Worship: Maintaining theological soundness

Worship: Maintaining theological soundness and cultural relevance

Are many of today's worship forms determined by present-day culture or by vital theological engagement?

Alain Coralie, MDiv, MTh, is associate secretary for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in East Africa, headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya.

Editor’s note: Part one reviews two movements in contemporary worship trends (Seeker Service and the Praise and Worship movements), and Part two—to appear in March 2009—will provide an Adventist context from Revelation 14:6, 7 that will offer a balance between cultural relevance and theological soundness to worship. We believe that readers from varied religious perspectives will find this topic of interest.

With much anticipation, I entered the packed auditorium that Sabbath morning to experience what my friends called the alternative worship service. The worship leader, casually dressed, grabbed the microphone, shared some personal details, cracked a few jokes, and asked the audience to rise and sing with gusto and feeling the contemporary songs projected on a large screen. Some closed their eyes, raised their hands, and lifted their palms upward as they sang. Others seemed more interested in listening to the band and the worship team than praising. This lasted for about 20 minutes, after which the deacons collected the offering. Someone prayed for the offering, combining it with the pastoral prayer. Then came the sermon. A young man preached, clad in a Matrix-type outfit, showing DVD snippets of The Lord of the Rings, apparently comparing the film with Scripture. As I came out of the auditorium, I felt a bit bemused. Others seemed to have enjoyed the worship experience.

I have witnessed similar phenomena on four continents. Is this a sign of healthy creativity or a symptom of plain confusion? Are these forms of worship determined by present-day culture or by vital theological engagement?

This article argues that such liturgical changes reflect the wider cultural shifts that occur in society. Hence, the challenge that confronts worship leaders: how to keep worship services theologically sound and yet culturally relevant.

Revelation 14:6, 7 provides a powerful integrative factor for theological soundness and cultural relevance, thus ensuring an Adventist ethos in worship. Before addressing the theological framework, let us review the contemporary cultural landscape in which we live and consider two influential movements (Seeker Service and the Praise and Worship movements) that have impacted Adventist thought and practice in recent years. As we will discover, both have a postmodern ethos.

Worship in postmodern times

Our postmodern times have created for many an identity crisis. People are confused, unfocused, fragmented, and have great difficulties defining themselves and perceiving the world in which they live. As Kenneth Gergen explains, “Under postmodern conditions, persons exist in a state of continuous construction and reconstruction; it is a world where anything goes that can be negotiated. Each reality of self gives way to reflexive questioning, irony and ultimately the playful probing of another reality. The centre fails to hold.”1 In the face of such identity crisis, the church’s responsibility includes providing a credible solution, not just in doctrinal emphases but also in worship and fellowship.2 The advent of “contemporary worship” has leveled the doctrinal walls and, for a growing number of Christians, created a new type of worship defined more by style than content. The contemporary yearning is not so much for doctrinal accuracy as for worship style that answers emotional and social quests.

The Adventist Church does not remain immune to this influence. In fact, there are two strong movements that have affected the way some Adventists view worship. The first: the Seeker Service movement with Willow Creek Community Church being the prime example.The second: the Praise and Worship movement whose main proponents have been Integrity Music and Hillsong. We shall briefly assess both movements and draw some links with worship innovation among Adventists.

The Seeker Service movement

The main goal of seeker friendly services equates with making the unchurched comfortable in a church while hearing the Christian message. The church can be described as a space where seekers can feel at home. The main elements of a typical service3 consist of contemporary “congregational” singing with simple lyrics projected on large screens and talks that always try to avoid “clichés and spiritualized and archaic language.”4 The speaker delivers a “practical” sermon in simple language, illustrated with PowerPoint presentations or video clips. The service ends with a prayer and a simple chorus. Everything that happens in the Seeker Service consists of plans with the nonbelieving person in mind.

The Seeker Service movement is not new. One can see its roots in the American revivalist worship of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that found its best expressions in camp meetings. However, it was Charles G. Finney, the famous nineteenth century revivalist, who became the most influential worship reformer.

