Alternative Worship

This entry is a poor exuse for an essay in response to the article “God’s Mission and the Christian Assembly: The Search for an Alternative Practice of Worship” by Thomas H Shattauer, published in “Dialog: A Journal of Theology” on June 1, 2011.

This author argues that contemporary worship is not so much about an alternative to tradition, but to conventionality. Conventionality means – especially in Mainline American context – institutional Christianity. In other words, the “alternative” in alternative worship is about an alternative to the Sunday morning sitting in pews sermon/reading focused service augmented with studies and committee-organized efforts.

The question posed by alternative worship isn’t “how can we get rid of tradition”, but “how can we continue Christian practice and make new traditions?” In this framework, the question of how to maintain the institutional church becomes less important than the question of how the whole history of Christian practice might speak into the current (and local) context to help the worshipers re-imagine worship.

Protestants and Catholics alike have used ancient liturgies in new ways to create alternative worship styles. These liturgies are disconnected from modern life, which makes it easier to avoid the trap of simply conforming the service to the needs/desires of the audience. The book “Uncommon Prayer” is, in my view, an exemplary part of this movement which is often referred to as the “ancient/future church”. The main danger of this practice, according to the author, is ignoring historical complexities. In my view, the danger is in not learning from historical lessons (repeating practices that caused problems in the past) and assuming that just because it was acceptable or helpful in the past, it will be helpful for a contemporary audience. When looking at ancient practices to incorporate into alternative worship, look at the big picture: how did this practice function in its original context? How does it transcend time? What does it appear to mean to worshipers today?

The North American contemporary worship movement, according to the author, has used elements of North American culture to reimagine worship. A quote from Tim Wright, a pastor at Community Church of Joy, puts it well when he says “By creatively responding to consumer values, without compromising integrity, churches can impact people with the gospel.” He also suggests that the focus on reaching the “unchurched” is both a response to declines in membership and an awakening of a desire to follow Christ’s mission. Music, of course, is the clearest example of this adaptation to culture. The danger, in my view, is to lose the integrity of the church in the pursuit of an easier experience for the newcomer. Part of what church has to offer is its difference from the rest of society. This doesn’t mean, however, that church ought to ignore culture: our purpose is to make disciples of Christ, and we can’t do that if our message is only heard by those who have already answered the call.

Liberation theology forms an important part of American religiosity, especially in light of the history of slavery in the U.S. and the increase in immigrants from South and Central American countries where Liberation theology is popular. The basis of this theology is that God is on the side of the poor, as exemplified especially in Luke, but also throughout the Old and New Testaments. Worship informed by Liberation theology might have leadership structures that are less hierarchical and more communal. The emphasis of worship might be more on ways the community pursues justice than in conventional worship services. This stream of alternative worship explicitly opens up the realm of theological influence outside the traditional Euro-centric institution to include a vast diversity of experience, culture, and theological history.

Though mainline worshipers might not like to hear it, Pentecostalism is a fast growing alternative to conventional mainline worship. The author quotes James White, who says, “The chief characteristic of the Pentecostal tradition is its unstructured appraoch to worship in which the Holy Spirit is trusted to prompt not only the contents of the service but also its sequence.” One of Pentecostalism’s main logistical critiques of the conventional mainline service is, in my view, “Why is there a rigid agenda?” Such a service focuses on the power of the Spirit and hope that transcends current circumstances, and so provides a much needed escapism that is grounded not in entertainment, but in the hope we have in Christ.

An analysis of alternative worship styles cannot be complete without mentioning the emerging church. The author defines the emerging church by its hyperlocal focus: what does it mean for the church to be who they are, where they are? A helpful influence of this stream is its insistence on relationship: it takes seriously the uniqueness of the individual and focuses on the unique ways a particular community of people relate to each other and to God.

The author’s main point in reviewing all of these streams is to invite them into conversation with each other. The recontextualization of worship isn’t an either/or question, but a both/and process of discovery. The author calls it a “fuller realization of the Christian assembly in relation to God’s mission” and holds up a definition of mission as “the purpose of God for the world.” The church seeks to make itself part of God’s mission into the world through the Son and Spirit. In worship, then, the church seeks to be a conduit for God’s love to flow into people as part of God’s mission. An alternative worship service that responds to a contemporary understanding of church, in the author’s view, will not be a private matter, but will include the public as it witnesses to and shares in God’s mission to the world. Worship should no longer be only for the initiates, but for the “seekers” as well. So it becomes clear why we don’t do things just because “they’ve always been done this way” or because “everyone else does it this way” – we aren’t tasked with preserving the past or copying the present, but with responding to God’s mission into the life of the community.