Book explores varieties of worship, music

Wednesday, July 7, 2004

Church music has changed a lot since George Beverly Shay introduced "How Great Thou Art? Fifty years ago, overheard projectors were unheard of, choruses were for children, and hymn books were standard equipment.

Today, churches have praise teams instead of choirs; piano and organ accompaniments for soloists have expanded to include drums, guitar, trumpets, and even an entire orchestra, if not replaced by professionally-produced CD tracks; a manger scene portrayed by children in a Christmas program may be replaced by a DVD or Powerpoint projection, with or without musical background; pantomimes and "silent dramas," choreographed to music can also produce a visual worship experience.

And the good old hymn books, still in the racks on the back of pews, are still used, though usually not as often.

Liturgical churches have stood more by tradition, generally, and even there many are experimenting with choruses and more contemporary expressions of worship.

Meanwhile, especially in charismatic churches, often with a focus on reaching the alienated youth of today, some churches have become so innovative that many Christians who visit might think they were at a rock concert instead of a church service.

Changes in worship style is not new ---- antiphonal Gregorian chants gave way to master works by composers such as Mendelssohn and Handel. It does seem, with today's fast-paced changes in technology, to be changing faster. But are the changes for the better?

Editors Engle and Basden have solicited contributions from professional representatives of what they see as the six major approaches to worship used in American churches, creating written discussions on each approach, with comment by each of the five other participants.

The worship approaches addressed are: formal-liturgical; traditional hymn-based; contemporary music-driven; charismatic; blended; and emerging. Contributors are five men and one woman, the latter, Sally Morgenthaler, addressing the hard-to-describe emerging worship approach.

The discussion is considered and generally as straight-forward as a discussion of an abstract form of expression, worship, can be, for the most part. Morgenthaler's does seem the most vague, but that stands to reason, considering her topic is still a work in progress.

Each of the chapters reveal positive aspects of the specific approach. Episcopal Rector Paul Zahl, representing the formal-liturgical approach, reminds the reader that worship is a "vertical," God-directed activity.

Harold Best, speaking for the traditional hymn-based approach, warns of the paucity of depth in much of contemporary worship music.

Joe Horness, espousing the contemporary approach, approves of the use of contemporary language, but agrees that modern music can easily cross the line from worship to performance, contributing to a burdensome treadmill mentality.

Vineyard Pastor Don Williams, speaking for the charismatic approach, emphasized that worship without the spirit is dead, and that charismatic worship seeks to allow worshippers to experience some measure of the full life of the Triune God, including the Holy Spirit. The problem with the charismatic approach is more with theology, which can easily, in Zahl's words, pole-vault over calvary to pentecost.

Theology Professor Robert Webber, representing blended worship, reminds us that worship is both human and divine, and commends worship that is "in tension," a synthesis of worship renewal movements of the 20th century. The editors, however, question if this approach is doomed to irrelevance.

Finally, Morgenthaler uncovers manifestations of human sinfulness in today's culture, particularly the impact of those who have grown up in the post-Christendom, postmodern world. She speaks well to state that Christianity is one generation away from extinction.

While her theology is well-grounded, her worship proposals, calling into play every new cultural or artistic expression, seems to call for an exhausting regimen of living constantly in the moment. Also, is it not likely that the clarity of the Christian message will be lost in the shuffle of moving from experience to experience?

The question, and the discussions, are serious, particularly for pastors, song leaders, instrumentalists, and praise and worship teams.

Worship, while it can never be expressed perfectly by living human beings, will be expressed through common cultural modalities.

Exploring the Worship Spectrum: Six Views; edited by Paul E. Engle and Paul A. Basden; 269 pages with editor conclusions, recommended reading, notes, discussion and reflection questions, and names and scripture indices; softcover, Zondervan Counterpoints Series; $16.99.

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