Review: Perspectives on Christian Worship, pt. 3 – Contemporary Worship

This is part 3 of a series of blog posts on the book Perspectives on Christian Worship:5 views. The first post was on “Liturgical Worship”. The second post was on “Traditional Evangelical Worship.” We now turn our attention to Contemporary Worship with an essay written by Dan Wilt.

Again, this synopsis in no way should replace careful reading of this important book.

SYNOPSIS

Wilt begins by fleshing out three challenges in discussing contemporary worship: (1) reflecting the values of such a diverse group, (2) discussing a movement in flux, (3) discussing “contemporary worship’s” role in the whole of the church tapestry.

Contemporary music, writes Wilt, is predominately defined by contemporary music. Wilt (unlike Duncan) has “no intention of suggesting that contemporary worship music and its expressions are more biblically ‘correct’ than other forms” (147). Wilt is concerned that we do “not attach all  of our  own opinions to God . . .” (148).

Thus, the definition of contemporary worship is “that expression of worship withing the Christian church today marked by the primary usage of contemporarily written worship lyrics and music, [which] is sonically concurrent (to some degree) with the music of popular culture, and is used widely and increasingly across the Protestant . . . spectrum of today’s globally worshiping congregations” (148).

Wilt offers several “guiding questions of contemporary worship expression” (150).

  • Why is singing so important? “. . . because we can do it together” (151).
  • Is there a place for a New Song? “. . . God gives . . . the capacity to respond to the present work of God with a heart-song that is fresh, immediate, current, renewing and rebuilding” (153).
  • Why must we sing New Songs? Because “God Himself has put the new song in our mouths” (154, citing Ps 40:3).
  • What is contemporary worship music’s historical precedent? “St. Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, the Wesly brothers, Isaac Watts and many others have ruffled the feathers of church traditionalists in their quest to invoke the common voice of the culture in their crafting of fresh, new worship music” (154).
  • What forces shape contemporary music? Summarizing a lecture by N.T. Wright, Wilt writes “we as a contemporary Western people have in many ways privatized faith, elevated feelings, and pursued self-actualization — no more so in the world than in the church” (157). Seen in this light, “Contemporary worship music . . . can be seen as a necessary worship counterpoint, pushing us toward a more integrated approach to the way that we worship a living God active in postmodernity” (158).
  • What is the relationship of Christ to Culture? Following Niebuhr, Wilt writes “. . . it is in the arena of engagement with culture that we not only bring the transforming presence of Jesus to the world but also find our interactive home. Contemporary worship engages culture . . . and subverts worldviews in the process” (159). Wilt views the place where Christ and culture collide as “a beautiful view . . . [and] a precarious place of death and destruction” (160).
  • What is the Church in culture? The church is “the community of [Christ’s] empowered followers. . . His redemptive agent in human culture — His kingdom ‘virus’ in the world” (161).
  • Who are Christians in culture? “[W]e are a part of a human family (culture) and a covenant family (the church)” (161, from an interview with Peter Davids). “Our music, our art, our work, our play, and our love must point through humankind to God” (164).
  • Where do the Church and culture intersect? Here the discussion falls into three sections: (1) The church is part of culture. Wilt writes “[O]n many levels our culture is a part of us all and shapes much of what we find to be beautiful in life” (164). (2) The church is beyond culture (John 18:36). (3) The church is a culture in renewal. “As God redeems the hearts of His people, so He redeems the cultural expressions . . . that flow from us” (166).
  • What should worship look like in culture? “It is primarily the lyrics of contemporary worship music that distinguish between the God-centeredness or the man-centeredness of a song” (167).
  • What precipitated today’s worship model? Wilt quotes Don Williams’ helpful synopsis of the charismatic renewal of the 1960s.

Wilt them moves to a discussion of the “Guiding Values of Contemporary Worship Expression: Where We Are Now.” He begins by discussing some of the practical skills used to prepare a contemporary worship set (song selection, band development, and worship leadership) before discussing the following values.

