Remembering my hero – Marva J. Dawn (August 20, 1948 – April 18, 2021)

I propose we bring back sainthood in the protestant church. That’s because when someone like Marva Dawn passes from this life to the next, you wish there were bigger words than ‘theologian’ or ‘author’ to describe them – they don’t seem to capture the substance of her life. “Saint” might be better (and apparently CT agrees).

Marva J. Dawn was a theologian. She was an author as well. For me she was a pastor to worship leaders. She was an exemplary thinker about worship, writing many which deeply influenced my life’s trajectory. In Reaching Out without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time (1995) Dawn spoke directly to the burgeoning modern worship movement of the mid 90s; I found myself formed as a young adult and growing worship leader myself in this exact cultural moment. So to say Dawn had a small impact on my life is a vast understatement. As praise and worship music led by guitars and drum sets swept across the country, Dawn neither rejected entirely nor welcomed them whole-heartedly, but offered this kind and pastoral reflection on our theology of worship, our conception of music as outreach, and our understanding of the role of music in worship. She reminded me that worship in the Bible was never done to attract the unbeliever. Worship in the Bible is meant to glorify God. The by-product of this glorifying is that unbelievers would be attracted to God themselves, but this is never the reason why people worship. We get things all upside-down when we make decisions about our worship or liturgy for the sake of the unbeliever. In her follow up book, A Royal “Waste” of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World, Dawn goes deeper into the “worship wars” and exposes the problems of viewing worship as utilitarian – a means to an end. As the title itself proclaims boldly – worship should have no other end than the end of glorifying God.

I hope that I carry a piece of Dawn’s legacy in my own ministry. I have always shrugged my shoulders at the term ‘worship wars’ – for worship is indeed a war, but not between opposing worship styles. Worship is a war between the powers of heaven and the powers of hell, and the battlefield is the human heart. When we coin the term ‘worship war’ as between two stylistic preferences we not only forget about the hundreds of other worship styles other than ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’, we put ourselves as enemies of each other, instead unite ourselves against our common enemy of sin, death, and the devil. And regardless of that, Dawn reminds us that worship is always traditional because it is based on the faith of those that have gone before, and worship is always contemporary because it’s happening here and now. She never picked sides. She proclaimed strongly that we ought to use ‘the music of the whole church for the sake of the whole world‘. I hope to honor Dawn’s legacy by promoting this in my own ministry for years to come. May you rest in peace, Marva J. Dawn. You are a saint to me.

Author: adamkurihara

Director of Worship and Community Life at Trinitarian Congregational Church, Wayland, MA.

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