Postmodern worship, in the words of Emerging leader Dan Kimball (The Emerging Church ), while making possible the employment of creativity and improvisation must stay keen to “attribute worth to God [and] to kiss toward him in reverence and lay prostrate.” This attribution, Kimball contends, examines how scriptures describe worship and also takes a serious glance at worship in the early church. Prayer, sacraments, teaching, and community characterized the early church, and because of Christ’s Incarnation, Kimball maintains, Christians today can and should create “multisensory” worship gatherings – meetings of faith and devotion that involve all of the senses. In this view faithful devotion is not merely intellectual assent to a catalogue of doctrines or propositions; faithful devotion involves careful reflection on the aesthetics of worship, the sacred spaces and experiences to which Emerging leaders attend. Emerging gatherings, therefore, aim at holistic worship – worship that involves visual stimuli like icons (but also for religious instruction) or computer technology, physical motion like clapping or kneeling, smelling incense, “tasting” the Eucharistic meal, and “hearing” the voice of God through dialogical conversation. Ideally, holistic worship also includes the participation of all in attendance – both men and women, both old and young. Not only does Kimball advocate the creation of an environment where the postmodern generation might encounter God in various ways, he also advocates the use of silence as a way to connect to others and as a way to teach patience and devotion.1
Another aspect of worship that receives significant attention among Emergent/Emerging pastors, thinkers, and practitioners is the use of art in worship, or simply the use of art as an expression of faith. Both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions have historically used artistic expression in liturgies and devotions, from icons of saints to statues of the Virgin Mary, for example. Yet many in the Emerging/Emergent movement, who are conscious of what we might call the art history of Christianity, maintain spaces for more improvisational and individual expressions of faith. “Visualcy,” Andy Crouch writes, captures the essence of today’s visual culture and suggests that evangelicals must acquire a new kind of literacy for the postmodern age. Crouch is hopeful that a kind of artistic discourse of images will equip evangelicals to thoughtfully engage today’s world: “visual technologies are restoring human beings to our God-given role as communal cultural communicators.”2
Similarly, in an essay titled “Digital Media as Cultural Metaphor,” communications theorist Robert S. Fortner calls for deeper reflection on the “metaphysics of this digital age,” a time during which the growth of digital culture injects a kind of communicative democratization into electronic discourse. For Christians, according to Fortner, this new age demands careful analysis and appropriation of digital technology to the life of faith. “[T]his is the new culture now under construction,” Fortner concludes, “one that – through its metaphorical definition of reality – will reconfigure the symbolic world of humankind and the methodology for recognizing truth. Yet it is this new symbolic world that Scripture and those who believe it must address if we are to make the Word of God relevant to mankind. It is a new Babel.”3 Many in the Emergent/Emerging church recognize this reality, and seek to apply it.
In “Musings on Art and the Relationship to Worship in the 21st Century,” musician and consultant Cathy Townley eschews practical suggestions for how to feature art in worship services in order to display why art is godly and how artists can display godliness. According to Townley, art can uniquely convey the “truth,” which is not always beautiful, and in the end produce a kind of spiritual and ontological transformation. “Art brings the inside outside,” Townley writes, “[and] [a]rt makes you internalize what you perceive. Art begins conversation, and dialogue….Art is the language of the soul.” Townley suggests that visual discourse includes all of humanity in the conversation of God’s perpetual creation(s), and as such “[t]he artist in a human being is sacred space.” In this sense, Townley observes, the human quest for wholeness, healing, and community often comes through artistic mediums, and it is in this dimension of life that true spiritual healing might come. “In a sense,” Townley concludes, “the artist is not only one who has a talent, but is also a metaphor for one who endures the pain of life.”4 Thus, for Townely, the Emerging environment creates the possibility to observe humanity fleshed out, to witness visible healing displayed in the context of a worshiping community.
Moving from theoretical to practical displays of faith, what the authors call “praxis,” Jonny Baker, Doug Gay, and Jenny Brown offer a collection of options in Alternative Worship: Resources From and For the Emerging Church (2004). To enhance and transform worship the authors suggest that Emerging churches might shape services by the inclusion of historical liturgies, the application of communications theories, and displays of artistic expression. Furthermore, devotional and sacramental living might result from these transformative worship settings, whether musically enhanced or artistically ensconced. The authors also suggest that “alternative” worship settings sometimes encourage political engagement framed by theologies of liberation, whether political or gender-based. Even though the authors rightly define their worship as “alternative,” they frame their liturgically innovative suggestions around the “traditional” church calendar so that the church years open with Advent and ends with Pentecost. To demonstrate what the authors mean by “alternative worship,” I will describe enhanced liturgical suggestions from the season of Pentecost.
