Postmodern Worship Needs
by Eric Landstrom
The church has a problem. Besides the identity crisis that the church finds herself involved in, along with battles regarding liturgy amongst its traditional members, the problem is how does it go about attracting worshippers from the new postmodern age? Traditional churchmen have been struggling to tag and identify this animal since Thomas Oden first wrote of the collapse of modernism in his book, Agenda for Theology, and the rise of postmodernism (Agenda for Theology, p. 49).
Nevertheless, the church, aside from being able to describe the traits and characteristics of postmodernism, has failed to truly appeal to them and to draw them into her worship services. Thomas Oden writes that,
The postmodern person has been through the best and the worst that modernity has to offer. The postmodern person is looking for something beyond modernity, some source of meaning and value that transcends the assumptions of modernity (ibid., p. 49).
Even among postmodern Christian converts, which I am one, often the church falls flat on its face to appeal to people of my background. While it struggles to accommodate the spirit of the age between contemporary liturgy and traditional services believing that is the problem; I tell you, that as a postmodern, it is not. The problem is that the church has been failing to different itself from the world that it finds itself among. Dr. Mayhue correctly notes:
The church increasingly substitutes human power for God's power and peripheral talk about God for talk that centers on Him directly (Pastoral Ministry, p. 17).
To this problem Marva Dawn centered her book, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, as its central thesis writing:
That worship would reach out more effectively both to Christians and to the culture around us if we kept God as the subject (Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, p. 225).
David Wells astutely observed that:
The disappearance of theology from the life of the Church, and the orchestration of that disappearance by some of its leaders, is hard to miss today but, oddly enough, not easy to prove. It is hard to miss in the evangelical worldin the vacuous worship that is so prevalent, for example, in the shift from God to self as the central focus of faith, in the psychologized preaching that follows this shift, in the erosion of its conviction, in its strident pragmatism, in its inability to think incisively about the culture, in its reveling in the irrational (No Place for Truth, p. 95).
Yet there exists a second problem within the church as it seeks to reach out to draw the postmodern to worship. While the church believes that the dispensing of the correct information will eventually cure her ills, all the information in the world will ultimately not appeal to the postmodern worshipper as Craig Loscalzo notes of the rising postmodern spirit:
People appear so unsatisfied with their lives. What is wrong? Information has not touched their souls' longing for significanceA significant postmodern emphasis is the pursuit of transcendence. Today people desire something beyond the mundane. People long for spiritual experiences that break them out of their routines Postmodernism, saturated in scientific and technological matters, is driving us to crave the simpler things that ultimately make us who we are as human beings. A sunset reminds us of a universe bigger than ourselves, beyond ourselves. Ah, transcendence. Ah mystery! (Apologetic Preaching, pp. 32, 33, emphasis his).
Not only do postmoderns crave meaning, they crave for that which is greater than themselves: A living, vibrant, transcendent God who is reaching out and touching their lives and the lives of those around them! Yet while the church searches for way to reel in the boomers who grew up in a different age and a different time by using theology as therapy, this is setting the stage for the church to do a belly-flop when it attempts to respond to the needs of postmoderns. This is because while the boomers do need to hear dogma so that their faith would become grounded in knowing what and why they believe (Know What & Why You Believe, p. 24). Postmodern worshippers have had it with all the information, the dogma. They seek the transcendent message the Bible offers and they earnestly seek to fellowship with others that have found a deeper meaning, a richer experience, in their own life in the Son. Thus to reach out to a postmodern requires an altogether different approach in both theology and to a lesser degree liturgy as well.
Yet the church and her seminaries are terribly equipped to deal with such people. Today many seminarians can escape their stay with as little as eight credits in theological studies. Often these credits are divided up between the obligatory courses of historical and systematic theology. Yet this will not prepare the seminarian for the pulpit for the kind of theology the postmodern wants to and needs to hear preached.
