Reflections on liturgy, the emerging church and charismatic worship

Reflections on liturgy, the emerging church and charismatic worship

Last year, I had an amazing time as part of a team of ten interns, all with different church backgrounds, from conservative right through to Pentecostal. We’d taken a year out to serve the church we’d been a part of whilst at Uni. It’s a pretty mainstream evangelical church, with a heart to be engaged with scripture but also be open to and experience the work of the spirit.

As part of our internship year, we had historical theology lectures, looking at different church traditions and how they’d evolved. At the start of each lecture, we looked at different styles of worship ‘through the ages’ and tried them out, trying to replicate them in short, 20 minute sessions. We went right through from the near silent service of the catacomb churches, through the mystery of monasticism, the exuberance of the early Pentecostal movement to our final session, where we tried ‘café church’, a popular model within the fresh expressions movement. After each session we discussed how we found the experience. What feeling did it leave us with? What had we loved about the worship? What had we found difficult? Even from these short, artificial replicas, we formed quite strong opinions.

To clarify, in the UK, the ‘fresh expressions’ or ‘emerging church’ movement tag is used to describe churches that are trying to work out new ways of doing church, as opposed to the largely audience-leader based services found in most mainstream churches. The aim is often to foster a feeling of inclusivity, openness and community. Café church is one popular model employed by these churches in order to fulfil their aims.

The café church session was great –we used painting and drawing as way of worshipping, used local and national papers as a catalyst to prayer and shared breakfast together. It was station-based, allowing you to spend as much or as little time at each station as you wanted to. It was informal and relaxed – a great way to start a lecture! But, in our discussion, we raised some concerns – could we really worship like this every week? We wondered what was missing – there seemed to be a lack of corporate worship. If churches met like this every week, all together, how did they invest properly in kids work? Or how did they delve deeper into theology? Could a church really disciple its members and survive without authoritative biblical teaching?

We spent the rest of our time looking at material from the websites of some of the more established emerging churches. Our initial concerns were furthered here, but we also found ourselves defending our own position, reacting against statements we found within the churches’ descriptions of themselves on their websites, like ‘a church for people who don’t like church’. We felt that there was a sense of elitist progression in these statements – that somehow, by being new, these people felt they were doing church better than us.

And yet, I couldn’t escape a feeling of unease, that was somewhat familiar…

Flashback to a lecture I went to whilst researching my dissertation on contemporary worship – the lecture had been billed as something like “the worship of the church of England since 1950”. Perfect – and it was right on my doorstep.

It didn’t take me long to realise that something wasn’t quite as I’d expected it to be. I’d pictured a room full of young(ish) people, engaging with Redman and Hughes and maybe making a foray into fresh expressions. Instead, I was the only one in the room under about 50. And then it started. And the entire thing was on liturgy.

I have a confession to make – I’ve never had a prolonged exposure to liturgical worship, and I’d had even less experience of it then – I had little appreciation of its benefits or indeed its flaws. But throughout the lecture, and in particular the question and answer session, I was shocked at the assumptions that were made about churches that didn’t have a codified liturgy, and principally the evangelical charismatic church.

There were again, ideas about what would be missing from a church that didn’t follow a liturgical structure – it was presumed that, because ‘we’ didn’t stick strictly to a church calendar, we missed certain events or had no reverence for them. There was the idea that, because we didn’t necessarily follow any kind of organised progression in our sung worship, there was no space for lament. Most shockingly, there was the suggestion that, because we don’t take communion every week, and don’t follow a liturgical structure in our services, we might not understand the need to ask for forgiveness or might ‘forget’. Then there were reactions against the progressive nature of charismatic worship – that it is too emotional, not thought through, not reverent enough.

I could feel myself actually physically tensing up, as a room full of people laid into the kind of church I had grown up in and loved being a part of, for not ‘worshipping properly’. I found myself wondering – if they knew there was someone here like me, would they be going this far? I felt ill equipped to defend the way of worshipping that I had come to love, but felt I had to say something. Unfortunately, when I’m passionate about something and getting worked up, I quite often end up with an attack of verbal diarrhoea that only ends when I run out of breath. So what I ended up saying sounded something like:

“Just because we’re not told to repent and ask for forgiveness explicitly every week, just because our worship doesn’t had a written order, it doesn’t mean that we don’t go through the full range of worship, including repentance, and it certainly doesn’t mean our worship is unthinking – as a worship leader, I promise you that I take the responsibility of leading a congregation in worship very seriously, and some sleepless nights planning prove that.”



And then, the moment of realisation:

Ah. We have an alien in the room.

What followed was a bit of backpedalling, some clarification, a bit of fumbling. “Well, of course we don’t actually think you don’t ask for forgiveness…” “of course, we’d never suggest that…” “you understand we’re speaking hypothetically of course…”

I spoke to a number of people after the lecture – I even spoke to a couple who had previously been involved in leading worship in a charismatic evangelical church – some were apologetic, others conciliatory. I wondered – to what extent were their comments fair? And to what extent were they bred of a lack of understanding, or as a reactive survival defence of their own tradition? Or was it just that, in their collective agreement and in a space supposedly safe from rebuttal, they’d just egged each other on? And were my comments a fair argument, or the result of a reactive defence of my way of worshipping?

And… we’re back.

Sat in the middle of our emerging churches lecture the other morning, I felt a very familiar wave of unease, and began to ask myself the same questions. Were we seeking to defend our own tradition against what others saw as progressive? Were we making assumptions born out a lack of understanding? To what extent were our criticisms fair? Were we putting all these churches into one box and making stereotypical judgements?

