Reflection #25, part 4, on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 25, part 4, in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #25: Perhaps the reason so many worship leaders in contemporary American evangelical churches function mostly as song leaders or old-school music directors is that churches greatly underestimate the potential for corporate worship to change lives.

Most bloggers write for themselves as much as they write for any audience; I am certainly no different.  Writing this blog each week helps reinforce my life-changing studies at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies 15 years ago.  And this lengthy series, in particular, in which I’m trying to bring some theological reflections to bear on CWPA Demoss Stacked FC Logo PRINTworship in the contemporary American church, helps me clarify the material I share with my students in Judson University’s Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts.  Moreover, this particular four-part reflection has reminded me again of the significant responsibility worship leaders have–now more than ever–to help their congregations understand and appreciate the power their corporate worship has to transform radically and over time their lives and the lives of others.

I have been using the marvelous book, edited by Alexis Abernethy, entitled Worship That Changes Lives, specifically a chapter written by worship theologian John Witvliet, “The Cumulative Power of Transformation in Public Worship.”  Having digested Witvliet’s contribution, I’m eager to dive into the whole book this summer, especially chapters discussing how the arts aid worship in transformation and what psychological aspects affect transformation in corporate worship.  (Abernethy is a psychology professor at Fuller Seminary.)

But for this final installment, I’ll allow Witvliet to inform our thoughts one more time–although I can’t imagine he won’t appear in this space again.  At the end of his chapter, Witvliet offers four proverbs to summarize his main points (covered in summary fashion in the previous three blog posts).  I will cite each, provide a short quotation of clarification, and add a word of exhortation of my own.

Number one: “Wise is the Christian leader who understands that the Holy Spirit is the agent of genuine transformation and actively prays for the Spirit’s transformative power.”

One of the great temptations we face as leaders is to think that we can bring about an experience of the Spirit, that we can somehow engineer the Spirit’s work.  This ability would be no different from magic, that we can manipulate divine action by “pulling the right lever” with certain words or sounds or moments.

How often, in my younger years as a worship leader (and in my weakest moments even today) I assumed for myself my efforts were the impetus for passionate congregational worship, work only accomplished by the Holy Spirit.

Number two: “Wise is the Christian leader who develops an acute awareness of the cumulative power of worship to transform us over time and invests a portion of the creative energy in worship toward this long-term transformative project.”

We need uncommon creativity in explaining the sheer significance of habits. . . . [W]e need to be uncommonly creative about engaging in habits that are poised to sustain us for a lifetime of vital, faithful service.

All our churches are “liturgical”; they all follow a basic outline.  Do we know why we do things the way we do–what spiritual purposes our orders of service attempt to achieve–and, as important, do our congregations understand these motivations?

Number three: “Wise is the Christian leader who is intentional about the kind of long-term growth most needed for a local congregation to express mature Christian faith, who gives careful attention to the implicit meaning of the words, gestures, visible symbols, and patterns of interactions in worship.”

“How can our worship not only express where and who we are, but also form us to become what we are not yet?  How can our worship practices grow in us deeper, more profound, more faithful capacities, attitudes, emotions, patterns of interaction, and convictions?”  Vital, faithful worship always challenges us and grows in us new capacities.

We don’t pursue the new for the sake of novelty; we pursue the new because at no time do we ever have full and total knowledge of or appreciation for God in all fullness.  There is always much more to learn–especially from cultures and worshiping communities who, as Rich Mullins once said, “underline different parts of their Bible than you do.”

Number four: Wise is the Christian leader with the poise to practice vital improvisatory ministry, faithful to ancient patterns, alert to life-giving innovations, aware of the Holy Spirit’s work in each.

[T]he Holy Spirit works in sovereign freedom through both established patterns and innovations, in both dramatic and subtle ways, through both dramatic conversion U-turns and cumulative formation over time. . . . We need to joyfully practice ritual patterns that form us deeply in the contours of the Christian faith while simulataneously praying for the Spirit’s dramatic work in our midst.

As with so many matters of our faith, where worship is concerned, it’s almost always best to embrace both/and as opposed to either/or.

Worship leaders, the Lord be with you as you seek to be a vessel through which the Holy Spirit forms and transforms the people of God!

Coming next week (Lord willing): Pursuing worship education.

About Warren Anderson

Emmaus Road Worshipers is written by Dr. Warren Anderson, Director of the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts at Judson University (Elgin, Ill.), where he also directs the Judson University Choir. A Judson alumnus, he has served his alma mater in a number of capacities over the past 30+ years, especially the chapel ministry, which he led for 22 years. From 1982-2016, Dr. Anderson served six different churches--American Baptist (X2), Converge, Evangelical Free Church of America, Roman Catholic, and United Methodist--as a "weekend warrior" worship musician/pastor. He is a former member of the editorial board of Worship Leader magazine. The views expressed in this blog are not necessarily the views of Judson University.
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