Reaching out without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-Century Culture

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Why do churches fight “Worship Wars?” Why do discussions about how to conduct worship often split into two vitriolic polarities over “traditional” versus “contemporary” styles or into two opposing camps, such as organists/ guitarists, baby boomers/elders, returnees/loyalists or clergy/musicians? These “worship wars” prevent us from being the Church.

In Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, Marva Dawn writes to help local parishes and denominations think more thoroughly about worship and culture so that they can function effectively in contemporary society. She roots her discussion of worship issues in a careful assessment of significant aspects of the present technological, boomer, post-modern society and names criteria by which to judge the various cultural influences. She then sketches essential attributes of worship. Dawn recognizes that the vitality and faithfulness of our personal and corporate Christian lives and the effectiveness of our outreach to the world depend on the character that is formed in individuals and communities.

How can churches best reach out to society without “dumbing down” this essential character formation? Dawn discusses music, preaching, and all the accouterments of worship and offers practical suggestions for choosing the best tools and forms to deepen worship life, nurture faith development, and increase believers' outreach throughout the universal church and to the world.

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Editorial Reviews

Bibliotheca Sacra
"Few books on worship are as articulate, thought-provoking, well researched, and prophetic as this volume.... Dawn displays a broad awareness of the popular trends and conclusions presented in contemporary church growth literature as her quotations, discussion, and ample footnotes demonstrate."
CBA Bookstore Journal
"Dawn's perspective on worship is refreshingly theocentric.... An interesting work that addresses a key topic for Christians."
Christian Century
"In her warmly encouraging book, Dawn explores ways that congregation members and leaders can plan appealing and accessible worship services without "dumbing down" to the lowest common denominator of popular culture.... An especially helpful guide to the literature on church growth, authentic contemporary worship and music, and doing theology in congregations.... I found it very helpful to be given samples of books my congregational leaders and I might read and discuss together. The first book we choose will be this one."
Christianity Today
Reaching Out represents a prophetic voice raising probing questions about worship that evangelicals ought to consider, even if they may not agree with all of its conclusions.
First Things
An important book.
Modern Liturgy
This is a serious and accessible call to uncompromising liturgical reform.
New Theology Review
"Liturgists and musicians alike would profit from this pastorally oriented text. The author's genuine, convincing, impassioned account of the meaning of worship and its importance in the life of the worshipper should enable the fulfillment of her hope that it will lead to asking "better questions.""
Southwestern Journal of Theology
"This book is must reading for pastors, musicians, and laypersons who seek to deal with the "worship wars" in a biblical and practical way. If you read only one book on worship this year, make this the one!"
Anglican (Canada)
"For those who are longing to find an answer in the morass of today's muddle of worship, Marva Dawn's book is not only a source of hope, but indeed a source of strength.... For all Christians who take their faith seriously, this is a book to be read and pondered. There is material here for everyone.... Easy to read, but leads one into deep channels of thought."
Christian Ministry
A helpful contribution to any discussion about appropriate life-giving worship.
The Clergy Journal
Sobering, significant, well written, and well documented.... Her analysis and observations are persuasive and must be taken seriously.
Theology Today
A welcome study of the state of the art of worship at the end of this century.
Word & World
Anyone interested in a book that sizzles and pops while probing important matters of worship and church life might well enjoy (and be challenged by) Marva Dawn's passionate attempt to articulate a theology of worship for the turn-of-the-century culture.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802841025
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 7/28/1995
  • Pages: 307
  • Sales rank: 524,769
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.02 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Why This Book Is Critically Needed (from Chapter 1, pages 3-13)

God of grace and God of glory,
On your people pour your power;
Crown your ancient Church's story;
Bring its bud to glorious flow'r.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage
For the facing of this hour,
For the facing of this hour.

Harry Emerson Fosdick, 1878-1969

I am worried about the Church. The 'worship wars' that rage in so many congregations are preventing us from truly being the Church. Can we find some way to prevent discussions about worship styles from becoming fierce and bitter battles waged between two entrenched camps? Can we instead find common criteria by which to assess what we are doing in worship so that we can bring together opposing sides of various arguments, so that we can truly be the Church as we talk together about our worship practices?

