Anytime we color outside the lines in worship at Christ the King, try something different, there is a ripple of reaction, a flickering of energy, if, for nothing else, the novelty of it. I decided to take this moment to share my commitment to what I for now will simply call "blended worship," and its theological basis.
More than anywhere else, each of us has our own comfort zone in sacred music. It makes sense: if we are engaged in a Christian worship service, the music is there not only as a way to reinforce the concepts and doctrines of our faith; but it is a way for us to personally engage with our God and Savior. As David reminded us in his sermon on May 15, we are drawn to stories of a bigger, transcendent reality that is our true story--the one that matters.
I would venture to say that any Christian who has taken part in Christian worship has had some poignant moments between themselves and the Lord while engaged with the music. These are the moments that reassure us of our place in the larger story of God's love, and they are truly sacred. These moments of being intentionally in God's presence, one with Him and one with His family, are the most precious we can experience in this life. We may weep; feel emboldened or strengthened; raise a hand in joy, or sing like no one is listening. Or we might become compelled to make a needed change, to turn back to God, and quietly live more faithfully for Him. It's the big stuff of life, and it's bigger than life.
My thoughts have developed from experience with a wide range of worship styles. One year at CtK's fall retreat, our guest speaker, Scott Redd, described his church background as "denominationally promiscuous," which I found to be a humorous and familiar description. I am one of those as well: my family of origin chose churches and Christian schools for us based on which preached the Gospel most faithfully. At times, as our family grew from apartment to townhouse to single family home, that brought us to Baptist, Bible, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian, churches. During my high school and college years, I had a few occasions to attend services, often weddings or funerals, at Assemblies of God, Catholic, Methodist, Moravian, nondenominational, and Pentecostal churches. I attended Young Life, which has its own implementation of sacred songs. My parents' backgrounds were in the Methodist and Salvationist churches prior to adulthood, so I am familiar with their hymnody and styles of worship as well. I have also attended services at a small startup church in a farming town in Costa Rica, a Russian Orthodox service in Moscow, and German Lutheran services in Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. I personally attended Lutheran and Baptist private schools, and my daughter went to a conservative Christian school, all of which came with their own very distinct traditions. I do not bring this up to equalize or discuss the merits of any denomination, only to demonstrate that I have observed a vast array of worship styles, and this in addition to my post baccalaureate music studies, the history of which is grounded in church music; and speaking broadly, there are some longterm patterns that accompany them.
I fell in love with Anglican worship as a young woman. The service was a little slice of heaven: excellent preaching, beautiful music, a palpable presence of the Holy Spirit, a diverse, kind, and warm congregation, and all set in a beautiful colonial church; I had found the right place for me. When I say diverse, I do mean diverse. The orientation toward missions and serving those in need brought souls that may otherwise not have felt welcome in the wealthy (and enormously generous) congregation. In one pew, you might see a homeless person and a famous Washingtonian. Young, old, healthy, hurting--they were all there. Some in the congregation genuflected and crossed themselves; many were alive in the revived charismatic movement, including the rector himself. They also engaged in a blend of worship styles: ancient/classical; The Hymnal 1982; and a supplemental book of praise songs. The Anglican service of Holy Eucharist remained firmly intact, but particular expressions changed from week to week, from season to season. And to be fair, it certainly was not a perfect place. There were some moments that went outside my comfort zone, complete with my own uncomfortable cringe and inner eye roll. Still, the community struck me as such a lovely portrait of the unity possible only through Christ.
THE BIGGER PICTURE.
In every membership class at CtK, David tells the joining members that "Anglicanism is not the only way, but it is a good way."* I share David's simple faith in the complete and atoning work of Christ, and faith in Him as our only Savior. This is all that is essential.
--The Case for Structure.
