One must have tradition in oneself, to hate it properly. – Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, p. 52, quoted in Richard Leppert, ed., Theodor W. Adorno: Essays on Music, p.81
Properly, this post belongs on my other site. Yet as I was reading Leppert’s interpretation of Adorno on tradition, I couldn’t help but find parallels to our on-going discussions in The United Methodist Church. Precisely because Adorno insisted that all of us, including this author and Adorno himself, were inescapably involved in the compromises and contradictions of late modernity, the best he believed was ever possible was to highlight those contradictions without offering a resolution, precisely because that inferred some kind of clear-sightedness past our current dilemma that isn’t possible. For Adorno, this offered at least the hope, the Utopian promise that, as commentator Richard Leppert says, things could be better than they are.
While dealing with aesthetics, specifically with music, the aphorism above applies in all areas of life. For Adorno, tradition, like everything else, is no longer a living thing, a historical, social, political, human reality, but a commodity to be purchased. We believe buying antiques, or listening to an older piece of music puts us “in touch with tradition” when in fact we are only consuming a product sold to us as fulfilling a need. Late capitalism has stripped the living human world and reduced it to products to be packaged and sold. We are no longer in touch with our past because it has become commodified.
Adorno was critiqued, in particular by Georg Lukacs, for living in what Lukacs called “the Grand Hotel Abyss”, never once disturbing the quiet of his thought or the pleasures of his retreat from the Abyss in to which he would gaze. Yet, Adorno was always consistent that action, even in his youth, went against the historical realities, which Leppert described as fascist on the one side, Stalinist on the other, and neither attractive. In the years of his American exile, Adorno didn’t so much come to despise the United States as he came to understand how it was the epitome of all that was both great and terrible about modernity in its dotage. Even in his late years – the mid- to late-1960’s – Adorno refused to become involved in the student protest movements in Germany and elsewhere, because he believed the students had become far more enamored of praxis without thought, whereas for Adorno, thought either guided or reflected upon practical action or the action became little more than mob violence, serving the ends of modernity’s real goal – making even revolution a product to be sold.
For Adorno, the most difficult thing in late modernity was to think. More precisely, whether it was fascism, Stalinism, or the totalizing tendencies of the Culture Industry in the United States all worked against thought. Nothing was more revolutionary than to think, specifically to think about what is and more importantly what could be. In order to do this, one has to be aware of the past in a way that late modernity’s political systems worked so hard to prevent: the past had to become a part of one’s life, a living thing against which one struggles in thought first. You cannot overcome a past you do not know, but only own, offered to you at 20% off.
We United Methodists have an abundance of multiple traditions from which to draw. Some of them overlap. Some of them contradict. All of them, however, need to become part of our marrow, part of our heart and life if we are to overcome them and become the United Methodist Church for the present and future. Yesterday, I offered a Moltmannian approach to our problems, in which we dared to be a church that could stand before the cross, emptying ourselves of pride, of power, of our reliance upon doctrine and the Bible in order to be what God is calling us to be – those willing to die in order to follow God’s call. Today, I’m insisting that there are things we need to do before we take this via Dolorosa. We need to acknowledge that our traditions are, by and large, no longer a part of who we are. Oh, we mouth platitudes toward John Wesley, toward Bishops Coke and Asbury. We talk about the Holiness movement and how it changed and electrified our churches. Do we also acknowledge the depth of Boston Personalism, a religious/philosophical system developed by United Methodist theologians to respond to the perils and problems of Gilded Age Christianity? Do we even remember the multiple threads of tradition from what was the Evengelical United Brethren Church, its deep German pietism and commitment to congregational autonomy? Are we willing to embrace the history of racism that still infects our church?
We are confronting not just our recent history of refusal to acknowledge the full humanity and dignity of sexual minorities, and all they can and do offer our churches. We are confronting our own forgetfulness, our own refusal to understand this as part of a real, living, human tradition called the United Methodist Church that has always tried to overcome its worst demons while never doing so completely. We cannot take the steps necessary unless we first acknowledge, and then repent, our forgetfulness, our traditions of discrimination, of bigotry and white supremacy that still exists, that these traditions are a living part of who we are. We cannot become who we should be until and unless we are willing to acknowledge who we are.
