A Simple Way to Frame the Contemporary / Traditional Worship Debate
As Christianity declines as a force to be reckoned with in American social life, what is left of the Church has been trying to figure out ways to attract non-believers. At least, that is what I believe is driving the importation of pop music into sacred spaces and sacred events. It strikes me that it is simply no coincidence that polka masses and easy liturgical listening were “innovated” around the same time we all rejected our grandmother’s traditions.
We are now entering our second, or even third, generation of the so-called “worship wars”. It is hard to deny which side has won. While “liturgical” or “traditional” worship has its holdouts and – like Israel had its remnant – always will, contemporary worship has glided in for a soft landing at the majority of Protestant congregations. “Contemporary” worship is now the default and the standard; “traditional” worship has become the exception.
To be fair, there is a lot of grey area. There are “blended” services, which try to meet somewhere in the middle. There is contemporary music in the midst of an ordered liturgy. There are multiple service options at one congregation. Somewhere between “high mass” and Hillsong is where most congregations find themselves, and there is often no fault to be found there.
Still, for those Christians who care, and for those of us who know that how we worship is critical to honoring God, forming disciples, and showing who we are to the world, worship really matters. It is not a question of adiaphora, a non-essential. Bad worship practices create confusion, encourage competition, and do not reflect the holiness of God.
So how do you know when someone has actually traversed the boundary of authentic Christian worship? And who is to be the final judge of such a thing? The answer must be on a case-by-case basis, of course. But I’d like to offer a way to frame the debate that may help the conversation.
If you are at all interested in the debate regarding evolution, you are probably familiar with the terms “microevolution” and “macroevolution” already. Darwin’s theory of evolution contends that, given enough time and changing circumstances, whole species will adapt and change into other whole species. (You know it is a new species when it can no longer reproduce with the previous species.) That is big-picture, macroevolution, change from one species to another.
Microevolution is change within a species. This is not wholesale change from one species to another, but rather, change and adaptation within an identifiable and categorical species.
In this case, the species is something we might call “Christian Worship.” And under that species, there is room for a lot of adaptation, change, and matters of opinion. But there are the essentials of Christian worship. Perhaps only God knows where that proverbial line in the sand is, but there is a line where one crosses from one species to another.
It would be extremely helpful – such wishful thinking, I know! – if Christians could agree on what that absolute essentials of Christian worship is so we could have some kind of boundary. I have my list. Christian worship services should include, if not every week, then regularly:
• Confession and Forgiveness (Psalm 32 and 51)
• The singing of psalms and hymns (Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3)
• The reading of scripture (Acts 2:42)
• Offering praise and worship of God (the entire Psalter)
• Praying for those in power and for those who are sick (1 Timothy 2)
• Preaching (following the example of Jesus himself and the apostles)
• Celebrating the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26)
• Receiving a benediction (Numbers 6 and the end of most of Paul’s letters.)
• Sharing the peace of Christ, as Paul did in all of his letters
So I would be willing to argue that worship services that do not regularly include what is on that list has simply evolved right out of what can meaningfully be considered Christian worship. And, again, just because a “pastor” in a “church” calls its one hour time on Sunday morning together “worship” doesn’t mean that it is.
Now within that list above is room for all kinds of cultural expression, languages, variation, music styles, etc. The Western Rite need not be dogmatized. Different expressions of worship should be encouraged, so long as we are appreciating microevolution within a recognizable species.
What we are seeing in much of what calls itself Christian worship is just not Christian worship. It has evolved right out of the conversation. So maybe this language of “species” can be a helpful tool is describing our dislike – or even disgust – of what is pretending to be worship when it is obviously something else. And maybe we can begin to have a real discussion about what actually constitutes authentic Christian worship and why. Every Christian should be able to create a list of their own like I have above. Mine may not be perfect, but I hope it is enough to contribute to the conversation.