Music in worship is intrinsic to the Christian faith. We are exhorted, over and over through the entire Scripture to sing and make music to God. In scriptural accounts of worship, both directive and descriptive, the faithful sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, play instruments, make a joyful noise, clap hands, bow, kneel, pray, feast or fast, maintain meaningful rituals, cry out for joy, raise holy hands, and even dance.** Following the life of Jesus on earth, church music maintained aspects of its ancient roots, and also adapted to its context. The "old" and the "new" have always coexisted harmoniously in Christianity: to deny the old is to deny the eternity of God; to deny the new is to deny His relevance to us today. Jewish settings of the Psalms provided the roots for the structure of the new eucharistic services, and new songs were sung to celebrate the fulfilled prophecies of The Messiah. Based on the Psalms alone, we can see that there was and is music for any season of life, from our most profound moments to our simple daily routines. The current fad view that, because the earliest Christians worshiped in homes, we should discard formal worship in favor of this for a "truer" model, misses the history lesson that in those services, gathered around a table, often in secret, they sang the Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. The meetings were serious, holy, and structured.
The scriptural ubiquity of structured worship, and the dictum in 1 Cor. 14:40 that Christian worship be done "decently and in order" form the basis for my theological understanding of worship practices. Speaking practically, while the church calendar and lectionary were developed by sinful humans over many years, I contend that it is nevertheless a worthwhile structure. If you have ever read the daily lectionary, you will know that some of the most confusing and confounding passages in the Old Testament are paired with New Testament readings that show the role and purpose they played for the grand narrative of God's salvation plan. The schedule also ensures that no passages are overused, or conversely skipped to be more comfortable for us. There are liturgical times of feast and fasting, which, in addition to scriptural and historic precedent, we simply need as human beings to mark our time, and to intentionally remember God's providence.
Without some structure, we fall back on personal taste. In the case of church music, that usually ends up reflecting the pastor's or the music director's strengths and personality.
Referring back to the true essence of the faith, our need of salvation in Christ alone, I want to be clear that while the desire of a responsible church leader is to help us all realize this truth, any discussion of preaching, service, or music styles moves us out of the realm of absolute truth and into the realm of "best practices"--and best practices as employed by fallen, faulty, forgetful servants. Anything we do--even our personal devotion time--can be perverted by the enemy into a source of pride, or worse. Our feeble attempts at praise and service should not be confused with God's ultimate truth, or experienced as apart from His power.
--The Case for Diversity and Novelty.
So why blended worship, if the church calendar and lectionary encompass the teachings of the entire Bible? A good, solid structure serves us well--except when it doesn't. The temptation for an attendee at a clearly structured service is laziness. We check out. Blah, blah, blah, blah. Words, words, words. Oh, we're standing? Did I nod off? Please tell me I didn't snore. In light of the reality of God's story of love for us, and what it means to be engaged directly in worship of Him, that is about as low as we can stoop. In Revelation 3:16, God tells the church of Laodicea:
I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either hot or cold! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.
The first time I read that with any understanding, I remember thinking, "Yikes! Surely it's at least better to be an observant Christian, kind of doing the right things??" But any marriage counselor will affirm that disengagement is the sign of doom for a marriage. The Bible likens Christ to a bridegroom, and the Church to a bride. For the lukewarm believer (or marriage partner) there is no reason to fight. You simply don't care enough. Fighting, at least, shows that we have skin in the game, even if we are disillusioned at the moment.
So the first theological imperative is that we keep our faith fresh; we intentionally remember those moments of ecstatic joy, not just the comfortable evenings on the couch. In our comfort, we forget that we were bought with a price. We forget how it feels to be without this love.
Secondly, Christ's fulfilling of the Law broke down all barriers between Himself and believers, and provides power for us to break down the barriers between ourselves and others. We like our boundaries; they make us feel falsely secure and superior. "I may be this, but at least I'm not THAT." Referring back to the intimate seed of truth at the foundation of our faith: God's total knowledge of and love for each of us is the great equalizer. God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34). There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28). What divides us is insubstantial compared to what we share in Jesus Christ.
We're equal in God's eyes, sure, but what's wrong with choosing music only from one's own tradition? Absolutely nothing. In fact, it's not only good, but it is important to have a steady diet of it, because your home church should serve to communicate and facilitate worship effectively, which is always best understood within our own cultures and comfort zones. However, a disproportionate focus on the traditions and musical canon of any tradition will lead to some doctrinal deficiency. While it is true that the lectionary and church calendar help ensure a complete distribution of Scripture throughout our years, we can ease into lukewarmness that results from familiarity and habit.
