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Authentic Worship in a Changing World: What's Next?
What's next in worship?This article studies the past and present in worship styles and predicts future directions.

My Father was born in 1900, grew up on a farm in Ohio, went by covered wagon with his parents across the U.S.A. and settled in Oregon. As a young man he went to school in Chicago, later served as a missionary and a pastor and died in 1985. Why did I tell you this?

I did so to illustrate that someone who has lived through most of the twentieth century has lived within changes that have moved through the agricultural, industrial, technological and into the informational society. In one century there has been more change than in all the known history of the world!

While most of us living today have not gone through all these vast changes, we can see it all around us. I was particularly struck, for example, with the confluence of all these social periods in a recent trip to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Wherever I drove there were visual images of farms, industry, and new technological businesses. Horse drawn carriages mingled with cars, vans & trucks as we wound our way through small roads with working farms and bustling malls side by side.

Worship has reflected this change. Briefly, all churches observed a traditional form of worship from 1900-1960. Then came the sixties. The revolution of the sixties and seventies were all very visible. The rise of secular humanism, the change into a more informal society, the music revolution, the political upheaval, the breakdown of the family, the emergence of sexual promiscuity, the overthrow of traditional values, the spread of violence, gangs and drugs as well as the emergence of cultural diversity and demands for power and recognition were all daily headline news. In this context the contemporary worship movement gained momentum and visibility and drew crowds that found traditional forms of worship boring and irrelevant. The boomers, born between 1946-1981 rejected tradition and led the charge to reinvent the wheel of the church and its worship. They were confident that the past was of no value and the future was an open highway with no barriers for the new revolutionary ways of a church free from the shackles of tradition.

This emergence of contemporary worship reflects and is integrated with the rise of cultural pluralism. Today churches are known by their style of worship as much asthey are known by their particular denomination. But since 1990 the rise of postmodern thought, the post-Christian society and Neo-pagan values have introduced new elements into the future of worship. This article looks at these new revolutions and inquires about the shape of future worship, a worship that goes beyond the contemporary worship of 1960-1990.

New Movements of Change

For many the world has stood still since the sixties. Not so. In the past forty years there have been new revolutions of thought taking place which have been identified as postmodern. The consequences of these new movements are now becoming widely discernable. They have created a whole new cultural setting in which the Christian message and its worship must be reformed.

The most important of these movements are those revolutions that have created a postmodern way of thinking …

The most important of these movements are those revolutions that have created a postmodern way of thinking; the changes that have moved us from a Christendom mentality to a recognition that the church now lives in a post-Christian era and must become missional in North America, and the shift into a Neo-pagan world where Christian values, especially the sanctity of life, have been eroded. The particulars of this change have been dealt with previously (see Dennis Okholm, Theology Matters, Vol 5, No. 4, Jul/Aug, 1999), so it is not my purpose to go over that material. Rather, I will concentrate on the current social and theological responses to postmodern thought, the post-Christian setting and Neo-pagan values now occurring. There are hopeful signs for those involved in ministry and worship and that is the particular subject of my writing.

Sociological Changes

It has been common for church growth leaders to say "If you don't go mega-church and contemporary in your worship, you will not survive into the twenty-first century." What these leaders are not taking into account is that history moves forward, but in cycles. Sociologist Francis Fukuyama calls the period between 1960-1990 The Great Disruption (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999). There are, he says "signs...that the Great Disruption that took place from the 1960's to the 1990's is beginning to recede" (p.7) and that "the process of reforming has already begun" (p.271). His research suggests a return to religion "because the absence of community and the transience of social ties in the secular world makes them hungry for ritual and cultural tradition" (pp.278-279). William Strauss and Neil Howe in The Fourth Turning (New York: Broadway Books, 1997) argue for a seasonal rhythm of history that demonstrates how every fourth generation returns to the values of the first generation. The fourth turning is "a decisive era of secular upheaval, when the values regime propels the replacement of the old civic order with a new one" (p.3). The fourth turning "ends one epoch and begins another" (p.6). It always follows an "unravelling" in which individualism is strengthened and institutions are weakened, when "the old civic order decays and the new values regime implants" (p.3). This fourth turning will occur through the leadership of the Millennial youth (born since 1981) and the "twenty somethings," especially those under twenty-five. The leadership of these Millennials will be a "back to tradition" thrust. They will "resurrect the old ritual of happy group singing, from old campfire favourites to new tunes with simple melodies and upbeat lyrics" (p.294). They will become "more mannerly, civic spirited," they will "lead a renaissance in student decorum and appearance," they will be "seekers of order and harmony," they "will not rebel, but will instead mobilize for public purpose" (p. 294).

