Worship Media Arts

Big Ideas, How-To, and Articles on Worship, Media and the Arts

The Emergent Movement and Visual Styles in Worship

A Q&A with the MO Guys on what is happening with worship, media, culture, “emergent,” and whatnot.

<p><strong>Q: What’s next in worship imagery?</strong></p>
<p>The diffusion of innovation of screens and digital technology in worship has occurred to the point now that a second curve has begun. While late adopters are still acquiring new media in worship, early adopters who have been using screens for years, developing production skills and possibly wisdom about the screen’s power and potential, are expanding their use of the screen in worship beyond bullet points and nature footage to new visual styles.</p>
<p>One popular visual style among early adopters of the second curve is associated with a worship movement some call “Emergent.”</p>
<p><strong>Q: What is Emergent? </strong></p>
<p>Good question.</p>
<p>To understand more about the Emergent discussion, it’s helpful to step back and take a long view. Our goal is not to summarize what is an amorphous, theological and exponential dialogue, but rather to comment on our own observations about its intersection with the methodologies of worship, design, media and communication.</p>
<p>That long view reveals that the church is dying. Numbers are declining and an increasingly secular society has many church leaders clamoring to find new ways to reach the lost. Some have turned to “contemporary” worship. But “contemporary” has become a loaded, almost meaningless word. Many worship planners have begun to recognize that what some call “contemporary” worship may just be a newer “traditional” worship.</p>
<p>One group, which often has distain for labels, has been categorized as the “emerging” or “emergent” church. There is much debate about the names, as in typically postmodern fashion; many in the movement have wanted to avoid specific meanings that come attached to specific names. Like “contemporary” worship, this group has several different variations, ranging from styles that focus more on “ambiguous discussions of spirituality” to more conventional worship styles that feel a lot like visiting a coffeehouse.  It is hard to characterize because of the wide spectrum that exists in the “movement.”  One limited characterization that may apply is a group of young adult and young adult-minded who want to move past the codified forms and rituals of their boomer parents’ way of doing church. In honor of the irony and for purposes of being able to have a coherent discussion, we’ll name the group TGWNN, or The Group With No Name, after the protagonist (played by Clint Eastwood) in the classic postmodern Western, <a href=The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. (Should we mention that Sergio Leone’s film basically killed the genre? Nah.)

The irony is, as much as TGWNN might overtly state the desire to dismiss the pop culture style of its boomer parents, this is exactly what is happening with its visual style: a pop culture expression for the post and post-post modern crowd.

Q: Okay, what are some of the good things happening in TGWNN worship?

One of the strongest methodologies of TGWNN is the way music and liturgy has been reinvigorated for a new generation. Worshipers find engagement and inspiration in music that sounds like what they’re playing on their iPods. Talented musicians have also found ways to breath new life into decades-old hymns. Younger audiences appreciate the more informal yet well crafted musical performances used in worship (although they’d steer very clear of calling them “performances”).

TGWNN worship leaders have also reintroduced creeds, responsive prayers and other forms and acts of worship. These liturgical elements, while institutional and stale for many in mainline traditions, feel fresh and reinstituted in community traditions, and have brought meaning to many of those for whom liturgy is a new concept.

TGWNN has been great at widening the possibilities for music and liturgical elements in a post-contemporary worship world.

Q: I get the feeling there’s a “but?Ķ” coming.

Yepper. Ironically, the visual style of TGWNN often contradicts its effort to “emerge” from stale ways of doing worship.

A typical image that adorns screens at many TGWNN worship services comes from a previous, centuries-old culture. Much of the imagery has a Euro-centric or Celtic style that may have meaning to someone with church history but can create an obstacle for those who have lived much of their lives outside the church. Worshipers from cultures with non-European backgrounds (particularly African-American) may find it hard to connect with the ever-present pale skinned, Renaissance era Jesus.

