Friday, August 17, 2018

On Change in Church

In the beginning, Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
  They will perish, but you remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment. 
You will roll them up like a robe;
like a garment they will be changed.
But you remain the same, 
and your years will never end.” 
-Hebrews 1:11-12 (NIV)

A blog post got me thinking this week about how the church has changed. It dawns on me that after 50 years in church, all 50 of them in the same “tribe,” and almost 25 in literally the same church, I actually have experienced some changes. Not all of these changes apply to the church I’m a part of now; some are differences I’ve only experienced in other places. But here, in no particular order, are the ways in which church is different now than it was in, say, the mid-seventies, when I was old enough to actually pay attention. Funny how so many of these differences have become so ingrained that you don’t even notice them.
  1. Songs. This is probably one of the most obvious ones. Back in the day, children, before PowerPoint and projected lyrics, we sang out of books kept in the pew racks. (see below for that word “pew”) There were a couple of ramifications that came out of that. For one thing, our repertoire was more limited and less subject to innovation. Blowing the dust off the two different hymnals I used most, I doubt that there were a dozen songs in either that were less than 30 years old. With the slides, we sing songs that you can still hear on Christian radio — along with some older selections the hymnal editors didn’t choose. Maybe some we shouldn’t try, but on balance I think the wider repertoire is a good thing.
  2. Singing. One of the effects of the usage of slides — especially lyrics-only slides — is the loss of harmony. If a church only projects lyrics on the screen, most people will only sing what they hear the leader singing. Some churches use praise teams so that everyone can hear their parts being sung, but that can be hard to follow. Of course, nothing in the Bible suggests that four-part harmony is the official music of heaven. The change is notable, though, in a lot of churches.    
  3. Seating. Pews, not chairs or theater seats. Full disclosure: we still use pews, and a lot of churches I’ve been in still do — even in newer construction. But I think the idea is that pews make things feel “too churchy” for some peoples’ liking.
  4. Prayer. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems like we used to pray in church more than a lot of churches do now. I think we’re afraid that long public prayers aren’t participatory and interesting enough, as though prayer only works when God’s people are adequately entertained. And as though adding our silent prayers to the prayer leader’s audible one isn’t participatory.
  5. Clothes. Coats and ties and dresses and sometimes even hats have given way to khakis and polos and jeans and t-shirts and even shorts and flip-flops. That’s not surprising; it’s just part of a cultural trend toward dressing down. But might that trend also reflect a strong preference for dressing for our own comfort instead of the expectations of others and the demands of the moment?
  6. Scripture. Growing up, Scripture was read a lot. There were numerous texts in the sermon which we were expected to follow along with in our Bibles. The preacher focused on explaining the text. We had memory verses in Sunday School. Now we still seem interested in the Bible, but it kind of feels like to me sometimes that we’re more interested in it for the wisdom or advice or applications we can see in it than we are in understanding it for its own sake. And what about those texts where the relevance isn’t immediately apparent? Do they cease, somehow, to be the word of God to us? 
    The post I was reading when I started thinking of these changes suggested that many of them, at least, were negative: part of what was being called the “juvenilization of American Christianity.” I don’t know that all, or even most, of the changes on my list contribute to making Christianity more “juvenile”: that is, spiritually immature, consumerist, self-centered, and obsessed with feeling good at the expense of intergenerational community and theological literacy. But I don’t know that they’re all (or even mostly) for the better, either. 
     A couple of things about change in the church: 1) it’s inevitable, 2) its effects take a generation or two to be seen with any clarity, and 3) the pendulum always swings. So don’t imagine that you’ll stem the tide of change by digging in your heels. The church has always been in the process of change, from Day One. James called his church’s assemblies synagogues. Paul’s churches seemed to borrow some things from pagan temples. That way of doing church that you’re tempted to think God dropped the blueprints for down from heaven on Pentecost? It probably displaced some other way of doing church, and probably not as long ago as you think. You might delay change for a while, but it will come, and it will take more forms than you can recognize and trickle through more openings than you can stick your finger in. Change and adaptation are part of being alive, so if you’re feeling a little disoriented by changes in your church maybe take comfort in that truth.   
     But let’s not be too quick to evaluate a change, either as the greatest thing for the church since the resurrection, or the worst since your church threw out Great Songs of the Church. We’re notoriously bad at imagining where change — or lack of change — might take us and anticipating its effects on those who come after us. Your grandchildren will, invariably, have to undo some damage your generation did; but they may also be believers because your generation had the courage to make some necessary changes. Most of the changes the church wrestles with are neither as beneficial nor as diabolical as we imagine at the time. Patience in times of change is a good thing, patience in wholehearted acceptance or visceral rejection. It will take a while before the effects of those changes become truly evident. 
     Of course, the pendulum swings back, at least on some changes. We’re already seeing a correction in church architecture, for instance, from pragmatic and utilitarian to increased thought and even theology in design. Many churches are pushing back against what might have been lost in the megachurch boom of the 90’s and 2000’s. Change is rarely permanent, but (back to #1) it is inevitable. Don’t imagine that any changes are “final.”
     The writer of Hebrews reminds us, in a mashup of texts from the Jewish scriptures, that everything changes but God. We are creatures, he’s the Creator. Everything that we experience is temporary; he remains. If the heavens and earth themselves will be “rolled up” and changed “like a garment,” why would we imagine that the church can, or should be, unaffected by change? Or that we will, or should, like every change?

      However traumatic the change seems, it’s only permanent until the next change.

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