Remembering Marva Dawn, a Saint of Modern Worship

Her teachings pushed us beyond worship wars and individualism with keen observations, a generous spirit, and an otherworldly devotion to Jesus.

When a mentor saw me struggling with worship in our fledging church plant, he handed me a copy of Marva Dawn’s Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship in this Urgent Time. I wondered what a Lutheran and a lover of historic worship practices would have to say to a congregation whose traditions came more from indie rock shows than any church.

It turns out that the work of Marva Dawn—who died last month at age 72—was life-giving. Like many in my generation, I began ministry with a sense that there was something unsatisfying about the experiences I’d grown up with, and Dawn invited us to reconsider much that had been laid aside in the decades before.

I have no doubt that some of the credit for the renewed interest in hymnody and liturgy of the past two decades is owed to Dawn’s response to the church trends of the 1980s and 1990s, including the praise and worship movement coming out of places like The Vineyard and the “seeker-sensitive” movement led by Willow Creek.

Dawn wrote in Reaching Out that many of the changes the church was adopting—aesthetically, stylistically, and technologically—were being made uncritically. She could see that these shifts in the culture of the church were also shifts in the nature of the church, as congregations turned into “mega-businesses instead of Christian communities.”

At the height of the worship wars, churches were battling out the transition from choirs, organs, and hymnals to praise bands and overhead projectors. Advocates of contemporary worship beat the drum of evangelistic opportunity, while traditionalists fought for the church’s connection to church history and the riches of the hymnal.

But Dawn sought …

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