Finding Space for Worship

Photo by  Daniel Tseng  on  Unsplash

Barring a sudden loss of any good standing I have left with the institution, I am being conferred a Bachelor of Science in Music and Worship Studies with a concentration in Pastoral Leadership. I spent three years of school developing a robust theology, philosophy, and methodology of creative expression in ecclesial spaces only to deconstruct the theology, abandon the philosophy, and find myself sitting in the uncomfortably quiet space generally called methodology.

My theological foundation has since been granted new footing, and while less clearly defined—resistance to fundamentalism in any regard is inherent to progressive theology—it serves to reorient the potential for a philosophy of worship 

During my sophomore year of college, Hillsong Church's own fast-fashion-if-it-were-a-band Hillsong United released its album "Empires", a collection of songs written throughout the producer's son's struggle with a life-threatening heart condition. There was a somber humility to it, an existential grief rarely heard in the mainstream of Christian music, and as an elated worship major eager to appropriate these songs for congregational use, I was astounded not just by the intimate nature of expression I was hearing, but the potential it had to stand in contrast to the problematic idealism permeating much of the Evangelical ecclesial superstructure.

There was one song in particular, the final track on the album (if you hadn't purchased Target's exclusive copy):

"Don't turn your eyes from me / for my love won't be undone"

"Closer Than You Know" was and is a song that resonates on a deep level with my spirituality, particularly as a person prone to melancholy and an associated numbness. It was a reminder, for me, that there is something behind, beneath, above—something else that permeated reality in microscopic and macroscopic capacities.

"Don't hide your face from me / for my light has surely come"

These aren't remarkably unique lyrics. They won't provoke any strong reaction from most people. However, in that ten-minute song's own self-aware narrative, I was finding a deeply meaningful connection to the rhythms of my spirituality. To this day, the song means something profound to me. I still get a little teary-eyed finding myself grasp for words where none seem appropriate.

The following years brought with them a set of challenges unique to my studies and passion, and unlike many who undergo a transition out of or into a new spiritual paradigm, I was increasingly interested in what it would mean to be out, progressive, and a "worship leader". (If you're as uncomfortable with that language as I am, "music director" or "creative director" certainly suffice.)

That song's meaning and value to my own spirituality was redefined as my view of God was expanded. A punitive understanding of atonement was replaced with the humility of God on a cross, and my love of the Divine grew my love for worship.

Music and all forms of creative expression are essential to my spiritual wellbeing.

Music moves us, whether to tears or action, and it provides a measure of unity as voices and instruments join in a textural composition unique to its contributors. It informs a collective identity, creating a sonic table around which we can gather and be fed, enfolding one another with love.

For some Christians who've abandoned Evangelical theology and ecclesial spaces, there remains something of a gap between the theology and forms of expression in the faith spaces comprising the spectrum of progressive ecclesiology. I've not conducted a study on this—it's purely anecdotal, and I'm speaking from my experiences and conversations I've had with others.

There also exists a population of relatively progressive Christians embracing conservative Evangelical churches strictly for the relevant forms of expression, whether through music, forms of visual art, or open engagement with cultural trends. (Again, this is an anecdotal observation.)

Somewhere between my post-Evangelical year in a mainline church, Pentecostal upbringing, Lutheran education, and Southern Baptist degree, a longing for a kind of expressive freedom was reborn in the wake of theological reconstruction.

Though I would tend to dismiss systematic thinking in theological contexts, a system of thought is helpful here: Progressive Christians generally have a multiplicity of views on the methodology of worship, this being informed by denominationally varied traditions and theological nuance.

All of this begs the question: What the hell am I talking about?

I've tweeted about it, I've promised blog posts about it (sorry), so here I am to say something with minimal qualification and an enormous caveat: I'm not naive—white, conservative, Evangelical spaces foster profound bigotry against LGBTQ+ people, the continuance of systemically racist theology, and practice a uniquely authoritarian form of bad-faith leadership at great cost. These are things against which Christians who embrace a godly vision of justice and radical inclusivity fight daily, many of whom are doing so through enormous familial, fiscal, and emotional loss.

This is not easy. It's not simple. People can experience visceral reactions against music; these songs can be their own kind of triggers, working against the potential for growth away from and out of situations of ecclesiological abuse.

I'm not here to prescribe a one-size-fits-all solution to an esoteric question of orthopraxy. As with any ecclesial subject, these matters demand pastoral care, nuance, and contextualization. (I know there are blind spots in my understanding of this subject. I'm still learning.)

