50 Shades of Grey, A Single Stain of Red

In addition to climbing to the top of the bestseller lists, E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey (the first in a trilogy) is attracting attention from those alarmed not only by the book’s sexual content, but by the fact that the book’s audience is predominantly composed of young adult women. Read more

“Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down” (Part 12): “Own Worst Enemy”

If you’ve missed it, we’ve been blogging through the book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time by Marva Dawn.  For reference, here are the links to the previous chapters:

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Dawn’s final chapter is entitled “The Church as its own Worst Enemy: Is it Happening Again?”


Dawn recognizes the way that many historic denominations have systematically relegated themselves to cultural relevance at the expense of spiritual significance.  There was a time in history when the so-called “mainline” denominations sought to have a voice in the culture.  The result was a shift away from orthodox Christianity into the realm of social justice Christianity.  Today, the shift has been so drastic that the word “mainline” has been replaced in favor of calling such churches part of the “social justice denominations.”

The rise of ecumenicalism has also meant a shift away from the uniqueness of the Christian message and toward the more shallow approach to religious diversity and tolerance (often to the neglect of the deep distinctions between major religions).  One might add to this list a whole host of issues that are of (relatively )lesser importance.

The problem with such an approach was simply this: culture changed its own values.  We now have a culture that embraces such values as tolerance, diversity and justice for the poor and oppressed.  What happened historically was that the Church gave short shrift to the gospel in favor of having a voice in the public square, and in so doing negotiated themselves into premature obsolescence.


The problem of today’s world is that we have churches that seek to bend themselves to meet the consumer demands of culture.  There is little wonder why we employ the term “post-denominationalism,” since most churches are ruled not by theological conviction but by musical style and congregational preferences.

But the problem, as mentioned before, is that such approaches only dilute the rich character of the church to such a degree that it raises questions as to its value.  When the church becomes a purveyor of ideas of how to improve your marriage, manage your finances and finding meaning and fulfillment, why do we expect people to come to church for a message that can be just as easily obtained from Dr. Phil?


Only when the gospel becomes paramount – that is, defined well, taught well and lived well, can the Church hope to be an effective witness to the world.  This means passing on the language of faith to the next generation, as well as passing on such language to a world that needs it.


I hope you’ve enjoyed our walk through Dawn’s book, and that her occasionally acerbic tone has not precluded genuine and thoughtful reflection on this difficult issue.

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“Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down” (Part 11): “Reaching Out”

If you’ve missed it, we’ve been blogging through the book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time by Marva Dawn.  For reference, here are the links to the previous chapters:

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10


Dawn, citing William D. Hendricks’ book Exit Interviews, voices concern over a seeming paradox here in America: on the one hand, churches are growing.  Yet people are increasingly disillusioned with the faith.

She returns to her earlier tension between tradition and relevance – the church can afford to be neither a stale traditional institution, nor “trivialize” the love of God and neighbor by revitalizing worship at the cost of substance.  And this is the predicament that many churches today find themselves in.

Dawn argues that the solution is to hold fast to the “richness of the Church,” because even those aspects that run counter to today’s culture will seem a welcome breath of fresh air in a culture devoid of beauty, goodness and truth.  It’s no wonder, then, that many voices have observed that the missional church has been dominated and led by artists rather than the CEO mentality of the megachurch world.

The problem, again, is that in catering to consumer demand, churches have suffered from trying to offer too many choices.  To paraphrase heavily and offer an analogy from our culture, we often speak in terms of “going viral.”  We love clever videos, bullet points and stories.  The problem is that germs usually don’t live long.  Who remembers what “went viral” thirty years from now?  Granted, such tools may be useful in the short term, but if the Church is to survive the harsh tests of time it must learn to offer something far more durative.

Durative worship makes God the central focus:

“We dare not make worship too easy, for God is always beyond our grasp.  Worship cannot be only cerebral or only emotional, for God is mysterious and wise.  Worship must be unceasingly comforting so that through it God will address our suffering.  It must be perpetually paradoxical so that we know we must worship forever.  Strangers will have no need to return to our worship services if they can understand all that our worship offers of God in one Sunday gulp.”  (p. 289)


She goes on to argue that worship that is a “lasting attraction” will do several things:

(1)    Build character.  Central to this is the idea of teaching sound theology to help the audience better understand themselves in relationship to God and neighbor.

(2)    Build community.  The challenge and task here is to move beyond mere spectatorship into genuine participation.

(3)    Showing responsibility to the world.  Applying the teaching of theology and scripture to a hurting world demonstrates a faith commitment that is not merely inwardly focused.  I would add that genuine theology always leads to an outward focus, as it directs our narcissistic gaze away from self to God and neighbor.

(4)    A passion for the gospel.  It’s worth noting that Dawn writes before the recent explosion of “gospel-centered” everything.  But surely, keeping the gospel at the center of one’s life is a sure way to assimilate all of the previously mentioned tasks.  And churches can help accomplish this by keeping the gospel at the center of both teaching and worship.

The next post will cover Dawn’s final chapter as well as tie together some of these points.

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“Reaching Our Without Dumbing Down” (Part 10): “Ritual and Liturgy and Art”

If you’ve missed it, we’ve been blogging through the book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time by Marva Dawn.  For reference, here are the links to the previous chapters:

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Her present chapter is entitled “Discovering Our Place in the Story,” which looks at the practical dimensions of liturgy, worship and art.