The sacred music with which you engage is forming your own understanding of theology. What, for example, might happen if every single Sunday was bursting with ecstatic, charismatic (in either or both senses of the word) praise? Could normal life live up to the high? Where would you turn when you weren't "feeling it" or realized your life was not actually characterized by constant joy? Or what if every single Sunday, you sang only unaccompanied Psalm settings? Hard to go wrong, right, singing Scripture? But when some of life's sweetest and most intimate moments arose, would you be emotionally prepared to deal with true joy? Would you connect that blessing to God, or feel guilt and shame? What if you just sang songs or heard sacred music specific to your own tradition? You might forget that there is a whole world out there; centuries of believers who have come empty handed just like us to God, only to have our dirty rags traded for His perfect joy and love. Even more than those "out there," there are believers in other denominations who, for myriad and complex reasons like our own, have found a home in a different stylistic setting and tradition. Like the tribalism our overseas mission partner describes, the closer we are, the more hostile the boundaries.
While holding fast to Christ alone and our faith in Him as our only Savior, I would suggest that some of our blessings can become distractions from Him. Those intimate worship moments might have manifested in a poignant musical moment; but those trappings can also become Satan's distractions. Sometimes, the experience itself becomes the object of worship, and we desperately try to recreate that moment. The Father of Lies can compel us to believe we seek the Lord when we really seek to feel great or experience catharsis. Paul loved his own people; in Romans, he writes that he would wish a curse on himself if it meant the salvation of his kinsmen. We can't change who we are, nor should we. Everything we have and are is a gift from God. Our traditions define much about who we are in this transient world. The value in keeping worship fresh and versatile, however, guards against traditionalism becoming its own orthodoxy. We begin to forget that we came for an encounter with Jesus, and lament the disruption of our habits.
I would like to encourage you all to engage in the following exercises. As often as you like, choose a hymn or sacred song that you like, and study it. Is it doctrinally sound? Are there any parts you don't understand? What do you feel when that hymn is sung, and why do you think you feel that way? Does this hymn bring you to closer communion with or understanding of God? Then, anytime a piece of music in worship bothers you, analyze your response. Why? Is it because it messed up your expectation for the morning? Is it because you feel as though the tradition from which it is taken is "less than?" Is it because it makes you feel something too deeply? Is it because you fear that difference is a sign of the disintegration of the church? Is it because you think that kind of expression is disrespectful toward God? What do you think the writer of the song was thinking when s/he wrote it? Why do you think they felt compelled to write it down?
It's good, healthy, and normal, to know yourself, to know what is for you, and what's not for you. I have my own comfort zone in church, church music, and other areas of my life. This is not to say that I'm one who should be upheld in any regard as an example, only that I know what I like and don't like, and generally have strong feelings that accompany this taste. I urge you, instead of allowing a surprise to take your focus off of God and worship of Him, to simply be at peace with identifying more or less closely with some kinds of musical worship. When it really rankles you, I urge you to consider why this may be.
Thoughts? I would love to hear from you! As an individual, I can't possibly know all the inspired music being written for worship, and many of you have shared your own favorites which have quickly become mine as well. May God bless and keep you all!
*I personally recall finding this extremely refreshing after looking into some other churches and learning that to become a communicant member, I needed to stand, unified with my family, and promise to the church that I would uphold some very particular and fine points of doctrine that, while important, are simply not necessary for Christian faith and salvation. I similarly feel refreshed when our eucharistic celebrant at CtK reminds us that we come to the Lord's table, and not the table of any particular church. I remember the mortification of going forward for a blessing at a Roman Catholic service to which I was invited, and the priest dismissed me--and it happened on television, I might add. Why do we ask of one another more than God asks of us?
**I'll note that King David's wife, Michal, thought his dancing was embarrassing, and on seeing it, despised her husband; to which David replied, "I will celebrate before the Lord" (2 Sam. 6:21); and God called David a "man after his own heart" (1 Sam. 13:14).