I spend quite a lot of my life engaging with various aspects of religion, in two of my professions, one academic, the other ministerial I am continually engaging the complexities of what it all means. I try and read widely and broadly, engage with all sides of arguments, theories, etc., and I usually stay out of the arguments that emerge, usually because they seldom get anywhere anyway, so i don't really see the point. For some time now there have been these ongoing conversations within religion, particularly christianity over generational preferences and particular styles of worship etc. First it was boomers versus gen-xers, now it's the millennial discussion--what defines them, what 'they' like etc. Now, let me say up front that I think generational theory is mostly crap, it's essentially rooted in and borne out of the commodification of youth culture in the post-war years and is much a marketing strategy as anything else. Of course, there are differences among ages of people, but the idea that boomers like this, gen-xers like that and millennials something else is essentially a very flawed approach to anything in my mind. So much of this depends on so many things-geography, economics, for instance--you could argue that some supposed characteristics of gen-xers could to be applied in the U.K. to what would be regarded as baby-boomers because of a whole set of contributing factors such as the slow economic recovery of the post war years, the lack of a Vietnam-experience, latchkey kids--so many things--so I tend to be a bit wary of these generational studies, they are good for selling books and not much else as far as I am concerned--)I have also now lived long enough to know almost as many exceptions to every rule as the rule itself).
One of the conversations that has ebbed and flowed this year particularly, and perhaps more specfically because of a post that went viral from Rachel Held Evans and the shift toward more liturgical worship environments.
This came back around today as I read a post from my friend Tony Jones about what the church can learn about millennials from small batch distilleries. It is a smart and sharp post, as most of his posts are and he includes a quote from RHE in it,
"many of us," she writes, "myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions-Catholicism, eastern orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. -precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being "cool," and we find that refreshingly authentic." "What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance."
I realize that there was a particular context for this comment, related to responses from talks she had given about the state of things, and my thoughts stray from that a little, but i am not necessarily responding directly to her blog as much as to one of its statements, which she is not alone in voicing. There are many things I can say but let me begin by saying that I would agree that chasing 'cool' is always folly, I will also say that liturgical churches can be as prone to that as non-liturgical because that is about much more than style, ambition plays a factor, as does desire for impact in the environment, it is not always voiced in the same way in high-church environments but it is most certainly there, along with elitism, snobbishness, blindness and a host of other things that can haunt the institutional church of all persuasions. Admittedly 'cool' is more often associated with the artifacts of popular culture, but the idea of 'cool' has extended beyond that and has become a signifier. Trust me I have been in enough conferences on both sides of this aisle to say this with some emphasis. It is often more apparent in more contemporary churches because the desire for 'relevance' is voiced, but the counter to relevance is redundancy and liturgical churches face that in spades and their 'unconcerned with cool' liturgical approaches will not necessarily be enough to help them in my mind. 'Cool' is an elusive facet of contemporary culture, it is, as I just said, one of our cultural signifiers, I am not saying it is necessarily good or bad, it just is a part of the wallpaper of late capitalist society, and it ignores the boundaries of liturgical practices. But I get it, you hear it more in contemporary environments, and the main problem with pursuing cool is that it can't be attained, it has to be conferred, which can lead to a sense of looking a bit desperate at times if it is a central drive.
I say some of this with some personal experience, I teach at an evangelical seminary, I minister in a progressive, liberal Episcopal church, I have planted and led and engaged in any number of non-traditional churches, emerging churches, alternative worship churches and conferences, etc. etc., and all of them have more challenges and problems than they know how to handle, and many of them operate along a spectrum of practices and ideas that are challenged by the world we find ourselves in, for different reasons perhaps, but challenged nonetheless, and the common problem in both, in my humble opinion, is precisely what is voiced in the quote--substance--they lack it, or perhaps more specifically they have the wrong kind of substance for the times in which we live. Lateral moves will ease some of the concerns worshippers may have for a while, but eventually, once the routine has set in, once the curtain has been lifted and essentially the same wizard is seen behind the curtain, a similar disillusionment will set in. The questions facing the world will not be addressed by unbridled pushes for cool and relevance, but they will not be served by redundancy either or simply by assuming that there is substance because something has an age/duration advantage.
I also happen to feel that substance affects style to some degree, there are reasons things are done the way they are done, and those things can become transformational but can also become ossified, and because it is old, doesn't mean it is better or not consumed with similar aims and intentions as newer approaches, it is just voiced differently.
Richard Rohr has said in a number of places that sometimes it feels as if churches are focused on a god who seems more interested in the past than the present or future, and this can be intensely present in high church environments, shaped as they often are by a high-low cultural perspective which tends to elevate the past as naturally better than the present, and then we find ourselves moving into the elitism that can haunt liturgical churches at times--the appeal to credibility and legitimacy based on length of practice--reminds me a little of Jesus' comment to the pharisees that association with god by birthright doesn't legitimize anything, stones can become children of god.
