An Interview with Robert Webber
by Bob Burroughs
Creator celebrates every church musician and worship leader, and the ministry of which they are a part. We regularly turn the “spotlight” on people involved in local ministry in order to help inspire and provide ideas for others. In our November/December, 2004, issue, we featured what we called “one of the real and practical experts in the ‘art of Christian worship,’” Dr. Robert Webber. Webber was the author of over 40 books on the subject of worship and spirituality and was a popular conference and workshop communicator, as well as a teacher/educator. He was on the Northern Seminary faculty, located in the Chicago suburbs, serving as the Director for the M.A. in worship and Spirituality and teaching courses for the D.Min in Worship Studies. Webber, now deceased, was, at that time, also President of what is now the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies, located in Florida, offering advanced degrees in the study of worship.
CM: Dr. Webber...welcome to the Creator magazine readership! What is your present position, Sir?
RW: I am currently the William and Geraldyn Myers Professor at Northern Seminary.
CM: We are aware that you probably didn’t start out to be an “expert” in the art of worship. What sequence led you to be so involved and active in the worship arena?
RW: My Doctorate is in Historical Theology. As I studied the origins of Christian thought, I realized that all truth was first expressed in the worship of the church. So, to get at the origins of Christian doctrine, I had to study the Liturgical materials of the New Testament--doxologies, benedictions, hymns, sermons, baptism and Eucharist. Here, one will find the seed thoughts of all Christian teaching. This naturally translated into my observations on current worship and a desire to see worship proclaim and enact truth.
CM: You have family, we assume. Will you tell us about them?
RW: I have a wonderful soulmate in my wife, and delight in my four children and five grandkids.
CM: How do you manage your time...with family responsibilities and the multiple tasks that face you each day, week, month and year?
RW: With great difficulty..and occasional frustration! I tell people to just get up, put your feet on the floor and do what needs to be done. But underneath all of this is...a sense of “calling.” My work is never born out of duty, but out of joy in fulfilling my calling. On the human side, I have always kept my summers free for writing.
CM: You are considered by many to be the #1 Guru of Worship--at least in the USA. This includes our thinking that you think “outside the worship box” and are always challenging worship leaders to do more...be more...lead more...pray more...and strive to lead their people in the grand worship celebration week after week after week no matter how large...or small the church is--or what style of music or preaching is inherent in the church. This, Sir, is a huge responsibility...whether or not we seek it! What would you say to that?
RW: I am surrounded with lots of people who have the same calling, especially my students at Northern and the graduates and students of the Institute for Worship Studies. Pray for us!
CM: What advice or tips would you provide our Creator readership about what is out there in worship and will happen in the near or distant future? For instance, William Easum, in his powerful book DANCING WITH DINOSAURS (Abingdon Press) observes that by the year 2015, most churches in the USA will be “traditional/blended.” Would you care to give us your thoughts on the future of worship in the USA?
RW: I really think it is difficult to predict the future...of anything! I remember one of my history professors saying it is best to interpret history...after is has happened! Nevertheless, observers of history are able to see trends and can project what may come down in the future.
We are in a time of cultural transition from a modern to a postmodern world. Right now, most church leadership is finding themselves ministering between the paradigms. This helps me understand the confusion and even the “worship wars” that are upon us. An important aspect of this transition is the “generational divide.” Strauss and How, in their important work, THE FOURTH TURNING, suggest that we look at generational differences in terms of the patterns and cycles of history that have discerned for centuries. History, they suggest, moves from crisis to stability to revolution to unraveling...then back again to crisis! We can observe this cycle since the 1950’s in American culture and point out its impact on worship. Example: the stable time of the 1950’s resulted in the traditional worship that many of our current 60-70 year olds prefer; then the revolution of the 1960’s is parallel in time to the emergence of contemporary worship, the worship preferred by many Boomer leaders, the unraveling of social norms in the 70’s and 80’s were characterized by even greater diversity in worship...especially in the rise of rock contemporary worship. Now, the new generation, the “millennials” (born 1982-) are returning to more traditional approaches to worship which incorporate familiar hymns.
