Nothing New Under the Sun
Church participation is in decline. It’s certainly not a new story. The old narrative (at least in some circles) was that we were finally feeling the aftershock of the Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy of the 1920’s and 30’s. Mainline churches offered a watered down “liberal” theology some argued. The contention was that this is why mainline churches were dying, while newer conservative denominations and non-denominational churches were growing.
But that old narrative has been debunked again, again and again. While numbers do continue to decline in some of America’s oldest Protestant denominations, numbers in conservative churches are also in steep decline. In fact The Southern Baptist Convention, the United State’s preeminent and largest conservative denomination has been declining steadily for the better part of a decade.
The years of decline in church participation from the Episcopal Church to the Southern Baptist convention have heightened the reaction to two surveys taken in 2012 of the American religious landscape. For the last two years I see at least one story every single day speculating as to why Millennials have left, given up on or never step foot in a church and why more and more Americans identify with no religious tradition in particular.
But nothing happens in a vacuum. Ever. We are talking about multifaceted changes in the US religious landscape that have unfolded over several generations. These are changes that have well grounded – if only partial – geographical, economical, psychological, sociological, historical and theological explanations. My hope is to open up a serious conversation about one of those factors.
What Comes out of the Mouth Proceeds from the Heart
Let’s talk about church songs. We tend to talk a lot about the style of our music intended for worship. Are we using traditional hymns? Are we using the contemporary songs of 15 years ago or newer contemporary music. There is a difference apparently. So different that some propose that the songs of Tomlin, Crowder, Hillsong United and the like should be classified as modern worship and not contemporary.
But I rarely see or hear a conversation – outside of gloom & doom extreme fundamentalists circles – about the actual content of our songs about God. Are we up for some honest, hopefully not over-reactionary, evaluation? In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus had a conversation with the Scribes and Pharisees about the words we use and how they reflect what is in our hearts. They had confronted Jesus about eating alongside his disciples, none of them having washed their hands. After the altercation, Jesus graphically explains to the crowd and his disciples:
Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.
I am still going to wash my hands before the next church potluck or the next time I know I’ll be serving Communion. Not because I disagree with the essence of Jesus’ message in Matthew 15; but because we’ve learned a lot about how germs and bacteria spread since the First Century. Still, I think Jesus words can present a challenge to us about the words we use, particularly the words we use in song, that are intended to honor him. Are we up for such a challenge?
It is not whether we praise the Triune God with pipe organ, piano, guitar, an angelic choir or out of sync hand clapping and out of tune a cappella singing that might defile us. But it may just be the words we sing. Some of the worship songs we sing on a regular basis – across many denominational and theological lines – reflect the values and spirituality of late modernity just as much if not more than they do our creeds and confessions about the Triune God. Sometimes these values even conflict with each other but none the less we sing the songs side by side.
What about rampant, raging individualism. While many journals, blogs, leadership magazines and churches have been talking about the importance and power of community for years now, it is not uncommon to walk into many of those same churches on any given Sunday and hear people singing the Lenny LeBlanc and Paul Baloche composed song “Above All” (popularized by Michael W Smith). I admire and wholeheartedly affirm some of the lyrics. Christ is indeed above all Kingdoms, powers, thrones and wonders of this world. And I affirm what I think (or hope) is meant to be the emotional thrust behind this song: that while God is relational and enjoins a community to God’s self for the sake of the world, we do each have or own personal walk with Christ to relish in and account for. But this song is out of balance by gargantuan proportions. While intentions may be good, it does not make up for our glaring oversight and this song’s ubiquitous presence. Do a close study on Jesus’ seven sayings from the cross. Or re-read Ephesians and Colossians and the good news of the Triune God’s plan gather up all things in Christ. And how God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of this cross.
Why did God call a covenant community again? Oh yes, to be a blessing to all of the families of the earth. “Above All” has more in common with moralistic therapeutic deism than with the the Triune God’s concern for creation that is cosmic in scope and so wide and deep that God the Son – rightly considered to be above all – did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped but became a servant. These things most certainly affect me. I am confident that God loves and cares for me. I have a place somewhere in all of this. But these divine mysteries are most certainly not about me!
And this is but one example. What about the imperialism of a song like Redman & Tomlin’s “Our God”? Yes, they draw upon biblical language from the henotheistic culture of the Ancient Near East, that declares Israel’s God supreme above the God’s of other nations. But is it wise to transport those sentiments into a radically different culture when three of the world’s great religions all lay a claim to serve the God of Abraham but have radically differing theologies about who that God is? Moreover, various versions of Christianity affirm different and sometimes contradictory things about God. Is this really a culture in which we want to be singing essentially our god can beat up your god?
Or what about “God of Wonders” beyond our galaxy? Really? Please hasten that day and forget about the prophetic vision of the earth being filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea. Or what about the lack of creativity and repetitiveness in songs like “Come Now is the Time to Worship” or “I could Sing of your Love forever”?
