What's Next? What's Now?

February 1st, 2019
This article is featured in the The Future of Worship (Feb/Mar/Apr 2019) issue of Circuit Rider

To say the last fifty years of worship in North American Christianity have been ones of monumental change is an understatement. Many worship services held today are unrecognizable from those in the middle of the 20th century. Dramatic change as a result of the widespread influence of the Contemporary Worship Movement upon virtually every Protestant group, as well as Vatican II for Catholic worshippers has made an indelible stamp on the worship landscape. Getting through the last five or six decades has not been easy. In fact, the angst such epic change has created has left plenty of debris by the side of the road.

The characterization of said change has been aptly dubbed “the worship wars.” The term needs no explanation. Everyone nods in understanding, having had their own exposure to the conflict at some level. Yet now, on the other side of half a century, there are signs that worship wars are waning. None of the warriors have declared victory or surrender; they simply have called a truce and walked away from the conflict. A ceasefire has occurred by going our separate ways. We have chosen to lick our wounds and retreat to our own corner of the world either creating multiple services based on stylistic options, or putting our stake in the sand and offering a monolithic all-or-nothing approach, letting the church down the street fill the style gap with their own stake in the sand. In so doing, we may have won our battles but lost the war.

Two decades into the twenty-first century we find ourselves in need of post-war reconstruction. Once again, folks are asking, “What’s next?” It’s not the first time this question has been asked, nor will it be the last. I am often asked, “What’s next in worship?” There is no crystal ball, of course. One would be either naïve or presumptive to try to answer that question. More than a decade ago, Emerging Worship was to be what’s next; it turned out to be only a blip on the radar. The university students I teach have never heard of it. There are some hunches we could have, but they would only be hunches. There are some hopes we could have, but in the end, they might only be hopes. But being a hopeful person, and seeing a slow dawn on the horizon, I am happy to share my hopes that are informed by things I see and hear.

I hope that worship is increasingly intergenerational. Mistakes were made when age groups were sectored off for so-called age appropriate worship. The holistic sense of community was compromised and the mutual blessing of children and seniors and everyone in between was lost. I hope that worship will become much less of a production put on for everyone and much more of an interactive, interdependent offering done by everyone. We have put too much trust in our own performance abilities to attract people when there is much more powerful appeal to be found in the Spirit among us. I hope that worship will become increasingly cross-cultural and multi-racial. The realization of the worldwide community of saints is furthered when expressions of worship are shared from culture to culture, be that far away or close to home. I hope that there will be increased passion for addressing the many real needs in our neighborhoods and in the suffering of countries around the globe as a direct result of having been spiritually transformed in God’s presence. After all, the most authentic evidence of true worship is ever-increasing obedience to God’s will. I have more hopes; these are just a few. Some of these topics and others are written about in this issue of Circuit Rider. Together, perhaps they forecast what we might, by God’s grace, experience in the reconstruction era.

Most of all I hope that we start asking a better question. Asking, “what’s next” is the wrong question. Somewhere I read recently this provocative phrase: Wrong narrative, wrong solution. The thought is that if we get the narrative wrong—if the line of thinking is off skew or inaccurate leading us to believe a false reality—our solution won’t matter because we will have addressed the wrong question. Getting the right narrative concerning Christian worship is the most important thing we can do.

While we seek cultural intelligence, we must not continuously remake worship into our own image. Express worship in various contextually appropriate ways, yes; recreate it, no. Our infatuation with “what’s next” is a telltale sign that we persistently set our worship sails toward following in the wake of the trends, always hoping to catch up. In doing so, we position ourselves to operate in followership mode rather than leadership mode, which doesn’t say much for the church.

Instead of asking, “What’s next”, perhaps we should ask, “What’s now?” Asking, “What’s now” takes us to the narrative concerning worship. “What’s now” centers on the unchanging reality of worship that is already in play. Something real and profound is underway each time the church gathers for the express purpose of worshiping the triune God. The risen Lord is truly present among us as recipient of our worship, leader of our worship, and mediator of our worship. Through his ongoing, incarnate ministry as one of us in worship, we are invited to join him in his worship of the Father through the Spirit. This is always what’s going on whether we recognize it or not.

Worship is not a program we put together from the outside in, hoping to reach people. In fact, we are powerless to make worship more or less relevant. It already is relevant. It is relevant because what is underway is the most profound reality that is ours to simply enter in. Nothing we do will change this miraculous reality. At the same time, there are many things we can do to unveil and participate in this reality of worship. What we pursue in the quest of “what’s next” must be repurposed to enable “what’s now.” Then we will have the right narrative and right solution.

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