Dawn argues that performance is the outcome when God is no longer the subject of worship.  She borrows from C.S. Lewis in saying that the best liturgy is one that we are not aware of.  We are to “dance without having to count steps.”  The concern is that the church’s penchant for novelty (in an effort to appeal to consumers) relegates the worship of the church to mere entertainment.


Since the time of the enlightenment, there has been a movement away from the majesty of the cathedral to the simplicity of the chapel.  The revivalism of the centuries that followed provided us with the ascendancy of showmanship even amidst two divergent theological contexts.  The seeker-friendly movement of the last few decades is the natural outcome of this, where the Church has blended the artistic expressions of popular culture with those of historic Christianity.  Even the architecture was meant to reflect that of the culture that surrounded it, resulting in churches that looked more like shopping malls, business centers and warehouses than the cathedrals of old.

Churches were motivated by pragmatism and utility.  The need for a “multi-purpose room” outweighed the need for a sanctuary.  And not without reason: the rise of children’s and youth programs with a concomitantly diminishing budget often necessitates such flexibility in building use.

But the end result was the loss of both beauty and sacred space.  Part of the issue we now face is that each successive generation, while deeply shaped by the generation that preceded it, wants to escape the trappings and stale traditions they grew up in.

For the boomer generation, this meant exchanging the stale traditions they had grown up in for the contemporary expressions that have now become normative within the megachurch/church growth world.  We don’t need a sanctuary, they insisted, we need a place that looks just like our jobs and offices.  But the postmodern generations of today are doing the same thing: shirking the traditions of the previous generation in favor of new directions, which, ironically, resemble the traditions their parents had worked to escape from.

And because of this, rising generations place value in such things as beauty and transcendence – often because such things capture or at least contribute to the experiential, emotion-driven faith systems that they possess.

Dawn writes that beauty is inherently valuable, because

“Our increasingly ugly world makes it all the more imperative for worship to remind us of God’s beauty.  Psychologists and sociologists (and even architects) comment on the fact that fewer and fewer people are able to enjoy the beauties of creation.  Poverty leads to city squalor and overcrowding; busyness prevents many from taking time for the beautiful; and modern art often turns to grotesque and violent forms.  Beautiful worship will foster in our character genuine humility and awe at the beauty of forgiveness, and profound thanksgiving that God invites us to share in the heavenly beauty of which we get glimpses while here on earth.” (p. 249)

The problem of course is that “beauty” is often mistaken to rest in the eye of the beholder rather than in the character of God.  The reasons for this are manifold, some of which are cultural, and some of which are religious (pietism, for instance, has taught us to eschew all symbols in favor of strong, personal devotion).  This combined with the penchant for “attractional” worship often leads us to the commodification of beauty.  Beauty is therefore both subjective, in that audiences determine what is beautiful, and beauty is useful, in that it is a tool for attracting people.  While philosophers throughout history have often been guilty of reducing beauty to the point of abstraction, contemporary culture has reduced beauty to the level of fashion.

Dawn therefore cautions that

“Out of concern for character formation, churches must think very carefully in planning the liturgy.  We must not ask, Is this liturgy attractive? but always, What kind of character does this nurture?  Does our liturgy focus on feelings rather than on God’s character, which evokes these feelings?  If so, we will nurture a faith that depends on emotions rather than a faith that can cling to who God is in spite of human experiences of sorrow or estrangement.  Does liturgy focus on the self and lead to pride, or does it focus on God and lead to humility, awe and thanksgiving, and petition?”  (p. 249)

In the eighteenth century, Jonathan Edwards spoke of God as either being a bonum utile or a bonum formosum, Latin phrases meaning “a useful good” or “goodness and beauty in itself.”  Today’s world renders beauty into a bonum utile – beauty only has value if it attracts people to our church.  But God created beauty to be a bonum formosum – to be enjoyed because it demonstrates God’s significance.  The merchant sold all he had to purchase the pearl of great price.  Jesus tells this story not so that readers would pity such a man, but understand that beauty (specifically, found in God’s revealed character in His kingdom) cannot be measured by standards of utility.

What Dawn is seeking to capture is that worship is beautiful inasmuch as it reflects the beauty of its object.  Worship draws deep emotion not by cultivating emotion itself, but by directing our gaze toward the attributes of God which themselves elicit emotion.  This distinction may seem subtle, but makes all the difference in the world with regard to character development and genuine community, because only such an approach makes much of the character of God rather than merely pandering to the contemporary, fashionable preferences of the world.


Dawn next articulates the way that isolationism has influenced the way we do community.  She suggests that some are more comfortable in liturgical settings, where ritual does not demand that they be exposed before the scrutiny of others, though the rituals are themselves training them toward community and intimacy.

Her chapter continues in describing various aspects of worship such as the use of Psalms, creeds, traditional faith expressions and even silence as vehicles for genuine worship.

Beauty is one key to reaching the rising generations.  As we discussed in an earlier post, one of the key problems facing the Church is that in the rejection of tradition and symbol, we have lost our ability to pass on our faith to both rising generations as well as outsiders.  But recovering beauty and symbol can be a vital way of reaching others as well as uniting the Church.

Here I am not speaking of resurrecting stale traditions simply for tradition’s sake.  Instead, I am speaking of the value of the Lord’s Table.

