Saturday, August 19, 2006

Confession of an Ancient-Future Worshiper

“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land,” asks the Psalmist. It was a question the exiles asked. It is my question too as I visit churches in my journeying around the United States. No, I am not a Mystery Worshiper for the Ship of Fools ( You may think that is odd for a Christian to feel like worship in any church is a foreign land. So, I will be specific and charitable, as I mean no harm. Consider this a confessional rather than negatively critical.

Last Sunday I worshiped in a nearly 15,000 member megachurch at the invitation of a friend. The high-tech music, lights and sound was professional and effective. The preaching was strong, compassionate and visionary. On the scale of excellence I would give this congregation high marks for what they do according to their aims and purposes.

Here, however, is the confession: I was not at home here. It was more than the theology that I couldn’t embrace. I was a Christian from another spirituality. And I confess, I am (some would say, a liturgical snob) an ancient-future Christian. I see and sense worship as being the present experience of God found in the tension between the past and the future, between the communion of saints (past and present) and the coming reign of God. The liturgy—the patterned communal enactment of public symbols around font, lectern and table—the public work of the people rendered before God for the sake of the world—is my prayer’s homeland.

So, I was in exile in this setting of Christian worship, because the central things were, except for the lectern brought out only was time to preach. Even when the Bible was read it was from a PDA device—perhaps because the reader no longer reads from a print Bible or to “relate” to the digital age audience.

I wish I could have time to dialogue with the pastor and worship leaders and planners to talk about the central things and how they are gifts and givens for the worship of God whatever the musical style, assumptions about culture and gospel, and our theological understandings.

I would welcome the opportunity to reflect on temperament types: the dominant temperament type of the congregation, the pastor and staff members’ type, and how that shapes worship in their context. Here, is another aspect of why I felt exiled in this service. For more on this online see “Finding Your Prayer Type” ( For print see Discover Your Spiritual Type by Corrine Ware. Simply put, the four types are of spirituality are “Head” “Heart” “Mystic” and “Visionary/Prophetic.” I would fall in the Head and Mystic quadrants—so that what appeals to the mind and mystic grabs me most. Worship that is predominantly “Heart” and oriented to experiencing God through feelings in the moment is too demanding for me. The church I attended Sunday was largely in quadrant two—the heart and emotions dimension, which I am told, fits the largest segment of Americans.

If leadership of this church asked me I might point out some of what I observed:

  • Social analogue: Their social analogue is the rock concert/motivational speaker. All Christian congregations choose some analogue as a model or paradigm for what their worship assembly is about. (See * below. I came across this helpful notion in Gordon Lathrop’s Holy People—Fortress Press.) I have attended churches whose social analogue was a medieval pageant and others whose analogue was a “genuine community” (no formality, nothing but “real.”
  • Cosmically hygenic: There was a kind of “never-never-land” feel to the service. There was no mention in prayers or preaching or songs of anything concrete and specific about our world. No mention of the suffering and war going on in the Middle-East or Iraq. Everything appeared to be generic—prayer, praise, etc. I am sure that this allowed each and all to bring their concerns to the moment. But what of priestly service of the assembly on behalf of the others, society and cosmos? I missed a sense of connection of worship with the world.
  • Music: This was a major part of the service. It was probably “the sacrament” in this service. However, for one like me, I had no clue about the melody, except as I heard it, and only two of the several songs had I sung before. As a newcomer, I felt marginalized by not having access to notation. I felt further marginalized by the volume of the lead singer and praise team. They filled the room, in ways consistent with the rock concert analogue. My question is what does this do to the “crowd’s” sense of being a priestly community? Are believers marginalized in practice?
  • Central things: This church, while center-to-right in the theological and political spectrum, is very much liturgically left. I would like to explore with them what they see as the “central things” and whether or not their worship could include the centrality of bath and table, along with story. I believe that many churches that have dumped substantive attention to our primary public symbols—font/pool, lectern and table—could continue in their style and be strengthened by recovery of the central things.

    Daniel Benedict

    * Social analogues and cultural models figure in our diversity in worship. Congregations elect their analogues in terms of:
    "a choosing, consuming audience”—often unreflective, uncritical adoption—seeker, believer, disenchanted (the rock concert, motivational speaker, or lecture hall)
    • or expressing locality in terms of “dreaming” by resisting modern paradigms (the medieval pageant, royal convocation, ancient mystery play (various archaic, imagination-bearing events)
    • or identify the assembly in terms of mainstream or marginality (the secret society, the tribal gathering, shamanistic meeting for healing or direction) As Lathrop points out all of these are survival forms of non-dominant communities.
    • or in terms of a local or national ethnic group with national costumes or flays serving in important symbolic roles
    • or the assembly may see itself as a genuine community —stripped of all pretense and marked by intimacy, familial speech (a collection of friends and lovers)

See Gordon Lathrop's Holy People: A Liturgical Ecclesiology (Fortress Press) for more on these insights.
Can any of these carry the meaning of the Christian assembly? Ritual play is more than social analogues and cultural models.


Steve said...

Thanks Dan for your, as always, thoughtful and challenging reflections and insights. I must admit to sharing much of your experience every week as I worship at my home congregation.

Anonymous said...

Dear Daniel,

I'm a music director at a mid-sized church. I'm expected to go to a church like you mention (might be the same one) every year for an arts conference. My experience of this church is VERY similar to yours. Thank you for saying what I wish I could say. I don't dare say anything critical about this church, because my employer often models services and programs after them. I did notice, however, that this year's arts conference is featuring a well-known pastor in a 3-hour talk on "Public Worship as Spiritual Formation." Wow...what a concept. :) The original wheel comes back. No need to reinvent.

Keep up the good work and thank you for speaking out. I bought "Patterned By Grace" yesterday. Hope to read it next week.