Monday, December 14, 2009

A Ruinous Journey

In January I'm starting something new and (for me) exciting. I've enrolled to earn a Masters degree from the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies (IWS) in Orange Park, Florida. It's their MWS (Masters of Worship Studies) degree, and it'll take me 2 years to complete.

I have been doing some basic things to get ready: buying books, looking over the assignment list, due dates, etc. But honestly, I've been so focused on Christmas on 84th Street that I haven't spent any serious time digging into my assignments just yet. Today, I began that very thing.

My first course will be MWS501: A Biblical Theology of Worship. Seems like a logical first step, don't you think? I've got two books to read by early January: Planning Blended Worship by Robert Webber, and Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace by James B. Torrance. I'm more interested in the second at this point, because I do notice that many churches tend to focus primarily on the Father and the Son in worship, but not the third Person of the Trinity: the Holy Spirit.

Planning blended services isn't something I plan to do in the near future. But hopefully, this book will be a stepping stone to the idea of incorporating ancient worship service elements in modern ways. Maybe that sounds like a fine line to you, but I think "blended worship" has some definite connotations that I'd like to avoid. In my mind, blended worship is attempting to appeal to as many people as possible using a wide variety of worship service elements: here's a hymn, here's a contemporary worship song, here's a responsive reading, here's a video, here's a drama, etc. Granted, I could be a little off on my picture of the blended worship service, but this is how I perceive it. I think there are two things wrong with blended services.

First, it's kind of like the couple that moves to the suburbs. He wants to move to a quiet area, to have a little space that is their own. She wants to be close to the shopping and culture of the city. The compromise is the suburbs. But what the couple finds is that he's unhappy because the neighbors afford little privacy, and she's unhappy because it takes an hour of traffic to get downtown. Neither gets what they need, and both are unhappy. I think the blended service ends up being the same thing. Everyone wishes the blended service contained more of the elements that they like, and so no one is happy.

Second, it's easy for me to fall into a trap of designing services not with God in mind, but with people in mind. I don't know how to sort this one out yet, but so many churches seem to be acting more like marketing firms: how do we attract people, how do we get them in the doors, how do we keep them here, etc. Churches have coffeeshops, book stores, welcome gifts, CDs of worship... the list goes on and on. Maybe these things aren't bad in and of themselves, but the motives behind them are what I'd question. Are we using these things to honor God, or to draw people to our building? Blended services seem like a way to pack the pews sometimes.

Fortunately, Robert E. Webber is known for using the phrase "ancient future worship." He used to say, "The road to the future of worship travels through the past." In other words, there are worship practices and models that the church has used for centuries, and we need to figure out ways to incorporate them that speak to our culture. I think what has happened recently is that when churches drop worship practices that seem out-dated, they also tend to drop the theology and reasoning behind the practice. I'm excited to dig into the theology behind worship, to hopefully see new ways to bring that ancient theology into modern worship services.

I've read alumni from IWS talk about how their education effectively "ruined" them. They were changed, forced to consider their own mindsets, biases, incorrect assumptions, etc. And they left with a Masters or Doctorate, and more importantly, a desire to help the Church worship the Bridegroom in ways that are deeper, more meaningful, more passionate.

What are your thoughts? How is the church missing the mark in terms of worship? I'll keep you posted as I read and study and discuss with other students over the next semester, and I'd welcome you to the discussion.

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