Hold Fast to the Traditions that You were Taught
We would do well to remember that younger is a relative term and young people, even Millennials are not a monolithic group. I have no doubt there are some young people who enjoy and are enriched by contemporary/modern worship. However, many other young people have been saying for some time that this is a big part of what is turning them away from church. But it seems churches are stubbornly refusing to listen to them. A 2008 survey showed that unchurched young people preferred more traditional-looking buildings by a nearly 2-to-1 ratio. Similarly, a 2013 article in the Christian Pundit contends,
Ten or fifteen years ago, it was American evangelical congregations that seemed cutting edge. They had the bands, the coolest youth pastor, professional babysitting for every women’s Bible study, and a church library full of Christian novels. But now, to kids who grew up in that context, it seems a bit dated or disconnected—the same kind of feeling that a 90′s movie gives them. Not that it’s not a church; it’s just feels to them the way that 50′s worship felt to their parents.
In yet another 2013 article by Rachel Held Evans for CNN’s Belief Blog, Evans wrote, “Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions… precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being ‘cool,’ and we find that refreshingly authentic.”
I know these descriptions fit my experience well. That is a huge part of why I left a non-denominational, mega-church with over 2,000 members and a “cutting edge” worship band to join a reformed body with its weekly Call to Worship, Prayers of Confession, Words of Assurance and Pardon, Passing of the Peace and (at least in the Christian Reformed Church body I first joined before coming under care of the Reformed Church in America) weekly communion. You might be able to imagine my dismay that in the last decade some of our reformed churches have begun to look and sound more and more like the church of my youth.
You are the Man!
But as Rachel Held Evans went on to contend in that same article, what younger people “really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.” I firmly believe that God wants us to worship in community and is glorified by any worship – regardless of language, style, “artistic excellence” or instrumentation – if we are offering up a substance that is sweet and not repugnant. I mean by this the substance of the words we offer in songs and liturgy on Sunday morning. But more importantly, I also mean the substance of the lives we live in between gathering for corporate worship. If I understand Jesus correctly in Matthew 15, the words we use will reflect what is truly in our hearts. So I would have to conclude that American Christians (at least Protestants, evangelical and mainline) are a bit self-absorbed, imperialistic, otherworldly and occasionally frivolous. I really have to look no further than my own heart to testify that these things are true. I would not point fingers without taking a long hard look in the mirror.
When the whole Millennials story broke two years ago, Robert Jones, CEO and Founder of the Public Religion Research Institute broke down what some of those statistics mean in a now often quoted piece in the Huffington Post, Religion Blog. Jone said,
Younger Millennials’ feelings about Christianity are decidedly mixed. Three-quarters (76 percent) agree that present-day Christianity has “good values and principles,” and 63 percent believe that Christianity “consistently shows love for other people.” On the other hand, strong majorities also agree that modern-day Christianity is “hypocritical” (58 percent), “judgmental” (62 percent) and “anti-gay” (64 percent).
Sadly, this seems to to be a fairly accurate picture. It is one that is confirmed by family and friends of all ages who want nothing more to do with the church. Many of you know me as theologically conservative (I believe in the Trinity and material resurrection), socially progressive (I advocate for LGBTQ equality, protection of the poor over the rights of corporations or wealthy individuals) with a strong preference for liturgical tradition (liturgy, hymns, weekly communion). And a cursory reading of Jones’ words could make it all too easy to let myself off of the hook.
Theologically, it would be far too easy to point out how – with regards to Nicene orthodoxy – Protestant Liberals and Fundamentalists have for the most part traded places. I know very few self proclaimed liberals or progressives, from mainline denominations, who are not Trinitarian, whose faith is not radically shaped in the prophetic vision of shalom on earth and anchored in the ludicrous hope of the material resurrection of Christ. Meanwhile many of my conservative evangelical counterparts prayers and songs betray such a strong concentration on the Father that the Son and Spirit seem incidental to the human need for salvation rather than a part of God’s co-eternal essence. Likewise, a disembodied Heaven seems to be the popular hope and not Heaven on earth.
But if I left it at that, I would be failing to tell you that while mainline liturgical services can be theologically robust; they can at times lack passion or be downright boring. I would be neglecting to tell you that our movements of worship depend upon a certain level of literacy and reading comprehension. And sometimes our worship services alienate the people we talk the most about helping: the poor, the hungry the outcast, the prisoner just released. This is especially a problem for liturgically traditional, socially progressive mainline churches in urban ministry.
Socially, it would be way too easy to just let the remarks sit about Millennials perceiving the church as anti-gay and feel justified that I am “on the right side of history.”
