This post is part of an ongoing blog series on Pomomusings entitled “(Re)Imagining Christianity.” To read about the series, as well as get a full schedule of participants, click here.
What is one belief, practice or element of Christianity that must die so that Christianity can move forward and truly impact the world in the next 100 years?
Jewish activist and scholar, Abraham Joshua Heschel, once said that an “individual dies when they cease to be surprised.” So, to point out where death is already among us I suggest that Christianity needs to let go of the privileging rituals without addressing agency. Much of our worship does not incorporate surprise, we plan to avoid surprise or we stage a surprising happening, which separates the congregation into those “in the know” and an audience we “hope will get it.” Much of this is due to our religion’s inherited majority-cultural need to control. But today, In a world where (post)moderns are designing their most mundane parts of life with Pinterest, apps, and playlists, society is beginning to grow aware of the consequences of design decisions. We know that church how the service is supposed to go. But, if we do not allow for surprises then no new problems arise, and no new design solutions are attempted, and no new results emerge.
For example, some communities privilege preaching as a static ritual, assuming that rhetoric has never changed or developed and that context has nothing to bear on the means or goals of communicating the gospel in Christian community. Other communities privilege the Eucharist, making it a requirement for access to God’s grace, or making assent to God’s grace the requirement for access to the Eucharist. I’m not suggesting we through out the baby with the bath water and enter into a post-preaching, post-sacramental age. Instead I’m suggesting that the established church ask how the sacraments, the preaching, the singing, the gifts, the placement of their pianos function in their community’s expanding encounters with the gospel. Our rituals are imagination shapers. Like an encounter with the Apple store, with a great album like Bon Iver’s, or even a pop movie like Hunger Games, the moments we intentionally craft as organized worshipping communities tap into the aesthetic, they influence our passion, our dreams, and our everyday language.
Agency, suggests that the viewer of a story or a work of art is “in play.” Like a string on my guitar vibrates when one near it hits the right harmonic, everyone who takes place in our rituals of prayer, proclamation, response, what-have-you, rings. The church needs to bring the other players into these practices designing creative ways for all who attend to own up to their place in the gathering. When we do this it re-introduces the element of surprise, that ancient teacher that the Spirit often used to guide Gideon, Esther, Peter, Paul, and so many others.
A few years ago I spoke at a presbytery and asked them to begin with an exercise. “Share an experiment that you attempted this year that failed.” When the worship service was over this question generated the most feedback. A few were relieved to freely share with their fellow pastors the mistakes, misestimates, or surprise flops that came in spite of their planning. The majority, though, suggested I not use the word “failure” in the future, or said it was an unfair question to pose in the sensitive setting of professional colleagues. What this proved to reinforce for me was that the loss of surprise is due to our deep seated desires for those things like rightness, self-assuredness, or success. And in reaction, we plateau with replicable programs and domesticated practices.
Our Christian tradition is rich with symbols, practices, and stories, and the world around us is brimming over with more of these. I’m suggesting we invite these all to de-center us and, as Heschel writes, leave room for them to surprise us.
What is one belief, practice or element of Christianity that we must hold onto and live out more fully so that Christianity can move forward and truly impact the world in the next 100 years?
In Isaiah, YHWH says “Behold I am about to do a new thing, can’t you perceive it?” The flip side of the coin of domesticated precedence is surprise and emergence. We access this in a number of ways, the simplest way in for our conversation is worship gatherings.
I recently led worship in a large PC(USA) congregation and one of the associates said that they “worship in the spirit of traditionalism.” Now I’m as guilty as any at convoluting things with neologisms and mixed metaphors–but the spirit we follow is not contained in past traditions. And while reformation-era, or baroque, or mid century choral might refer to actual periods in time, traditional-ism is a static timelessness. Before I lose you I want to emphasis that the stories of God we read in the Christian scriptures do note God’s track record, and the memory of actions, “I’m the God of your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Nevertheless God is also in an expansive relationship with creation- as we sit in the here (Behold, I am with you always) and not yet (I will make all things new).
And before musicians who are critical of the three-decade-old straw man, “traditional worship,” contemporaneous worship is not necessarily any more open. I’ve had the privilege of serving five congregations in worship leadership over my years. In each of these we faced the critique of contemporary-v-traditional in different ways. But what they all shared in common were those saints (sometimes the rule, sometimes the exception) who are accustomed to a particular genre of pop music that they download or tune-in to through commercialized Christendom media channels. These anti-traditionalists can be just as stingy about their “spirit of worship.” Like most commercial media streams the CCM listener can pick out the formula after 2.5 songs, and element of surprise is programmed out.
In these cases and others like the acoustic guitar hymns or Taize or Iona, novelty makes its way into worship programming and then become static programming with certain precedents and expectations.
Those who know me know my love for the Henri Nouwen quote, “…Discipline is the act of making space where you are neither occupied [or] preoccupied… space in which God can act.” But this past year I read a complimentary quote from community facilitator, Peter Block. He talks specifically how certain gathered groups curate open space in the room where the new can emerge. He writes, “Possibility… is a declaration of what we create in the world each time we show up… For example, peace my not reign at this moment, but the possibility of peace does enter the room just because we have walked in the door. Peace here is a future not dependent on achievement… The breakthrough is that we become that possibility, and this is what is transforming.” (Community: The Structure of Belonging, p16). He continues by describing how our visions of the future are limited because we have not confronted the versions of the past that shape our identity.
Some churches are doing this well. Some song lyrics are returning to mystery, some congregations regularly write/arrange their own material, silence and labyrinths are utilized, worship curation in its multiple formats is slowly making its way from Europe and making its way into alternative gatherings. But it remains to be seen if, in an age of design consciousness, can the church ask “how does worship shape us?” and then ask the harder question, “how might we be better shaped?”
Troy Bronsink: Troy is a musician and author helping shape the worship practices of the future Church. A Presbyterian minister and consultant with over twenty years of experience in para-church, emerging church, pastoral and worship ministry, Troy has spoken and made music with camps, conferences, schools, and congregations large and small. He currently lives with his wife and their two children in inner-city Atlanta. His album, Songs to Pray By will be released this summer, and his book, Getting Drawn In: A Creative Process for Artists, Activists, and Followers of Jesus will be released by Paraclete Press this fall.