This is what seminary is doing for me (and for most of my colleagues across denominations and seminaries). I am being well prepared to lead the church of the 1960’s (or before). I go to a seminary that is a part of a major protestant denomination. We are aware that our flock is shrinking and that America’s future is one in which white people will be the minority. Due to this fact, the seminary prepares us (as best a mainly white seminary can) to interact with people of color by making us aware that people of other cultures exist and by singing hymns in other languages. We even have a hymnal for African American congregations and one for Latino congregations. Problem solved?
This couldn’t be further from the truth. Preparing students for a worship style and structure that was created by and for the modernist era will not grow the church, even if it is translated into other languages. Teaching students how to pump theology into parishoners so that they come out of the church-factory as well-educated, Enlightment-minded Christians will not create churches that will bring todays young adults to Jesus. Yet this is exactly what we learn how to do, each and every day.
At my seminary, our weekly worship is by-The-Book. Sometimes, we get crazy and use the part of the book for Latinos or the book for African-Americans, but it is always by-The-Book. It is important to know how to use the book and why our worship is structured the way it is, just as all artists learn the fundamentals of art before they go creating new and interesting works. But we stop at the book. We stop at people sitting in chairs that are all in a row (or, sometimes, in the round), facing forward having faith poured into their heads like good little products of the church factory. There is no room to play, no room to try something new — at least not in the campus-wide worship service. There is no room to move. The people who feel like post-modernism is that where they fit), want to not only taste and see, they want to touch, smell and move as well. They don’t want to be products of the faith factory, they want to be participants in the creation of faith in themselves and in the community. They want this participation to not be relegated to the activities that happen outside of worship. This means allowing more parts of the worship to be led by participants, it means leaving room for productive, contemplative silence, it means allowing for time to move (other than the passing of the peace). This means singing songs that are a part of their culture as well as reaching back and singing ancient chants and hymns from the middle ages. This may be entirely personal, but if I have to spend another worship service singing songs that are entirely in King James language, I’m going to throw something. That is not my language or my culture. I love the occasional old-school hymn, but I also want to hear some Indigo Girls, Over the Rhine or Mumford and Sons. That’s my language and my culture.
And that gets to the heart of it: culture. My seminary asks students to do a cultural immersion into another culture. Our options are (so far as I know) Urban African-American and Latino. But never, at any point, are we asked to parse our own culture, the culture we are living in now. We aren’t asked to learn how to speak post-modernism (or post-post modernism or whatever time it is now). We’re asked to translate our modernist, factory-system based church culture into Spanish or into something that works in the African American community (don’t get me started on multi-culturalism in the mainline churches, that is a whole other conversation) without translating it in to the language of the era that effects us all — the language of social networking and text messaging and you-tube and tattoos and piercings, of globalization and de-centralization and mistrust of institutions and the church of me and the language of Oprah spirituality. We never have to understand any of that. I don’t know if it is assumed that we know how to do that, but, if so, it is a wrong assumption for many.
Now, I’ve been to two seminaries, and the one I attended earlier in my life was more flexible when it came to worship. There was a bit of room to play — there was a rock band, acoustic guitars came in, and the structure was less rigid than it is where I currently attend. However, we were still doing worship the way it had always been done, we just found new instruments to use. There was at least an attempt to translate worship to the culture in which we were living. I give props to that.
No one worship service is the “right” way to do things. There are people who enjoy praise bands, people who feel God when chanting, people whose faith is fed through the use of incense and veneration of saints, people who see God in liturgical dance and people who feel like what really connects them with God is a good hymn by Martin Luther. There are people who love the idea of tweeting during worship and people who would leave the worship space if that happened. There are many who think that we should start thinking about creating online worship services (even a Second Life for church), and others who feel like the community would be fractured if that was done. Every worship service is determined by the culture that surrounds it. But if we don’t know a) how to investigate that culture b) how to speak to culture and c) what our options for worship are outside of the book, the church is going to keep pushing itself into irrelevance.