Sunday, March 22, 2009

"Amidst the Powers" - Evolving Church Conference 2009

Here are some thoughts on the Evolving Church Conference held yesterday at "The Meeting House." (Full disclosure: Tyndale was a sponsor, along with a few other institutions, and I was one of the workshop leaders.)

Morning Worship
It was the usual Christian imitation of the rock concert format, except they had a smoke machine. I was sitting there thinking that I can't believe this church has a smoke machine. The only inauthentic thing was that there was no pungent smell of pot in the air - otherwise it was just like a rock concert. I got to wondering if the smoke used in rock concerts was an imitation (or parody) of incense in Catholic worship. Then I wondered if the inventers of the rock concert had gotten the idea for smoke from Catholic worship in the first place. Then it occurred to me that Evangelical Christian worship today is imitating rock concerts, which were parodies of Catholic worship. Its a good thing Marva Dawn is speaking on worship! We could easily have done without the mini concert by Derek Webb after lunch. It was all right if that sort of music is your thing. But it was a very full day and this was not needed.

Keynote Speaker #1 - Walter Wink
Wink gave a 50 minute talk in which I did not hear the name "Jesus Christ" once. (He may have slipped it in somewhere, but I did not catch it.) There were a few references to God. For Wink the powers are totally demythologized; they are the spirit or ethos of an organization that can outlive individual members. There was no mention of the resurrection or the second coming. His mantra: "The powers were created good, the powers are fallen, the powers can be redeemed" was similar to the Biblical view, but not quite there. The creation and fall parts are fine, but he weaved a tangled web out of redemption.

He talked a lot about how we should work hard to redeem the powers (government, universities, businesses etc.) whereas we are instructed in Ephesians that we are to stand against the powers when they attack us and in Colossians that Christ has already conquored them in his death and resurrection. Christ redeems the powers - in his first coming and in his second coming - and our job is to bear a witness to Christ, not to redeem the world or the powers, in the meantime. With all the demythologizing that was going on, I'm afraid that eschatology got short shrift. Insofar as there was any escatology, it had to do with a totally immanent version of liberal progress empowered by human effort rather than a decisive in-breaking of God into history in the form of the Second Coming of Christ.

I don't see why Evangelicals would get excited by a liberal who uses some biblical language to express an essentially secular political message. The liberals should get their own mythological language to express their faith. Lifting "powers" language out of the NT theological framework centered on Christ just distorts the Bible, rather than getting us anywhere. This was made blindingly obvious by Marva Dawn's exposition of Ephesians later in the day.

3. Workshops
I can't really comment a lot since I was busy leading my own workshop. They gave me a small room and not everyone could get in. I guess that is better than a big room half full. The Q&A went all through the break, so that was good.

But I heard that Marva Dawn's workshop on worship was very good. She basically told us that there is no biblical support whatsoever for the idea that we should "use" worship as a means of attracting nonbelievers to church services. Worship should be focussed on God and believers should be attracted by our lives of love. How radical is that? What would change in our churches if we took her seriously? Plenty. It seems like an absolute principle in most churches that we must have worship that is "contemporary," which for most churches means late 50's soft rock because that is what the baby boomers like and they are in the majority. Yet to be contemporary is to be cut off from our past; it is to make the past irrelevant and we are left on our own making it up as we go instead of faithfully handing on the Gospel as the NT instructs us to do.

4. Stanley Hauerwas
It was good to catch up with Stanley for a bit and to discuss his views on contemporary Yoder interpretation. (He is as upset as I am by the current trend to re-interpret Yoder as a Protestant liberal wanabe. Despite the fact that he is a reformed cusser, he got hot enough to swear mildly about Denny Weaver.) His talk was a bit academic for the context, but a humble (yes, I said humble) and interesting meditation on war, (which had no bad language in it whatsoever.) I thought it was not Stanley at his best, but it still seemed deeply spiritual at its core to me.

5. Marva Dawn
Her talk was very good. At last one had a reason to open a Bible! She expounded Eph. 6 and made a lot of excellent points. Her view is as Biblical as Wink's was unbiblical and her winsome personality was endearing. One off-putting moment was her school-girl gushing over Obama. (Gag!) She came right out and said he is a Christian, which is a difficult thing to be categorical about, from my perspective. He certainly self-identifies as a Christion - no question there. But he had no Christian upbringing, made a committment to Christ as an adult under one of the most liberal pastors in one of the most liberal denominations in America and doesn't seem to attend church much. (I have not heard of him attending since the election campaign began, except once or twice when he was a guest speaker. If anyone has more information on this point, I'd be happy to hear it.) At best, he seems to be some sort of vaguely liberal Protestant with a loose connection to church, which I think you have to agree is a pretty fuzzy category. At any rate, I really enjoyed Marva's talk and admire her work in general.

All in all, it was an interesting conference and a worthwhile day. It was great to catchup with old friends and former students. Thanks to Chris, Daryl, Steve and Nathan for orgainizing an efficient-run and interesting event.


Peter Dunn said...