  1. Cultural Relevance. Wilt refers to it as “welcome[ing] Jesus into the mundane” (176).
  2. Integrity. Having a language of worship that is your own.
  3. Holism. Possessing a view of worship that embraces the emotions.
  4. Immanence. “God is near, and you and I can expect Him to move powerfully in our lives” (186).
  5. Incarnational Worship. “[T]he engagement of many young Christians with the poor in their communities, the oppressed in multicultural societies, and their peers in the classroom is a fire stoked directly by the fuel of contemporary worship music” (189).
  6. Simplicity. “Simplicity has a way of compelling reflection and aiding us in considering the content of what we are singing” (193).
  7. Diversity. “[V]ariety can only be more reflective of the worship of heaven that we must biblically envision” (195).
  8. Unity. ” [M]utual appreciation for a contemporary song . . . traverse borders between denominational affiliations and leap over generation gaps quite comfortably” (196).

Finally, Wilt moves to a discussion of the future of contemporary worship. He writes “If contemporary worship music and contemporary service can continue to ‘further the plot’ of the kingdom story in tandem with the historic patterns of living worship, then we have found our place” (200).

REACTIONS

My [Matthew’s] impression is that Contemporary Worship is too large a topic for a single essay.  What 60-page essay could adequately address church movements as diverse as homogeneous church growth movement, purpose and seeker churches, charismatic and pentecostal churches, theologically fundamentalist churches that like Rock ‘n Roll? In Zondervan’s version of this book, Joe Horness (formerly of Willow Creek) and Don Williams (from the Vineyard movement) both contributed very different essays. These distinctions are blurred in this volume, and it is definitely the weaker for it.

Wilt scrambles to compensate for this by concentrating on MUSIC as the shared ingredient of this amalgam, but this short-circuits potential fruitful discussion. I doubt that Duncan and Dever would point the same criticisms at (comparatively contemporary) Sovereign Grace, Acts29, Harvest Bible, Sojourn (have I made my point?) churches that they aim at Wilt’s essay. Not all practitioners of contemporary music employ the theology that trouble Duncan and Dever.

Also, writers, please be aware of the slippery nature of Niebuhr’s use of “culture” and his tragic underestimation of the effects of the Fall and sin (see Carson’s “Christ and Culture Revisited” and Wittmer’s “Analysis and Critique of ‘Christ the Transformer of Culture’ in the Thought of H. Richard Niebuhr“).

—————————–

Quill draws attention to Wilt’s emphasis on our role in worship. He warns “Sooner or later, the emotional bubble bursts, and worship leaders, musicians, and worshipers are unable to find the emotional resources within. The constant demand to give God all our praise, heart, and love is a burden that condemns us” (208).

Duncan believes Wilt has  missed “the distinction between worshiping God in all of life and worshiping God in gathered worship” (210). To be fair, though, the context of the book has been the gathered worship setting. Duncan is right in that it would have been helpful for Wilt to include more discussion (he does mention “holism” as a category) of how these two relate.

Lawrence and Dever consider some of Wilt’s claims about the power of music were overreaching, and that “the church gathered around Christ, not His anthems” (211).  I don’t believe that Wilt would take issue with this, but the point is valid. Lawrence and Dever ask “who is the appropriate audience of worship, God or the unbeliever?” I [Matthew] believe that question is overly simplistic, since God is also an active participant in gathered worship, but the underlying question bears greater thought than it is often given. Lawrence and Dever also wonder if pop music has enough emotional complexity to express God’s transcendence, wrath, majesty, holiness, or (perhaps especially) a Christian’s grief.

Kimball finds a “kindred soul” (217) in Wilt, though he “would have liked to hear how preaching, prayer, other artistic expression play into a worship gathering” (216). Kimball next takes issue with the flimsiness of the name “contemporary” and laments how other cultures (especially non-Western) are not part of this discussion.

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