I want to end with an apologia for Adorno’s overall philosophical project, written by Neil Lazarus, from an essay entitled “Hating Tradition Properly”, originally published in No. 38 of New Formations in the summer of 1999 and included by Leppert on pp. 81-82, at the close of his general introduction:
The point for Adorno . . . is that while the tradition of European bourgeois humanism has always insisted upon its civility , has always gestured toward – even made a promise of – a unversalistically conceived social freedom, it has never delivered on this promise, except, arguably, to the privileged few, and even then only on the basis of the domination of all the others. To have tradition properly is in these terms very different from championing this exclusive (and often excluding . . .) tradition; on the contrary, it is to keep faith with true universality, with the idea of a radically transformed social order, and to oppose oneself implacably to the false universality of modern (bourgeois) sociality. It is to use one’s relative class privilege to combat all privilege, to shoulder the responsibility of intellectualism by “mak[ing] the moral and, as it were, representative effort to say what most of those for whom [one] say[s] it cannot see.
The man for whom the whole is the lie, desire only to save the spirit of the Enlightenment, from which the Methodist movement, arguably at least, was born, from its actual history. Its tradition, you might say, a tradition with which Adorno was intimately familiar. In the same way, I have no idea what the specifics of the future for the United Methodist Church will be. I only know there is much in our past to overcome, to stand against, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit giving us the courage to set it all aside and stand at the foot of the cross and say, “Yes”. Not only for ourselves, but for the whole Church and the world we are called to transform.
The decay of faith and its identity, through a decline into unbelief and a different identity, forms an exact parallel to their decay through a decline into a fearful and defensive faith. Faith is fearful and defensive when it begins to die inwardly, struggling to maintain itself and reaching out for security and guarantees. In so doing, it removes itself from the hand of the one who has promised to maintain it, and its onw manipulations bring it to ruin. This pusillanimous faith usually occurs in the form of an orthodoxy which feels threatened and is therefore more rigid and ever. It occurs wherever, in the face of the immorality of the present age, the gospel of creative love for the abandoned is replaces by the law of what is supposed to be Christian morality, and by penal law. He who is of little faith looks for support and protection for his faith, because it is preyed upon by fear. Such a faith tries to protect its “most sacred things”, God, Christ, doctrine and morality, because it clearly no longer believes that these are sufficiently powerful to maintain themselves. When the religion of fear” finds its way into the Christian church, those who regard themselves as the most vigilant guardians of the faith do violence to faith and smother it. Instead of confidence and freedom, fearfulness and apathy are found everywhere. This has considerable consequences for the attitudes of the church, faith, and theology to the new problems posed by history. “Why did the church cut itself off from cultural development?” asks R. Rothe, whose messianic passion in the face of the modern age can speak for itself here: I blush to write it down: because it si afraid for faith in Christ. To me, it is not faith in Christ if it can be afraid for itself and for its Christ! To me, this is not to have faith, but to be of little faith. This, however, is the consequence of a lack of faith that the Saviour is the real and effective ruler of the world; and only when this faith is lacking is such fear psychologically possible. – Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, pp.19-20
Of all Moltmann’s enormous work, it is in The Crucified God where we come up against something that so much theology lacks: the reality that ours is not a faith in doctrines or practices; it is not rooted in our traditions or even in the Bible. Our faith looks past these to their true source, the event of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. The Bible is witness to this event. Our traditions and doctrines continue to try and make some kind of sense of this event. Our worship only exists because it celebrates this horrific, bloody event and its aftermath. While we all gather on Easter Sunday to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and the beginning of the final victory over death, it is always and only ever the resurrection of the crucified Jesus or it is no Easter event at all. All faith, all doctrine, all theology, all worship, all mission, all our history, all of the Bible must be able not only to stand before the bloody dying Christ on the cross; it must be willing to make this journey with Jesus, the abandoned, tortured, humiliated Jesus who discovered that even the One he called Father had forsaken him in this his most terrible moment. If we are not willing, as a people, to say “Yes” to the Cross of Jesus Christ, then all our other “Yes’s” are meaningless.
