Monday, July 29, 2013

Is the High Church Less Pretentious? @rachelheldevans

On Saturday, Rachel Held Evans posted a great piece entitled, Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church. I agree with a lot of what she wrote (and her writing in general). The part I want to comment on is her explanation for why so many young people are leaving the low church (the more casual, traditional evangelical style) for the high church traditions (more focused on liturgy and tradition). In the middle of her post, she writes:
Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions  Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.
This is where I disagree. In fact, my experience is that the high church traditions have come across as far more pretentious than those of the low church. Perhaps it's some of the people I've encountered in those churches who look down on anything more casual and spontaneous.

Some argue that liturgy and tradition is quite meaningful, as it makes them feel connected to the many generations who have come before and the congregations worldwide who may be doing the same thing at the same time. This makes sense intellectually, but I have to say I've never had that experience, at least emotionally. (Roger Olson has a great post that includes some comparison and analysis of this.)

Perhaps it's because I'm pretty big into low church tradition in many ways, even theologically. While I haven't gotten to experience it, I love the idea of the completely non-planned and community-driven Friends (Quaker) services. And I can't say I personally have ever been moved by a liturgy. But I've definitely been moved by more casual experiences.

I think where there's a big disconnect for many people of all generations is the scripted nature of evangelicalism. While casual may appear to be spontaneous, many of us know the services Held Evans criticizes are highly scripted, often more so than their liturgical counterparts. And I've heard it said a few times that most churches actually are quite liturgical, if we look at having a routine set of behaviors and schedule for a service.

But some seem more performance-driven than others. Is the purpose of a script/routine/liturgy for practicality, everyone knowing what comes next, or because we all believe this is the right way to do it and will draw more people in, effectively creating an emotional experience (and these are not mutually exclusive options). In my experience, many evangelical churches have moved more and more to the latter, effectively disregarding the potential work of the Holy Spirit to move. And at the same time, I don't think the emotions created by an amazing performance are inauthentic or wrong (concerts and theatrical performances do this all the time, and we're fine with it).

I think too much of a focus on the performance in an area where performance isn't key (the Church) is the problem, though. There becomes this fear of failing to do things properly (another theme in many areas of Christendom). And soon we lose a direct experience of God for performance. I love Renovaré's retreat theme this year: "Changing Performance for God to Experiencing Life with God."

Too much performance in church, and the congregation becomes an audience. That's why I generally like low church traditions: I feel a greater sense of participation. Yet early in grad school, I remember one of my professors sharing her experience in the Episcopal Church. She described how even her small son (around 4 or 5) could participate because of the repetition of the liturgy. That gave me a whole new appreciation and understanding of liturgy and high church traditions.

In my current congregation, I see there being a very nice balance between the low and high church traditions. There's definitely elements of liturgy, but there's also a low church accessibility. People of all ages and backgrounds lead the congregation in some of the liturgical prayers and elements (I don't know how common this is elsewhere). But then there's times when the service feels like a pretty casual, contemporary service. I don't think anyone would ever freak out if something were missed or forgotten one week. I think the key is that there isn't a rigidity to a particular style. In many ways, I see our congregation engaging in this balance because it's worked practically for the congregation. Not because it's so inherently amazing.

Traditional liturgy has a lot of benefits. So does the casualness and apparent spontaneity of stereotypical evangelical churches. But both are just a style and can be used to be highly pretentious. Both can create accessibility, and both can shut people out.

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