Worshipping God in a Woodstock World

Changing the Culture of Protestant Worship: Third in a Series

In the summer of 1969, 400,000 music lovers created “the most celebrated rock festival of all time. Despite food shortages, overflowing port-a-potties and torrential rain,” writes Susan Donaldson James, “Woodstock became a symbol for an entire generation—peace, love, beads and a lot of good music and drugs.”

Most of the Woodstock generation are now “old geezers,” surrounded by children and grandchildren. Some of the extravagances of the festival have gone away, but the attitudes, mood, values, and patterns of that life remain in place.

The question for leaders of classic Protestant churches is this: How can churches with the religious DNA that make us what we are adapt to the Woodstock world in which we live?

Two years prior to the festival, sociologist Thomas Luckmann published The Invisible Religion: The Problem of Religion in Modern Society, a book which explores the deeper transformation that the festival portrayed. The religious process, Luckmann proposes, is essential to human life. It leads to “the individuation of consciousness and permits the construction of interpretive schemes, ultimately, of systems of meaning.” The religious process leads to the forming of a workable worldview, which includes elements of life and death that seem describable only by referring to a sacred domain with appropriate rituals, meaning-laden stories, and rites of passage.

In most societies, the religious process is entrusted to institutions, such as churches, that embody the society’s central values and meanings. When Luckmann published this book, sociologists of religion were documenting the rapid decline of churches in Europe and America and concluding that religion was disappearing.

Not so, says Luckmann. Instead, religion was taking a new social form in which the sacred cosmos is “directly accessible to potential consumers.”

Rather than being “mediated by primary public institutions,” the religious process is mediated in the private sphere, and through secondary institutions like syndicated advice columns, inspirational literature, and the lyrics of popular songs. “The manufacture, the packaging and the sale of models of ‘ultimate’ significance are, therefore, determined by consumer preference, and the manufacturer must remain sensitive to the needs and requirements of ‘autonomous’ individuals and their existence in the ‘private sphere.’”

Woodstock, according to this way of thinking, was a religious revival in the making, an event that in the twentieth century demonstrated some of the same powers and passions that the Cane Ridge Revival had manifested one hundred fifty years earlier.

The year following Woodstock, the celebrated anthropologist Margaret Mead published Culture and Commitment: A Study of the Generation Gap in which she described a radical change that was taking place around the world in every kind of human society from the most primitive to the most advanced. Suddenly people everywhere had become immigrants into a world that was dramatically different from those that any of them had previously known. As is the case in every immigrant generation, Mead concludes, the young must teach the old. She describes three relationships between the generations.

Postfigurative cultures, well-known forebears: children learn the meaning, patterns, and values of life from parents and grandparents. They know how the world will turn out. This is how most societies have operated most of the time.

Cofigurative cultures and familiar peers: instead of one’s elders, one’s contemporaries shape values, patterns, and meanings. In immigrant societies, children learn from other children and the parents of those children rather than from their own parents. Adults today (or so it was when Mead wrote this book) could tell their children that they had been young once and the children had never been old, but the children could say that these parents had never been young in the world they were living in. The parental generation knew only a few of the skills that would be needed in the new world that is dawning.

Prefigurative cultures and unknown children: We live in a new world community. People have lost their faith in religion, political ideology, and science and as a result are deprived of every kind of security. Youth are noncompliant, because the old rules seem nonsensical and unproductive. All are aware of the sense that there is no place where “they can learn what the next steps should be.” In this new culture, Mead declares, ‘it will be the child—and not the parent and grandparent that represents what is to come.”

Our hope, says Mead, is to build prefigurative cultures in which “the past is instrumental rather than coercive.” By being sensitive to the religious dimensions of the Woodstock World, these churches with the old DNA can learn to thrive again.

Together, the older and newer generations can generate a new future—and this can happen in our churches. “We must place the future,” says Mead, “like the unborn child in the womb of a woman, within a community of men, women, and children” where it can be nourished and succored and protected.

This kind of community is what classic Protestant churches can aspire to be.

One Response to Worshipping God in a Woodstock World

  1. Bob Cornwall says:

    And a child shall lead them! Will we listen?

    Woodstock — as a new Great Awakening. Interesting!

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