Worship in a Postmodern Culture

Alan Roxburgh compares the lingering Christendom mindset among relevance-challenged clergy to a pleasure ride on the river Seine.  Picture, if you will, an ecclesiastical barge filled with graying church leaders, who, – between discussions about historical criticism, incomprehensible invocations, and hopelessly obtuse prayers – nod approvingly as the edifices of Christendom’s hegemony pass blissfully by.  Of course, this is a thoroughly virtual a world, as virtual as any fabricated by Star Trek’s infamous holodeck program.  Nonetheless, it is a world that still persists in the minds and practices of many a church leader, despite decades of seismic change.  As Spock would intone, “Fascinating.”
Some of us were either smart enough or desperate enough to switch holodeck programs in the eighties and nineties.  We figured our congregations wouldn’t make it to the third millennium unless we did.  And we were probably right, especially where worship practices are concerned.   The problem is, instead of landing in the “worship here and now”, we actually missed 2001 by two decades simply because our worship updates are either clones or derivatives of evangelical worship models freeze-dried and packaged sometime circa 1985.
Maggi Dawn, a United Kingdom theologian and pastor, claims, “You have to change to stay the same.”  In short, when we use the same form and language in worship, their meaning actually changes over time and becomes irrelevant.  Dawn believes that the challenge for the Church is, “…to engage thoroughly with the ancient and reinterpret it thorough the culture we now live (because) relevance is a thorough understanding of our tradition and a genuine “placedness” in our cultural situation.”  But she cautions that this is no superficial task.  “To be trendy has little or nothing to do with being relevant…To imagine that we can marry objective truth together with a cosmetic, surface understanding of our culture is a recipe for disaster.  We have to inhabit our culture (that’s what being human is) to interpret the eternal truths.”  Reference:  The Post Evangelical Debate  (Triangle, 1997), p.39, 45.
If we are going to help people to encounter God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier in 2001 and beyond, we are going to have to inhabit our culture at a much deeper level than has been suggested in the past twenty years.  We are going to have to go much farther than pop praise choruses, sitcom dramas, token prayers, and how-to messages.  Indeed, what Peter so naturally demonstrated in Acts 17:28 will need to become our norm:  faith communities that are fully conversant with the poets, the stories, the films, the music, the aesthetics and mindset of our time.   Creating sacred space in our postmodern culture  – a place of discontinuous change, deconstructed stories, decimated hope, knee-jerk irony, and ubiquitous self-doubt – will mean both unprecedented listening and uncompromised liturgy.   And it is this paradox that will occupy our learning with each other.  Let the dialogue begin!
Worship in a Postmodern Culture, Welcome and Part I
From: Sally Morgenthaler

Hello to each of you who have gathered with the EBA Community for a week of discussions about worship in a postmodern culture. Thanks for taking time from your very busy work and personal schedules to ponder, dialogue, and reimagine worship for a new day. I’m excited about what God is going to do among us and invite you to bring your wealth of experience, expertise, questions, concerns, doubts, visions, and to this electronic “bonfire.” I can’t promise s’mores, but I will share what I have gleaned in the past few years about engaging postmodern people with the God.
Just a bit about me. I am a worship planner, consultant, teacher, and writer on worship and culture issues. You may have read by book, Worship Evangelism, or come across my columns on popular culture and worship in both Worship Leader Magazine and RevMagazine. I’m currently working on a book for InterVarsity Press entitled, The Uncharted Now, which will be about worship in a post-print, post-humanistic age.
Since 1998, I have been part of the worship development of Pathways Church, an urban, “post-seeker-service” church in Denver where the average adult age is 28. It’s been a fabulous journey, one that has taken us down many roads we hadn’t anticipated. I will most likely share about some of those experiences as we journey together this week.
My faith background is Lutheran, which I come to appreciate more with each passing year. (I need to send this post to my mother!) I’ve also spent a great deal of time in various evangelical congregations, as well as seminary and college communities: Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Denver Seminary, and Covenant Bible College.
Colorado is home to me and my two children, Peder and Anna Claire. If you’re interested, you can check out the “About Sally” section on my website, www.sacramentis.com. A detailed bio is listed there.
My passion: engaging postmodern people with God in ways that transform, not just inform; ways that honor diverse learning styles and aesthetic languages; and lastly, not only relevance, but the essence of historic, Christian worship: engagement with the God, Incarnate in Jesus Christ. The focus of our discussion won’t be on worship trends, i.e., what’s hot, what’s cool, what’s next. Rather, the focus will be on effectiveness and faithfulness as the worshiping and evangelizing Church.



As we have rounded the bend of this millennium, and especially in the past two months, people in our communities are almost grasping for the sacred. How ironic, when so many of our cutting edge attempts at ministry were formed to reach rationalistic, irreligious, “non-spiritual” people. One has only to think of September’s memorial service in our National Cathedral and the hundreds of thousands of street memorials – worldwide – to see how much has changed. The question is, how can we as the Church begin recontexting the historic Gospel for this intensely spiritual, vulnerable, and – in an amazing, two-month twist – religiously curious culture? To begin, we’re going to explore a few of the spiritual and philosophical underpinnings of our postmodern age. We’ll only be able to scratch the surface here, so, as we dialogue this week, I encourage you to read Robert Webber’s Ancient-Future Church, chapters one and two – one of the most concise and helpful explanations of the postmodern shift.

