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Andrw Jones


5 worship experiences. 4 weeks. 3 countries. 2 books. 1 heavy suitcase, stuffed with the gizmos and gadgets that are the stock and trade of a worship VJ (video jockey). Couched beneath my projector and iBook are two books that I intend to read and review on the plane trips between the conferences. Call it a worship road-test.

The two books being lugged around the world are The Great Worship Awakening: Singing a New Song in the Postmodern Church, by Robb Redman, a pastor and consultant from Texas; and All in Sync: How Music and Art Are Revitalizing American Religion, by Robert Wuthnow, who directs the Study of Religion at Princeton University and has written other books on the topic.

The road ahead is cruel and demanding. These books will be taken into the most extreme worship environments imaginable and be asked to perform with insight, perspective, and wise counsel.

To be honest, I don't expect a great deal of success. Redman's book appears to be about singing in church. It is written with papal nicety, in seminary prose, possibly too delicate to handle the demands of post-charismatic, post-Reformation worship. And yet it promises to be a "travel guide that points out the issues to encounter along the journey." But can it appreciate the intricacies of a nonlinear worship journey that avoids a pre-determined outcome? Let's wait and see.

Wuthnow's book takes a more scholarly approach, leaning on its backbone of research, a 400-strong choir of statistic-singing voices, each one a compelling argument that creativity is a significant part of American spirituality. Yet on first impression, it appears old school, snobbish and hierarchical, a book for high church people who drive Oldsmobiles. The churches used as examples tend to be large, at least 30 years old, and nothing at all like the organic churches being started by the starving artists and 20-something church planters in some of our road-tests. Still, I have an open mind. And a heavy suitcase.

The Testing Environments

• Sabitage, A multimedia worship installation in Austin, Texas. 10 environments in a house party context. A labyrinth of experiences. Too many computers to count. A wicked-cool VJ throwing images on the house while DJS create a sonic layer of ambient beats. Mostly Baptists.

• Lectio Divina, mixed with Celtic prayer, led in a Baptist youth room. Mixed group. Some denominational executives.

• Gospel Brunch at a downtown club, led by a black gospel band. Protestants.

• Post-charismatic (no chorus singing) experience involving Stations of the Cross and multimedia muraling in a Catholic monastery, Netherlands. Mostly young Assembly of God church planters.

• Postmodern worship experience, Rydal Hall, England. Heavy use of projected images and nonlinear music. Mission leaders and research professionals ranging from Salvation Army to Pentecostal.

Road-test summary: a worship leader's worst nightmare.

• • •

Here are the results:

The Denominational Test

Both books worked fine across denomination boundaries and in a cross-platform worship context. Redman focuses on the evangelical churches and is more prescriptive than Wuthnow, dispensing practical wisdom to those leading worship in contexts as varied as seeker-sensitive, liturgical, contemporary, and charismatic.

Wuthnow is strongest in describing the mainline denominations, yet the discoveries from his research will be of immense value to all.

The Executive Test

Wuthnow's book felt very comfortable in the presence of mission and denominational executives. In fact, the book was growling, jumping up and down in my luggage; it had so much to say and was so fluent in the appropriate language. This is where the book shines. The research is not only trustworthy; it is also the right stuff. Wuthnow had the foresight to ask the right questions. His results are striking and never insulting. Here are some highlights:

Creativity appears consistent across the ages: among the worshippers studied, 55 percent of those age 18-29, 55 percent of those age 30-49, and 57 percent of those 50 and over use music and art in prayer. This concurs with similar studies done by Paul Ray (Cultural Creatives) and Richard Florida (The Rise of the Creative Class), but Wuthnow takes the argument into the church, where creativity must avoid the pitfalls of generational categorization. Creativity is not a youth thing!

The most common way that creativity is sparked and expressed among Americans is by "travelling, taking trips and sightseeing" (52 percent). Cooking and entertaining (42 percent) was almost twice as popular as singing or playing a musical instrument (24 percent), which is precisely where the churches place most of their worship resources.

