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Don't Get Hung Up On Style: A conversation

Editor Emily Brink met with Robert Webber one afternoon last fall on the campus of Wheaton College in Illinois, where he has taught in the theology department for the past twenty-eight years. We spoke together in his office in the Billy Graham Center, an impressive museum and office complex.

Recently, Webber has been on the road almost every weekend, leading "Renew Your Worship!" workshops and introducing Renew! Songs and Hymns For Blended Worship (Hope, 1995). He has committed the next several years to leading workshops across North America with ideas for renewing worship on the congregational level (see Conferences, p. 47).

He begins his message of renewal by tapping into the rich biblical and historical traditions that bind all Christians together. He then offers ways to give expression to that heritage in contemporary terms, amid the growing diversity in North American congregations.

Robert Webber teaches in the theology department at Wheaton College. Emily Brink recently met with him there to discuss his views on worship.

Brink: It used to be that when we entered a church in a particular denomination, we knew pretty much what to expect in worship, and we could assume that most of the members grew up in that denomination. Not anymore. What accounts for all the changes?

Webber: For one thing, we are living in a post-modern world. And pluralism is one distinct feature of post-modernism. There is an extraordinary amount of crossover in members and in worship patterns among different churches today.

Considering the kinds of changes that have taken place in the world since 1950, it is not surprising that we would have a breakdown of denominations and a crossover from one denomination to another. In a sense, the communications revolution and the concept of the world as a global village have contributed to the collapse of those little denominational "ghettos" that we used to live in. The breakdown of the Berlin Wall is symbolic of the breakdown of many walls that we built around ourselves.

Can this pluralistic mix of different traditions strengthen worship in a given congregation?

I think so. Our approach to worship can be strengthened by opening ourselves up to different historical and cultural traditions. For example, drawing from African American, Asian, and from different contemporary worshiping communities—these all can strengthen our approach to and our experience within worship.

But some traditions have different structures, and certainly different styles. How can a church borrow from another tradition and still remain faithful to its own heritage?

The convergence discussions are taking place mainly in the area of style. And changes in style are disturbing to a lot of people. What I suggest is that in thinking about worship, we don't begin with style. That will come, but let's put the issues out there in the order in which they really ought to be discussed.

There are three things we need to distinguish: content, structure, and style. A lot of churches who talk about style first don't think enough about content, and that is why they may be too influenced by a market-driven style.

So we need to begin by asking about the content of our worship. And from a biblical point of view I would argue, in brief, that the content of worship is "the gospel in motion." Worship involves us in the story of God's saving deeds and our relationship with God—which is established by God's activity on our behalf. The content of worship is essentially the gospel—the narrative from creation to re-creation. It is telling and enacting the story of the living and the dying and the rising of Jesus Christ, and everything that that implies for us.

You mention content first and then structure as the second issue that must be settled before dealing with style issues. What do you mean by structure?

To state it very simply, you gather the people, you tell them the story, you break bread, and you go home to love and serve the Lord. This basic fourfold structure is analogous to what we do when we entertain people in our homes or have any kind of meeting. And so it is when we gather to worship together. It is a meeting with God, and therefore we need to think about—well, how do we gather the people? How do we tell the story that is central to Christian worship—the Word, reading the Word, and preaching the Word? How do we respond to the story with thanksgiving, eating together, fellowshiping together—in a way that allows relationships to be repaired, transformed, and established? And then how do we send people forth?

Churches in the evangelical and Reformed traditions may agree on content, but they are certainly diverse in structure. I'm thinking, for example, of services with the sermon at the very end, with little, if any, place for a corporate response to what we have heard.

I think everybody—those involved in praise & worship, charismatic, and liturgical worship styles— will agree that content is not negotiable. We must tell the story. But how do we do it? Is there anything in the biblical and historical tradition that would give us a shape for worship? I am arguing that there is. It is a simple shape of gathering, hearing, celebrating, and going forth. Now, in saying that I am in good company, because all the churches today that have been studying the field of worship are either keeping or going back to that fourfold pattern. The Catholic Church did; the Episcopal Church has; the Lutherans have; the Presbyterians have; the Methodists have. And I think evangelicals are rediscovering the fourfold shape of worship as well.

What about the Reformed tradition?

