Tony Kummer posted a telling article referring to some hard words from SBC president Frank Page. In response to Dr. Page, I am in total agreement with his statements. Too many in the SBC have been calling attention to the death grip held on traditions that no longer reflect the culture of the United States, much less global culture. The irony is that the very existence of the SBC is due to a passion for reaching the world for Christ, not just white anglo Americans from 1950.
“Many Southern Baptist churches are small groups of white people who are holding on [until] the end,” he said. “Not only have we not reached out to younger generations, but we have failed to reach out to other ethnic minorities who are all around us.”
Rather than embracing a “whatever it takes” mentality to change and restore a local church to health, Page said, many pastors and churches have “chosen to die rather than change, and they are doing it.”
I propose the following thoughts as a way to begin thinking about how to restructure churches in the SBC. It may be too late for some churches to adapt and so new church starts must begin. Unfortunately, the only answer to the dying SBC may be to tear down the old in order to build up the new.
The church is part of a congregation in a historical timeline that is past, present, and future. The biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation shows God’s eternal essence from speaking all of creation into existence and the fulfilling of his salvation leading up to Jesus Christ. Throughout the biblical timeline, one sees the contribution of God’s people to styles of worship. This includes the heritage of the Abrahamic covenant as well as the Exodus experience of Passover and throughout the lament of the Psalms. Generations leading up to the New Testament church all contributed new forms of meeting and singing of new psalms; yet the traditions of their heritage were never abandoned. Whatever songs were inspired by new experiences seemed to fit right along with the traditional timeline. Nothing was taken away, but new things were folded in to the fabric of worship to the same God throughout history.
The church of the 21st century western context continues in this biblical heritage. Just as the Puritan founders held to their plain style of worship, the millennium generation of the west brings with it new music styles and images in worship. The problem of tradition has for the last thirty years or more butted head on with the problem of the immediate. Ken Myers, in his lecture on the problem of tradition, points out the difference one finds between songs that are handed down to those that are downloaded. Worship songs that are passed down from one generation to another have a sense of inheritance that the current method of download does not have. Inheritance has a greater value than instant commodity. This is the heart of the struggle of worship styles that lie along generational lines. An increased cultural diversity in the western context brings with it a renewed sense of blended culture that can be seen in the first century church world. Pastoral understanding will be crucial to bring harmony to the multiplicity of the generations and cultures.
Marva J. Dawn argues that the increased use of multi-media in western culture has also encroached into worship. Because the current era will be defined historically as the dawn of the digital age, it is not surprising that Christians will bring that culture with them in expression of worship. The expectations of a new generation are that worship should be as fast-paced and entertaining as the media to which they are accustomed. One of the strengths of media technology in worship is that imagery can be easily adapted as part of the worship experience. Likewise, the ease of displaying lyrics for worship focuses all participants to the same point in the worship space. Information can be shared in an entertaining way that keeps the attention of a new generation. A digital generation will bring with them that which shapes their contribution to history, namely their music and visual art. All of this can be adapted through digital media.
The danger comes when what is considered new is seen as a replacement for what is of the past. When tradition is thought of as outdated and unnecessary and must be replaced by the new and exciting, the ties that hold together historical Christian legacy come undone. The media itself is not the danger. Rather, the attitude behind its use is at fault. Genesis 25:29-34 warns through the story of Esau tossing away his birthright that heritage is precious and is not to be considered something to be traded for a menial bowl of lentil soup. Tradition has value.
One clear danger in current generational worship trends is the influence of image in contemporary culture dominating the word in Christian worship. Images themselves are not the danger. Church history is full of images. More than 70% of western art was created with a Christian influence for the church. Yet, for five centuries the Protestant tradition has seen very little emphasis on artistic contributions to the worship space.
Current generations have begun to revive the image in worship. The strength is in a renewed energy of creativity that has a strong tradition in the church. Yet the danger is in a return to abandonment of worship that is word-centered. Ken Myers points to this trend with words of caution. Images communicate differently than language. Pictures present themselves and nothing more. They cannot make an argument, come to a conclusion, make a demand, or judge a thought as true or false. They must be interpretive. Most modern people find it difficult to pay attention to long lectures. They lack the habits to do so and this has lead to the rise of fast-paced imagery in media. Entertainment now educates those who lack the mental ability to focus for more than seconds at a time. This straying away from a word-based intellect ties directly to a weakening of the Word of God in worship.
Visual images can aid an oral presentation, but there are more bad examples than successful ones. Yet, the balance of image and word can be found in this digital age and be part of a central style. Church congregations need not choose between a traditional style and a contemporary style. Contemporary worship can easily incorporate traditional songs and imagery of the faith in balance. By allowing the rich legacy of the church to become part of the present, new generations of Christians can make these traditions their own in a new and exciting way. Likewise, tradition can embrace the energetic contributions of the present. Tradition brings wisdom and historical connection. New styles bring living vibrancy to the faith. Imagine today’s Christians contributing to the ongoing legacy of worship just as previous generations have done. The old and new can apply the richness of the word, through the lyrics and the sermon, into an arena where the digital age compliments the word rather than dominating. Likewise the word should inspire the digital media. As long as the Word of God is central to the worship experience, whether orally, musically, or visually, what is presented to God will be pleasing to him. In the end, this balance will only cause his children to bring the glory he so rightly deserves.