Make your own kind of music
Widmer uses metaphor of jazz to explore church’s needed transformation
December 11, 2013
Why is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) so ineffective in meeting its goals to become a more multicultural church, one that reflects the growing diversity of the U.S. population?
Nearly two decades after adopting a goal of 10 percent racial ethnic membership by 2010, the PC(USA) is stuck at below 5 percent. And despite pouring staff and resources into multicultural ministry, only 7 percent of PC(USA) congregations qualify as multi-ethnic congregations.
“There is certainly no lack of interest in diversity in the PC(USA), The Rev. Corey Widmer ― associate pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Va., and co-pastor of East End Fellowship, a multi-cultural new worshiping community there ― told the second Moderator’s Colloquium on Ecclesiology Dec. 10 here.
“One reason why congregations remain unchanged is an incomplete eccelesiology (doctrine of the church) that manifests itself in our worship,” Widmer said. “Many congregations fail to see the connection between worship and mission.”
Congregations express a desire to be more diverse and adopt mission statements calling them to reach out to their increasingly multi-cultural communities, he said, but are unable or unwilling “to see the dichotomy between the expressed vision and the actual theology and worship practices of the church.” Embedded within that dichotomy, Widmer continued, “is the idea that the theology and worship of the church are invariable and even a-cultural, even while there is an admission that mission requires change.”
Widmer called this perspective “Blueprint Ecclesiology.” It attempts, he said, “to encapsulate in tight theological descriptions the most essential characteristics of the church.” The problem, he said, “is that such methodology tends to form normative systematic and theoretical forms of the church that are often not reflective of its every day life…”
“Blueprint ecclesiology” is most often reflected in congregational worship practices, Widmer said. “The blueprint is embedded in our hymnbooks, our instrumentation, our orders of worship, even the way we speak when we’re in the pulpit,” he said. “Taking a musical metaphor, the blueprint functions like a sacred musical score, one that cannot be altered from the composer’s trust, and the congregation is the symphony that practices hard so as to get every note right.”
But there’s a problem with the score. “It is rich, robust and beautiful … it is born out of our rich theological heritage,” Widmer said, “but also one that is laden with our heritage of white privilege, a heritage that failed to see the way that privilege has conditioned our theology and practices.”
Ultimately, Widmer said, “the score suggests that the church is not a community of people in mission but an idea of the past that contemporary people can simply rehearse and memorialize for the present.”
But the church is not an idea, it is a witnessing community, Widmer insisted. “The church’s responsibility is to witness to its Lord, to make known throughout the world the Good News of salvation in and through the person and work of Jesus Christ.”
Thus, Widmer advanced an alternate “Foretaste Ecclesiology.”
“The metaphor of foretast suggests that the calling of the church is not simply to be faithful to a blueprint written in the past, but also is called to be an anticipatory foretaste of a new and coming future.”
If classical music is representative of “Blueprint Ecclesiology,” Widmer continued, “then a musical representation of ‘Foretaste Ecclesiology’ is Jazz,” which “essentially takes old tunes and plays them in new ways … building on the old tunes but yearning and experimenting toward the possibilities of a new future.”
If a local congregation embraces “foretaste ecclesiology,” Widmer said, “it will always be looking at how, given its theological heritage, it can build on that heritage for faithful expression of the gospel in the new diverse environment to which it is called.”
Discarding that heritage is not the solution, he said. “Just as Jazz must improvise out of the rich library of its musical roots, so the local congregation improvises while staying faithful to its biblical and theological foundations.”