Wild Air

Back to the Future

March 27th, 2010

Everything old is new again.   As human beings, I think it often happens that a generation rejects its parents’ tastes, and, oddly, embraces the cultural and religious artifacts of its grandparents.   At the same time, as the (more or less) rejected generation of the parents comes to authority, it is able to impose its values on everyone.   This rather odd quirk in generational development leads to constant stress, and may also explain why our young are sometimes more comfortable with their grandparents than they are with their parents.

Whew!   It’s complicated to be human!

I think there is evidence of this in our churches.   In many (certainly not all) congregations and parishes, there is a renewed interest among the young in what has been called “traditional worship”   – that is, worship that includes hymns, choirs, structure, and of course, organs.

When my generation, the “baby boomers,” inherited authority from the “greatest generation,” they naturally assumed that their open and enlightened concepts of worship, free from the dusty strictures of the past, would become the norm, and that their children would naturally flock to any church that provided such an experience.   Praise bands replaced organs in some churches, and singers looked and sounded and acted more like pop stars than like choristers.   Instead of   “A Mighty Fortress,” (never mind a violent hymn like “Onward, Christian Soldiers”), we would all sing “Kumbayah” on Sunday mornings, and feel really warm and fuzzy and   somehow, well, religious.

For a few churches, it worked…sort of… for awhile.

Then, the unexpected happened. (Why the unexpected was unexpected to those who should have known enough of human nature to have expected it, is probably a good subject for another posting.)

In recent years, many young worshippers have discovered that praise is only one small part of the worship experience, and that sometimes it is broad but not particularly deep.   Some have begun to yearn for an experience that is authentic, that touches deeper parts of the soul, and that stimulates the mind as well.     I was working in a church one evening recently when the praise band arrived to practice.   After the 300th repetition of “Our God is an Awesome God,” I wanted to open my veins with a tuning knife.   Fortunately, my wife’s cooler head prevailed, and we took a dinner break.

In protestant churches that I have observed, most have or have tried a separate “contemporary” worship service “that will appeal to the young people.”   (This is how the concept is sold by their parents, who, as we know, understand them.) Usually, the same 35 of these young people (average age: about 40) meet together. They have a Praise Band, often made up of four or five middle-agers, with one youngster drafted in, I suppose, for authenticity.

They enjoy their experience.   It is legitimate worship, and meets their needs, but it certainly isn’t causing the church buildings to bulge at the seams.   In fact, these 35 people would normally be in the “traditional” service, so the church really doesn’t experience much real growth.   (One caveat, I’m an organbuilder, so the churches I visit tend to be more traditional, anyway.)

Meanwhile, those churches that do a really great job of traditional or blended worship seem to be doing very, very well with it.   In fact, many Roman Catholics are finding new vitality in the Latin mass, while conservative Lutheran churches also seem to be doing well with the young.   It seems that many of our young people are pretty smart, and are entirely up to the demands of the more intellectually robust elements of the Christian faith.   It is also worthwhile to note that these churches are often more demanding on worshippers, exacting discipline and rejecting the ’70s “I’m okay, You’re okay” mentality.

I believe the point to all this, if there is one, is that this constant stress between generations is useful, and a part of what filters out the purely ephemeral in our cultural and religious life.   Each generation rediscovers the treasures its parents abandoned along the way.   But what survives this process is the BEST from the past.   The poor or mediocre doesn’t spark interest because it is not timeless. It is left behind.

When Mozart discovered some old manuscripts of “Papa Bach,” he immediately recognized their value, commenting, “At last, here is music I can learn from.”   In Mendelssohn’s hands, the music of the old organist and kapellmeister became not old, but timeless.

So, here’s to timeless worship!

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