It appears to be a truism that conservative worship is lively and progressive/liberal worship is cold. One is heart focused and the other head focused. It's not really that cut and dry, but Mainline Protestant Churches often seem tied to traditional patterns, even as they open up their theology. Conservatives, on the other hand, don't seem to care as much about style as they do about keeping the theology narrowly focused. Bruce Epperly in this seventh post inspired by his reading of Diana Butler Bass's Christianity after Religion (Harper, 2012), takes up the question of worship and suggests that progressive worship should engage both heart and head. Take a read, offer your responses.
Dancing with Diana 7 –
Intelligence on Ice or Ignorance on Fire
Bruce G. Epperly
Diana Butler Bass recounts a question she received on Facebook: “Why is it that the choice among churches always seems to be the choice between intelligence on ice and ignorance on fire?” This is interesting dilemma, since many seekers find the music and worship of conservative evangelical and Pentecostal churches lively and entertaining, but the language and theology deadly and the theology of progressive churches engaging but the worship boring and unemotional.
Can we have both lively worship and open-spirited theology? Ironically, progressive Christianity has often been theologically innovative but liturgically unimaginative. As a progressive Christian, committed to emerging and process spiritualities, I am committed to holistic, transformative, life-giving, and world changing theology, spirituality, and worship.
Progressive worship should be progressive! It should not be hemmed in by lectionary, prayer books, or past liturgical styles. It should break free of lectionary and prayer book fundamentalism, and should transform both lectionary and liturgy. Common prayer should not be one-dimensional and commonplace, but exciting, innovative, and adventurous. It should be, as Robert Webber asserted, ancient and future, but more than that global and local, intimate and universal, intellectual and emotional, as it joins head, heart, and hands. Today, we need spirit-centered, dare I say, Pentecostal progressives, who dance when the spirit says dance and sing when the spirit says sing – well prepared liturgically but also prepared to change as the winds of the Spirit blow through the sanctuary. As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead asserts, worship is an adventure of the Spirit. Who knows where it will take us? (For more on adventurous worship, see Bruce Epperly and Daryl Hollinger, From a Mustard Seed: Enlivening Worship and Music in the Small Church, Alban Institute.)
How do we accomplish this? First, we recognize that lively faith encompasses head, heart, and hands. It is spirit-centered, grounded in a lively conversation with contemplative practices, prayerful intercession and petition; worship that surprises and transforms; theology that inspires; and mission that energizes.
Second, we embody this spiritual and theological holism in the life of the church. For example, a coherent worship service can involve times of silence and healing prayer/laying on of hands; lively, inspiring, accessible, and theologically solid preaching; global and local hymnody, embracing traditional, contemplative, and energetic styles as well as familiar and global melodies; an order of worship complemented by moments of surprise; sitting prayer can be joined with moving music. Christian education for children and adults can involve song, dance, and silence as part of the lesson of the day.
Third, in the spirit of the Psalmist, spirit-centered worship will “taste and see that God is good.” All the senses will be welcome at worship – beautiful sights (banners, videos, icons), pleasing aromas (communion bread baking), healing touch and peaceful embraces, joyful noise, and – why not – good coffee or healthy rolls, including gluten-free alternatives.
Fourth, lively congregational life is grounded in a commitment to pray for every congregational event, inviting the Spirit to move us in new and creative ways. Lively worship is undergirded by prayer – for the service, the community, the preacher, and lay participants. When we expect the Spirit to move in unexpected and surprising ways, she does and we had best move with her!
Fifth, Pentecostal progressivism is inspired by prayerful mission. Contemplation and action are partners not antagonists; deep spirituality nurtures deep listening and life-changing action.
Sixth, scripture notes that God is willing to give us more than we can ask or imagine. As we gather for worship, prayer, mission, and program, we can expect great things of God and great things of ourselves. We can expect that something wonderful will happen – a God-send, a healing, a new path toward freedom – in every congregational event. This means letting go of control, and recognizing that though we are God’s partners, this partnership is not-scripted but “live” and extemporaneous. Expecting the unexpected, a way where there was no way, healing in the midst of death, and reconciliation in the midst of hospitality bring life and joy to every congregational event.
We can be lively and intellectual, accessible and theological, and exciting and progressive. Let’s dance!
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith Lectionary and Patheos.com. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats.