In the interest of getting my voice back into the blogosphere, I’ve chosen to blog my way through Marva Dawn’s excellent book, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for this Urgent Time. First published in 1995, this is hardly a “new” work by today’s standards, but one that is hardly dated. I’ve read it before, but felt the work worth revisiting in a series of posts that will cover her work chapter by chapter.
Those who come from any kind of church background will be undoubtedly familiar with the so-called “worship wars” that rage between “traditional” and “contemporary” forms of music and liturgy. As a pastor at Tri-State Fellowship, I’m pleased to say that such battles are rarely seen. However, there is a larger conversation that has been floating around in the North American Church for some years now, and that is the role of music and liturgy in both forming the character of those within the walls of the church as well as attracting those outside it, and this is certainly a conversation that has reached my ears on more than one occasion.
Dawn’s work is therefore broken into 5 main sections: (1) our culture and the Church’s worship, (2) the culture surrounding our worship, (3) the culture of worship, (4) the culture in our worship, and (5) worship for the sake of culture.
Part one consists of only one chapter: “Why this book is critically needed,” to which the remainder of this post is devoted.
THE ISSUE OF MARKETING
Dawn is writing to a strictly churched audience. Those who will respond most readily to Dawn’s approach will be those who have grown weary of the marketing-driven approaches that dominated the church growth movement from the late 1970’s onward. And this is not a cultural feature that has vanished. More recently, Mark Galli has lamented the consumerist culture that has arisen from the marketing approach of church growth:
“[T]here’s a reason Jesus said ‘You shall be my witnesses,’ and not ‘You shall be my marketers’ . . .Should it surprise us that in this church-marketing era, members demand more and more from their churches, and if churches don’t deliver, they take their spiritual business elsewhere? Have we ever seen an age in which church transience was such an epidemic?” (Mark Galli, “Do I Have A Witness?: Why Jesus Didn’t Say, ‘You Shall Be My Marketers to the Ends of the Earth.’” Christianity Today, October 4, 2007).
In his introduction to the book, Martin E. Marty describes such a consumerist form of worship:
“It is the product of market analysis and sets out to produce or reproduce for late modern folk the sight and sound and smell, the intentions and ambience and aura, of the mall and the market place, the showplace and the entertainment center. Not a few of those who advocate this form of worship make a strong point that the worshipper is essentially homo ludens, the human at play, but at play not in the active sense but in the passive ‘entertain me’ mode. Something is wrong with the attractive and often attracting approach, but saying so without showing why is futile and time-wasting.” (Martin E. Marty, p. x)
But far from repackaged cynicism, Dawn’s approach suggests a more cooperative spirit among the people she speaks to reach. She quotes David Heim of The Christian Century:
“many if not most church members don’t align themselves with either of [the opposing camps of ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’]. 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.” (David Heim, “Sophia’s Choice,” The Christian Century 111, no. 11 (6 April 1994): 339-40)
To interact briefly: the church has historically relied on the Latin phrase lex orandi, lex credendi, meaning (pardon the slight paraphrase): “the church believes as she prays.” In other words, the way we worship often forms our attitudes about what we worship. It’s been said in more modern terms: “What you win them with, you win them to.” I believe Dawn’s criticisms to be helpful in helping us raise the question of the way worship practices shape the character and beliefs of the worshipping community.
DUMBING DOWN: WORSHIP AND CHARACTER
According to Dawn, the task of the church “is to provide opportunities for 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.” (p. 8)
Dawn is motivated out of deep concern for a culture whose tendency is to “dumb down” everything. The blemishes of orthodox Christianity have led many to break continuity with historical tradition and in so doing, have sacrifice the richness and depth of God’s worshipping community on the altar of efficiency. “…In this image age in which ‘feeling is believing,’ rather than ‘thinking is believing,’ we often don’t ask enough questions or the right kind of questions about the foundations of what we are doing.” ( p. 4)
Dawn cites the extensive work of Jane Healy’s work, Endangered Minds which reveals, among other data, the smaller brain size of children raised in front of television. Healy writes:
“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 analytical thought end up as piles of shavings under the workbench of plasticity.” (Healy, p. 277)
Dawn suggests a parallel between cognitive and spiritual development, and that hectic, media-assaulted schedules fail to produce the kinds of learners and worshippers we seek to develop. When the values of the church (efficiency, busyness, success, etc.) increasingly mirror those of the world outside it, should we be surprised at the impoverishment of our liturgies?
Dawn cites David F. Wells, who observes that there are cultural values
“which work to rearrange the substance of faith, even when they are mediated to us through the benefits that the modern world also bestows upon 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.” (David F. Wells, No Place for Truth; or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?, p. 11)
Thus far I have agreed with much of what Dawn has identified. Her future chapters will identify the ways that these issues may be unraveled and explained.
Dawn specifies that her content comes “not only from sociological data but also from experiences in specific churches.” (p. 11) Some critics have noted her sporadic use of scripture. We will address some of these concerns as we proceed through the remainder of the book.
Her work has four stated goals: (1) To reflect upon the culture for which we want to proclaim the gospel, (2) to expose the subtle powers that beckon us into idolatries that upset the necessary dialectical balances in the Church’s life and worship, (3) 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 (4) to offer better means for reaching out to people outside the Church.
All of these are worthy goals, and even if some of Dawn’s criticism catch us by surprise, her timeless questions are sure to help us navigate the timely questions of our day.