospel impinge on our lives and urge our conformity.
Yet many congregations these days present only "adult forums" and sermons which merely "share opinions" on various issues rather than offering deep explication of Scripture to lay the basis for genuine Christian thinking, thorough teaching of the biblical narratives in order to form us to react as God's people — with kingdom values — to the problems and social issues of our everyday lives. Why does so much of the new music used in many congregations lack theological depth, biblical images, motivation to be about God's purposes of witnessing, justice building, and peace making in the world? What kind of people are our worship services forming?
I believe that Jesus during his earthly life prayed for us — those who would believe through the witness of his disciples — that we would be sanctified in the truth and then sent out into the world to bear testimony to it (John 17:17-21). That is a wonderful description of worship: that by God's gracious invitation and Christ's intercession and the Spirit's enabling, we are welcomed to learn of the Trinity through the biblical narratives passed on by faithful witnesses. Gathered in the community of saints, we are formed by the truth taught in worship music and word so that out of our Christian character will flow the witness of our words and deeds.
The postmodern world that surrounds us yearns for stability, morality, security, fidelity, faith, hope, and love. These deep needs can only be met through the One who meets our deepest need for truth. Let us make sure that the worship services we plan and conduct present that truth in all its clarity and beauty and goodness.
Marva J. Dawn of Vancouver, Washington, is a theologian and musician who teaches under "Christians Equipped for Ministry." She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame in Christian Ethics and the Scriptures and has spoken for clergy conferences and seminaries, both nationally and internationally. She is also an author of several books, including Reaching Out without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-Century Culture (Eerdmans, 1995). The article is printed by permission of CROSSACCENT, the journal of the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians © 1997.
1. I am grateful for this opportunity to expand my previous writing on postmodernism in relation to worship, but foundational ideas for what is written here are much more thoroughly explicated and nuanced in my book, Reaching Out without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-Century Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995).
2. See Jane M. Healy, Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don't Think (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990).
3. See Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1985).
4. See Wade Clark Roof, A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993).
5. Not only is this idea wrong biblically, but also it is extremely destructive of genuine community, fosters an independent view of the local congregation, and suggests that worship is a matter of taste rather than of entering God's presence in the company of the church throughout space and time.