Sunday, February 10, 2013

Worship Wars Won't Save the UMC [Low-Cal Snacks 02]

Welcome back to GT's series on what's going on in the UMC right now- and what will and won't help us moving forward. Last week, we talked about the idea of a false proxy. When we have a tough problem to solve, or something that's difficult to measure, sometimes we select a proxy: something to solve instead of our actual problem, or something that's easy to measure that stands in for what we actually need to measure. I compared this to choosing a low-calorie snack over real food. It promises convenience and "results" in the short run, but choosing the low-cal snack actually sabotages us in the long run. Likewise, focusing on a proxy instead of the real problem or metric sabotages our efforts to meet the challenges before us by distracting us and directing our energy toward something else.

One of the things that has absorbed a lot of energy in the Church, especially c. 1995-2005, is the Worship Wars. You know what I'm talking about. One faction within the church starts to tell everyone else that it's time to introduce a new worship style: "praise band" or "contemporary" music (never mind that this is the Christian equivalent of Muzak and its heyday was sometime in the 1980's). The worship style previously used, regardless of whether it can be considered High Church or Low Church, is inevitably labeled "traditional" and out-of-date. Certain others within the congregation respond that there are valid reasons to continue worshiping in the "traditional" style, and lo! Another skirmish in the Worship Wars is begun.

Christians have slung a lot of mud at one another over worship styles in the last few decades. The things we say to each other are often pertinent observations that have been exaggerated into outright insults. Charges leveled at traditional worship often include:

1. This worship isn't "passionate" (read: overtly emotional).
2. Traditionalists don't consider the needs and desires of the younger generation(s). Often this accusation includes phrases like "stuck in the past", "afraid of change", or "not missional".
3. Traditionalists place tradition above people and god, therefore engaging in idolatry.
4. This worship style isn't very portable, i.e., it's hard to worship anywhere that doesn't have a bulky keyboard instrument.

Complaints about contemporary worship usually include:

1. The lyrics are often theologically vapid and human-centered rather than God-centered.
2. It's musically unsophisticated. If you don't know what I mean by this check out this parody video, "How to Write a Worship Song (In Five Minutes or Less)":

3. The nature of the production of such music borders on becoming a performance for those attending worshipers, thus turning the congregation into a passive audience.
4. Buying all new instruments and electronic equipment is a considerable burden on already strained church budgets.
5. Installing screens into older sanctuaries is often a physical and architectural challenge.

While many of these charges contain kernels of truth, most of them are mostly untrue. Here's an example: I have worshiped at Harvard-Epworth UMC, a church that prefers traditional worship, for several years. While I would say most folks behave in a way that is not emotionally demonstrative, I have heard great emotion in their voices as they speak in prayer time and coffee hour. When the choir sings a song they find uplifting, they express their joy in their body language and by responding, "Amen!" after the final cutoff. While this is a self-proclaimed progressive congregation, H-EUMC members value tradition, creeds, and liturgy. They deeply feel their confessional prayers and pray them earnestly. While reason and intellectual knowledge are valuable to them, their faith is certainly not "all in their heads." Their faith is in their hearts as well, and they show it in their loving actions toward others inside and outside of the church. This is one of the most missional churches I have ever met for many reasons, including donating some of our space to a shelter for homeless youth. Our Young Adult Group boasts upwards of 30 members, and while that is partly because of our location near Harvard, MIT, and Bard College, it's also a testament to the congregation's concerted efforts to keep those who visit coming back regularly. To describe H-EUMC as not missional, does not consider the needs of young people, is idolatrous, or "emotionally or spiritually dead" would be to gravely mischaracterize this church.

Likewise, to say that all contemporary worship music is theologically shallow and musically simplistic, while all traditional music is the opposite, is also incorrect. For instance, "Everlasting God" by Chris Tomlin uses syncopated rhythm:

And tons of the new Catholic folk music uses complex melodies, the verses of which are often through-composed (non-repetitive) rather than strophic music like hymns. In fact, a lot of contemporary Christian music can be difficult to learn because it's through-composed. Likewise, there are plenty of "traditional" hymns that are not very theologically rich. "In The Garden", "I'll Fly Away", and "Onward Christian Solders" are all examples of traditional songs that don't have a lot of theology, are people-centered, and/or have bad theology in them (specifically "Onward"). While it is true that new instruments and sound equipment are expensive and sometimes unnecessary, it also takes a lot of money to maintain organs and old equipment that is outdated; sometimes it is more cost-efficient to buy a new sound system than try to work with the old one.

As you can see, it's very easy to become caught up in a lot of these theological and practical arguments. But arguing one's point in the Worship Wars doesn't help to alleviate the problem. The problem that churches are trying to articulate is a drop in attendance among young people, and a fear that the way we do things doesn't speak to them. Our core desire is to speak the spiritual language of our young people, and we are afraid that we aren't doing that. Instead of addressing our fears, we argue about things that are mainly matters of taste, as one author puts it, "preferences [that] are almost entirely cultural and nostalgic." Worship Wars are really a proxy for our problem of absent young people. It's important to stop spiritual mud-slinging in Worship Wars and start addressing the problem directly.

In our traditional worship at H-EUMC, we enjoy the presence of many young adults each weeks and often our Brunch Bunch groups are parties of 12 or more. Members of our group like both traditional and contemporary worship. So why is our group full and other churches have no one between the ages of 18 and 45? I think there are a few factors that contribute to the loss of young people in our churches:
1. Lack of spiritual formation. Our Sunday School curricula have been too shallow and have not encouraged really digging into the Bible or learning to pray. Both of these skills should be taught from a young age. If you aren't sure kids can handle these things, just talk to our resident spiritual formation expert at Christ UMC, Pastor Jane! She'll tell you all about spiritual formation of children. If we fail to engage our kids in these vital spiritual practices, they will not form a relationship with God that will keep them coming back to church.

2. Lack of engagement in mission. Mission is the natural result of living a balanced Christian life. Justice issues are important to young adults, and they have been important to God through the ages. The 9th century prophets and Jesus Christ are excellent examples of people who brought God's Good News to those who live on the edges of society. A church that focuses only on personal spiritual renewal and not at all on mission will miss out on engaging young people in an important way.

3. Polemic rhetoric regarding divisive social issues and science. In my first post, I mentioned the recent study by Pew Research showing young adults are less engaged in the church overall. Two of the reasons cited were that young adults feel the church is judgmental regarding these issues, and that they are weary of the same old arguments. It's time for the church to stop talking about moral problems that divide us and start talking about what unites us.
As you can see, I have several ideas for a way forward in the UMC, including an approach to worship that avoids the Worship Wars and lets us do what we do best as a church. It's time to uncouple our tastes and preferences for worship from our desire to help engage young people. We ought to address excellence in worship separately from ways to engage young folks in our life as a church. Both are important things that deserve our complete attention separately. If we do our worship well and beautifully, we can educate our young people regarding the forms and expressions in worship so that they will not be intimidated or turned off. [Because news flash: the "contemporary" style of worship is not music that is native to Milennials or even Gen-Xers; it's a distinctively Boomer form of music, and as such, must be learned to be appreciated just like "traditional" music.] Rather, many young people are drawn to more ancient forms of worship, like Taize. The important thing is that our worship is an expression of our best efforts as a congregation- that it truly is an offering to our holy God. When we have beautiful worship, regardless of the style, our young people will engage in worship with us.

But first, next week, we'll examine the last thing that won't save the UMC: Ideology Wars. This will tie into my 3rd point above and unpack it some more. I hope to see you back in a week!

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