Which is why I find so much of the appeal to doctrine in our current discussions in the United Methodist Church both fascinating and self-defeating. The various appeals – to doctrine, to our history, to our unique Wesleyan emphases – are certainly important. Not, however, as ends in themselves. Unless they are in service to the very real living Lord who died on the cross and rose on Easter Sunday, they are little more than the fearful, ultimately fruitless attempts to shore up the collapsing walls of our church. Unless we return to the most fundamental reality of faith – that our faith is in the God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who entered so far in to human reality as to embrace death so that it would be overcome, so that creation would no longer fear our endings – all we’re doing is shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.
When The United Methodist Church is willing to risk non-identity, that self-emptying that St. Paul celebrates in Philippians 2 not only as the Christ-event, but as how we must imitate Christ, then and only then will we begin to be the Church of Jesus Christ called United Methodist. Only when we are willing to say that our distinctive emphases are the practice of Christ on the Cross – the self-giving love that experiences abandonment and death as the real mark of the human condition under sin, therefore that which we must embrace in faith so that true faith, true humanity, true ministry, true doctrine can be. Unless we are willing to plant that bloody Roman execution device at the center of our Bibles, they are little more than old books written a long time ago with no more meaning for us than any other ancient curiosity.
Our faith rests on real things, indeed on what Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a sermon to a German congregation he served in Spain, said was not only the only truly historical event, but also the event that gave the rest of history its meaning. None of this is to deny the importance of doctrine, of the history of the faith or our unique, Wesleyan contribution to it. None of this is to deny the reality that we always face the choice of good and evil in our actions in this world. None of this is to belittle our communal worship. It is only to remind us all that all of this, this edifice we call The United Methodist Church, only stands if it stands underneath the cross of the Christ who will rise. If it can stand there, if we can stand there, willing to bear the pain and shame of the abandonment of the Son of God as our pain and shame and abandonment; only if as a church we are willing to enter in to the world knowing this cross defines “the world” that God loves and that we are to serve, willing even to go to the point of non-identity that is death and denial; only then will we be worthy to salvage ourselves, to be the Church we can be.
Let us not be pusillanimous in our faith. Let us, rather, be bold and unafraid, knowing that in fact the Christ raised from this death reigns already. Let us live without fear of the threat of abandonment, of non-identity, even death because we believe these have been taken up on that bloody cross outside the city gates and entered in to the new life in God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from this death.
Thus it is that our hope as United Methodists lies where it always has: in Christ. Not as a theological principle, but a living Lord who will never die so that we might not fear death, but live the life to which God is calling all creation.
The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble!
He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
The Lord is great in Zion;
he is exalted over all the peoples.
Let them praise your great and awesome name.
Holy is he! – Psalm 99:1-3
We praise God’s name, sure. We get together and say all the right words, we make sure we proclaim the infinite difference between Creator and Creature, God’s mighty power and our eternal indebtedness. Then, after praying something like Psalm 99, we act like Moses in Exodus 33, demanding a sign from God. We keep hearing all these words of how God is with us, all that God has done and is doing for us, yet here we are, wandering around lost. Our communal prayers are nothing but praise; they hide our collective private frustration, anger, and doubt that any of it means anything at all. Churches keep closing. The pews sit empty. The bank accounts get more and more difficult to balance each week. It seems that no matter what programs we offer, no matter what classes for children, youth, and adults, fewer and fewer want to learn more about what it is to be a Christian. Is it any wonder that, like Moses, we throw down the gauntlet and demand specific answers to specific questions? Most of all, is it any wonder we demand a face-to-face? We keep doing all this, none of it gets us anywhere closer our destination, so where is God? Is God really there?
A long time ago – a very long time ago, it seems – my life had come to a complete standstill. I knew I was lost, so I had just stopped. I remember so well one night, demanding God show me my future, a future in which my life meant something, a future to which I had moved, a future through which I lived and had purpose. I also remember the absolute silence. Obviously, that kind of prayer is ridiculous. If my life had come to a standstill, that wasn’t God’s doing but mine. If I felt lost, well, there were actual things I could do instead of demanding God work magic with me and my life.
