Emergent Worship in the church is a rare, but beautiful thing.
Since moving to Santa Barbara, we have been attending Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara. I did not grow-up Wesleyan-Methodist, but as I grew older the theological sympathies of the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition began to harmonize with my own experience, sense of reason, and reading of scripture.
What I deeply value about our church body is our theology of worship*.
The music is often a bit quirky. Our congregation toggles through little known hymns written by the Wesley brothers, 1980’s worship choruses, Hillsong United, Latin-jazzed-up versions of songs, and original pieces.
We are not about the image. We are not even about the music . . . not when we are at our best. What music played in our services is much less important than the reason why we play certain music.
Ray is a friend who attends our church. Ray is . . . older than we are. Ray is logical, straightforward, he is a math guy.
And Ray loves hymns.
Ray loves hymns so much so that he often leads the congregational hymn singing.
I do value the history and theology of hymns; they have a sequential and logic-driven element to the musicality and lyrics that is often missing in much of modern music’s tendency to be cyclical and feeling-driven. Hymns are a good check to the soul, “am I singing because the music is simply moving me, or do I really believe these specific words?”. Yes, sometimes hymns can feel dry, but that if often because younger generations are more activated by how we feel rather than how we think. Both thinking and feeling are pathways to our emotional selves, what we believe, and that which we love and dedicate our life to.
Although I appreciate hymns, I must admit . . . on the sixth round of O’ for a Thousand Tongues to Sing I am a bit tired. That is, until I look around and see Ray, Karen, Ruth, and other folks in our congregation genuinely in worship, connecting with our God. Their presence reminds me that worship is a collective act – it is not about “me” and God. It is about God, creation at large, and the relationships that creation has with one another.
Worship emerges from the people, from the cultures, from the backgrounds of those approaching the father. Worship is not supposed to be made attraction, it is supposed to be emergent. The intent isn’t that outsiders should be enticed by the music or the style, but rather that genuine worship expresses such an overflowing of God’s presence in the lives of God’s people that others cannot help but have some interest – not in the music – but in the people expressing the music and ultimately the God of those people.
Jesus’s comment in John 4:21b – 24 is telling:
the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
His comment is not only about his hope that we each embody worship in our lives, but that worship is not restricted to one group’s (culture, nation, generation) style and preference. True worship emerges from the spirit, as our spirit meets God’s sprit. The story of the Woman at the Well is a challenging counter to ethnocentric approaches to worship. In John’s narrative about a Samaritan woman and Jewish man, Jesus opens to the door and challenges the propagation of the “established” culture of the Jews. It is not their style or culture that is inherently of God, they are merely an expression.
The strive to be a multicultural church is a difficult one, especially when it comes to worship-style. Because worship (via music, service set-up, etc.) is a whole-person practice, mixing styles and perspectives can become precarious. Intergenerational-multiculturalism is particularly hard, but often forgotten. When a church ranges from infants to people in their 90’s there is an array of cultures present because time/era create part of the contexts in which we all grow. Nevertheless, intergenerational worship is formative, it helps the young mature and seniors to continue to grow. Like other forms of multiculturalism, intergenerational environments push against the temptation of being conservative (denotative sense) isolationists who eventually become stale and rote AND the temptation of being progressive (again in the denotative sense) experimentalists who recreate the wheel and regretfully not learn from the others’ perspective.
Intergenerational/multicultural worship pushes the Christian community (not simply individual) to be faithful to what has come before, what is now, and what may come in the future.
There is no inherent problem in feeling-stirring music or in straightforward educational hymns. Both have their pitfalls, but both, when genuine, rise from the soul and are reinforced by God’s presence. Both shape us; both are liturgies (works of the people) that God blesses in our journey towards holiness.
- When style supersedes the collective expression of worship
- When we use worship as a marketing tool We need to check ourselves
- When we would rather do “what we have always done” or sing only “modern songs”
- When we isolate so we can get our way
When these things happen, we have a problem. Worship fails to be an collective emergent expression to God and ends up being an individualized constructed expression focused on us.
* I am using worship as music primarily, BUT also as a way to discuss a grandeur expression of God’s worth. Although my starting point and ending point is worship via music, the telos is worship at-large.