Yet all is not lost within the church, because within academic evangelical circles there exists a growing and renewed interest in biblical theology as they experience their own burnout with the status quo (New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, p. vii). Driven by lifelong churchmen, this new movement views biblical theology as the vehicle with which to mend both the rift between the two prevailing theological systems within the Protestant church, as well as a sound hermeneutic to avoid reading presuppositions into the biblical text. The goal is to restore the evangelical church to a singular voice without dumbing down doctrine and dogma. While these are worthy goals, I believe that it is also preparing the way to appeal to the postmodern. This is because biblical theology is a vehicle that readily conveys deeper levels of meaning which the postmodern seeks. Also, as a discipline, biblical theology seeks discovery of meaning through the biblical text without the rigid controls normally associated with systematic or dogmatic theology. Further, biblical theology also serves as a conduit which also conveys the transcendence of the Lord, quickly recognizing that God is everywhere active transcending His creation.
Nevertheless, as a postmodern it took me years to find a church that was "unchurched" enough to be preaching biblical theology rather than social commentary that I can get from the local news or moralizing the life out of the biblical narrative. Increasingly I have met people who I'd consider as strong Christians who are unsatisfied with the worship of their church. While the standard is set by the message preached from the pulpit, to the church which has spent the post war period following WWII accommodating the spirit of the age, it seems odd that many people are actually desiring to see formalized worship return to the church service.
As Rob Marus and Marshall Allen, write in their article, The Revival of Ancient Worship Patterns,
So why is liturgical worship becoming attractive again?
In part, advocates say, because it balances the rational, word-centered worship so popular since the Enlightenment with a reemphasis on the senses, aesthetics and mystery. It also fits the postmodern's thirst for an experiential faith and a sense of community In particular, the Gen-Xers who have come into the church have asked for something very traditional, and they don't mean Second-Great-Awakening Baptist. They mean ancient (The Revival of Ancient Worship Patterns).
In short, similar to taizé movement that began in post war France, postmoderns are seeking a worship service that is more reflective and meaningful, yet throughout, a period of corporate worship. "It's a very mystical, mysterious and contemplative type of worship experience" that postmoderns desire states Baucom, Senior Pastor of Rivermont Church (ibid.).
Baucom and his staff studied ancient worship methods and patterns that would fit Baptist theology and tradition. That didn't take them back to Catholic or Orthodox liturgies but to ancient Celtic forms of worship.
Rivermont started a Celtic service that includes readings from ancient Irish, Scottish and Welsh poetry, plus Celtic-themed songs that date back as far as the fifth century (such as the classic "Be Thou My Vision").
The sanctuary is lit by candles and the ministers wear robes patterned after the vestments of ancient monks and friars. Bagpipes and violins replace drums and electric guitars. No contemporary worship choruses are sung.
At the end of its first year, about 150 people are attending the Celtic service, while about 350 attend the contemporary "celebration" service. Both are growing.
Baucom said one of the most unusual aspects of the two services is whom they tend to attract. While the contemporary service is filled with baby boomers, they are all but absent in the Celtic service. It attracts mostly Gen-Xers, with a healthy minority of the church's older members included.
"I would call it a crowd of the premoderns and the postmoderns," Baucom says (ibid.).
While it is encouraging to see a traditional church develop a service designed to appeal to postmoderns, Dr. McDougall argues that,
The ultimate challenge is not to convince people to pray. It is rather to help them realize why they need to pray If Christians understood what kind of crises they face, they would not need constant reminders to pray. They would be continually on their faces before God. Believers usually focus their prayer on physical or financial needs, the types of things that are solvable from merely physical or financial perspective. They could arrange more planning meetings, more workdays, or whatever else would resolve the issues. On the other hand, if they were convinced that their problems are spiritual, they would spend more time in prayer (Pastoral Ministry, p. 184).
Thus the appeal is once again made to the pulpit to preach the word of God, to give purpose of corporate prayer and worship and to establish God as the focus of worship and the biblical message. Yet from my own experience and the experience of other postmoderns, there is a resistance to gather together which the church needs to overcome.
