Worship: Christian, Art and Whole
Christianity Today recently posted an article critiquing contemporary approaches to corporate worship entitled, “Contemporary Music: The Cultural Medium and the Christian Message.” The basic point of the article is that contemporary approaches to worship have sought so much to be open, welcoming, attractive and inoffensive to the uninitiated that the bite of the gospel has been exchanged for the flashiness of our entertainment culture. The author, Dr. D. H. Williams at Baylor University, mixes good critique with poor.
Williams helpfully urges congregations to keep worship services Christian. That might sound a little odd, but is perhaps needed in the wake of the seeker-sensitive movement and the push to connect with the culture of those we are seeking to welcome into the family of God through Christ. Christian worship is what we do as a Christian family to remind ourselves and each other who God is and who we are. Like a chiropractic adjustment it realigns us to the proper posture our lives ought to take before God. In order to do this, times of corporate worship have to be distinctly Christian, filled with the vocabulary and symbols that unequivocally communicate the gospel that is nothing without Christ. In this sense it is evangelistic; it proclaims the gospel without dilution.
I think Williams falls short on a couple of accounts though. First, he appears to lump all contemporary worship as unable to properly serve this sort of function of Christian worship. He interestingly points to the motivation of “artistry” in his unfavorable description of contemporary worship and there I think is precisely were we can favorably describe contemporary worship. Attempting to artfully order and guide worship using the aesthetic palate made available by the intersection of Christian distinctives and the surrounding culture’s sense of the beautiful is something Christians have been doing from the start. The sense of art of the 1800’s or 300’s is no more sacred than the sense of art of the 2100’s. Contemporary worship artists (perhaps a more fitting title than “Worship Directors/Pastors”) are attempting to work with the palate unavoidably shaped by our culture and fill it with the rich and vibrant message of our ancient gospel. Have there been failures in that effort? Certainly. Have unchristian aspects, like consumerism, been alloyed with Christian worship? Of course. But that doesn’t mean we retreat to old forms and blame contemporary Christian art (visual, musical, or liturgical) as the culprit. We ought to encourage and press our artists to break new ground and experiment to engage worship artfully and Christianly in order to form us into the image of the Christ.
The second point I think Williams falls short on is his critique of the aim of contemporary worship to connect emotionally. It is important to remind each other of who God is and who we are through explicit statements for the head to process, but cognition is only one component of the Christian life. The process of formation must engage both the head and the heart. Worship should not leave the head behind, as some contemporary worship probably does, but neither can it leave the heart behind. I would love to see greater intellectual richness in contemporary worship, this is an area needing further work, but I don’t want to do it at the cost of ignoring emotional connection. Both the mind and the heart can be manipulated for ill and both the mind and the heart must be formed for the Christian good.