Discerning the Spirits: A Guide to Thinking about Christian Worship Today

Discerning the Spirits: A Guide to Thinking about Christian Worship Today

by Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Sue A. Rozeboom


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Christian worship in North America has undergone great change in recent years. But change always brings uncertainty -- at times even division -- about what constitutes "authentic worship." This important book reviews a wide variety of current perspectives and offers a fresh outlook on the contemporary practice of Christian worship.

In order to provide the widest, most insightful discussion on present-day worship practices yet assembled, the authors gathered a team of church musicians, ministers, worship leaders, and educators from eight church traditions. Discerning the Spirits is the fruit of their work. Shaped by the wisdom of men and women like Marva Dawn, Justo Gonzalez, C. Michael Hawn, and John Witvliet, this book broadens today's "worship wars" into a bigger, richer discussion that moves from arguments over musical tastes to good thinking about the overall purpose of worship in relation to church life and God himself. Sidebar articles and quotes are meant to draw readers and study groups into dialogue on these issues.

Whether one plays a leadership role in church worship or is simply grappling with questions about it, Discerning the Spirits is a must-read.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802839992
Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date: 11/01/2003
Series: Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies Series
Pages: 188
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.48(d)

Read an Excerpt

Discerning the Spirits

A Guide to Thinking about Christian Worship Today
By Cornelius Plantinga Jr. Sue A. Rozeboom

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2003 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-3999-1

Chapter One

The Things of the Spirit

The trouble with loving the things of the Spirit, as Robert C. Roberts once wrote, is that "the Holy Spirit isn't the only spirit around." The Holy Spirit is in competition with a lot of other spirits, and some of them look as if they come from God too. They look as if they might be life-giving spirits. They feel as if they might be comforting spirits. The spirit of personal ambition, for example, can look like holy zeal. The spirit of aesthetic pleasure can feel like adoration of God. The spirit of envy can sound like the hunger for social justice. What's more, these spirits show up not only on TV but also in church, where they compete with God for our loyalty. When we embrace them instead of God we commit idolatry, but perhaps unconsciously, given their omnipresence. In any case, what we clearly need is a particular gift of the Holy Spirit, namely, the ability to discern spirits - to identify them, to tell them apart, and to disentangle them from the Spirit of God.

At no time do we need this ability more urgently than when we think about the changes that have come upon Christian worship in North America within the last twenty-five years, and especially the package of changes often called"Contemporary Worship" (a term we capitalize to distinguish it from present-day worship, only some of which would be classified as "Contemporary"). Here is a movement that some praise as revival and others condemn as apostasy. From San Diego, California, to Bangor, Maine, the movement has renewed some congregations and troubled or even split others. In fact, it has changed the way lots of Christians identify themselves - no longer first as "Methodist" or "Presbyterian," no longer first as "liberal" or "evangelical" or "fundamental." Nowadays, just as some generations of Americans identify themselves according to the kind of music they listen to, so a number of Christians think of themselves primarily in terms of their style of worship. They attend "Contemporary Worship" or else "traditional worship," and they may make their choice with a good deal of passion. Or they may elect one of the forms of "blended worship" that combine classic hymns, contemporary Christian ballads, and popular gospel choruses, and feel that this choice, too, represents the compromise or settlement of a spirited debate.

To its advocates, Contemporary Worship represents the fresh breeze of the Spirit of God blowing through the church. These Christians have chafed at worship that seems to them stale. Organ preludes, sedate preachments, contrived silences, formulaic responses, peculiar hymn texts - these and other features of so-called traditional worship have left them feeling "sore oppressed," to quote one of the hymns they would like to escape. They wonder, How did the worship of God get to be so boring? Why shouldn't we worship in the ways that we actually talk and sing? Why shouldn't we worship in a way that has a chance of connecting with seekers - including the seekers within our own families?

When given the opportunity to worship God in their popular idiom, the advocates of Contemporary Worship think as our ancestors did when they were handed a Bible translated into their own language: "At last! At last we are liberated to encounter God in our natural voice!"

But to more classically minded Christians, Contemporary Worship represents the blowing not of the Spirit of God but of the spirit of the age. When they attend their church's worship on Sunday morning and discover that their minister now acts like an emcee, or that the sanctuary has been darkened in order to spotlight a "Christian performing artist," these Christians believe that their church has sold its soul. Worship seems less like the company of saints and martyrs than like a nightclub that forgot to close. So they wonder, Why outfit the gospel in an ethos that clashes with it? Why stand for worldly entertainment, rather than against it? Why can't believers worship God without trying simultaneously to amuse a TV-sated audience?

When given a chance to worship in a so-called "traditional" idiom, the opponents of Contemporary Worship think as our forebears did when they were handed a Bible translated into their own language: "At last! At last we have the prophets and apostles, who liberate us to encounter God aside from the tyranny of contemporary fashion!"

