(the continuation of) a letter from an exhausted/exasperated young person who has a complicated love/hate relationship with the church
PART 2 of 3
Given the unexpected response of the first part of my “letter,” Part 2 has invariably taken a new direction given many of the reactions and issues that were brought up after its posting…from comments on the original post, blog responses written throughout the web, and personal conversations I’ve had throughout this past week with people.
Unfortunately the same reactive defensiveness by which I have been buffeted in the past (and that I communicated was a strong source of my frustration) was present in many of the responses. (Not all, mind you. There were many people that stated my letter communicated their same frustrations. A very telling, albeit disheartening, fact). This is definitely a conversation that needs to occur and would greatly benefit from happening face-to-face…but more on that in Part 3. For Part 2, I would like to spend the majority of this post dealing with some of the aforementioned issues.
It has been pointed out in numerous comments and blog posts that young people are simply self-centered and narcissistic, desiring that everything be all about them when it comes to church, community, etc.
Of course they are.
But let’s not just be partially honest about this–let’s be COMPLETELY honest. Every generation in the church is self-centered and narcissistic to some degree, desiring that everything be all about them when it comes to church, community, etc. Young people, contrary to popular opinion, do not have a monopoly on this unfortunate attribute.
[And yes, I'm making a generalization here as I am wont to do. As we are all wont to do. Of course there are people who don't fit the general characteristics of a certain generation or demographic or denomination. But for the sake of brevity and to prevent this "letter" from becoming a novel, please allow me the concession of making a few generalizations and trust that yes, I am indeed also aware of the various caveats to each generalization and comment I make.]
We all, for the most part, filter everything through our own subjectivity and personal experiences and preferences. Did the orange upholstery on those pews just appear out of some vacuum of pure objectivity? No–someone made a decision at some point in time that orange would be an appealing color choice. Did the floral wallpaper in the church kitchen come from the same vacuum? Of course not. Again, someone had a preference for that aesthetic and chose to purchase it and cover an entire room with it. The same can be said for our orders of service and the songs we sing: someone or some people, at some point in time, made a decision based on a variety of subjective factors.
So of course young people are subjective in their desires of having cultural preferences present and represented in their churches…but so are previous generations. This isn’t anything new.
Why is it, then, that only certain cultural artifacts are allowed to be baptized into orthodoxy? At what point (or under what conditions or after which year) do things that are normally up for discussion suddenly become non-negotiable and relegated to the status of “the way things have always been?”
Do previous generations forget that at one point many of the songs that are now considered sacred were just as controversial and unappealing to the generations before them? Do they forget that at one point Isaac Watts (considered one of the godfathers of ‘modern’ hymnody) was considered a near heretic because he had the gall to write and sing songs that weren’t directly from Scripture? Do they realize he was just a young person when he started, and that he did so because he was bored with what he considered to be dull and lifeless music being sung within his church? Do they forget that the church didn’t accept him and that, instead of quieting down and going with the proverbial flow, he instead participated in a new “Noncomformist” church in which those songs could be sung? Do they realize who most likely wrote the vast majority of ‘standards’ now contained within their church’s hymnal?
How selfish of him! How completely narcissistic to insist on worshipping God his own way rather than the way God obviously wanted people to worship Him! I mean, c’mon…that whole “Joy to the World” tune? What an absolute ruckus! Why couldn’t Mr. Watts just settle down and realize church wasn’t about him, but about God, and that the songs the generation before him liked singing were actually the only songs God preferred to hear? God clearly gave us the Book, and he clearly told us which songs he wanted sung by including the Psalms. Don’t question that. Don’t worry about creating any “original songs of Christian experience.” God already took care of it for us.
(Although tone and tenor doesn’t always translate well through the written medium, I hope you hear the sound of my tongue firmly planted within my cheek.)
Why is it, then, that young people are primarily considered selfish and narcissistic in wanting certain cultural trappings represented in their churches/communities, yet the cultural trappings of previous generations are spoken of in much different terms, or in ways that indicate “This is just how it’s always been?” Because that’s simply not true. It’s not how things have always been. ”This” (whatever ”this” may be) is simply how it’s been for a certain period of time and for a certain group of people who find those ways preferential.
