Contemporary Worship Comes of Age: A look at <em>Worship Evangelism</em> and <em>Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down</em>

Worship Evangelism: Inviting Unbelievers into the Presence of God, by Sally Morgenthaler. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995. 320 pp. $19.99.
Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-Century Culture, by Marva J. Dawn. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995. 316 pp. $16.99

In a recent speech at a worship conference, Donald Hustad remarked that he has been an active church musician for the better part of the twentieth century, and that every single year during his ministry could have been described as "an era of crisis in worship." Although worship constantly changes, one thing (sadly) remains the same: we Christians like to disagree about how to do it.

The current struggles, of course, most often concern the relationship of worship and evangelism in the local church. Like any lengthy conflict, this one has its mind-numbing stereotypes. One side describes the situation as the pitting of entrenched, insulated, high-culture traditionalists against evangelical, vital, energetic, populist reformers. The other sees it as the struggle between the careless, disrespectful, pleasure-seeking radicals and the wise, thoughtful, discerning advocates of classical Christian worship. Sadly, these notions are sometimes so firmly established in the minds of disputants that any thoughtful process of spiritual discernment is effectively thwarted. Finally, however, we have a sign of maturity—this in the form of two promising books from both sides of the debate.

At first glance, the two books here considered seem to perpetuate entrenched and conflicting positions. As her title intimates, Dawn decries the "dumbing down" of worship resulting from consumer-driven church-growth strategies, while Morgenthaler promotes seeker-sensitivity and describes the nuances of difference between busters and boomers. These apparent differences are reflected in the experts that each author invokes in support of her respective arguments. Morgenthaler draws heavily on market analyst George Barna, Willow Creek's Dieter Zander, and Gerrit Gustafson of Praise & Worship fame. In contrast, Dawn dismantles Barna's argument (62 ff.) and relies instead on the cultural jeremiads of Jacques Ellul, Christopher Lasch, Robert Bellah, David Wells, and Neil Postman.

And certainly there are significant differences. Morgenthaler is clearly a committed church-growth, Praise & Worship advocate. Dawn is clearly interested in maintaining the classical structure of Western liturgy, allowing for contemporary contributions as they enrich the fabric of this structure. As might be expected, these differences surface most clearly on the topic of music. Dawn develops a strident critique of "sub-Christian" music that is "theologically correct but shallow" (172). As she argues, "shallow music forms shallow people" (175). Morgenthaler, in contrast, is much concerned about using the "'90s sound." For her, one criteria is still "worship music that appeals" (212), and traditional hymns are fine, as long as they are familiar and "repackaged" in the '90s sound.

The essential vocabulary the authors use to describe worship and, for that matter, the entire Christian faith is also different. Morgenthaler describes worship as "connecting with God" (23). She promotes "high-impact worship" (146) that involves "greater intimacy with God" (157). She offers sentences like, "I have found that boomerangs usually need fifteen to twenty minutes of preparation time before they are ready for any kind of serious reality check" (162-3). Dawn, in contrast, speaks knowingly the language of narrative theology, spiritual formation, ritual gestures, and sacramental-ity. One wonders if the language gap in this whole debate is simply too broad to be bridged. The differences are great indeed.

But against all apparent odds, the real story here is how alike these two books really are. For starters, listen to Morgenthaler's assessment of worship in the past decade: "Church sensationalism went out with the '80s. Many people have had enough. They have had their fill of superficial, human-centered services, and they simply are not going to take it anymore. Some may still come to hear comedy routines and watch "the show," but increasing numbers do not— they come to meet with God" (25). From her corner, one can hear Dawn's loud "Amen!" This is only the beginning.

Both are books obviously written by passionate Christian worshipers. No mere slick technique from Morgenthaler. No mere high-culture jibes from Dawn. No, here are two Christians who want to use both their hearts and minds to worship and to reflect on worship. The readily apparent differences in piety and audience mask a surprisingly unified strategy: worship God passionately as a people of genuine and apparent faith, be aware of and sensitive to those on every step of life's journey, and trust God's activity in gathering together his people. Evangelism, they contend, occurs when "seekers" sense the presence of God and the tangible faith of the Christian community. In Morgenthaler's words, "Get past the '80s. Get past the glamorous, the slick, and the sensational to a relevance based on spiritual realities. In the end, any success you have in retaining boomerangs and growing them into worship maturity will have much less to do with how well you can simulate boomerang culture than how committed you are to actually worshiping God" (170).

Even more surprisingly both books—despite their vastly different sources of information—paint a similar picture of North American culture. Both agree that we live in a consumeristic, self-help, be-happy age. Also, both lament the church's capitulation to this culture. Dawn berates "the contemporary confusion of praise with 'happiness'" (87) and Christian attempts at achieving an "instant technological fix" (42). Morgenthaler observes "the methodological abuse" of going "beyond the original intent of market application to market servitude" (19, 18). She laments that "we born-again Christians are an essentially insulated, narcissistic sub-culture" (27). From her perspective within the megachurch world, "the boomer stampede is definitely over. They came, they saw, and many of them left"—"our front door has now become our revolving door" (21). Mimicking culture, these books agree, is not the solution.

The more promising strategy is—-simply—passionate, theologically-anchored worship. And so, both books present a theology of worship. For both, worship is God-centered. In Dawn's turn of phrase, "Worship ought to kill us" (205)—so great is the encounter with the holiness of God. "Worship that is too easy cheats us," she writes. "It deprives us of the grandeur of an infinite God (149). Morgenthaler agrees: "In corporate worship, God desires to remove our blindfold and give us an extra-ordinary, breathtaking glimpse of divine radiance" (97). Further, for both authors worship and theology must cohere. As Morgenthaler puts it, "Worship cements our perceptions of God and of the world around us" (29). Likewise, both argue against making worship primarily presentational. As Morgenthaler argues, "Spectator worship has always been and will always be an oxymoron" (49). Both books even call for including confession and lament in this participatory approach—a powerful symbol of maturity in the contemporary worship debate.

Let me suggest that this convergence is, after all the rhetoric, a sign of a return to a richly biblical and historically orthodox understanding of worship— where God is the primary agent and the recipient of the church's praise, where God's people are caught up in the movement of the Spirit that confirms the presence of the Word in their midst and leads them into truth and joy, and where evangelization is the expected and hoped-for by-product of a people overflowing with the love of God.

This is not to say that the debate is over. For the working out of this vision is difficult and complex work. Traditionalists will quickly see that Morgenthaler doesn't always apply her discerning vision in the later applicatory chapters of her work. There the language of the market is taken as prescriptive (hence the aforementioned differences over music). Church-growth advocates will protest that Dawn unfairly targets the worst examples of reformist indiscretion in her critique. The work is not yet done.

But it is worth doing. Such is the clear message of both books. For what is at stake is nothing less than the identity and integrity of the church's mission.

The final word on both books can be summed up with one reference. Dawn concludes her book with extensive references to James Turner's classic historical study Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America. As Dawn points out, "Turner makes it clear that faith was lost, not because churches did not adapt themselves to change in the culture around them, but because they sacrificed the wisdom of their traditions too eagerly and too submissively in favor of capitulating to societal idolatries and demands" (303). Dawn leaves us with the haunting question, "Is it happening again?"

Anyone who cares: read these books and pray.

Both of these books are available from CRC Publications. Call 1-800-333-8300.

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 39 © March 1996, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.