Beyond the Polarization: Grace and Surprise in Worship

by Peter W. Marty

Peter W. Marty is senior pastor of St. Paul Lutehrn Chruch in Davenport, Iowa.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, March 18-25, 1998, pp. 284-287. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Can we break out of our own comfort zone in worship to exprience other faithful forms? If the grace of God is as extraordinary as we say it is, we should be willing to give surprise a chance.

When Mark Twain finally mastered the intricacies of piloting a steamboat on the Mississippi and had catalogued in his mind every trifling feature of the great river, he confessed to a deep deprivation: "I have lost something which can never be restored to me in my life. All the grace, and beauty—the poetry—has now gone out of the majestic river!" The river, of course, had not changed. But familiarity with the language of the river had killed a certain spirit of wonder. The routines of navigational life had tamed the water’s treachery. The poetry was gone.

Two decades of worship wars are beginning to do to the splendor of church worship what Twain’s piloting routines did to his view of the river. They are dulling the brilliance of the grace and beauty that color the church’s praise. The poetry of worship, so crucial for conveying the glorious presence of God, is hard to find. It’s not that worship has lost its centrality in the larger life of the church, any more than the mighty Mississippi slowed to a trickle in Twain’s time. But people have poured massive energy into attracting souls to worship instead of helping those same souls meet a great big God through great big praise. Sadly enough, in many quarters an infatuation with style has displaced the rich substance that belongs to worship.

Years ago, it would have been unthinkable that two adjectives, contemporary and traditional, would so thoroughly captivate the imagination of the church. It would have seemed strange that these simple words could govern the views of those who plot the church’s worship. But captivate and govern they do. No other words dominate the worship landscape like contemporary and traditional.

They look like perfectly innocent adjectives. All sorts of faithful people lean on them for inspiration in trying to help the church and culture make sense of one another. But what a disappointing role they have come to play in defining separate worship styles for the church. Once thought to be the answer for securing the worship contentment of old and young alike, today contemporary and traditional are symbols of division.

Much of the polarization of praise in our sanctuaries stems from the ambiguity of the terms themselves. Contemporary and traditional may be useful concepts for making wallpaper and china choices, but they are of little help in expressing the magnificent breadth of praise that has formed the Christian community. Both words encourage formats that answer largely to the feelings of the worshiper. The adoration of God gets lost in a bog of subjective tastes. Reliance on contemporary and traditional tames the surprise of grace that is supposed to give worship its energy.

How does Mary know exactly what she needs in worship? And since when is the praise of God a need-based exercise? Since most of us instinctively favor behavioral habits that underscore the familiar, what incentive is there for John to break out of his own comfort zone in worship to experience other faithful forms and other people? And shouldn’t Bridget enjoy some measure of responsibility to the larger congregation worshiping around her—a joyous love for the whole that would supersede her own set of likes and dislikes? And even if Mary and John and Bridget are all of a mind to want more expansive worship expressions, expressions that more completely and surprisingly witness to everything God is about, the odds are that their parish’s worship schedule will force a choice upon them— contemporary or traditional.

Pigeonholing the manner of praise is more than a disservice to God. It threatens the integrity of the body of Christ. People in the pew deserve more spiritual protein than is offered by some church-growth dream. They have heard the arguments about attracting newcomers and retaining old-timers. They have been bombarded with relevance—generation this and generation that. What they haven’t heard enough about is the beauty of worshiping with people who might think differently from the way they do. They haven’t been stretched to consider looking beyond their own tastes. If the Holy Spirit is let loose, they might even be open to expanding their idea of why they come to church in the first place. These people are ready to meet God face-to-face in all of God’s glorious fullness. They want more than the transcendent glory of God in a neat package. They want expressions of faith that have some size.

"Sometimes I wonder," writes John Fischer, "if God is really interested in the noise of our contemporary clamoring [about worship]. Like my dog who can’t seem to get anywhere because he keeps having to stop and scratch his fleas, I wonder if we are so busy scratching where everybody itches that we aren’t taking anybody anywhere significant." Pastors, priests and worship planners need to stop scratching and begin to establish some new habits of thinking. Until the language of worship planning changes, people are going to continue to come to church expecting to he confirmed in what they already think they know or need. And until there are some clearer formulations of what makes for faithful congregational life, people are going to keep asking the consumerist question: "What am I going to get out of it?"

