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Create Worship Renewal, Not Worship War: Six tips on how to talk about worship

Eighteen people. Umpteen differences. For three years, these Protestant Christians talked through worship war tensions to create a book together. A feature story about the genesis of "Discerning the Spirits."

Cornelius "Neal" Plantinga Jr. recalls that when he was young, he never understood why the Apostle Paul talks so much about factions, malice, gossip, backbiting, and wrath. "But when you start to work in a church, you see those things wrecking a church," he said at a recent Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts.

Sue A. Rozeboom marvels at the diversity among the team that produced the book Discerning the Spirits: A Guide to Thinking about Christian Worship Today.

"We were six women and twelve men. We came from different decades, ethnic groups, denominations, and walks of life. We attended churches that served different socioeconomic or lingual groups. Some of us were in academia; some were ordained; some regularly lead music or worship. Our interest in musical instruments and the liturgical year varied. If pressed, we'd identify ourselves on a fairly equal distribution between the extremes of traditional and contemporary worship styles.

"John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, had the temerity to believe a motley group like this could come together and write a book. The Lilly Endowment had the temerity to fund us," Rozeboom told the same symposium audience.

When the project began, she and Plantinga were colleagues in Calvin College's dean of the chapel office. Now Plantinga is president of Calvin Theological Seminary, and Rozeboom is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at the University of Notre Dame.

The team met three times for three to five days. They described their church backgrounds and presented papers on topics such as language use in worship and confession and lament in worship. They worshiped together, visited churches together, and, as the book took form, critiqued each chapter via conference call. Witvliet terms the result "the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship's manifesto."

Guiding principles

Rozeboom credits Witvliet's "hospitality and focus-and the Holy Spirit" with the team's progress. Their book helps pastors, worship planners and leaders, and lay people revitalize the church's conversations about worship along broader theological, biblical, and pastoral lines.

Broadening the focus is key, because so many worship wars reduce worship to music styles. People argue and even leave churches over conflicts about whether to sing screen-projected, praise band-led choruses or traditional hymns accompanied by an organ or piano.

But Discerning the Spirits suggests discussing worship differences within a larger framework of two main ideas.

First, we must see ourselves as "together in union with Christ. The body of Christ includes people who are not like each other and don't like each other," Plantinga says. As Colossians 2 and 3 and Romans 6 explain, for Christians to achieve union in Christ, we must die to the old self and come alive to the new self. Only then can we develop the kindness, humility, patience, and forbearance to be courteous to fellow members of Christ's body, especially those whose worship preferences we don't share.

Second, the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity offers a wonderful way for Christians to think about unity in diversity. "There are three distinct persons in God and yet there is only one God. They are one in their work, word, knowledge, love, glory, essence, and mission to the world. In John 17, Jesus prays heroically and courageously for his disciples to experience the same oneness that the Trinity does," Plantinga says.

Tip 1: Adopt the Apostle Paul's outlook

The format of Discerning the Spirits graphically illustrates how the team applied Paul's outlook of living as diverse members within one body.

The book is composed of three strands. Plantinga and Rozeboom wrote the main narrative. Team members contributed individual essays, all set in another font with bold type at the top of consecutive pages. These essays offer multiple viewpoints.

For example, Michael Hamilton points out that hymn reformers who greatly dislike praise and worship music often do like songs from other countries that have "simple music, driving beat, repetitive lyrics.and emphasis on experience"-just as many praise choruses do. Meanwhile, John Ferguson explains why churches need "sturdy tunes" with biblically and theologically substantive texts.

Quotes from classic and contemporary Christian authors offer a third strand of insight.

Tip 2: Speak in love

The team members modeled the principle of speaking in love. During conference calls, they would critique drafts with comments like these: "I know what you mean, but so-and-so might think you might want to rewrite this as."

At the symposium, Plantinga clearly stated how to speak in love during worship discussions. "Avoid scorn-especially regarding other people's ways to adore God. That doesn't rule out judgment. There are hard calls to make. The gospel still has to be the gospel."

Nevertheless, he believes, you can question without descending to ridicule. It also helps to observe the difference between a conversation and a quarrel. As 19th century British author G. K. Chesterton wrote, "A quarrel stops a good argument."

Tip 3: Look for fitting ways to be enriched

"In church, make honest attempts to get inside the other person's frame of reference, even if you think it is boring or worldly," Plantinga advises.

Discerning the Spirits offers many examples of how Christians can try to make other worshipers' interests their own. A congregation can actually use the hand-carved communion pieces that missionaries bring back from abroad, instead of tucking them into a display cabinet. Churches can ask children to read Scripture, even if kids stumble a bit. Worship leaders can choose to attend a conference very different from the kind of worship they generally prefer.

Tip 4: Combine grace and truth

No matter how much you try to appreciate other viewpoints, you will face dilemmas, especially at "Christ and culture" or "church and world" intersections. Ever since Mark translated all Jesus' Aramaic quotations into Greek for his gospel readers, Christians have been looking for ways to explain the good news so their culture can understand.