Recently, both Newsweek (May 8, 2000) and U.S. News & World Report (April 17, 2000) ran positive cover feature articles on the Millennial generation (those born after 1981). The Newsweek (NW) article is on "What Teens Believe" and the U.S. News & World Report (USN) article is titled "The Good News about Teens." The evidence does show that teen arrests, drug use, pregnancy and school dropout rates are down (USN, p. 48). This may be due to the fact that parents of teenagers have become more attentive to parenting relationships. For example, the Institute of Health Study "found that kids who feel connected to home, family and school are better protected from violence, suicide, sexual activity and substance abuse" (USN, p. 48). While the church is not mentioned in the study, it is safe to assume that kids involved in church youth groups will be protected even more from involvement in destructive behaviour.

This search for faith "may be the generations most important signature … "

In addition to the more positive profile of the teenager, three specific characteristics stand out and demand our attention. The first of these profiled in both articles is the revival of religion and interest in spirituality. Conrad Cherry, the director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University reports: "Prayer circles and faith-based groups like True Love Waits or Fellowship of Christian Athletes have proliferated in high schools and college campuses like so many WWJD bracelets. Christian rock festivals and CDs rival their secular counterparts, bringing the message out of the pulpit and into the mosh pit and tattoo tent" (NW, pp. 61-2). But, for the most part, these teens are not looking for absolute truth like their postmodern counterparts; they cross denominational lines, even religious lines moving among Christian, Jewish and Oriental religions with ease as they embrace "eclecticism" and act as "consumers in the broadcast marketplace of belief systems" (NW, p. 62). This search for faith "may be the generations most important signature" and is "more important than fashions, tastes or even behaviour," says William Damon, director of the Center on Adolescence at Stanford University (NW, p. 63).

The second characteristic of Millennial youth is their commitment to service. The U.S. News (USN) reports "about a quarter of all high school students today regularly perform community service, while an additional 40 percent do so occasionally" (p. 50). Newsweek estimates teen service even higher, suggesting that "as many as a 60 percent do some kind of community service, primarily through faith-based organizations" (p.63).

The matter of ethnicity is the third characteristic of the young. Newsweek felt this was such an important shift that an entire article was devoted to the subject. In "Color My World," the magazine points out the general teen attitude toward race as an "outdated institution." Statistics seems to bear this out: "Thirty years ago, only one in every 100 children born in the United States was of mixed race. Today the number is one in 19" (p. 70). Liz Short, the daughter of a white serviceman and Korean mother, sums up the new attitude: "Just look around. It's great! Nobody is plain white, or plain black, or plain anything. Eventually, I'm hoping every place will be like this" (NW, p. 74).

And so, how does this all add up? What do these trends say to us about ministry to youth and our worship? It says teens are open to the supernatural, ready to commit their lives to a cause they can believe in, ready for a leadership that sees the Christian church as made up of many tribes and nations, a church that is intergenerational and intercultural. What will reach these youth and draw them into faith? The baby boomer words and phrases were "big," "flashy," "slick," "entertaining," and "what's in it for me?" The Millennial words are "real," "genuine," "relational," "honest," and "what can I do for others?"

How will this shift impact ministry and worship? At this point a new door has opened. When we walk through that door we better be ready. It's a very, very different world than that of the Boomers. Its worship will be different than what we now know as contemporary worship.

Theological Changes

In addition to the sociological changes currently taking place, there are some very significant shifts taking place in theological thinking in response to the postmodern world. These changes will affect postmodern worship.

