Wider and Deeper: Ten Questions to Expand the Conversation on Worship Arts and Discipleship Formation

Michael J. Bauer, in his important work, Arts Ministry (Eerdmans, 2013), describes how different streams of the Christian tradition have employed the arts in worship and ministry. The Roman Catholics, he observes, embrace the fine arts while encouraging private devotional art; the Orthodox tradition centers on the icon, church architecture, and sung choral liturgy; and mainline Protestants, he says, have been influenced by both the classical fine arts and popular culture, dependent on the dominant cultural context in which they find themselves. What is notably missing from Bauer’s inventory are evangelically-inclined Protestants and charismatic-Pentecostals who nevertheless constitute a sizeable percentage of today’s global Christian family.

So, it is indeed gratifying to see Tanya Riches invite us into a conversation about how the worship arts—“arts used in the congregational space,” as she defines it—may be employed to move worshippers towards right belief, emotion, and action in their Christian journey, and more specifically, train them to “undertake peacemaking and resist violence by encouraging compassion and love for their religious ‘other.’”

I will not take the time and space here to review all of the helpful ways that Riches sets out to work at this tall order. We have her text before us. But I did find myself wondering a few things as I engaged her essay. My thoughts in the form of questions—presented here in no particular order of priority—include the following:

  1. Can we work to avoid reducing “the arts” to “music”? I was delighted to see Riches announce a broad range of arts—dances, music, visual elements, graphic images, videos, etc.—as part of the conversation. This mirrors the call of the 2011 Cape Town Commitment when it states that “art in its many forms is an integral part of what we do as humans and can reflect something of the beauty and truth of God. […] Drama, dance, story, music and visual image can be expressions both of the reality of our brokenness, and of the hope that is centered in the gospel that all things will be made new.” This broad definition of artistic expression soon disappears in Riches’ essay, however, as she chooses to focus on songs—which she refers to as “the most noteworthy contemporary Christian art form today.” Riches does offer us the disclaimer that songs seem to be “the best starting place in order to review the role of Christian worship art” so I look forward to that broader reflection from her in another time and place.
  1. Must “worship arts” be confined to “the congregational space”? I get it that we are focusing here on how arts-in-worship can assist in discipling Christians to “undertake peacemaking” and “encourage compassion and love for their religious ‘other’”. But to limit worship arts to “arts used in the congregational space” severely restricts the body of Christ and eliminates other important settings where intentional discipleship can happen—weekend creative arts workshops, stitching quilts for Japanese tsunami survivors, youth group bake sales for local immigrants, sewing school kit bags for Syrian refugee children—all of which in themselves involve works of art.
  1. Can we work toward creating new artistic expressions, rather than simply copying others? Riches’ essay focuses on analyzing existing art forms—Hillsong hymn texts—for their assistance in training Christian peacemakers. But the most potent arts, like Picasso’s “Guernica,” are often contextually-specific and culturally-relatable. How, then, can worship arts in my own small-town congregation train members to connect with some of our local neighbors—a Palestinian shop owner, an Iraqi businessman, a Cambodian Buddhist doughnut maker—to name only a few? Well, we may need to create some new stuff! And to assist that in happening in local communities, Brian Schrag and others have designed a seven-step process that inspires artistic creativity and the active collaboration of musicians, dancers, storytellers, actors and visual artists.
  1. Could diverse ways of engaging the religious “other” engender multiple artistic expressions beyond arts-in-worship? I have on occasion adapted an interchurch tool developed by French Dominican Father Yves Congar to identify five modalités d’engagement (“ways of engaging”) the religious “other.” These include:
    • Personal relations—friendships, hospitality, meal-sharing, neighborhood clusters, etc.
    • Projects—fund-raisers, work teams, relief projects in crisis situations, etc.
    • Piety—rites and rituals, silent retreats, spiritual disciplines, etc.
    • Prayer—common liturgy, reading Sacred Books, corporate worship, etc.
    • Propositions—confessional statements, conversations on doctrines, etc.

Clearly, “prayer” is most closely akin to the arts-in-worship conversation we are having here. But think of all the other artistic expressions—language learning, cuisine, house construction, oral readings, group games, etc.—that could be employed in discipling Christians were we to train the body of Christ more broadly and deeply in peacemaking.

