First Things First

We live in the Information Age and are bombarded with communication on a multitude of levels. Our culture thrives on communication; but not all messages are successful. The most effective communicators understand that creativity is vital. Theologian Robert Webber stated: “Communication occurs when a message takes up residence within a listener’s life and heart.” Advertisers learned this a long time ago. While content may be the most important component of a message, it is not enough—how a message is presented is important if it is to be transmitted successfully.
If, for example, one compares the messages from commercial advertisements with the messages we communicate in our churches’ worship, a couple of things immediately become apparent. Ad messages tend to be lightweight in content and sophisticated in delivery, whereas worship messages tend to be sophisticated in content and lightweight in delivery. In the world of media, there is often far more time, energy, and resources put into how a message is communicated than the actual content of the message ‘deserves.’ Is there any debate as to which communicator is finding more success in the delivery of its message to contemporary Canadian society?
YouTube has demonstrated that the successful influence of creativity in the transmission of a message is not just a result of budget and production values (although the use of adequate resources is important). Rightly or wrongly, creative communication is what makes the 21st – century world go round. Our postmodern culture does not respond to communication that only comes from verbal, linear, or cerebral perspectives.
Yet these perspectives are the basis for communication in most Canadian Presbyterian worship. It is no wonder that a huge segment of Canadian society finds little meaning in our worship. Of course we live in a secularized age, but there are plenty of examples of churches that successfully communicate, as well as spiritualities that have meaning for many of the groups we have been unable to reach.
Worship is our fundamental witness. It is from worship that all other ministries arise. If we cannot hold public worship that is meaningful to a large segment of society, we cannot expect that anything else we do will bring people to our churches. There are many other organizations for people who want to help the needy, or associate with a friendly bunch of people.
If we want to breathe new life into our denomination, we first need to breathe new life into our public worship. And we don’t have to ‘sell out’—it is possible to do this ‘our way.’ It will involve some change, but more importantly, we will need to introduce a culture of creative communication as we design and implement our worship. Worship is directed towards God, but we have allowed our worship to be filled with impediments that prevent people from hearing God’s life – giving message and feeling God’s presence. We have also, as a denomination, given worship short shrift of our focus, energy, and resources. Our challenge is how to define and implement 21st – century Presbyterian worship, and to make worship renewal a priority.
Some would say we do not ‘speak the vernacular’ of 21st – century Canadian culture. We need to be able to speak the language if we want to communicate, and this language is not only about words.
Postmodernity has become the predominant worldview. This ethos  is mistrustful of institutional authority, including the church. Postmodernity is not against rational thought, rather it asserts that there is more to perceiving reality than mere rational thinking. It thrives on ambiguity and diversity; it is contrarian and skeptical about universalisms. But like all other generations, postmodern people are searching for a coherent meaning of life.
As theologian Richard Niebuhr has said, the church needs to be “in the culture, not of the culture.” We must be counter – cultural, not anti – cultural, if we want to be seen as authentic.
We do not need to change our worship content; rather, we must examine how we can more effectively present this content to share the Good News. Canada is no longer a homogenous society—we are a diverse and complex group that includes a huge range of sensibilities and contexts. While Presbyterians can’t be all things to all people, we do need to learn to connect our worship with all living generations, and with a diverse mix of sensibilities. It’s not about pandering to teenagers or focusing on some groups and leaving out others. We can communicate in a diverse, multi – layered way that allows all groups to connect with God at different times and in different ways. It does not need to be complicated, but it does require significantly more time, energy, and resources than are currently being directed towards worship in the
Presbyterian Church.
For our worship to be meaningful and authentic it must be transformational. This means that every group hears God’s voice and feels God’s presence at various times in our worship. Not during every minute of worship, and maybe not every time they come to worship, but with an understanding that worship is where they come to feed their souls. This will only happen if each group’s sensibilities are intentionally included in the worship design. In being transformed week – by – week, people become changed and say, “Here I am, Lord—what can I do?” We are called at Pentecost to speak the gospel so that all will understand. The focus of our discussion needs to change from what we are not prepared to do, to what we are prepared to do in order to renew how we communicate in worship. Part of creativity is developing a culture of openness to what is good and meaningful, and what might be effectively incorporated into a distinctively Reformed interpretation. This means creativity with biblical and trinitarian fidelity, and presentations with theological and aesthetic integrity.
It is a big step for a denomination with a long and proud tradition to come to terms with change in how it communicates in worship. Grappling with change is a difficult and stressful process for any organization. We are trying to discern what it is that God wants us to be and do.
Renewal is more than just tinkering with the order of service. It is not just jumping from one trend to the next. There are no easy answers, no painless solutions, no quick fixes. The biggest job, however, is the intentional week – by – week implementation of worship renewal at the local level. Reversing a decline in membership that has been going on for over a quarter – century will not happen overnight. There is a future for postmodern Presbyterianism in Canada—but not a guaranteed future. Will we “seek to be changed, to be reformed, to take whatever risks are necessary as we learn to obey God’s will?” (PCC Vision Statement, 1989) First things first—worship needs renewal.


About Gordon McCrostie

Gordon McCrostie’s Master of Theological Studies thesis is titled “Directions in Presbyterian Worship for the 21st Century.”