This same spirit of "let's return to the tradition" is found in recent theological responses to postmodern thought. There is a general "weariness" with the theological innovations stemming from the sixties. George Lindbeck in The Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1984) signals the future of a post-liberal Christianity in which "church doctrines are communally authoritative teachings regarding beliefs and practices that are considered essential to the identity or welfare of the group in question....They indicate what constitutes faithful adherence to a community" (p. 74). Noted patristic scholar Robert Wilken in Remembering the Christian Past (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995) concludes his book with an appeal to return to the tradition. "The Christian intellectual tradition" he writes "is inescapably historical" (p.179).... "the Christian intellectual is...bound to those persons and ideas and events that have created the Christian memory" (p.180).

This same theme of "return to the tradition" is taken up by the movement of "radical orthodoxy" which has recently taken the theological world by surprise. The writings of John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and others are turning modern theological opinions inside out. Milbank criticizes the modern attempt to shore up faith through the social sciences and declares theology as the "Queen of the sciences." He argues that "theology has frequently sought to borrow from elsewhere a fundamental account of society or history, and then to see what theological insights will cohere with it." Rejecting this approach to faith, Milbank argues, "It is theology itself that will have to provide its own account of the final causes at work in human history, of the basis of its own particular, and historically specific faith" (Theology and Social Theory, Oxford: Blackwell, 1990, p. 380).

Evangelicals are also becoming increasingly suspicious of the "fluff" of recent decades …

Evangelicals are also becoming increasingly suspicious of the "fluff" of recent decades and the failure of evangelicals to have a more biblically and historically rooted faith. Recent evangelical writings like Eddie Gibbs, Church Next: Quantum changes in how to do ministry (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000), James Cutsinger, Reclaiming the Great Tradition (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997), George Hunsberger & Craig Van Galder, The Church between Gospel & Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), George Hunter III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000) and D.H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999) all speak the same message: The road to the future runs through the past.

What I see in the church right now is the confluence of the new sociological trends to return to a more traditional way of life with the new theological thrust to return to the tradition of faith, especially the faith of classical Christianity expressed by the Fathers of the church, the ancient ecumenical creeds, and the practices of worship & spirituality found in the great traditions of the faith. My final question is this: how does this confluence of sociology and theology to return to the past affect the future of worship?

The Future of Worship

I first became aware of the convergence between sociological change and classicism in 1999. In order to determine how this might affect worship I did a survey among 176 "twenty somethings" from 38 states, 14 countries and 41 denominations. These were evangelical students in Wheaton College and Graduate School. My purpose was to find out what kind of leadership we could expect from this group of people affected by a post-1990 "renorming of society" and the post-2000 interest in returning to a more classical understanding of theology.

First, the survey was written in such a way that I could discover what the twenty somethings and their Millennial followers do not want in worship. Here is my interpretation of the negative data:

  1. There seems to be a general reaction against the contemporary worship style. The highest negative response was given to entertainment worship (87%), to contemporary worship (48%) and to the music associated with this form of worship such as the band (63%), drums (59%), keyboard (56%) and guitar (38%).

  2. There also seems to be a general dislike of the style of worship we associate with the 1950's traditional worship of the boosters. This shows up in the negative response to the choir (40%), the organ (38%), the neutral attitude toward hymns (28%) and ancient prayers (26%) which were probably associated with traditional worship.

Second, questions were asked to provide insight into the new directions the next generation of leadership will take. Here are nine conclusions from the survey:

  1. The strongest and deepest desire of the twenty something worshiper is to have a genuine encounter with God (88%). Worship that is authentic and real, not glitzy and showy takes first place.

  2. This longing for an encounter with God is not merely a desire for an individualistic encounter, but one that takes place within the context of community (88%). The experience of "being-in-community" is essential to good worship.

  3. It follows that there is high concern to recover depth and substance in worship (87%). This new generation is tired of "fluff" and is drawn to depth in music, prayers and sermons.

  4. That there is a deep desire to return to a more frequent and meaningful experience of communion should be no surprise. For here is where a deep substance filled encounter with God is most fully experienced on the personal level (86%). This generation is communicated to through rich symbols that communicate life-changing experiences.

  5. Another significant way in which we are encountered by God shows up in the demand for challenging sermons (69%) and more use of scripture (49%). This generation wants to know what "God has to say" about me and the world.