We all get frustrated when things aren’t working. This is a perfectly normal, human response. People of faith demand signs. We demand miracles. We demand some kind of evidence that we haven’t been pretending all these years, following what we thought was Something but might well in fact be nothing at all, just like we keep hearing. Moses is tired of the platitudes. He’s tired of the promises. He doesn’t care that the Hebrews are a special people. They’re wandering in the desert. They’re tired, they’re hungry and thirsty, they get sick and die. Every once in a while, when God gets particularly peeved, snakes or boils or some other curse will appear to punish them. Yet where is there a hint, a glimmer, some kind of notice of all this promise of greatness and special favor? What’s worse is that while God says, in essence, “Fine. I’ll show you,” God tells Moses all he can see is God’s back. The thought of seeing the Divine tuchus probably didn’t do much for Moses.
All the same, that’s what we get. In the midst of our grief and anger and struggle, all we can do is look back and see where God has passed and realized that God has, indeed, passed. Furthermore, if God has passed with us, then God is still with us, even if we can’t see all the evidence of it right now. We will probably have to continue wandering through that desert, face snakes and hunger and thirst and illness with no idea what any of it means or if we are actually moving anywhere. The hardest thing is to keep going when, deep down, there is no real sense of hope that “going” has any meaning whatever.
Our churches are living this reality right now. Around us, our neighbors and coworkers, our families and friends all want answers. They want more than comfort, as appreciated as that may be. Deep down, those of us who continue week after week to gather to praise God, in our heart of hearts, we want some kind of sign that it isn’t all just dumb show, empty words spoken to a vacuum. We seek signs from those church leaders that seem to have some kind of success, trying to replicate enormous growth in attendance and giving through imitation of superstars, we are told, have some gift that we others lack. We keep hearing about how this class or that program can turn things around, as long as it is done just so. The thing is, most of the time, these gimmicks and tricks, imitation of church leaders, programs and classes – they don’t work. They don’t work because they are no different than Moses standing on the mountaintop demanding some kind of proof that all those words he’s heard about the Hebrew people being chosen, about Moses enjoying special favor, about heading to some promised land when in actual fact we are stuck in a desert, lost and wandering, attacked by strange illnesses at one point, then by some horrible creature at another. None of it makes any sense, all of it seems the exact opposite of what we have been told, time and again, is what God has done, is doing, and will do.
What we get, like Moses, is the realization that God has passed this way with us. That God, even though all we catch is a glimpse of the back, continues to be with us. The Hebrew people aren’t presented as all that different from us. Instant gratification, miraculous deliverance, Divine favor equaling freedom from the hardships of life – we’re no different than they were, except our clothes are probably a bit less comfortable. In the midst of our lostness, our wandering, our doubt, all of which leads to anger and frustration and demands for a sign, we need to remember that the promise of Divine presence isn’t a promise of miraculous deliverance or the gift of the One True Key that will solve our woes. Divine Presence is what God promised Moses, and Moses told the people all along – that in the midst of the wanderings through the wilderness and all that comes with being desert nomads, God will be with them, a pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night. Follow, and we’ll get where we’re going.
God isn’t much for giving us the answers we want. God usually doesn’t satisfy our demands for miracles and wonders. What we get is the reminder of the Divine presence, that we are moving toward something, toward a goal, toward that Promised Land. We don’t need patience so much as faith that even in the midst of all the troubles that come with feeling lost and unsure of what we’re doing, that God has been with us all along and will continue to be with us. Even if all we get is a glimpse of the Divine passing through our midst, shouldn’t that be, isn’t that enough to remind us our faith is not in vain, our wandering is not aimless, that we are in fact God’s special ones, offered a mission to the world?
The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass – Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, p. 50, aphorism 29, “Dwarf Fruit”
While some folks continue to insist we need to make clear who can and cannot speak on the floor of General Conference; while others continue to make threats about leaving the denomination should we change our pastoral stance regarding sexual minorities; while we continue to divide our congregations according to “worship style” and other increasingly meaningless phrases; while all this is going on, more and more folks are just taking a glance at our institutions and saying, “Forget it.” Congregations lament their shrinking size, the lack of young adults, particularly young couples with children, yet refuse to make the changes necessary that might well make these same young folks take a second glance at the church doors on a Sunday morning and say, “Hm. Maybe I will go in there.”
An article at Religion News Service, by church consultant and Episcopal priest Tom Ehrich nicely captures the current state of our mainline churches.
