Style and Substance: thoughts on ministry and mission

This is probably a little random. But as my blog is titled thoughts, prayers and songs, i thought I’d do a little thinking out loud over here. Feel free to opine.

I’ve been thinking about style and substance lately. Style was the subject of the so-called ‘worship wars.’ As churches in the 80’s and 90’s fought over hymns or praise songs, seeker sensitive mega churches sought to downplay anything that seemed too churchy. This was an effort to help the de-churched overcome their religious baggage. Because of this, the face of the contemporary church in America has radically changed in our lifetime. There are a few traditionalists and there has been some recovery of older music, liturgy and symbol, but for the most part, ‘worship style’ corresponds to our own personal preferences. “Style” is a consumer category. We like liturgy the way we like American Eagle, tattoos and interesting facial hair.

Sometimes substance is pitted against style. When we encounter worship services which are too ‘glitzy’ for our tastes, we dismiss them as shallow, that is, ‘lacking in substance.’ Often we don’t really have a theological complaint, it just didn’t do anything for us. We are more tuned into  our personal sense of style than we are to substance. This doesn’t stop us from dismissing the substance of the type of worship experience we don’t like. Most of  the churches we ‘don’t like’ are just ‘not our style.’

Every worship service has a style, and a substance–a ‘mode’ and a ‘message.’  These too things are not at odds. If we want to reach our neighborhoods and communities, we need to speak the gospel (our ‘substance’) in the idiom of the people (‘style’). If you fail to consider the ‘style’ of worship in your gathering, who it includes and who it excludes, than you are off mission. We need a style that reveals the Kingdom and invites people into life with Christ.  If we are too concerned about appealing to the masses that the gospel isn’t central to all we say or do, than we lost the plot and we are wasting our time. Loving God and loving our neighbor is the substance and style of all we do in ministry.

If I was forced to choose, I’d say that ‘substance’ is more important than ‘style.’ But style and substance are not easily divided. When you consider how formational Christian worship is than you consider the intimate link between worship style and the substance of a particular gathering. A charismatic believer raising her hand in praise is formed differently than an Anglican who rises for God’s word and kneels for confession. Our liturgies help us apprehend and enter deeper into our life with God. They also frame our ways of approaching Him. One ‘stylistic question’ we need to ask is, “what is the ‘substance’ of what we wish to live into?”

This may seem heady and abstract, but I guess what I am arguing for is for us to be thoughtful about the link between our beliefs and practices. We can’t just say that style, modes of practice and technique don’t matter because it is through these that we embody our faith. It is also through these practices that faith seeps into our bones. Negatively, our own stylistic prejudices can contribute to our spiritual malformation. If we don’t attend a church that practices confession because we are uncomfortable with how vulnerable it makes us, than we never experience what God has for us through the practice (i.e., freedom, community).  We need to be aware of where our personal preferences (style) and what it obscures.

What do you think the relationship between style and substance is in the Christian life? 

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6 thoughts on “Style and Substance: thoughts on ministry and mission”

  1. Great post – I opine that liturgy is a reflection of theology, therefore your liturgy, indirectly, disciples congregants into the “sect” (could be, might not be, the right word) of Christianity that you in fact believe in. Play it out broadly: Catholics center their liturgy around the “sacrifice of the Mass”, everything is a lead up to that, and communicates to the parishioner that the clergy is vital, grace is imparted through the sacrament, etc. Protestants center theirs on the sermon, teaching that biblical exposition and interpretation is paramount. But then we need to move to particulars: what does our liturgy teach if, in our non-denom seeker-sensitive churches, the focus is on comfort, respectability, wow-ing visuals, simplistic theology, etc. In other words, just as you said, the visuals, order of service, the architecture, ancillary ministries, etc., all communicate our theology – so what is it we are communicating?

    Going to think about this and join your convo on my own blog, Thanks for stoking our thinking.

  2. I have been thinking about this for a while as well. In part because I have been moving in a more liturgical (and probably Anglican) place personally, but I am a member of a non-denominational megachurch. I love my church, and my wife and family love my church. But I am also theologically and probably emotionally drawn to a new Anglican church plant that someone that I know is starting. Luckily for me it is a bit far away and makes the decisions to participate there a bit harder.

    But over the few months that I have been struggling over it personally, I just don’t feel a freedom to go there. And probably at least partially to justify it to myself, I have been thinking about the fact that personal spiritual decisions are often about me and not the kingdom or others. There is no good theological reason to leave my church, it has good teaching, it is actively reaching others, it needs mature believers to help with discipleship and teaching.

    So stylistically I might prefer the Anglican church plant. And theologically, I think there are some things that my church could do better, but that would also make it a different church that would probably not be as effective at reaching the people that it does. (Of course it still could be effective reaching a different group of people.)

    But in the end, my personal preference (at least now) is not enough for me to change.

    1. Thanks Adam! Perhaps the more elemental practice, in common to both traditions is showing up. . I have worshipped in both litugrical settings and in non-denominational settings and have met God in both places. I think what I am advocating is not one over the other, so much as thoughtfulness in both settings about the nature of practice. I think the danger from the free church non-denominational side, is that the ‘worship service’ is the big show and we can approach it a little passively. The Anglican side has its own dangers.

  3. Good thoughts James! I would add a third pillar to this discussion: structure. If our content and our structure are solid, then it’s possible to worship in a variety of styles and still form and be formed, according to Word and Spirit, toward the Kingdom. I always wonder what worship would look like if each of us was more concerned for our neighbour’s engagement with worship over our own. Not in a judgy, look-at-my-neighbour-he/she’s-not-worshipping-half-as-hard-as-she/he-should way, but in a way that truly cares for the “other” above ourselves.

    1. Thanks Stacey! I totally missed the structure pillar (and because they are pillars, we got a structure). I think my free church background sometimes blinds me to the reality of strucutres or the need for them in a way that Presbyterians and Anglicans take it is a matter of course. They are also more thoughtful liturgists able to link style and substance through structure. I was thinking of style and substance as two poles that are sometimes put in opposition to one another. Structure, holds them together so that true worshippers can worship in Spirit and Truth (Style and Substance?). I like how structures can hold together a variety of styles.

      Speaking of being ‘concerned for our neighbour’s engagement with worship over our own,’ I think this is part of what I am poking at in this post. I thnk if style names a personal or group preference, it should be subsumed to mission, which means caring for the other in our worship. I think Marva Dawn pushes us in the same sort of direction. Good stuff!

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