The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Methodist memories in churches old and new

Posted by Ron George on May 1, 2011

Fairlington United Methodist Church, Virginia: Where I learned to love worship

My mother’s church is a United Methodist congregation in Corpus Christi. She’s been a member there since 1967 and a Methodist most of her 87 years. I attended services with her this Holy Week, moved as much by a desire to be with her as by any desire to worship and pray. Maundy Thursday brought on a flood of memories, and Good Friday, finally, moved me. God, as usual, had the upper hand, whoever or whatever God may be. The Spirit imbued a final song in a darkened church sung antiphonally, without adornment: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”

Holy Week is the liturgical moment during which Christians say yes to that question. I’ve strayed from church of late, but not a season comes round that I don’t feel drawn by the rhythms of the liturgical seasons. I miss that engagement with the world through liturgical prayer. I miss being bound by it while at the same time liberated from an ordinary sense of the passage of time into the extraordinary dilation of the moment, the here and now that seems to become the presence of God. Maybe it’s just the psychological effects of well-honed, traditional worship rooted in humanity’s collective psyche; but even so, to embrace the meaning of it as real is a way of transcendence that I’ve given up, at least for the time being.

All that’s left seems to be reverie and sentimental vulnerability to elegant beauty.

The look: CrossTalk contemporary Christian band for hire, Atlanta, Ga.

I grew up in the Methodist tradition, passing from childhood to adolescence to young adult in radically different settings. I was confirmed in a large, red-brick colonial church in Arlington, Va., after five or so years of singing in the children’s choir, hating Sunday school and, finally, persuading my mother to let me attend worship services with her. She sang in the chancel choir and made me promise to behave. I’d have to sit on the front row, which I didn’t mind a bit. I was enchanted by the music and the space, and I liked listening to sermons. An associate minister once told Mom that I’d be a preacher one day. “He gets more out of the sermon than anyone else,” he said, or something like that. Mom still recalls the story from time to time. 

Mom’s church in Corpus Christi reminds me a lot of that big church in Virginia, especially from inside of what might be called the old church, which faces across a courtyard toward what might be called the new church. The new church looks a lot like the old church from the outside, but there’s a world of difference within. Conceived years ago as a fellowship hall, it finally was built as a contemporary worship center with state-of-the-art sound and lighting. There certainly was nothing like it in that northern Virginia facility half a century ago.

Mom and I spent most of Easter morning at church. She sings in the choir and performs with a fine bell choir, too. There were three Easter services with Sunday school after traditional worship in the old church. I attended early church in the old building, then we attended Sunday school together. The second and third services ran almost simultaneously. Mom returned to the old church for a replay of the earlier service, but I ambled into the new church for the contemporary service. It was clear from the outset that I had walked from one liturgical milieu into another so utterly different that it was hard to imagine how both were of the same denomination.

A well-rehearsed rock band led the service, and although Jesus was invoked again and again, it was clear from the outset that the star of this show was the ample, talented woman who did most of the singing. The service was well planned and seemed to go off with a hitch. The customary slideshow kept the audience abreast of the service. Everything was amplified, and every word that came from the lead singer, sung or not, was echo-chambered. It was impossible to hear one’s self or one’s neighbors sing, except when the lead singer gave us permission as the band backed off. The audience’s singing was anemic compared with the overwhelming sound of the band – which came charging back after 16 bars or so as though to rescue us from feeble performance. It was all very exciting and very well done, and I’m sure the audience enjoyed it. It was a Christian rock concert. It passes for worship for those who appreciate the model, and not just the young. The audience comprised mostly young people but also their elders and, in some cases, their grand-elders.

Traditional pre-Reformation worship: The laity were virtually silent

Was it liturgy? Well, no, but it didn’t have to be, did it? This worship service was not conceived as liturgy; in fact, my guess is that it was designed not to be liturgical. Liturgy is work, literally. This audience didn’t gather for work but for entertainment. There were no contemporary services in the new church during the hard days of Holy Week. That doesn’t mean those who gathered in the new church on Easter Sunday didn’t attend them, but my guess is that most did not. Holy Week services are intentionally spare, introspective and call for a great deal of self-examination, none of which is theologically expressive of or consistent with what goes on in this particular contemporary worship service. There’s nothing wrong with that, by the way, but it indicates a profound split in the way of congregational life that has been the norm at Mom’s church for generations. It seems to be one of many local expressions of something that’s been emerging in U.S. Christianity at least 45 years.

In the late 1960s, activists challenged the church to become more relevant to social issues such as war, poverty and racism. Young people were offered folk masses in non-traditional settings that seemed more in tune with their concerns. Christian rock matured as a genre sometime in the mid- to late 1980s, and a new breed of young, evangelical Christians literally bloomed into a musical movement. Today’s mega-churches are lineal descendants of these trends; and the formula, regardless of music genre, is rooted in worship as entertainment. It’s more than a little ironic.

Once upon a time, there was a Protestant Reformation, and one of its key critiques of Roman Catholicism was that the people – the laity – had been liturgically silenced by the clergy, which was emblematic of many other ways that the people were cowed by the institutional church. The historical analogy breaks down quickly, but it’s not much of a stretch to see how worship-as-entertainment leads to a silenced congregation, which is no “congregation” at all but an audience. Folks who attend such services are complicit in their silencing. No one’s been duped, and there is no deceit in it. It’s just a fact of life in that kind of worship experience, and people like it because it makes no claims and requires no “work,” no liturgy. It does make us feel good, and there’s something to be said for that, and it brings people to church who might not come otherwise. Lots to be said for that, too. It is a mistake, however, to be uncritical; and those who must be most critical are those for whom this contemporary style of worship is most meaningful.

As an ancient philosopher once said, an unexamined life is not worth living; just so are unexamined developments in Christian common life. Outside critics will make no headway with this movement. Only self-critical leadership from within can examine this movement and affirm what is good about it while modifying its troubling aspects; otherwise, we all lose, old church and new church alike.

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