Wineskins Archive

February 12, 2014

Heart of Worship (Jan-Feb 2002)

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by Randy Gill
January – February, 2002

I was sure they’d love it.

Wanting to introduce opera to my students I had taken sixty of them to a performance of George Gershwin’s classic “Porgy and Bess.” I was sure the distinctly American setting, the jazz influenced score and the tragic love story would win over even the most skeptical in my class. At intermission I approached one of my students. I could see the Led Zeppelin t-shirt under his sport coat.

“Well,” I said. “What do you think?”

“It’s all right, I suppose,” he replied. “Maybe I’d enjoy it more if I understood Italian.”

The opera was in English but everything about it, from the style of music to the manner of singing was completely foreign to my student. It had no meaning for him at all. Ironically, if he had played his favorite CD for me I would have been just as lost. We tend to gravitate towards things we understand. My grandfather used to say, “I know what I like.” I think it’s equally true that we like what we know.

That’s certainly the case when it comes to worship. People are generally more comfortable in a worship environment that’s familiar to them. Perhaps that’s why so many of us get emotional when people start “tinkering” with our assemblies. We understand things the way they are. We know the language. Why would we want to change?

Yet around the world young people are experimenting with new ways of approaching God. They’re meeting in converted nightclubs or warehouses. They’re using intimate lighting, subtle background music and scented candles or incense to create a unique atmosphere. The gatherings are informal and unscripted and there are no obvious leaders or authority figures. Participants are encouraged to encounter God at various worship “stations” around the room. Teaching is done in “blocks” through storytelling, scripture reading, liturgy and testimony. Multi-media presentations, sculpture and other works of art stimulate the eyes. The level of participation and the sense of community are striking, as is the obvious vulnerability and openness among the worshipers. People are invited to come together in small groups to share needs, to pray for each other and to celebrate the Eucharist. The meeting might last for hours.

It would be tempting to dismiss the “alternative” worship experiences at gatherings like Soul Survivor in England or Mosaic in the United States with a snide reference to spiritual commercialism. “Here’s the marketing approach of Saddleback or Willow Creek taken to its inevitable and tragic extreme,” some might suggest. “We’re compromising worship in an attempt to appeal to the fickle tastes of young people.”

But Generation X and the younger “Millennials” are looking for something infinitely more profound than a hip new way to “do church.” More than anything else, they long for a life changing relationship with an awesome and almighty God. They want genuine faith in an artificial and confusing world. The real reason so many young people are turning to alternative worship expressions is that a more traditional approach is preventing them from bringing their needs and concerns honestly before God. The rational, word-centered services of their grandparents leave them empty and unmoved. They feel equally disconnected from the more flamboyant, emotionally charged worship in some “seeker friendly” churches. They don’t want a lecture. They don’t want a show. They just want God.

Andrew Jones suggests that postmodern worship, although it is conducted primarily by young people, is neither reactionary nor rebellious. It is not a protest against the institutional church nor is it a reversion to sacramentalism. Instead, it is a shift of mind-set. Postmodern worship, according to Jones, is a move from linking to layering, product to process, spectator to participator, structure to texture, stage to station, lecturing to listening” (Andrew Jones, Worship Leader Magazine, Sep/Oct 2001).

It’s time many of us realized that what we consider “contemporary” in worship isn’t. We’re not connecting with a large portion of our church and, unless we rethink some of our preferences and practices, we’ll never reach an even larger portion of our community. We have to learn to speak their language.

For some the best approach might be a separate worship time designed specifically for Generation X and the Millennials. For others it might be a more creative approach to our regular assemblies, looking for ways to engage the senses as well as the mind, encouraging artistic giftedness within our congregations and making use of the art, music and liturgies of the past to inspire and uplift, trying new ways of communicating the gospel message, allowing greater freedom, flexibility and spontaneity in our services, promoting participation and community and offering opportunities for vulnerability, confession and communal prayer.

For those of us who, even unwittingly, have lingering ties to modernism all of this may sound frightening. The emphasis on emotion and experience, the appeal to the senses, the fascination with symbols and ancient liturgy, the apparent lack of structure and order—all of this sounds foreign to us, even heretical. We are comfortable with clarity, not mystery. How can all of this contemplative “touchy, feely” stuff co-exist with our formulas, patterns and syllogisms? Is it even possible to reach out to postmoderns without losing our identity and compromising our message?

With any new paradigm there is always the potential for error, abuse and exaggeration. We need to be sure that we have a solid theological underpinning for everything we do together as a church. It is reasonable to caution against relying too much on emotion or being too strongly influenced by culture. On the other hand, we have a lot to learn from this generation. Even unbelievers acknowledge that we are spiritual beings with an inner need for something greater than ourselves. They are drawn to the mystery and majesty of God. Generation X and the Millennials have a heart for worship but they are not looking for an empty intellectual exercise or a shallow pep rally. They believe worship should be a holistic experience involving the mind, body, and spirit. They crave relationship and community and are not interested in sectarianism or elitism. They recognize the brokenness around them and within them and are looking for answers.

Douglas Coupland, whose novel, “Generation X,” helped introduce that term to the world, made a surprising admission in his 1994 book, Life After God. “Here is my secret,” he said. “I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you read these words. My secret is that I need God—that I am sick and can no longer make it alone” (Douglas Coupland, Life After God).

Coupland is not a Christian but he’s looking for something. So are millions of others like him between the ages of twenty and thirty-five. With courage and a little imagination perhaps we can help them find God.

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