The most frequent question I get from seminary students these days goes something like this: what is emerging worship, and why are so many folks making such a fuss over it? Like so many other movements in theology or worship, emerging worship can be a little difficult to define. Indeed, what counts as emerging worship can vary from place to place. So in what follows, I don’t so much want to define emerging worship as to make some general observations about what gave rise to it and about the ways in which some people are reacting to it. Insofar as people’s negative reaction has to do with the media or forms used in emerging worship, I want to issue a reminder: we Christians have used an amazing diversity of media and forms to worship our God across the centuries. In other words, I think it is important to locate our conversations about emerging worship against the long horizon that is the history of Christian worship.
One way to think about emerging worship is to see it as a response to two of the chief criticisms of contemporary worship. First, critics of contemporary worship often argue that contemporary worship is theologically shallow. Second, critics of contemporary worship often observe that the use of digital media and technology in contemporary worship means that there are few discernible differences between the church’s worship and life outside of worship. For example, the music in worship is not discernibly different than secular music. Similarly, the power point presentation accompanying the service resembles the power point presentations taking place in the corporate boardrooms in which so many people are stuck during the week.
In response to these criticisms, architects of emerging worship are seeking to recover more traditional theological language and to create a worship ethos that is noticeably different from secular concerts and corporate boardrooms. Thus, while they still encourage casual dress, they are dialing back on the use of technology, and they are replacing high voltage spotlights with the dim light of candles. They are also developing more theologically sophisticated music, and they are working to recover lost liturgical practices from the ancient church, including the liturgical calendar, confession of the ancient creeds, prayers of repentance, the stations of the cross, and the like. Many emerging churches are emphasizing natural symbols and images over all things digital. They are using wood panel icons, a common wood or clay cup for communion, and ashes to make the sign of the cross on their foreheads during Ash Wednesday services.
The backlash against emerging worship is hardly surprising. In the turn to symbols, to “ritual,” and to ancient liturgical practices, many people see a turn to something else altogether, namely, Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. In other words, they see an abandoning of what they regard as classical Protestantism. Others see in the dim, candle-lit worship spaces something sinister and evil, a kind of dark or “new age” spirituality. They are sure that the emerging church is actually the undoing of the church, the proverbial last nail in the Western church’s coffin.
We need to notice what is happening here. We are spending a great deal of energy these days worrying about the forms and media of worship. We are wrestling with whether one type of music is more appropriate than another for worship. We are debating the merits of liturgical dance. We aren’t sure what to do if our church substitutes candle light for electricity. We are questioning whether Protestants can make use of iconography without giving way to idolatry. And on and on it goes.
In the midst of all our anxiety, we need to stand back and recall that we Christians have been worshipping our God for a very, very long time. Across the centuries and throughout the world, we have employed an amazing diversity of forms and media in our worship. We have employed every musical instrument imaginable, from organs and pianos, to harps, bagpipes, drums, and a variety of horns and stringed instruments. We have used an astonishing array of music styles, ranging from chant to drumming, classical music, hymns, southern gospel, black gospel, and hip-hop. We have used an amazing variety of sacred art, including sculpture, wood panel paintings, frescoes, and kitsch. We have worshipped our God in bright, sun-lit sanctuaries and in mysterious, dark spaces. We have celebrated and praised our God in everything from caves to cathedrals. We have worshipped our God at midnight and in the wee hours of the morning. We have used the lectionary, and we have preached extemporaneously. We have worn every conceivable kind of clothing, and we have stripped naked for our baptism.
In the light of the history of Christian worship, we need to make a very simple decision. We need to decide whether we are going to operate with a miserly or a generous Pneumatology. Like prayer, all true worship originates with the Holy Spirit. Thus we must decide whether we really want to confine the work of the Holy Spirit to favored liturgical forms and media or whether we are going to confess together that the Holy Spirit is free to work or not to work, to speak or not to speak, to be present or not to be present regardless of the forms or media that we choose to employ. We must decide whether we really want to confine the Spirit to hymns, or whether we will be open to the presence and work of the Spirit through gospel songs, praise choruses, or Byzantine chant. We must decide whether we really want to claim that the Holy Spirit is afraid of the dark, or whether we will be open to the moving of the Holy Spirit in dimly lit worship spaces.