Statesman and philospoher, Vaclev Havel,wrote an article a few years ago entitled, “The Search for Meaning in a Global Civilization.” His words seem only to have taken on fresh and incisive meaning since September 11, 2001. I use them here as an opener to our discussion.

“The dizzying development of science, with its unconditional faith in objective reality and its complete dependency on general and rationally knowable laws, led to the birth of modern technological civilization. It is the first civilization in the history of the human race that spans the entire globe and firmly binds together all human societies, submitting them to a common global destiny. It was this science that enabled man, for the first time, to see Earth from space with his own eyes, that is, to see it as another star in the sky. . At the same time, however, the relationship to the world that modern science fostered and shaped now appears to have exhausted its potential. It is increasingly clear that, strangely, the relationship is missing something. It fails to connect with the most intrinsic nature of reality, and with natural human experience. It is now more of a source of disintegration and doubt than a source of integration and meaning. It produces what amounts to a state of schizophrenia: Man as an observer is becoming completely alienated from himself as a being. Classical modern science described only the surface of things, a single dimension of reality. And the more dogmatically science created it as the only dimension, as the very essence of reality, the more misleading it became. Today, for instance, we may know immeasurably more about the universe than our ancestors did, and yet, it increasingly seems they knew something more essential about it than we do, something that escapes us. The same thing is true of nature and of ourselves. The more thoroughly all our organs and their functions, their internal structure and the biochemical reactions that take place within them are described, the more we seem to fail to grasp the spirit, purpose and meaning of the system that they create together and that we experience as our unique “self.”

And thus today we find ourselves in a paradoxical situation. We enjoy all the achievements of modern civilization that have made our physical existence on this earth easier in so many important ways. Yet we do not know exactly what to do with ourselves, where to turn. The world of our experiences seems chaotic, disconnected, confusing. There appear to be no integrating forces, no unified meaning, no true inner understanding of phenomena in our experience of the world. Experts can explain anything in the objective world to us, yet we understand our own lives less and less. In short, we live in the post-modern world, where everything is possible and almost nothing is certain.”

As I read Havel’s words, I can’t help picturing myself, my neighbors, and my community, reeling from recent events and struggling to make sense of a world that has now taken one more quantum leap moved beyond rationalism. Several of my neighbors come to mind, in fact. There have been many impromptu interchanges – as we continue to weed our little gardens and rake leaves – as to what it all means. I remember one discussion in particular with Maari, the twenty-five year old daughter of the Pakistani family on the corner. Several rounds of bullets were fired at her family’s home in the days following the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. (The sound of gunfire had indeed woken me up at 3:00 a.m.) Maari was certain at first that the shooting was just random, just a bunch of inebriated high schoolers with nothing better to do. Of course, that was not the case. Now she is scared. She had always thought of herself as an atheist (despite a Muslim upbringing), but now, she is desperately clinging to the hope that Someone, Somewhere, is in control. She has not yet responded to my invitations to come to church, but she is curious. In the meantime, we sip chai in my living room. In a few weeks, will make spend an afternoon together, preparing Pakistani somosas and curried rice for our two families (sort of a mid-eastern thanksgiving.) For Maari, sacred space is starting way outside the church sanctuary. What an amazing realization for this long-time worship professional: postmodern peoples’ engagement with God typically does not begin in a building. It begins in relationship.

Ok. Let’s say that’s a given. Just like in the movie, Chocolat. But, when Maari finally makes it through doors of a church, what kind of God and what kind of people will she encounter there? If she goes to the local “big-box” church, she will not see many people her age. She will not hear people praying or confessing. She will not anyone read the Christian Scriptures as the Koran is read in the mosque. She will not hear people say to each other what they believe about God. Neither will she experience a nano-second of silence, every moment in-filled with musical segues and/or spiritual commentary. She will, however, hear people sing lots of songs, most of which will be in a hyper-happy mode (“Jesus karaoke” as my Buddhist friend friend calls it). There will be a band up front, but the style will be totally alien to her ears: sort of like the eighties, but then again, not exactly.

I wonder if we ought not to extend our living room transition. I’m afraid that, once she goes, will she ever go back? Maari is at a crossroads in her life, but in many ways, she is invisible to the Church, both generationally and culturally. I wonder, why were so many churches in my community so unprepared to receive the spiritually famished in the past few months? We as leaders found ourselves scrambling, not only for what to say, but how to say it. How interesting that, in desperation, so many of us returned to the very churchy expressions we dumped in the past two decades: hymns, biblical narrative, corporate readings, litanies, lament, meditation, silence, and candle-lighting, to name a few. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if we’d been able to re-context some of those expressions in a multi-sensory, richly textured, and culturally sensitive environment.
Worship in a postmodern culture. It’s no longer the future. And it’s no longer about Gen X. It’s now, and it’s all of us.