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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Contemporary? Traditional?

“Contemporary worship” sounds really hip and cool, especially when a person throws it up against the dusty, dry, wrinkly “traditional worship” style. Yet, there are several problems here. What most folks think of as “traditional” is only yesterday’s “contemporary” style. Even Willow Creek Church’s hip style that grew out of the 70s and 80s is now being called “traditional” by the teens & 20-somethings. And what the middle-agers disparage as “Traditional” is really a format that erupted after World War II, when returning soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines spurred on an explosion of new churches all across the nation. Nothing wrong with that, in-and-of-itself. But it did galvanize a specific mode of worship that was quite contemporary in its day. A style that most of our grandparents and great grandparents were comfortable with. Therefore, when I hear people whine about “traditional worship” being old and stodgy, they’re usually referring to the very contemporary-to-the-1940s format their grandparents enjoyed. Therefore, “traditional worship” is really yesterday’s contemporary style gone stale, at least in the minds and hearts of many consumers who always crave something new and improved.

On top of this, there is another problem. The relativity of worship “style” is bleeding over into the “relativity” of content. Doctrine, core aspects of the Christian faith are flushing quickly through the ecclesiastical blood stream just as rapidly as are “worship styles”. The two go hand-in-glove. If one can be tweaked to be more hip and cool, so can the other. If the consumer can mandate “new-and-improved” worship styles, they can also dictate “new-and-improved” content. Expound Titus 2.1-15, the “things proper for sound doctrine,” and see if the shopper in the comfy, padded chair sipping his Latte while the music is blaring from the “Ministry Team”, will stay around for any length of time. Rehearse and carefully proclaim the “faithful saying” of Titus 3.1-9 to the gathered bargain hunters, and see if they become bored and march out looking for something more heart warming.

What do we need? How can the problem be remedied? What I’m about to recommend has nothing to do with returning to the 1940s styles, nor the old Tent-revival songs of yesteryear. In fact, as these things are fleshed out, they may easily include newer songs and culturally appropriate music.

(1) Recapture our supreme ambition as the Church of Jesus Christ: the worship of God - the God of the Bible, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. If our supreme ambition has captured us, then we will be liberated from the fleeting fads that cater to the fickle, flighty consumer. As I pointed out in a previous post, this will change the reason we sing what we sing. We will not look for what’s on the radio or Pandora, but what communicates genuinely Christian content, material that is doctrinally solid and unashamedly Trinitarian.

(2) Become humble enough to confess and repent of what C.S. Lewis called, “Chronological Snobbery” - thinking that we in the here and now, in our time, are the smarter betters of our forefathers. No longer allowing ourselves to be held captive to the commercial that touted, “It’s not your father’s Oldsmobile,” we will look and see what our forbearers said and did as they worshipped Almighty God in the face of persecution and pre-modern pluralism!

(3) Have our worship so deeply rooted in 2,000 years of Christian worship (guided and shaped by Scripture) that it remains stabilizingly relevant. So deep in the Ancient Christian faith and worship, that it is always what our generation needs.

Think about it.



Larry Long said...

Mike, Mike, Mike. Yes, of course there is much to be desired with much of the so-called contemporary worship. But you are in danger of chronological snobbery in the opposite direction if you're not careful. Worship styles and music have always gone through transition and will continue to do so. I know this is not your spirit, but I hear echoes of those who argue that only the old KJV should be used, or that such-and-such a group has modeled themselves after the first century church and all the rest of us have given-way to modernity, creedalism, etc., etc. I have no problem with you preferring and even advocating for the ancient liturgies and styles, but be careful that you don't get too ghetto about it.

RE Jeff Smith said...

I like Mr. Long's comment, above.

I am very sympathetic with the post, and also believe that God's worship in evangelical American churches is absorbing cultural characteristics that are largely irreverent and self-focused: cultural "relevance" as a highly weighted measure of success; intentional informality in attire and speech; performers-and-audience eclipsing worshipers-as-a-congregation.

But let's remember that sometimes the most lifeless churches are also the most traditional and historically referential (for want of a better phrase) in their worship. Sometimes the Holy Spirit fills youthful, naive people who don't have a clue about church history and tradition (I was one at one time) and causes them to hunger for, consume, and put into practice God's truth, despite their nascent appreciation for aesthetics, history, and ecclesiology. So, while I am sympathetic with your sensibilities, I would just echo that care should be taken before associating "innovative" worship practices and styles with relativism in theology.

Thank you for writing this post, however -- I think many believers inside and outside the PCA need to be stirred to think about such thoughts.

Mike Philliber said...

Larry & Jeff,

Thanks for taking the time to read & comment.

To put it bluntly, I'm not a Restorationist. Restorationism (the very kind of thing you were talking about Larry) is the "Golden Age" myth. It's the Baptist/Church of Christ mistake of trying to restore the mythical pristine church. So I agree with you that that is a dangerous place to go, what you are calling the ghetto.

What I am saying is something along what G.K. Chesterton wrote in "Orthodoxy": "Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about." To put it simply, I'm talking about the humility of listening to those who have been in the fight long before us, giving heed to their wisdom & then pushing forward. Much of the "Contemporary" stuff I hear rejects history almost completely & rejects anything that speaks from the past...& sometimes that means they reject the Ancient Christian Faith & the Ancient Christian Scriptures.

This "democracy of the dead" notion seems to me a good thing. But that doesn't mean caving in to traditionalism, which is what (I think) Jeff was talking about.I believe the position I was promoting is what Church Historian Jarislav Pelikan noted once: "Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living."