Thanks for the update on the conference. School girl crush over Obama? I agree with your sentiments there.

Worship: I'd be interested in hearing more about this. I don't think the question of "contemporary" is the problem. Music is cultural, and therefore must be contextual if it is to have any meaning. The funniest thing I've seen in worship is Africans in Bangui singing, "Blanc, plus blanc que neige (bis)
Lavé dans le sang de l'Agneau,
Je serai plus blanc que la neige." First, it's a French hymn which leaves Africans culturally in the cold. Second, it uses a two metaphors that are inappropriate: None of the singers had ever seen snow (except the ones who had studied abroad and the missionaries); second, it is perhaps insensitive to for Africans to sing, "I will be more white than the snow." I would advocate contemporary, if contemporary means contextual. If not cutting ourselves off from past means being stuck singing only 18th and 19th century hymns, that too is problematic.
P. W. Dunn (saw an excerpt from this post at

jasonlocke said...

Dr. Carter

I was wondering if there was anything about the opening worship set that you felt to be of value? I'm curious because while there were things about it that I may not have chosen (and I was playing on the worship team), I also thought that there were some fairly thoughtful elements.


Craig Carter said...

Peter and Jason,
I don't mean to sound overly harsh about the worship. Please remember that I criticize myself in this matter - I attend a church and teach at a college in which this is the style of worship.

Yes there was some value. For one, I know it was sincere because I know many of those leading & participating and that counts for a lot with God. Also, I thought the lyrics were mostly good and biblical.

We have to make a basic decision
as to whether Marva Dawn is right when she says that our worship music (and liturgy as a whole including the prayers, Scripture readings, confession, Lord's Supper and so on) is not supposed to be chosen for the purpose of attracting unbelievers. If she is right, and I think she is, then we need to rethink everything from the ground up. Here is where I think contemporary "emerging church" trends criticize the seeker sensitive churches but actually imitate them by using contemporary music.

If the purpose is not attractional then there is no need for the liturgy to be all contemporary. There could be an eclectic mix. What should be the criteria for selection? Quality and suitability for re-telling the story of redemption in liturgical form. The resources of Robert Webber are immensely valuable here.

There is much more to say, but this is not the right forum. Let me just say that what I'm questioning is the whole shift that took place about 20-30 years ago in Evangelicalism toward contemporary rock music as the central element in the liturgy. Now, I did like all the songs in the opening worship - I'm a baby boomer after all & that is the pop music of my day. But I'm questioning the idea that the music I would pop into my car stereo for relaxation is necessarily the same music that works best in church.

Perhaps there should be more traditional liturgy in the main Sunday service and then the kind of music we saw on Sat. at events like conferences, youth rallies, special concerts, etc. That way we would have both - tradition and continuity, on the one hand, and contemporary "fun" music, on the other. I'm just concerned that the musical and liturgical riches of 20 centuries are being systematically and totally ignored in Evangelicalism.

jasonlocke said...

Thanks Dr. Carter for this explanation. I so often come across blogs which, at first glance, seem to generalize and lump worship leaders into unfair categories.

I think that you would be happy to know that among those you teach there is a developing appreciation for hymnody and even more ancient worship elements: silent reflection, office hymns and plainchant to name a few. I also think that people are revisiting the importance of celebrating the Eucharist on a more regular basis. As well, choirs are coming back into prominence - slowly.

I have suggested to Darryl and the guys that it might be of value to include some more formal liturgical elements in the worship sets since I think they really do help people offer worship to God. A scripture lesson or two (maybe one could be responsive), some thoughtful prayers, a call to wouldn't take much to enrich that which was offered on Saturday morning.

Let me also comment on Marva's statement that our worship style should not be chosen for the purpose of attracting people.

I am sometimes annoyed at the extent to which we dumb down the things we are doing in church as if we are going to make the sacred acts of worship accessible to every Tom, Dick and Harry that steps inside our front doors. I don't think they were ever meant to be that accessible from the start! People should be stepping into the church and experience people who are communally celebrating bizarre and mysterious things. But God's Spirit inhabiting our worship should be compelling enough to draw them inside of what is happening.

I think that excellence in worship for the sake of offering something excellent to God vs. drawing people into the church is tricky. It's a tightrope to walk. And it applies, also, to the preaching of the Word (of course another act of worship). In fact, I would argue, that when churches hire a senior pastor, this is one of their most important considerations...will this person keep the attention of and attract newcomers into the church.

I would just say that it is very easy to have this 'attraction mentality' in just about any of the ways we worship. But let's admit that attracting people could and should be a secondary or tertiary reason for making some the choices in worship we do. No one wants to let a string quartet accompany the hymns on Sunday morning if they refuse to tune their instruments. Because it is distracting to regular worshipers and an embarrassment should new people visit.

In this sense I am as comfortable with a rock band feel in worship (as long as it is enriched with prayers, confession, the Eucharist, scriptures, lots of participation) as much as I am comfortable with a good organist, a well prepared string quartet or the crystal palace's orchestra (they must be hired...gross). And I think that any of these approaches can be guilty of trying to attract people through style.

