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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The Future of ELCA Worship

The Future of ELCA WorshipOn October 19-21 I will be in Chicago for a trip to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s churchwide offices. It is an honor to be asked by Rev. Kevin Strickland, Director of Worship for the ELCA, to participate in the Consultation on the Ongoing Renewal of Worship in the Church. We will be discerning what the continually unfolding renewal of worship in our churches might look like in the years ahead. As I prepare, I have been reflecting on what I long for in my own life and in my own ministry context. Where do I need to experience growth in my pilgrimage as a disciple following along the Jesus path? In what ways do I want to see the worship I design and lead stretched and deepened? Here are three areas I want to discover and grow into the future – both personally and corporately:

  1. Learn to Worship – I realize that stating a desire to learn to worship can sound bizarre coming from a professional church musician. Perhaps a better proposition would be that I desire for all my assumptions about worship to be challenged. Asking the right questions can peck away at our engrained assumptions about worship. Where is my understanding of worship one-dimensional when in reality it is three-dimensional? When am I distracted from truly worshiping in the midst of the assembly? Why don’t I make room for quiet and stillness? Where is God present when I assume God’s absence? How do I faithfully prepare my heart for worship before every assembly? Why do I suppose the living, breathing, moving God of heaven and earth is restricted to my preferences and tastes? What would a Sunday without music or speech look like? Where have adiaphora taken place of the central things? Renewing worship means asking critical questions about why our worship is the way it is.
  1. Learn to Feast – I have long felt that communion is more feast than funeral. Yet we more often than not connect the weekly Eucharist to Jesus’ last supper, betrayal, and subsequent execution. What about every other meal Jesus ate? What about the food with tax collectors, and the miraculously expanding fish and loaves, and the meal with two disciples at Emmaus, and the post-resurrection fish breakfast tacos? Jesus was doing something significant in reconstituting the Passover, no doubt. Christ is our Paschal Victim/Victor. But I think there is something important beneath it all: Jesus ate with people. Our celebrations around God’s table are connected to every meal Jesus ever ate – including the everlasting meal to come in God’s eternal Kingdom. What does the ritual action of feasting look like? How can communion become more feast than funeral?
  2. Learn to Converge – We are trapped by the need to clearly label and categorize our worship. Using worship as a tool to target a specific group of people produces consumers, not disciples. Instead of being preoccupied with the copyright date of the songs we sing (as if church music had an expiration date), we should be singing the best and broadest types of music from God’s people in all places and times. In doing so our worship becomes countercultural (perhaps counter to the surrounding culture, perhaps counter to the prevailing church culture). Liturgical action teaches us self-denial and humility, where the surrounding culture may teach us to get ahead and have it our way. Through singing broad types of music we also become cross-cultural and can see God through the artistic offerings of cultures besides our own. This is the heart of convergent worship. Convergent worship is not a style. It is a mindset. Convergent worship is the coming together of the historic and the contemporary at every level of worship (not just the music) to create maximum opportunities for engaging worshipers with the presence of God. Convergent worship expresses a willingness to reopen all questions about worship and to learn from the entire worshipping community. Convergent worship has a healthy respect for the past while maintaining an absolute commitment to contemporary relevance.

These are the areas where I see a need for growth in my own personal and corporate worship. What about you – what does the future of worship look like to you?

Philosophy of Worship, part 4


Philosophy of Worship4. Worship should employ a wide range of styles.

There are as many styles of worship as there are tastes of music. Since we are the church [in a catholic sense – the universal church] we should use as many styles of music/art that we can. Of course this is all relative to the demographic of each congregation. If a congregation is contextually made up of X people [X = African, Korean, Native American, gangstas, cowboys, etc.] and serves a community that is primarily made up of X people, then X style of music/art should be used. Context is key.

But we are still a universal body of Believers. And something/sometime in worship should speak to and prepare the worshiper for that day when all tongues will be united in one song. What will the style of the song be? What language will it be in? We don’t really know [and perhaps it doesn’t matter], but we should be preparing ourselves for just about anything as we approach that day.

The church is not only made up of our brothers and sisters across the globe, but also across time. We need to be historically connected with our brothers and sisters who served God to insure that the message of Christ made it to us. We can do this by singing the songs they wrote and preserving the art they produced in service to God.

In my opinion this is one of the reasons why the church is in such sad shape today [from a modern/American perspective]. Good chunks of the church have failed to recognize and celebrate their past. Sacred liturgies, prayers, songs, rituals, calendars/seasons, creeds, etc. have been abandoned. We have dissected ourselves from the root from which we grew. We can learn something from those who walked before us. They worshiped the same God we do, they confessed the same faith, and they struggled the same struggles we do. And their songs/art are expressions of what they felt walking on the same path we find ourselves walking on.