Three important aspects of Finney’s worship reforms may be noted.5 First, he emphasized freedom and innovation over tradition, arguing that the Bible does not prescribe any particular styles. Second, he contextualized worship by adapting it to its surrounding culture while removing all “unnecessary” barriers to the audience. Third, and perhaps most important, he reversed the relationship between worship and evangelism. For centuries, theologians had viewed evangelism as the by-product of worship. With Finney, evangelism took preeminence over worship as he turned worship services into evangelistic venues. Other revivalists and evangelists adopted this strategy and its legacy can still be felt in Protestant churches.

A number of Adventist circles have absorbed the Seeker Service mode. The existence of several church services on university campuses testifies to the popularity of worship à la carte. Hence, no need exists for groups with differing tastes in worship to worship together. Each can worship separately if they choose. Fundamentally, this puts into question the idea of the church as a family.

The Seeker Service model assumes that the closer worship becomes to the immediate culture and the further away from traditional cultural trappings, the better. But the problem is that instead of creating something unique, it may end up identifying itself completely with the ambient culture. Equally, one finds in this postmodern context that many seeker-oriented churches put traditions and doctrinal differences in the background because of their perceived “authoritarian” or “divisive” overtones.

The result? An utilitarian religion with distinctiveness often camouflaged in an effort to appeal to people. Angles are smoothed and those not palatable to contemporary tastes tend to be discarded. Churches get to be defined more by pragmatism than their historical or doctrinal affinities. Then, when pastors end up becoming obsessed with the notion of relevance at the expense of their prophetic calling, they tend to have action-oriented ministries based on satisfying immediate needs but with little doctrinal emphasis. As Marva Dawn puts it so well, they end up dumbing down as they try to reach out.6 Seeker services are often so enmeshed with contemporary culture that they have difficulties soaring above it. They become so obsessed with being culturally relevant that they tend to “miss” God in worship. In addition, by rejecting all tradition, many worship leaders have ended up depriving God’s people of rich resources for worship. This lack of historical and theological perspective has reduced worship to the here and now, preventing solid engagement with the One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. One cannot deny that seekeroriented services have most often made evangelism a top priority. However, seeker services miss the essence of worship in that they are profoundly anthropocentric. Many seeker services inversely downplay God’s centrality in worship as they increase focus on individual felt-needs. As churches become self-obsessed, the biblical God can easily be reduced to a heavenly therapist.

For these reasons, one needs to remember that authentic worship does not start with felt-needs or human ingenuity but God’s activity in history. Worship should be the believer’s heartfelt response to God’s mighty acts in creation and redemption—the creature’s affirmation of God’s love and faithfulness. Therefore, the primary point for worship leaders to realize is not how to make worship more appealing and relevant to seekers, but how to make believers engage more fully with their Creator and Redeemer. Such worship will not only draw the believer into God’s presence but will also help the seeker experience God in and through worship (1 Cor.14). The main task for worship leaders should not be simply relevant, but to engage the worship community to truly worship God.

The Praise and Worship movement

A second trend that strongly influences contemporary Adventist worship landscape includes the Praise and Worship movement. Distinct, and yet not unconnected to the Seeker Service movement, it has become the most influential Protestant worship renewal in recent years. Transdenominational and global in scope, it has been hailed by some as a new touch of Pentecost, and has been accused by others as representing “the blowing not of the Spirit of God but of the spirit of the age.”7 “Loosely and pejoratively identified as Pentecostal worship,”8 the Praise and Worship model often describes lively, expressive, and participative services in which congregations seek God’s presence through the sacramental use of contemporary worship songs.9 From fast-paced praise songs that extol God’s greatness and power to mellow music that emphasizes the believer’s personal relationship with God (hence the terminology “praise and worship”), the worshipers are led in a series of affective states that, according to its proponents, allow them to experience an ever-increasing sense of God’s presence in their midst.

