Worship for Dummies

Like a Georgia Pine in a sea of Dogwoods, Marva J. Dawn’s Reaching Out without Dumbing Down. A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-Century Culture, stands out among the myriads of writings on worship. It tops my list of books on worship.

Knowing how to fit culture into our worship—and not the other way around—is the primary focus of Dawn. Culture cannot be avoided in our worship, and true worship should not elude us because of our culture. Dawn’s concern is that the American Christian’s worship is being “dumbed down” because of the infringing elements of culture that are not conducive to worship. Churches have become so culture sensitive that many elements of authentic worship are missing.

“Reaching Out without Dumbing Down” was written just a few years before the turn of the century when the battles over the style of music in the American Church was at its highest frenzy. Obvious from the title, she laments elements of authentic worship that are absent and losing prominence in many churches. Yet, unlike many who have criticized the evolution of worship to be nothing more than entertainment, Dawn points us to the core of worship. Her concerns are not unfounded and her arguments are as valid today as they were just 15 years ago.

I don’t believe Dawn would particularly appreciate the worship of the church I attend in metro-Atlanta. Our “worship services” draw the crowds with music that is upbeat and loud. We have roving and flashing lights and that smoky-misty stuff wafting through the auditorium. Rarely is a traditional hymn sung and hardly ever is there any element that could be considered liturgical. We do open our Bibles and public prayer is a common thread. The sermons are Biblical and challenging, though specific calls to respond are absent. I like our “worship.” Yet, Dawn provides a healthy appeal to me, and others like me who appreciate our brand of contemporary worship, to ask the question, “Is authentic worship taking place.” On many levels, Dawn simply reminds us of the basics of worship.

Though Dawn and I would probably not be consistently found in the same worship arenas, much of what she writes is applicable and worth contemplating for any worship leader and worship participant today. She does an excellent job of exposing elements of culture that influence our worship. Don’t think, however, that she dismisses the positive role of culture in worship. Culture is critical to worship. She sums her thoughts on this subject well by writing, “The Church’s worship ought not to be so ‘alien’ that it does not communicate with the culture around it, but at the same time it dare not be so ‘resident’ as to empty the gospel of its transforming power.”

One of the elements I appreciate in Dawn’s spotlight on worship is that she does not limit the conversation to music. Music is just one part of the church’s “worship service.” She aptly speaks to silence, preachers and the sermon (message), evangelism, reading of the Bible, art, and the open discussion of deeper Christian truth.

Dawn is an exceptional writer and knows how to clarify the obvious and challenge accepted norms. I certainly recommend Reaching Out without Dumbing Down. –Note that the subtitle has been changed to “A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time.”

Below are some of my favorite quotes from the book. Perhaps you stumbled across this page as a result of one of these quotes appearing in my tweets (http://twitter.com/jackwbruce).

Part 1: Our Culture and the Church’s Worship

Christian worship…is being affect adversely by aspects of our culture that “dumb down” everything.” p. 4

Children who watch a lot of television have smaller brains.

Part 2: The Culture Surrounding our Worship

The bombardment of hyped media impressions creates the need for worship to be similarly upbeat. P. 42

Our sermons must be focused on the Word of God, which the “special” domain of Christianity. P. 46

To attract people from our culture, some Christian churches depend upon glitz and spectacle and technological toys, rather than on the strong substantive declaration of the Word of God and its authoritative revelation for our lives. P. 50

Churches can go to the extreme by “becoming completely alien to the culture in sticking to traditions or celebrating them in a way irrelevant to normal life.” P. 59

To be driven only by a marketing analysis of what people “need” is to lose the uniqueness of the Church’s truth in a false attempt at love.” P. 60

We must avoid the dangers of both intellectualism and of emotionalism. P. 72

Part 3: The Culture of Worship

Worship is for God only! Many battles over worship styles would be eliminated if this answer were kept in mind as the foundational criterion for planning what we do, not matter what forms we use. P. 81

It is a misnomer to call services “worship” if their purpose is to attract people rather than to adore God. P. 81

The purpose of church services has shifted from giving an offering of worship to receiving a blessing. P. 81