In theology, beauty is encapsulated in the framework of God’s redemptive story. Story matters to people in significant ways. Consider the following two quotations on the meaning and significance of story:

“As the biblical story unfolds, it does so in stories and poetry. In fact, approximately seventy-five percent of scripture consists of narrative, fifteen percent is expressed in poetic forms and only ten percent is propositional and overtly instructional in nature. In our retelling of the same story, we have reverses this biblical pattern. Today an estimated ten percent of our communication is designed to capture the imagination of the listener, while ninety percent is purely instructive.” (Colin Harbinson, “Restoring the Arts to the Church: The Role of Creativity in the Expression of Truth,” Lausanne World Pulse Magazine (online), July 2006)

“The new conversations, on which our very lives depend, require a poet not a moralist. Because finally church people are like other people; we are not changed by new rules. The deep places in our lives – places of resistance and embrace – are not ultimately reached by instruction. Those places of resistance and embrace are reached only by stories, by images, metaphors and phrases that line out the world differently, apart from fear or hurt.” (David Fitch, “The Myth of Expository Preaching (Part 2): Proclamation That Inspires the Imagination,” Out of Ur (conversations hosted by the editors of Leadership Journal), Christianity Today blog, posted July 25, 2006))

The Lord’s Table is important because it connects us to God’s story using the common language of the bread and cup.  We are simultaneously reminded of God’s past faithfulness to His people in Egypt, reminded of the significance of Christ’s redemptive work at Calvary, and are joined together to celebrate the coming work of Christ that is yet future.  Postmodern generations may find immense value in such symbols, and they themselves can be tools to make the old traditions and stories new again, reviving not only tradition and doctrine, but the very hearts of the believing community.


In Dawn’s next section, she explains how worship can be used as a tool for reaching our culture.

“Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down” (Part 9): “The Word”

If you’ve missed it, we’ve been blogging through the book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time by Marva Dawn.  For reference, here are the links to the previous chapters:

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

The present chapter is entitled “Worship Ought to Kill Us: The Word.”


Dawn’s critique is simple:

“Everything that we do in worship should kill us, but especially the parts of the service in which we hear the Word – the Scripture lessons and the sermon.  … However, we live in an age of the ‘Gospel of Therapy.’  Preaching often dispenses steps to correct one’s life disorders or codependencies.  Society’s [penchant for ‘techniques’] invades the sermons in the form of directions to become technicians of the inner life for the purpose of self-improvement.”  (p. 206, 209)

She cites an article from U.S. News and World Report that suggests that many “seeker-friendly” churches

“have multiplied their membership by going light on theology and offering worshippers a steady diet of sermons and support groups that emphasize personal fulfillment…Yet [Rev. Joan] Campbell and others worry that while it’s good for churches to address the personal and emotional needs of their flocks, they may be neglecting other important aspects of faith.  Martin Marty…warns that in the competition for members, churches may be tempted to ‘package God in ways that make religion immediately attractive’ but that downplay the demands of faith.  Anthony Campolo…describes a growing ‘culture of narcissism’ in the church that gives short shrift to the Christian imperative of serving others.”  (Jeffrey L. Sheler, “Spiritual America,” U.S. News and World Report 116, no. 13 (4 April 1993): 53:54)

Dawn ably argues that the proclamation of the Word is the foundation of the Christian community – citing such examples as Ezra and Nehemiah.  Pastors must retain this as a goal by being centered in the Word themselves.

Dawn cites Jacques Ellul in understanding the loss of the scriptures as a theological center.  Ellul suggests several things that must be kept in mind:

(1)    Scriptural language, while reflective of the culture that generated it, was never readily understood by its original audience.  No wonder Peter told his readers that some things are hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16).

(2)    Modern readers are not too “rational” to understand the scriptures.  This is all the more true in today’s era, where the collapse of modernity and the age of reason has led to renewed interest not only in spirituality, but things such as horoscopes, astrology and the paranormal.

Dawn cites a 1969 quote from Dorothy Sayers, which suggests the problem is hardly a recent one:

“Official Christianity, of late years, has been having what is known as bad press.  We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine – dull dogma as people call it.  The fact is the precise opposite.  It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness.  The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man – and the dogma is the drama…The plot pivots around a single character, and the whole action is the answer to a single central problem: What think you of Christ?” (Dorothy L. Sayers, The Whimsical Christian, p. 66)

The remainder of her chapter is largely an analysis of how to return to the traditional language and theology of the Christian faith.


My concern is simple.  For years many have lamented the alleged shallowness of the megachurch movement.  It seems anecdotally true that the seeker-sensitive movement has moved away from traditional doctrinal sermons to a more therapeutic, “practical” approach, it would be wrong to ignore the data that suggests that the megachurch movement is producing strong disciples at a higher rate than many expect.

In Rodney Stark’s excellent, well-researched book What Americans Really Believe, he reports the results of 2007 research from Baylor University which suggests that the megachurch is producing stronger believers than smaller churches.

Churches with 1,000+ Churches smaller than 100
Believe in Heaven 92% 79%
Believe they will go to Heaven 85% 53%
Believe God honors faithfulness with Success 57% 46%
Believe in Hell


90% 69%
Believe God is angered by Sin 72% 67%
Attend Services Weekly 46% 39%
Tithe 46% 36%
Daily Bible Reading 33% 32%
Attend a small group 52% 43%
Have “religious experiences” 67% 39%
Have half or more friends at their church 41% 25%
Share faith with friends 83% 52%
Share faith with strangers 53% 35%
Volunteer in community organizations outside the church 40% 31%

Granted, there are countless churches that might be categorized as “mid-size” churches that do not fit the above data.  Others might note that in at least some categories, the numbers are not terribly far apart.  However, the data does show that megachurches are hardly lagging in orthodoxy and orthopraxy – instead they produce people who have strong beliefs and put them into practice.

