Preparing for the modern church in a post-modern world, pt. 1

I now know how to keep people in their seats in a place like this for a full hour, after which they will leave good little products of my little factory church. Or leave with their to-do list written and check book balanced.

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.

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About Elizabeth Rawlings

Lutheran. Feminist. Child of God. Thinking about how to be a leader in a church that is trying to rediscover itself and what it means to live simply so that others may simply live in tandem with what exactly is the fast God asks of us. Chronic alliterator. Generally silly person. View all posts by Elizabeth Rawlings

4 responses to “Preparing for the modern church in a post-modern world, pt. 1

  • j.p.serrano

    I really appreciate what you have to say here. In the Lutheran church, its ok to change the worship style to meet the needs of local cultures, but only if those cultures are non-white.

  • And this is why it’s dying « Feet in, Arms out

    […] I’m on fire right now. Irate. Burning. I went to chapel today. I don’t go to chapel often. Here’s why. […]

  • Reflections on the Luther Seminary crisis and the state of the church (or Now that Easter is over…Now What? – Part 2) | sinibaldo.wordpress.com

    […] Elizabeth Rawlings-Wright, “Preparing for a Modern Church in a Post-Modern World, Part 1.” Feet in, Arms Out. January 4, 2012.                                                                                   Online Available: https://feetinarmsout.wordpress.com/2012/01/10/preparing-for-the-modern-church-in-a-post-modern-world… […]

  • Steve

    As the scriptures remind us so many people are confused about the church and think God wants them to worship a man in sheep’s clothing, but in truth the church means “The body of Christ” The Lord does not dwell in temples made with hands, but as Jesus tells us “The kingdom of God is within you”. Now getting together with your brothers and sisters, helping each other, sharing the gospel and loving one another is wonderful, but all too often people twist the scriptures around in such a way as to convince others that God wants them to dig deep into their pockets and pony up as much as they can because God needs the money. It’s no secret that billions of dollars are made by this lucrative, tax free endeavor, which enables the church leaders to buy multi-million dollar mansions, dozens of fancy cars and hookers galore. But if people want to spend their rent check on their preachers lustful appetite that’s that’s their business and their right to do so, but telling other people that they will burn in hell forever unless they put their trust and faith in these wolves is something that rubs me the wrong way and is most definitely against God’s commands.
    I wanted to talk about pride and the refusal to be humble and how wrong it is to slaughter thousands of people in other countries in order to steal their oil and other resources, but I guess I got off track from my main point. Yeah, I love living in the US and thank God for so many of the blessings we have, but that false pride and belief that it’s a good Christian thing to do by slaughtering thousands and using deception to justify it is very ungodly. I had to say this because most all public churches on television and radio encourage other so-called “Christians” to endorse, encourage and spread this hatred and greed around and to warn church goers to do the same otherwise God will be angry.

    I suggest people get close to God in spirit and in truth and really search the scriptures, while asking the good Lord for help and guidance on what to do, because putting your faith and trust in a wolf in sheep’s clothing is something that God warned us about.

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