Genuine worship happens when everyone knows that God is the audience. P. 82

Churches actually do worship participants a disservice if their praise of God ignores life’s harsh realities and God’s presence in the midst of them. P. 89

I need worship that lets me lament and find in that cry God’s caring presence. P. 93

“Worship must center on God, glorify Christ, involve people, express praise, communicate the truth of the Bible, encourage faith, promise redemption, reflect the incarnation, build up the Church, install vision, make an offering, nurture communion, and evoke an ‘Amen.'” –Gaddy p. 94

Holiness without love incites terror; love without holiness invites libertinism. P. 96

People will have difficulty understanding that God’s Being requires reverence if they know worship services are not reverent.—David Wells p. 96

Focusing 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

The very methods that attract crowds might also prevent the development of habits reflection and learning. P. 111

The difficulty for churches is to find worship practices that invite boomers to experience the truth of God without the self-absorption that distorts it. P. 113

The entertainment mind-set is evidence when people attend worship for “what I will get out of it.” P. 124

Let us continually remember that unbelievers are brought to Christ 95 percent of the time not by style of worship but by friends. P. 125

When we shape the worship of the church around what the unchurched desire we are allowing those who know least about our faith to determine its expression (paraphrased from P. 145)

Sometimes in their attempt to make worship “exciting” parishes lose the very members who can best teach them about true worship. P. 149

Worship that is too easy cheats us. It deprives us of the grandeur of an infinite God. P. 149

Part 4: The Culture in Our Worship

We should not shape the believer’s worship and praise of God around the needs of visitors. P. 168

No matter how musically wonderful, pieces must be rejected if the text is theological inadequate. P. 170

We want our worship music to appeal to the whole person – will, emotions, and intellect. P. 175

In general—no matter what styles of music are used—there is a lack of lament in most of the Church’s worship. P. 176

What people listen to during the week on their radios does not necessarily dictate what they want in church music. P. 181

Worship music should be led by people who practice their instruments for the sake of others and not to elevate themselves above others to manipulate others. P. 190

Many church marketers suggest that high art drives people away from the Church, but what about all the artist and others who appreciate good music who are driven away by the Church’s toleration of mediocre music or art? P. 194

Propriety, not mere popularity, should guide those who plan worship music. P. 197

Christians have become so accustomed to sermons that do not change their lives that they see nothing wrong with them. P. 213

The Christian community is an alternative society. P. 215

Regrettably, many preachers fail as Christians before they fail as preachers because they do not think biblically. –Haddon Robinson p. 218

Using God’s own words in liturgical responses helps to remind us that worship is God’s gift to us before it can be our gift to God. P. 243

Liturgy should be accessible and understandable to worship participants—that is, it should be translated into the vernacular… p. 253

Many contemporary alternative worship services not only neglect silence but also seem to bury any opportunities for meditation and reflection. P. 265

Perhaps our crosses are too beautiful—we forget that they are meant to die on. P. 270

Worship in the United States seems more often to be characterized by boredom than by glimpses of heaven. P. 275

Part 5: Worship for the Sake of the Culture

Many churches who want desperately to attract people to Christ miss the point of offering worship so shallow that not enough of Christ is proclaimed to engender lasting belief. P. 280

If people are introduced to a Christianity composed only of happiness and good feelings, where will the staying power be when chronic illness, family instability, or long-term unemployment threatens? P. 280

The only means for keeping worship free of idolatries is to keep God the subject. P. 285

Worship: It’s about God, stupid! –Hendricks p. 289

If we want our worship services to reach out to the nonbelieving we must present the real God in all his fullness and not just a thin layer of generalized spirituality. P. 288

We must not obscure the truth of Christ by transforming a congregation into an audience, transforming proclamation into performance or transforming worship into entertainment. –Douglas Webster P. 292

If ‘unchurched Harry’ feels perfectly at home in our churches, then chances are that we have no longer an authentic household of faith, but a popular cultural religion. P. 292

The Church’s worship ought not to be so “alien” that it does not communicate with the culture around it, but at the same time it dare not be so “resident” as to empty the gospel of its transforming power. P. 293



Jack Bruce lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and four children.

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