This means that while megachurches seem a convenient target for criticism, it is simply not always fair.  Stark observes the reasons for such a contrast to be varied.  I would suggest that while some of the disparity reflects age as well as sample size (by definition, megachurches represent a larger demographic), a major contributing factor is the multiplicity of programs within larger churches.  The larger the budget, the more options for spiritual growth.  Smaller churches historically rely on Sunday School programs, but larger churches are able to provide resources to a variety of people and a variety of needs.

And in doing so, the megachurch seems, in this regard, to have successfully managed to contextualize without simply catering to consumers.  Which also means that today’s church can learn a valuable lesson: we have more diversity in the Church than ever before.  Therefore, a plurality of options and visions should not be dismissed as consumer demand, but rather seen as opportunities to develop people within the context of their life stage and situation.  Obviously, this does not negate the need for doctrinal preaching and a call to lay down our idols, but this does mean that we must learn to navigate the various cultural voices that clamor for our attention.

In the next chapter, “Discovering Our Place in the Story,” we will explore at least some of these themes more deeply.

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“Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down” (Part 8): “Music”

If you’ve missed it, we’ve been blogging through the book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time by Marva Dawn.  For reference, here are the links to the previous chapters:

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

The present chapter is entitled: “Throwing the Baby Out with the Bath Water or Putting the Baby in Fresh Clothes: Music.”


Dawn argues that many churches seek to reach out to the unchurched – to fulfill the great commission.  But when the church fails in this, music becomes a convenient “scapegoat.”  “The music of the faithful church is jettisoned to compensate for long-term failure to be the Church, inviting unbelievers by friendship and by active Christian life.”  (p. 166)

In other words, the church is failing, and the assumption is that the way to “fix” the problem is a new approach to ministry, including worship.  David Wells writes:

“[T]he fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is not inadequate technique, insufficient organization, or antiquated music, and those who want to squander the church’s resources bandaging these scratches will do nothing to staunch the flow of blood that is spilling from its true wounds.  The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church.  His truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common.”  (David Wells, God in the Wasteland, p. 30)

But this is a problem that is not often seen.  Questions of style and cultural relevance are assumed to be the same thing.  Evangelism dies a slow death because the burden is placed on the weekly worship gathering rather than the scattered community.

But in such a consumerist culture, the task of the musician becomes little more than “to market a product whose truth is not the issue.  The issue is solely how well the advertising is done and how many customers you can sell on your product. “ (Paul Westermeyer, “Professional Concerns Forum: Chant, Bach and Popular Culture,” The American Organist 27, no. 11, (Nov 1993), p. 35)


The question is simply this: should worship be designed to reflect God or to appeal to those who have rejected Him?

Those who suggest the latter have three problems to deal with, according to Dawn:

(1)    The congregation is there to worship, not to be evangelized.

(2)    This approach assumes that God’s work is benefited from human efforts.

(3)    Such songs diminish if not ignore key issues of God and faith.

Dawn suggests that it is possible that such approaches can actually be promoting “disinformation.”  She again quotes Neil Postman, who suggests that disinformation is not necessarily false, but is instead

“misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information – information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing….[W]hen news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result.   And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information.  I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed.  Ignorance is always correctable.  But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?”  (Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, pp. 107-8)

Dawn suggests that many contemporary worship songs rely on repetition and blurry theological distinctions (she cites a song in which Father, Son and Holy Spirit are described as “savior,” which only adds to the confusion over the Trinity).


This does not mean that worship should be cerebral or didactic and ignore feelings.  Worship that engages only the head or “heart” (and here I use “heart” in the contemporary sense, not in the Biblical sense) does not shape character or encourage the participation of the human will.

“We want our worship music, then, to appeal to the whole person – will, emotions, and intellect.  Our goal is that worship practices will form character so that believers respond to God with commitment, love, thought, and virtuous action.  The Scriptures make it clear that God wants his people not just to feel good, but to be good.”  (p. 175)

She goes on to discuss the way music shapes both thought and character.

“Does our choice of worship music increase or reduce our capacity to listen or to think theologically?  Does superficial music dumb down the faith?  Does our music nurture sensitivity to God?…Another important question that we must ask is whether our worship music is true to human experience.”  (p. 176)

What often happens, Dawn observes, is that churches seek to engineer false experiences through “happy” songs that reflect neither the joy nor the sorrow of genuine Christian life.  How can we teach our people to mourn if we have jettisoned the language of mourning?  I often think of a worship leader I once knew who was removed from his position for not smiling enough.  We’ve exchanged sackcloth and ash for Colgate.


Dawn suggests that one of the major questions to be asked is whether the music unifies a congregation.  She rejects the suggestion to split congregations into two different services, often categorized as “contemporary” and “traditional.”

Doing this requires selecting music that speaks of God’s character rather than the felt needs of demographic groups which, she argues, have radically different felt needs based on age, gender, personal preferences, etc.