I get it though, all that contemporary church stuff can drive you nuts, but there will come a day when you realize that in a liturgical environment the same shit exists, it just comes with a different face. I think that a factor in all of this is that we often react adversely to what has formed us, or we simply move beyond its scope and I think a lot of that is happening today--it's bit like that moment when teenagers go from thinking their parents are the coolest people who know everything to the sense that they are the world's most embarrassing people, I think we all do or have done that to some degree with pretty much every issue of our lives. This is sometimes part of our own maturing process where we break away from things, take new responsibility for our own lives and realize the world is bigger, that there are other ways, perhaps more personally appealing ways of experiencing things whether it be life or church, but it is a misnomer to think that a change of substance is necessarily what you are getting, it is first a change of style with the same substance that you are generally getting, the same substance from a different angle, from a different style. And let's just address this idea of 'performance' for a minute, if you don't think a liturgical service isn't theatre, isn't performance, you haven't been in enough liturgy planning meetings, there may not be video screens and rock star effects but trust me it's a show, its a performance, and there is actually nothing wrong with that in my mind. But the issue of substance is not addressed exclusively by style.
Some churches may have more ancient links, but they are peopled by those who live and breathe today, and they bring themselves to those places and spaces and they are contemporary human beings and even their enactment of the liturgy becomes a different thing, it is unavoidably so--chanting becomes a preferential option, a commitment to a particular version of the liturgy, rather than essentially a means of extending the voice without amplification or the other issues that gave rise to the chanting of the liturgy or eucharist--the vestments that were once intended to not make the clergy distract from the worship experience stick out like a sore thumb today, because nobody else in the world dresses in a like manner, and it is worth remembering that there was a time when liturgical dress was current with the dress of the day. The clerical collar, adopted in the late 1800s, and adapted from the black coat and white tie that had defined clergy in a world where most people were defined by 'uniforms of dress,' was intended as a means of separating clerics from emerging and increasingly secularizing society at the height of the industrial age, it had particular theological and cultural implications, and it heralded a hint of culture despising as Brueggemann might say, rooted in a form of Victorian piety (it's just one of the reasons I refuse to wear one, it is not representative of my view of either the relation between church and culture or my particular pietistic views). It is essentially only in the last 100-150 years that the gap between the shape, design, practices and habits of the church have moved away so dramatically from keeping pace with and responding to the culture and has created this traditional/non-traditional divide. At one point not so long ago, much of what we experience as ancient liturgy would have felt much more modern than we realize. Many liturgical churches invoke ancient liturgy, but much of it is influenced and shaped as much by 18+19th century approaches as anything else, so don't be taken in and think that you necessarily entering some gothic cave untouched for centuries-you might every once in while, but mostly its not that at all, its a style, it's an affect/effect, beautiful though it surely may be.
All styles and approaches to worship can be lauded and critiqued, I am however, like RHE, deeply concerned with substance and for me the challenge for millennials or boomers, or gen-xers, or zeroes, post-millennials or whatever, will not be addressed by lateral moves to different forms of worship alone, which I really think that has something to do with personal preferences and experiences of the sacred--and like everything, its always good to try new things, even if they are old things:) but the real substance won't necessarily come from either one, or perhaps it can and will emerge from any and all of them, but something has to shift first.
Some may find that a shift in liturgical focus will be enough to meet their needs and desires toward the sacred, it hasn't been for me. I have spent the past thirty years in church of all shapes and sizes and I have to say that most of its 'substance' is completely lost on me, not only do I not believe it, I find it gets in the way, and surprisingly perhaps, I have met a lot of people who go to church regularly who don't believe it either, they just tolerate it, hoping that one day it will be different, hoping one day, something will be uttered that heralds the dawn of what we are all looking for--substance. I hear the same things iterated in all kinds of churches--they all have their varying preoccupations and focuses, but contemporary christianity is sorely lacking in substance in most environments where it is being expressed if you ask me, it always has a feel of "I've heard this before, and it didn't make much sense the first time, even less so now."
I think substance is what the church really needs to look at, not just the substance of its worship-that's too internal, I mean it's substance in terms of how it seeks to engage with the world, what it talks about, how it interprets both scripture, its practices and priorities, itself and culture at large. I come back again and again to the idea that christianity has all been said before and yet needs to be said anew--that one eras encounter with the gospel is not always enough for the next age. Neither the tendencies and preoccupations of conservative forms of christianity-liturgical, high-church or otherwise, nor the focus and concern of any kind of liberal/progressive church-traditional, non-denominational, contemporary or whatever, which have largely been shaped by late 19th and 20th century experience are at the core of the substance I long for.
Tony said in his post that millennials are hyper-conscious about where things come from, I agree, but again I don't think that this is an exclusively millennial dynamic, it is something that is occurring everywhere in our culture at the moment, there might be a preponderance of this among millennials but its not just them, it's a broader cultural response to the effects of living with disposable fashion, an attempt to manage constant change--it's like the work-wear trend in fashion right now--its romaticized, people are wearing it in the city, not on farms, it is an affect, the roots reconfigured to fit the contemporary world as much as anything else--sometimes brand new things transform the world. We live in a time where we both love and hate the new, again it's a phenomenon of our time, and it makes us a bit bi-polar in our approach to life.
The substance I seek is substance that addresses a world come of age to quote Mr. Bonhoeffer, not the ancient world, not the modern world, not the traditional church world or the contemporary church world, but this world--the post-freudian, post-darwinian, post-marx, post-liberal, post-secular, post-religious, post-christian, post-materialist, post-everything world, and only then will we be able to have a conversation about how to give it shape, in the meantime we are jsut moving things around, avoiding the most important conversation of all-that we need a new iteration, a new telling of the tale, one that is not simply an attempt at relevance or cool, nor marked by a blind resistance to the moment, but shaped by our time, reflecting the world we live in, not wish we live in, hope we live in, or want to live in. Until then I recommend going where you like but don't advance it as a model for what a generation is doing, because I think most of them are actually staying home and listening to Lorde.