The Last Thirty Years

A Conversation with Albert Aymer, Nancy Beach, Brian McLaren, Eugene Peterson, Larry Sibley, John Witvliet, Joyce Zimmerman

A colleague was asked point-blank at a workshop recently, “Have changes in worship in the last generation been good or bad?”    

     The short answer may be yes.

A longer answer was given at a day-long seminar at the Calvin Symposium on Worship 2006. The seminar featured a panel of prominent worship leaders who had probably never been together in the same room before. They reflected in very different ways on one of the central topics in twentieth-century North American religion: changes in worship practices.

John Witvliet, who moderated the panel, introduced the topic by saying that future historians studying this fascinating and formative period in church history will want to get a recording of the day’s discussions, “because they’re going to be able to do almost their whole book on the basis of the insight and wisdom of all the experience represented here.”

But the topic of recent changes in worship practices is more than an academic undertaking, Witvliet said; it lies at the root of how the church sees itself and its mission.

“Our attitudes towards change make a huge difference for day-to-day ministry,” he said. “Left unchecked, they can breed extremes on both ends of the spectrum—an attitude toward ministry that is fueled by either despair on the one hand or a kind of over-confidence on the other: despair that becomes unable to see what God is doing through the church and in the church today, overconfidence that can lead to a kind of blindness to other ways God may be at work.

The panel was like a recipe for worship wisdom: it included one Roman Catholic scholar (Joyce Zimmerman), one Orthodox Presbyterian historian (Larry Sibley), one United Methodist president of an African Methodist Episcopal Zion seminary (Albert Aymer), one eloquent author of “spiritual theology” (Eugene Peterson), one pastor from the seminal megachurch Willow Creek (Nancy Beach), and the face of the emergent church movement (Brian McLaren).

The resulting concoction featured some striking commonalties, but also exhibited the distinct voices and different experiences of each speaker.

The seminar followed the course of four over-arching questions.

1. How has worship changed in your congregation and tradition?

This question led to an intriguing series of personal reflections as each speaker recalled the formative influences on his or her worship. Zimmerman recalled the days of Vatican II in the early 1960s, when nightly news reports eagerly relayed the proceedings from the Vatican.

Zimmerman observed, “Within the Roman Catholic Church today we have probably at least as broad a spectrum” of views of worship renewal as in Protestant worship—with some Catholics strongly opposed to the work of the council and others saying it didn’t go far enough. Since Vatican II, Zimmerman said, many Catholics believe that “we have had adaptation in worship, but very little real renewal.”

Calling himself “a child of the Jesus Movement,” McLaren said worship in his church has gone from centering on individual experience and evangelism to embodying a more holistic mission—the formation of real disciples and concern for justice.

Beach said the thirty-year window is also personally resonant for her, since Willow Creek is celebrating its 30th anniversary, and she’s been there from day one. Over the years, she said, Willow Creek has started to see its worship as less segmented—moving away from seeing arts and teaching as separate parts of the service, music and preaching as separate gifts in leaders, and seekers and believers as needing separate services.

Sibley’s Reformed perspective provided historical and theological perspective from the last five centuries. Presbyterian worship, he said, draws on the heritage of the Geneva Liturgy of Martin Bucer and John Calvin. “What Calvin did was to develop a paradigm for the Sunday service,” Sibley said. “There were to be those four elements: the reading and the preaching of the Word in the language of the people, the prayers in the language of the people, the Lord’s Supper, and the sharing of goods, principally through alms-giving.” In North America, Sibley said, Presbyterians balance their Reformed heritage with the influence of the American free church tradition.

“One way to put it is that Presbyterians seem to be recovering frontier revivalists, struggling to get over that but not knowing where to go,” Sibley said. “So in the last thirty years, one of the trends has been to deepen the frontier tradition through front door evangelism and combining the Sunday meeting with an evangelistic agenda in varying degrees, just following the road that Charles Finney laid out during the time of the revivals of the 1840s.” In his own congregation, Sibley said, “We’ve reached back to Bucer and Calvin and we’ve adapted their liturgy to the twenty-first century, but it’s recognizably a child of that tradition.”

Peterson said he grew up Pentecostal, and “what was embedded in me through those early years was that everything in the gospel was livable.” He added, “That’s in my DNA, and it’s never left.”

Peterson reflected that with a Pentecostal upbringing, he was greatly shaped by Catholic friends as a young pastor, he founded and pastored a Presbyterian congregation for thirty years, and now he worships in a Lutheran church. Perhaps as a result, “I’ve always been very local. I don’t have a big picture,” Peterson said. Worship, he emphasized, must reflect the unique character of each congregation.

