Sometimes the passage of time brings the clarity that you were erroneously convinced you once had. Thinking, learning, listening, praying, and experiencing combine in a mix that makes the murky waters you once believed and defended as crystal clear, to be seen for what they were. . . murky. And then, clarity comes. I think that what this is called is “wisdom.”
I remember some conversations I had with my dad around 25 years ago. I was a fresh-out-of-seminary young know-it-all who was on a mission to challenge the status quo of our church culture – a church he pastored with great insight, skill, and faithfulness. Specifically, I was questioning a variety of issues related to worship. To be fair to my 25-years-ago-self, my motivation was to see the kids I had been charged to minister to in the church embrace the corporate worship experience in more meaningful ways. And to be honest about my 25-years-ago-self, I allowed my youthful idealism and pragmatism to serve as blinders that kept me from seeing the bigger picture and all the related questions that needed to be asked. My recollection is that my dad patiently listened to my concerns, offered some thoughts and pertinent questions in response, and then remained quiet in the hope that eventually my perspective would be informed by something more than my idealism and pragmatism. I remember getting a bit frustrated as other churches I knew were making adjustments that swelled the ranks and made kids happy. Those were the front-end days of making big changes in church. Since then, Evangelicals have turned this type of thinking and doing into an art.
In hindsight, I appreciate my dad’s patience. Watching culture, studying marketing techniques and how they’re used to manipulate young (and old) people, studying the Scriptures, and thinking theologically about cultural accommodation(thanks to a multitude of older and wiser folks who have committed their thoughts to writing)have all combined to lead to a gradual yet monumental shift in my thinking that I would have said wasn’t even possible. Still, here I am.
If my present-day 53-year-old self could somehow travel back in time to sit across the table from my 29-year-old self, I’d work hard to convince the younger version of me to ask the right questions and to think deeply about the answers before pursuing matters of style over matters of substance. I would ask myself, “Do you really think the things you want to have happen will wind up bringing results that are marked by spiritual maturity?”
I was reminded of all this the other day when I was catching up on my magazine reading. While leafing through the November issue of Christianity Today, I ran across a column by one of my favorite writers, Philip Yancey. I was surprised (and saddened) to learn that the November column was going to Yancey’s last for CT. He actually started writing “The Back Page” back when I was a seminary student in 1983. In fitting fashion, Yancey used this last installment to make some observations on the evangelical movement that he and CT have been a part of for so long. The entire article – “Oh Evangelicos!” – is worth reading. Since it’s Saturday night as I write this, perhaps it’s worth reading before you take your seat in worship tomorrow morning, or at a Saturday evening service tonight. With apologies to Philip Yancey, I appreciate the wisdom he’s passed on to us younger folks as an older guy who’s done some pretty serious thinking on his many trips around the block. In particular, I like the questions. . . the necessary questions. . . he asks in these few paragraphs.
“While staid churches change slowly, evangelicals tend to be light on their feet, adapting quickly to cultural trends.
The Jesus movement, the house-church movement, seeker-friendly churches, emergent churches—evangelicals have spawned all of these. In their wake, worship bands have replaced organs and choirs, PowerPoint slides and movie clips now enliven sermons, and espresso bars keep congregants awake. If a technique doesn’t work, find one that does.
Although I admire the innovation, I would caution that mimicking cultural trends has a downside. At a recent youth workers conference I attended, worship meant a DJ playing techno music at jet-engine volume while a sweaty audience crowded the stage, jumping up and down while shouting spiritual one-liners. At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I couldn’t help questioning the depth of worship. Seminaries now recommend 15-minute sermons in light of shorter attention spans. Publishers want slimmer books, with simpler words and concepts. Will we soon have a 140-character Twitter gospel?
Perhaps we should present an alternative to the prevailing culture rather than simply adopt it. What would a church look like that created space for quietness, that bucked the celebrity trend and unplugged from surrounding media, that actively resisted consumerist culture? What would worship look like if it were directed more toward God than toward our entertainment preferences?”
This weekend I had the privilege of spending time with a bright and energizing group of United Methodist youth workers and some of their best and brightest kids in Louisville, KY. As we chatted back and forth about what it means to do ministry as cross-cultural missionaries in today’s world, I had the sense that these kids want to go deep. I’m hoping and praying that they’ll embrace substance, and then make style subservient to that substance. . . not vice versa. I’m hoping they channel the wonderful blessings of their youthful idealism into asking and thinking long and hard about the right questions. More than anything else, I hope and pray that they are faithful to the unchanging Gospel and the power that exists in the simple, straightforward preaching of God’s Word. I hope that they don’t fall into the market-driven trap of thinking that just because a messenger is gray up top, he or she has nothing to say that anyone who isn’t gray up top would ever want or be able to hear.
If this keeps up, we’re doing nothing other than making sure that style trumps substance. And when that happens, we have to think twice about what kingdom we’re really promoting.