Monday, November 09, 2015

8 Reasons the Worship Dichotomy Is Killing Worship

I end up reading a lot of online articles about worship. Every so often, one seems to capture the attention of a decent cross section of my social media newsfeed, usually in service of the same basic point: purporting to lift up the value of "traditional" worship over and against "contemporary" worship based on allegedly objective criteria.

The latest in this vein that has picked up steam the past few weeks is one entitled 8 Reasons the Worship Industry is Killing Worship. Like so many before it, it presents a list of reasons why contemporary praise music is the worst thing to happen to Christian worship in the past century (which is what people said about organs and hymns when they were first introduced...but I digress).

This article includes reasons such as "its sole purpose is to make us feel something," "it hijacks worship," "it's derivative of mainstream commercial music," and so on. While generally these points are worth engaging and do offer some valid critique of the temptation and tendencies that one form of worship offers, it also exhibits some temptations and tendencies that one who fights so hard to ridicule the thing one doesn't like chooses to ignore about what they do like.

Last year, I wrote at some length about this in response to another such article. But because articles written in list form have become so popular and engage these topics in a different way, I'll go ahead and give this a shot.

So, here are 8 reasons the usual worship dichotomy needs to be let go:

1. It ignores that every form of worship employs or appeals to emotion. One of the oldest and most tiresome talking points in the worship wars is that contemporary worship only appeals to emotion, whereas traditional worship engages the intellect. This argument mainly appeals to the words and structure of praise music vs. hymns, but inevitably spills over into other elements that each form includes. At the same time, it conveniently ignores that traditional worship includes poetically crafted prayers and songs, sanctuaries and altars specially decorated according to the church calendar, and artistic images such as stained glass, i.e., elements that engage the senses. Every form of worship appeals to emotion, just in different ways.

2. It breeds elitism. It's a short jump from the first point to this one, where traditional worship gets set up as being for the intellectually engaged while contemporary worship is for the consumeristic unwashed masses. More than once have I heard criticism of the latter as being the kind where one is able to "leave their brain at the door." But again, this ignores elements common to all forms of worship even if they manifest differently. And more to this second point, it demeans people who don't share one's own tastes. Just like Jesus would do. Or not.

3. It downplays the fact that a single form of worship doesn't engage everyone in the same way. Can we just be honest that not everyone likes organ music, and no amount of exposure to it is going to change their minds? What you may hear as carefully-crafted verses beautifully played on an instrument that has been the church standard for centuries (but again, not as many centuries as one presumes), others will always hear as dirges played on that thing that sits in the corner of Grandma's living room. Meanwhile, they may see that another church is utilizing the same instruments and style that they listen to the entire rest of the week, and that speaks to them. Why can't we give people permission--without looking down our noses at them, mind you--to embrace that for themselves?

4. It assumes that one form of worship is performance-based and another isn't. Years ago I attended a service at a very tall-steeple church. They had a full brass section that played during the hymns, and the last one in particular was so soaring and majestic with that added component that many were stirred to applaud after it concluded. But contemporary worship is the style that gets criticized for having the band up front "performing." Think of a time when the choir sang a piece so well-harmonized and moving (there go those pesky emotions again). How often are you objectively thinking about how they added to the worship moment as opposed to how beautiful you found it personally? As with other points discussed so far, performance elements transcend specific styles.

5. It sets certain liturgical elements as absolute criteria for what is worship and what isn't. In the Reformed tradition, there are four basic components to worship: Gathering, Hearing the Word, Responding, Sending Forth. It's a logical, well-reasoned pattern that many churches use with tweaks and caveats. Some churches put preaching at the forefront, others especially lift up the sacraments. The criticism offered in the linked piece above worries that music is made too central in certain forms of worship. And yet that might be what people most connect to; where they most find God. They might not experience it most fully in a sermon or prayer or even at the communion table, at least at first. Insisting that certain elements in worship are more crucial than others may deny someone else an encounter with the divine.

6. It's willfully blind to the preferred form's shortcomings. It may be hard to believe, but your favorite worship form has some blind spots. Not everyone is into hymns and sermons that sound like academic theology lectures. And not everyone is into 20 to 30-minute sets of praise songs followed by 30 to 45-minute TED talk-like expositions. And the people who don't like your style will tell you why. That's okay. Maybe there's something worth learning from the critique if it's offered constructively, and if you can handle the thought that more than one form can help connect people to God.

7. It's willfully blind to the criticized form's strengths. It also may be hard to believe the exact opposite of what I just said. Not only might there be some ways your favorite style could improve, there are also ways the style you don't like is actually doing okay. But again, handling the thought of more than one form connecting people to God, etc.

8. It offers a compartmentalized view of worship in general. We're in a cultural moment in American Christianity where distinct services don't matter as much as they used to. Sure, many still love their candles and incense and many want their guitars and drums. But we're past the point where starting a "contemporary" service as a complement to the "traditional" is no longer ground-breaking or sought after the way it used to be. Many worship communities are finding a blend of the two, taking the best of what each has to offer, or foregoing both entirely for something more contemplative and allowing for silence and reflection. The old traditional/contemporary argument is passe for many, as more realize that there are multiple ways to seek a connection with God beyond the old dichotomy.

So the question becomes: can we celebrate that there's more than one way to worship? Can we let go of our own preferences enough to wish others well on their own journey rather than insist that they walk the same path? That seems much more productive than going round and round in the same way on this.