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Commentary: Worship changes - or does it?


When Dave Bergen isn't writing about worship, he is thinking about his ministry as Executive Secretary of Christian Formation at Mennonite Church Canada. He also enjoys arranging traditional hymns for the guitar.

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February 18, 2011
- Dave Bergen

Winnipeg, MAN. — Like it or not, the face of worship continues to grow and change. So it has always been. What has also always been is the fact that the church, or at least some in the church, resist and react negatively to the changes we experience in worship.

Especially in the area of music.

Reference this letter received from a concerned church member regarding the music used in a worship service:

"I'm no music scholar but I feel I know appropriate church music when I hear it. Last Sunday's new song, if you can call it that, sounded like a sentimental love ballad, one you'd expect to have crooned in a bar. If you insist on exposing us to rubbish like this in God's house, don't be surprised if many of the faithful look for a new place to worship. The hymns we grew up with are all we need!"

These are strong sentiments, of the kind that might be expressed in any number of Mennonite congregations. What's particularly interesting and illuminating is that this letter was not written in 2011, but in 1863, in reference to the now well-loved hymn, Just as I Am.

Clearly the challenges surrounding the music we use in worship are ongoing. The beloved songs and hymns of one generation, safely preserved on the pages of a worn hymnal, are experienced as tired tunes of the past, by a succeeding generation. Conversely, the fresh, new, contextualized spiritual songs of new generations of Christians are often perceived as a great threat to faithfulness, the potential destroyer of all that is deemed churchly and good by a previous generation.

As the 1863 quotation aptly illustrates, the tension we experience is not new at all. Yet it is lived over and over, as if for the very first time, by each successive generation of believers. In light of this, what becomes clear to me is that how we worship is primarily cultural, and therefore endlessly changeable.

The kinds of songs we sing, whether we choose to stand, sit or dance, whether we hear brief homilies or extended expositional sermons are cultural constructs. Neither the Bible nor Jesus leaves instructions on the correct form of worship for God's people. That we are called to worship God, and God alone, is obvious. That we are to worship with integrity and congruity of word and deed is unmistakable. That we are created to worship with our whole being-heart, mind and soul-is absolutely clear. But whether we are to sing in 6 parts or in unison, whether we offer praise with or without instruments, in baroque, reggae, hip-hop or jazz styles is immaterial.

Worship is an offering of the people of God, to God. In praise and gratitude for God's goodness to us and God's steadfast love for all creation, we offer what we have, what we are, what we know, from within the places we live, work and play. This cultural framework is the only vehicle we have to carry our expressions of worship.

From generation to generation, this cultural framework changes. And in keeping with this, what is a meaningful, culturally fitting, heartfelt expression of worship for one generation risks being simplistically misconstrued by another as 'wrong,' 'immature' or 'inadequate.'

Rather than defaulting to warring over worship styles and personal preferences, this strikes me as a unique opportunity to recognize that the Spirit of God remains faithful in stirring up in all people, the desire to worship. And that the creative work of God which moves God's people, and creation itself, to find ever new, culturally apt ways to express our longing for, and assurance of relationship to God continues among us even now. And, to give profound thanks that this is so.

I believe our energies in worship are most helpfully spent as we learn to name, and to bless what God is doing so creatively, and sometimes perhaps disturbingly in our worship, as the Spirit of God continues to make and mould and re-create the church to be a fitting instrument for God's mission in this world.