Something Old, Something New – Combining liturgy and postmodern culture

Something Old, Something New – Combining liturgy and postmodern culture

Jonny Baker is a leader and member of Grace, an alternative worship community in London, England. I’ve followed his various blogs for a while and he’s kindly agreed to us posting some articles here. This is a piece originally written for Leadership Journal.


Dave White has found a way to present the Easter story to thousands of non-Christians in a public space. He uses tradition. It may sound impossible, but he represents a growing trend that blends historic Christian worship with contemporary forms. In Dave’s case, this means taking the traditional Stations of the Cross, which tell the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and recasting them for his community in Hamilton, New Zealand.

Dave began by gathering a group of artists to creatively reinterpret the Stations. With the support of the local city council, Dave and his team spent all night setting up experiential stations along a trail in the Hamilton public gardens. Four thousand visitors came through the breathtaking scene. At one station, each person was given a cross-shaped ice cube to carry on a leaf to help them reflect on the event. At another station, a lake was filled with hundreds of rubber ducks with a rifle aiming at them, symbolizing Jesus’ fate.

Dave and his artists were taking an old story and retelling it using very new symbols. And they managed to do it in a way that not only attracted non-Christians but actually got them participating in the story themselves. In a way, Dave was improvising with tradition—taking a very ancient ritual and putting it in a contemporary frame.

In one of his least known parables, Jesus suggests the Kingdom of God is like a teacher who goes to the cupboard and takes out both old and new treasures (Matt. 13:52). At a time when culture is changing so rapidly, we must not forget that old things have value and tradition can be good. Our own faith has been passed down over the centuries from one generation to another. With 2,000 years of tradition, Christianity offers a real sense of weight; it is a much needed anchor in a fluid world. But treasure may also be found among new things. It isn’t either old or new, but finding value in both.
Faithful improv

In the United Kingdom where I serve, something intriguing has been taking shape in the area of worship. It’s not uncommon to find communities practicing rituals, lighting candles, projecting icons, and regularly using liturgy around Communion, which is becoming more central in many gatherings. The irony is that many of these churches turned away from traditional worship a few decades ago when tradition became a dirty word.

Some reacted negatively to tradition, as many still do, because they saw it used to defend a flawed status quo and squelch innovation. But there is a significant difference between tradition and traditionalism. Christian tradition is living; it is not closed or completed, and it is not opposed to innovation.

Traditionalism, on the other hand, is dead and static. It is championed by those who want to do things “the way they have always been done.”

Part of faithfully carrying a tradition forward is keeping it truly alive. To keep reforming religious tradition is part of being faithful to that tradition. This reformatory impulse is at the heart of our Christian heritage. And when tradition is kept alive, it actually subverts the traditionalism that attempts to the choke life from a community.

Jesus employed precisely this approach when confronting the traditionalism practiced by the religious leaders of his day. He often drew from the past to move forward. But it takes leaders with a developed set of instincts to draw on their traditions in a creative manner. They must carry a deep respect for their tradition, but not a blind one. They recast the tradition for their present context by fusing old traditions with new innovations.

N.T. Wright calls this process “faithful improvisation.” He asks us to imagine the discovery of a previously unknown Shakespeare play. The script is complete except for one missing scene. To perform the play, the missing scene will have to be improvised by a group of actors. To improvise well, they must immerse themselves in the rest of the plot, the characters, and other Shakespearean works. Only those who know the play and the author well can judge whether the improvised scene rings true.

In a similar manner, Wright suggests that the Bible is a drama in five acts. The first four acts are Creation, the Fall, the calling of Israel, and Jesus. The fifth act begins with the birth of the church in Acts and ends with the new heavens and new earth in Revelation. But there is a missing scene in the middle of the fifth act—the scene in which we live. Our task is to faithfully improvise that scene. But not just any improvisation will do. Our improvisation will be judged by its faithfulness to the larger story and its author. Even so, there remains a wide range of imaginative possibilities.

Jazz is a good example of faithful improvisation. The better a musician knows his scales, instrument, written music, and jazz tradition, the more depth his improvised jazz performance will have. Likewise, church leaders with greater knowledge of Scripture, church history, mission, theology, and worship will find more freedom to improvise within their context without sacrificing depth. For them, tradition becomes a reservoir to be immersed in and a deep spring to draw from. Improvisation is a skill that requires taking risks and making mistakes, but it is undergirded by a desire to remain faithful to tradition.

