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Release date:
Sept. 6, 2001
Contact: Elaine Justice, Assistant Director, 404-727-0643, or ejustic@emory.edu

Candler's Long Studies Churches That Reach "Beyond the Worship Wars"

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, says Tom Long of Candler School of Theology. In his recent book, "Beyond the Worship Wars," Long discovered what he calls "a third way" of worship that that can’t 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," says Long, who is the Bandy Professor of Preaching at Candler. "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, de-institutionalized culture."

Starting with the thesis that every congregation in America is struggling with the issue of how to worship, Long went looking for a variety of churches that are successfully negotiating the so-called "worship wars." Included in his study were 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 says, 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 says 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."

Long notes that he and other colleagues studying religious practices are finding that "the creativity and energy in American Christian life has moved out of the seminaries and the denominational headquarters and into the local grassroots parishes." This creativity is embodied, he says, 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 be and do church.

In the 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 Magazine, 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 observes.

Among the similarities of "vital and faithful" congregations Long studied, are that they:

• Make room in worship for the experience of mystery
• Make efforts to show hospitality to the stranger
• Make visible the sense of drama in Christian worship
• Emphasize music that is both excellent and eclectic
• Creatively adapt the worship space and environment
• Forge a strong connection between worship and local mission
• Maintain a relatively stable order of service that the congregation knows by heart
• Move to a joyous festival experience towards the end of the service
• Have strong, charismatic pastors as worship leaders

"I tried to put myself in the shoes of a visitor," says Long of the churches in the study. "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 says he 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 says. "My more ambitious goal," he adds, "is to change the paradigm for ministers." Teaching ministers, after all, is what Long’s career is about.


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