“Contemporary” was a curious designation because any worship taking place in the here-and-now is contemporary, regardless of its style. The style of so-called contemporary worship was largely determined by amplified praise bands playing Christian rock music that ironically tended not to be multicultural in character. Many traditionalists hated this loud music while others defended it passionately. Some churches experienced internal conflicts, dubbed “worship wars,” which occasionally resulted in congregational schisms. Jesus, I imagine, rolled his eyes but prayed for everyone.
Eventually, some worshippers grew weary of the bickering and came to feel spiritually undernourished by what seemed to be less worship than performance by amateur musicians with a limited repertoire and less liturgical awareness. A new trend called “emerging worship” developed and enjoys popularity as I write but may be undergoing a transformation and renaming process by the time you read this.
“Emerging worship,” according to a Web site of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), accessible at www.emergingworship.org, “refers to any practice of worship that is expressive, faithful to tradition, and attentive to local context.” This definition covers so much territory it is of questionable usefulness. A pastor of my acquaintance, in researching emerging worship, has concluded, “There’s no there there.” Every church and every worship service I have ever participated in could fairly be described as expressive, faithful to tradition, and local. Arguably, such Christian gatherings do not need the special designation “emerging.” But like contemporary worship and multiculturalism before it, “the emerging church” generates buzz, worship and conference attendance, and book sales (and really, as a pastor and author, who am I to criticize such outcomes?).
The church in a market economy must compete to thrive, and this involves the regular production of seemingly new and improved goods and services designed to retain committed consumers while attracting new ones. Emerging worship is to the church as Coke Zero is to Coca-Cola Classic. I like Coke Zero. It tastes just like the real thing. And chances are I would like a worship service whose leaders called it “emerging” if it enabled the gathered people to praise God with hearts and hands and voices, hear the good news of Gospel, care for each other, and go forth from that place to love and serve the Lord.
Ecclesiastes may be right. There may in fact be nothing new under the sun. But there is a need within us, albeit culturally determined, to repackage or rename the old stuff (occasionally tweaking the recipe), and call it new. Or contemporary. Or emerging. (Or Zero?)
Pentecost is a prime example of revision and wordplay in the service of church growth.
Pentecost was originally a Jewish religious day that celebrated harvest. Later, it marked the giving of the Torah (God’s Law) to the Israelites. Ultimately, on Pentecost, the fiery, multilingual Holy Spirit inspired Christ’s survivor-disciples and their Jerusalem neighbors to become the church (cross-cultural, contemporary, emerging) centered in the story of Jesus and his love. And how is it, asked the Pentecosted Jews, that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? (Acts 2:8).
This may be roughly how it was and how it is: we so powerfully need Godtalk in language we can comprehend that we finally quit our worship-warring, start listening to one another and develop some mutual understanding. Then we repeat the news we heard (rewording it a little) to someone else who has not heard it yet. The process generates everything from oral tradition that gets written down canonized as Scripture, to faith-slang that can cause a handful of unchurched youth to think twice about dissing Christianity. The danger of slang, of course, is that’s cliquish, hip, and short-lived, leaving out the uncool who do not learn it until it has morphed into a whole ‘nother lingo. New linguistic trends can sound like babble to the uninitiated, as “contemporary” praise songs can sound dissonant to longtime Christians who miss singing “In the Garden” (a Coca Cola Classic hymn if ever there was one, shot through with sugar).
The classics, the chestnuts, the sweet songs that make some people feel safe in church have their place, even on Pentecost, which was originally a day of what we might call inflammatory rhetoric for Christians. (I say that like it was a good thing, and it was. If we believe Luke’s account in the Book of Acts, the reported tongues of fire did not burn anyone. They enabled everyone to talk about God’s deeds of power. Incendiary speech about a God who acts in history may be more truly Pentecostal than the ecstatic gibberish — glossolalia — that a friend of mine who would know says always sounds like ShouldaboughtaHonda!)
Somehow — and this is where the emerging worship folks are onto something — the Christian community, in order to remain true to its old, old story yet responsive to the hot new stuff the Holy Spirit is up to, must embrace both traditionalists and trendsetters, as well as the majority in between. “Emerging worship,” its proponents claim, “seeks to be authentic to our ancient faith while being appropriate to our current context” (www.emergingworship.org). To my ear, the descriptor “emerging” does little to convey such combined historicism and contemporaneity, but then, those are awfully academic terms I just used, not nearly as catchy as brand names and taglines meant to get out the word about God.
If “emerging” works well for the church, let it work, until another (better?) word catches on.
Rachel M. Srubas is pastor of Mountain Shadows Church in Tucson, Ariz.