Liturgy remixed

Most people see worship as a choice between two approaches. On the one hand, there is the traditional mainline form of worship with a set structure, liturgy, and prayer book. Positively, this form opens us to depth by engaging the richness of tradition and the use of the lectionary. But it can also be dry and leave people uninspired by its lack of passion.

On the other hand, the contemporary worship movement structured itself around bands that led blocks of singing followed by preaching and responses. In the 1970s and ’80s, this movement was an exciting recovery of freedom of expression in worship. But over time, in many places, contemporary worship has gotten stuck, and what once felt radical and alive now feels a bit past its sell-by date.

Thinking back to Jesus’ parable, it seems that liturgical worship has taken only the old treasures out of the cupboard, and contemporary worship has taken only the new. And both forms are poorer for not following Jesus’ wisdom and blending the two.

In the U.K. and elsewhere, a movement known as Alternative Worship has been growing for nearly twenty years. It’s an approach to worship that includes turning back toward tradition and its treasure. At the same time, it blends them with the newness of postmodern culture. Alternative worship rejects the false dichotomy between old and new that plagues so much of the church. This creative and artistic movement has sparked the imagination of people like Dave White in New Zealand and Grace, my community in London.

Grace is part of the Church of England. Taking the Anglican traditions and translating them for our culture has led to some wonderful improvisations. For example, a very popular Christmas service in Anglican churches takes a set of nine readings from the Bible with nine accompanying carols to tell the Christmas story by candlelight. The service was originally developed in 1918 in Cambridge when chapel liturgy was proving inaccessible to people returning from the war. (The service itself was an early example of improvisation.) Grace has used a modified version of this Anglican tradition, something we call “Nine.” We invite nine people to each take one of the traditional readings, select a piece of music to play, and create a ritual, story, or piece of art to accompany it. The music ranges from the Rolling Stones to Sufjan Stevens. It’s traditional, but with a twist.

Communion is another precious old gift in the treasure house. We have improvised by putting Communion back in the context of a meal in homes or around tables in a café. We explore themes such as hospitality, justice, and brokenness and have written eucharistic prayers around these themes. We may have a DJ play contemplative music and project images in the worship space. In the liturgy on brokenness, we invited people to take a piece of broken tile and place it on a table. The bread was then broken on the same table. Christ’s body broken for our broken community.

While people came forward to receive the bread and cup, we played a song by Leonard Cohen with the lyric: “There is a crack in everything—that’s how the light gets in.” It was a very powerful service. We have since grouted the tiles on the table and it serves as our Communion table.

Popular forms

The use of popular music from the Rolling Stones or Leonard Cohen reveals that popular culture plays a role in alternative worship, but the goal isn’t to be trendy. The gospel always comes to us wearing cultural robes, speaking the language of its own time and society. If it did not, communication would be impossible. Therefore, every tradition, if it is to be a living tradition, must continually improvise as culture transforms. Art opens us to new ways of perceiving the holy; it enables us to see with new eyes by functioning as windows into eternity. If language and images stop being grounded in the present, the dual dangers of nostalgia and otherworldliness prevail. This is why we use popular culture. It’s the water we swim in.

Along with incorporating something new from popular culture, we often construct a service with a responsive, multi-sensory, and embodied ritual. This might be something traditional such as lighting a candle, anointing with oil, sharing bread and wine, or walking a prayer labyrinth. Other rituals may not be rooted in the past, but simply a physical symbol of a deeper truth: placing a broken tile on the table, leaving a footprint in sand, or tasting something bitter and something sweet. Physical response, especially if it is multivalent—able to express a number of meanings depending on one’s circumstances—seems to open up a window in the soul for transformation. The response helps move worship from the head to the heart.

Jesus’ story about taking both old and new treasures out of the cupboard communicates the importance of balancing tradition with innovation. We need to recognize that a respect and knowledge of tradition is what fuels our improvisation, and adapting traditions for our present culture actually honors the traditions we value.

Where the old things are good, we should keep them going. And alongside the old, let’s develop something new. In this way, tradition can lead us into the future.

Copyright © 2009 by the author