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ancient worship

this article first appeared in Reality Magazine, June/July 2001. Mark Pierson >>>

So the BBC is bringing Bill and Ben the flower pot men back to our television screens after 3 decades away! Those of us old enough to remember the pre-digital animation of the talking flowerpots will no doubt find their return a little unnerving. Our children (grandchildren?) may be surprised to discover us singing along with the theme song, but we’ll be the ones surprised by what comes along with the men in flowerpots – storybooks, videos, t-shirts, toys, cd’s and cassettes. The whole merchandising and advertising thing. None of which happened the first time around. It’ll be the same Bill and Ben, but it’ll also be different. Very different. The Sex Pistols (founders of punk) are touring again after two decades of not playing (or liking each other apparently). ‘The Filthy Lucre Tour’. They’re doing it unashamedly for the money. Peter, Paul and Mary, the soul of the sixties, tour in the 1990’s and beyond. Some of the best selling music albums today are reissues of material recorded 30 or 40 years ago. Digitally remastered of course. Retrospective compilations are huge. Nostalgia sells. The Beatles have sold more albums since they broke up than they did when they were together. Elvis sings to us from beyond the grave and is even touring this year! (Thanks to video technology) The same, but different. Volkswagon’s Beetle rises from the rust heap, Chrysler revamps the late 1930’s American sedan and comes up with the best selling PT Cruiser. Nostalgia with electric windows and power steering. This Easter millions of Christians around the world walked the Stations of the Cross. This very ancient walking meditation traditionally based on the events of the last week in Jesus’ life (Jesus prays in the garden, is betrayed by Judas, is condemned to death, and so on) developed as Christianity spread around the world and followers of Christ found it impossible to get to Jerusalem to walk the ‘actual’ sites of Jesus’ last week. In the fourteenth century the Franciscans established shrines outside monasteries and churches in Western Europe to help local pilgrims remember Christ’s passion. More recently the Stations have settled at fourteen and been marked on the inside of churches with small carvings or sculptures or with stained glass windows. Some as simple as a small cross and numeral. In Auckland, and Glasgow, and London this Easter a few thousand people walked a different path. Stations of the Cross, yes. But in a very different form. Instead of using simple traditional minimalist mono symbols they used contemporary symbols and media and electronic multimedia to portray the events leading up to Jesus’ death. And they didn’t just do it for the faithful pilgrims in the Church. They opened their electronic and traditional art up for meditation by anyone, of any or no religious persuasion. Theirs was no attempt to reproduce the Stations as faithful descriptions of the events, rather it was an offering of their interpretations of and insights from meditating on these events, presented in whatever form of medium or media, electronic or otherwise they could draw on. Digital arts as well as traditional ones. Cartoon, found art, junk sculpture, video and interactivity sitting alongside gouache and oil and canvas. Leonard Sweet describes this as AncientFuture Faith. ‘Faith that’s filled with new-old thinking, that re-appropriates the traditional into the contemporary, faith that mingles the old-fashioned with the newfangled, faith that understands the times in which we live in order to claim the era in which God has placed us for Jesus Christ.’ It’s from Len that I have taken the title for this column, AncientFuture Worship. I believe the church of the future will be radically different to the church of the past. But it will also look the same in many ways. It will draw on the best of the past and recycle it in contemporary ways. Not just repeat or reuse, but truly recycle by providing new contexts and new content for some of the old rituals, patterns, and words. The contemporary Stations of the Cross is a good example of this AncientFuture Church in action. They have taken a very ancient and traditional form and given it a new context and content that connects with the mindset of the emerging culture. The old form remains available for those who still wish to access it in traditional ways, and the new form is offered to those who do not, or would not find that a helpful way into the Easter story - the heart of our Christian faith. They are also drawing on the interest there is in the culture for art and images, the growing hunger for mystery and spirituality, and the longing for connections with the past. Creators of contemporary Stations of the Cross are making their Christian faith accessible to people outside the Church who have little or no understanding of the core of that faith. They may be doing this unconsciously, as a by-product of being given freedom to respond how they will to the gospel story and to create using materials and forms that reflect where they stand in contemporary culture. There is no pressure to conform in any way to either traditional thought patterns or materials. Important connections are made with a wider audience as they offer their own experience of being part of the gospel story through their art forms. Groups who are taking this new/old dynamic and shaping it into forms like the contemporary stations of the cross are usually described as offering ‘alternative worship’. These groups, who are experimenting with new ways of being church in the emerging postmodern culture, and who often sit uncomfortably on the edge or beyond of the mainstream church are not particularly happy with the term. It begs the question, ‘alternative to what?’, especially when much of their worship involves very ancient words and rituals and symbols. ‘New Worship’ was tried but didn’t catch on. I hope that Len Sweet’s term might do better. It is a good description of what ‘alternative worship’ practitioners actually do. With one eye always fixed firmly on the undercurrents and eddies of their contemporary culture they plunder and pillage the Christian tradition (and other traditions) as far back as it goes, for artifacts that might be useful in assisting postmodern pilgrims in search of a New World (whether they realise it or not). To better follow Jesus Christ in the Third Millennium is their goal. AncientFuture Church is about much more than just what we DO in church. It goes much deeper. . It is also about structures and leadership styles and participation and theology and what you think of the culture. Running a ‘Stations of the Cross: Contemporary Icons to Reflect on at Easter’, won’t make your church an AncientFuture one. But it might not be a bad start on the journey toward modeling some new and authentic ways of being church to those who can’t understand why they should even look inside a church for the answers to their questions. And the process that you have to go through to get it approved (or declined) by your church or deacons or elders or pastor may tell you a lot about why there is little hope of your church truly becoming AncientFuture. That in itself is a worthwhile discovery. Maybe it will be the Spirit’s prompting you to start something new further out on the fringes. AncientFuture worship in the AncientFuture church. I like it. I think it’s got a great future. In fact, I think it is the future.