I am writing in this book especially for members of liturgical churches in the United States, because some 'worship wars' rage most nastily in those church bodies, although what I say has great applicability to every denomination in this and many other countries, for all of us are more influenced by the world civilization than we acknowledge. I call them 'worship wars' because discussions about how to conduct our primary services usually split into two fiercely polarized sides on such issues as 'traditional' versus 'contemporary' forms of worship. Congregations split into competing camps—for example, members of the boomer generation vs. their elders, returnees vs. loyalists, clergy vs. musicians, clergy vs. laypersons, organists vs. guitarists, or supporters of classical or liturgical styles vs. those who favor folk or evangelistic styles. The very fact that congregations so quickly split into opposing sides on so many questions reveals our modern inability to nuance. A computer chip is either on or off, so in this data-bit world we often phrase our arguments in either/or choices. Can we think together along the lines of both/and?

Moreover, in this image age in which 'feeling is believing,' rather than 'thinking is believing' or 'being convinced by logical argument is believing,' we often don't ask enough questions or the right kind of questions about the foundations of what we are doing. Just as scientists sometimes begin to perform medical procedures before anyone has raised the necessary moral objections, so it seems that many congregations today are switching worship practices without investigating what worship means and how our worship relates to contemporary culture.

The Scriptures, the history of the Church, and my own faith, experience, and training convince me that the vitality and faithfulness of our personal and corporate Christian lives and the effectiveness of our outreach to the world around us depend on the character that is formed in us. What concerns me is whether our local parishes and denominations have thought thoroughly enough about worship and culture to function effectively in contemporary society. How can we best reach out to this society without 'dumbing down' that essential character formation?

My major concern for the Church has to do with worship, because its character-forming potential is so subtle and barely noticed, and yet worship creates a great impact on the hearts and minds and lives of a congregation's members. Indeed, how we worship both reveals and forms our identity as persons and communities.

Christian worship at the turn of the century is being affected adversely by aspects of our culture that 'dumb down' everything. Consequently, we must be careful lest our character as individual Christians and the character of our communities lack sufficient substance to reach out to the world around us and to influence the culture. My intentions in this book are to understand both our culture and worship more thoroughly, to name the criteria by which we can judge various influences, and to offer practical suggestions for choosing the best tools and forms to deepen our worship lives, nurture faith development, and increase believers' outreach throughout the universal Church and to the world.

Church members often stand in the middle of the worship wars waged by their leaders and long for better questions and clearer thinking on the basis of the resources inherent in faith. After the controversial 1993 women's conference 'Re-Imagining,' David Heim of The Christian Century concluded that

many if not most church members don't align themselves with either of [two opposing] camps. They are ready to listen and learn ... to test what they hear against the witness of scripture, tradition, and Christian experience. This approach will not appeal to those who would banish imagination from theological thought, or who think tradition is fixed and settled.... Nor will it attract those who regard the tradition as so corrupt that it must be entirely re-imagined, or so bankrupt that continuity with it is not prized. This approach does promise to treat Christian witness with critical faithfulness and wise openness.... Honest and charitable debate and criticism are necessary if Christians are to understand, judge and act on matters that demand the church's attention.

It is with that combination of critical faithfulness and wise openness that I pray we can pursue together the questions of this book. Be patient with the process that it will require, for we have to lay several thorough foundations—an analysis of society and a consideration of the tasks of the Church—before we can look at specific aspects of worship itself. We must enter into these sociological and philosophical and theological underpinnings carefully so that we can understand why the subtle problems I am trying to address are so critically important. The rest of this chapter will introduce the themes of these underpinnings, which will be elaborated in the next two parts of the book. Then the final two parts of the book can build on this cultural and theological groundwork with practical suggestions.

The State of U.S. Society: 'Endangered Minds'

My concern for the Church to reach out without 'dumbing down' faith had its origins in Jane Healy's weighty book, Endangered Minds. A trainer of educators, Healy wondered why teachers kept asking if they were less capable or if kids were actually dumber than they had been in the past. Their question led to her massive research, which uncovered several shocking facts—the most notable of which is that children who watch a lot of television actually have smaller brains. Considering multiple factors in home and society, she cites overwhelming evidence to convince us that, indeed, many children in contemporary society actually are less intelligent and less capable of learning than their forebears. As Healy calls for schools to counteract the lack of learning in homes with this summary of our society's crisis, let us think about the Church's situation:

If we wish to remain a literate culture, someone is going to have to take the responsibility for teaching children at all socioeconomic levels how to talk, listen, and think ... before the neural foundations for verbal expression, sustained attention, and analytic thought end up as piles of shavings under the workbench of plasticity.
...Students [or worship participants] from all walks of life now come with brains poorly adapted for the mental habits that teachers [churches] have traditionally assumed. In the past, deep wells of language and mental persistence had already been filled for most children by experiences at home.... Now teachers must fill the gaps before attempting to draw 'skills' from brains that lack the underlying cognitive and linguistic base [churches must fill gaps in foundational faith and its language].
We care deeply about the 'smartness' of our children, but our culture [churches] lacks patience with the slow, time-consuming handwork by which intellects [faiths] are woven. The quiet spaces of childhood [and worship?] have been disrupted by media assault and instant sensory gratification. Children [worshipers] have been yoked to hectic adult schedules, and assailed by societal anxieties.

Why haven't we noticed? Why hasn't our society taken radical action to correct this situation? Not one of us wants our children to be less bright. Part of the reason for our failure to address the crisis is that the problem's immensity has been hidden by schools and agencies 'dumbing down' the tests. Healy demonstrates this by showing the astounding difference between a fourth grade reading test from 1964 and one from 1982. She also prints part of an 'advanced' reading achievement test for ninth grade from 1988. The 'advanced' ninth grade test is shockingly easier than the 1964 fourth grade test!

We don't notice that children's brains are smaller, that they are less able to think and cannot verbalize as well as their predecessors, because the educational system has simply 'dumbed down' the tests. Actually, the process hasn't been simple. Teachers know that they are dumbing things down, but they are under immense pressures from societal expectations of pupils' achievements. If the children aren't capable of doing the work, they have to find some way to help them have success at school. If students can't handle the test that was used in previous years, the teachers and writers of tests have to make them easier.

Endangered Minds argues persuasively that myriads of forces in contemporary U.S. society lead to deficiencies in people's abilities to think, talk, and listen—dysfunctional homes, media assaults, lack of creative play time, and many more factors than we need to enumerate for this book's purposes. What we must realize is that the dumbing down of our society forces the Church to ask critical questions about its life and worship, its ministries to people in such a world, its ability to survive in post-Christian times. In what ways do we, too, lack the patience necessary for forming the intellect and faith? How has faith formation been disrupted by instant sensory gratification? What resources does Christian faith provide for renewing and sustaining churches in such a culture and for reaching beyond ourselves to persons of that culture?

The Task of the Church: To Praise God and to Nurture Character

Knowing that Christians are saved totally by God's grace and not by any efforts on our part, the Church throughout the ages has understood that its task as an institution is to provide opportunities for the worship and praise of God and the educating and forming of its people for a life of caring for others in response to that grace. We might compare these two tasks to the two great commandments—to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to become the kind of people who will love our neighbors as ourselves.

These tasks were more easily accomplished in the past when many elements in the structure of Western civilization contributed to the Church's goals. We can easily sketch some of the principal elements of that contribution (though, of course, there are many exceptions) in order to get a broad and general idea of the basic social fabric. We must see the vast difference between the present society, which works against the formation of Christian character, and previous societies in which Protestant denominations first began to flourish, the Roman Catholic Church itself went through great reformation, and these religious bodies became planted in the New World.

In the Reformation era, much of the best music and art was inspired by the Christian faith and used for its worship. Homes were undergirded by Christian principles. Whole communities helped to raise children to understand and participate in Christian practices. Furthermore, the Church was a leader in educating people for common life. The clergy were respected as among the highest professionals in society. The Church's schools, monasteries, and priories excelled educationally. Moreover, the Christian ethos permeated society and helped to form citizens' character. Luther instructed princes and nobles, merchants and peasants, to use their vocations to honor God; Calvin created a city founded on Christian principles.

In the early years of U.S. society, the Judeo-Christian ethos was vital. David Wells chronicles this thoroughly as he describes the village of Wenham, Massachusetts, in the first section of his massive study No Place for Truth, so I need not elaborate it here. Rather, it will suffice to use a few excerpts from his work to notice the profound changes that have shaken the Church as our culture has moved away from those religious foundations.