And this is why statements such as “Just worship how God wants to be worshipped” don’t hold up very well. Sure, a statement like this sounds wonderful and super spiritual…but what does it mean? What does it look like to incarnate that sentiment within our churches and communities?
If I were to think on that statement, and consider possible ways in which God might have made it known to us how He, in fact, does want us to worship, I would immediately think of Isaiah 58 where God says something along the lines of: “Isn’t this the kind of fasting [/worship] I’m after…?” He then goes on to provide a short list of things He really seems concerned about such as fighting injustice, spending oneself on behalf of the down-and-out, dealing with issues of poverty and hunger and exploitation.
Nothing about music genres. Nothing about a preferred order of service. Nothing about church decor/architecture or the images used on bulletin covers.
Which could mean a couple things: (a) God doesn’t really care about worship styles (not in the sense that he doesn’t have any concern for us, but in the sense that he gives us an immense amount of freedom and creativity to do what we want as free and creative beings, and within that there many equally valuable and valid possibilities), or (b) God actually doesn’t want us performing services and only wants us doing the things he lists. So no more singing, no more trappings of anything organized.
If we go with Option A, some much-needed discussion needs to be had because we need to realize/admit that there are a litany of styles and preferences and possibilities for church services that we haven’t even begun to explore yet (or we have, and maybe we’ve forgotten them and need to bring them back) and that there are a lot of different ways of going about this.
If we go with Option B, then we have some pretty serious demolition to do because God probably isn’t too happy that we’ve been spending all this generously given money to build buildings and pay electric bills and purchase new carpet and additional wings for the sanctuary and new chairs for the worship center (or pews, even) and pay people to crunch and balance numbers for bills being paid with money that should instead be used to eliminate debt and alleviate suffering and buying clothes for naked people and meals for hungry people.
And for those who may not find either of these possibilities much of an option…well, this shift taking place within the church is going to be that much more uncomfortable. Because if something as ‘small’ as musical preference can cause so much heated debate, then just imagine how the shifting from one epoch into another, of entire world-views and understandings of what it means to be a human being or made imago Dei are going to be handled.
Because there is a shift occuring.
This is bigger than just “young people have never been satisfied with the church.” Cultural trappings of music and images and decor are the languages in which deeper issues of identity and community are being discussed and explored by young people. Issues of acceptance (who’s “in” and who’s “out”) that were so obviously black-and-white for previous generations are not at all so for younger ones. Ideas of what is “proper” or “disrespectful” are changing (not all bad, not all good), and although attempts at just “getting us back” to some Midnight in Paris-ian utopia may be well-intentioned*, they just aren’t going to be successful. The more we move forward, the more the landscape is changing…and will continue to. As I said in Part 1, the substrate upon which the church of the previous era was built is fundamentally changing.
Does this mean that all churches need to be singing contemporary music on Sundays? No (and for the record, a worship song released in 1992 is technically no longer “contemporary”). But space needs to be made–whatever that looks like–for those who walk and live upon this new substrate to explore ways of worship that are relevant to the world and culture in which they exist. This may mean a mixed-style service. This may mean a church-within-a-church. This may mean an existing church helping form/start a new one. This may mean a deeply contextual idea and incarnation that may not apply to any other church or community.
But, if nothing else, it means at least this much: a conversation needs to take place.
A respectful, empathetic conversation about how two cultures (or more) can exist in the bes possible way at the same time as the worlds in which they live seem to undergo a continuing disconnect.
This may mean concessions. It may mean experimentation. It may mean wondering how our service might look to others who don’t find these specific sounds and sights comforting (or even welcoming, for that matter). It may mean truly thinking about the other, not just feigning it or telling someone else to do it while we continuing enjoying things in ways we always have. Such conversations may not lead to actual understanding between generations, but they will hopefully result in an actual attempt to understand one another.
And that conversation–while it may not be the ultimate solution–is at least a step forward in dealing with the present situation and frustration felt by so many.
*I once heard a sermon, the point of which was literally: “If we could just get back to the way things were in the 1950s, then everything (society, families, the church) would be a whole lot better off.”