I make an immediate connection between travel as a stimulus to creativity and the resurgence of pilgrimage as a worship experience, and between cooking/entertaining and the rise of house worship experiences. Whether Wuthnow comes to the same conclusions is not the point (he doesn't mention pilgrimage or the house church movement). All in Sync provides the most useful research data on worship and creativity that I have come across in a long time.

Among mission and denominational leaders, I found Redman useful for a different purpose. We worship in a cross-platform world, one of modularity rather than singularity, and those who lead must know the pitfalls and potentials of the many worship streams. Someone needs to see the forest, and the way through it.

Redman is the man for the moment, showing the road ahead for worship strategy while at the same time providing counsel for a completely different stream, should a church want to diversify or add another service.

The Gospel Brunch Test

This was the wild card, the hairpin curve of worship road-tests. And yet both Rob(b)s performed without a hiccup. Why did the Baptists enjoy the Gospel Brunch while the others stayed home? According to Wuthnow's research, 70 percent of evangelicals "especially like gospel music" but only 47 percent of mainline Protestants. And Catholics? A mere 21 percent. That explained their absence.

With great economy, Redman lays down the history of black gospel music, the origins of "slave worship," the "brush arbor" meetings, their "invisible institution" ecclesiology, and the accompanying worldview (emotive understanding, holism, relational connection, physical participation).

This is the beauty of Redman's book. Its value is in the threads, the historical precedents that underscore our current practices, from Finney's "anxious bench" to the Methodists' "love feast." All of it relevant, informative, and delightful.

The Liturgical Test

Flying colors! Both cover the resurgence of liturgy, the use of icons, the fascination with monastic meditation and the reforms of Vatican 2.0. Wuthnow tackles the subject with the competence of an insider. Redman joins hands with Robert Webber in describing the liturgical renewal inside the evangelical church. And with Sally Morganthaler in weaving the liturgical into existing worship services.

The International Test Across the Atlantic, Redman's book is quite aware of its American bent. Its historical threads are local and immediate. The Dutch might expect to read of the Netherlands' sweeping innovations and global impact on church music during the 1500s. The English still see themselves as the source of worship history and would not be amused. But the models of worship overseas are similar, and Redman's counsel will be valuable worldwide.

Wuthnow's book was surprisingly at home in England and on the Continent, since the trends he describes might be as global as they are American. It should have its own passport.

The Emerging Culture Test

The Sabitage event was the ultimate trial. Unfair, perhaps, since these books deal more with fixed-space worship than worship-on-the-move (labyrinths, stations, etc.), and stage-led rather than hands-on experiences. Very few books would speak intelligently here. Alternative Worship (Jonny Baker and Doug Gay) comes the closest. Or perhaps The Prodigal Project (Mark Pierson et al.).

Redman's book fared surprisingly well with the new media. He restates the postmodern discussion, synthesizing the usual suspects, though in a manner more predictable than prophetic. He also tackles the "rave mass," the bricolage of video technology, and assures us that the new does not supersede the old but "new media often transform older forms and lead to new forms and hybrids." Well said!

Wuthnow's book, as I feared, was frowning at the wild antics of these new-media artists. They had broken all hierarchies of "high" and "low," art for galleries and crafts for the studio, house for living and church for worshipping. Concepts of layering, threading, mixing, and looping were hinted at by Redman but ignored by Wuthnow, who treats new media as old media with electricity. No DJS here.

Still, Wuthnow's book was not dumbfounded. It addressed the potential of the imagination, the use of body movement, and gender involvement, and acknowledged installation artist Meredith Monk, whose legacy is felt strongly at this event. Wuthnow's account of a woman using art as a healing language to plum the depths of her own mysterious spirituality, and as a means of expressing that to the world, was highly descriptive of what Sabitage was about.

This is the big surprise of All in Sync. It is a wealth of information, born of modern research, hemmed in by a traditional framework, and yet it is also a book of passion, opening the heart of creativity, releasing worship out of its small ecclesial bowl and into the ocean of creative possibilities. And it has the numbers to prove it.

Andrew Jones leads the Boaz Project and is a consultant for the Baptist General Convention of Texas. He and his family just walked part of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail in Spain.

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