Perspectives on Christian Worship: Five Views is a 2009 publication from Broadman & Holman Publishers, edited by J. Matthew Pinson.
Its contributors are: Timothy C.J. Quill (Liturgical Worship), Ligon Duncan (Traditional Evangelical Worship), Dan Wilt (Contemporary Worship), Michael Lawrence and Mark Dever (Blended Worship), and Emerging Worship (Dan Kimball).
I found the contribution by Dan Kimball particularly interesting, and that’s the one I’m going to focus on here.
Kimball, like all the other contributors, lives in the US. He is the teaching pastor at Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California.
Kimball purports to speak somewhat on behalf of the Emergent movement. However, there is to my mind a big difference between his teaching and that of, say, Brian Maclaren: Kimball seeks to build on the foundation of doctrinal orthodoxy, whereas Maclaren contrives to undermine that foundation.
What is ’emerging worship’? For Kimball it is simply ‘expressions of worship that are relating to how people in today’s culture communicate, learn, and express their love to God.’
This should be done, Kimball repeatedly stresses, ‘without minimizing God’s character or violating the eternal truths of Scripture.’ This is reassuringly clear, although also concerningly broad.
Kimball stresses that every church service is influenced by culture. He rightly says that ‘almost all of the specific ways we worship in most churches today are neither directed nor informed by the Scriptures themselves, but rather evolved from people in church leadership, reflecting the culture of their time.’
‘The truth is that none of us is really worshiping the way the early church originally worshiped. Thus, if we argue that we should not be influenced by culture, then we must recognize that most of us already have been (although the culture that influenced us might stem back to the 1500s).’ For a preacher to be attired in liturgical robes, a Geneva gown, or suit and tie is as reflective of cultural influences as the wearing of a t-shirt and jeans.
The question is: Which culture? Liturgical and ‘traditional’ worship reflects the culture of long ago, whereas contemporary and emerging worship reflects today’s culture. However, culture is not neutral, and we have to work out the extent to which Christ and his gospel are ‘for’ any particular cultural expression, and the extent to which they might be ‘against’ it.
Why is it important? For Kimball, the main reasons seems to be emerging worship is necessary in order to connect with today’s emerging generation. Most churches have few people under the age of thirty-five, and we must do something about it.
We must take account of people’s differing learning styles and preferences. We should use the tactile/kinaesthetic and visual channels, as well as the auditory. I think there is some truth in Kimball’s claim that many churches focus on a cognitive and one-way expression of worship, and neglect more emotional expressions. However (a) I am not convinced that the theory of learning styles referred to is rigorously evidence-based; (b) although learning is part of what we do in church, it is not the only thing, and arguably not even the main thing; (c) Kimball goes too far in seeking to offer people what they want.
Following Gary Thomas, Kimball suggests that the Bible itself recognises different spiritual ‘temperaments’: those who express their love for God through nature, those who express this through the senses, others through ritual and symbol, and so on. When Kimball concedes that we cannot be sure that all of these ‘temperaments’ are reflected in the worship of the early church as recorded in the New Testament, he is guilty, I think, of a massive understatement.
Dan Kimball moves on to suggest that we approach worship through a ‘palette’ of different expressions. These are ‘painted on’ with the ‘brushes’ of prayer and Scripture. The ‘colours’ include: Sacred Space, Musical Worship, Teaching and Spoken Word, Painting/Sculptures, Video/Film and Photography.
While I do not agree with Lawrence and Dever when, in their response to Kimball, they assert that the use of painting and sculpture in worship violates the Second Commandment, I do think that Kimball has set the parameters for acceptable worship too widely. This is partly because he seems more concerned to meet the needs of the culture than to follow the lead of Scripture, and partly because his criteria for acceptability are too broad and ill-defined (anything that does not ‘[minimize] God’s character or violating the eternal truths of Scripture’).
So, if we apply the ‘brush’ of Scripture to this very ‘palette of colours’, then we have to say that most of these ‘colours’ do not occur in the NT description of worship at all. Take ‘sacred space’, for example. We can agree with Kimball that ‘something is communicated’ whenever people walk into a place of worship. But this is a long way from dressing up a room with curtains, candles, artwork, prayer stations, and so on. Whatever we do with the spaces in which we meet (which were, in New Testament times, people’s homes anyway, as Kimball well knows) we must remember the solemn words of the apostle: ‘The Most High does not live in houses made by men’ (Acts 7:48).