What we really have here are generational styles and preferences. I doubt that we will ever see one particular style dominate the church in America...or around the world. Whereas churches were once divided over doctrines which resulted in denominations, what I see in the future is churches...divided over styles of worship! Denominationalism is fading into the background while a new constellation of churches, arranged by diversity of style, are emerging.
I prefer the style of blending liturgical and contemporary and much of my work in the future will be to acknowledge more the diversity of “style.” A mark of postmodernity is diversity. People will be drawn to this or that church...not because it is Baptist, Presbyterian or Methodist, but because it is Liturgical, Traditional. Contemporary, Postmodern, or whatever handle best describes the style. I think diversity is reality in today’s world. I don’t plan to get people to see it my way, but instead, my concern is to address the matter of content and structure in worship, and especially, content! I have a monthly e-newsletter and series of books that address the content and structure issues. The newsletter, <ancientfutureworship.com> and the Ancient-future line of books (Baker Books) address the biblical and historical norms that need to be embraced by all styles.
If worship hands down truth, then the content of our worship is of great importance, no matter what the style. Currently, I am addressing the need to recover a deeper understanding of God’s work in Jesus Christ. I am attending to show from scripture and the ancient understanding of the faith that God’s mission in Jesus Christ is to save the creatures and creation. This brings me into conflict with the current state of romantic songs, that picture worship as a romantic and even narcissistic relationship with God.
The structure of worship is simple...it is four-fold. We gather God’s people to hear God’s word to celebrate at the table to go forth into the world to love and serve the Lord. This is the ancient pattern of worship that allows for a great deal of both order and freedom in worship. I also advocate multigenerational and multicultural worship as biblical, pertaining to the body of Christ...made up of all ages and nationalities. This puts me in conflict with the church growth principles of targeting a particular age group or homogeneous group.
So...putting my personal telescope to the future, I would say only one thing is certain: DIVERSITY OF STYLE WILL RULE FOR THE DAY. So let us accept the diversity of styles and concentrate on the truth which worship hands down to us.
CM: If anyone is interested in pursuing a possibility of an advanced degree with you, how would one go about applying and what is the process?
RW: I suggest going to the web sites and calling for a catalog. For the M.A. in Worship and spirituality at Northern Seminary, see <www.seminary.edu> or call Ashley Olsen at 630.620.2130. For the D.Min in Worship at Northern, Call Barbara Wixon at 630.620.2180. For either the Master’s or Doctorate in Worship Studies at the Institute for Worship Studies, see <www.iwsfla.org> or call Laura Ritter at 800.282.2977.
CM: Can you give your readers your definition of “worship?”
RW: Yes. The worship most pleasing to the Father is the work of His Son, Jesus Christ. I could expand on this, but I’ve gone on long enough!
CM: Would you care to name of couple of your personal heroes...those who have meant a lot to you, your career and your pilgrimage?
RW: My educational practice has been shaped by a seminary professor, Robert Fudolph, who is now deceased. My ecumenical vision is shaped by Billy Graham’s embrace of all Christians. My theology is shaped by Irenaeus, who was a Second Century theologian. My worship experience and outlook has been shaped by James Rosenthal. I owe also a great debt of gratitude to my father, who was a Baptist pastor.
CM: If you could be doing anything you wanted to do...in this time...and in this age, what would it be..or...are you doing it?
RW: I am doing it! There was a rumor at the seminary that 2004 was my last year to teach. The Dean asked me if it was true. I said: “Go back and tell them when Bob Webber is dead, you will know he is retired!”
CM: What was your greatest accomplishment in the last three years?
RW: The students who came to Northern Seminary and to the Institute for Worship Studies in Florida.
CM: What was your greatest struggle in the last three years?
RW: Health! Two back surgeries and anemia have really taken it’s toll on me. Thanks be to God, a corner has been turned and I’m am getting back to normal...so watch out. Webber is almost back!
CM: What is the name/author/publisher of the last book you have most recently read?
RW: Prayer by Hans Urs von Balthasar, translated by Graham Harrison, San Francisco Ignatius Press, ©1986
CM: Who performed at the last concert you attended...and did you enjoy the experience?
RW: The Russian Symphony Orchestra performing the great masterpieces of Russian literature. It was exhilarating!
CM: What would you like for Creator readers to know...what final thought would you like to leave with us?
RW: The road to the future...runs though the past!