Conflict in the Quadrilateral
Each of the four elements of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral — Scripture, tradition, reason and experience — is often in conflict, not only with all the others, but even with itself. Some Scriptures say God forgives all sin; others say God doesn't. Our church's teachings on baptism and the ordination of gays are in conflict. We experience conflicting truths. This is not bad. It's how God speaks to us. We encounter perspectives in conflict with what we thought we knew, and that draws us into paying closer attention to God. So the need is not to quell the conflicts, but to create an environment in which it's safe for people to experience them, to wrestle with the angels. What's needed is a place where it is safe to believe what we believe and also to question it — to express what we trust to be true, even as we listen for what has not yet been revealed to us.
And one such place is in worship. Worship needs to be designed and conducted in such a way that people are safe drawing near to God, knowing that the community will support them and not attack them, judge them, or interfere with them. (It's scary enough to face the living God!) Worship itself ought to be a sanctuary — a safe place. Only in a safe place can people work out all those inner conflicts between their tradition and experience, or between our ways and God's ways, or between guilt and grace. Worship should help people trust — trust Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience; trust their own theologizing; trust one another; trust their inner conflicts; and trust the worship itself.
One barrier to trust can be an emphasis on certain styles, fads, or "isms" that divide or exclude people, that create conflicts instead of bringing people closer together to one another and to God. Good worship transcends styles and makes all worshipers feel that they belong to God and to God's community, regardless of the style of music or flavor of theology they like. It's hard, but not impossible. Worship can be prophetic and discomforting without being threatening. It can proclaim a truth boldly without rudely insulting those who do not see it. It can be evangelical without being fundamentalist, open-minded without being wishy-washy, traditional without being stodgy, contemporary without being faddish. The key is identifying what's absolute, above and beyond all the conflicts — whether it's between traditional or contemporary, Scripture and reason, or the organist and the choir director.
I think what's absolute is God's grace. The integrity of our worship is not in the style of its music, or in the settings, words, order of service, or any other details. It's in the sincerity and clarity with which we proclaim God's grace and invite people to find their place in the salvation story. The challenge, and the promise, is to discover the love of Jesus that holds us all together, that transcends all our dignified dysfunctions, that makes us one despite our sibling squabbles.
Such worship will be a safe place for our holy conflicts to unfold. There are no silver bullets to cure the disdain between praise bands and Brahms lovers, or the lack of men in worship, or finance committees who charge choirs rent, or crazy pastors who single-handedly haul off and disband choirs. Ultimately, the key is not in any ideological trump card; nor is it even in the planning of worship. It is in the tending of souls. It's not enough to pick the right hymns or market worship the right way. We have to actually love one another. When we root ourselves and our worship in God's love, not just as a doctrinal theme, but as a way of treating one another, then people experience grace. And that — and nothing less — is the point. The key is always to ask, "What will help people experience God's grace?" When we love one another with God's love, then we can weather any conflicts. If Jesus is in the boat, then despite the storms, it won't sink.