Seminaries’ woes are further sign that mainline Protestant religion is being forced to engage with a world that yearns for faith but cares little for mainline institutions and traditions.
When so much energy has gone into maintaining those institutions, what is left when people, especially young adults, turn away from “church” as we know it, that is, our church facilities, clergy, doctrines and church-centered worship?
The most far-reaching implication is this: We are discovering that the world can get along without us. Few are asking for our authoritative guidance. Our clergy aren’t seen as “thought leaders” or our institutions as worthy of emulation.
Before we get all caught up in other arguments, perhaps we all need to shut up and take in this reality: No one cares all that much for what we in the churches have to say. As hard as we work; as many consultants as we hire; as many gimmicks as we try; as many superstar clergy we lift up for others to emulate; as much as we try to get the word out about all the good we do all over the world; despite all this, more and more young people wonder why they should waste their time, their emotional energy, and their resources with institutions that seem hell-bent on destroying themselves arguing among themselves over things that are irrelevant to the lives of those the church should be reaching but aren’t.
Now we are the “least of these.” We are the ones who can’t manage our affairs without ugly conflict. We are the ones who get caught in unethical behavior, whose assemblies are marked by nostalgia, not urgency. We are the ones who don’t know the way forward. We are the ones with problems we can’t solve.
Like the downtrodden peasants in a Russian novel, we know ourselves as decent people, but the powerful ignore us, and our neighbors find us tiresome, evaders of taxes. What happened to the “noblesse” we thought defined us and the special treatment we thought we deserved?
It’s a difficult time. Some disturbing new reality is settling in, and it’s deeper than struggling institutions and financial shortfalls.
We are discovering that we are in the one-down position. We are the needy; we are the uncertain. Our clergy struggle with burnout and self-destructive behaviors. Our lay leaders are angry and distracted by worldly concerns. Our gatherings often feel listless and backward-focused.
There are few things worse than being ignored, treated as a joke, told that one is irrelevant. All this is happening, however, in a world desperate for Good News. American society, for all we have and all we are, is floundering. Staring at an uncertain future, we allow ourselves to be frightened by each story that we hear or read, whether it’s a new terrorist group in the Middle East or a dread, tropical disease that has come to our shores. We want to hear there is more to life than treading water, our head barely above the surface, with the thought that sharks are circling beneath us. We want to know that our lives are for something, not just struggling week to week, wondering what kind of world our children and grandchildren will have left to them.
Our churches must not lead. We must serve. We must look out upon our communities, large and small, big cities, suburban sprawl, and the vast rural landscape, and hear the cries of the needy, the mourning over lost community, lost direction, lost purpose. We must not – must not – offer answers, programs, prepackaged solutions to the many complaints, fears, and pent-up rages. We must – must – rather, be willing to invite these mourning, hurting, drifting neighbors and friends, coworkers and strangers to come and mourn with us. We must comfort them. We must listen to their pain, their anger, their hurt. The Good News they need to hear is not about Jesus entering their hearts. The Good News is not that God will solve their problems if they pray harder. The Good News they need is a place to go to be comforted in the midst of their mourning, confusion, anger, and questioning. When they demand answers, when they insist we respond when they ask us about what God is doing for them, for all of us, we must not answer with words, but surround them with a community of love, and care, and fellow-mourners, fellow angry, confused, hurting lost people who have the same questions, the same fears, and offer only comfort to those who mourn. That is more than enough Good News to be getting on with.
After writing my earlier post and taking a look around at a couple things that just so happen to be written by the same person, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are those who are seriously engaged – or at least want to be seriously engaged – in a discussion on the future of the United Methodist Church. Then, there are those who find some kind of satisfaction picking sides, arguing for the sake of argument, and yet somehow have not managed to make a single contribution to the real discussion – who is the United Methodist Church going to be in the 21st Century?