Worship @ Synod Assembly 2012

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This year I had the honor and privilege of being part of the team that designed and led worship for Synod Assembly. Every year the Gulf Coast Synod of the ELCA (gulfcoastsynod.org) gathers for business, worship, andfellowship. The Assembly was May 11-12, 2012 and it was hosted at Lakewood United Methodist Church in northwest Houston. The team that planned worship met for several months working on all the details that go into planning an event for the whole synod. We had to design the services (including selecting the Bible readings, songs, prayers, and other elements), create and edit the worship folders (which we can proudly say were all printed onsite in the Faith office), and recruit and instruct all the worship leaders and assistants for the services.

The Synod Assembly this year was a huge success! The worship services were joyful celebrations of who God is and what God has done. It can be a challenge and stretch to create worship services for people coming from such a broad geographic context. How do you create a worship service for rural farmers in Brenham, suburban Houstonians, and urban folks from New Orleans, all assembled together at the same time? As the team discussed designing worship for such a diverse crowd, we found the Assembly to be the perfect place to celebrate what makes us each unique. As we sang each other’s songs, we realized we have much more in common than different.

One of the highlights was the Holy Communion service on Friday evening. All of the worship services were designed in a convergent style: many diverse languages, music, and ritual actions converging together in a prayerful way. Friday’s service used the service music from Setting 7 in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, all sung in Spanish and led by a Mariachi Band! After the Hymn of the Day (using the organ), we participated in a Thomas Mass, which is a form of Lutheran worship originating from Helsinki, Finland. During the Thomas Mass, the people assembled were invited to move freely around the room and interact with several stations. They could serve and be served using a basin and towel for foot and hand washing, write intercessions for the world on a banner, create mosaic artwork for a communion paten, offer prayers of confession and receive forgiveness, receive anointing for healing, and leave an offering for the ELCA Malaria Campaign. We then celebrated the holy meal together around God’s table. This service was a beautiful picture of diversity and unity and I’m sure it will have a profound impact on me for years to come.

Pictures from the Holy Communion service taken by Larry Bose. A complete sketch of the order of worship is below.

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Order of Service

GATHERING

Prelude from Mariachis

Recognition of First Call Theological Education Pastors

Kyrie & Gloria – Setting 7 (Mariachis)

Prayer of the Day

WORD

First Reading – 1 Kings 19:4-8

Psalm 34:1-8 (chanted with shruti box)

Second Reading – Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Gospel Acclamation – Setting 7 (Mariachis)

Gospel Reading – John 6:35, 41-51

Sermon

Hymn of the Day 480 O Bread of Life from Heaven (Organ)

St. Thomas Mass Stations

Sharing Christ’s Peace

MEAL

Dialogue/Preface

Santo, santo, santo – Setting 7 (Mariachis)

Thanksgiving at the Table

Lord’s Prayer

Invitation to the Table

Cordero de Dios – Setting 7 (Mariachis)

Communion Song 485 I Am the Bread of Life (Piano/guitars)

Communion Song 472 Eat This Bread (Guitar/Taize)

Prayer after Communion

SENDING

Blessing

Sending Song 618 Guide Me Ever, Great Redeemer (Organ)

Dismissal

Postlude (Mariachis)

Worship Does God's Story

(from the August 2011 Mountain Mover Newsletter at Faith Lutheran Church)

Every time the church gathers together for worship it does God’s story. God’s story is that epic narrative that we can see unfolding throughout the Bible. When we step back and look at the big picture that the total Bible paints we can see a three-part story unfold. The three parts are creation, incarnation, and re-creation. Every time we gather for worship at Faith we do God’s story.

The story of God begins at the story of creation. God, existing as a Triune community, created human beings to participate in the community of God. Unfortunately the idyllic community didn’t last forever and corruption and evil entered the picture. But God sets in motion the plan to redeem and fix everything that went wrong. Out of the desolation of the desert the line of Abraham is established to begin the process of bringing back the peace once found in the Garden. God kick-starts the plan of redemption.

The incarnation of God is witnessed in the person of Jesus. Jesus was God’s response after centuries of being nothing more to us than what we thought God should be: angry, insecure, and the vengeance-seeking tyrant we would be if we were God. In Jesus, God’s loving desire to really be known overflowed the heavens and was made manifest among us. Jesus’ humble mission was to become the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world. God comes to us and accomplishes for us what we cannot do ourselves: salvation.

Re-creation is what the Holy Spirit brings about through the work of Jesus. Re-creation is the work of salvation healing all the broken areas of our lives. Re-creation is the new life we find as people born of water and the Spirit. Re-creation is the Jesus-garment that we put on when we become new creatures. Re-creation is the power of God to redeem everyone and everything. Re-creation is a new heaven and a new earth, where sorrows find their end and Jesus is the only light we need. Re-creation is the Garden restored.

