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Kill Your Megachurch Worship

An Evangelical says it's time to put away transitory things, and return to liturgy

Jonathan Aigner says that the “contemporary worship” style is in decline, and ought to be pushed off the cliff.Why is it declining? Here are a couple of reasons:

Millennials are seeking old ways of doing things. This (thankfully) doesn’t mean a return to the church of the 1950s, but it (thankfully) means an increasing rejection of the church of the 1990s and 2000s. More emphasis is being placed on liturgy and community, and less on using corporate worship chiefly as a contrived evangelistic tool. Also, as I’ve cited before, most millennials (and I’m one of them, by the way) grew up not knowing anything other than contemporary worship, and we’re leaving the church faster than any generation before us. Even by its own standards (i.e., number of butts in the seats) contemporary worship is a failed experiment.

Contemporary worship is an unstable and non-theological movement. To be thoroughly contemporary necessitates a slavish allegiance to the new, the current, the hip, the cool, and the commercial. It requires a thorough rejection of what is old, passe, not current, not cool, and what doesn’t make money. The bright shiny objects that get butts in the seats must continue becoming brighter and shinier. This holy bait-and-switch tactic is wearing thin. This constant need to reinvent yourself is a pretty tough row to hoe for any church, and few besides the largest and wealthiest are able to keep butts in the seats with any continued success.

And how can Evangelicals help send contemporary worship styles to their grave? Excerpt:

Stop attending contemporary services. I received this comment yesterday:

I grew up in a church, back in the sixties, that only sang hymns. At the time I wasn’t for or against the hymns. But then came the contemporary praise movement in the seventies and I thought wow this is better than the old hymns. And we all know the rest of the story. I have an eight year old daughter who will never know the hymns like I do. And to be honest that infuriates me. – Brian

I hear these kinds of things a lot, actually. If you’re in a place where you fundamentally disagree with something so important, isn’t it time to move on? Isn’t it that simple? I don’t know. There are plenty of churches that sing hymns. But don’t just stop at hymn-singing. Look for liturgy, not entertainment. Worship is supposed to be the work of the people, not the jesusy entertainment of the masses. Look for new hymns and songs being sung, too. Music in worship isn’t supposed to be a vehicle for emotional manipulation, sensory gratification, or hooking an audience. Find a church where music serves the liturgy, not the masses. It may mean looking outside your denomination. It may mean going to a more theologically, politically, or culturally diverse congregation. It may mean leaving friends. It may even mean singing songs you don’t like sometimes. I’m not a fan of church-hopping, but worship is important. It’s not just another program, another ministry area. And if your church doesn’t get this, and if they won’t listen, it may be time to go elsewhere.

One more excerpt:

This issue has been framed poorly.

It’s not about old vs. new.

It’s not about old vs. young (especially these days).

It’s not about taste.

It’s not about what kind of music God likes more.

It’s not really about music.

It’s about the very purpose of gathered worship.

It’s about unity, not choice.

It’s about Holy Scripture, not self-help.

It’s about theology, not experience.

It’s about participation, not consumption.

It’s about liturgy, not jesusy entertainment.

It’s about being a church for the world, not getting butts in the seats.

It’s about ancient and future, not just now.

Read the whole thing. 

Naturally this hits my sweet spot, and I’m glad to read it. Last October, when I was out in Colorado Springs, I was amazed to spend time with Millennial Evangelicals and hear them talk about a deep frustration with the shallowness and transience of contemporary megachurch worship, and a longing for liturgy. Of course I welcome that news!

On the other hand, I worry about the bricolage approach to traditional worship — you know, the sensibility that says we can pull a little bit from here and a little bit from there, and cobble together something that seems ancient, and is pleasing to our tastes. Not sure how that works over time, cut off from a long tradition. I welcome the thoughts of Evangelicals and others who have experience with these questions.

One great value of traditional worship is that you never have to worry about going out of style, because you are always out of style — and that is a strength! When I was a Catholic, I groaned over the hymns we usually had to sing at mass, in particular the St. Louis Jesuit stuff that sounded like it was forever stuck in 1972. That kind of thing becomes dated very quickly, and sends a signal that Christianity itself is the kind of thing people whose minds are stuck in a particular time period and its culture cling to. Plus, changing music and worship style radically from generation to generation serves to cleave the worshiping community. A Southern Baptist friend of mine who loves Baptist hymns has stopped attending his church because he cannot bear that they’ve thrown out all the Baptist standards, and substituted it with vapid praise music, the sort of thing that is instantly forgettable, and that will be forgotten ten years from now.

