The Conviction of Things Not Seen
Edited by Todd E. Johnson
2002, Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, 236 pages
Reviewed by Brad Boydston 24 March 2003
A festschrift is a collection of essays published in honor of a scholar. Usually such essays are on some esoteric subject related to the scholar’s
field. The collection that Todd Johnson has compiled in honor of Robert Webber is indeed a festschrift but like Webber himself each of the
contributions toggle back and forth between the academic and the practical.
There are 13 chapters in The Conviction of Things Not See all discussing various aspects of worship and ministry.
Constance Cherry talks about the nature of change and traces the changes that have taken place in the way that American Evangelicals have worshiped. She counsels that “chasing a worship style as one’s foremost endeavor is ill advised because it presumes the wrong question. The style question is always ‘What do people like?’
“I suggest that there is a better question to ask: What kind of worship helps people encounter God?” (p. 29)
In this era of change we need to develop worship that is culturally “bilingual” communicating back and forth between the modern and postmodern languages. And this isn’t so much a matter of style, according to Cherry, but of finding a “worship voice.”
Lester Ruth traces the attempts at classifying the various approaches to worship (“traditional”, “contemporary”, “blended”, etc.) Looking at various schemes used by William Esaum and Thomas Bandy, Paul Basden, and James White. All are quite fascinating but inadequate, argues, Ruth, who suggests a new taxonomy that utilizes Webber’s distinction between content, structure, and style. Churches are then classified between those who tell a personal story and those who emphasize a cosmic story. Furthermore the new taxonomy takes into account that American worship services are organized around “one of three categories: music, Word/preaching, or table...” (p. 48).
Todd Johnson examines the history of Willow Creek Community Church, the “seeker service,” and it’s origins in a particular style of youth ministry developed by Young Life. In a sense Willow Creek is merely an updated version of the camp meetings of American revivalism.
John Witvliet sees music as the focal point of worship for most people. “There is a great concern for a congregation’s market niche and the way that music can function as a tool to appeal to a wide spectrum of people. These competing impulses have put enormous pressure on musicians in congregations to meet competing demands and expectations.” (p. 68)
However, he argues that we have to move “beyond the fight” and he suggests six important (and I believe powerful) questions that we need to be asking:
1) Do we have the imagination and resolve to speak and make music in a way that both celebrates and limits the role of music as a conduit for experiencing God?
2) Do we have the imagination and persistence to develop and play music that enables and enacts the primary actions of Christian worship? (That is, making music more than an end in and of itself.)
3) Do we have the imagination and persistence to make music that truly serves the gathered congregation, rather than the musician, composer, or marketing company that promotes it?
4) Do we have the persistence and imagination to develop and then practice a rich understanding of “aesthetic virtue”?
5) Do we have a sufficiently complex understanding of the relationship between worship, music, and culture to account for how worship is as once transcultural, counter cultural, and cross cultural?
6) Do we have the imagination and persistence to overcome deep divisions in the Christian church along the lines of socioeconomic class?
Ruth Meyers examines the issue of baptism, the rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, and how this might affect catechesis in twenty-first century “post-Christendom” North America. Perhaps most helpful to many will be her discussion of a rite of reaffirmation of faith.
William Willimon discusses his understanding of how worship and associated rituals function as pastoral care. He provides an overview of psycho-socio theories related to the role of ritual. But in the end adds a caveat “Human effects, even the noble effect of good pastoral care, are not the main concerns in the complex of rituals that comprise Christian worship. The purpose of worship is the delightfully purposeless, pointless, nonutilitarian purpose of the glorification and enjoyment of God... Yet all
of the human good that comes from Christian worship is a gracious byproduct of the main good of glorifying God and enjoying God forever...” (p. 108)
Rodney Clapp examines the interplay between social science and worship. Much of his concern involves the concept of spectacle. “A frequent consequence of instrumentalizing worship, especially in our age of mass media, is that worship is made into spectacle. Churchgoers come to church expecting to be entertained, just as they were entertained by a movie brimming with special effects the night before...” (p. 122)
“With or without television cameras, when worship is reduced to spectacle, worshipers are reduced from participants to spectators. And as social psychologist David Myers indicates, participation intensifies the formative power of an activity...” (p. 122)
Mary Hess reported on Christian theological education in a postmodern context. Those in old-line churches will find her input helpful.
Kathy Black describes some of the issues related to becoming an intentionally multiethnic congregation. Her concept of “reciprocal assimilation” is helpful. In this model the existing congregation does not just expect new people from other cultures to change so they can fit in but actually goes about intentionally changing themselves so others feel at home.
