How do we make worship contextual?

If you were to visit a church in North America today, chances are you would be faced with a choice: contemporary or traditional. Occasionally there might be a third option of “blended.” There might also be additional styles of worship offered (emerging, recovery, Taizé, liturgical, etc.). Faced with these choices, those assembled are practically begged to answer the questions, “What is my preference?” “What do I like?” and “What works for me?”

These choices for worship have come to be expected in many churches. Is there anything wrong with them? Perhaps they are a cultural phenomenon in a society bent on individualization (a symptom of the Burger King ethos where you can “have it your way”). Perhaps they are the church’s most missional effort to reach as many people possible with the gospel of Jesus. However, a church that encourages self-preferential behavior seems to run against the path of discipleship that teaches, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). What style would worship take if those assembled regarded others as better than themselves?

Reframing the style question

When a new church is birthed or when an existing church launches a new opportunity to assemble for worship, do they ask, “Are we going to be traditional, contemporary, or blended?” Do they look at what the largest church in town does and duplicate it? Is there another way to discern what style of worship a church should employ? Maybe a church has decided that offering multiple styles of worship has become divisive and done more harm than good. Perhaps their question is, “How do we move past traditional and contemporary?”

“Traditional,” “contemporary,” and “emerging” are merely labels. There are instances when our labels are not necessarily helpful or accurate. (see also, “How is worship traditional? How is worship contemporary?”) Regardless of their benefit or precision, these styles for worship have developed and the labels have become affixed to the church’s conscience. In order to move past these labels, a better question may be needed: “How do we figure out what our local worship should sound like?”

 

Nairobi statement

How do we makeworship contextual-

“Jesus whom we worship was born into a specific culture of the world. In the mystery of his incarnation are the model and the mandate for the contextualization of Christian worship. God can be and is encountered in the local cultures of our world. A given culture’s values and patterns, insofar as they are consonant with the values of the Gospel, can be used to express the meaning and purpose of Christian worship. Contextualization is a necessary task for the Church’s mission in the world, so that the Gospel can be ever more deeply rooted in diverse local cultures.” (Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture, 3.1)

The Nairobi Statement reasons that worship, as it dynamically relates to the given culture in which it is enacted, is contextual. Worship cannot be disconnected from the time and place in which it is enacted. Many of the factors pertaining to how worship is offered are determined by its particular context. “We call on all churches to give serious attention to exploring the local or contextual elements of liturgy, language, posture and gesture, hymnody and other music and musical instruments, and art and architecture for Christian worship.” (Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture, 6.1) Faithful worship does not ignore the people or culture in which it is located.

 

Suggestions for making worship contextual

To return to our reframing question: “What should our local expression of worship sound like?” Contextual worship makes use of the music, language, and artistic forms of the local culture the church is planted in. This means that Lutheran worship in downtown New Orleans will potentially be radically different than Lutheran worship in rural Montana. Regardless of how radically different they appear in form and content, they both remain faithful enactments of Lutheran worship. The willingness to connect to the surrounding culture and become contextual make their worship faithfully Lutheran, not their predilection for Baroque-era European music. Contextual worship requires rooting into the neighborhood. There are no shortcuts to contextual worship; real, relational, outwardly focused ministry is the only way to discern context. Contextual worship does not imply a disregard for global music or the historical practices of the church.

 

The sounds of a worshiping assembly should be reflective of the culture that it is planted in. The musical gifts present that are present within a local church should be used to make worship contextual. The Holy Spirit, equipping her for ministry, gives these gifts to the local church. Many churches have a preconceived idea that worship should sound a certain way, requiring particular instruments for worship to sound that way. Instead of hiring a drummer or hiring an organist because of the perception of what worship should sound like, worship should sound like what you are.

The sounds of contextual worship, produced by the people that God has gifted to a church, should be current and modern, as well as reach back into the history of our faith.

P.S. For further analysis of how to enact faithful, Lutheran worship that is also transcultural, counter-cultural, and cross-cultural, see Can We Talk? Engaging Worship and Culture.

 

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Weekly Worship Thought – Missing Something

4b2husoh_m0-zachrie-friesenI attended a funeral last week. It was not someone I knew, and it was held at a church I had not attended before. So, for better or worse, I entered the space with my worship detective hat on. I always like to see what other churches are up to and how they arrange their spaces for worship.

This was a modern church. Sometimes they get called “big box” churches (after the mega retail stores that look exactly the same everywhere). The building was a recent construction. All of the furnishings were new and up to date. On their website they say that you can expect:

  • a casual atmosphere
  • friendly people who’ll help you find your way around
  • today’s music and high-impact media
  • messages relevant to your daily life
  • clean, bright facility and kid’s classes

I guess those things are innocent enough. I can’t say that casual atmosphere and friendly people ever hurt anyone. I know all about these motives for ministry. The hurdle is set low for people who don’t understand church or don’t have a helpful experience of church. It is an easy facility to walk into and feel comfortable. It is disarming.