Although this form of worship can be traced back to such diverse sources as Methodist Revivalism, the Holiness Movement, African American churches, and the Jesus Movement of the 1960s,10 this worship style has become most closely linked to what Peter Wagner calls the “Third Wave of Charismatic movements” 11 that swept across Christianity in recent years. Because of this wave and its phenomenal influence over churches “charismatic styles of worship have been diffused throughout congregations and denominations of varied theological persuasions.”12

This type of worship emphasizes a relational encounter with God rather than the more passive or cerebral expression of worship prevalent in other forms. In this “face-to-face” worship experience, being “in the Spirit” becomes the essential condition for a real encounter with God. This often manifests itself through uninhibited singing, dancing, and glossolalia. Worshipers live in an experience of total engagement and abandonment to God. And the growth of this kind of worship parallels that of economic and cultural globalization. What happens in influential evangelical churches is quickly exported to the most remote areas of the world through modern means of communication. This expresses itself more in terms of the rapid exchange of culturally tailored products along with the mentoring by international leaders who travel across the globe to train a new generation of worshipers. In addition, through their worship seminars all over the world, influential charismatic worship leaders shape contemporary worship through their songs and their teachings. Whereas traditionally, worship rapprochement was fostered through talks and texts by ecclesiastical elites, today the most influential catalysts are CDs, DVDs, and musical artists.

This new situation definitely favors a global reshaping of worship. Harvey Cox contends that our age parallels that of the first century Roman Empire. He writes, “Christians use the hardware and the software of the global culture to make the gospel known. Just as Paul made use of ships, the Greek language, references to classical poetry, letters and his Roman citizenship to travel with the good news, so Christians benefit from the worldwide travel and communication technologies of today.”13

Cox, however, points out a caution: “While the first century Christians said both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to the global culture of their time, today’s Christians mainly just say ‘yes.’ . . . At worst certain Christian movements actually promote and even sacralize the false values of the market.”14

The point must not be missed: a market-driven world contains a tendency to make Christianity as attractive as possible. This raises some questions: Do we run the risk of denaturing the gospel by mass-marketing it? By making the gospel as palatable as possible, do we end up robbing it of its power to challenge the world with the values of the kingdom?

(Part two of this article, to appear in March 2009, will continue a discussion of these problems and provide a resolution in terms of a theological framework of worship within the Adventist context as derived from Revelation 14:6, 7.)

 

1 Kenneth Gergen, The Saturated Self, quoted in R.
Middleton and B. Walsh, Truth Is Stranger Than It
Used to Be
(Leicester, England: IVP, 1995), 52, 53.


2 Cornelius Platinga Jr. and Sue Rozeboom,
Discerning the Spirits: A Guide to Thinking About
Christian Worship Today
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
2002), 2, 3.

3 For a detailed analysis, see Gregory A. Pritchard,
Willow Creek Seeker Services (N.P.: Baker Books,
1995), 80–156.

4 Pritchard, 87.

5 Robb Redman, The Great Worship Awakening: Singing
the Lord’s Song in the Postmodern Church
(San
Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002), 5 ff.

6 Marva Dawn, Reaching Out Without Dumbing
Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-
Century Culture
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995).

7 Platinga Jr. and Rozeboom, 3.

8 Paul Basden, The Worship Maze: Finding a Style to
Fit Your Church
(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity
Press, 1999), 77.

9 Lester Ruth, “Praise & Worship Movement” in
Paul F. Bradshaw, ed., The New SCM Dictionary of
Liturgy and Worship
(London: SCM Press, 2002),
378.

10 James F. White, Protestant Worship: Traditions in
Transition
(Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox
Press, 1989), 192–216; Don Williams, “A Charismatic
Worship Response” in Paul A. Basden, ed.,
Exploring the Worship Spectrum: Six Views (Grand
Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 139–144; Redman,
22–27; see also Platinga Jr. and Rozeboom, 27–38;
Basden, 75–83.

11 Wagner suggests that the first wave was the Pentecostal
movement of the 1900s, followed by the
charismatic movement of the 1960s. According to
him, the third wave, in the 1970s, is still unfurling.
See Peter Wagner, The Third Wave of the Holy
Spirit: Encountering the Power of Signs and Wonders
Today
(Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1988).

12 Simon Coleman, The Globalization of Charismatic
Christianity: Spreading the Gospel of Prosperity
(Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2000), 22.

13 Harvey Cox, “Pentecostalism and Global Market
Culture: A Response to Issues Facing Pentecostalism
in a Postmodern World” in Murray W. Dempster,
et al eds., The Globalization of Pentecostalism:
A Religion Made to Travel
(Oxford: Regnum, 1999),
391.

14 Ibid., 391, 392.

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Alain Coralie, MDiv, MTh, is associate secretary for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in East Africa, headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya.

January 2009

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