Divisions caused by choices about worship patterns are nothing new. The apostle Paul grappled with a similar situation in 1 Corinthians 13. The church in Corinth was being demoralized by arguments over spiritual gifts. The profusion of gifts among believers led them to draw what Paul S. Minear called "invidious distinctions among themselves, claim[ing] for one gift pre-eminence over others. Thus was produced a bedlam of sound and a competitive spirit that were destroying the fabric of fellowship. All this was rationalized and justified by an appeal to the Holy Spirit." In other words, well-intended praise had turned into anarchy.

Although the competitive spirit between two distinct styles of worship has not led to anarchy, a certain sadness accompanies our compartmentalization of praise. Within the seams of too many congregations, the fabric of fellowship is tearing. We can move beyond a polarization that fosters invidious distinctions and renew a sense of congregational identity by giving special attention to the delight of surprise in worship.

Listen to the way pastors and church leaders speak when they’re gathered for a seminar or conference. You’re likely to hear something like this: "How many do you worship these days?" "Oh, we’re right around 390." "Is that right! We only worship about 255." "Have you heard about Trinity? Someone told me they’re at capacity, worshiping 650 . . . They’ve got to build!" What is all this blather about? It is the language of church attendance. Hardly a book on evangelism in the past 15 years has escaped the language of attendance when it comes to mapping out strategies that promise to turn churches around.

What’s the problem with making special note of attendance? Nothing, really, except that it detracts from deeper values that give congregational life its beauty. One does not attend worship, at least not exactly. One may go to, congregate for or participate in worship, but one does not attend, in the passive sense of the word. We attend a junior high school band concert or a New York Yankees baseball game where a seating area is separated from a performance area. When we use the same word for worship, however, we’re usually relating numbers of people in the pew to worship talk. The clear focus is on us.

When we insist on emphasizing attendance, we subtly knock God out of the center of worship and replace this vital core with an emphasis on ourselves. Those planning public worship begin to think their task is to create an audience or to answer to an audience. And those who come to worship are individual spectators who wonder what they’ll get out of it. As long as pastors and church musicians believe they must satisfy the desire of every living thing, worship is in trouble. Congregations will keep leaning on the contemporary and traditional distinction, haphazardly adding services, hoping to serve the unformed subjectivity of worshipers who find their way through the door.

The real role of a pastor or a church musician, however, is to shape a congregation. It is to bring together a wild assortment of people and to hold them together by the Savior’s love. It is to keep God and the glory of God’s presence (not us and our attendance) as the subject in the grammar of worship.

We need a new sense of the understanding of congregation, that treasured body created to worship. The occasion of praise is a moment of togetherness unmatched by anything else in culture. It’s an opportunity to transcend every instinct bent on confirming personal taste. We shed our little worlds to enter a great big world. We leave the worst sides of individualism behind to gain a new sense of community. We become consciously aware of the needs of a whole body of people, unlike at any other time during the week. And we find all of this to be a marvelous privilege.

A more organic concept of congregational life would do wonders for recasting the way we think about worship. When 17-year-old Billy squawks from his world of severe retardation, it usually comes during the Gospel reading or sermon. Something excites him. With his wheelchair situated only a few feet from the pulpit microphone, there’s no telling what his boisterousness does to the radio taping. Congregational heads turn. But what a witness Billy’s presence is to the beauty of the body of Christ.

Billy and the rest of us belong together and somehow we know it. To participate in congregational worship is to recognize that we’re joined together as a living organism. It is to make the astounding realization that an incredibly unique assemblage of people—strong and weak, wise and foolish, gifted and ungifted—has gathered for worship around the presence of Christ in a shape that will never be reconstituted in exactly the same way.

When journalist Bill Moyers was researching a television series on creativity, an artist told him, "If you know what you are looking for you will never see what you do not expect to find." Every genuine exercise of faith entails some openness to the unexpected, some eagerness to encounter the surprise of grace. It’s in the nature of discipleship. When worship gets packaged in narrow boxes marked contemporary and traditional an inevitable predictability sets in. Mystery gets shortchanged. Preconceived biases get confirmed. Worshipers arrive expecting only that their preferred style will be in place. Ever so subtly, our minds begin to conceptualize God as one who might be reducible to a size that fits neatly into our preferences for worship.

The gospel, of course, doesn’t permit this kind of grasp of God. Jesus turns things inside out everywhere he moves, eluding the clutch of those who would manipulate him. As J. P. Sanders once said regarding biblical interpretation, "Anytime we read scripture and find ourselves right away on Jesus’ side, we have probably misread the passage." Translate this overconfidence to worship, and the praise of God becomes a pitiable idol that serves our own interests.

