Monday, June 27, 2011

Un-Cool Churches vs. Excellence?

A couple of weeks ago, Rachel Held Evans wrote a piece on the need for “Un-Cool” churches.  It has generated quite a lot of buzz, both within the post’s own comment section (243 comments at the time of this writing!) and on other blogs that have chosen to weigh in.  Clearly, there is something there that resonates with people, and rightly so.  Yet, I find myself struggling with some potential implications of taking these words seriously.

It’s not that I especially disagree with her.  Like her, I’m not really comfortable with what I sometimes call “trendy” churches, by which a few years ago I probably would have meant megachurches like Willow Creek or Saddleback, but these days I would probably think more along the lines of the “Thrive” churches (although I know of no church that actually has that name) that Evans describes, recognizing that the megachurch phenomenon really seems to belong to a generation just barely removed from the now-current one.  I also think that Evans’ questions about what to do with “distracting” people in the congregation deserve very careful consideration.  If we’re escorting people out of our worship gatherings, we’ve failed on a fundamental level, although I hasten to note that the congregation mentioned in Evans' post seems to feel that they’ve been mischaracterized in the original article Evans links to, and I make no judgment on what the right thing to do in their situation actually was (In fact, I’d go so far as to say that escorting someone out may be necessary under certain circumstances, perhaps more for the safety of the rest of the congregation than over any concerns over “distraction.”  Even so, my assertion remains that even if it is necessary, it nonetheless represents a failure to properly be the body of Christ to those people).

But then I get to this section:
I want a church that includes fussy kids, old liturgy, bad sound, weird congregants, and…brace yourself…painfully amateur “special music” now and then.
Let’s leave aside the ones the explicitly mention the people (since a lot of that gets to the heart not only of Evans’ post, but especially the stuff I want to commend her for), and I’ll try to begin to explain my fears:
  • “Old liturgy” is one that I’m not too bothered about. In fact, I’m probably more of a traditionalist than most. But I do worry that it implies that something “new” is bad just by virtue of being new. It may be quite excellent. All “new” means is that it hasn’t yet stood the test of time the way the “old” stuff has done.
  • “Bad sound,” as a person who has worked the soundboard a number of times during worship events, is also one I’m a bit sympathetic to. I’ve certainly hit the wrong dial or button, causing a person to be too loud or too quiet—or creating that awful feedback whine—more times than I care to admit, and I’m certainly glad for forgiveness and understanding in this area. But I nonetheless think that it’s important to strive to do better every time I come back for another turn at the board.
  • “Painfully amateur ‘special music’” is the part that probably scares me the most. I not only have a strong musical background, but I’m married to a professionally-trained flutist with perfect pitch. It should therefore be no surprise that I care about this area. I care about appropriate songs being used in appropriate places to support the rest of the worship gathering, and I care about the songs being played (or sung) well.
Some of my struggles no doubt arise from my own tendencies toward perfectionism.  I certainly don’t always respond to distractions as well as I ought to.  Among other things, I tend to cringe when a worship band gets the lyrics wrong (or even just different than the version printed for the rest of the congregation to sing), or when a preacher uses a bit of trivia in a sermon that I know to be factually untrue, or when a presentation breaks the flow of the worship time by being slotted in the wrong place.  One could easily point out that these are fairly petty concerns, and I probably wouldn’t even disagree.  I already know that I need to work on being more able to accept such “imperfections” in worship, and indeed have been working to do so for quite some time.

But in the effort to keep my perfectionist streak at bay and allow the church be a place open to “un-cool” people (a point I definitely agree with), I worry about what the church might need to do (and be) to make this work.  I was taught a long time ago that, if we are to do all of our work as unto the Lord, we should never be content with anything less than excellence in what we do.  This is a teaching that has always resonated with me, and I think that this teaching applies to worship at least as well as it does to the rest of our lives (if a distinction between “worship” and “the rest of our lives” is even a desirable one to make!).

This is not simply a question of taste, or of “entertainment” in worship, nor do I mean to endorse some artificially-glamorous "perfection" such as is sometimes mocked in churches that have a lot of money and can hire professional musicians.  Like Evans, I don't think that church should be “just one big show.” Perhaps I can explain by using an example most readily seen in the “high church” traditions.  While this is not my own background, I appreciate the fact that many of these churches have articulated certain elements that are intended to perform certain functions at certain points within a worship gathering.  There are reasons that a song is sung in a particular place, or that the sermon is given at a certain point, or that a prayer uses specific words (and not others!), or that the offering is collected either before or after the message.  These decisions reflect, on some level, the way that we think about God, and so they should be made with care.  I’m not trying to suggest any particular set of “right” decisions on such matters, so much as to say that such decisions should be made thoughtfully, because they reflect what we think about God.

I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that I disliked Evans’ post (perhaps that’s why it’s taken me so long to respond to it).  What we choose to do with “un-cool” people in our congregations is also a reflection of what we think about God.  As such, we perhaps need to be more careful about how we handle “distractions” in our churches than we may have been.

But I’m not sure how to apply that message, caring more for the people of God than for having a “cool church,” without losing some measure of the “excellence” that I think is also important.  Surely we can find a way to be open to those who would seek to worship God without suggesting that any old song, sung however badly, at just any point in the worship time, is “good enough” and that we therefore shouldn’t try for better.  I’m happy to agree that “any old song,” etc., is pleasing to God if sung for the purpose of worship.  But does it have to follow that we shouldn’t strive for excellence when we can?

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