The above is a shortened version of a longer question that came to the Center for Worship Resourcing:
In my conference, contemporary worship continues to grow in popularity — especially in large-membership churches like my own. My question is one of polity and discipline. Are there written guidelines or policies in The United Methodist Church that govern contemporary worship? If so, where do I find them?
Answer: The short answer is that currently there are no denominational standards that specifically address and govern contemporary worship. We are aware of the growing phenomenon of contemporary worship. For a more in-depth response to the question, read on.
What a great question! And how thin you may find the answer! (For an interpretation of thin, see the end of this article.)
First, contemporary worship is a very "squishy" word. In its most general sense, all worship that is truly worship is contemporary because it is now and God is here. In its more narrow sense, contemporary worship is almost synonymous with baby boomer "Praise and Worship" music with message and use of digital technology in place of books (hymnals, Bibles, and so on) — the older technology.
Second, contemporary worship is largely a phenomenon that developed in nondenominational churches. This approach to worship had such immediate appeal and success that mainline denominational churches, such as United Methodist congregations, quickly adopted it. So contemporary worship did not and does not have United Methodist imprimatur! It is just happening.
Third, United Methodist worship has — and always has had — a kind of de facto freedom and diversity about it. Congregations develop their own subculture and ethos, while carrying the "franchise" on the sign out front. Increasingly, some of our churches are dropping the "franchise" to appear less parochial and institutional. Intended or not, they are distancing themselves from the annual conference and General Conference. Where this is leading is not known, but it doesn't take much to recognize that our sense of cohesiveness and discipline is on the wane as this trend increases.
Fourth, United Methodist worship (going back to 1784 and the organizing Christmas Conference) has always had a liturgical base (I call it "home") in the ritual of the church. We are by the constitution of the church (Discipline, the "Restrictive Rules," ¶¶ 16-20) bound doctrinally to the Articles of Religion and the other sources of authority. The Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith have some pretty clear markers for United Methodist worship; namely, that we are a sacramental church. Baptism and the Lord's Supper are foundational, if not central, to our worship and identity. General Conference has legislative power over all matters "distinctively connectional" (¶ 15), so it has authority "to provide and revise the hymnal and ritual of the Church and to regulate all matters relating to the form and mode of worship, subject to the limitations of the first and second Restrictive Rules" (¶ 15.6).
Citing these paragraphs may sound rather harsh, cold, and irrelevant to most United Methodists. However, I maintain that we can do contemporary worship because we have our "home" in both in the ritual of the church and in its hymnody. When someone dies, we have ritual for the funeral. When someone gets married, we have ritual for the wedding. When Christmas or Easter comes, we have ritual for these times when the heart longs for home. Actually, some churches that have fully embraced contemporary worship are reintroducing what I am calling "home" into those services.
Fifth, United Methodist clergy pledge in the ordination service to "accept its [the UMC's] order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God's Holy Word" (The United Methodist Book of Worship [BOW], 676). Elders and deacons, along with the bishops, are committed to the liturgy of the church. I don't say that to slam-dunk the matter; rather, I cite it because it is high time for Christian conferencing among the elders in each annual conference to discern where the risen Lord is leading us with respect to our order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, and how we are to enact stewardship of these aspects of our life together. The ordained leaders of the church have been given authority to "preach the Word of God and to administer the Holy Sacraments" (BOW, 678). It is crucial that we seek to be faithful in exercising that charge.
Does the worship in our churches (whatever the adjectives we attach to it — traditional, contemporary, creative, liturgical) embody the fullness of our faith and life as United Methodist Christians? Is it worship? Or is it evangelism? Does our worship adequately focus on God and the Word of God? Does the Word lead to encounter with the risen Lord, who is both the host and the food received and known at the Table? Does the experience of worship have roots in our doctrine and discipline? Are we forming disciples in the ways we worship? Or are we creating a church of consumers of liturgical commodities? How do we translate our liturgy in a period of a huge shift from a literate culture to a digital culture? These are questions that we need to be discussing in the orders and in our churches if we are to uphold our commitments in ordination. What if your annual conference order of elders discussed these matters, particularly Article XXII of the Articles of Religion and Article XIII of the Confession of Faith?
Certainly, the Discipleship Ministries and the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry staff, along with the bishops, could promulgate some guidelines. Probably we should, but not to coerce or constrain the clergy and laity of the church in a top-down fashion. The Communion document,This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion will (like its companion document By Water and the Spirit) offer guidance and provoke and stimulate conversation in local churches, in the orders of ministry, in annual conferences, and in seminaries. Clearly, missionary discipleship requires that liturgy be contextualized and thought through faithfully by those charged with its leadership. Worship is central to empowering and forming the missionary community in relationship to the triune God.
Sixth, currently there are no standards that specifically address and govern contemporary worship. There has been a lot of hand wringing on the part of liturgical purists who worry that we are "throwing the baby out with the bath water." I have been one of them. There are others who are very defensive about their style of worship (the so-called contemporary), and they have thrown off the traces and restraints of historic, sacramental worship, and said, "Bye, bye!" Maybe it is time for repentance of partisanship around styles of worship and a fresh reconsideration of what is the fullness of the gospel. How do we retrieve from the varied styles that which will unleash faithful praise and prayer? How might such retrieval nourish missionary disciples?
We, the staff of the Center for Worship Resourcing, are committed to resourcing this journey toward faithful and vital worship. It is a long journey. There is so much we don't yet know. There is a lot of experimentation going on; a lot of trial and error; a lot of discovery. Some experiments will fail miserably by the criterion of faithfulness, even though they may succeed short-term and by the criterion of numbers. We need to learn from the failures. Some will measurably strengthen congregations as disciple-forming communities over the long-term. We need to learn from them. I recently told an editor at the United Methodist Publishing House that I thought it was too soon to consider a new Book of Worship or a revision of our general services (baptism, Holy Communion, marriage, funeral, daily praise and prayer) because we are in such flux. We don't yet know where all this will sift out. Emerging trends and styles may be in sight, but new ritual is not even on the horizon. Those committed to Baby Boomer contemporary worship are already becoming uncomfortable as they realize that many of the Gen X and Millennial generations do not connect with that worship style. Teaching churches and worship consultants abound. We need to engage them, listen to them, learn from them, and test them against the treasures and bedrock foundations of who we are and have been as God fearers for 2000 years and in all cultures.
Is worship changing? Yes. Should it abandon the core? Most would say, "No, but . . . " The "but" is where we are right now.
Thanks for your question. I have answered it with more questions. I mentioned "how thin the answer" would be. Let me elaborate now. The Celts spoke of "thin places" — places where the distance between heaven and earth seemed to be shorter. Those became holy places. What if we sat down together across the church and prayed:
O God, merciful forever,
how great your holiness, love and power.
Help us to know how to worship you in Spirit and Truth.
Help us to stop thinking of worship as something that we manufacture;
something that we "do to" or "do for" others.
Help us to sit in your Presence,
to use all of the means of grace,
and then, like the scribes (Matthew 13: 51-53) trained for the Kingdom,
bring out from your treasure house what is new and what is old;
what is contemporary and what is old as dirt
that we may delight at last in you and you only,
and so, be transformed from one stage of glory to another,
and all creation resound with your praise.
I am glad you are asking the questions. Continue to be an apologist for worship that is contemporary with the very best flare and rootedness you can muster. Let us not be afraid of the way forward, for it is a thin place if Love leads us there.