The Christian Church is made up of over 30, 000 denominations and millions of congregations, all with their own unique ways of worshiping God. This is what I learned about two of them.
As a teenager I attended the United [Methodist] Church. Although my parents were both Roman Catholics before emigrating from England, we converted to the United Church because it was the denomination of choice for anyone wanting to fit in with the prevailing suburban middle class culture of 1960’s Toronto. One Sunday morning I hung around in the adult service instead of heading out for the youth program – and that’s when I heard it. Incredibly beautiful, otherworldly music sung by the choir. I later found out that it was the Sanctus from William Byrd’s Mass For Four Voices. I was hooked and I made up my mind right on the spot that this music had to be a part of my life. I joined that choir and eventually became good enough that I was offered a job as a tenor in the men and boys choir of a large Anglican [Episcopal] church – the first of the two churches in this story.
This church was like the colonial branch office of Westminster Abbey. It was historically significant and architecturally stunning. Even the British royal family went there when they were in town. This was a place where the King James Bible and the 16th century Book of Common Prayer ruled. They valued tradition and liturgy. Their standards were high because to accept anything less would be considered an affront to God.
Years later I stumbled upon church number two, or perhaps I should say my wife stumbled upon it and took me there the following Sunday.
This church described itself as contemporary and evangelical, and it operated out of an unadorned space in a converted movie theater. They had a pastor not a priest, and a band not a choir. Dress was casual, and bringing a coffee into the the service was encouraged. Prayers were improvised instead of read from a book and it seemed like what they valued most was NOT being like church number one. They thought of themselves as an irreligious church that avoided the rules, regulations, rituals and routines of more traditional churches so that they could concentrate on developing personal relationships with Jesus. What’s ironic is that they actually had lots of rules but none of them were written down anywhere. Perhaps rather than calling them rules it would be more accurate to describe them as unwritten cultural expectations that went along with membership. Expectations about the music you should listen to, the books you should read and the style of clothing you should wear.
Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates – edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated web site that includes online giving.
“But here’s the thing: Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances.
“In fact, I would argue that church-as-performance is just one more thing driving us away from the church, and evangelicalism in particular.
“Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. – precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool, ” and we find that refreshingly authentic.”
Held Evans makes it pretty clear which of these two types of churches she thinks twenty-somethings are gravitating towards, and years earlier I might have written off my newly found church experience if it wasn’t for one thing – the sermons were amazing. They preferred to call it “teaching” rather than a sermon but regardless of the word they used, it was incredibly good teaching rooted in Anabaptist theology. The pastor was a gifted communicator who revealed things about the Bible that I’d never heard explained in depth before. He kept everything in context while also taking into consideration the nuances of language and the cultural milieu of first century Israel. I was learning a lot every week but what was really fascinating was when he talked about the peace teachings of Jesus. I’d been around churches my whole life and I’d never heard this stuff before. I had no idea that there was a group of Christians who actually took the words of Jesus seriously and believed that peace was core to what it meant to be a Christian. I’d learned that for the first 300 years of our faith nobody questioned that Christianity was a peace movement, and I found it hard to understand why many modern Christians viewed peace as an optional extra. The concept of Christian pacifism was a revelation that was as life-altering for me as hearing the music of William Byrd for the very first time.
I attended both churches for a while until my choir went on a trip to Ireland to fill in for the choir at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin for a week. While sitting in the choir stalls during our first evensong something snapped in my brain. Above the stalls on both sides of the chancel was a row of twelve helmets and twelve swords – relics from that violent period in church history known as the Crusades. I just remember staring at them and asking myself “Where’s Jesus in all this?”. I quit the next morning.
I believe that God loves our diverse expressions of faith, and that diversity in unity is part of His plan for us, because we’re all meant to be different parts of the body of Christ. Unfortunately, many people in both of these churches seemed to have no real understanding of what the other type of church was all about – nor did they care. My evangelical friends thought the traditionalists were boring, overly rule oriented and uncool, and my traditionalist friends thought the evangelicals were unintelligent, superficial and lacked any class. All of their assumptions were incorrect, and in my opinion they were both great churches. If they had anything in common it was a feeling of superiority based primarily on style preferences, but the one thing I had learned from my somewhat schizophrenic faith journey was that style is just style.
It really doesn’t matter whether we choose skinny jeans and electric guitars, or suits and pipe organs as long as we aren’t afraid to regularly ask ourselves this question, “Are my style choices becoming more important to me than my choice to follow Jesus well?”.