Being an adult means, first, recognizing what is and is not important in a discussion. Being an adult also means being willing to take in all sorts of points of view, of ideas, in the variety with which they’re offered. Back in early 2007, I asked someone tut-tutting over some language I used in a blog post, “Do you think Jesus hit the fainting couch when he heard the 1st century equivalent of the word ‘fuck’?” Considering the folks gathered around him, Jesus more than likely heard more than his share of colorful idioms. We need to be adults in our discussions. Of course, first we must have those discussions. Then, we should open them to as many people as possible, using whatever language, dialect, slang, idiom, or expression is comfortable. Who we are to be in the next 86 years is far more important than anyone’s feelings, than anyone’s refusal to engage for whatever reason, or because the discussion can become heated. We are part of the Body of Christ, that part that emphasizes the presence of the Holy Spirit, the possibility for perfection in love in this life, and the opportunity to serve in the transformation of the world as called by God. How we get the Word out that this work – the most important work we human beings can do; more important than “Living, Laughing, Loving”; more important than loving our spouses and children; important enough to risk our lives – depends on our willingness first to listen to our hurting world. We have to hear what things like “salvation”, “grace”, “Spirit”, “hope”, and, yes, “love” mean today. Telling people what they meant two thousand years ago, three hundred years ago, fifty years ago is important, but only so long as we are willing to say, “Yes” to those who come to us and say, “Does being a Christian mean something today?” As St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians, we have to offer them mother’s milk before solid food.
About 20 years ago, Tex Sample wrote a book entitled Hard Living People And Mainstream Christians. One of the things I got out of that book is the simple inability of middle-class, mainstream Christians to listen without interrupting and telling these folks how wrong they are about so many things. They drink too much beer. They shack up outside marriage. They use rough language. We refused to meet these folks, folks who need a word of grace and peace and love, where they were. The Church’s message couldn’t be heard because piled in front of it was a whole bunch of conditions these folks needed to meet before we were willing to let them hear what we had to say. By that time, no one was there to listen.
The situation is only slightly different now. The values of what Sample called “hard living people” are, by and large, mainstream values: a willingness to cohabit prior to marriage, including sharing a sex life with a significant other perhaps with no intention of getting married; enjoying the processed grains of the field and fruit of the vine; using language we once associated with people of a lower socio-economic class than we were. We create so many stumbling blocks for the unchurched to hear the Good News, in part because we are, for all intents and purposes, children. It’s called being in a clique.
Grown-ups don’t bother with cliques. Grown-ups can handle some rough edges. Grown-ups want to achieve particular ends, recognize differences include differences in style, ignore them, and get on with the business of hammering out something that works for everyone.
I am willing to discuss matters of worship, of mission, of being in fellowship, of preaching, of celebrating the Sacraments, of marrying and burying the faithful and unfaithful alike; I am willing to do all this with anyone and everyone interested. I know we aren’t going to agree, and that’s OK. What we have to do, however, is recognize the singular challenge in all this is developing a way of communicating all this to an ever-growing population that knows nothing of any of these things. or how they may be the most important things in our lives. To have such discussions, however, we need to have adults willing to be interlocutors in these matters. Adults willing to accept the give and take of real disagreement.
Right now, it seems, these discussions are being controlled by children. Thus it is I worry about the future.
I wrote yesterday the matter is not how we argue, or who gets to speak or not to speak on the floor of General Conference. The matter is the future of the United Methodist Church. How do we present our distinct voice so it is heard in the cacophony of noise in our society? How do we offer Good News to our fellow Americans who, in increasing numbers, no longer understand a need for Good News? How do we offer the possibility of transforming our world – without power, without the presence of media stars, with only the sweat and toil and callouses and blisters on our hands and feet, our willingness to embrace the unembraceable – to a generation that no longer believes it possible to alter the fundamental balance among the powers of this age?
The first thing we do is we offer them the opportunity to come and worship with us. More than that, we have to have a reason to make such an offer. While the so-called “worship wars” of the previous couple decades seem to have resulted in bifurcated worship – traditional versus contemporary – it has not altered the basic reality that Christian worship is, or at least should be, the place to start to build together a relationship with God.
My current congregation, Christ United Methodist in Rockford, IL, offers three opportunities to worship on Sundays (four, if you count the separate worship center in another part of the city). The earliest service is what I would call “casual-traditional” – no praise band, but the offer is there for more casual dress, a more relaxed atmosphere, and the sacrament is celebrated each and every Sunday. Then there’s the “traditional” service: organ playing, choir singing, handbell choir performs, hymns from The United Methodist Hymnal, and there’s communion the first Sunday of each month. Finally, there’s the “contemporary” service. Again, dress is casual, there’s a praise band of midling quality, the congregation sings lyrics projected on to a screen, and the Lord’s Supper is offered every Sunday. I attend the last, contemporary, service, because it is later in the morning, and because that’s when my daughters go.
