Back in the day, our church wasn’t in the entertainment business, so our altar hadn’t yet been gutted into a rock concert stage. We weren’t in competition to capture the upwardly-mobile demographic. Warts and all, our congregation and our neighborhood were side-by-side. We did not choose our companions; they were chosen for us. We looked to Christ’s saving work on the Cross and took the Lord’s Supper regularly and seriously. The bread and cup weren’t a power bar and energy drink for the already healthy; they were medicine for our wounded souls and healing for our journey of faith. We gathered around the Table not because we were strong, but because we weren’t. Today, the strong moment signifying our union with Christ may fade to a glib afterthought in a buffet line as you dismiss. “I was amazed at the blandly efficient nature of this activity,” writes one visitor encountering a contemporary worship experience. “We could have been passing pretzels and soda pop.”[i] Communion has itself become consumption. It’s almost as if no one would mind terribly if you helped yourself to seconds.
“Over the past thirty years,” notes Dean Curry, “American evangelicalism has witnessed the homogenization of its theology and the convergence of worship content and style as denominational identities have been strategically de-emphasized. Almost all evangelical churches have the same look and feel on a given Sunday.”[ii] The look and feel of our church drew on a faith heritage going back centuries. We were no free-floating faith brand that just appeared out of thin air. We were examined for membership, after classes to at least to become familiar with our Creeds and Confessions. It was less indoctrination than imparting a sense of belonging in a sustained narrative of community and grounding in an enduring faith tradition. We never thought to hide our denominational affiliation, honoring community and custom over consumer choice. Communal memory and continuity were valued above autonomy and evanescence. Ours was not an anti-ecclesiology, serving up story ex nihilo for ourselves. We had a deep sense of belonging to a story made from whole cloth, handed down to us from generation to generation.
Nor did we have a self-invented pastor. A process of discernment preceded ordination of our clergy, who then sat under the discipline of denominational authorities. All pastors had completed seminary degrees which required them to exegete in the original languages. By the way, they didn’t preach in T-shirts and skinny jeans. We found our identity and purpose in proclaiming, explicating and applying the Word of God, and sermons were more than empty calories that pose as the Gospel. In the days before “teaching moments” and low-content slides, we were scripture-literate and followed the text for the day in our Bibles. We took notes on the sermons as kids, and eagerly memorized scripture to win Bible verse-inscribed pencils as prizes. By force of habit, I still stumble through our congregational readings, subconsciously reverting to KJV as I had learned the verses.
The story continues…
[i] D. H. Williams, “Contemporary Music: The Cultural Medium and the Christian Message”, Christianity Today, June 24, 2011. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/june/culturalmedium.html (accessed March 25, 2015).
[ii] Dean C. Curry, “Evangelical Amnesia”, First Things, October 1, 2007. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/10/002-evangelical-amnesia (accessed May 12, 2017).