Worship ’99: Buy incense now…

The worshippers may gather in a candle-lit sanctuary and follow a liturgy of ancient texts and solemn chants, while gazing at Byzantine icons.

The singing, however, will be accompanied by waves of drums and electric guitars and the result often sounds like a cross between Pearl Jam and the Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos. The icons, meanwhile, are digital images downloaded from the World Wide Web and projected on screens.

The people who are experimenting with these kinds of rites aren’t interested in the bouncy Baby Boomer-friendly megachurch praise services that have dominated American Protestantism for a generation. They want to appeal to teens and young adults who consider “contemporary worship” shallow and old-fashioned and out of touch with their darker, more ironic take on life. They are looking for what comes next.

It might be smart to buy incense now, before prices rise.

“People are trying all kinds of things trying to find an edge,” said the Rev. Daniel Harrell, a staff member of Boston’s historic Park Street Church who is active in ministry to the so- called “Generation X” and other young adults.

“They’ll go online and go to Brother Jim’s icon page. Then they right-click with a mouse, save some icons and they’re in business. The basic attitude is, ‘It’s old. It’s real. Let’s put it up on the screen and play a grinding grunge worship song. That’ll be cool.’ “

The result is what Harrell, writing in the journal Leadership, has called “post-contemporary worship.” If previous generations of free-wheeling Protestants have tried to strip away layers of tradition and ritual, in an attempt to appeal to modern people, some of today’s emerging church planters are trying to add a few doses of beauty and mystery. They are trying to create – on their own terms – new traditions out of the pieces of old traditions.

It helps to realize that almost every church found in an American telephone book has been buffeted, for several decades, by changes caused by television, rock ‘n’roll, the Internet and every other form of popular culture. Vatican II opened the door to neo-Protestant changes in Catholic hymnody and worship, while some influential Protestants have been digging into their ancient roots. Others have openly tried to incorporate elements of drama, humor and film into user-friendly services for the media age.

“While some churches are busy buying brand-new hymnals, others are discarding theirs, not to be replaced,” noted John Witvliet, director of the Institute of Christian Worship at Calvin College. “Some churches are approaching such changes eagerly and expectantly; others are embroiled in ‘worship wars.’”

If the Baby Boomers shunned churches that they thought were pompous and boring, then their pierced, tattooed and media-numbed children appear ready to shun churches that feel fake and frivolous. The key, according to Harrell, is that worship services must feel real. Services are judged to be authentic when they feel authentic.

“It’s not that feeling has totally replaced doctrine, or anything like that,” he said. “The people who are doing this have doctrine. In fact, they are usually very, very conservative – almost fundamentalist. But they may know little or nothing about the doctrines that actually go with the symbols and the rituals and the words they are using.”

The final product is uneven, to say the least. Protestant piety collides with Catholic language and Orthodoxy iconography is grafted into charismatic prayers. These experimental churches noted Harrell, are almost always based on a “free church” concept of government in which all decisions are local. A shepherd and his flock can change from one style of worship to another with a show-of-hands vote in a mid-week committee meeting, if they want to do so.

“So people are borrowing things from all of these traditions, often without realizing that some of these symbols and rites may even clash with each other,” he said. “It’s easy to be cynical about this, but they really are searching for something. They are borrowing other people’s images and rites and experiences, as part of their own search for something that feels authentic. They are trying to step into the experiences of others.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.