September 10, 2001
Long mediates America's 'worship wars'
Church congregations across America may be grappling with traditional
versus contemporary worship styles, but faithful followers dont
have to choose between centuries-old hymns and the latest Christian chart-toppers,
according to theologys 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
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
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 didnt want to approach the worship issue from a standpoint
of diagnosing whats 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, lets 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 dont use these qualities in self-serving ways, but to empower
people, says Long. Theyre also willing to generate some
hostility; all of them did. None of them avoided conflict.
Long, named one of the nations top preachers by Newsweek,
didnt find many similarities among sermons and preaching styles
in the churches he studied, nor did he experience any fiery oratory. Its
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
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.