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Everybody Knows

Terry Martin has been attending the Great Emergence Conference down in Memphis, posted an moderately interesting rant yesterday. I’m not sure about the exact context, although I have some guesses.

His first two points I largely agree with–although I would also add that I think there are reasons beyond aesthetic that projection screens are not generally a good idea in a worship setting (more on that in another post).

His third point I think needs more discussion, however, partly because it echoes an objection I see pretty often especially in regard to liturgical innovation. Here’s the point he makes:

3. New is not necessarily better. When drawing together a diverse group in worship, incorporating prayers and/or music that everyone will recognize will unite the gathering and bring in those who feel displaced by liturgical innovations.

I agree to a limited extent with the general intention here; this is, for example, why I am sometimes hesitant about using musical settings of the Lord’s Prayer–because if someone without much church background knows one single prayer, that’s the prayer it’s likely to be.

It as absolutely true that new is not necessarily better; at the same time it is also true that older is not necessarily better, either. Older liturgical materials have been around long enough to be tested and filtered so that (perhaps) much of the really bad has been filtered out. But everything old was new once; more important is finding what is good, what works. This is sometimes a process of trial and error. It seems unsurprising to me that someone would take the opportunity of a large conference of folks at an Emerging Church conference to try out a whole lot of new stuff with a group that has self selected to be fairly receptive of new stuff.

More important, however, is the question raised in the second sentence–what is the best way to bring together a diverse group in worship? I think the assumption that there are specific prayers and hymns that everyone will recognize is an increasingly hazardous one to make, particularly as the diversity of the group increases. One approach to this problem is to try and identify different subgroups and make sure that each will find something that is familiar to them. But even this can be a an assumption dangerous to evangelization; there are a great number of people for who are not familiar with any of our prayers and music. We hope that some of them will find their way into churches, and keep coming back.

It is a great danger to our ability to be hospitable, to our ability to welcome strangers into our midst, if we become too comfortable in what is familiar. It may lull us into assuming that everyone knows the same things, comes from the same background.

This is particularly important for those who plan and lead worship. IF we assume that everyone knows the prayers we are using, the music we are singing, we may forget to teach, forget to lead. We may even forget how to open what is familiar to ourselves so that we can be joined in it by those for whom it is new. Indeed, most of us never learned how to do this in the first place. But it is vital that we do so.

It is, of course, entirely possible to use new material in ways that are closed and opaque to outsiders. I suspect that is at least in part what happened in the liturgy that inspired Father T.’s rant. This is as much, or even more of a problem, as when it is done with traditional liturgy. But such an experience can be instructive, if it helps us remember what it is like to be a stranger, to be experiencing something new and unfamiliar for the first time.

And better yet, working with new material may remind us of the care we must taken to open all liturgy to anyone who may come, and remind us to take as much care with the old as with the new–and that, I think, is what will really help unite a diverse gathering, and bring everyone in.

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