But that wasn’t exactly the experience I had at this funeral. Upon walking in the front door of the entryway I noticed the nice tile, updated signage telling me where things were, and heard familiar worship songs from everyone’s favorite Australian church gently cascading through the air. My spidey-church-sense was activated.

I peeked through the door into main worship space. And immediately I knew something was off. Something internally was not sitting right with me. I saw rows of chairs, a platform, drums and a keyboard, and very expensive lighting gear (motion lights and LED panels). The lighting was dimmed. There were 2 large screens at the front of the room (nothing being displayed on them). I turned back into the lobby area and tried to make sense of the uneasy feeling I had. What was missing?

After a few moments it hit me. The table. And then I identified the feeling. I had felt it before. It is this subconscious tug I feel every time I enter a space for worship and there is no table for God’s meal. Not only was the table missing, but also a cross, and a visible, accessible font. I realize there are different types of churches for different types of people. But my heart was heavy. And not because of the funeral. It was what was missing from the funeral.

How can we be comforted by God’s love without tasting the food that unites all people across time and space – the foretaste of the feast to come? In the desire to have an authentic experience in worship we can easily lose the most powerful signs and symbols we have of God’s presence.

Weekly Worship Thought – What is the primary symbol of worship?

What would you say is the primary symbol of Christian worship?

Have you ever thought about this question? Let me suggest another way to think about this question. If you walk into a room of people engaged in Christian worship, what is the symbol in the room that gives it away? I believe most people would agree that a cross or crucifix would be the main symbol that is a dead giveaway that a room is used for Christian worship. However, that is not always the case.

Last month I traveled to Rochester, MN for a continuing education event. We gathered at Zumbro Lutheran Church to learn more about our Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW) hymnal on the 10th anniversary of its publication. I was struck by the space for worship at Zumbro Lutheran. What stands out to you in their space?

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The first thing that stood out to me was the bold, red letters quoting a passage form 2 Corinthians. This text hovers on the back wall of the chancel, just above the table, and constantly reminds those gathered of God’s mission in Christ.

Next I noticed the object suspended in the air. What does this object represent to you? I can see several things. I could interpret this object as a crown of thorns, a circle of connecting crosses, or the wings of doves. Perhaps you see something different. Then I realized it. There was no cross in this room. At least there was no central, direct, grab-your-attention cross to tell you that this room was used for Christian worship.

Back to my question: what is the symbol in the room that gives Christian worship away? Actually, sorry, that was a trick question. It is a trick question because you may not consider the answer to be a symbol. The answer is people. The assembly gathered is the primary symbol in Christian worship. “Church” first and foremost is a people, not a building. The place in which we gather, the things we do – none of these would occur if not for the gathering of God’s people.

Weekly Worship Thought – Into the World

mutter_teresa_von_kalkuttaRiffing on an idea from Pastor Kerry’s sermon on Sunday: Mother Teresa (canonized as a saint on September 6) offers us a model of how faithful, Christ-centered spirituality does not primarily lead to mountain-top experiences of private “me and God” time. The call to give our lives away for the life of the world begins at our baptism. Jesus’ own baptism is our model. Jesus’ baptism marked his ministry and propelled him deeper into the world, not away from the world. If anything, Jesus’ own baptism wasn’t a cleansing of sin but an identification with the rejected and outcast. Jesus was baptized as a sign of solidarity with the marginalized of the world, even unto death. Our baptism, our continual dying to sin and rising to new life, is our call deeper into the world, not away from it.

If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” ~Mother Teresa

Weekly Worship Thought – Whole Heart

photo-1469571486292-0ba58a3f068bPsalm 111:1 says, “Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.” At the very center of all true worship is an attitude of thankfulness. The word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek word for “thanksgiving.” We call communion “thanksgiving” because the scripture tells us that when Jesus was eating with his disciples “he gave thanks, broke it, and said, this is my body….” Following Jesus’ lead, our worship at God’s table is centered in an attitude of thankfulness. Back to Psalm 111. It says “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart.” I’m interested in the idea of whole-heartedness. What does it look like to give thanks with a whole heart? What are the things that divide our heart and keep us from wholly giving ourselves in thanks to God?

Weekly Worship Thought – Confession

456903_381360738576439_143418169037365_1103943_1194963067_oOne of the elements of worship at The Gathering will change this week. It is the Prayer of Confession that takes place before the presider speaks the words of institution and we share communion. We added this confessional liturgy into The Gathering worship earlier this year and use it every week. I have been writing and compiling these prayers and this week will be our fourth iteration of it. The structure is the same from season to season:
  • Introduction (which might include acknowledgment of God’s attributes, thanksgiving for the offering that was just collected, and a call to confession from the presider)
  • Silence for reflection
  • Communal confession of sin (spoken in unison by the assembly)
  • Words of Forgiveness (which might include a call to the meal, transitioning us to the table and the words of institution)
One of the tricky things about curating this confessional prayer is to not transition into the meal focused on my sin and my forgiveness. Although the words of the confession us “us/we” language, there is a tendency to make confession about personal wrong-doing and personal forgiveness. However, the table is not so narrow. The table is not only concerned about me as an individual. The table is broad enough for the universe, and is the place where I “become what I eat” and am in turn made to be bread for the world. My goal in this prayer of confession is to set our minds and hearts on the cosmic reach of God’s forgiveness at the table, not merely what God has done for me individually.