TGWNN imagery is also full of esoteric art and ancient symbolism, which is mysterious and confusing (and presumably therefore cool). The use of ancient icons and masterworks may be preferred choices to communicate biblical truths and principles for insiders, but one has to ask the question, “Is Michelangelo the best choice for reaching a culture more in tune with Tarintino and YouTube?” Unfortunately, mystery in TGWNN worship frequently comes in avoiding meaning in art and symbolism, rather than in using it to connect the congregation to the Mysterious Other, God. Call it the “Latin Mass Phenomenon,” or the desire to worship in another language, even if we have no idea what’s going on.

8 Comments so far »

  1. The MO Guys said,

    Wrote on April 11, 2007 @ 4:06 pm

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  2. Rev. Jerry Tupper said,

    Wrote on April 12, 2007 @ 4:28 am

    I think you have reflected what is happening on the cutting edge of emerging worship. I affirm your comments about “contemporary” worship. I have believed for several years that this term was a misused and has little meaning to the non-churched as well as being mis-leading. All styles of worship are contemporary to the times in some aspects of it. The format is more of style than simply labeling as “traditional” or “contemporary”, etc.

  3. Rev. Beth Galbreath said,

    Wrote on April 12, 2007 @ 9:00 am

    Thanks for great reflections. Out here in the boonies we don’t get much opportunity to experience “emergent” styles. I have had the impression that “emergent” mainly means “don’t be afraid to use ancient traditions in meaningful ways” as in “ancient-future church.” A relief from the boomer-rock (and sometimes unsingable) focus of “contemporary.” When we reintroduced the Communion ritual (instead of the post-service snack approach) in our “contemporary” service 8 years ago folks said, “Wow, that’s really meaningful! I didn’t realize!”

  4. Matt Wolfington said,

    Wrote on April 12, 2007 @ 9:07 am

    You hit a bullseye with the “contemporary” talk in our world today. I have decided that in our church there is no label for worship other than “relevant.” Using media connects more human senses to worship and allows the heart, mind and soul to work together in understanding the gospel. Media helps accentuate the faith, humor, sarcasm, thinking, passion, love, feelings and questions the Bible is packed with.

  5. deb said,

    Wrote on April 12, 2007 @ 9:32 am

    Great piece! You’ve boiled it down to the core; the essence of The Message for any generation in any century via any medium: Meaning. Relevance. Substance.


  6. John Battern said,

    Wrote on April 12, 2007 @ 12:49 pm

    I’ll never forget when I was at a MO workshop in Knoxville, Ia and one of the guys asked what names people gave to their “contemporary” worship services. One woman stood up and said quite emphatically “We call our a contemporary service because everybody knows what contemporary means!”

    I just shook my head in disbelief. Emergent worship is even more diverse than contemporary worship. Making it indigenous is to me the real key.

  7. Tim Coombs said,

    Wrote on April 16, 2007 @ 11:58 am

    I’ve recently started a “visual preachers” group for those who recognize the importance of communicating with images and the new “emerging” mediums. Though the more work I do in this area, the more backlash I experience. No surprises there, but it’s nice to read your pieces and be reminded that I’m not alone in this venture. Keep up the good work.

  8. Gene said,

    Wrote on May 23, 2007 @ 10:28 pm

    I’ve been reading “Emerging Worship” by Dan Kimball, and various things online. Emergent is hard to define beyond “wanting to try something new that works for emerging generations.” ‘Emerging generations’ is the under-30 group that’s largely missing in many churches (even mega churches) except for people who were raised in the church. What’s “new” is different for different churches and different areas, so it’s hard to define.

    I think you may be associated with ’emergent’ because some of the things that some emergent churches are trying are things you’ve been talking about for a while: services not totally centered on the senior pastor, designed by a team, creatively incorporating media as needed. Some of them (e.g., Axis @ Willow Creek) do things that sound like the coffee filter thing you’ve talked about (http://www.midnightoilproductions.com/reading/media-worship/metaphor/) to make the services more interactive.

    In any event, I think your final thoughts nicely summarize what church media should be about, regardless of what type of church it’s for.

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