Blended Worship: What it is, what it isn't
Recently I heard of a pastor who was trying to bring life and vitality to his medium-sized congregation's worship. He had become intrigued with "blended worship" and had experimented with adding some "contemporary" instrumentation and eliminating worship practices that might be considered too "high church." lie liked the concept of blended worship and was beginning to implement it, yet he still had reservations.
He struggled with questions such as these: Are we trying to provide just enough contemporary flavor to keep people hanging on (and is that the idea)? Is it wise to be in the "middle ground" stylistically when it seems that some growing churches clearly line up at one end of the stylistic continuum or the other? Do we really get anywhere trying to be all things to all people?
The questions this real-life pastor was asking represent a certain view of blended worship that is very prevalent today. He assumes that
- blended worship is primarily a matter of fulfilling a certain quota of musical styles.
- blended worship is essentially a matter of compromise in order to keep people happy.
- blended worship results in generic services.
This pastor takes the same approach to blended worship that he might take to manufacturing a product He thinks that following the instructions (having the right formula of hymns and choruses) will produce the desired results (new and improved worship).
Confusion of Terms
Perhaps the term blended worship contributes to the confusion. Blended worship has become the term of choice for what was originally developed as convergence worship. And for many pastors and worship leaders, the term blended worship suggests a focus on musical styles. So some of the core values of convergence worship have been lost through the prominent use of the vernacular term blended worship.
In simplest terms, convergence worship is "the coming together of historic and contemporary worship." It is a term associated with Robert E. Webber, professor, theologian, and worship-renewal enthusiast, who has developed a body of work articulating the premises of convergence worship. This convergence of the historic and the contemporary has its roots in the two renewal movements of the twentieth century, the liturgical renewal movement (in both the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions) and the charismatic renewal movement. Essentially, when these two streams wind their way toward each other and converge, the result is worship that holds the potential for greater authenticity through fidelity to the historic tradition and greater relevance through contemporary expression.
The pillars of convergence worship include
- a commitment to the historic fourfold order of the worship service found in Entrance, Word, Table, and Dismissal (which allows for an ordered encounter with God).
- a commitment to the celebrative nature of worship based upon the saving acts of God (which allows persons to center upon who God is and what God has done).
- a commitment to a broad range of musical content and styles (which forms an expression of the whole church both past and present).
- a commitment to recovering the arts in worship (which encourages the expression of one's whole being).
Comparing Convergence and Mended Worship
Comparing the terms convergence worship and blended worship leads us to three discoveries.
First, blended worship has come to refer to musical style. Convergence worship, on the other hand, encompasses broader and deeper thought and practices.
Recently I spoke with a pastor who claimed that his church had two services that differed stylistically. One service was labeled "traditional" and the other "blended." When I examined the two bulletins, I noticed an interesting thing. For all practical purposes, only the musical selections were changed. The approach to Scripture reading, congregational prayer, sermon presentation, and all other worship elements remained the same in both services. This congregation had not achieved convergence worship.
Second, convergence worship does not see the practices of ancient Christian worship and the pursuit of contempo-raiy relevance as mutually exclusive.
Expressions of worship that held meaning for worshiping saints of the past twenty centuries are either appropriate in their original form today or can be effectively recast in a contemporary manner. Either way, contemporary worship intentionally converges with the past not in order to maintain tradition but to celebrate the continuity of worshipers past and present.
In contrast, persons who are attempting blended worship are often concerned with programming a little something for everyone to keep all parties happy. Their choices are not between the historical and the contemporary per se, but between the perceived preferences of two or more generations of worshipers. There is a big difference between embracing the old and the new to alleviate worship wars and embracing the old and the new out of a theological commitment to celebrating the relationship of worshiping saints of every generation.
A good example of this difference between catering to worship wars and affirming the historical in worship is the way in which hymns and choruses are often blended. I have been in many churches that attempt a blended service by having a "set" of traditional hymns followed by a set of contemporary praise choruses (or vice versa). This could be an attempt to provide for the desires of one group while the other group waits their turn to sing the songs with which they identify. Convergence worship planners might utilize the same songs, but weave them into the service in appropriate places according to their liturgical function. In this case, the liturgy is served rather than the people themselves. The music then converges with the other worship elements in more meaningful ways.
Affirming the historical in worship does not require a congregation to repeat a set of ancient practices verbatim. Rather, embracing historic worship means
- demonstrating a willingness to share in that which the historic church has always found meaningful (and expressing these things in currently meaningful ways).
- making our own contribution to the historic stream of worship. Our worship expressions then become woven into that which is "whole cloth," rather than a fragmented remnant torn from the original tapestry still under construction.
Third, blended worship, as it lias been practiced recently, is producing rather generic seivices.
If we were blindfolded, would we know if we were in a blended Presbyterian service or a blended Lutheran service? To our frustration, blended services have left us in the generic middle ground because of this narrow interpretation of blended. After all, when anything is blended, the individual ingredients do tend to lose their distinctive characteristics.
Convergence worship, on the other hand, is a model allowing for a broad and deep practice of worship— one that reaches into the practices of the historic church but also prizes the distinctiveness so important in all of our various traditions. The goal of convergence is not to resemble other churches hoping to compete for worshipers, but rather to celebrate the God of the Tradition in ways that are meaningful for our tradition.
