Reflection #39 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 39 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 #39: Contemporary worship’s thorough emphasis on every aspect of an individual’s relationship with Christ often diminishes a healthy and biblical global perspective.

For all the wonderful and extremely important impact of worship renewal over the past 30Duke7 years or so, especially contemporary worship music (thanks, Adam Perez, right, for stating it so succinctly recently), contemporary worship, as a general rule, at least as practiced in suburban America, does only a fair-to-middling job helping its adherents foster a healthy global perspective–a perspective concerned as much about what God is doing around the world (and especially where people are hurting) as it is about strengthening individuals’ walks with the Lord.  Dr. Lester Ruth, one of my first grad-school worship profs, labeled the churches that camp on either end of this continuum as “cosmic-story churches” and “personal-story churches.”

Let me use a specific example to illustrate a general point.  My family attended a worship service yesterday morning that was excellent in many, many ways.  Unfortunately, however, at no point in the service, at all, was there mention of the tragic shootings in El Paso and Dayton over the weekend.  As much as those in attendance were encouraged, in the words of Godspell‘s “Day by Day” (which took its cues from the 13th century’s St. Richard of Chichester), “to see [God] more clearly, love [God] more dearly, and follow [God] more nearly,” they were not encouraged to get worked up about or even to pray for the many whose lives were changed significantly for the worse and forever in a moment’s time.

Rather than reinvent the wheel here, let me cut and paste what I consider to be an antidote to this kind of myopia in corporate worship from the blog I wrote shortly after suburban Chicago had a mass shooting earlier this year.  Here’s what I suggested worship leaders do the weekend after a national tragedy (you can read the whole post here):

1) Don’t ignore the tragedy.  Terrible events like this happen so frequently that we risk becoming numb to them if we don’t fashion some kind of response.  To whatever degree that is true for individuals, it’s even more important for churches–especially when the tragedy hits close to home. . . .  While we can’t address every single act of evil or every natural disaster in our worship services, we must confront the brutal manifestations of our fallen world when they happen in our backyard.  [Theologian Karl] Barth’s exhortation for preachers to prepare with a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other serves as great advice for worship leaders, too.

2) Don’t be afraid to go off script.  With the advent of worship-planning software . . . worship leaders construct worship-service orders further in advance than ever before.  While I generally applaud this preparation, we need to be willing to change directions pretty quickly when a tragedy happens in our community.  [I then detailed the change in the pre-sermon worship time I felt compelled to put forth after a similar instance 11 years prior, in which I led with material from Ps. 22 and transitioned into a time of lament.]

3. Don’t sugarcoat the tough stuff; wrestle with it.  The Sunday after the loathsome synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh last fall, the worship leader of a church service I experienced online began the set with “The Lion and the Lamb.”  My initial fear, that he was going to ignore the shooting altogether, was alleviated when he transitioned into a prayer for the victims, but, in doing so, he missed a chance to wrestle with hard truth.  “Who can stop the Lord Almighty?” the congregation had just sung/asked together, and a worship leader more in tune with fostering congregational spiritual formation might have responded, before transitioning into the next song (or the prayer that followed, in this case), “Well, there are 11 families in Pittsburgh this morning that might suggest one deranged guy with an AR-15 can and did.”  That could have led into transitional comments about the difficult-to-grasp but real sovereignty of God, the problem of pain and suffering manifested in times like this, or a whole host of other things, but the juxtaposing of the triumphal “Lion and the Lamb” with the brutality of the Pittsburgh shooting—without putting both in context—was a missed opportunity.

May the Lord be with you, contemporary worship leaders, as you seek to help the members of your congregations think more purposely about things that matter to the heart of God in addition to their personal faith walks, important as they are.

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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