I admit that I am a self-confessed church hopper. I wear this badge of life-long spiritual seeking with both courage and regret. When something becomes stale, when the community looks too comfortable for its own good, I eventually resume my nomadic journey, taking in tow my family, which at times meets with more resistance from my wife than others, depending on the situation, until we find firmer ground on which to pitch our tent posts.
Though raised as a Roman Catholic, in the past thirty years, I have darkened the doorsteps of Lutheran, Pentecostal, Stone-Campbell Christian Churches, Baptist, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Episcopalian, and various non-denominational churches. In the course of my nomadic journeys, I rarely stay long enough to claim membership, but on occasion, where some balance can be struck, I have taken the time to spend a handful of years in one place, that is, until I find something wrong and resume planning my next destination. Yet currently, I have not been a regular church attendee for over six months.
One thing that has remained consistent in most of my evangelical church experiences is the institution of contemporary worship as one of, if not the most, dominating feature of the service. The contemporary worship service is highlighted by adult musicians exercising their talents in what has to be described as jam sessions for Jesus. String instruments are accompanied with percussion, while a song leader draws in and directs the emotional energy of the congregants.
Solos are often performed, and original music by the music team is performed at the expense of a dumbfounded congregation who at times must solemnly stand and listen to the new song or the saxophone soloist croon while the collection plate makes its rounds. Clapping is almost always a part of the service, though attitudes about the subject of this applause vary. The sounds can be described as rock blended with folk music, which, while some like myself might complain is often hopelessly folksy and generationally foreign, at the time when it was first introduced was a radical component of the counterculture from which it arose.
The entire model owes much of its existence to the Jesus Movement in the 1970s in which bands of hippies and surfers from the West Coast began to recreate their identities in Jesus and sought to personalize that experience in their own grassroots form of rebellion. Taking what they knew from the political protests of the day against the war in Vietnam and social equalities, they turned their ability to organize into an assault on the traditional worship structure of the church, offering a more dynamic approach interwoven with secular musical influence, all in the name of Jesus.
The musical influence on the hippie movement was already a well-known platform of protest, so it was only natural that music would also lead the charge into the church. In essence, the liberal counterculture made the conservative evangelical worship service what it is today.
But music alone was not the only contribution. In the early 80s, the charismatic roots of this movement penetrated some of the most unlikely of places. At my home church, Saint Pius X Parish in Baltimore, MD, I vividly recall my mother meeting with a group of women under the auspices of CHRP (Christ Renews His Parish) to take part in regular Bible studies. Emphasis was given to the work of the Holy Spirit, and the secret syncretism of these sessions was generally held off-site and away from the prying eyes of parish priests. The studies often ended in prayer circles that involved the spontaneous eruption of the charismatic doctrine of speaking in tongues.
Aging congregations suffering from membership attrition were some of the early benefactors of the Jesus Movement. Those in the movement looking to organize, and churches in dire straits were willing to listen or face oblivion. Don Finto’s experiment at Belmont Avenue Church of Christ was among the most famous, as he turned a church struggling for self-identity into a successful model of praise and worship, increasing membership in high volume.
If there is any doubt about the way in which the evidence may point to the reception of contemporary worship, one statistic offered by the Barna Group in 2008 states that of the 8% of the population claiming to be evangelical Christians, almost 49% claim to be charismatic, and nearly half of all adults in Protestant churches (46%) are charismatic.
But the phenomenon, as noted earlier, is not an entirely Protestant endeavor. Nativity, a Roman Catholic congregation in suburban Baltimore, serves as an example of the continued infiltration of an evangelical form of worship. Like many traditional churches, membership concerns--the practical measure of a church’s health--was a hot topic only a few decades ago. After an extended Sabbatical in which the senior pastor made friendly with mega church superstar Rick Warren, the result returned to the congregation was a new form of the Roman Catholic Mass injected with contemporary treatments.
Music went from droning pipe organs to strumming guitar strings. And while there are certainly elements of the Catholic mass that remain part of the worship experience, the hip and sexy new look and feel have created a fusion that offers a fresh feel to a new wave of young Catholics looking to reconnect with a God they may have abandoned during their teenage and college years.
This is not to say that contemporary worship forms have been received with open arms. Complaints vary, but among some of the more critical deal with the almost disproportionate to equal emphasis on music as opposed to the sermon. The repetitive creedal formulas remembered by older church goers have been replaced by repetitive themes of love and forgiveness arranged in superficial presentations of music. Theological, creedal, and even denominational specificity have become the most pronounced victims. And some pastors seem to have worked hard to avoid talking about doctrine in an effort to create a non-threatening environment to fill their pews and chairs.
One pastor who headed a church I used to attend asserted how he looked forward to the day when he could remove the word “Baptist” from the church’s marquee outside, since the title itself often called to mind so many negative images in popular culture. The problem of course was those older members who were in no position to budge.
