The Worship Wars: An Alien’s View

I’ve noticed that a lot of my WordPress articles are self-depreciating… well, I hope that’s OK with you guys, because it’s all a part of rehearsing my national identity – Australians are a self-depreciating bunch, and I’d actually like to stay Australian despite being located temporarily in Los Angeles. That said, today’s WordPress is a post about my ups and downs in negotiating the musical landscape that is the American church. I am, very literally classed an alien by the government, so I guess you could say this is an outsider’s view.

Interestingly, I now have a role in the chapel team at my Seminary. I’m replacing a very intelligent theology doctoral student with a penchant for the liturgy, which I consider highly admirable. However, I was born on the wrong side of the pond, so to speak, for that. Close enough to the Hills District of Sydney to dislocate from our Anglican church, drawn out to the flashing lights and rock musicals of Hillsong Church. Not that I was involved in the decision-making – my father genuinely hates classical music.

Thus, while I have an incredible draw towards the liturgy and want to understand the deeper aspects of the faith, I am also all for the occasional up-and-down dancing we Australians like to call moshing. Yes, in church… or at least, that’s how we did it in the 1990s, and I’m open to it happening again. Not because I’m making light of the sacredness of worship – in fact, quite the opposite – I’ve found that indigenized Christian worship (meaning worship that relates to people’s every day life) is a profoundly life-transforming collective experience of God breaking into the here and now.

I think I underestimated the worship wars. I thought they were a fancy way to sell text books, describing the obvious differences between more traditional and contemporary worship styles. What I didn’t expect is trenches drawn, and guns blazing.

I’d like to think I’m a member of both teams. My seminary is (arguably!) evangelical. And my background is (arguably!) Pentecostal. By that, I mean we spoke in tongues until about 2003 or so, when a number of Baptists (of whom I’m quite fond) infiltrated the organization and commented that it was not only strange, but quite off-putting and even unbiblical for newcomers to witness tongues-speaking in church.

I like hymns, and I’d like to learn more of them. But, I’m intrigued by those who consider the highly confusing, dense text of hymns as  theologically superior (once you’ve deciphered ‘Ebenezer’, or ‘royal diadem’ they may well be better theologically, but it’s hard to compare) – and, I’m also aware that the nonsensical repetition of four words and two chords in worship choruses is mind-numbingly boring to many. Yup, I’m in no-man’s-land… Let’s call me “blended”, although we all know that’s not really a great term for it, because if it were really “blended”, no-one would win. Which is what, it seems, both sides want.

I am giggling that the only commonality I thought both hymn-lovers and hand-raising contemporary singers shared, was hymn text in a contemporary style. Until I was asked to “make sure they don’t drag“. In tempo, that is. Confused, I replayed all my .mp3 hymns… particularly the ones I thought would most definitely appease both parties. Surely, an Iona version of a hymn is between the two goal-posts, the quintessential middle ground of an UK sourced revision of an original? Well, that’s before I realized how high the stakes are. Literally.

I’m still on the quest to navigate the minefield of identity markers…  but, maybe you can laugh with me as you listen to my naïvety in thinking that ‘The Wonderous Cross’ by Iona would end the wars. And you can tell me whether you think it’s too slow… and I’ll tell you which ‘side’ you’re on 😉

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