And that got me thinking – how would it be if a group of students with an emerging church background looked at a series of websites for major evangelical churches? What would they feel was missing – a sense of community and family? A freedom in worship? The freedom to interpret teaching? Accessible language? Openness in leadership?

The combination of these two experiences left me thinking – is it possible to ask these questions of strands within the church, without the agro? Please, don’t get me wrong – I think these are important dialogues to have, both within a church and between churches. But, I’m wondering – how can we survive these inter-tradition critical discussions, and even benefit from them? How can we avoid going too far? Here are some ideas:

Avoid being elitist

Ok, so to some extent it’s only natural to think the way you do church is best, because, well, that’s the way you’ve chosen to do church. But you’re one person. It neither means your way of church is best, nor that you won’t eventually change your mind. Be open. You never know – you might even change your mind.

Just because it’s new…

Novelty doesn’t automatically mean something is better than what has been before. Neither does it necessarily make it worse either. No church should try and suggest that it’s way of doing things is ‘best’ by virtue of being new, but neither should a church automatically assume it has everything right because things have been the way they are for a hundred years.

“There’s no such thing as a perfect church…”

This is one of Mike Pilavachi’s favourite lines:

There’s no such thing as a perfect church, and even if you found one, you couldn’t join it, ‘cos you’d ruin it.

Newsflash: we live in a fallen world, with fallen people, and a fallen church. And it ain’t going to get perfect, however much we remodel it, until Jesus comes back. Sorry. And who’s never complained about their church before? And yet, when we’re in discussion with those from other church backgrounds, the hackles come up and ours is all of a sudden the-best-thing-since-sliced-bread-infallible-and-entirely-faultless. Don’t kid yourself. We should love our churches, but be willing to accept that they are inevitably flawed.

But there’s no plan B…

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to make our churches as reflective of heaven as we can – God hasn’t got another plan for the redemption of mankind – we’re it – the bride of Christ. Jesus is waiting at the top of the aisle – we’ve gotten hit by a bus on the way to the church, just about survived, then decided to get up and do all manner of unrepeatable things en route, leaving our white dress pretty dirty. We’re going to meet him at the altar in the end, however we end up getting there – we just need to decide whether we’re at least going to try to make ourselves presentable, or just give up and roll in as we are.

Their church is different to yours? Get used to it.

You know what? People do church differently – we should embrace that. Just because it’s different to the way in which you do it, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Why not try out something different every once in a while? You might find you like it. I’ve really benefited from engaging in regimented, liturgical worship whilst on retreat trying to get my head straight. Sometimes, knowing what’s coming next isn’t all that bad.

Love the church

Please, no backbiting. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve done a fair bit of this in my time, and it’s just not honouring God or his church. Wrestle with the church and its flaws by all means, but realise the potential damage you can do with your words and guard against that. We’re called to love the church, end of. And that can be really difficult – what about such and such, those awful people, yadda yadda yadda. In a recent interview with BMS, Jon Foreman, the lead singer  of Switchfoot was asked how it feels to represent the church to young people, when ‘the US Church has the likes of Westboro Baptist and Qur’an-burners in its midst’. He responded:

“I think the body of Christ is this grand family and you have your crazy uncle that comes over for Thanksgiving and says some crazy things and you don’t agree with him but you still have to love him. There are beautiful people, hurting people, dangerous people and fanatical people that are all attempting to follow this amazing rebel Jesus that began a revolution of love. I count myself among those followers and I can’t speak for all of them, but I do have the need to love them.”

But, then again…

I’m not advocating a spiritual marketplace view, that suggests all truth is relative and we should never challenge a view because we might offend. The church is called to be biblical, and we should hold our churches up to the light of scripture and ask, ‘how close are we?’ We absolutely have a responsibility to make sure that the church is in line with God’s plans.

I’m aware that I’ve asked more questions in this post than I’ve answered. I’m also aware that I’ve barely begun to ask how this unpacks in our worship, and indeed our worship leading. I guess I want to call us to openness. Openness to criticism, ecumenism, and change. But if you take one thing away from this, if just one thing stays with you – love the church.

Having completed the2011-12 King’s Church Durham internship, Tom Barber is excited about spending a second year working for and training with the church, with placements for 2012-13 in worship and pastoral ministry. He graduated in Theology at University College Durham in 2011. Tom also wrote the recent review of 2012’s best new worship songs from the summer festivals.


Tom linked to this post on his Facebook wall and an interesting discussion ensued with his friends (which he has given permission to us to share – it is in public as it was tagged on the Musicademy Facebook Page but we have hidden the surnames for privacy reasons). Have a read through and add your own comments in the box right at the bottom of the page.

Other posts you might like:

What is worship? A Catholic perspective – part 1 and part 2

Andy Flanagan on worship music culture

Brian McLaren on worship songs

Bored with contemporary worship?

Has worship music lost its soul?

Jonny Baker on the renewal of worship – free podcast

Has modern worship become corrupt? Guest post by Kim Gentes

The Worship Wars Series – our most popular series of the 2011

  • Part 1 Introduction
  • Part 2 The Inner Struggle
  • Part 3 Ending the Worship War without a truce
  • Part 4 It might be time to move away from tradition
  • Part 5 Having a Missionary Mindset
  • Part 6 Do We Love Our Traditions More Than We Love People?
  • Part 7 Unified Worship – Breaking Down the Barriers of Age and Ethnicity
  • Part 8 Swindoll Weighs In
  • Part 9 Wrapping Up
  • Part 10 Should churches offer differing styles of worship music?