But here is where I regrettably part ways with Dawn.  In principle, I agree wholeheartedly and see value to the health of both the individual and the community they inhabit.  In practice, however, I feel that Dawn underestimates the consumer-driven culture that she spent so many pages explaining.  When consumerism has had its final say, congregation members will insist on music that speaks to their own subjective experiences.  The idol of subjectivism she identified in chapter 3 cannot be so easily escaped.  Worse, is that when consumerism has had its say, other music is not just discarded based on preferences, but vilified for the inherent “wrongness” of the approach.  This is why for many churches, organ music is sneered at but guitars are welcomed – or vice versa.


Dawn does argue for a diversity of styles of music in the worship experience, which, she argues, not only reflects the diversity of expressions in the Psalms but also can speak to the diverse experiences of the congregation.

While she insists that such diversity is not a “matter of taste,” I again feel that she does not fully evaluate the consumer demand for songs that fit personal experiences rather than appreciate the diversity represented in the worshipping community.


Dawn argues persuasively that “lower” forms of culture can actually shape the way we digest spiritual truth.   She cites C.S. Lewis in arguing that art can either be “received” or “used.”  When we use a work of art, literature or music, we are not allowing its message to shape our lives.

Recall Smith’s category of the “thick practice,” one that shapes our character.  In cultural studies, we often speak of art as having a “thick description,” meaning art that speaks to multiple levels of experience whether they be religious, social, economic, political, etc.  When we “use” worship, we often digest only the surface level meaning – and often contemporary worship’s penchant toward feelings and emotion prevent it from even having a thick description.  The end result is that shallow, emotive worship music develops shallow, emotive worshippers – and then we wonder why the Church has so little impact on our culture.


Here I’ll summarize her key points:

Honesty: Does the music express truth accurately?  Is the emotional weight of the lyrics reflected by the subject, or does it contain “happy” lyrics simply because it is upbeat?

No vanity/show: Music is performative, yet it is not merely a performance.  Is God the subject and object of worship?  A better question is: does the worship experience deepen appreciation for God?  Some music may actually disrupt worship by turning focus from God to human experience.

Association: Do we associate music or worship elements with a particular venue?  Some object to certain genres because we associate them with contexts where worship does not happen.  We might object to a disco ball in the worship service – not because there’s anything immoral about it, but we associate it too closely with the dance club to be used without becoming a disruption.

Edification: Are worshippers edified in their worship?   The desire to use worship as evangelism is built on solid motivations, but this is not its purpose.  Worship is for a believing community to respond to the revealed character and will of God.


Dawn concludes her chapter with a discussion of music that is both proper to the worship environment and worthwhile to the congregation.  I will cease my discussion here as I believe her earlier points are well-founded and well-made.

The issue I see affecting the Church as a whole is a diminished understanding of what and who worship is meant to be for.  Underneath this problem is the lack of true connection and commitment of younger generations to the Church – which in itself is caused by a multiplicity of factors.

Part of the problem stems from the ascendancy of preference and opinion over the truths of God as revealed to us through scripture and the community of faith that surrounds it.  In tomorrow’s post, we’ll look at Dawn’s chapter: “Worship Ought to Kill Us: The Word.”

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“Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down” (Part 7): “The Character of the Church…”

If you’ve missed it, we’ve been blogging through the book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time by Marva Dawn.  For reference, here are the links to the previous chapters:

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Dawn’s present chapter is entitled “The Character of the Church as Christian Community.”


“The only thing that the Christian community can do that no one else in the world can is praise its Source.” (p. 130) Christ is what makes the worshipping community unique, but Dawn, quoting C. Welton Gaddy, says that “The true identity of the church is never in question.  But it is always in danger of revision.”  (C. Welton Gaddy, The Gift of Worship, p. 35)


Even though we face what former President Clinton called “a crisis of community,” many in the boomer generation remain caught in the mentality that they should seek self-improvement and self-satisfaction, an inward focus that does nothing to orient one’s heart towards others.  The rising generation of busters and mosaics, having been fed a steady diet of technology, see community in terms of connectivity.

The problem is magnified, Dawn says, by the emphasis on leadership by democracy – meaning that the needs of the community become a major force behind the church’s decision-making.  She suggests that there is a difference between “synthesis” and “syncretism,” though for clarity I’ll borrow Ed Stetzer’s terminology and suggest the difference between “consumerism” and “contextualization.”  What I mean is this: are changes and new elements designed to appease consumers, or are they designed to be a vehicle for communicating the gospel to the culture that surrounds it?  My biggest fear, even as a young man, is that we have already reached the point in our consumerist culture, where no one really sees this difference.

But if such a difference is both practiced and taught, then the church community will invariably be attractive to some and repellant to others.  But what could be more attractive than the presence of God in the world?  Dawn writes: “Our preaching and hearing of the Word, the way we use liturgical forms, our participation in the sacraments, our song, art, and architecture all contribute to create the sense that God is with us (plural) and that we respond by dwelling in his new world.”  (p. 140)

But this means that genuine worship can only be attractive in its capacity to magnify God and exult Christ.  “Genuine worship that ‘welcomes the stranger’ can only happen by means of objective proclamation – for no one can enter into the feelings of others, nor will newcomers feel that they belong to an already established group.”  (p. 141)


Dawn goes on to contrast the richness and beauty of church tradition with the modern penchant for change and variety.  Os Guiness likens this to Nietzsche’s concept of “feverishness,” which is “the condition of an institution that has ceased to be faithful to its origins.  It is then caught up in a ‘restless, cosmopolitan hunting after new and newer things.’” (Os Guiness, Dining with the Devil, p. 63)  Dawn suggests that such an unhealthy mentality can be countered by seeking to bring past traditions into the present – not in an effort to preserve stale and outdated tradition, but to connect present communities with the faith that they were built on.