Wells protests against viewing culture as 'neutral and harmless,' as 'a partner amenable to being co-opted in the cause of celebrating Christian truth.' He considers that naivete dangerous, for culture bears many values

which work to rearrange the substance of faith, even when they are mediated to us through the benefits that the modern world also bestowsupon us. Technology is a case in point. While it has greatly enhanced many of our capabilities and spread its largess across the entirety of our life, it also brings with it an almost inevitable naturalism and an ethic that equates what is efficient with what is good. Technology per se does not assault the gospel, but a technological society will find the gospel irrelevant. What can be said of technology can also be said of many other facets of culture that are similarly laden with values.

The inroads of these values from the culture into the faith, according to Wells, cause historic orthodoxy to be blocked by a worldliness that many fail to recognize as worldliness 'because of the cultural innocence with which it presents itself.' Wells acknowledges that orthodoxy certainly has 'blemishes and foibles', but losing faith's theological core has led to 'less biblical fidelity, less interest in truth, less seriousness, less depth, and less capacity to speak the Word of God to our own generation in a way that offers an alternative to what it already thinks'. Modern people, including some of faith, who have been 'emptied of their metaphysical substance' are 'attuned to experience and to appearances, not to thought and character'.

Can the Church counteract our culture's loss of family nurturing and training to moor children to the wisdom and values inherent in the faith? It is urgent that Christians understand more clearly their position in this present culture as a minority, an alternative society. Like the earliest Christians, we want to be a people formed not by the ethos of the world around us but by the narratives of the Scriptures and by the community of believers. Because of the nature of our society and its effects on people's abilities to talk, listen, and learn, however, an unusual clash sometimes develops that did not afflict the early Church. Now, if we are not careful, our own worship experiences can militate against the formation of Christian character (in ways this book will spell out). Instead of worship and character formation working dialectically to deepen each other, the latter is sometimes sacrificed in the attempt to preserve worship or to make it 'appealing' to the mass culture.

We must therefore consider not only the factors from the outside culture but also the voices from within that influence how the Church understands itself. In this book we must ask new questions about the meaning and means of worshiping and living in the family of faith and of welcoming our children and strangers to live there, too.

Endangered Minds and Character in the Church: The Work of the Powers

We dare not be reductionistic—it is not that the world's culture is terrible and the ancient culture of the Church is good. Jesus set up the dialectical tension for us when he prayed that his followers, whom he was sending into the world, might not be of it (John 17:14-18). We make use of cultural forms, new and old, but we dare never let up in the struggle to make sure they are consistent with the ultimate eternal world to which we belong.

One key aspect of the dialectical tension of being in but not of the world has not been adequately recognized, and that is the influence on us and on the world of the evil forces the New Testament calls 'principalities and powers.' My research on this subject revealed many confusions about how that biblical concept can be understood in the framework of our modern experience. The subject is critically important for this book because such elements as battles waged in denominations and congregations, divisions between advocates of 'contemporary' worship and 'traditionalists' that lead to animosities and fractured relationships, the loss of the gospel that sometimes ensues, the weakening of Christian character and the consequent lack of substantive truth or genuine love in our outreach to the world are all certainly the work of evil powers to tear apart the Church. Chapter 3 will look carefully at ways in which these powers function so that we can 'stand' against them (see Eph. 6:10-18).

The Task of This Book

Truly, all of us who serve the Church want to be faithful and not to be dumbing down the Church. The question is whether we know when or if we might be doing it. Teachers in schools know that they are dumbing down the work and tests, and many educators are trying to counteract the societal forces that necessitate it. Do pastors, musicians, worship participants, and parish leaders know when we are dumbing down the Church? Do we sometimes know that we are dumbing down worship, but think that we must do so in order to appeal to persons in our culture? On the other hand, do our attempts to avoid such dumbing down cause our worship to be too esoteric to be accessible to the world around us? Do we realize what kinds of options are available to us as we plan worship and teach parishioners? What dialectical tensions would help us balance more effectively the equal demands of being in the world but not of it?

This book's content has been gathered not only from sociological data but also from experiences in specific churches, though their identities are purposely hidden. Certain points might not be true in your denomination or parish, but I am focusing on general problems noticed frequently in almost twenty years of freelance work throughout the U.S. and in other countries, in many kinds of churches and various denominations. I am primarily concerned about what is happening to the Church spiritually, so I plead with you for careful theological reflection concerning the meaning and practice of worship. Please forgive me and correct me if I err, but let my comments challenge us all to think more deeply about the issues at stake for the worship and life of the Church.