Progressive theology, an admittedly wide umbrella, generally resists the idea God demands prostrate "praise", instead elevating the role of creative expression and participation as a means of Divine experience. To borrow language that overly anthropomorphizes God, the Divine does not necessitate ambivalent recitation of vertically-aligned phraseology.

We can find the potential for "praise" to become a spiritual experience of contemplation, joy, gratitude, and reflection—all of this done in community. It can be a practice that provides an orientation towards healing.

Just as David danced naked in the streets, so, too can we participate in Divine joy through any style, any rhythm, any sound.

An example: "How Great Is Our God", arguably problematic on a number of levels, becomes less about blithely appeasing God's narcissism and assuaging a shame-riddled conscience; instead, it functions as an expression of love and gratitude for the Being Whose greatness is both within and without the limits of language.

What's particularly exciting is that it becomes a song of liberation, a cry for justice. This illumines the problem generally present in the contemporary Christian worship music industry: Whiteness is intractably tied to the dominance of what has become the liturgical standard in white Evangelicalism over the past couple decades.

I'm acknowledging my own complicity in the erasure of the contributions of black songwriters and Gospel music as the foundation upon which my spiritual language was developed. True liturgy, the work of the people, is a humble expression of diversity with diversity, not an abstract imposition of whiteness on an ecclesial space. It rejects systems of power and abuse, embracing a radical new paradigm wherein music and creative expression serve to powerfully bind communities together.

the music comprising ecclesial spiritual expression is elastic, capable of redefinition in light of NEW THEOLOGICAL premises.

Such is already the practice of Evangelical gatherings across the more narrow conservative spectrum. There is a fair level of difference between the theology of Elevation Church and Thomas Road Baptist, Hopevale Church and St. Paul's Lutheran. Yet, you'll hear each of these congregations, all of whom carry significant divergence in some essential theological ideas, singing a comfortably middle-of-the-road Hillsong lead single from 2012.

Why? They're actively redefining the terms in light of their own convictions.

Does this always work? Absolutely not. You won't find the LCMS congregation singing Bethel Music's "Mercy"—the content of the song is irredeemably out of theological bounds. To some extent, we're already doing this, and many progressive Christians will happily refuse or rewrite songs overly concerned with blood sacrifice or patriarchal language. Several denominations have altered phrases and words in songs for hundreds of years: Boundaries should exist without question.

Most of us still involved in churches know and sing with enthusiasm "Great is Thy Faithfulness", finding ourselves emotionally invested in the climactic final verse of "How Great Thou Art"; we're stomping our feet in that final chord of "Total Praise" and feeling the goosebumps as Beyoncé runs down every possible scale in "Precious Lord, Take My Hand".

If the songs of the Church—even those emanating from contemporary Christian writers—continue to resonate with your spirituality, you needn't feel bad. You're not alone in this.

In a sense, the redefinition of music developed in oppressive settings serves as its own form of justice.

The songs forged in the good and the bad of Christian history have transcended theological and ideological boundaries in the midst of profound complexity, and this tradition should find itself welcome in progressive spaces, even as we forge our own forms of expression.

This active use of art developed out of varied, conflicting theological premises illustrates a helpful point for progressive Christians: Insofar as we're willing to embrace the beauty of liturgical rhythms and tradition through a new theological lens, making space for the disagreement and deconstruction along the way, many of us are more than willing to embrace and make use of forms of expression emanating out of black and white Evangelical communities.

If your community is comfortable with the structure of your liturgical practice, by all means: Thrive in your context. I'm here for it! I'll be cheering you on, grateful for your rich and substantive contribution to the plethora of spiritual languages available to the Church. It's meaningful to me, too.

If you're like me, and you miss the participatory language in which you were raised to experience and communicate with God, there's space to be made for worship as we redefine its terms. Our theology of worship becomes an expression of life as it truly is in and with Divine experience, our philosophy becomes an embrace of creative elasticity, and our methodology becomes the generous incorporation of music and art developed in and out of varied creative contexts throughout history.

In a sense, we can do what we've always done: Make space.

It may seem counterintuitive, perhaps offensive; I'm not here to tell you what to do, but I am here to express a specific need, one that embraces contemporary Christian (not explicitly white Evangelical) forms of expression with space to agree and disagree.

There are churches in the world striking a creative balance, leveraging all sorts of musical contexts to foster unique spaces representative of their congregational needs. Nonetheless, more space is needed in progressive ecclesiology for those longing to hold, with gracious tension, a tradition and vision that amplifies their own spiritual language.

I hope, with whatever faculties I possess, to continue building these spaces.