  6. Worship of the future will be more participatory. Worship is not a lecture or a concert done to us or for us. Authentic worship is done "by" us. We are the players, God is the audience (73%). No more concerts, Please!

  7. It is not surprising that this generation wants a more creative use of the senses (51%). The current communication revolution has shifted us toward a participation that is more visual. This generation wants to "see it, touch it, taste it, smell it, hear it."

  8. Worship will become more quiet, characterized by more contemplative music and times for quiet personal reflection and intimate relationship with God (58%). This generation is tired of all the noise and wants some down time, some quiet.

  9. Worship will focus more on the transcendence and otherness of God (45%) even as the demand for an encounter with the nearness of God remains high (88%). This generation is tired of the "god in my pocket" syndrome and wants to encounter the God who is beyond knowing.

Third, the question remains: What are we to make of this survey? Let me conclude with several observations.

  1. First, I called my friend and publisher of Worship Leader, Chuck Fromm, to share the results of this survey with him and I want to share his insight which I found helpful. It was this: "Worship," he said, "should always be contemporary." He went on to say this: "By contemporary, I don't mean 1960's contemporary, but contemporary in the sense that it is always being incarnated into the current cultural situation. Our culture is changing, so it is no surprise that our worship tastes and style is changing as well." Chuck's response is the key to understanding the future and to getting ready for it.

  2. The current change in worship taste and style is indeed a reflection of our shift into a postmodern world. The cultural world of 2000 is very different than that of the 60's and 70's. It is a culture tired of noise, turned off by phoniness, sick of glitz, and wary of the superficial. It is a culture searching for an authentic encounter with God, longing for depth and substance, craving quiet and spiritual contemplation and moved by visual, visible, tactile forms of communication.

  3. I don't interpret the negative responses to music of contemporary worship as a rejection of the use of the band, keyboard, guitar, piano and worship team, nor do I interpret the negative attitude toward the organ and choir as a rejection of the more traditional elements of worship. Rather, I think what is being said is this: We are tired of playing the worship game - traditional or contemporary. What we want is an authentic experience of worship, an encounter with God that has life changing results. What we don't want is phoney, loud entertainment worship or dead ritualistic worship.

  4. All these styles of music and instruments will still have a place in worship so long as they serve the goal of achieving a genuine encounter with God characterized by depth and substance.


In this brief article I have attempted to show that there needs to be some suspicion cast on the overemphasis of a worship that is driven by the market and caters to a culture-driven pop form.

If I am right about the future impact of the current sociological trend to return to more traditional ways, and the current interest in recovering a more classical shape of faith, then it seems inevitable that the convergence of these trends will be reflected in the leadership of the next generation.

Where will they take us? My sense of history, my general knowledge of the worship renewal movements of the twentieth century and the shift currently taking place within the leadership of the new generation suggest we can see the birth of a new kind of worship. I call it "ancient liturgy with a contemporary flare."

Space does not permit the full development of this kind of worship. But let me suggest that future worship will be Catholic, Reformed, Evangelical and Charismatic. It will be Catholic in the recovery of transcendence, greater attention to ritual as performative symbol, more attention to ceremony, the space in which worship takes place and more frequent celebration of the Eucharist; it will be Reformed in its attention to the Word and the recovery of strong preaching; it will be Evangelical in its emphasis on the recovery of the Christian meta-narrative in structure, song, preaching, and Eucharistic prayer; it will be Charismatic in its attention to presence, the role of the gifts in worship and to the ritual of healing.

Finally, it is well to remember we live in a pluralistic world. All the styles of worship we currently know will continue to exist, some to even flourish. Ancient liturgy with a contemporary flare may not be the dominant style, but there are, as I have attempted to show, both sociological and theological changes that suggest its appearance and viability in a postmodern world. Each congregation needs to be open to how God, the Spirit, is leading their particular church. The ultimate and most important thing a congregation can do is to be real, authentic and genuine, and be open to God's leading as they listen to the text of Scripture and of culture.

Robert Webber has written extensively on worship and does the "Authentic Worship in a Changing World: What's Next?" workshops in cities throughout North America.




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