Recently we were speaking at a large conference on worship, and the speaker that preceded us made a statement that really caught our attention. He said the Church has spent much time, effort and energy creating “contemporary” worship services, but has missed the purpose of contemporary completely by accidentally creating new forms of “traditional” worship. He concluded with these words: “Think about it, folks. The root of contemporary is temporary.”
Those words rang in our ears. If one believes, as we do, that worship should connect with people of this time and space, both believers and unbelievers, then we have to have a “temporary” mindset. Although the presence of God in Christian worship is timeless, the methodologies we use to increase our own awareness of this presence should be ever changing. The Spirit will always be moving in our lives and in our churches, so we have to stay fluid in our methodologies. We should stay true to our core values, while changing our cultural practice. This is the true purpose of “contemporary” worship.
There is irony in much of what is currently known as contemporary worship. Many congregations have a vague desire to create contemporary┬áworship (that is, a style of worship more contemporary than what they already do) but don’t have a clear direction about what exactly it is that they hope to accomplish. Often what transpires is a specific style of worship that is structured around the tastes of those creating it. The style then grows old with its designers. It becomes fossilized. What is still called contemporary┬áis no longer contemporary at all.
We’ve seen this with what is sometimes called Emergent worship, which is a reforming of the contemporary┬áworship format for a new generation. The challenge for these worship designers is to not let the new style grow old along with them.
What does it mean, then, to be “temporary” in worship? What is true contemporary worship about, exactly?
To further reflect on the speaker’s words, the root of contemporary is tempus, which is Latin for time. The adjective derivative of this root is temporal. According to Microsoft Encarta, to be described as temporal means, “1. Relating to measured time… or 4. Lasting only a short time.”
This is not a very apt description of what we often call contemporary.
As one aspect of worship, consider musical styles. Contrary to much of what is practiced, worship is far more than just singing, but it can be a good place to start. For many, poor quality music, or even high quality music not of this time, equals an inability to be aware of God’s presence.
Many contemporary┬áminded music ministers believe that for the most part, hymns don’t easily connect with or inspire those who haven’t grown up in the church. Even for some that have, it can be a difficult task to connect to God through this type of music. If churches really took the time to research the music their laypeople listened to when outside the church, they would probably find that hymns aren’t high on the list. Or even 4-part harmony. One well known large church in California asked its congregation to write on 3×5 cards what radio stations they listen to on a regular basis. In pouring over all of the cards that were submitted, they found that not one of them listed a station that featured all hymns all the time. There probably aren’t too many of those around!
What some music ministers fail to see, however, is that often, older contemporary┬áworship music is to the new generation what hymns were to the generation that first shifted away from hymns. Emergent worship has begun to make use of hymns, recreated in a 21st century beat. (Insert your own comment about skipping generations here.) Choices made by music ministers have to be thought through carefully if the goal is to connect worshippers with a experience that is not stale, but in this time.
Consider Encarta’s second definition of temporal, which has roots in our Christian tradition. Encarta states, “2. Relating to the laity rather than the clergy in the Christian Church.” In other words, to be temporal in worship means to connect with the people in the seats. To speak their language. This unfortunately has often been opposed, historically, to connection with clergy. As Protestants, we believe in the priesthood of all believers. This means our emphasis is on laity – everyday people, and the world in which they live. Unlike our Catholic brethren, there is no clergy class, laity class, or division between the two. There is only the body of believers.
As ministers, we should be as intentional about how we communicate the message as Jesus was. The problem with much of what we call both traditional and contemporary┬áworship is that it tends to alienate people. If the worshipper, believer or not, doesn’t know the esoteric response lines, or the significance of certain objects, or words, or even the appropriate behavior, then they are lost. We speak a “Christianese” language without even knowing it sometimes. Many hymns and liturgical writings have language that needs significant deconstruction to even begin to understand what is being shared.
Our worship design emphasis, therefore, is not to create esoteric worship that speaks to a ruling class in the Body of Christ, who are privy to the mysterious code of Christianese, but to create worship that is an expression of the entire Body of Christ – the everyday person.
Jesus came to Earth to make God and His message of love and forgiveness incarnate. He brought the message to everyday people in flesh and blood so that we, as these people, can find a connection with Him and His experience. He exclusively used stories from the culture, and metaphors (parables) from his day to teach. He rejected the rhetorical style taught in the temple. His ministry was to those outside the walls, not the ruling religious class; his language matched that style of ministry. (Mark 4:33-34)
Another aspect of worship is what goes on the screen. As important as music is the way we communicate the message in a visual world. To connect as Jesus did, we have to create and use imagery that speaks the visual language of our present culture. This means a move toward commercial or popular art styles found in magazines, television, movies and on the internet, and a move away from more traditional or fine art pieces created to speak to previous cultures. Fine art often requires as much or more interpretation than the language found in liturgical writings and hymns. The more intentionality we bring to connecting with the cultural art forms expressed in the world around us in this time?the more truly contemporary we are, the more the church and its mission will flourish.
A third definition of temporal is in opposition to eternal – that is, as Encarta states, “3. Connected with life in the world, rather than spiritual life.” In time, rather than out of time. In this world, to use Jesus language. As believers, we know that life in Christ is ultimately not of this world. It is timeless. The kingdom of God is both now and forever? – the very opposite of temporary! It is often tempting, like the disciples on the mountain at Jesus’ transfiguration (Matt 17), for us to want to just build a shelter and live life timelessly, out of this world. To be disconnected with things of this world. This sometimes sounds nice, but it is basically selfish. Jesus calls us to come down off the mountain, go into the world, and preach the Good News (Mark 16:15). The disciples were not allowed to pitch a tent and hang out on top of the mountain. Jesus sent them back down to minister, to proclaim the Gospel in their own time. We must do the same, not being content to live out of time, but living the temporal life for the sake of bringing others along. Even as we follow a Savior not of the world, we must stay connected to life in the world. Which means we must strive to continually design worship that is truly contemporary, or connected to the world.
As the church moves further ahead in time, much of what is now known as contemporary┬áwill become traditional and what is known as traditional will no longer exist. This cycle of innovation and institutionalization is typical. To much of the broader culture, worship that becomes institutionalized, or set in stone so to speak, is seen as an attempt to hold on to the past – whether meaningful or not. This form of worship continues to speak to a certain (small) demographic, but its rituals and language often prevent people from experiencing God.
The move from archaic forms of worship to something that is more connectional using present cultural communication forms has to be considered if the church is to move forward in its mission to make disciples. We should strive to create worship environments where our members can feel comfortable inviting everyday people – our neighbors, literally (many of which are very much of this world). Where when they walk out the doors of the church with their guests by their side, significant deconstruction of specific words and rituals are unnecessary. Where the words that they sing, the message they hear, and the images they see connect to their personal experience.
To live this mission means that our understandings of worship should constantly change. We must continually come down off the mountain. We must guard against pitching the tent and exhort each other to keep those at the bottom of the mountain in our hearts. Truly committing to connect with the culture through worship, then, may mean that contemporary 70s worship with acoustic guitars and “Kum By Yah,” contemporary 80s with lots of synthesizers, and contemporary 90s with that familiar grunge sound might need updating. The way the church does worship today should look different than what it did 5 or 10 years ago. It should continue to look different in the next 5 to 10 years, too. Our ministry at Midnight Oil is devoted to helping churches staying of this time, while following whatever direction God may take us. We are committed, as the church should be, to changing with the culture, for the sake of making disciples.