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September 10, 2001

Theology's Long mediates America's 'worship wars'

By Elaine Justice


Church congregations across America may be grappling with traditional versus contemporary worship styles, but faithful followers don’t have to choose between centuries-old hymns and the latest Christian chart-toppers, according to theology’s Tom Long.

In his recent book, Beyond the Worship Wars, Long discovered what he calls “a third way” of worship that cannot be classified as traditional, contemporary or even the cobbled-together compromise called “blended.”

“There are congregations who have discovered how to be faithful to the great liturgical traditions of the church, but do it in a way that is alert to the new cultural environment,” said Long, Bandy Professor of Preaching. “These churches have created a new thing in the earth, a form of worship that is authentically Christian, theologically rich and magnetic to a seeking, restless, individualistic, deinstitutionalized culture.”

Starting with the thesis that every congregation in America struggles with the question of how to worship, Long went looking for a variety of churches successfully negotiating the so-called “worship wars.” His study included churches large and small, some predominantly black, some white, some Hispanic, some urban, some suburban. The congregations encompassed both Catholic and a variety of Protestant denominations. What they all have in common, he said, is an ability to remain both vital without catering to pop culture and faithful without clinging to the past.

Long found a list of similarities among what he calls “vital and faithful congregations,” and he features those qualities prominently in the slim volume, which is meant to serve as a resource book and discussion catalyst for pastors and laity alike.

“In the last decade or so, church leadership consultants have noticed that when a congregation is in crisis, the problem often is not that the minister and other leaders are at loggerheads,” say Long. “The problem is in worship.”

Yet Long didn’t want to approach the worship issue from a standpoint of diagnosing what’s wrong. “We have built our understanding on the basis of sick congregations that are dysfunctional,” he said of the traditional approach to church leadership and worship studies. “My thought was, let’s study healthy congregations and see what they are doing that can be replicated by other congregations.

“The creativity and energy in American Christian life has moved out of the seminaries and the denominational headquarters and into the local grassroots parishes,” Long said. This creativity is embodied in imaginative pastors who have responded to the drastic and often negative changes in American church culture by stepping back and rethinking what it means to “do church.”

In the vital congregations Long studied, virtually all of these leaders were strong, which came as the biggest surprise of the study. “I wanted to find democratic pastors who honored the ministry of laity by sharing power. This is a myth I carry with me from the 60s of what good congregational leadership is like,” Long says.

What he found was a new kind of leader. “They are strong and aggressive, but they don’t use these qualities in self-serving ways, but to empower people,” says Long. “They’re also willing to generate some hostility; all of them did. None of them avoided conflict.”

Long, named one of the nation’s top preachers by Newsweek, didn’t find many similarities among sermons and preaching styles in the churches he studied, nor did he experience any fiery oratory. “It’s much more like the host at a wonderful dinner party of friends who stands up and says the right thing in the middle of the process,” he said.

“I tried to put myself in the shoes of a visitor,” Long said. “These churches knew me by name, connected me with others and provided an environment in which I could offer myself to God. People are hungry for that.”

Long said has “two levels of hope” for his book: First, he wants it to be useful for churches seeking worship renewal, who would aspire to be “vital and faithful” congregations. “This is something I want lay folks to talk about in their churches,” he said. “My more ambitious goal is to change the paradigm for ministers.”


Back to Emory Report September 10, 2001