Present-day worship practices have stimulated a good deal of argument among Christians, and rightly so. On the whole, worship deserves a good argument, since (as we noted in the introduction) worship stands right at the intersection of the church and the world, or of "Christ and culture." In worship, as in all else, Christians want to know how to celebrate the gospel in such a way as to show its attraction, but also in such a way that it's still the gospel that gets celebrated, and not some cheaper grace of our own. And so we argue, and, regrettably, sometimes even quarrel: Can the gospel be conveyed today with habits and tunes that are more than three hundred years old, or only with JumboTron screens and PowerPoint presentations?

This intersection between "the church and the world" or "Christ and culture" is one where Christians have debated before, and the debate has never ceased. It has simply been passed down, one generation to the next, for as long as the Christian church has existed. Whenever Christians have sought to preach, teach, worship, or witness in forms adapted from their immediate, local culture, their brothers and sisters in Christ have wondered whether the church should be more circumspect. To ally with culture to serve the purposes of grace is to take the risk of corrupting the gospel - which (as we shall explore later) is something like the risk of the incarnation itself.

In any case, disagreements arise, often sharp ones.

We should take note that many contemporary disputes, such as those on university campuses, flare among people whose contrary loyalties give them scant hope of resolving their dispute, or even of setting its tone. The reason is that the disputants are skeptical of the human quest for truth and of the role of honest argument in support of this quest. Moreover, apart from their common skepticism, they may also be committed to opposing philosophies of life, or, as it is often put these days, to "different core values." In fact, given their joint skepticism and root opposition, both parties may acknowledge up front that agreement is beyond their reach, that serious debate is a doubtful or even pointless exercise, and that the only plausible outcome of a tussle between them is that one will out-shout or out-maneuver the other.

Here Christians enjoy some of the glorious liberty of the children of God: they may hope for serious discussion leading toward convergence, and perhaps even a degree of consensus. After all, given their doctrines of God and creation, Christians think there is such a thing as reality, "the way things are," and such a thing as truth, a reliable account of reality. Christians also think that by disciplined study of God's revelation we can gain wisdom, especially if we help correct each other's prejudices and self-deceptions with serious discussion.

Part of the truth that Christians jointly confess is a whole cluster of powerfully unifying realities. We believe in one God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We have "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Eph. 4:5). We confess one holy catholic church, across the world and across time, and we are conscious of worshiping in the company of its saints and martyrs. We tell the same story of redemption and jointly hope for its everlasting denouement. Moreover, Christians share a general view of the world and of our calling in it, namely, that the world has been created and redeemed by God, through Jesus Christ, and that those in union with Christ should "live for the praise of his glory" by "seeking first the kingdom of God" (Eph. 1:12; cf. Matt. 6:33).

How might this vocation be pursued?

Even at a general level, Christians answer this question in several ways, but one venerable answer is that in response to God's grace we ought to lead lives distinguished by certain features of godliness or piety. We ought to make good works our "way of life" (Eph. 2:10) and good attitudes our "central business," as Jonathan Edwards put it. On this view a Christian's vocation largely consists in acquiring those "religious affections" or "holy practices" that fit people who belong to Jesus Christ.

To sketch such a life and its practices, the New Testament offers sections of "parenesis," or instructions for godly living. These are glad invitations and exhortations for people who would follow Jesus. "Let your light shine." "Hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good." "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable ... if there is any excellence ... think about these things." "Pursue righteousness." "Remind them to be gentle." "Bear with one another." "Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, and humility. Above all, clothe yourselves with love." "Be imitators of God." "Strive first for the kingdom." "Restore transgressors in a spirit of gentleness." "Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ."

Toward the end of one particularly lovely burst of such hortatives, the apostle Paul turns directly to the topic that concerns us in this book, namely, how to find the confluence of wisdom and love as we help each other worship God:

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col. 3:15-17)

All this encouragement is for those who have been "raised with Christ" (Col. 3:1), and whose faith therefore rests not only in the person of Christ but also in his program of service and in the virtues that drive it. The person who trusts Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord, therefore trusts (contrary to appearances and to Nietzsche) that kindness is a form of strength, and humility a species of wisdom. She trusts that obedience to God exalts a life instead of stifling it, and that a glad habit of listening to others, and lifting up their interests, can excite in a godly community a near-carnival of goodwill and self-irony.

In fact, the point of these guides for holy living is not first to tidy things up in our moral innards, desirable as such tidying may be, but to enable a whole community to thrive. A community with "peace in its heart" has room there as well for the Christ who gave it, and for the neighbor who needs it. In a peaceable kingdom we can know some of the songs of the heart, and can sing them with common enthusiasm for Jesus Christ and for his project in the world.