But I best not neglect to tell you that progressives often fail at much needed social justices ministries. As Richard Beck recently noted, progressive churches are tragically underrepresented in prison ministries while conservative evangelical churches tend to take this call very seriously. Progressives and Liberals often (but not always) come from academic circles and sometimes there can be an elitist attitude that leaves this son of a factory worker with an 8th grade education feeling displaced and uncomfortable at social gatherings or even in Twitter or Facebook conversations. Those people – many of those under-educated conservative folks – are my folks, my own father in fact. So watch it. Again, I am looking in the mirror just as much as I am talking to my progressive peeps or tweeps.
Liturgically, it would be far too easy to leave you with a cursory lament about the short comings of some contemporary/modern worship songs and not tell you what I find praise worthy. I am not just a cantankerous critic of all things contemporary or modern or whatever we want to call it.
Kari Jobe’s “Revelation Song” written by Jennie Lee Riddle, while simple, is beautiful, profound and draws deeply from the biblical witness. It uses the ever present “I” of modern worship. But its goal is the exaltation of the risen Christ, not the feelings of those who might sing it (even if it does give me chills each time we do sing it in worship). While I’ve never been convinced that the music matches the words, Matt Redman’s Job inspired “Blessed Be Your Name” is pretty great and gives us space to acknowledge that joy and lament are both parts of the Christian life. In a day when most of our pictures of life after this life are of some disembodied ethereal “reality” I also really appreciate Tomlin’s “I Will Rise” and the reminder that Jesus has overcome the grave and that there is a material reality to the historic Christian hope!!! I also appreciate that many of these guys and gals have revived some of the most cherished hymns of old for younger generations.
I feel exposed like David in front of Nathan. I want to tell you what you don’t like about the church is all the fault of those Christians of a certain ilk over there. But I need to confess that I am the man. I am hypocritical and judgmental and probably an ungodly number of other ungodly things.
Take Away from Me the Noise of Your Songs
I have been leading the adult Bible Study the last month at my church through the book of Amos. Amos – on God’s behalf – was thoroughly pissed off that Israel was filled with injustice, inequality and abuse of the poor and yet folks continued regularly to participate in worship, no doubt declaring the goodness and greatness of God. This says Amos are God’s words to you oh hypocritical Israel:
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
I don’t like Amos. That’s okay. I don’t think I have to like him. I think it is more important to heed his message about worship that pours forth from hypocritical hearts that ignore justice and righteousness to their own peril. Throughout Christian history many blasphemous, sacrilegious and abusive things have been done under the pretense of serving Christ. Wars, the selling of indulgences, sex scandals, child abuse and yes, abysmal treatment of LGBTQ persons. I believe these things all defame the name of God and make a mockery of our religion.
However, nothing else has been so self-absorbed, vain, narcissistic and in the end so utterly banal as the worship wars of the last 20 plus years or so. What an incredible, disgusting diversion of our time and energy. While children were dying in Vietnam and bureaucrats, FBI agents and sadly clergy hustled to help Nixon cover up Watergate, many American Christians were arguing about the merits of Larry Norman performing the Devil’s genre of music. While it was being revealed that members of the U.S. State Department, under the Reagan administration, were responsible not only for trading contraband for hostages but also for leaking drugs into our poorest neighborhoods, many of our churches were too busy fighting about whether we should be singing “How Great Thou Art” or “Awesome God.” In the early 90’s while children died in the Persian Gulf, and former President Clinton was working on massive expansion of the death penalty to include crimes not resulting in death, Christians of the Baby Boomer generation were breaking off, starting non-denominational communities and in some instances brand new denominations to break free from the oppressive worship stylings of their parents’ generation.
A generation later, the worship wars seem to be largely over. Many, many churches mainline and evangelical, conservative and progressive, strive for a “blended” style of worship. And that is all fine and dandy. Today the march for LGBTQ equality goes on in the US, and God’s gay children are arrested in Kenya or put to death in Uganda and starving children from Central America die desperately trying to cross the US border. Meanwhile, too many American Christians – myself most definitely included – spend too much of their time pontificating about whose fault it is that the church is in decline, which “side” we should be on in some of these controversial political “issues” or international affairs.
When the covenant community becomes puppets for the political powers we are called to be prophetic witness to, when marginalized people whether LGBTQ folks, the poorest among us or our the plight of our foreign neighbors become talking points more than genuine concerns for real people, I am afraid that our songs – whether sung with pipe organ or electric guitar – may have too much in common with Amos’ audience. Lord in your mercy, forgive us, heal us and please raise up a church that acts justly, loves mercy and walks humbly with you. Please hasten the day that justice truly does roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Maybe it is time to shut up. Maybe it is time to stop arguing. Maybe it is time to stop singing. Maybe it is time to start doing something productive and life-giving, restorative, freeing! Maybe it is time to get back to the heart of worship. It is all about Jesus and his mission.