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forward to basics

>>>: this article first appeared in Reality Magazine, October/November 2001. Mark Pierson. <<<

I’m a U2 fan. I love their music, their style, their involvement in the culture and causes, their ability to not believe their own publicity, that they’re reinventing themselves as they get older, and I love their spirituality. I’m not a groupie and I don’t own every album, but I have been fortunate enough to participate in their last three concert tours – Lovetown, ZooTV and POP. Each overwhelming in it’s own way. Each an experience in which I sensed the presence of God and ‘my heart was strangely warmed’. After the massive high tech multimedia assaults of ZooTV and POP the current Elevation tour is a low-tech contrast. As this concert is unlikely to get any further ‘downunder ‘ than our cousins across the ditch, the best way to absorb some of the experience, beyond numerous replays of the album, is by visiting U2.com. And at this site the best insights, as always on a U2 tour, come from the diaries of show designer Willie Williams. Willie is one of the top five concert lighting and show designers in the world and has worked with David Bowie, The Coors, REM, and many other artists. He’s been doing U2 shows for more than two decades. His diaries are always humorous and insightful, not only into the backstage workings of a rock’n roll tour, but in his deconstructing of it all and his making connections between that and literature, movies and world history. He provides a fascinating contextual commentary as he exegetes the daily activities of the most successful band in the world. I think some of his comments about the Elevation Tour also have something to say about worship as we know it. On 24th of March following the opening concert in Fort Lauderdale he wrote, ‘I coined the phrase "Forward to Basics" in a Rolling Stone interview, which was a bit of a throwaway line at the time, but it could be a most apt description. There are certainly echoes of U2 shows gone by…but the whole event is certainly something new…it’s so completely against the grain of what else is out there…’ Forward to Basics. I like that. It could become the mission statement of a generation of worship curators working on new approaches to doing worship. It picks up elements of both the need to decide what is basic to what we do, and also the need to place those basics in the context of the emerging culture in which we live. It acknowledges that not all of the past is bad or unusable while at the same time it prevents us from simply repeating past patterns because ‘they worked then’. (‘The good old days’ never existed outside of churchgoer’s selective and idealised memories.) But there is much that is worth recovering and reframing from the past for current and future generations of worshippers. What would you select as the ‘basics’ of Christian worship that should be carried forward as we shape worship for new generations and subcultures? Among the people I asked that question of, the most common response had to do with authenticity. They talked about wanting worship that was authentic and relevant to who they were and where they were at. Worship that acknowledged their humanity and the complexities and realities of their life. Worship that drew them into God and the community of God’s people where they knew they would be accepted and not despised, not dogmatic ‘one-size-fits-all’ approaches. This was felt to be one of the basics of worship: taking all that we are into dialogue with God. Not having to leave any parts of who we are at the door. Honest, non-sexist connecting with God and allowing our lives to be realigned within ourselves, with each other, and with God. Andre Tapias, in a work that I have not been able to name or source, described his top 5 qualities of worship in a postmodern culture as, authenticity, community, abandonment of dogma, focus on the arts, and diversity. To which I would add a sixth, participation. These are the six basics of worship that I am suggesting we need to move forward to. Authenticity is the most important. It is also the most difficult to achieve. When a community gathers to worship there is a tremendous weight of history and expectation that comes into play. One person’s authenticity is seen by another person as a lack of self-control, or being overly emotional, or sloppy. At it’s heart the call for authenticity is a call for honesty and integrity in what we are asked to do in worship and in the words that are said about God and about those who are at worship. ‘Worship’ that is slick or superficial isn’t worship and doesn’t enable worship. Where is the lasting benefit and life changing power of worship that ignores or overrides the reality of how I’m encountering life? Like the Mother’s Day service that over hypes the values of motherhood and leaves unacknowledged the childless, the single, the aborted, the stillborn, the bereaved, and those unable to have children, in-authentic worship becomes whoreship. We prostitute ourselves when the song leader drives us to expressing beliefs we don’t believe, when the preacher preaches rather than lives, when going to church is a segmented compartment of our being unconnected to any other part of our living, and when we are unable to express our doubts and fears among those who profess to being sinners saved by grace. Community flows out of authenticity. Being loving and accepting is easier when we realise we’re all in the same boat. As long as some people check their real life at the door as they come into church, community will remain allusive. Holding common beliefs isn’t enough. Being in the same place doing the same things doesn’t help much either. We have to know each other at some level as well. Authentic worship builds community. Abandoning dogma isn’t a plea to give up on the basics of the faith. Rather it’s a reminder that good worship is more interested in connecting the grace and love of God with the real and tangible issues of life than with theoretical ones. If our corporate worship doesn’t address the realities of our life’s it lacks authenticity and will not build community. Focussing on the arts in worship is a plea for passion and creativity. A call to recognise a broader range of gifts in worship. A recognition that people learn in a variety of ways and through all five senses rather than just numbness in the backside. It doesn’t necessarily mean using a painting in place of a sermon (but it might). Acceptance and encouragement of diversity in all it’s forms - ethnicity, age, background, intelligence, time on the journey, maturity, perspective, ability, etc- among the worshipping congregation can only strengthen the authenticity of the community at worship. Participation almost seems to not need to be mentioned after what has been said above. Perhaps that’s why Tapia didn’t separate it out, it flows from the other basics. But I want to emphasise it lest anyone think that authentic worship that builds community and reflects the reality of the people worshipping can be planned and led by one man. It can’t. Not even by one woman. Not even by one theologically educated and ordained person. Liturgy is the work of the people. Active involvement in shaping our worship week by week is a basic right of every follower of Christ. Our diversity will only be recognised by a diversity of ‘leaders’. We need to be willing to risk awkwardness and poor theology and embarrassment. After all, building a community of authentic worshippers is our aim. Isn’t it? Would this style of worship be ‘so completely against the grain of what else is out there’ that it just might have something to say to those who are leaving the Church in droves and even to those who are on spiritual journeys but have decided that the Church wouldn’t have anything worthwhile to offer? Front man Bono has commented that he feels on this current tour that U2 are ‘reapplying for the job’. Perhaps the Christian Church would benefit from applying a similar process to its life and endeavours. What might we do differently if we put ourselves through that kind of tough, penetrating inventory? A good starting point would be to ask ‘what is our job?’ Then perhaps we might see more clearly what the basics are that we need to move forward to recapture.