Worship's Apocalyptic Future

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

Revelation 7:9-10 glimpses into God’s future for worship: “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

            ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”

We have no clear idea who the author of Revelation was. But we know what he saw. The imagery sounds psychedelic, yet it’s easy to picture  countless people from every place praising Jesus.

Here, Jesus is not a first-century Jew, but an otherworldly ewe. God is fierce and gentle, and redemption unites all of creation in divine glory. That is God’s future. Yet how much of it informs our worship now? Without at least a glance, Christian hope remains myopic and the stuff of fantasy and dreams.

Below are three recommendations for 2019, appearing in no particular order to give our worship more apocalyptic range:

Become Multilingual

Become multilingual, and experiment with decentering English as primary in worship. This means more than including music, songs, and prayers from other cultures, as well as translations of scriptures and sacred texts. When was the last time the sermon was delivered in a language other than English? How often are Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic pronounced and heard? No one  people, animals, and God included  spoke English in the Bible. Hearing ancient and modern languages in worship is not reserved for special Sundays, and learning them should not only occur in classrooms.

The light of God began in speech; Jesus is the Word, and while the Holy Spirit sighs too deep for words, its descent began with the speaking of tongues. Communicating across languages is at the core of how we grasp who God is for us and how God’s love extends to everyone. Decentering English so that the proportion of other languages reaches a quarter, a third, even half or more of the duration of worship is a way of tenderizing our biases and celebrating our multilingual faith. It may also compel us to seek worship leadership from our neighbors, and hopefully our enemies too, listening not only to their voices, but perhaps incorporating their customs into worship, too.

Take Risks

Take liturgical risks for the love of God and become political in a historical, and not just present-tense, way. Martin Luther King, Jr. once decried that “the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” That is a pithy way of reminding us that racism is the fundamental transgression of U.S. Christianity. Racism flies in the face of God’s desires for our shared future of redemption. The United Methodist Church and Mainline Protestantism are overwhelmingly white (94% and 86% respectively, according to a 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Survey). In 2018, the UMC celebrated fifty years of ministry. After half a century, we should look a little more like Revelation 7:9-10. Instead, we have only pockets of diversity and we’re mostly in decline, with American United Methodists half the number from when we began.

Nurturing growth requires more than membership drives and capital campaigns. It necessitates facing and pruning away the violence of our political past. That means digging into historical sin in a detailed way, especially our own, and moving together toward our shared promise of new life in Christ. Our country began with the depopulation of indigenous peoples. Christopher Columbus, a Catholic explorer, helped to dehumanize those tribes by describing them as cannibals (Franscisco Bethencourt, Racisms, pg. 101). U.S. infrastructure was built by slave labor. A famous Methodist preacher, George Whitefield, in fact endorsed legalizing slavery in Georgia (Thomas S. Kidd, George Whitefield, pg. 209). We police nuclear arms, but we’re the only country who has used them in battle. President Truman, a Baptist, was reported to be aboard a submarine praying and singing hymns only hours before annihilating the Japanese with atomic fire (Albert J. Baime, The Accidental President, pg. 335). Worship and preaching have colluded with the vilest actions in the country we call home as well as our holiest efforts. 

What would it look like to ask real questions in worship such as how many of our family histories include owning slaves? How many of us have more recently perpetrated or suffered racism? How many of us realize that racism exceeds a black and white paradigm and why that realization is important for loving the variety of God’s people? And that last question could be expanded to broaden notions of prejudices related to ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and so forth. This kind of historically-conscious and socially-exponential interrogation is a serious way of keeping us honest. It also adds deeper layers of purpose to hospitality.

One liturgical response might involve collecting answers in an offering plate. Then, over a series of Sundays, perhaps during Advent, Lent, or ordinary time, rituals of healing and forgiveness could be constructed from the answers given. Those rituals might be more sophisticated remembrances of our shared baptism in Jesus, amplified versions of the passing of the peace toward a time of reckoning and reconciliation, ecumenical worship shared between congregations representing different racial and ethnic backgrounds or markers of human diversity, and any number of community liturgical, homiletic, musical, and artistic expressions. By getting our hands dirty and mining deep pain, perhaps pain that is a little too close for comfort, we’ll be doing the right kind of spade work to bear fruits for the realm of God.

Think Artistically

Customize every service with thoughtful and varied beauty. Two paradigms seem to dominate worship in U.S. Protestantism. One resembles a succession of prayers and hymns focused around sacrament and sermon (maybe even an offering). The other happens in three parts, Part 1 involving congregational song, Part 2 a sermon, and Part 3 a response that may involve sacramental celebration, prophesying, healing, glossolalia, or other kinds of ekstasis.

Why not distill worship even further and focus on its material content  the arts? There’s music, drama, choreography, pageantry, visual art, poesis, digital media, and more. And if the material content of worship is the arts, why not look to artistic gifts within the congregation, in all of their variety, and artistic movements within culture, even scandalous ones, as resources for imagining broader and better forms of worship that speak to culture now? What changes when a contemporary artistic tool such as musical software Ableton Live is offered for the making of sacred music? How can Kara Walker’s A Subtlety and her upcoming Fertile Ground public art projects in Jackson, Mississippi spark our imaginations for expansive liturgical options?

If you’re a part of the middle-aged who comprise the majority of United Methodist pastors and other Protestant clergy, it’s crucial to realize that time keeps moving and it takes work to stay relevant in ministry. We must design, experiment, and redesign worship again and again. Keeping up with our flock’s strange and wonderful artistic, musical, poetic, dramatic hobbies and gifts across age groups, even ones we dislike (and yes, I mean practices and people here), is a fun and challenging way to do just that. We can learn to nurture aesthetic gifts for the sake of broadening how we envision and enact the future of God. We might even invent new liturgies or patterns of worship along the way. Heck, “John of Patmos” articulated worship that no one had ever seen in Revelation 7:9-10. And faith means living into the conviction of things unseen.

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