Hippolytus or Willow Creek?

It seems to me that, wherever one hears conversations about worship and music, three words rise to the top of the lexicon: contemporary, traditional, and blended.

“Blended”. Hmm, what a strange word! It sounds so…, well…, grey and porridgy to me; kind of like a colorless mush which leaves nobody happy, everyone confused, nobody satisfied, and everyone wanting more of what they call contemporary, traditional, or this or that, or…whatever.

“Contemporary”. Hmm, whose contemporary I wonder? How contemporary does it need to be to attain “contemporary” status? How long before that contemporary is traditional, neo-classical, neo-traditional, or God forbid, retro?  If I play a U2, Coldplay, or Metallica song on flute, cello, and harpsichord, is it still contemporary? Ask my 14 year old what he considers contemporary and you will receive a vastly different answer than if you ask even a classmate with whom he shares a lunch table!

“Traditional”. Hmm, what traditional I ask? Presbyterian traditional? Reformation traditional? Augustinian traditional? European-post-Enlightenment-Victorian-dead-white-guy traditional? Grandma traditional? What if I sing a brand new song in a old style? Is it contemporary or is it traditional? How about singing an old song in a new style? Is it traditional or is it contemporary? What do I call it when I sing the folk songs of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, or French Canada? What if I sing them with a Beatles style backbeat? Where does contemplative music fit in to the picture?

As you can plainly see, I struggle with the terms of the equation as much as the next person. As I continue to wrestle through these matters, I’ve come to believe, increasingly, that personal preferences, consumer mindset, the commodification of Christianity, our love in the West for arguments based on logic, and a certain sense of entitlement all play a significant role in how we think of worship these days. In the present milieu traditional often means “I know it. I’m comfortable with it. Don’t mess with it.”  Conversely, contemporary generally means “it’s hip, user-friendly and asks little of me.” It is culture-driven with the inevitable result of dumbing down the great universally stretching themes of the gospel.  Blended can sometimes mean that we struggle to pull both together into one stew often at the expense of authenticity or believability in either.

Imagine if we were neither traditional nor contemporary? These are linear terms born of a pendulum mindset. What if, as the post-moderns like to say, we discover the future through the past?  Writer and preacher, Tom Long, refers to a methodology of convergence worship. That is, the creation of something entirely different utilizing the tools at our disposal. He suggests that most church-goers see worship life in one of two categories: The Hippolytus Factor (looking back; for us) or The Willow-Creek Factor (looking forward; for them).  How incomplete each of these are on their own should be self-evident.  Stoic, elitist, naval-gazing, versus white-bread-‘n-apple-pie-Ken-‘n-Barbie worship.  Both offer something while not being complete in and of themselves. The late Robert Webber, utilizing the language of ancient-future, suggests that we can best approach a blended-contemporary model as contextualized through ancient liturgical formats.

One of the reasons I understand worship in more liturgical these days is that it pre-dates our musical preferences by quite some time.  It also helps to remove us from the prevalent ideology that worship=music.  Moreover, in liturgy, whether our music be contemporary, traditional, or blended we become completely involved rather than sit and soak in the presence of incessant “talking heads”; pursuing an incarnational Christianity versus a merely presentational Christianity.

It is much easier to simply divide and conquer – split everyone up on the basis of consumer preferences so that one can say, “I go to the ‘retro-post-hippie-progressive-emo-goth-industrial-death-metal’ service for the 18.5-22.25 year olds”. For better or worse, Westminster Presbyterian Church whom I serve is seeking to bring everyone under the same roof, at the same time, to worship the same God, in the same hour, using all the best, most excellent, most diverse, and most life-changing elements we can find to deepen souls and build the kingdom of God.  Everyone sacrifices something to be together on a Sunday morning.  Albeit we live with a higher base line of discontent, we believe this to be a more accurate picture of God’s kingdom.

Essayist Annie Dillard likens worshipers to children.  She states, we are “children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.”  Regardless what position we take on matters of worship, we need not be oblivious to the fact that “the One whose presence we so casually invoke summons the creation out of nothing, commands the moon and the stars to sing, shatters kingdoms and brings tyrants to their knees, shakes the foundations of the world, and causes the earth to melt at a single word.” She continues, saying “ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.  For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense.”

When all is said and done, “we need to remind ourselves”, states Tom Long, “that even when Christian worship is at its best, it is…always the work of amateurs, people who do this for love, kids in the kitchen overcooking the prayers, half-baking the sermons, and crashing and stumbling through the responses on the way to an act of adoration.” These days, I’m much more interested in discussions which revolve around the philosophy of ministry and Trinitarian theology than about music preferences in a worship service; questions of ethos or style or appropriateness or whether something is glib or elitist. Let’s keep talking about the WHO and WHY than the WHAT and HOW.  Beloved, herein lies the rub; irrespective of where we are on any worship pendulum, we need to turn our eyes inward toward self-abasement and upward toward heaven’s unspeakably glorious but eternally forgiving God.

On the journey together, Rob

3 thoughts on “Hippolytus or Willow Creek?

  1. Sacrifice and discontent??? What, seriously, now Rob. Are you saying that I need to consider the desires of others even in church worship? Say it isn’t so… thanks for the reminder that it ain’t all about me in anything!
    Write on bro!


  2. LAE, my favorite definition of spiritual formation comes from writer and theologian M. Robert Mulholland: “spiritual formation is the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.” Anything less is narcissism at best. Thanks for playing along…R


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