The story of God is the story that our worship does. How? Every time we lift our corporate prayers we acknowledge God as the Creator of every good and perfect gift. Every time we invoke the name of the Holy Trinity we recognize that God was before creation came to be. When we bring our gifts and offerings to God we realize that as the Creator, everything is already God’s. That is how our worship remembers creation. Every time the Word of God is read and the Gospel of peace is proclaimed we hear Jesus. Every time the bread and wine are shared at the Table God’s love is experienced anew in the community of his Body. That is how our worship remembers and experiences incarnation. Every time we prepare for the meal and hear the words “until he comes again” we anticipate the feast to come. When we share the peace we experience the reconciliation that comes from being new creatures. Every time we celebrate at the baptismal font we are connected with the death and resurrection of Jesus that brings us new life. That is how our worship experiences and anticipates re-creation. When you step through the doors on Sunday remember that we are doing God’s story!

Fourfold Benediction

Here is the benediction we have been using the last couple of weeks at Theophilus:

We have been washed in the Word,
We have been nourished at God’s table,
We are sent forth as agents in God’s Kingdom

To love and serve our neighbors.

Go in peace and live the church.
Amen.

This benediction clearly outlines the order of service that is concluding (Gathering – Word – Meal – Sending). It reminds you of everything we’ve just experienced:

  • We’ve heard portions of God’s Word read and the Gospel proclaimed in the message
  • I borrowed the phrase “washed in the word” from Ephesians 5:25-27, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”
  • “Washing” also reminds us of our baptism and our inheritance as God’s children
  • We’ve celebrated the Eucharistic feast at God’s table (where all are welcome), a foretaste of the eternal banquet that Christ presides over
  • With the conclusion of this benediction we are sent forth to work in God’s Kingdom, the Kingdom of light
  • What does work in God’s Kingdom practically look like? Loving and serving our neighbors.
  • We’re reminded that as we leave our liturgy, we don’t just return to normal life and self-centered thoughts/actions. We are launched out as missionary vessels to witness to God’s purposes and redemption of the world.
  • We are sent in peace. We have peace with God through Christ, and we are sent with the ministry of reconciliation, bringing more people peace.
  • “Live the church” is a little phrase that we end every benediction with. I borrowed it from Vox Veniae. The church isn’t a building or a social club. It’s the living/breathing Body of Christ, and it needs to be lived out in the world.

Finding Christ's songs in your congregation

I recently read Reggie Kidd’s With One Voice. So much good stuff in it about Christ as our singing Savior – our Chief Liturgist. As we sing our songs of corporate praise and adoration here on the earth, we’re merely echoing and pointing to the greater song that Christ is already singing to the Father as He leads all the saints in song.

The challenging stuff is about the different voices of Christ and His body (Bach, Bubba, and the Blues Brothers). Congregations develop their own nuances and styles of corporate worship appropriate to the people they’re made up of and the surrounding culture. That’s the part of Christology we call “incarnational.”

“But we say something profound about the gospel itself when we stay a family and refuse to allow ourselves to become insular, a closed-in group. By God’s grace, we can nurture the good we’ve inherited from our family tree, further its contribution to the larger body of Christ, and at the same time appreciate – and perhaps learn from – folks who sing Christ’s song differently.” (p. 156-157)

Keeping a congregation opened-out to the variation of Christ’s song is tough. It’s too easy to just go to the top 25 songs from CCLI and create a set list every week. It’s too easy to just stick with what the denomination prints. It’s too easy to just keep doing what the Pastor or Worship Leader likes and prefers.

I think in most cases, a pleasing variety of Christ’s songs are present in any given congregation. Just from the people that are already there, the music of their hearts and backgrounds. The tough work is mining it. It means building relationships and learning about people. “What does it sound like for your heart to be engaged by God in worship?” That should be a frequent question from servant-leaders.

And then comes the skill of creating a collage representative of what God has already knit together in the congregation. And on top of that, the task of patiently explaining and teaching everyone that “It’s OK if you didn’t like, or get, or enjoy the musical offering/palette today. Rest assured that it was beneficial to someone else in this Body. And rest assured that it’s not about you.

Worship – All Things Alternative

This weekend I taught a workshop for the Fall Leadership Summit of the TX-LA Gulf Coast Synod of the ELCA. The session was titled “Worship – All Things Alternative.”

Here is a brief overview of what I talked about:

  1. Definition of worship
  2. Attempt to define differences between worship styles
  3. Problems with trying to define worship styles
  4. Questions for reflection
  5. The alternative perspective of Convergent Worship
  6. Some alternative elements to use in worship
  7. Resources

Dowload the handout-notes here: “Worship – All Things Alternative”