This book is written with these four goals: to reflect upon the culture for which we want to proclaim the gospel; to expose the subtle powers that beckon us into idolatries and that upset the necessary dialectical balances in the Church's life and worship; to stimulate better questions about if, why, and how we might be dumbing faith down in the ways we structure, plan, and participate in worship education and in worship itself; and to offer better means for reaching out to people outside the Church. It is my claim that we ought not to, and do not need to, conform to our culture's patterns, but that the Christian community must intentionally sustain its unique character and just as intentionally care about the culture around it in order to be able to introduce people genuinely to Christ and to nurture individuals to live faithfully.

It is impossible for me to write about the subject of worship dispassionately, for I am deeply involved in the issues not only theologically but also practically. School teachers often complain about educational specialists who write articles but don't spend extended time in the classroom. I didn't want this book to be such a mockery, so I continually test my convictions in the congregations for which I work. In my home parish I have given a series of children's sermons on liturgy, served as a table parent for a midweek educational program, taught a four-month course in community life for the adult education program, and directed the adult choir. In these and in preaching and teaching experiences in my freelance work around the country, I have discovered that most children and adults are eager to learn more about the Church's worship. I use experiences in this book not to elevate myself—you will certainly see my weaknesses and failures—but merely to offer ideas, to stimulate your own creativity, to motivate your own better efforts. Feel free to discard my ideas when they don't work in your situations; discuss them with your peers, your denominational leaders, your worship committees; pass them on if they are helpful. Most of all, let us all together always be asking this basic question: Do our efforts in worship lead to genuine praise of God and the growth of character in the members and the whole body of this Christian community?

Evelyn Waugh once remarked that the West is dying of sloth, not wrath. For the most part institutions are lost, not because they are stormed by hostile outsiders, but because their custodians, overcome by apathy, diffidence, and intellectual fecklessness, simply give them away. Will we give away the Church and its gospel power by dumbing it down or by failing to reach out?

Even more impelling than the dichotomy of sloth and wrath is Neil Postman's comparison of two ways

by which the spirit of a culture may be shriveled. In the first—the Orwellian [as in 1984]—culture becomes a prison. In the second—the Huxleyan [as in Brave New World]—culture becomes a burlesque.

What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.

In light of the dumbing down that happens in worship in some places, we might change those last phrases to read 'when the congregation becomes an audience and its worship a vaudeville act, then the Church finds itself at risk; the death of faith and Christian character is a clear possibility.'

This book is written because for most churches it is not too late to ask better questions as we seek to make worship meaningful for persons in our present culture. Will you ask those questions with me? In a time when we all are always too busy, will we exert more effort for what is truly important? Instead of the culture-death of our television society, can the Church be a place of meaningful talking, attentive listening, and profound thinking? In short, can we develop a theology of worship for the Church to flourish and grow in a turn-of-the-century culture?

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Table of Contents

Pt. I Our Culture and the Church's Worship
1 Why This Book Is Critically Needed 3
Pt. II The Culture Surrounding Our Worship
2 Inside the Technological, Boomer, Postmodern Culture 17
3 Outside the Idolatries of Contemporary Culture 41
4 Upside-Down: Worship as a Subversive Act 57
Pt. III The Culture of Worship
5 God as the Center of Worship: Who Is Worship For? 75
6 The Character of the Believer: Having Content or Being Content? 105
7 The Character of the Church as Christian Community: What Is at Stake? 129
Pt. IV The Culture in Our Worship
8 Throwing the Baby Out with the Bath Water or Putting the Baby in Fresh Clothes: Music 165
9 Worship Ought to Kill Us: The Word 205
10 Discovering Our Place in the Story: Ritual and Liturgy and Art 241
Pt. V Worship for the Sake of the Culture
11 Reaching Out without Dumbing Down 279
12 The Church as Its Own Worst Enemy: Is It Happening Again? 297
Appendix: Sample Children's Sermons
Works Cited
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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 25, 2004

    Can we read Marva Dawn, please?

    Having heard Dr. Dawn speak in various circumstances, I looked forward to reading this book. However, as I began to slog through it, I noticed that she continually quoted other writers to a very distracting extent. I think I appreciate her point and various insights, but the endless lengthy quotations had a significant negative effect on the flow of the book. This book could have been half as long!

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