Here’s to Erasing a False Dichotomy!

Photo by Wil C. Fry, accessed through Flickr Creative Commons.

Photo by Wil C. Fry, accessed through Flickr Creative Commons.

Today the Robert Webber Institute for Christian Worship drew my attention to an article by Jonathan Aigner called “How to Make Worship Kid Friendly” published by patheos.com. As I am always interested in learning how to better facilitate multi-generational worship, I clicked through to read said article. My enthusiasm, however, quickly turned to frustration. Enough frustration to make me sigh audibly in a way that caused questions from those with whom  I was sharing a living room.

What Aigner has done here, (and I would encourage you to read the article by accessing the link above) is to provide some great ways in which parents and congregations can engage kids in “traditional” “liturgical” worship services. Unfortunately, rather than simply provide this very positive help, he has chosen to do so while also asserting not-quite subtly that “contemporary” worship “engages” kids at the cost of spiritual depth and personal growth. The underlying assumption is that “contemporary” worship uses modern entertainment as a “hook” to get young people in, but then doesn’t provide any transformative teaching or historical richness.

Interestingly… mid-way through his post, Aigner asserts:

The self-imposed contemporary/traditional worship dichotomy has had far-reaching negative effects on traditional worship. Instead of being a place for multi-generational participation, it’s been labeled as “old people worship and turned into a self-indulgent, “get all your blue-haired friends together” all-request golden oldies hour.

Yes. Absolutely. That has been the cost… on one side. Aigner seems to feel the debate has left “traditional” worship out in the cold (sorry, couldn’t resist.), while simultaneously spouting the opposite, equally damaging, generality: that all “contemporary” worship is empty and simply a lure to keep young people in the church.

I have worshiped, with depth, and with cultural relatively (for lack of a better phrase), in both “traditional” and “contemporary” congregations. My perception is that a tendency to blame or praise a style of worship for a common failing or beauty of worship generally portrays not the truth of whether or not worship is scriptural, or alive, or transformative, but rather the personal preferences of the one speaking.

I chose to respond to the article in a comment,* but have expanded into a blog post in order to seek your wisdom in the matter. There are also many good points and creative ideas in Aigner’s article–which is possibly why I’m so annoyed. Am I over-reacting? I throw it to you, readers. Please read the original article before commenting here. My comment below the article is included here:

I agree with the premise of this article, that kids don’t need “contemporary” in order to connect in worship. I, myself, grew up in a liturgical church—and, even as a kid, loved going to church. Sometimes it felt long… sometimes I was distracted or bored (my childhood church also kept kids in during the sermon!), but the difficulties yielded results in perseverance and attentiveness and richness that I’m still reaping today. You have also identified some key ways in which parents (and other community members) can help kids to engage in worship within a more traditional structure. I am disappointed, however, that you felt the need in this article to set traditional/contemporary once again at logger-heads, painting all churches within those very generalized categories with the same brush. The fact is, contemporary worship is only empty when we make it empty. Not every church that would describe itself as contemporary has “sold-out” to popular entertainment values. And traditional worship is only full when we bring our full selves to it. Not every traditional church is alive to the life in their liturgy. Yes, I would absolutely affirm that kids can be engaged in traditional worship—that they don’t need hype and volume in order to be involved—but can’t we also affirm that kids can be engaged with depth, and without dumbing-down, and without catering to increasingly shortening attention spans in both traditional and contemporary congregations? Why make it a dichotomy?

*Update: My comment was apparently unfit to be post under the article, which I find additionally disappointing.

6 Comments

  1. I heartily agree with the danger of creating a false dichotomy in worship. Maybe there is more theological depth to some historical hymns since we have is residue of the best that have survived, but I also know there is a lot of richness in some contemporary worship songs. Not every song is meant to convey theological richness alone. How about the emotional richness that many choruses today convey? That is also a valid expression of worship based on my reading of the Psalms. Maybe we are in danger of binary thinking here instead of seeing Christian worship on a continuum through the ages with each age seeking to address present needs and sometimes forgetting what it has already received as a rich heritage. After all, each generation of worship songs and hymns was at one time new and contemporary, and the present new will with the passing of time become the next generation’s traditional worship. I choose to be blessed by the best of every age and generation. Churches that present that to their congregations teach them a proper sense of appreciation and balance for the church’s heritage, but also that God’s Spirit is still being creative in the church.

    Reply

    1. Great point, Don! I especially like the idea of viewing Christian worship as “a continuum through the ages with each age seeking to address present needs.” “Choosing to be blessed” is also key–we can sit in church with our arms folded and a frown firmly cemented into our faces… but then we miss joy and community and the gifts that a given expression of worship offers us through the Spirit.

      Reply

  2. Thank you, this is the second article that I have read by you that I consider deeply helpful regarding worship. I am also extremely tired of articles on worship that lifts up a personal preference as the gospel truth. If we continue to think of “our” worship as correct, we will insulate ourselves against the needs of a community to include each others needs (and the needs of those not yet amongst us) in worship.

    I find a thought that explains this really well. The Bible is most often a “why” book and not a “how” book. Asking why is often the way forward. Why do we worship? Because we live lives of adoration toward a Lord and Savior who has poured new life into us. It is his salvation in which we partake. It is ours only after it was provided. Asking how we worship almost always ends up at personal preference. Personal preference has some value, but is not ever to be valued over our relationships with others.

    Thanks again, Stacey. Just like in days of yore–you rock.

    Reply

    1. Yes, Dave! Although I would make it even more basic: we worship because God is. I continuously remind my students that “God always moves first”–we only respond… and that is Christian worship. Back at you re: rocking!

      Reply

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