By Paul Bosch
Item: Several years ago, CBC Radio Two caused a nationwide uproar in Canada by changing the format of its venerable daily broadcast from twenty-four-hour-a-day classical music to “…a more youth-oriented play list.” I suppose the decision was motivated by demographic considerations, although CBC 2 has never aired commercials. In any case, now it’s pop, rock, grunge, and hip-hop. No more Mozart, Bach, or Beethoven…
Item: A recent New York Times Sunday Magazine article (April 1, 2014, pages 48 – 49) bemoans what the author, a music critic, calls “popism”. Why should adults, he argued, who “listen to music thoughtfully … agree so regularly with the taste of 13 year olds?”…
Item: “They’ll never see me in that church again.” The speaker was a long-time member of a local Protestant – not Lutheran – congregation. “You have to leave your brains at the door when you walk in.” The cause of his anger? The parish had just undergone a change in pastoral leadership, and the new leaders had decided to modify parish worship in the direction of that of the mega-churches, with rock band, “praise choruses”, and looming projector screens…
Faithful reader, I’m asking in these paragraphs: Should the Christian Church at worship give people what they want? What they are expecting? What they are used to? What they find familiar?
In a word: Is worship for 13 year olds? Or for grownups? Does the Church have any responsibility to enlarge or ennoble our humanum? Hear me out.
We today in North America live in a society obsessed with youth. No longer do people aspire to grow up, to mature. In fact, it’s the opposite: Grownups aspire to be young again. Advertisements in all media seek audiences that are youthful, not mature. The products our contemporary Mad Men shill for are addressed to the young, to those who hope to look young, to feel young, to be perceived as young. It’s “youthism”.
I’ll argue here that Christian faith is meant for the mature, to help people mature gracefully, to give people the skills and resources that promote an enlarged and ennobled humanity. There’s no virtue in remaining all your life a 13 year old in faith, in spirituality, in understanding, in perception, in piety.
My case: Christian worship belongs to the mature – with an important qualifier: see below. I see a whole constellation of implications arising from this conviction.
The most basic implication is this: Christian worship carries with it its own traditions, its own culture. It will not be immediately accessible. Entering a church on a Sunday morning may seem like a visit to a foreign land.
Therefore we should not expect worship to be like anything else you’ve encountered during the week. Worship will not be like a theatre. It will not be like a lecture or a concert. Or a TV talk show.
Arising from this conviction: You must grow up into it. Ephesians 4:16-18. You will spend your lifetime growing up into Christian faith. And worship is faith’s workshop. Expecting worship to meet the desires or expectations of seekers is therefore fruitless.
It is also unfaithful. Martin Marty has observed that to design Christian worship so as to meet the desires or expectations of “seekers” is to allow those who know the least about faith to have the greatest voice in forming faith. Not good.
Christian worship forms faith. It is meant to build up into Christ. We should not be surprised — or offended_ — to learn that Christian worship carries with it its own constraints, its own traditions, its own culture. It will be different from the surrounding culture and its values. It will sometimes be downright opposed to the surrounding culture and its values.
You’re “cultivating” something in your “cultus”, your worship. What are your specific worship forms “cultivating”? That’s my question.
Therefore: The leaders of Christian communities, the leaders of Christian worship must constantly be about the business of mystagogy: interpreting faith and the rituals of faith. To the young in their midst, to the seekers at the door – even to every-Sunday old timers in the pew. Christians will spend a lifetime learning how to be Christians. Their leaders should help them.
Which brings me to that important qualifier. Sure, Christian faith — and faith’s form for Sunday worship, Word and Sacrament — is for growing grownups, for developing maturity. But of course it’s also for kids. It’s also for the young. It’s also for seekers. After all, we’re all of us seekers, all our lives, aren’t we?
Hence: Now more than ever Christian communities must teach worshippers how to worship. Christian communities must plan for a deliberate and ongoing program of instruction in worship.
In Christian education opportunities, in a parish newsletter, in verbal and printed announcement every Sunday, in teaching and – Does it need to be said? — in preaching. We must never assume that anyone walking in the door on Sunday morning will know what we’re up to. You must be led. Taught. Instructed. Encouraged. Formed in faith. By whatever means it takes.
Now, how? First, as a worship leader, I’d want to telegraph in my style of leadership that this adventure called Christian worship may not be self-evident or immediately accessible to all. But it will be exciting and exhilarating and enlarging and ennobling — and, yes, fun. I’d strive to make worship every Sunday as accessible as possible for all ages and all levels of experience.
But I wouldn’t shy from pointing out It may also mean requiring you to stretch your perceptions and expectations a little.
“Children’s sermons”? “Youth Services”? “Seeker Services”? I’m not a big fan of any of these possibilities. In my experience, these are notorious for infantilizing those who worship. They’re too often “dumbing down”: presenting “baby faith” in theology and in liturgy. They’re designed for 13 year olds. “You have to leave your brains at the door when you walk in.” I don’t often see any attempt “to grow up into Christ.”
My entire point, in these paragraphs, has been to maintain that we are all seekers, we are all “on the way.” We are all, always, “growing up into Christ.”
The best way to nurture that growth each week is to present worship for grownups. It’s called Mass, Eucharist, the Holy Communion.
And also to provide weekly, winsome, enthusiastic interpretation – mystagogy – about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.