Dawn’s next section addresses the relationship between tradition and creativity.  Sometimes, the penchant for novelty can mean the erosion of tradition and theology that are hardly indispensable.  Currently, we live in a culture that has already seen the erosion of denominations.  In this “post-denominational” world, worship styles and aesthetics prevail.

Negatively, this could mean that Martin E. Marty is right to warn: “To give the whole store away to match what this year’s market says the unchurched want is to have the people who know least about faith determine most about its expression.”  (quoted from Kenneth L. Woodward, “Dead End for the Mainline?” Newsweek, 9 Aug. 1993, p. 48)

But wait – creativity is not the same as anti-traditionalism.  Dawn makes this point strongly and clearly.  My own casual observation is that many who fear change often do so because they fear that the Christian heritage will be compromised, if not done away with altogether.  Such fears are not unfounded, and many who grew up in so-called “mainline” denominations (now more often referred to as “social justice” denominations) have seen areas in which the character of the community was compromised in an effort to appeal to the culture.

Therefore, the church will fail in one of two ways: by adapting to the culture while forsaking tradition, or by preserving tradition while forsaking the culture.  The first error is predicated on the idolatry of “relevance,” while the second on the idolatry of “tradition.”  But we need both in order to navigate the world around us.


Which brings us to Dawn’s next point, which concerns the idea of passing on the faith.  This refers not only to passing it on to the next generation, but also to share it with outsiders as well.  The problem is that in a post-denominational world, we have let worship style eclipse the symbols of the faith.  In an effort to be more relevant, the boomer generation put aesthetics and symbol on the back-burner for fear of offending the seeker (I’ve even known churches where they avoid displaying a cross for fear of looking too “church-y”).  But such symbols and expressions are necessary if the Christian faith is to be shared with the world.

Here is the problem, as Dawn sees it:

(1)    Many attribute their expressions of faith to the traditions of their parents.

(2)    In today’s culture, many parents cannot articulate the gospel, the meaning of basic things such as the Great Commission, etc.

Though her data is too dated to reproduce, I would encourage you to read Christian Smith’s excellent work Souls in Transition: The Spiritual and Religious Lives of Emerging Adults, where he observes that these trends are ongoing.


The problem is that when churches focus on worship expressions that borrow from culture to the neglect of tradition, and sermon series that focus on “relevant” topics such as time management or finances to the neglect of the historic doctrines of the faith, we lose our ability to pass on faith to those outside the community.  Becoming more relevant, therefore, means a shift not forward into the culture, but a shift back toward tradition, as well as a simultaneous impetus to make those past traditions come alive in our worship communities today.


Dawn observes that a number of things can influence the fidelity and relevance of a worshipping community.   Among these is architecture.  I would add to her discussion on the way that we have moved from the notion of “sanctuary” to “multi-purpose room,” or in many other cases the theater or concert venue.  Given our previous discussion of cultural liturgies and “thick practices,” how might such architectural space shape the way we worship?  In other words, if the liturgy of the concert is to come, sit and watch, should it surprise us that large portions of the worshipping community expect a similar experience?

Similarly, when we reduce theology to personalized, privatized application (in contrast to the application and assimilation of deeper truths such as sin and redemption), have we trained our communities to understand and value thoughtful discernment?  If not, how can any community expect to communicate its truths to those around them, even the children?

Finally, Dawn suggests that the community can benefit from thoughtful engagement with larger, societal issues, and in doing so combats the fragmentation that often accompanies consumer lifestyles.

This chapter was extremely beneficial, and we can see that we’re moving still closer to viable solutions to the issues raised previously, even as we raise further questions along the way.  At least some of these themes I believe are worthy of future exploration, though for now I’ll highlight the fact that in the coming chapters, Dawn will focus on “The Culture in Our Worship.”

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“Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down” (Part 6): “The Character of the Believer”

If you’ve missed it, we’ve been blogging through the book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time by Marva Dawn.  For reference, here are the links to the previous chapters:

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5


Dawn’s sixth chapter focuses on “The Character of the Believer.”  She writes that “In a society that values show and appearance more than character and internal integrity, congregations often fail to consider worship’s role in nurturing participants’ character.” (p. 106)  Dawn observes that in Jewish communities, there is no division between worship and life.  Yet we often neglect the way that the way we live shapes our lifestyle.