While it is not scientific the way in which the worship model contributes to the overall presentation of the service (at least at Nativity, the Mass is still very much the Roman Catholic Mass), the continued modernization of many brands of Christianity has made it extremely difficult to make identifications based upon historical points of doctrine that have separated the denominations and given them their unique expression. Peruse the web for “what we believe” statements and it seems that churches are simply avoiding talking about doctrine altogether. In the ten years I spent between three different denominations, I can only note one single sermon on doctrine dedicated to millennialism, and even then it was cautiously presented as an historical overview.
The founder of McDonald’s, Ray Crock, wanted to create a hamburger experience for the consumer that would always be consistent whether she found herself in Anchorage, Alaska or Bangor, Maine. We are experiencing the consumerism of the church on a scale we’ve never seen before. While this all may be about head counts, tithe offerings, and saving jobs, I am cautiously optimistic that we may be heading towards a paradigm shift that not even the churches fully understand.
The non-threatening environments are not only presented in the coin of contemporary music but in most churches are reactions to the heavy-handed preaching that used to split congregations and denominations down the middle, and indeed still do. The free range of social intercourse going from a Baptist congregation where a patriarchal model still exists and a believer’s baptism is taught to a Presbyterian congregation where a woman celebrates the service and infant baptism remains integral is all eclipsed by the communal experience of the contemporary worship service where the songs being sung in one church are heard in another and then heard once again on the Christian radio station on the drive home. This familiarity has actually done more for the breaking down of barriers than what keeps them standing. It is an unconscious move to uniformity.
One thing has been true. As my family and I have moved from church to church, that non-threatening environment, the McDonald’s awareness of knowing just what’s on the menu when we step through the doors, hear the first strum of a guitar, and see a familiar name come up on the projection screen have kept us from running too soon. It helped us to stick around, humanize the individuals around us, and even build relationships that we’ve taken with us.
Whether we know it or not, I feel like all of us are being primed for the next big paradigm shift. Whether this looks like churches where different denominations can gather together rather than simply rent out space one to another, or whether this will spread beyond Christian walls, the subcurrents pushing through are increasing growing in a positive direction. And as we sometimes hear about friends leaving churches we’ve left and inquire into the reasons, much of the time, the issues brought up are not at the center of a propositional debate on the merit of free will versus predestination, but how much Christian love are we seeing working in the midst of those places. And while this love may be articulated differently, it is a love that expresses humanity at its core.
Despite this, I am not sure that respect for doctrinal, creedal, and dogmatic differences is what is at stake here since most people no longer care for doctrinal propriety as a badge of faith except the people in the interfaith movement. Yet, I would argue that the journey is beginning for many without their consent or knowledge.
Moving into new territory, and perhaps for the first time, many in their traditional expressions of the Christian faith are beginning to see humanity expressed through Christianity, rather than Christianity as a particular human response, the latter of which bears on the historical point of a particular revelation of God filtering into humanity. To understand this appropriately, we must say that Christianity expresses humanity, not in a way that supposes a claim to superiority, but rather that the fundamental expression of life is a religious one. We must be willing to proclaim that divinity meets me here, rather than how I am met. The familiarity we share in common through symbols, signs, and worship practices are only reminders of that humanity, a shared existential horizon that meets us in the moment where our common humanity is no longer common but uniquely gifted to the community in which it operates.
Could it be that many outside the interfaith movement are learning some of the most elementary steps in ecumenism that make possible a wider dialogue and ingress into interfaith? It is worth considering. It is worth considering when a presidential candidate who was scorned for his faith just four years ago was a frontrunner among his previous evangelical opposition in this past election. It is worth considering when lacking congregation numbers help me to consider a new format of worship borne in a counterculture movement I would have considered heretical just fifty years ago.
Community is created in many ways, and in many ways, it is birth in opposition. Perhaps in some paradoxical way, the theological language of miracles is not about supernatural phenomena but about carving out paths through the very thing that seems to oppose them.
Photo by Tim Wilson, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Trey Palmisano was a 2012 participant in the State of Formation National Seminar on Narrative & Interreligious Cooperation. He holds a B.S. in English with a concentration in Writing from Towson University and an M.A. in Theology with a concentration in Systematic Theology from the Ecumenical Institute of Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore, MD. He received the Dean’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Theological Studies in 2012. His M.A. thesis work defended a methodological approach in the ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer with particular attention to the concepts of peace and violence. He is a member of the International Dietrich Bonhoeffer Society, the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, and the Evangelical Theological Society. A writer by trade, his work has appeared in such diverse publications as the Anglican Theological Review, Sojourners, The Baltimore Sun, and he served for a period of time as a faith columnist for the Baltimore Examiner. His past experience as an educator includes Carver Center for the Arts & Technology, a secondary education magnet school in Towson, MD, where he taught poetics and world literature, and Towson University, where he worked as an adjunct professor of English. He has worked as a curriculum developer creating original lessons and testing material for major educational publishers. He currently works as a process and procedures analyst in the Baltimore-Washington area. Trey is currently pursuing a second M.A. in Jewish Studies at Towson University, and his forthcoming book based on his thesis work is scheduled to be published through Wipf & Stock in 2013.