Authentic surprise in worship does not mean novelty for the sake of novelty. The goal is not schizophrenic activity where nothing can be counted on to build tradition or establish rhythm. It does not mean substituting gimmicks for theological sturdiness. But if the grace of God is as extraordinary as Jesus makes it out to be, we should not impoverish God with predictability. We should instead give genuine surprise a chance.

A routine football game comes alive with excitement when the puny punter fakes a kick and tosses a wobbly pass into the grip of the tight end. The punter’s successful pass doesn’t promise a win. The coach doesn’t try his luck with the same play next time they have the ball. But the fans move to the edge of their seats with a fresh enthusiasm. When two young siblings spend a rainy day inside the house, arguing constantly and irritating their mother at every turn, the routine is wonderfully shaken when the six-year-old suddenly offers to help prepare dinner. The exasperation of the day has not evaporated; tomorrow brings no guarantees. But the sweetness of surprise has frustrated the routine of predictability.

Church worship can include that kind of wonderful surprise. Every congregation has a personality that lends itself more naturally to certain liturgical patterns or musical forms than others. That’s fine. Such patterns and forms help establish meaningful worship traditions. But if there is not some character of thoughtful surprise that regularly shakes up the predictability of praise, it’s easy for a smugness to emerge among the people. Our way becomes the way. We close off an openness to the unexpected and the unfamiliar.

Accents of surprise in worship may be small or large. Perhaps the gesture is no more than a prayer petition for rich and aggressive and successful people—when is the last time your congregation prayed for these people? Maybe it’s a momentary fogging of the congregation with a dry-ice cloud of vapor on Transfiguration Sunday, bringing home the mountaintop text in a whole new way. How about putting the offering plates in the hands of children or youth some Sunday if this is not normally done? Or think of the visual impact, on the Sunday when the story of adolescent Jesus in the temple is read, of projecting slides of the great masters’ paintings of young Jesus alongside contemporary photos of city and suburban kids of every color. People will never forget Luke’s story.

A church member shows up on Easter morning, all dressed up for his one annual appearance, only to find the congregation huddled in the darkened sanctuary. "Did someone forget to pay the light bill?" he wonders. Three young women shrouded in dark garments, baskets in hand, make their way to a veiled cross that rises 20 feet into the air. A spotlight focusing on the cross pierces the darkness. As the women pull off the black veil, the choir crescendoes. The lights come up. The organ fires up. It’s Easter! Is this entrance rite contemporary or traditional? Is it 33 A.D. or 1997? I couldn’t tell you! But I know it’s biblically evocative. It’s powerful.

It’s time we do a better job of challenging our people with a mix of hymnody that’s selected as much for its textual appropriateness as for its melodic or instrumental familiarity. And instead of expending energy debating the merits of amplified versus unamplified instruments in worship, let’s require that all music demonstrate artistry and creativity. Both amplified and unamplified music can engage the gifts of people in making music that contributes directly to participatory congregational worship. This is more than can be said of prerecorded music, which lacks spontaneity, surprise and—short of adjusting the volume control—flexibility in leading a congregation in song. If you have access to them, why be afraid of different instrumentation and contrasting sounds within the same service—southern harmony, Appalachian folk, jazz, African rhythm or Genevan plainsong.

Keep the faithful on their toes. If there is a sensibility to the worship decisions made, and a theological integrity about the accents intended to awaken complacent hearts, people will not wince. They may cringe if it appears that the pastor, musician and worship committee are pushing their own preferences. But worship leaders have to try to shake loose of what maybe personally comfortable and familiar, even as they help others do the same.

Some of my own most worshipful moments as a pastor have come after reluctantly bowing to the sensibilities of others: The youth leader’s insistence that the clown troupe’s interpretation of the day’s Gospel reading was exactly what we needed... A music colleague’s delight in surprising the rest of us with something not printed in the bulletin. You too might question the value of a percussionist putting a violin bow to some strands of metal, welded to a muffler pipe, welded to two metal dog bowls full of water—and making music! And yet, as a prelude to worship, it did what it was supposed to do: jostle our senses enough so that we thought more imaginatively about God and the day.

If we can learn to welcome such surprises, if we can urge our congregations to be a bit more playful and a bit more serious about this calling, we just might save some of the grace and beauty—the poetry itself—that is disappearing from our worship.