Yet, I cannot offer a reason to others to attend worship, in particular the “contemporary” service, at Christ as opposed to any similar service at other large churches in Rockford. “Contemporary” worship, as indicated above, looks an awful lot like that 1970’s peppy group Up With People. Most of the music, as I’ve found with many contemporary style services, becomes limited to a handful of favorites, most of which written by Chris Tomlin, the performer in the video above. Our Contemporary Worship is as generic as soft-serve vanilla ice cream, and as lively as calisthenics at a nursing home. As much as I love my church and the people in it, we offer nothing, no hint, no liturgical distinction, little theological finery, to let people know that attending worship here, at this church, offers an opportunity to begin a journey that can transform lives, bring peace and health where there is now war and sickness. While some argue over how polite we should be with one another on the Internet, we are ignoring the fact that our churches are cookie-cutter; interchangeable worship styles; sermons heavy on the personal, psychological battles of a stressed white middle class; and music so bland, and songs played so frequently, as to become Muzak.
We have two thousand years of liturgical resources from so many traditions. I once attended a high mass at a Greek Orthodox Church. They used an order of service and mass written by St. Gregory of Nyssa in the Fourth Century. I see no reason why we people called United Methodists, with Wesley’s love for the Eastern Church and the Eastern Fathers, could not utilize such things. Then there is the hymnody from the 18th and 19th centuries, the heyday of Methodist Holiness, of declarations of the distinctiveness of our proclamation of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, individually and collectively, to bring about the Kingdom of God. Finally, there is the hymn-writing explosion, first, in the Roman Catholic Church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council as well as in Protestant circles, especially in the 1980’s and 1990’s. These hymns use contemporary idioms, contemporary images, and a wider variety of ways of speaking and singing praise to God. There are hymns from other countries. And, my bugaboo, there are “non-Christian” songs that can still work in a worship setting in particular circumstances.
Our worship should center on God, not the congregation. One way to make our invitations have an impact is to offer people the opportunity actually to worship God. People who have never been to church, who do not understand the vocabulary of worship or are unfamiliar with the message of grace of the Bible will, I believe, nevertheless be impacted by worship that offers a vision of the people gathered to praise God, mixing and matching musics and liturgical elements to suit the specifics of the Sunday, of the message, of the season. When the Word is proclaimed and the sacrament offered, a first-time visitor, one wholly unfamiliar with the practice and language of worship should nevertheless come away not with a sense that “this church offers me something”. Their impression should be “this church offers God something”. We cannot do that if we copy what every other church is doing; we cannot do that if we do what we’ve always done; we cannot do that if we forget our distinctive Wesleyan heritage of grace, of holiness of heart and life, and the call to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
The future of the United Methodist Church lies in a willingness of local churches to be daring, to be bold, not to have “open doors”, but to get people to be willing to invite others to come and worship and find out what it is to be a United Methodist Christian. If all we do is offer them Up With People with songs by Chris Tomlin, the offer of psychological solace in an age of discomfort, and no challenge to invite someone to come and worship who has never done so before, we are entertaining an ever-older congregation. This isn’t a matter of “relevance”. On the contrary, I see no reason not to use our whole Christian history and multiple heritages as resources for each and every worship service. “Relevance”, I believe, has resulted in our current bland mediocre worship services that offend no one, challenge no one, and may well be no more uplifting for God than they are for us. We must offer our ever larger number of Americans who have no religious up-bringing, familiarity with the practice of worship or the vocabulary of faith reasons to come and worship God. We must trust in God’s grace to lead them through the experience, to have the scales fall from their eyes, to unstop their ears, and soften their hardened hearts to the possibility that being a Christian, being this type of Christian is meaningful, is purposeful, maybe even revolutionary. We cannot do that if we are no different from everyone else. We cannot do that if we aren’t willing to offer worship, the first stop for any non-believer, that praises God without bowing to fashion.
Here’s your challenge for the day: Listen to both of what follow, and hear – really hear – the similarities despite all the glaring differences: