Theology vs. Pragmatism: The Foundational Difference Between Worship Discussions Then and Now

Zac HicksHistory of Worship and Church Music, Worship Theology & Thought3 Comments

Church history knows no division between theology and worship.  As worship became “institutionalized” in the Church in the Middle Ages, though perhaps excessively mystical, leaders of and reflectors on worship did so through an intensely biblical-theological grid.  The writings and leadership of church music pioneer Hildegaard von Bingen attest to this.  After that period, a thorough study of the Reformation reveals that the reformers were just as much concerned with reforming worship as they were with reforming doctrine.  In fact, a reformation in doctrine meant a reformation of worship.  Not only did Luther and Calvin write treatises on topics of what we now consider “systematic theology”; not only did they expound the Scriptures in countless commentaries.  They published new liturgies (Luther’s Formula Missae and later his Deutsche Mass alongside Calvin’s tweaks of Martin Bucer’s liturgical revisions).  Again, there was no division between theology and worship.

When we briefly fast-forward to the shifts in England with the Puritan movement, we see the same thing.  The Westminster Assembly (1643-1649), famous for its production of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms, was equally tasked by Parliament to produce a Directory for Public Worship.  Woven into the Assembly’s discussion of the sufficiency of the Scripture, the covenants, and the providence of God, were reflections on worship.

On the Roman Catholic side of things, notice that on the docket in many of the councils (e.g. Trent, Vatican II) was not only a discussion of doctrine but of worship and liturgy. 

Where are we now?  We can observe two things.  Firstly, discussion among leaders in worship are largely driven by pragmatism.  Notwithstanding notable exceptions like the annual Calvin Symposium on Christian Worship, the big worship conferences across the United States are usually skimming across the surface of the ocean of theology in order to playfully skip in the shallow pools of pragmatics, from breakout sessions on lighting to corporate presentations on the latest calendaring and music-distribution sites and software.

Secondly, compared to days of old, it seems today that theological discussions, less and less, weave worship into the dialogue.  We worship leaders are not the only ones to blame for this bifurcation.  The ivory tower, too, has done its part.  Colloquia on theology (e.g. the Evangelical Theological Society) seldom process issues of worship and liturgy.  “That’s practical theology,” or “That’s liturgics,” they might say. 

When was the last time theologians gathered to process the salient issues of worship in their day, not only to process but to effect change?  Well, that seems impossible to the evangelical mind, because the theologians neither are the ones calling the liturgical shots, nor are they in dialogue with the ones who do call the shots—the worship leaders.  The theologians might certainly be talking, but it is monological.  Worship leaders aren’t reading them.  And, even if they are reading them, they’re probably not reading them with much eye toward application to their own practice.

We’re kind of in a bind, here.  What’s the solution?   I’m not sure, but I believe that the restoration of the worship leader-pastor model (built into the Levitical priesthood, present in the medieval Church, strong in the Reformation, and alive and well at Westminster) will be part of it.  Worship leaders as (formally or informally) trained theologians…imagine that!  These days it seems so novel and fresh, but in actuality, it is an old, well-worn path of the Christian faith.

3 Comments on “Theology vs. Pragmatism: The Foundational Difference Between Worship Discussions Then and Now”

  1. The issue of media also comes into play and urges worship leaders to play popular songs rather than reflective, deeper ones. The viewpoint can become "to be a good worship leader, I should play songs people like."

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