Today that means that some churches in Asia celebrate communion with tea and rice crackers. A mariachi band leads mass at Mission Jose Church in San Antonio, Texas. At other North American or U.K. churches, video clips and TV-style skits punctuate the service.

Inevitably Christians begin to disagree about whether they have appropriately translated the gospel or bent it to fit contemporary culture.

It's not wrong to ask questions. As Plantinga said at the symposium, "Since Christ was made flesh and assumed the culture into which he was born, there's a facile assumption that we can just usher the culture into church. Our team thought, 'Christ took on flesh, not sinful flesh. He was discerning about who and what he embraced. He showed grace and judgment.'"

Discerning the Spirits suggests evaluating tough questions against this standard: "Worship should be culturally connected not for the sake of culture but for the sake of worship. First things first."

Tip 5: Help worshipers feel part of age-old worldwide body of Christ

When a symposium participant asked how to achieve more unity in diversity, Rozeboom recommended looking for ways to help worshipers see that the "Christian church is so much larger than the one body we gather with on any given weekend."

For example, people can pray beyond their own experiences, perhaps for Christians in Iraq or the financially-troubled Anglican Church in Canada. Worshipers can sing an African Kyrie written by an author who was surrounded by strife. "Using and appreciating the gifts of other cultures helps us recognize our brotherhood and sisterhood in Christ across cultures," Rozeboom said.

In a Discerning the Spirits essay on cross-cultural actions in worship, Melva Wilson Costen advises, "If worshipers are deliberate in their attempts to incorporate worship actions of others, they must be clear about why they want to do so." Experiencing rituals evolved through others' faith experiences, can, Costen writes, lead to "a divinely empowered encounter with God at a deeper level."

Such encounters may lessen or resolve internal church conflicts, according to Plantinga. Finding "something simple and lovely," perhaps from Nicaragua or the Philippines-then including it in services and explaining why-elevates worship as a third way. "It makes people feel like they're part of a great body that has hundreds of options, not just two. At least something of this third way will appeal to people on both sides," he says.

Tip 6: Think of worship as a dialogue

In a hefty final chapter, Discerning the Spirits explains that conversations about worship go more smoothly when Christians see worship as a conversation about God's story and our story.

"Worship is engagement. It is a holy meeting between God and God's people, involving a wide range of human emotion and physical expression-all the features of a complex conversation," the authors write. This conversation takes place both between God and God's people and among God's people, including those in heaven, on earth, and in future generations.

Whether seen as renewing a covenant with God or following Christ's way, the authors say this dialogue of worship "fits inside a larger one-the all-encompassing narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation."

So we receive God's life-giving word and praise God for the goodness of creation. We confess sin and receive forgiveness. Christ offers his body and blood, and we rejoice that we are saved to serve. Through all the elements of worship, we "gather strength to obey God's commands for covenant life."

Following these six tips on how to talk about worship, Rozeboom promises, helps Christians live up to this goal: "Delighting in our unity and even holding fast to it in Christ, let us discover fitting ways to be enriched by each other's diversity."

Learn More

Read Neal Plantinga's address on spiritually preparing to lead worship.

Start a book club that discusses Discerning the Spirits and books by its contributors, such as Melva Wilson Costen, Marva J. Dawn, Justo L. González, C. Michael Hawn, Duane K. Kelderman, Robb Redman, Lester Ruth, and John D. Witvliet.

Commit yourself to practice Sue Rozeboom's and Neal Plantinga's response to people who ridicule others' worship practices. Begin by applying the minimum necessary force: Did you hear what you just said? The other person may ask whether you thought the comment was racist or sexist or whatever. You can reply, What did you think? Constantly applying slightly more pressure is a compassionate way to rebuke someone who needs to show more grace in talking about worship.

Start a Discussion

  • How is your church doing on seeing yourselves as one in Christ and allowing for diversity within your church body? Do people try to understand each other's perspectives? Have you resigned yourselves to offering a time slot so each faction can feel satisfied at least some of the time?
  • What do you think of the idea that worship is a complex conversation between God and God's people and among all God's people? Especially if seekers often attend your services, how would you explain the difference between the purposes of worship and of evangelism?
  • Are you planning to implement (or have you already completed) any changes to your worship? What are the biblical, theological, and pastoral reasons for change? How will you summarize these reasons for your congregation?
  • What is the thorniest worship conflict facing your church? Which of the six tips for talking about worship might apply to your situation?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to improve the ways you talk about worship in your congregation? 

  • Have you planned an event at which you ask people of opposing viewpoints to play devil's advocate and each try their best to persuade listeners to accept the other side's perspective?
  • How did you break through an impasse about worship differences in your congregation? Did this come through a new liturgical element, prayer meeting, sermon, class, worship experience, printed piece, conflict resolution event.?
  • Describe a particular challenge your congregation faced and solved in presenting the gospel in a way appropriate to your cultural context. How did you do this while still making sure the gospel remains the gospel?