Protestants who come out of neither the liturgical tradition nor the Praise & Worship tradition, but are in the middle, like many Reformed and evangelical churches—these are the churches that have the most work to do. They have to learn about worship from both the liturgical and contemporary renewal movements, and that takes education. They need examples and models.

But what about those style issues that churches struggle the most with?

Only when you have the structural issues settled can you talk about style. The style issue has to come third, after content and structure. When that order is followed, style is up for grabs. You could do jazz, you could do African American, you could do Asian, you could do liturgical, you could do charismatic—the style is really up to the group. And, because of the criss-crossing of people that you mentioned earlier, I think most churches are somewhat eclectic in their choices. They recognize that just forcing a particular style on their congregation is probably a great mistake.

It's also true that many different styles work well for that fourfold structure of gathering, hearing, celebrating, and sending. The style could look very liturgical, or very Pentecostal, or very charismatic and still follow the fourfold structure.

You speak often as well about blended worship, or about a "convergence" model. Is blended worship a matter of style?

Yes, what I am suggesting is the blending of hymns and choruses, the blending of organ and contemporary instruments, all within the context of a content that is the gospel in motion structured by our fourfold pattern.

Each congregation needs to work out its own style mix. A traditional—let's say liturgical— church might achieve a blend by adding contemporary choruses and music in the gathering or during the reception of bread and wine. A Pentecostal church might blend their style of singing into the fourfold pattern, so that they would also be drawing from historic elements of worship such as the Eucharist, with its prayer of thanksgiving.

If a common content and structure characterized all of the churches, what would be unique to each particular congregation would be its specific style. For example, African Americans would use drums and spirituals with a call-and-response style of singing, charismatic worship would include a lot of raising of hands and anointing of oil. Liturgical worship would continue to be more ordered. So blended worship doesn't destroy the style of a particular congregation—it preserves it, but adds to it by drawing from the richness of other styles.

In your seminars you spend a lot of time helping congregations start working out their own "style mix" within a fourfold structure. Could you conclude by suggesting a few practical steps to making changes in structure or style?

Remember that worship is not a program, a series of isolated and unconnected acts. It's a narrative, a rehearsal of our relationship to God. I think the first thing a congregation needs to do is to work on its shape of worship—to move worship from a program to a narrative. Then it should work on the flow of acts that gather the people into the intimate presence of God—acts that tell the story and instmct the congregation in the faith, acts of response (such as communion), which give thanks to God by remembering the work of the Son and celebrating his saving and healing presence, and acts that send people forth with a commission to serve God in all of life. Bathe these changes in prayer so that the leadership of worship is not rote but energized by the sense that the congregation is in the presence of God, standing on holy ground.

Excerpt
RECENT WEBBER BOOKS ON WORSHIP

Worship Old & New (rev. ed. 1994; Zondervan)
An academic introduction to the biblical, theological, historical, and practical aspects of worship.

Worship Is a Verb (rev. ed. 1993; Hendrickson Publishing, 137 Summit Street, P.O. Box 3473, Peabody, MA 01961-3473)
A popular presentation of eight principles that will bring life to worship.

Liturgical Evangelism (1992; Morehouse Publishing, P.O. Box 1321, Harrisburg, PA 17105)
A study of worship and evangelism in the third century.

People of the Truth (1992; Morehouse)
Emphasizes how worship shapes the community of faith and makes an impact on culture.

The Book of Daily Prayer (1993; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 225 Jefferson SE, Grand Rapids, MI 49503)
Scripture readings and prayers for every day based on the Christian year.

Learning to Worship with All Your Heart (1994; Renew Your Worship! P.O. Box 894, Wheaton, IL 60189-0894; also available from CRC Publications—call 1-800-333-8300)
A thirteen-session course on worship for small groups.

Blended Worship: A Guide to Blending the Old and the New (1996; Renew Your Worship!)
A six-session audiotape on planning a fourfold pattern of blended worship. Worship samples included.

The Complete Library of Christian Worship (1993-1995; Hendrickson) A seven-volume work developed by Webber covering the entire field of worship studies.

Vol. I, The Biblical Poundations of Christian Worship
Vol. II, Twenty Centuries of Christian Worship
Vol. III, The Renewal of Sunday Worship
Vol. IV, Books 1 and 2, Music and the Arts in Christian Worship
Vol. V, The Seasons of the Christian Year
Vol. VI, The Sacred Actions of Worship
Vol. VII, The Ministries of Christian Worship