Aymer’s story was also one of diverse influences. A British native, Aymer had a father who was Anglican and mother who was a devout Methodist. Today Aymer is United Methodist but is also president of the only American seminary for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (Hood Theological Seminary). Aymer calls himself “the first Methodist-Presbyterian.”

Aymer’s observations about five positive changes in Christian worship in the last thirty years served to speak largely for the panel as a whole. Despite many dangers and regrettable trends, Aymer said, he has seen these hopeful signs:

  • “The revising of the liturgy in such a manner that makes liturgy intelligible and meaningful to worshipers yet preserves historical heritages.”
  • “The introduction of new and meaningful songs.” Aymer said that while some new worship music is vague and monotonous, “I’m talking about those new songs that are really well thought out, grounded solidly in the tenets of our faith, because that is the legacy that we will pass on.”
  • “More meaningful involvement of the laity in worship.” Although many laity are not trained or prepared for their role in worship, Aymer said, the leadership of those who are is encouraging.
  • “We are recapturing the awesomeness of the conduct of the sacraments; they are no longer perfunctory and ordinary and casual.”
  • The building of a “bridge in worship between the contemporary with the traditional, ancient cultures with modern culture; we don’t have to negate the one in order to observe the other.”

2. How has worship changed to embrace and resist dynamics of culture?

Witvliet began by reading portions of the Nairobi Statement, which calls for worship to be simultaneously transcultural (universal), contextual (having characteristics of a local culture), counter-cultural (resisting idolatries in a culture), and cross-cultural (having characteristics of other cultures). He then asked the panel what cultural features have been incorporated and resisted by the church over the last thirty years.

Beach said many worshipers have adopted from the culture “an increased cynicism about the authenticity of any of us.” Worshipers today, she said, “walk into any one of our churches with a degree of having their arms crossed and looking up and

saying, Are those people for real, do they really believe what they’re saying, and do they live it out Monday through Saturday?” As a result, she said, “there is greater openness [from pastors and other leaders] with the congregation. There is less of . . . a barrier of ‘we’re different from you.’”

Beach said worship must resist the clutter of technology in the culture. For worshipers, she said, “Sunday morning may be one of the only times that they actually stop the noise and the bombardment that we all face.”

Sibley and Peterson also spoke adamantly against the influx of technology, praising Albert Borgmann’s book Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology as a wise critique of North America’s infatuation with technology. North Americans have lost many immediate corporate experiences as technology has isolated them, Borgmann argues—especially eating together and reading together. These practices are at the heart of what the church does, and so the church must strengthen the presence and prominence of the sacraments and the Word in worship.

Aymer said North American worship struggles to resist how “fast-paced” and “time-bound” North American culture is. “We’re programmed, and we program our worship services that way,” Aymer said. “Sometimes you see us hurrying to get through that one hour that we give to God in . . . worship.”

An element of American culture that the church has rightly embraced, Aymer said, is “egalitarianism.” Coming from his British culture with its sense of hierarchy, Aymer said he appreciated that in North American worship, “The pastor is not just the one person who can do it; we bring laity in and help them to feel that they have as much right to lead us all to the throne of grace.”

McLaren made the important observation that “it can be very tempting to assume that thirty years ago we were not compromised to the culture, and have compromised with it now.” In fact, he said, “The idea that we were ever at a point where we somehow were blissfully living above a culture, I think, is self-deceiving. It seems to me we have some people who feel they’re on the top of the slope looking at how everyone else is sliding down, but probably the truth is we’re always all in the middle of the slope, trying to make our way up.”

3. Which theological insights and aspects of God’s character have become clearer in the last thirty years, and which have become more obscure?

“Paschal mystery is simply the rhythm of dying and rising in our lives,” Zimmerman said. She flatly stated, “No one here has been baptized. Everyone here is being baptized. . . . Our baptism is an ongoing ‘yes’ in our lives, an ongoing entry into Christ’s dying and rising, an ongoing commitment to pattern our life after Christ, which means dying every moment of every day.” And so, in the act of the Eucharist, Zimmerman said, “liturgy is announcing to us and drawing us into what our very life is about.”

McLaren observed that the last thirty years have made it more clear both that worship is about us—as the participation of the gathered body has grown exponentially—but also that worship is not about us; it is about God. “In too many places, what becomes less clear is the transcendence of God and the power of God,” he said.

Aymer read the majestic worship scene from Revelation 4 and drew out its implications for our worship. “There’s a whole lot more to God than our human minds can comprehend,” Aymer said. “Nothing on the earth is like the one seated on the throne. There is an awesome uniqueness about the one sitting on the throne. I think one of the things that is striking in our understanding of worship and liturgy today is the fact that God is beyond our human comprehension.”

