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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Q&R: Where do you get your motion backgrounds for your songs?

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Q&R: Which contemporary songs should we introduce to our church?

477039_381357365243443_143418169037365_1103810_100449478_oQuestion: 

We are in desperate need of introducing some contemporary music into our worship services. I do know contemporary music but have no clue about what works best in a room full of folks, many of whom do not know contemporary Christian music. We do a few songs:  As the Deer, Seek Ye First, Sanctuary, and a few others here and there.  My organist insists they can do the contemporary music, but the few times we have done it it has fallen flat. I can’t tell you why. So, here is my question: if we were to introduce maybe 10 new contemporary songs to our congregation to be used in worship, which 10 would you suggest?  Of course theology matters, but so does singability and teachability.
Response:
To start, I would definitely recommend you sign up your musician and any singers that are interested for the Tune Up worship band gathering: http://TuneUpGathering.org – they will learn some new songs, and rub shoulders with other church musicians who are doing this same thing.
I’ll say that successfully pulling off contemporary music is a challenge. Especially for a church organist. There are lots of reasons why: the rhythmic language of contemp. music is different than traditional hymnody. Also many contemp. songs are written and presented by guitar driven bands, and without that instrument (as well as drums) they can fall flat. 
But there are some “bridge” songs that can get you started in the right direction. Songs that work well with piano and are easy to learn for an assembly that is unfamiliar with the style. The ones you listed (especially As the Deer) are good. If you’re using Evangelical Lutheran Worship in the pews, take advantage of some of the music in there: 
857 Lord, I Lift Your Name on High
821 Shout to the Lord
483 Here Is Bread
And even some of the multicultural music works well and is “new” in a sense, if you’re not already using them:
817 You Have Come Down to the Lakeshore
491 Come, Let Us Eat
525 You Are Holy
Here are some other songs outside of ELW, found through a website: CCLI.com:
10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord) – Matt Redman
How Great Is Our God – Chris Tomlin
Blessed Be Your Name – Matt Redman
Here I Am to Worship – Tim Hughes
Your Grace Is Enough – Matt Maher
Holy Is the Lord – Chris Tomlin
Jesus Messiah – Chris Tomlin
Hopefully that is something to get you started. Theologically, most contemp. songs are fine. A few are not. The biggest problem I run into is they can be less than gender inclusive (God = He) and put way too much emphasis on substitutionary atonement theory (as opposed to a Christus Victor theme). Some contemp. songs are engaging Biblical themes and images unexplored in traditional hymnody. However, a consistent diet of contemp. songs will not be as full, or rich a theological expression as hymnody would be. For example, if you’re looking for contemp. songs that mention the Trinity (a core doctrine of Christianity), you’ll have to look hard (but they are there). 

How was worship today?

1259089297665068165question mark clkerdotcomHave you ever thought about this question? Have you ever been asked this question? Have you ever asked someone this question?

It seems like such a simple, harmless question. But what does it mean? What are we really trying to get at by asking such a question? How do we judge whether worship is “good” or not? Are we even entitled to make such a judgment? If our worship is truly for God, then shouldn’t God alone be the one who passes judgment on whether worship is “good” or not? God sees our hearts and knows the motives behind our offerings of worship.

At the heart of this question, “How was worship today?” is the idea of evaluation. Worship is always being evaluated. Although it may be informal, everyone that leaves church on Sunday has evaluated that service in one way or another. The real question becomes what is driving our evaluations? Evaluations might be based on any number of things: the number of people in attendance, the length of the sermon, the pronunciation of the lector, or the number of flubbed notes by the musician.

Is it possible to move beyond these surface-level evaluations into the deeper substance of worship? The next time you’re leaving worship and you catch yourself evaluating how it went, try using these questions to consider the things that are essential to worship:

  • Was our worship Trinitarian? Did we name the Trinity and include Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in our worship?
  • Was God’s epic narrative of salvation, from beginning to end, the centerpiece of our worship?
  • Were the primary symbols of baptismal font, communion table, and pulpit central to our space for worship?
  • Was there enough scripture reading in our worship for a full, rich telling of God’s story?
  • Was there time for prayer and reflection in our worship?
  • Did our worship engage all people assembled and invite them to participate with all their senses?
  • Were we connected to the death and resurrection of Jesus and pulled deeper into our baptismal journey through our worship?
  • Did our worship send us out following Jesus in joyful, loving service of the world?

So, how was worship today? Perhaps a better question is, “Who was worshiped today?”

Evaluating Worship

(HT: Lester Ruth and Dean McIntyre from whom I borrowed)

(Download: EVALUATING WORSHIP Questionnaire)

Worship is always being evaluated. Although it may be informal, everyone that is sent forth from an assembled worshiping body has evaluated that service in one way or another. Evaluations might be based on any number of things: the number of people in attendance, the length of the sermon, the pronunciation of the lector, or the number of flubbed notes by the musician.

These questions are designed to move beyond surface-level evaluations into the deeper substance of worship. These questions help us consider things that are essential for all Christian worship, things that are faithful to a Lutheran heritage, and things that are biblically rooted. As a means of evaluation these questions can be applied to all types of worship regardless of time, contextual location, leadership, demographics, or style.

After each statement, select the response that best applies to your church/service. 

1 – Strongest agreement

2 – More agreement than disagreement

3 – Neutral, no response, don’t know

4 – More disagreement than agreement

5 – Strongest disagreement


  1. Our worship is richly Trinitarian (names the Trinity and all three Persons). 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
  2. God’s story of salvation is central to our worship. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
  3. The ministry of word and sacrament is at the core of our worship. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
  4. The primary symbols of communion table, baptismal font, and ambo/pulpit are present in our environment for worship. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
  5. There is enough Scripture and scriptural content in our worship to tell a full, broad, deep, rich story of God’s salvation. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
  6. Our worship is reflective of the ongoing ministry of Jesus Christ, risen and active today. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
  7. The content of our prayers is true to Christ’s character and the breadth of his Lordship. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
  8. Our worship seeks the full, conscious, and active participation of all people assembled. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
  9. Our people are filled with the Holy Spirit in worship (they talk about what the Spirit tends to talk about and are filled with love). 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
  10. Our worship is sensitive to the needs of visitors and guests and takes their participation in worship seriously. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
  11. The leaders of our assembly are reflective of the Body of Christ that transcends class, age, ethnicity, and gender. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
  12. The language of our worship includes a balance of addressing God and addressing people. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
  13. Our worship helps the congregation experience its relationship with God. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
  14. Our worship is contextually relevant to the culture and setting of our people and community. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
  15. Our worship is a feast for the senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell). 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
  16. Our worship is filled with life, vitality, and joy. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
  17. Our worship offers opportunities for reflection, confession, and lament. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
  18. Our worship welcomes and calls people into the baptismal life (united with the death and resurrection of Jesus). 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
  19. The word of God, read, preached, and sung by the assembly, is essential to our order of service. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
  20. Our worship regularly experiences Christ’s presence at the table with bread and wine. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
  21. Our worship sends us out as disciples of Jesus, following his mission of serving, blessing, and loving the world. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5