Adaptability in Worship: Learning from an Ancient Sun-Belt City

An Ancient Solution to a Modern Conundrum

 The population of American cities is undergoing a remarkable change. The 2000 census made this clear when it reported that non-Hispanic whites are now a minority of the total population living in the 100 largest American cities. This change in complexion, says Eric Schmitt of The New York Times, is “fueling a renaissance in some urban centers and forcing civic leaders to confront wrenching decisions on how to cope with a new and fast-changing citizenry.” Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution declares that this change “has enormous implications for cities’ fiscal strength, economic vitality and political influence.”[1] Similar changes are taking place in smaller communities, too.

Travel across the southern tier of our country—from San Diego to Florida—and the language you will ordinarily hear in fast food restaurants and convenience groceries is Spanish rather than English until you reach East Texas, and there the accent is so southern that many travelers will find it difficult to comprehend what people are saying.

The dramatic character of these changes in color and language momentarily diverts attention from another complicating factor in American life: the emergence of a mainstream culture that combines several qualities based on the protest movements of the middle decades of the twentieth century. Although it had been developing strength for some decades, this revolt against tradition exploded during the 1950s and 1960s and has been consolidating its gains for nearly half a century.[2]

As one cadre of youth mature, their distinctive culture mellows, and another cadre of younger people with strange ideas and music pushes forward, which keeps the pot of mainstream culture bubbling. While tensions concerning music and art are often experienced as generational, with young people rebelling against the taste and standards of their parents, the challenge is more than generational, for the very definition of what is good, beautiful, and worthwhile is changing

These two changes have impacted mainline protestant churches, long rooted in the mainstream culture of the United States. Our thought patterns, musical styles, and social mores were unified, and schools, government, and other social institutions supported these qualities. Even though we differed in the detail of our churchly life, the mainline churches were all variations of the one dominant culture. On Sunday morning our worship used elements from this culture to praise God and build up the faith of the faithful.

In the 1960s and 1970s, mainline churches were jolted by the Woodstock generation, but recovered their balance by establishing a second mode of worship—one using soft folk music and liturgical styles that were more intimate and individualistic than those that prevailed in standard protestant worship. Here and there, a few mainline churches continue to flourish on the basis of these traditional patterns of worship.

The more common condition, however, is that the culture has moved on while the churches have remained unchanged, with diminishing and aging memberships the result. We now are facing two challenges. Many congregations are finding that their long-time effort to maintain two styles of worship within one congregation is no longer useful.

Furthermore, we are discovering that both kinds of worship—what we have called traditional and contemporary—are failing to reach the unchurched people of our communities. The culture that once was dominant is being pushed aside, and a new culture that combines the youth culture of rebellion and the exotic cultures of minorities is becoming the norm.

What are we to do? My proposal is that we start by examining a case study:  cultural conflict and liturgical change in Corinth, an ancient community much like the sun-belt cities of contemporary America. Perhaps the troubles of this church early in Christian history can help us find a way to deal with the troubles that we experience today as American culture is changing the rules for how we plan and conduct our worship.

To read the entire essay, click Adaptability in Worship.

[1] Eric Schmitt, The New York Times, April 30, 2001, A1, 17.

[2] David Halberstam, The Fifties (New York: Random House, 1993).

One Response to Adaptability in Worship: Learning from an Ancient Sun-Belt City

  1. Marvin Eckfeldt says:

    Thanks Keith. A paper that deserves reading and discussing by our clergy groups. You have identified some significant issues that make up our current situation and challenge.

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