What is Postmodernism???.........big, fancy words usually stand for simple things. Let's break it down.
Postmodernism is not a new thing, y'all. It happens over and over. It is a balancing force - a tendency to return to older things. And I feel its value lies in its ability to make us look harder and explain what we're doing anew. Sometimes things we're choosing to do don't look so great when we stop and really think about them. Other times? Things we've left behind seem like they would be useful again. We go through this process in art, literature, music, worship practices, architectural design, ideas about fashion, social climate, etc.
I'm a teacher and a musician, and in both of these fields we talk a lot about "the pendulum" - Yes, the nebulous, mysterious "pendulum" - people talk about it with hushed reverence . . . . this invisible force that causes "the powers that be" to change their minds and swing in a radically different direction. Truly, we only see moderation in our choices every several years - after that, we move off in one extreme direction or another, and on and on and on!
Take that "postmodern" word and apply it to worship practices in just about any protestant denomination . . . or a nondenomination . . . and you get lots of different things. In fact, you get so many different things that people enjoy fighting about it. We won't fight here, though. We'll just continue to break this idea down into smaller ideas.
Thanks to the good folks at slideshare we have been able to share a few slides from a presentation about this very topic. And it's interesting stuff. Check it out!
I'm fascinated by all of this because lots of people believe that "postmodern worship" means the complete destruction of anything "traditional." But actually, that is almost the opposite of the truth!
For many years now lots of churches have been offering a few different "worship experiences" to their congregants. The three most common labels used for worship style (which, let's be honest, has a lot to do with musical style) are: traditional, contemporary, and blended.
If you talk to certain people they will tell you that "blended" is the worst thing ever because "You can never make everybody happy." - my professional opinion about that has a lot to do with my own experience . . . and experience has taught me that, yes - it's challenging and often uncomfortable to call it "blended" and then try to achieve a balance. I'm not saying it's inherently bad. It's just a challenge.
Traditional - This evokes images of pipe organs, large choirs, lots of responsive readings, etc. I grew up in a traditional "high church" sort of setting. I really loved it! I grew up and studied it. I still love it very much when it is done well and with a lot of passion. But you know what? "Traditional" also means a Southern Gospel style worship setting to some people, or an a cappella sacred harp service. These are not narrow words.
Contemporary - Can you see it in your head? A stage with dramatic lighting. People holding their coffee cups. A band - guitars, drum kit, keyboards, singers with microphones. About 10 years ago this may have involved a "praise team" of 10-15 singers. These days it usually looks like nothing more than a quartet of singers, but frequently even fewer than that. This is mostly due to the nature of the music being shared - some of this stuff just can't handle 10 part harmony without a ton of work on the front end. It's not designed for that. That was last week's topic. This word is also a broad label and can mean different things to different congregations.
This is so wordy. Here - take a break and listen to a nice song:
I really enjoy the music these guys have been writing. They are a little bit postmodern. Their musical style is not classical or traditional, but their words are downright liturgical. They are participatory. They are made of old creeds and responsive readings.
It's old and new and everything in between.
I'm all fired up about this idea of postmodern worship practices because my husband and I are helping out at a church that's going through a huge transition right now. It's a little Methodist church on the edge of the city of Chattanooga. It's been there for many generations. Until a few years ago their worshiping body primarily used traditional music (piano, choir, pipe organ) and practiced responsive readings and creeds with a preacher wearing robes. Then they ran into some tough times and a super huge, super contemporary church from another city was asked to help them out. So this super contemporary church tried to duplicate that same style/experience right in the middle of this old church building with this mixed up congregation - original church members and new church members and people who had never been to a church before. And it didn't work.
The total lack of things like creeds and responsive prayer . . . the the complete absence of the older structure and its tradition . . . this did not work. The newer music was nice. And lots of people liked that. But it wasn't enough. And the numbers, which rose in the beginning, dropped sharply - right back down to where they'd been before.
Current practices in contemporary worship are sometimes dangerously close to that "performance" edge. And extremely high church settings can teeter there, too. This congregation wanted participation. They wanted activity and community and realism. The word I have heard lots of the younger congregants use is "authentic."
I can ask, "What kind of music are you guys interested in singing on Sunday morning?" and they will answer, "We don't mind which style exactly - we just want it to be authentic and good and something we can really participate in." Wow.
A blank slate.
This church is postmodern. Literally. It's not a figurative thing in this faith community. They are saying that they don't want to be old or new. They just want to be. They are just trying to have church together. How great that is!
For the past several weeks we might have a few older hymn tunes during the service as well as things you can find on the radio currently. We have corporate prayer and also the Apostle's Creed. This past week we stood for the scripture reading and the pastor asked us to do so, "Out of reverence for the word of God." - then the whole congregation might jump in to call out community needs in a conversational manner later on in the service . . . very informal.
I've never done this sort of work before. My husband and I are planning worship each week with the help of the pastor and we are not trying to make the worship music "contemporary" or "traditional" or "blended." We're just trying to make it true.
Maybe that's what postmodernism really can be to our worshiping communities. Maybe it's the need to express and encounter truth without so many stylistic labels.
Perhaps postmodernism is simply our desire to get back to a blank slate when we've made things too complicated.
This coming week in worship I'm excited to say that we'll be singing some newer stuff (it'll be Pentecost, so it's pretty clear to us what direction to move with our poetic choices), but also some older stuff. "Holy Spirit/Your Presence" is going to share space with "Spirit of the Living God" - not because we're trying to achieve some sort of balance of old and new . . . but because both of those songs belong together as we celebrate the birth of the church and the advent of the Holy Spirit.
Are you planning worship for a community and feeling burnt out?
Are you going to worship each week and feeling stagnant and stale?
Are you attending or planning worship, or participating in a choir or band somewhere . . . and you find yourself critiquing the "performance" more than actually searching for the Spirit of the Living God?
Wipe the slate clean. This isn't a show. It's a pathway. It's a communion. It is communication with the Divine. You don't need to be an expert to meet with God. You don't need a degree or a diploma to meet with God. You don't need talent to meeting with God. You are what God made you. Be yourself. God is waiting for you.
We make it too complicated.