  1. Does “peacemaking” belong in worship? Tanya reports that in her survey of Christian friends around the world the question was raised whether peacemaking was an appropriate function of worship. “The respondents pointed out,” she reports, “that a congregational worship song is for singing praises to God.” Riches counters this view with the assertion that both vertical and horizontal functions are present in worship and that songs are a “tool for teaching and forming the church” alongside fostering belief “about God in praise.” This is a troubling matter, in my view, and needs a lot more attention. The Psalms, the church’s inherited songbook, is chock full of “horizontal” material—some of it pretty harsh, e.g., “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” in Psalm 137:9, and elsewhere more edifying, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” from Psalm 133:1. If worship is all about a vertical experience, how then can we expect people to connect dots to their world and to religious “others” during the week?
  1. How broad and deep is our definition of “undertaking peacemaking” and “resisting violence”? In Riches very first footnote, she sites John Paul Lederach’s definition of peacebuilding as the action necessary to “transform conflict toward more sustainable, peaceful relationships … peace is seen not merely as a stage in time or a condition. It is a dynamic social construct.” Most Christians are nowhere near a view this expansive of peacebuilding, even though they claim to worship a God who in Christ has made peace with the entire cosmos (Col. 1:20) and has given to the church a ministry of being the primary models and messengers of that peace (2 Cor. 5:18). The church—in its worship and in all other auxiliary activities—is the place where God’s people are reminded of and rejoice in the biblical vision of God’s shalom between “God and people, between people and people, and between God, people, and creation.”[1] Imagine how the church might be transformed and mobilized if every expression of worship art that we could muster were designed and single-mindedly dedicated to strengthening and equipping us for the task of participating in God’s cosmic-size reconciling project in Christ!
  1. Can and should training church members in worship to “undertake peacemaking” and “love their enemies” be reduced to expressing the desire that the lost “others” will be saved? Riches’ analysis of Hillsong music texts includes the following observations, italics my own: “Many [people] identified lyrics that reminded them of the world outside the church, but particularly those who were ‘unsaved’ or not Christian.” “Lyrics chosen […] reflect encouragement for Christians to desire the conversion and sanctification of all individuals.” “The selected songs demonstrate that participants use Hillsong songs to sing and pray rather abstractly for the conversion of the whole world and may apply this to people of other faiths while doing so.” All of this raises the important question with which Tanya begins her essay: When we are desirous of training disciples of Christ through worship arts to undertake peacemaking, resist violence, and engage in compassion and love for religious “others,” are we limiting that goal—as important as it is—to our concern for the “conversion of the unsaved”? In the context of God’s initiative to reconcile the entire cosmos, is this all that our worship arts are offering us? Does this faithfully reflect the earthly ministry of Jesus, the one we claim to worship and follow—Jesus, who approached people as living whole beings with fractured and broken physical, spiritual, intellectual, social, and emotional human parts in desperate need of healing and hope? It could well be that the church needs an entirely new and refurbished repertory of worship arts that more accurately reflect … Jesus!
  1. Does emotional energy in worship guarantee that members will go forth in compassion to make peace with the religious “other”? Riches cites Randall Collins’ claim that when large groups of bodies—as in worship—move in similar ways, emotional energy is released, creating a “feeling of confidence, courage to take action, [and] boldness in taking initiative.” According to Collins, “it makes the individual feel not only good, but exalted, with the sense of doing what is most important and most valuable.” Riches is, however, somewhat conflicted in her essay about this matter. She does state that “the more loved people feel by God, the more they can give out to others,” all the while admitting that “it is rather difficult to determine whether the artistic expressions used in the worship service move Christians towards right action after the service.” I am gratified to see people feeling good, and even exalted, with an increased sense of “doing what is most important and most valuable,” but if arts-in-worship do not specifically train and disciple believers to know and embrace what actually is “most important” and “most valuable” for God’s people, then the worship experience is reduced to an individual catharsis with little more than privatized impact on the world.
  1. Should God’s people pause to confess and repent of the misuse and abuse of worship arts in encountering the religious “other”? At some point—perhaps right from the outset rather than at the end—the church needs to stop and name the fact that some of our worship arts have been harmful in our relationships with religious “others”. Riches alludes to this when she notes that worship lyrics can be “problematic for discipleship and may even encourage wrong action.” If we are to be honest, we must acknowledge times in “Christian” history when worship arts and rituals have been more than harmful. They have been lethal. Such is the case of an anonymous 16th century conquistador who reportedly exclaimed, “Who can deny that the use of gunpowder against pagans is the burning of incense to our Lord?” Or the 1099 Jerusalem massacre of Jewish worshippers by crusaders who locked down a synagogue on the Sabbath, set it on fire, and then lifted their hearts in praise with “Christ, we do all adore thee” while circling the flaming house of worship. Fortunately, this has not been the norm in Christian history, but it is a part of the story.
  1. Can “may” and “should” be transformed into “will” and “must”? I was intrigued, and increasingly troubled, by the use of frequent modal auxiliary verb forms—may, might, could, should, would, etc.—employed throughout this essay. “Contemporary worship should motivate Christians to act with loving-kindness towards people of other faiths.” “If the Godly love research is correct, then it may develop love and compassion in the ‘horizontal’ sense.” The essay’s concluding paragraph includes no less than five such usages: “Worship arts may move people to love their enemies.” “[They] may entrain Christians to resist violence.” “[They] may encourage people to action.” “Contemporary worship may be able to contribute to peacemaking.” “The Arts as used in Christian worship may indeed play a vital role in resisting violence in this polarized world.” I would love to believe that God’s people can, will, and must do better than this. Admittedly, we do not enforce or impose But might it help in solidifying our identity to incorporate regular messages in worship like this hymn composed in 1990 for the twelfth Mennonite World Conference assembly? Well … I said might. More than might. I believe it will!

We are people of God’s peace as a new creation

Love unites and strengthens us at this celebration

Sons and daughters of the Lord, serving one another,

A new covenant of peace binds us all together.

We are children of God’s peace in this new creation,

Spreading joy and happiness, through God’s great salvation.

Hope we bring in spirit meek, in our daily living.

Peace with ev’ryone we seek, good for evil giving.

We are servants of God’s peace, of the new creation.

Choosing peace, we faithfully serve with heart’s devotion.

Jesus Christ, the Prince of peace, confidence will give us.

Christ the Lord is our defense; Christ will never leave us.[2]  


[1] Al Tizon, in Whole and Reconciled: Gospel, Church, and Mission in a Fractured World (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018), 85.

[2] Portions of texts from Menno Simons (1552) translated in 1990 by Esther Bergen and appearing as No. 407 in Hymnal: A Worship Book (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1992).