This past week I performed a funeral for a parishioner. As 1 was riding in the hearse to the cemetery, 1 decided to try to get to know the funeral director, whom I had just met. The conversation turned toward church, so I inquired as to his church affiliation. He replied, "Nazarene." Wanting to keep the conversation going (it was a long way to the cemetery), I asked, "How are things in the Nazarene church?" "Changing," was his response. (So far the only one with fewer words was the corpse!) Curious, I pressed on: "How are things changing?" Suddenly he became verbose—I had apparently touched a sensitive nerve. He answered, "So many of our churches have scrapped all of the things that are part of our tradition. If you didn't know better, you wouldn't even be able to tell that some of our churches are Nazarene!"
In practice, a Reformed convergence worship service would be noticeably different than a Nazarene convergence worship service, though both have opportunity to bring together the historic and the contemporary. Both can effectively commit to the fourfold order of worship, the celebrative character of worship, the broad range of musical styles readily available for worship, and the use of the arts in worship. Yet they can do so in the context and the language of their own theology and history.
The difference between blended worship and convergence worship, then, is the difference between a product and a dynamic. Blended worship tends toward being a product because it is fashioned to produce a specific outcome. It is somewhat static, manufactured, pragmatic, and is likely to be disposed of when its function ceases.
If something is dynamic, however, it is alive, active, and moving purposefully forward in life-giving ways. Convergence worship holds the potential for providing dynamic worship. It is the coming together of many forces that converge in ways beyond our control. The effect cannot be predetermined. After all, the worship planner is not after a certain product that results in a calculated outcome for the worshiper. Instead, the worship planner seeks to create an environment of order, celebration, musical range, and use of the arts that reaches into the past and finds meaningful expression in the present. In convergence worship, one's own tradition comes together with the larger Christian tradition.
Help in Making the Shift
If someone wanted to make the shift from blended worship to convergence worship, how would they go about it? What concrete steps can be taken to reorient our thinking? To affect the worship service? Let me offer several simple suggestions.
First, consider planning a convergence worship with an element of worship other than music.
In what way can the historic and the contemporary come together with regard to prayer, for instance?
If the corporate praying of the Lord's Prayer has slipped away from your worship unnoticed, why not rediscover it? It can be reintroduced in a variety of ways: as a solo, as a congregational hymn in unison (several recent hymnals include it as a congregational song), with liturgical dance, in sign language, or (and especially) recited together.
Or consider using the ancient form of bidding prayer (see box), a practice that holds the potential for great meaning in churches with a prescribed liturgy and in those of the free-church tradition as well. It allows for spontaneity, and at the same time it is wonderfully corporate.
Second, begin making a shift in mindset from blended to convergence by critically examining your order of service.
Does your bulletin resemble a program with a list of isolated events to be executed? If so, begin to think in terms of four large movements. Arrange the elements of worship that facilitate entering God's presence. Put them in an order that portrays God inviting us to worship and the people responding to this invitation with joy and praise. Then collect together those things that emphasize how God addresses us through the Word. Next give thought to how your congregation responds to the Word (through the Table, and so on). List, take a look at the way in which you send out the worshipers into the world.
As you arrange the service in these four large movements, choose elements according to their purpose in that part of the service rather than according to which group of people they are pleasing. Strive for variety and breadth, but do so on the basis of a theological commitment to the worship of all ages.
Third, reflect on distinctives that are unique to your tradition.
Which elements of worship are of great theological, historical, and practical importance to your tradition? Can they be expressed in new ways? Can they be employed in a different part of the service and still maintain their integrity?
For example, if an opportunity for corporate confession in the context of a worship service is an important distinctive, worship planners should discuss the different ways in which this can be done. Try alternating between historic means of confession and contemporary. One might involve a printed unison prayer of confession; the other might involve projecting images of the results of sin in our world and inviting the congregation to punctuate the images with a simple sung lament.
In order to be worthy, blended worship must be a full blend. So the next time you encounter the term blended worship, refuse to be limited to its narrow usage. Instead, remind yourself of the broad and beautiful potential of blending all parts of the service for the right reasons. Celebrate the convergence of the historic and contemporary streams. And open yourself to the many ways that true blending can occur.
MORE EXAMPLES OF BLENDED WORSHIP BEYOND MUSIC
Creeds and Confessions
Today, people making public profession of their faith are often encouraged to give a personal statement of faith, a testimony of what they believe. Historically, the church recited together on a weekly basis the summary of what we believe as stated in the Apostles' Creed or the Nicene Creed. Both ways of expressing our faith are important!
Do your children know the Apostles' Creed by heart? Look for regular times to recite the creed that binds the whole Christian church together.
Bidding prayers (bid in Anglo-Saxon means "pray") refers to a historical form of intercessory prayers in which the prayer leader(s) interceded for the church, the government, the world, and all people in their various needs and callings. The list of prayer concerns usually ended with everyone reciting the Lord's Prayer. Churches today that encourage people to bring prayer requests may want to use the bidding prayer—-with its emphasis on requests that move beyond the local church—as a model.
Sing or speak short prayer refrains between sections of longer prayers. To help your congregation remember the needs of those around the world, choose some of the wonderful simple prayer songs from other cultures. For examples, check out RW 52 (especially pp. 23 and 36), a theme issue on prayer; you'll find many other prayer ideas and resources.
Art and Symbol
Before the age of print, visual artists were important communicators of what the Christian community values. Again today, as we move into an increasingly visual culture, congregations need to consider the importance of beauty, color, texture, and especially symbol. One place to begin is to consider the visual impact of the communion table and baptismal font.