Well - that's probably enough for this morning. Thanks for the dialogue Dr. Carter.

Craig Carter said...

I find your perspective very encouraging and thoughtful. Keep on thinking and experimenting. I am very happy to hear your interest in more frequent celebration of the eucharist, in particular.

Peter Dunn said...

Good comments and I agree. We actually do that at Emmanuel Anglican (Richmond Hill), an eclectic mix. But we have too, since there are many older members of the congregation for whom the hymns on the organ are the bread and butter of worship. When I lead the more contemporary style music, I really like scripture songs. Also, we sing a lot of Jody Cross whose music I find refreshingly biblical. I tend to avoid songs the emphasize intimacy--some of which I find too feminine in spirituality ("Breathe", "Draw me close")--these songs are extremely popular, and I wonder if Marva Dawn would say they are for the worshipper's delight and not for God.

Ryan Klassen said...

Dr. Carter;

Thanks for your comments on the Evolving Church comment. I agree with your statement that the place of Jesus Christ, his death, resurrection and second coming was rather fuzzy in Walter Wink's lecture. However, I wonder if Wink wasn't re-mythologizing the Powers. He was very clear that the Powers were no simply the spirit or ethos of an organization, but rather the spiritual reality that exists alongside (but distinct from) the material reality. It seems to me that the demythologization took place with the denial of spiritual reality itself in classic liberal Protestantism, and Wink is trying to re-mythologize the Powers so as to re-introduce the reality of the spiritual aspect of creation.

The other area I found more promising than expected was Wink's premise on how the Powers could be redeemed. The redemption of the Powers only occurs through our death to them and their corruption, which seems to me to be a challenge rather than an endorsement, of the liberal Protestant political message. Unfortunately he only loosely related this to the death of Jesus. By tying his understanding of redemption through death more closely to Jesus' own death and resurrection, it seems that Wink's proposal on the redemption of the Powers could be even more of a challenge to liberal politics, replacing an essentially secular call to action with one that is based securely on the cross.

Anyway, I'd be interested in your thoughts.


Craig Carter said...

Thanks for two excellent questions. I have replied in a new post "Walter Wink, the Powers and the Mission of the Church." It is rather long and did not fit here. I hope you find it helpful.

NathanColquhoun said...

A few thoughts about worship.

I feel that we went out of our way to worship God many different ways. From the silence in the morning and evening, to the music and lyrics being chosen very specifically for the day (hymns, chorus' and modern rock songs), to the benediction to the prayers.

I had a few people that came up to me after the conference wanting the benediction just to end because they were horribly bored and felt that it was repetitive and meaningless. Meanwhile a few minutes later had a few other people say that they felt that during the benediction it was the only time that they could actually worship God.

The smoke machine....Gah...I can't respond much to that one but to say it was certainly not on our agenda to have a smoke machine.

Because of our preferences, I think we are skewed in our perspective of how we view worship, especially when it involves music. Why can't we appreciate all these different means of worship as opposed to picking our favourites and then trying to convince everyone else that they are the only true way to worship God. Why can't it be beautiful for a rock show, or a hymn sing, or a liturgy, or silence, or the Eucharist, or prayer, whether it attracts or repels unbelievers, to all be acceptable forms of worship?

Craig Carter said...

I agree with you that diversity in styles of worship is good. But I do not experience much diversity in Evangelical Christianity at the moment. There may even have been more diversity 35 years ago when I was teenager. Then we had formal Sunday morning worship with a choir, organs, hymns, responsive readings, Scripture and sermon. But we had a Sunday evening service with piano, gospel songs, testimonies, Scripture and sermon. At youth events and camp we had guitars, folk/rock type songs, testimonies, Scripture and sermons. (Note that Scripture and sermons were everywhere regardless of the musical styles.)

Today the formal Sunday morning service is gone, there are no Sunday evening services and the youth group music is now in almost every chapel and every Sunday worship service.

I see this as a result of the baby boomers bringing youth group into church to suit their preferences. Almost universally it was done in the name of attracting outsiders to church (usually Christians from other more traditional churches.)

Diversity? Bring it on.

NathanColquhoun said...

Agreed, you are correct in saying there isn't much diversity when taking all of Christian history into account. Give it time though, it will come, our views of diversity are much more subjective than I'd like them to be, which is why we had guys like Jason on the worship team which we felt would help bring even more. Maybe next time we'll put someone like you on the worship planning committee which will then help us be even more diverse.

Craig Carter said...

I'm glad to hear you are open to more diverse styles of worship. Now, the next step is to engage in some serious theological reflection on what worship is so that we can be discriminating with regard to separating the wheat from the chaff. The history of the church is littered with junk, as well as with precious gems.

Nathan, Jason and Anyone Else Interested in Worship,
I am starting a blog series on a book that I'm currently reading: "The Spirit of the Liturgy" by Joseph Ratzinger (published in 2000, five years before he was electe Pope). I'd appreciate any feedback you have to it as I go along.