“In multiethnic congregations we learn to live with ambiguity and cacophony rather than unison. While it may sound chaotic, it is not. There is a unity expressed in and through the diverse community, even though the notion of unison is replace with cacophony. Cacophony respects and values the spiritualities and faith journeys of oneself and of the other and gives people the freedom to express that faith in ways that foster their relationship with God in the context of the worshiping community.” (p. 145)
Gilson Waldkoenig writes about the role of denominations in the new century and has some wonderful insights. “In the family that is the body of Christ, denominations are the middle children. New movements, upstart congregations, and sects are the younger children. They hold promise for the future, keep twilight years at bay, and defy the dead weight of institutionalization. Church traditions, on the other hand, are the elder children of the Christian family. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches seem as if they will carry on the traditions and not be swept away by youthful binges and ephemeral distractions. What they lack in innovation, they make up for in elderly legitimacy.
“Being the middle children, denominations modern compromises between church traditions and sectarian forms of the church lack both the full credibility of the older church traditions and the exuberant freshness of the young.
Denominations are the form of the church that nobody ever wanted... In their unwantedness, denominations have lived with a constant refrain that predicts their imminent demise...” (p. 154)
However, Waldkoenig reports, “In the beginning of the third millennium, denominations are rising and declining all around, but denominationalism is as strong as it has ever been. Just when a growing congregation thinks it is succeeding in being truly ‘non-denominational’, the inevitable procedures of organizational existence bring about denominational forms...” (p. 154)
Waldkoenig proceeds to talk about the role of conflict in the rise and decline of denominational institutions and then elaborates on organizational tendencies. He concludes by offering five practical steps for living with denominationalism in a postmodern era.
Robert K. Johnston provides a sweeping overview of how visual arts have functioned in the church throughout the ages. Is art a pedagogical prop, sacramental reality, or just plain idolatrous? These are important issues in an image-driven society. And those who are familiar with Johnston will not be surprised at his conclusions. “The visual reinforcement allows for a liturgy of enactment that is transformative. The pedagogical has become the sacramental through the gracious presence of the Spirit of Christ, who fills it with his divine presence.” (p. 182)
Donald Bloesch presents three approaches to apologetic theology using three historical figures and their responses to the challenges of secularism: Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, and Frank Buchman.
“According to Tillich, the way to penetrate the outside world is through dialogue rather than evangelism. Because all people are in contact with the divine presence, there are no lost souls, only souls in the stage of latency. There are no absolute conversions, only relative ones. Our task as members of the believing community is to broaden understandings and build bridges between competing faith systems. We should never try to force people to change faiths but should instead encourage a fuller understanding, and possibly a deeper appreciation, of all faiths.” (p. 187)
Barth, on the other hand, advocated a more kerygmatic approach. “For Barth, evangelism is not dialoguing with the unbelieving representatives of other positions but informing people of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ... We can point others to faith, but only the Holy Spirit can bring faith to them. Whereas the symbol of the bridge is appropriate for Tillich’s theology, the symbol of the fortress characterizes Barth’s position. For Barth, our mandate is not to leave the fortress to battle our opponents on their own turf but to invite others into the fortress not as adversaries but as potential converts...” (pp. 188-189)
Buchman was an itinerant charismatic Lutheran clergyman who died in 1961. He had a gift of personal evangelism and spiritual insight into an
individual’s faith and that person’s struggles.
“In contrast to most apologetic and kerygmatic theologies, charismatic theology is focused on a direct experience of the Spirit, which is both a means to faith and a condition for faith. Buchman was not an irrationalist, but in contrast to Barth, his emphasis was on the cross of experience rather than the cross of history. He wished that every person would have ‘an experience of the Cross of Christ so that he could present it intelligently to anyone.’ The question is whether in our evangelistic ministry we present simply our experience of Christ or the Christ of the Bible who not only saved us personally but saved the whole world at least in principle...” (pp. 193-194)
These three approaches, or some kind of combination of them, mark out the alternatives for relating to an era of relativism, postmodernism, and pluralism. Bloesch offers his own synthesis a Christian faith that will “necessarily be countercultural” seeking to win the world to Christ through the proclamation of the gospel a proclamation that is supported by deeds of mercy, the fruit of the Spirit, and signs and wonders.
I found that I marked up this chapter more than any other in the book. And the last three pages provide a wonderful summary of Bloesch’s own approach to evangelical-catholic faith.
The final chapter is a mini-biography of Robert Webber by his colleague Dennis Okholm. Okholm describes Webber’s upbringing in the Congo and the personal transitions that Webber has gone through from being a Bob Jones fundy to that of a leader in the classical Christianity movement. Webber has grown to the point where he emphasizes a fusion of incarnational theology and a Christus Victor approach to the cross as the answer for our postmodern times. Indeed, Webber believes that much of the church’s prior problems stem from its dependence on modernism.
How then is culture engaged? Primarily through worship “liturgical epistemology.” And thus the recovery of classic Christian worship has been a focal point of Webber’s work.
So it is no surprise then that most of the articles in this festschrift deal with the issue of worship in a postmodern context. The essays are stimulating, and like Webber himself, both theologically rich and at the same time aware of the necessity of being fully engaged in the practice of ministry.