Because of devotion to our common Lord, we may rejoice not only in our own salvation but also in the salvation of neighbors - who might express their worship, prayer, or joy in a way we wouldn't choose. A community of such peace allows us to teach each other, and even to "admonish" one another, secure in the faith that our teaching and admonition happen "in Christ," which means inside a cradle of grace. In such an environment, straight talk will be tempered by grace, and grace will retain its core of truth. Given our common goal of making God's heart glad, of thickening union with Christ, and of taking on nourishment for the cause of serving justice and pursuing peace in the world, we needn't nick each other's egos or threaten each other's partisan loyalties.

All this can sound utopian, but the amount of space devoted to prescribing it, or something like it, in these instructional sections of the New Testament tells us that Paul thought it was a normal goal of Christian life. Paul looks at factions, fighting, resentment, name-calling, belittling, and all the other features of church strife and says, simply, "Put it away." Put it to death. Don't be that way. Instead, forbear with each other, forgive one another, tell each other the truth in love, and, whatever you do - especially in the midst of your singing - give thanks to God in the name of Jesus Christ.

This will take small, medium, and large virtues in anyone who aspires to be even "a pretty good person," as Lewis Smedes describes her. To begin with, we'll need humility, one of the most underestimated virtues in the world. Yet all humility really requires is for one to be well-oriented to reality, which means remaining teachable, because no one person could possibly "know it all," and also remaining reachable, because no one in the church should presume to be the stoic, heroic Lone Ranger.

We'll need candor, or verbal straightforwardness. This, in fact, is a type of justice because it precludes hidden agendas and cloaked daggers. The point is to face each other squarely so we know where the other stands, because only then can we deal with each other at the level of real concerns.

We'll need hospitality, the gracious readiness to make room for others and their interests. This does not mean that we simply relinquish our own identity, but rather that we look for ways in which our identity is actually enriched by accepting, welcoming, and entertaining that of others. Self-assured hospitality means we'll be open-minded (but not so open-minded that our brains fall out, as Ann Landers once quipped).

We'll need forbearance: the willingness to put up with people who make us crazy. Sometimes this means tolerating others' interests, which has nothing to do with fostering a blandly neutral outlook. Instead it has to do with putting up with something you don't want for the sake of something bigger that you do want.

"Over all these things," of course, we'll need to "put on love" (cf. Col. 3:14), which is a many-splendored garment, but which for present purposes may be defined as simple goodwill toward our neighbor, a desire to see her flourish as God intended.

When the apostle Paul writes of these things in his letters, he writes to churches that are divided or that are in danger of division, and he calls their members to renew the image of God by such means as telling the truth, putting away their anger after a time, working hard in order to have something to give to those who have less, and adopting a tenderhearted attitude toward sinners. The idea is that to do these things is to be like God. To act like this is to act like God. More specifically, to act like this is to represent Jesus Christ, the preeminent image of God the Father (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15). We image God by imaging Christ, and we image Christ by showing godly knowledge, righteousness, and holiness (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3: 10). Candor, hospitality, and forbearance are just ways of spelling out righteousness. Accordingly, for an ordinary Christian in an ordinary Christian community it should be an awesome thing to consider that every time she struggles to deal patiently with a way of worshiping that seems to her boring, or obnoxious, she is imaging God. She is both expressing and strengthening her union with Christ.

Considerations of this kind help us to see the "holy living" sections of Scripture in the same way as we see the church, namely, as a part of the gospel and not as a mere addendum to it. The reason is that these sections present us with the counsels of grace by the God of grace who knows how life flourishes in union with Christ and wishes to share the recipe. God's commands orient us to covenant living and tell us how to make it sing. It is part of Karl Barth's enduring spiritual genius to see this truth and to insist upon it. God's command is "the form of the gospel" that invites "joyful participation" in good life with God and each other. God's call to compassion, for example, is itself compassionate. When we refuse God's commands, it's grace we are refusing. It's freedom we are refusing. We think we are refusing a bad death, but we are actually refusing the good death that leads to resurrection and life. "The good command of God," writes Otto Weber, comes to us not out of pique, and not out of the blue, but "in Christ," "in the Lord Jesus," "by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ," "by the mercies of God." From Barth and Weber's writing we might come to a healthy conclusion: forget about "principles," "duties," and even "virtues," if you must, and let your Christian ethics amount to "thought-out parenetics" in which indicative mercy gets transformed into imperative mercy - and not the least in the area of worship, where rancor appears not only divisive but also absurd.

With respect to worship, it is time (once more) to try to move the discussion forward. In fact, it's high noon. The reason is that troubled churches can't pursue their mission in the world very well. Rancor saps a church's energy and distracts its attention from God.


Excerpted from Discerning the Spirits by Cornelius Plantinga Jr. Sue A. Rozeboom Copyright © 2003 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Excerpted by permission.
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