The problem, of course, is that the culture of consumerism has negatively shaped the hearts of the Church.  “[F]ocusing in worship on me and my feelings and my praising will nurture a character that is inward-turned, that thinks first of self rather than of God.” (p. 109)

Dawn suggests that many, seeker-sensitive churches have allowed feelings to become prominent.  She again cites David Wells who observes how such trends influence our outreach, where the goal has now become

“to seek assurance of faith not in terms of the objective truthfulness of the biblical teaching but in terms of the efficacy of its subjective experience….not whether Christ is objectively real but simply whether the experience is appealing, whether it seems to have worked, whether having it will bring one inside the group and give one connections to others…“[Christian faith] conceived in the womb of the self is quite different from historic Christian faith.  It is a smaller thing, shrunken in its ability to understand the world and to stand up in it.  The self is a canvas too narrow, too cramped, to contain the largeness of Christian truth….[G]ood and evil are reduced to the domain of private consciousness, his external acts of redemption are trimmed to fit the experience of personal salvation, his providence in the world diminishes to whatever is necessary to ensure one’s having a good day, his Word becomes institution, and conviction fades into evanescent opinion.  Theology becomes therapy…. (David Wells, No Place for Truth, pp. 172, 182-83)

Wade Clark Roof suggests that boomers “yearn deeply for a religious experience they can claim as ‘their own.’” (Wade Clark Roof, A Generation of Seekers, p. 68)  Such a statement could actually be made for every generation, especially now that the next generation of busters and mosaics is now seeking a stronger voice in the church.


But Dawn suggests that many are dissatisfied with such narcissistic approaches, and for good reason.  Since her data is a bit dated, I’ll supplant her writing with some more recent research.  Recall that in our last post we observed that though attractional, marketing-driven strategies have been around for decades, the church has not only failed to grow in the last twenty years, but has not kept up with the population growth.

It has largely been assumed that the best way for churches to grow is to lower standards and reduce content to sound bites and “practical” sermons.  However, in our current climate of easy-believism and decaying absolutes, people are looking for something deeper and something more.  Thom S. Rainer offers data on what caused people to come to a church and stay at a church, and the results are a bit surprising:

(1)    Well-articulated doctrinal convictions

(2)    High expectations from church members

(3)    An “entry point” class

(4)    Small groups and Sunday School

(5)    Clarity of Purpose

(6)    Opportunities for ministry involvement

(Taken from Thom S. Rainer, Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them, pp. 107-124)


If these are the desires of the unchurched, than it seems that the Church can always strive to better meet these desires not by appealing to market share or demographic data, but through careful faithfulness to the character of God as revealed in His scriptural story.  Dawn writes:

“It is crucial to stress character formation because believers do not enter into the life of Christ through a system of rules…or even by naming the goals of this life…We are formed by Christ’s presence in the Word and in the community.  We experience God’s life in the narratives of the Church and seek to follow God’s designs.” (p. 116)

She goes on to suggest that memorized traditions can be influential in shaping the character of our youth.  She secondly suggests that the substance of our worship is more important than style.  Both are important, she says, because they prevent us from making past errors of dry ritual without truth and love, or of emotional appeal without an anchor in truth.

In all things, I heartily agree that substance is paramount (though as to my feelings on style, you’ll have to wait for the next post – I’ll simply summarize by saying that I don’t believe style and substance ought to be seen as divorced from one another).  Character cannot be formed if there is no model to adhere to.  Without the likeness of Christ, articulated in music, art, the Lord’s table, baptism and the Sermon, what standard can we appeal to for the formation of Christian character?


And so character is actually developed in the various worship practice of the church.  Recall that we mentioned that for Jews, there is no distinction between worship and life.  The same might be said of our culture, the only caveat being: what is the object of our worship?

In his excellent book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation,

James K. A. Smith argues that our culture has various “liturgies” or practices that we perform that both reveal our hearts as well as bend our hearts toward what we desire.

He makes a distinction between what he calls “thick” and “thin” practices.  Thin practices have little bearing on our character, but are instead “instrumental to some other end. They also aren’t the sort of things that tend to touch on our identity” (p. 82).  Brushing one’s teeth, for example, has little to do with personal desire or character development.  Thick practices, however, reveal and shape our deeper vales.   “These are habits that play a significant role in shaping our identity, who we are. Engaging in these habit-forming practices not only says something about us, but also keeps shaping us into that kind of person” (p. 82). Cell phones, for example, could potentially reveal practices (texting, Facebook apps, etc.) that teach us to value convenience over true relationship, and in so doing orient us away from others and toward self.

Smith clarifies that “This is not to say that every habit is a thick one, but only that even our thinnest habits and practices ultimately get hooked up into desires that point at something ultimate” (p. 83).

“Liturgies or worship practices are rituals of ultimate concern that are formative of our identity – they both reflect what matters to us and shape what matters to us” (93).

Therefore, all that we do shapes our hearts and our character.  N.T. Wright describes it in terms of “virtue:”

“If learning virtue is like learning a language, it is also like acquiring a taste, or practicing a musical instrument.  None of these ‘comes naturally’ to begin with.  When you work at them, though, they begin to feel more and more ‘natural,’ until that aspect of your ‘character’ is formed so that, at last, you attain the hard-won freedom of fluency in the language, happy familiarity with the taste, competence on the instrument.”  (Wright, After You Believe, p. 42)

The problem is that we can just as easily learn a “happy familiarity” with our own self-centeredness, and this, Dawn argues, is at the core of the discussion regarding worship and a believer’s character.  Might it be that worship music and sermons that focus on individual feelings might only be driving us further from God and others and bending us ever more toward self?

What we need, Dawn suggests, is a form of liturgy that endlessly draws our gaze outward from self and upward towards God:

“How can our congregational members be more mindful of the needs of others for faith and hope?  We certainly cannot foster such awareness if our worship falls prey to the dominant ‘self’ movement of our society and concentrates on our own feelings or experiences.  Rather, our worship must keep God as the subject, for such worship cannot help but invite us all into God’s self-giving character, into God’s concern for the lost, into the incarnation of the gospel through our lives.  How can we grow into God’s likeness if we do not concentrate in worship on who God is – in all of our struggles and concerns?”  (p. 126)

The next chapter focuses, then, on the character of the worshipping community.