Take ‘musical worship’, as another example. Kimball tells us that ‘music is a very big part of most gatherings in emerging worship’. I would want to say that although the New Testament does recognise that believers can and will sing God’s praises, there is a deafening silence with regards to the use of any musical instruments. That is not to say that the use of such instruments is thereby forbidden; but it is to say that their use is much less central to Christian worship than is commonly supposed.
I am really pleased that Dan Kimball takes the preaching and teaching of Scripture seriously. I agree that what is often assumed to be ‘good’ preaching today (carefully-constructed sermons of 20-30 minutes, with three main points) is not prescribed anywhere in the Bible. But it doesn’t require emergent thinking to be able to insist that our preaching needs to be both intellectually rigorous and practically relevant, or to assert that we may need to vary our homiletical approach according to the genre of the passage being preached from, or to say that it’s more important for a message to reach the hearts and lives of the hearers than for every word to be meticulously ‘rehearsed’. (However, I do think that Kimball creates a false dichotomy between ‘correct’ teaching and life-changing teaching: the only teaching that will change lives in a godward direction is teaching which is faithful to God’s word). I have no problem with the idea of preachers acknowledging the difficulties within the Bible, and of sometimes saying, “I don’t know.” Similarly, yes, ‘we need to teach the struggles of life.’
I also like the idea of asking God to transform the local church into a a “worshiping community of missional theologians.”
Again, moving the pastor away from the spotlight helps us to recognise and reflect the New Testament principle that church leadership is always shared.
The idea of encouraging questions and answers, together with other forms of interaction, is good, so long as the authority of God’s word (and the derived authority of the teacher) is observed. After all, much of our Lord’s most precious teaching (not to mention some of his miracles) came about as a result of his being interrupted!
The suggestion that the Bible might be read by members of the congregation has been taken for granted for many years in the UK. Actually, I would slightly push back on this one, suggesting that, in my experience, the Bible is quite often not read with sufficient audibility, clarity, or expression. To have the Bible read meaningfully is more important than the token inclusiveness of assuming that (almost) anyone can do it. I have no problem at all with more than one voice being used for some scripture readings: I’ve arranged it thus on a number of occasions in our own church.
Agreed, to, that the sheep not only need to be fed, but that adult sheep need to be taught how to feed themselves. But, again, you don’t need to be emergent to see this, or to take steps to make it happen.
Kimball wants us to understand the ‘limitations’ of the sermon. I readily agree that if sermon-hearing is a person’s only exposure to biblical teaching, then this would certainly tend to stunt that individual’s spiritual life. But I’m not convinced that anybody needs (or can be expected to) remember the content of a sermon some weeks later. It has sometimes been said that the sermons we hear are like the meals that we eat: they can and should nourish us even when we cannot recall the details at a future date.
I’m not going to comment in detail about what Kimball has to say about the use of fine arts, painting and sculpture within an act of worship. Kimball himself admits that the Bible itself has hardly anything to say about this, and I think that we should take its silence (especially in the New Testament) as significant. Obviously, the Bible has nothing at all to say about film, video and photography, but the same principle still applies. On the other hand, I would like to acknowledge (in contrast to more extreme traditionalists) that Scripture, although obviously consisting of nothing but words, demonstrates a high degree of sense appeal. For that reason, I think that use visual imagery to support prayer and preaching can be appropriate and helpful. I observe that some of today’s finest preachers (John Piper, for example) use non-verbal skills (such as facial expression and gesture) extensively and very effectively. For them, the spoken word is the main thing, but not the only thing.
For similar reasons (the Bible has little or nothing to say about prayer techniques as such), I’m slightly nervous about ‘creative’ approaches to prayer, but I’m open to the idea of prayer stations and so on.
Unlike a number of emergent practitioners, Dan Kimball seeks to be faithful to classical orthodoxy. I’m very encouraged by that. He pays a lot of attention to what people want, and I think that he should be a bit more critical of that approach. Conversely, he pays too little attention to what Scripture does (and does not) says about forms of worship. Some of his more exotic ideas about permissible worship styles seem to me to go beyond the guidance that we receive in the Bible. Many of his more acceptable ideas could and should be (and sometimes are) adopted by churches who would not align themselves with the emergent movement.