In a recent seminary class, we were reviewing key moments in the history of the church. My colleague Scott Hoezee asked students to think about what church life would have been like in six different centuries. As students reflected on each of these different moments in history, it struck me that in each of them public worship would have been led almost entirely by a single pastor, with the help of a single musician (who may have worked with a small choir or other group of musicians), according to a pretty established order of worship, and drawing on a fairly small musical repertoire (usually a common body of 100-400 songs). Despite the diversity of practices that we are learning to appreciate in nearly every period in church history, this overall pattern has been pretty constant: for Mennonites and Methodists, revival preachers and Catholic priests, Presbyterians and Pentecostals. In many places this is still true: a couple key people lead worship in most places, most congregations don’t know more than 200 songs, most congregations work with a fairly set order of worship—even the “low church” ones.
Still, the historical differences shock me. We all have access to thousands of songs. Many people improvise an order of worship each week. Many churches invite many people into the worship planning and leading process. This is all part of why I believe that it is accurate to say that never before has Christian worship been changing in so many directions at the same time.
When I describe this I find that most people either cheer or weep. The reactions are strong in one direction or another. But suppose we push beyond our visceral responses to ask deeper questions? How can we keep our poise in an era of change? Those of you who cheer change: what dangers do you see in all of this and how can they be avoided? Those of you who weep change: what resources for making wise choices would you recommend, and what good do you see despite the losses you feel?
In fifty years, when we look back at the last decade or so, what regrets will we have? What will endure and what will seem faddish?