Eucharistic Prayer of Confession @ The Gathering
Easter Season 2016

P:        Let us pray. God of all creation, we joyfully give back to you what you have given to us in abundance. All you have made is good, and your love endures forever. You give us bread from the earth and fruit from the vine. We do not presume to come to your table trusting in our own righteousness, but in your overflowing mercy. Let us confess our sin in the presence of God and of one another.

Silence is kept for reflection.

P:        God of grace and glory,

All:     you have brought us from death to life in Jesus’ resurrection. Yet our lives are still shadowed by sin. Make us alive in Christ, new creations in you. Rescue us in our time of need, renew us in grace, and restore us to living in your holiness, through Jesus Christ, our risen Lord. Amen.

P:        Brothers and sisters, we have victory in Christ who has defeated the powers of sin and death through his glorious resurrection. Join in the meal of God’s forgiveness. As we eat and drink the body and blood of our risen Lord, may we live in him and he in us, a foretaste of the feast to come.

In the night in which he was betrayed…

Weekly Worship Thought – Can We Talk?

14237698_10154491382356804_4811150322787948244_nThis week I will begin to lead our worship band through some discussion using the new resource: Can We Talk? Engaging Worship and Culture. This resource is a type of study guide to help churches practically flesh out how and why worship intersects with culture. It uses the Nairobi Statement as a lens to view worship. Although our worship band mainly provides the music for the service, it is helpful to think about worship as a whole and how our music serves it. We will have some discussion about what worship looks like (how is our space used and what can visual arts do?) sounds like (music and the proclamation of God’s word), and how worship engages mind, body, and spirit through ritual practices like prayer, the sacraments, and blessings. I was thrilled to be a contributing author for this resource and highly recommend checking it out.

Weekly Worship Thought – Food

photo-1448794363755-de84d6a770bcLuke 14:1: “Now it happened that on a Sabbath day he had gone to share a meal in the house of one of the leading Pharisees…” One of the centerpieces of Jesus’ ministry was eating. Over and over again, Jesus shared food with people. Jesus shared food with his friends, the disciples. Jesus shared food with those who opposed him, the Pharisees in this story. Jesus shared food with people that got him in trouble with the Pharisees: the unclean, the prostitutes, and the tax collectors. Jesus shared food with people by way of miracles that fed thousands. On the night before he was crucified he shared a Passover meal with his disciples and gave us a new commandment to love one another. Even after the resurrection, Jesus was still sharing food with people. He cooked breakfast for the disciples when they had returned to fishing. He appeared as a stranger to the two on the road to Emmaus, explaining the meaning of God’s plan of restoration, and then when they sat down at the table, he was revealed to them. The reason why we eat bread and drink wine every Sunday is because Jesus’ life was mostly about eating with people. Jesus still eats with us today.

Weekly Worship Thought – Patriotic Music

photo-1428515634197-76c85896cf1fThis weekend is the Memorial Day holiday. Every once in a while someone will ask why we don’t sing patriotic songs in worship around Memorial Day, or Independence Day, or other national holidays. I am aware that there are many churches that will sing “God Bless America” or “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies” during worship around a holiday. In my thinking, that makes about as much sense as going to a Post Office and singing “How Great Thou Art” or “Amazing Grace.” Churches don’t owe their allegiance to a government. People of faith, while being citizens of a nation/state, are citizens of a spiritual country, a far off land. Sometimes (most times?) the priorities and engagements of a government can be in complete opposition to the principles of God’s kingdom as taught by Jesus. In some churches, the nationality of the members is so diverse that it wouldn’t make sense to lift up the patriotic music of any one group. Shouldn’t hospitality be shown to residents of every country, not just “ours.” God calls us to a higher citizenship.

Weekly Worship Thought – Pentecost

Orans1This Sunday is Pentecost. We hear the fascinating story from Acts 2 where, “each one was bewildered to hear these men speaking his own language.” It is generally accepted that most inhabitants of Jerusalem at the time would be able to speak and understand Greek. Even a diverse group of pilgrims would have knowledge of the Greek language and be able to understand it. So why did the Holy Spirit cause this translation to occur? I would suggest two reasons. One, Pentecost is a reversal/redemption of the curse of Babel. Two, God wants us to worship in our heart language. The pilgrims could have understood the disciples if they had proclaimed the marvels of God in Greek. But God wants to be intimately near us, as someone who speaks in the tongue of our homeland, our mother’s language.