The authors open the chapter on Pentecost by framing contemporary celebrations of this liturgical season with the recent global explosion of Pentecostalism itself. Large numbers of global Christians practice more pentecostal or charismatic expressions of faith, the authors point out, so it follows that the Emerging church should reflect these trends. The authors also note that much of contemporary theological reflection possesses a renewed focus on pneumatology and its connection to individual spiritual and communal expressions of Spirit-led Christian unity that cross cultural and ethnic boundaries. To accomplish this, the authors offer a number of corporate reader-response prayers and confessions, and also suggest practical ways to display Pentecost. For example, a corporate prayer titled “Opening Doors” reads: “Eternal God, fling open the doors of our hearts to the weather of your Spirit. Lead us out beneath the dancing sky and wind across the stumbling ground of our reality to where the sound of worship never ceases and the view that stretches further than the human eye can see. Through Christ the faithful witness, Amen.” Here geographical and climatological terms suggest the global movement of the Spirit where physical displays of faithful devotion seem to come from liminal impulses. In a section that details ritual practices, the authors suggest that those gathered for worship might anoint one another’s foreheads with oil, bring in electric fans to demonstrate the wind of the Holy Spirit and flash images of the effects of wind on television screens, or even end the service with those gathered by lighting sparklers and playing a song called “Firestarter” to stage the fresh and energetic fire of the Spirit from Pentecost.5 For many Emerging churches, such a radical display of faith and devotion draws on unique gifts within the worshiping community while at the same time honoring long standing traditions of the Christian faith.
Moving from corporate worship to private devotion, Tony Jones’s The Sacred Way: Spiritual Practices for Everyday Life (2005) offers a Protestant embrace of Christian spirituality that spans history and traverses denominational and ecclesial borders. Sacred Way describes measures of spiritual contemplation and explains physical, or “bodily,” ways Christians might express devotion. For Jones, the sacred aspects of devotion include silence, the Jesus Prayer of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, icons, and meditation; physical exercises of faith Jones recommends include fasting, pilgrimage, spiritual labyrinth, walking the Stations of the Cross and making the sign of the Cross. Jones explains that he tired of guilt-induced Protestant devotional practices and upon consultation with an ecumenical array of spiritual and mystical practitioners he began to value the long history of (ancient) Christian devotion. “For me,” Jones writes, “there is incredible richness in the spiritual practices of ancient and modern Christian communities from around the world. Incorporating new ways of praying, meditating, reading the Bible, and so on have fueled my faith and my passion for spirituality….[S]piritual discipline is liberation, for it’s within the time set aside to be disciplined that we are changed and shaped by God.6 Jones visits the history of Christian spiritual formation in order to offer a spirituality that addresses authentically those in today’s world.
1Kimball, The Emerging Church, 114, 127-131, 158, 160.
2Andy Crouch, “Visualcy,” Christianity Today 49/6 (June 2005): 62.
3Robert S. Fortner, “Digital Media as Cultural Metaphor,” in Robert M. Fowler, Edith Blumhofer, and Fernando F. Segovia, eds., New Paradigms for Bible Study: The Bible in the Third Millennium (New York: T & T Clark International, 2004), 21-47, quote from 45.
4Cathy Townley, “Musings on Art and the Relationship to Worship in the 21st Century,” Next-Wave (April 2000),
5Jonny Baker, Doug Gay, and Jenny Brown, Alternative Worship: Resources From and For the Emerging Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 131-146, quote from 133. This resource also comes with a CD-ROM full of songs and other creative suggestions for Christian worship.
For a social scientific analysis of many of the trends and practices recommended by Baker, Gay, and Brown, see William J.F. Keenan, “Twenty-First-Century Monasticism and the Religious Life: Just Another New Millennium,” Religion 32 (2002): 13-26; Mark W. MacWilliams, “Virtual Pilgrimages on the Internet,” Religion 32 (2002): 315-335; Patrick Maxwell, “Virtual Religion in Context,” Religion 32 (2002): 343-354; and Christopher Helland, “Surfing for Salvation,” Religion 32 (2002): 293-302.
6Tony Jones, The Sacred Way: Spiritual Practices for Everyday Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 17, 198.