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“Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down” (Part 5): “God as the Center of Worship”

If you’ve missed it, we’ve been blogging through the book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time by Marva Dawn.  For reference, here are the links to the previous chapters:

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

In chapter 5, Dawn begins the book’s third section which focuses on the culture of the Church itself.   The present chapter is entitled: “God as the Center of Worship: Who is Worship For?”  She mocks her own poor grammar in the title, meant to emphasize that the purpose of worship is not a “what” but a “who.”


Dawn’s thesis in this chapter is that “in genuine worship God is the subject” (p. 76).  She emphasizes that God is both the subject of worship, meaning that worship is about the revelation of God’s character, as well as the object of worship, meaning that worship is focused on praising God.

While such statements may sound obvious to some, Dawn identifies the way that worship services have shifted from God as the center to man as the center.  And if we pause to reflect, we know this: how often do we hear someone say, “I got a lot out of today’s service,” or, negatively, “I just didn’t really get much from the service today.”  Such attitudes only reinforce Dawn’s earlier critiques about the consumerist impulse that seeks religious ceremony as a means to satisfy felt needs.


Dawn highlights four key reasons for such a loss:

(1)   Conception of the self: In today’s narcissistic culture, it’s difficult for anyone to see past their own needs and see the needs of others.

(2)   Authority: Absolute truth resides only in the individual.

(3)   Meaning Systems: We have abandoned the historical revelation of God for a God of our own imagination and preferences.

(4)   Spiritual Styles: There is a divergence between those who emphasize traditional spiritual discipline and those who wish to abandon all tradition to better adapt to the culture.


The bulk of the chapter is focused on the ways that the Church has often missed the mark in reclaiming God as the center of worship.  The chapter is among the longest in the book, so I’m summarizing in a few broad strokes:

Praise and Lament: While the Psalms contain a wide range of emotion, contemporary music has largely jettisoned the language of lament.  At the same time, praise has been equated with happiness, resulting in a style of music that is assumed to be praise solely because it is upbeat.

Should this surprise us?  In a narcissistic, consumer-driven, self-esteem culture, how could we expect anything but such a trend?  The problem, of course, is that the Church suffers when it loses the language necessary for Godly sorrow.  In the wake of 9/11, songwriter Michael Card raised the question: “Why do churches have praise teams but no lament teams?”  Probably the most spiritual response to this suffering was the performance of U2 at the Super Bowl that following January.  During a time when prominent, outspoken Christian leaders were arguing about why such a tragedy occurred, U2 gave voice to the brokenness that was felt by a nation, and offered hope for a place “where the streets have no name.”  I’m hardly suggesting that their message was distinctively Christian – only that the language of lament was found in the rock stadia rather than the walls of the Church.

Worship Styles: Dawn argues, quite convincingly, that worship styles are not the real issue, because both “contemporary” and “traditional” assume that the appeal of worship is human creativity.  She cites the fact that traditional churches (Catholic and Orthodox) have seen a recent increase in young Christians despite the repetitiveness of their liturgy – the appeal instead, according to research, is that such liturgies invite participants into the presence of God.

The Kind of God We Worship: The content of worship has often focused on personal feelings about God rather than God’s character.  As in our earlier post, lex orandi, lex credendi: the way we worship often forms our attitudes about what we worship.  The result is that God’s holiness is often minimized and marginalized.

Such a critique is nothing new to me – let’s be cautious that we don’t criticize with an air of spiritual superiority.  The issue has more to do with the imbalance of God’s attributes as described in worship, which often emphasize love to the neglect of other attributes.  If we do not fully understand God’s holiness, righteousness and, yes, even the politically-incorrect doctrine of His anger, how then can we truly understand the magnitude of God’s grace?

Mystery, Awe and Reverence: Ironically the appeal to personal feeling has numbed the worshipping community to the awe-full experiences of God’s majesty.  We’ve allowed the language of the marketplace to dominate God’s worship, and the result is the loss of a true, vivid encounter with who He is.  Dawn cites a lecture by Martin E. Marty in which he argues that while contemporary, seeker-driven worship services may draw crowds, they run the risk of allowing worship to become “measured by the aesthetics and experience of those who don’t yet know why we should shudder.”

The Language for God: Dawn concludes her chapter with a discussion of the way we describe God in our worship, both in music and in the sermon.  Much of her discussion relates to the way we describe God in masculine and feminine terms.  I’d prefer to sidestep this issue for the time being, for no other reason than the fact that this issue ranks much lower on the list of priorities for the church at present.


While I would have greatly preferred an appeal to scripture as much as sociology and tradition, Dawn articulates a genuine need in the content of contemporary worship.

But because I don’t like to align myself with critics without also pointing toward solutions, I conclude with a small sampling of music recommendations.   The following are simply some albums that I have found to be both musically appealing as well as theologically rich.  And they vary in style and genre, so don’t assume the list to be a monolith.  In no particular order:

David Crowder, “B Collision

Sandra McCracken, “The Builder and the Architect

Bifrost Arts, “Come O Spirit! Anthology of Hymns and Spiritual Songs

Derek Webb, “I See Things Upside Down

Gungor, “Beautiful Things

Red Letter, “Red Letter

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