Along these general lines, here’s a wonderful letter I received from a reader, and publish with his permission (with some identifying details removed at his request):

Rod, thanks as always for a great article with the “Of Stars and Gods” piece. I’m a long time reader and have almost written you several times, but finally couldn’t resist this time. At the risk of being accused of talking up my own tribe, I believe that any sacramental way forward for believing Protestants, at least in the English-speaking world, would benefit greatly from a strain of orthodox Anglicanism.

I am, of course, a small-o orthodox Anglican, in [place]. Our dean and rector took what was a dying parish and has injected an incredible amount of life into it. He is evangelical, as Anglicans evaluate such things, but I wouldn’t call him “low-church”, because he also has a wonderful reverence for the sacraments.

We have three services on Sundays, each with a different style, but all deeply rooted in Anglican liturgical tradition. One of them has contemporary-style music…but not of the “Our God is an awesome God” variety; many of the songs are traditional hymns arranged for guitar, mandolin, etc. by some very talented musicians. There is also a traditional service with a full choir, and a short, said service using the more traditional Anglican liturgy (if you know the lingo at all, a “’28 Prayer Book” service).

You are probably aware that liturgy is “cool” right now in wider evangelical circles, but in many cases it is a strange mishmash, sort of a “choose-your-own-adventure.” I think this is a reflection of a deep desire in people to have the kind of sacramental experience which you write so eloquently about and which Orthodoxy has so richly.

What Anglicanism has to offer–if it can get its act together–is a chance for Protestants to experience a sacramental way of worship with a rich history that is theologically comfortable for them. Our church seems to appeal to a lot of ex-megachurch types who are looking for the kind of sacramentalism those places don’t have. All the turmoil among Anglicans is sadly preventing more from discovering it, but I am optimistic that with God’s help, prayers, and some hard work, that will change.

Anglicanism has a long tradition of looking back to the Church Fathers for guidance; to that pre-rationalist period that your article describes. The good Anglican seminaries (the ones that aren’t totally given over to MTD–and there are a couple in the US) are very strong on patristics.

Those who accuse Anglicanism of being wishy-washy sometimes do have a point, but in many instances Anglicans are trying to avoid over-rationalizing. One of my favorite poems is this little verse by John Donne, which sums up Anglican view of the Eucharist:

He was the Word that spake it;
He took the bread and brake it.
And what that Word doth make it,
I do believe and take it.

I don’t think this is just an effort to paper over transubstantiation. I think it is an effort to get at that pre-rationalist way of thinking about the sacraments. What mattered to the average person in the pews then, and what should matter now, is not whether you can write volumes about the Eucharist, but how you experience it. It cannot be reduced to a doctrine defined on a page.

Looking internationally, Anglicanism is growing by leaps and bounds in the global south. Its appeal seems to be its combination of evangelical and sacramental tendencies; it allows people to experience Christ in both Word and Sacrament. Thoughtful orthodox Anglicans in the United States have taken note, and I think they see that as the way forward for us, too.

The other thing that orthodox Anglicanism in America is slowly doing–and this is painful–is recognizing and repenting of its “the elites at prayer” image. Breaking away from the Episcopal Church to follow God’s call has not been not easy. Many parishes have gone from beautiful old buildings to gymnasiums and borrowed facilities. People who care about being Episcopalians for status reasons, who sadly do exist, are not inclined to take that kind of step. The result is in many cases a self-selected group who have, in a way, created their own Benedict Option.

I appreciated your “Anglican Benedict Option” piece a while back very much as well. As you explore the Ben Op, are you seeing anything else like what I’m describing?

Not yet, but then, I’ve barely started research. That changes starting next week. By the way, I’m in touch with Prior Andrew Litzell, who leads the Ben Op experimental community in Lambeth Palace, and I may be going over next month to see what they’re doing and what they’re learning.



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