As we’ve been talking about worship music over the past few weeks, I’ve been encouraged to go back and review some of the sources that first caught my attention and made the study and practice of Christian worship such a major part of my thinking and ministry.
Most evangelicals who have learned anything about Biblical, theological, and historical perspectives have been touched by the late Robert Webber. Last year, I called him “The Father of the Ancient-Future Path” because he helped low church evangelicals like me appreciate the tradition of the church’s liturgy. However, Webber himself was hard to categorize. He studied, participated in, and learned to appreciate a wide variety of Christian worship expressions. One of his goals was to encourage the church to come to some fundamental understandings about worship and then let the Holy Spirit build upon those within each tradition.
His seminal book, Worship Old and New, remains required reading for anyone who is concerned about worship renewal in today’s church. The copy I have was published in 1982 (the year before I entered seminary and began studying worship in earnest), and his words and proposals are as pertinent today as they were then.
Today, I would like to discuss his “Nine Proposals” in the book. These came out of discussions with students in his classes at Wheaton College. He asked them to suggest how the material he was presenting might be useful in the church. The result was this list of nine recommendations for evangelical churches and worshipers.
PROPOSAL ONE: Educate the people.
By consensus, Webber’s students agreed that many evangelicals know little about worship. It was therefore proposed that it was a priority for churches in the evangelical traditions to study the biblical, historical, and theological sources of Christian worship.
PROPOSAL TWO: Acknowledge the distinction between services for worship and services for teaching.
At the time, it was observed that the sermon held such a prominent place in evangelical, Bible-believing churches, that the emphasis was on teaching or evangelism and not on worship as understood traditionally. At the time, students suggested having at least one meeting a week devoted to worship, using other gatherings for teaching and outreach.
Since that time, it would be my opinion that what has happened is this: the seeker and other church-growth movements have created a new portion within the service itself—the “worship set”—meaning a more extended period of singing led by a praise and worship band. In other words, instead of building upon the history and tradition of Christian worship, the “contemporary” church has come up with a new, more limited definition of worship. The sermon remains prominent in the service, and to it was added a new component understood as “worship.”
PROPOSAL THREE: Do not disregard the tradition of your denomination.
As Webber’s students considered what they had learned about worship, they recognized that most of their denominations already practiced the most basic elements of the church’s historic worship. Renewal then did not involve starting from scratch, but refining understandings and activities already in place.
A lot has changed in thirty years. Denominations have been in decline, and there has been a strong movement toward a “non-denominational” approach even in many historic groups. In a sense, “Church growth” has become the new source of tradition, and today’s “denominations” are defined by which stream of church growth practice one follows. This has involved not only a lack of emphasis on historic worship practices, but in some cases the wholesale discarding of them in the service of growth.
PROPOSAL FOUR: Orient worship toward God rather than human beings.
Here’s a quote from Webber’s book: “Many students felt that the worship of their church was more oriented toward human beings and their experience than toward God. They pointed to the current trend in Christian music that emphasizes a near narcissistic self-interest and to the entertainment approach in worship that attracts the crowds but fails to lead them into the praise of God’s person and work.”
What does it say that we are still engaged in discussing these same issues thirty years later?
PROPOSAL FIVE: Restore a sense of awe and reverence, mystery and transcendence.
Students in Webber’s classes were concerned about the casual atmosphere in evangelical churches. What would they say today about an entire movement that uses the concept “casual” as a way of attracting people and telling them it is the very reason should come to our church?
PROPOSAL SIX: Recover a christocentric focus through enactment.
Since we’ve not been reading the book together, this one may require explanation. A basic principle observed by Webber is that “worship” has been traditionally defined as re-enacting the drama of our salvation in Christ. The pattern and content of the liturgy is designed to bring worshipers into an encounter with the saving Christ and lead them through the story of salvation. The pattern of Word and Table proclaims the Gospel. Christian worship involves immersing the congregation in the Gospel and lifting up Christ’s finished work each time they gather.
PROPOSAL SEVEN: Restore congregational involvement in worship.
One weakness of typical evangelical worship pointed out by Webber’s students was the lack of active participation in the service. The pattern was: sit or stand, sing, and listen while those up front do most everything. From my perspective, the main difference today is that the congregation sings more, but not much else.
PROPOSAL EIGHT: Attain spontaneity with the proper balance on form and freedom.
Webber’s students did not think bringing more historic understanding, order, and ritual practice meant that one had to sacrifice freedom of expression. Rather, they saw the possibilities of allowing freedom within forms.
PROPOSAL NINE: Restore the relationship of worship to all of life.
In our worship, it should be made clear that what we do on Sunday connects with our life between Sundays. For example, a renewed practice of the Church Year would enable the congregation members to shape their whole life around the story that is being proclaimed in worship each Lord’s Day.
Robert Webber’s Conclusion
“Clearly worship renewal does not consist of moving chairs in a circle, rearranging the order of worship, or finding new gimmicks. The heart of worship renewal is a recovery of the power of the Holy Spirit who enables the congregation to offer praise and thanksgiving to God. The value of studying the history and theology of worship is that it provides us with insights into the work of the Holy Spirit in the past and allows us to be open to His work in the present. In this way the Holy Spirit may lead us into the ways of worship that are continuous with the historic witness of worship given to the church throughout its history in the world, and at the same time He may lead us into the discovery of new forms and patterns that meet the needs of people in our day.” (WO&N, p. 196)