Beyond the biblical mandate that believers should come together for communion with the Lord and fellowship. The postmodern, wary of the traditional church, needs to be reminded that by gathering together corporately, the excitement, love, and enthusiasm for our Savior will be maintained and even experienced to a greater degree. Further, an individual no matter how blessed by God above does not possess the whole truth. God has set up a system of reliance upon others. Beginning from Himself to an individual, out to a family, then a neighborhood, into a city, and finally onto whole nations. That is what the Body of Christ is in effect. A person who fails to fellowship is robing the Lord the use of his servants to reveal himself through them and stunting their own growth towards maturity.
Commendable as it may well be that a church is willing to go to ends like Pastor Baucom of Rivermont Church has done to feed the felt needs of postmoderns, there is more to it to retain the postmodern. Once assembled, the church would fail in its duties if it did not preach the Word of God unashamedly and with boldness. Nevertheless, the trick is to offer the postmodern more than what they are expecting. What they expect may get them in the door, what will keep them coming for more is when the Bible is preached in a way that it is not rationalized from start to finish. This in no way means that the gospel need be watered down to the point where theology becomes therapy as has been done in the past. Quite the opposite. Appeals must be made to the postmodern that it is only within the body of the church were true worship can be offered. Unlike the age of Enlightenment, when the church hoped to rationalize the Bible from start to finish, appeals must be made to the wonderment of God and the mystery of the message to capture the imagination of postmoderns. As a mentor of mine once made comment: "A good teacher will cause his students to wonder, to seek, and to find."
David F. Wells, 1993, No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 330 pages.
Thomas Oden, 1979, Agenda for Theology, New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers, 179 pages.
John MacArthur, Jr., 1995, Rediscovering Pastoral Ministry, Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 440 pages.
Marva Dawn, 1995, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 316 pages.
Craig Loscalzo, 2000, Apologetic Preaching, Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 138 pages.
Paul Little, 1980, Know What & Why You Believe, Minneapolis, MN: World Wide Publications, 256 pages.
Desmond Alexander, 2000, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 866 pages.
Marus & Allen, 2001, The Revival of Ancient Worship Patterns: http://www.theooze.com/articles/read.cfm?ID=113&CATID=2
Did you know?
1. The strongest and deepest desire of the twenty-something worshiper is to have a genuine encounter with God?
2. This longing for an encounter with God is not merely individualistic, but one that takes place within the context of genuine community.
3. It follows that there is a high concern to recover depth and substance in worship.
4. There is a deep desire to return to a more frequent and meaningful experience of communion. Here is where a deep, substance-filled encounter with God is most fully experienced on the personal level.
5. Another significant way we are encountered by God shows up in the demand for challenging sermons and more use of Scripture.
6. Worship in the future will be more participatory. Worship is not a lecture or a concert done for us. We are the players, God is the audience.
7. This generation wants a more creative use of the senses. The communication revolution has shifted us toward a participation that is more visual.
8. Worship will become more quiet, characterized by more contemplative music and time for personal reflection and intimate relationship with God.
9. Worship will focus on the transcendence and otherness of God even as the demand for an encounter with the nearness of God remains high.
First and foremost, evangelicals need to recover an authentic biblical worship. This is worship that is not outreach but upreach. It is not driven by what is accomplished but by what it signifies or represents. Its focus is on God and God's saving mission to the world accomplished in Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit. Worship celebrates the missio Dei. It prays, sings, preaches and enacts it.
Second, evangelicals need to discover the unfolding process of worship. Worship is not a program but an unfolding process of gathering under divine call; listening to the living, active, life-giving voice of God in the Word of God read and preached; enacting the Christian narrative at the Table in a response of praise and thanksgiving; and a going forth with the promise of God's presence in every area of life (Robert Webber, "The Crisis of Evangelical Worship: Authentic Worship in a Changing World," 2002, Ancient & Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st Century, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, pp. 152-53).
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