Post-contemporary worship: buy stock in incense, now

There's an old saying that whatever is happening in contemporary Christian music is usually a photocopy of whatever was happening in the real world -- mainstream music -- a year or two earlier. I'm beginning to think that the same thing happens with the elite media and trends on the conservative side of the aisle in religion news. Take today's New York Times article about the emerging world of "post-contemporary worship." It's rare to see a topic that is "cutting edge," supposedly, show up in elite media almost half a decade after it surfaces in a quality Christian journal such as Leadership. Score one for the editors at Leadership.

The whole idea is that -- stunner! -- free-church Protestants are creating new forms of worship out of the cultural materials that surround them. As if this was not what happened on the Great Awakening long ago and in the happy-clappy Megachurch movements of the recent past. This is how churches work, when Church Tradition is something that can be settled in a Wednesday-night business meeting.

Thus, contemporary Christian worship got old and people had to hunt for "what comes next." The columns I have written on this topic over the past five years -- from postmodern Celtic Baptists in Falwell country to the influential Ecclesia flock in urban Houston -- have drawn a lot of response from my readers. Here is now the Times summed up the scene:

The label "emerging church" refers to the emergence of a generation with little or no formal attachment to church. The congregations vary in denomination, but most are from the evangelical side of Protestantism and some are sponsored by traditional churches. Brian McLaren, 48, pastor at Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Md., and one of the architects of the fledgling movement, compared the churches to foreign missions, using the local language and culture, only directed at the vast unchurched population of young America.

The ministries are diverse in their practices. At Ecclesia in Houston and Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, Calif., artists in the congregation paint during services, in part to bring mystical or nonrational elements to worship, said Chris Seay, 32, pastor of the four-year-old Ecclesia, which draws 400 to 500 people on most Sundays. At Spirit Garage in Minneapolis, in a small theater, congregants can pick up earplugs at the door in case the Spirit Garage Band is too loud. At Solomon's Porch across town, a crowd of about 300 takes weekly communion "house party"-style, chatting with plastic cups of wine and pieces of pastry before one announces, "Take and eat the body of Christ."

What interests me is that many of these Protestant leaders believe that they can move closer to ancient traditions with a few clicks of a computer mouse. You take an icon here, mix with a rock version of a chant from there, blend in a new gender-neutral version of an ancient liturgy from over there, light some incense and -- bingo -- you have a new, deep, rooted religious experience for people baptized in a visual, experiential culture.

Perhaps there is another story here. When will more churches -- even on the right -- openly begin using this same PoMo approach with doctrine and moral theology?

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