Friday, August 22, 2014

Articulating Standards of Excellence… Wisdom, Not Law

Ron Rienstra tries to help his seminary students reflect on the questions about worship they brought into seminary and the questions that remain for them as they set out to serve congregations.

One year, a student wondered whether three friends eating together while sharing their love for Jesus could be called worship or whether the use of birthday cake at the meal instead of bread could rightly constitute the eucharist. Rienstra writes:

My desire as a professor of worship is to help my students find ways to articulate standards of excellence in worship without needing to appeal to me (or any other authority) as a kind of liturgy police or becoming deputized officers themselves. . .
 I have found it helpful, therefore, not so much to attempt to concretely norm our practice as to name it, articulating what we hope our worship, by God's grace, might be, what virtues it might exhibit, what promise we expect it could fulfill in our lives.
 John Witvliet, in his essay “Teaching Worship as a Christian Practice,” warns of the danger of a legalistic approach to articulating standards of excellence: “It is fearsome indeed to find a new seminary graduate off to his or her first charge with the message that all the old worship practices there are wrong and need to be fixed.” [John Witvliet, “Teaching Worship as a Christian Practice,” in For Life Abundant: Practical Theology, Theological Education and Christian Ministry, eds. Dorothy C. Bass and Craig Dykstra (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 144–45.]
 Witvliet argues instead for the use of the “rhetoric of wisdom” rather than a “rhetoric of law.” He sees this as a way to “reframe discussions about right and wrong, better and worse in ways that appreciate the excellencies of some approaches, but with a sense of contingency of that practice in certain contexts.”
 One can see this approach in the statement on worship, adopted in 2010 by the newly formed World Communion of Reformed Churches. There, statements about worship practices and the principles that inform them are articulated not with a “Worship should” or “Worship must,” but with a “Wise is the congregation that … ” or “Blessed is the people of God who ….”  [World Communion of Reformed Churches, “Worshipping the Triune God: Receiving and Sharing Christian Wisdom across Continents and Centuries” (2010),]
 Such an approach has a number of advantages. Among the most important is that the shift from proscriptive to descriptive helps students (and others?) to enter into the inner logic of certain choices and practices and to claim and own that logic for themselves. Meanwhile, perhaps surprisingly, they discover new practices or riffs on old practices that pursue an aspirational goal with even greater fittingness for a particular community. So, for instance, the approach is not “you must always pray in a collect form” but “here is a gift, the collect form, that embodies the inner logic of prayer, grounding our intercessions in the revealed character and actions of God. What ways can you lead prayer that do this same thing?”
 Furthermore, in moving to descriptive, one doesn't actually lose the proscriptive—it sneaks in the back door. Every attempt to articulate a rich aspirational description is a type of normative statement, but one that is internally motivated rather than externally imposed. 
–– Ron Rienstra, an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America, is assistant professor of preaching and worship arts, Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan.
This approach is invitational rather than dictatorial. What difference might this perspective make in your congregation’s or seminary’s discussions of worship choices? From where would the invitations to certain uses of God’s word and God’s sacraments arise?

Ron Rienstra, “Good Worship: Articulating Standards of Excellence in Worship without Becoming the Liturgy Police,” Liturgy 29, no. 2 (31 Jan 2014): 52-58.

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