Resisting North American “Magic Kingdom” Worship

Release date: 
Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Exploring our shared commitment to worship

As a global communion of Anabaptist-related churches, we share a common commitment to gathering regularly for worship. Yet our tremendous diversity means that we carry out this commitment in very different ways. In the October 2013 issue of Courier/Correo/Courrier, leaders from across our fellowship write about different ways in which Anabaptists approach worship - the sights and sounds, the challenges and the blessings.

Resisting North American “Magic Kingdom” Worship

Writing in his book Unfinished: Believing Is Only the Beginning (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2013), Rich Stearns asks the question, “What would people be like if they had been born and raised inside Magic Kingdom park and had never seen the outside world?” By "Magic Kingdom," Stearns is referring to the Disneyland amusement park in the USA built by the Walt Disney Corporation – a place that is associated, for many people, with perfect conditions, make-believe characters and whimsical imagination.  

This “Magic Kingdom” vision, he says, is exactly how we could describe much of the church living in the "First-World" (or Global North). Many of us live in a kind of fantasy- land, very distant from and largely unaware of the day-to-day struggles impacting the lives of those living in what Stearns calls the "Tragic Kingdom" (or Global South) across the rest of the world.  

Despite the disparity in our circumstances, God’s kingdom is the common denominator between the Magic and Tragic kingdoms. As Christ-followers, no matter where we find ourselves geographically, politically, culturally or economically, our loyalty is to the Kingdom of God. We share similar goals as disciples of Christ. We want to speak of hope and grace to those in our cultural context. We desire to build bridges to show that Jesus is transcultural and relevant. In his kingdom, worship flows out of our image and understanding of who God is. In the worldly kingdom, humanity’s actions evoke response from their gods. In the heavenly kingdom, God’s actions evoke a response of worship and wonder from his creation.  

As believers, we may come from different places, but we stand on the common ground of citizenship in God’s kingdom. Therefore, there should be unity among believers – locally, nationally and globally.  

This is the vision of the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:4-6. These three verses contain seven “ones” of Christian unity, and they have integrity both vertically and horizon- tally. There is only one body, one hope, one faith and one baptism (horizontal unity) because there is only one God - Father, Son and Spirit - to whom we all belong (vertical unity).  

But how does this play out in worship, especially as we think about our global church community?  

Christian unity is expressed across time, space and culture. Although our worship style, location and leadership may vary, we should be able to discern unity among our diversity in the common threads of our theology. The act of meeting together, for example, is a common expression of our unity, no matter what the cultural differences.  

Christian unity is also expressed in the way we live out our citizenship in the Kingdom of God, challenging oppression and injustice and working to transform the patterns of self and wealth into care of the poor and the earth - another expression of our worship.  

Unfortunately, today, in North America, we live in a highly individualistic culture. Oblivious to their surroundings, young and old walk, drive, eat and even sleep plugged into their own conversations and personalized mixes of entertainment. Our "Magic Kingdom” culture even leads us to commoditize worship. As Tom Kraeutner states in his 1992 article, "Worship is a Verb," "We can become so interested in doing things ‘right’ to get the ‘right’ response from people that we miss the whole point – worship- ping God.”  

Our Anabaptist theology can provide a helpful lens as we think about this tendency. Worship is our response to God’s Word and his creation. Worship is life-encompassing, and this worldview informs our choices as followers of Jesus. Our emphasis on com- munity and the value of diverse gifting that each person brings to the body, is inclusive and participatory.  

The reality is, many of us who live in the “Magic Kingdom” need to recognize that our “stuff” distracts us from worship. We need to work a lot harder at walking our talk. This was highlighted for me as I overheard two conversations following a worship service: in Africa, I heard, "I wish we could stay and worship for another hour. It is so good to be together”; in North America, I heard, "I loved worship today - the worship leader was awesome and the sound was great. I just wish they would keep more closely to the time. I am late for lunch.”  

I know these comments are generalizations, and I am thankful that many North Americans work diligently to be counter- cultural. There are many resources available to help us think about whom we worship and how we worship. Here are some questions I ask myself as I think about Anabaptist worship in North America:  

1. Is our stated theology reflected in the form and function of our worship? For example, given our diversity, style should not be an important criterion in evaluating worship (form). And yet, one of the ways our theology is expressed is in the style we choose.  

2. As we reflect on our corporate worship genre, style or themes over the past year, do we incorporate the full range of human emotion in our worship experiences? Do we only sing happy songs, or is there room for refection and lament in our worship? Are we so focused on a single dimension of worship that we fail to minister holistically?  

3. Do we endeavour to have our corporate worship be an expression of our community rather than cater to the cultural trend of individualism?  

4. Whenever particular activities and experiences are included as we gather to worship, do we creatively make space for significant congregational involvement? Inclusivity is multilayered. How are we intentionally inclusive?  

5. In planning our worship "experiences," do we sometimes overthink the detail of how we will “do” it and under-think how this choice informs our understanding of God?   

Perhaps, like me, you have experienced some “special moments” as a worshipper, at Mennonite World Conference assemblies. Unified voices, lifted in multi-cultural worship that responds to the greatness of our Creator, Saviour and Lord, gives me a snapshot of worship as pictured in the book of Revelation. I look forward to sharing that glimpse of eternity with many of my sisters and brothers from around the world as we gather for Assembly 16 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, USA, in 2015.  

Don McNiven (Kitchener, Ontario, Canada) serves as the executive director of the International Brethren In Christ Association (IBICA), an associate member of MWC. He is a member of the Program Oversight Committee for Assembly 16, heading up the Music and Worship planning section.


Geographic representation: 
North America