One principle has shaped this series on an alternative way of worship in progressive churches: in progressive churches, as in all other Christian communities, the basic outline for worship begins with classic texts, constructive interpretation, and prayerful conversation with God about life in the world.
These three elements provide the structure for worship that combines human experience in the post-modern world with faith in the God whom we see and understand most clearly in the life and ministry of Jesus. By focusing attention on these structural components, I am strongly persuaded, pastors, musicians, and other worship leaders will be able to develop and lead worship that is experientially aware of God, seriously attentive to the intellectual, ethical, and cultural issues of life, and capable of making a difference in the lives of people all along life’s spectrum.
Because this approach gives high priority to ideas, it easily leads to worship that is intellectual and abstract, as some of the comments to the series have mentioned, worship that is too much of the head and too little of the heart. Where is the emotion? The excitement? The life-changing passion? This worship may suit the professors and clergy who are institutionally protected from the harsh reality of life that many people must face every day. But what about everyone else, especially the young, the artistic, the happy-go-lucky, the people who are lucky in love and those who are facing the prospects of life by themselves in a world that seems to work only for those who are teamed up in unbreakable bonds of affection?
To put the challenge another way, the classic structure, which is connected to the enduring theological tradition and intellectual universe, needs to be filled out with rich detail that that connects it to real life in the real world. Liturgical structure has to be matched with experiential style—with music, ceremony, and ritual that are shaped by cultural, generational, and geographical factors. At some future date, I hope to address these topics, since they too are vital in any church that seeks to develop what I earlier in the series referred to as “the something other service,” one that moves beyond conventional worship and conventional Christianity.
A second challenge also faces every progressive church as it prepares and offers worship suitable for our time. It is to answer the two perennial questions: Who is Jesus Christ? How does he enter into the process by which we are reconciled to God? I am aware of congregations with long histories of progressive theological witness and missional presence in the communities that are coming unhinged as they confront these questions.
This challenge comes into sharpest focus in classic liturgies for celebrating the eucharist. The words of institution and standard prayers of thanksgiving and consecration say things that grate against some congregants in progressive churches. The conclusion reached by some is that they can conduct the traditional ceremonies with “the bread of heaven” and “the cup of salvation” only if they do away with body and blood language, sacrificial concepts, forgiveness related to the death of Jesus on the cross, and any talk of resurrection that is real.
Later in the year, I intend to address these two challenges—liturgical style and the salvific heart of eucharistic worship. An alternative way of worship in progressive churches requires that they be treated seriously and persuasively.