Sibley said the increased practice of the sacraments has helped bring about “a new awareness of the presence of God in the assembly.” For Presbyterians, the Shorter Catechism shows that “the outward and ordinary means by which Christ communicates the benefits of his redemption are the Word, sacraments, and prayer,” Sibley said. “So this is the work of Christ in the assembly, the Word, the sacraments, and prayer, what he does through them. That’s how the presence is realized.”

Sibley added, “The counter-movement—worship as therapy—just intensifies human-centeredness. And that’s where a sense of the presence of God in the assembly has been weakened.”

Beach noted the importance of song lyrics and the theology that they convey. “I’m especially concerned about that in the more contemporary churches that are using mostly new music, because I do think it’s not as balanced as it needs to be.”

Beach added, “I urge you to watch for trends in your faith community, and say, Are we bending too far in a given direction? Is there a healthy diet here? Is there a balance here? If a person from another planet who didn’t know anything about the Christian faith landed in your community and spent a year there, how healthy and fully dimensioned would their view of God be?”

4. What resources, practices, and virtues will be most crucial for the next thirty years of Christian worship?

Beach memorably called Christians to be gracious to each other as they dialogue about differences and changes in worship practices. “I can’t say enough about this kind of gathering, because I think one of the most important virtues that we could walk out of here with is humility and grace towards one another,” she said. “I see too many Christians shooting their own, and I don’t understand that.”

Beach said differences in worship practices in part reflect the breadth and diversity of the kingdom itself. “I’ve been part of a church that’s been criticized a lot for thirty years, mostly by Christians.” She has learned, she said, that we all must confess “when we make judgments we don’t know enough about. We need to believe the best about each other.”


Eugene Peterson
“Baalism was the most popular religious expression in the Canaanite world, and it was always, always more popular than Yahwehism. More people served Baal than served Yahweh. And you know why? Because it was a very attractive culture. It promised you everything. It promised you success. It promised you fulfillment. It promised you crops, it promised you fertility. What did the prophets give in response? The Word of God. The whole prophetic element of the Old Testament was a way to learn how to live sacrificially before Yahweh, not self-indulgently before Baal.”

Joyce Zimmerman
“Full participation is the transformation that is proper to all rituals. What happens when we surrender is that God takes us and transforms us to being ever more perfect members of the body of Christ, ever more perfect members who can identify with Christ in the Garden who says, “Not my will, but yours be done.” And all of this for the sake of the world. One cannot understand Paschal Mystery unless one understands participation, not simply as engagement, as doing—as important as that is—but as self-surrender that leads to what God does in us.”

Albert Aymer

“Because God is infinitely more than our ability to comprehend God, then when we approach God in worship, we ought to approach God with the best that we have, and the best that we can afford, and the best that we can do. And even when we have brought the best, we still have to turn around and say of the best: filthy rags. Forgive the poverty of our worship, the formality of our prayers. No language is adequate to address this One who is so much greater than anything we can comprehend.”

Brian McLaren
“One of our great problems now in a lot of our evangelical and charismatic worship is promoting the intimate experience of God in worship. In too many places, what becomes less clear is the transcendence of God and the power of God. God is for us, yes, but God is also for the other, and God is for the poor, and God is for the people who aren’t in church, and God is for people in other countries, and God is for our enemies. . . . Even in churches that like to preach about sin, it’s usually the sins that other people commit that we focus on the most. Really serious, self-critical, self-prophetic preaching may be rarer now than it’s been in a long time.”

Larry Sibley
“God is with us. How that comes to great clarity is when he is present in the assembly in the bread and wine. So maybe we ought to make this symbol much stronger than we usually do. A large loaf of real bread, a flagon of wine, and flowing water rather than a damp hand on the baby’s head, because that’s how God is present. That’s one thing that has become clearer through the liturgical renewal that has run through all of our traditions—God’s presence in the assembly.”

Nancy Beach
“One of the biggest changes in the church is the unbelievable influx of technology and information. The way we try to resist that is I look at the hour on Sunday and I say, that is one of the only times for some people in their entire week that they stop. Giving them the gift of silence, helping them reflect on their life and issues of the heart and spirit, is one of the most incredible gifts we can model for them. Hopefully, then they will carry some of that into their week. The truth is, a lot of them haven’t yet done that and they don’t have those kinds of disciplines in their life. Sunday morning may be one of the only times that they actually stop the noise and the bombardment that we all face.”

Nathan Bierma ( is Communications and Research Coordinator for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and adjunct professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is also a contributing writer to the Chicago Tribute and a contributing editor to Books & Culture  magazine.


Reformed Worship 80 © June 2006, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.