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Traditional Worship in a Digitally Dependent World?: Part 2

by Lauren Smelser White Last month I wrote a blog post reflecting on why it might be that many 20- and 30-somethings could be turned off by “hip” worship. I proposed that one likely reason is because this group experiences the uprootedness of our consumerist culture in a heightened manner due to our intense dependence upon digital media. Thus, rather than glossy worship services that simply further our experience of being constantly plugged in and marketed to, it’s not surprising that what we’d crave in our corporate gatherings is a recovered sense of rootedness: participating in distinctive ways of life built up over time with certain people in a certain place. Those ways of life may be more or less named as “tradition,” which designates the creative, performative manners in which people have learned to think and behave together. These ways have stood the test of time, drawing communities together, which is why we need really good reasons to discard traditions; when we toss them aside, we leave behind our rootedness, ages of fine-tuning what we’ve built together.

In this post, “Part 2” of my reflections on the topic, I will explain a bit of what I don’t mean when I recommend preserving traditions. I do so for two reasons: (1) because the value of tradition mustn’t become or be mistaken for a smothering traditionalism, and (2) because I think it would be a mistake to go the traditional route simply as a new tactic for increasing church attendance.

For starters, let’s tackle point one: healthy rootedness in religious communities won’t happen unless our shared life is fertilized by tradition, not traditionalism. We must differentiate between the two. And it would be hard to do so better than Eastern Orthodox theologian Jaroslav Pelikan does: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead,” he says, “traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”[1]

Pelikan unpacks this statement, going on in the same passage to describe tradition as “a received body of wisdom” while traditionalism is the imposition of “an authoritarian past.” Tradition is an ongoing conversation with the insight of those who’ve gone before us; it’s open to scientific discovery and artistic creativity. The openness of tradition allows for those pivotal moments when we religious types realize that the ways we’ve been accustomed to thinking or behaving does not reflect Christ’s earthly mission. Conversely, traditionalism shuts down conversations, foreclosing the possibility of innovation, always in the name of preserving “sound” practice and teaching.[2] Traditionalism is all about keeping things the way they are, simply because it’s what most folks—particularly the ones in charge—are used to.

Scripture provides a helpful example of the difference between tradition and traditionalism. In 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, Paul reprimands the wealthy Corinthian Christians for celebrating the Lord’s Supper according to their societal tradition, which meant that they were partaking in a longer-lasting meal from which the poorer members of the congregation were excluded. Rebuking them, Paul mandates that they should celebrate the ritual in a manner befitting what Christ has done for the church; else the meal they eat is not really the Lord’s Supper: “[D]o you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” he asks. “What should I say to you?…In this matter I do not commend you!” (v. 22, NRSV).

In this context, adherents of traditionalism would resist change, no doubt in the name of “valuing tradition.” But an authentic, living tradition allows for the needed reform to be incorporated into the practice of the Lord’s Supper so that the church’s corporate life may better reflect the character of Christ without setting aside the valuable tradition altogether. From this basic example, we can see how the value of tradition should neither become nor be mistaken for a stifling traditionalism.

Assuming that we aim to reject the oppression of traditionalism while valuing the wisdom of tradition, let’s consider point 2, beginning with the question: Why shouldn’t Christians adapt to modern society by adjusting old worship practices to closely mirror pop culture? One can see why ministers would wonder if this is how the church could be invitational to 20- and 30-somethings in our time and place—a population that is leaving the church in droves, by all accounts. In the face of that exodus, church leaders don’t want to be guilty of traditionalism. “If this change is what it takes to get un-churched people in the pews,” they think, “then, by golly, shouldn’t we get rid of the shape note and get with the big screens?”

Rachel Held Evans builds a strong case that this tactic will ultimately fail because what Millennials really crave isn’t a cool vibe; it’s theological vibrancy—and that generally includes “keeping worship weird.”[3] As evidenced by my reflections on rootedness, I agree with her; and I would specify that a congregation’s theological dynamism includes not only its teaching and everyday ethics but also its traditional forms of worship. It seems that many a well-meaning church leader has presumed that signs of tradition and theological vibrancy are mutually exclusive. They’ve based this assumption on two beliefs: that increasing church attendance is pivotal to Christian mission, and that “updating” worship will get more folks in the church building.

This leads to my closing point, which I offer as a caveat to Held Evans’s sensible suggestion that if those well-meaning church leaders really want Millennials “back in the pews,” they should “stop trying to make church ‘cool.’”[4] ~ Recognizing traditional practices’ contribution to theological vigor is highly important, as is also realizing that it could be a turn-off to revamp those practices for the purpose of attracting young folks to church. But this is where it gets tricky: I think it would be a mistake to assume that embracing our traditional worship forms will definitely achieve the desired effect of drawing in Millennials, or anyone else dropping out of church for that matter.

We need to come to terms with the fact that Western culture is becoming more and more secular—that is, it’s more convenient for us to believe that God doesn’t exist and religion doesn’t matter than ever before. I think philosopher Dany-Robert Dufour is right that the proto-typical person in our consumerist society is currently characterized by a schizoid nature, one that is “open to all kinds of fluctuating identities and…therefore ready to be plugged into every commodity.”[5] It’s really easy for us schizoids to prefer all the pretty new stuff that will “make us happy” above any other deity.

While I believe that “seeking the lost” is vital to Christian mission, I think it would be misguided to assume that church attendance is the first sign that we are doing that seeking, particularly in this social context. After all, aren’t we inviting people to join us with the pronouncement that real life only comes by taking up the cross of discipleship? It’s hard to believe that such an invitation will ever appeal to masses of people as accustomed to pursuing (and achieving) luxury as our culture is. Oftentimes I’ve thought it may not be such a bad thing for our congregations to thin out a bit…at least in a secular culture people are comfortable being honest about their unbelief rather than coming out of a sense of obligation. Meanwhile, we should expect that those who drift in because we’ve met their personal preferences will just as likely drift out due to personal preferences.

Rather than appealing to people’s tastes and wants, we should be appealing to Millennials, Gen X-ers, Baby Boomers—everyone—based the baptismal promise of Christoform life, death, and resurrection. We can be certain those who have come to the bottom of their entertainment barrels will realize that they’re ready for something real, even (and perhaps precisely) at the cost of their comfort. Those are the people who will stick it out with us, who will contribute to our communal life and theological vibrancy. Those are the ones most likely to be attracted to a weird group of people who’ve put down roots at the foot of a cross and the door of an empty tomb.

1. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities (Yale University Press, 1984) 65.

2. Pelikan, 66–67.

3. In “Part 1” of these two posts, I look to Rachel Held Evans’s piece on Millennials and worship as my prompt for reflection. Her piece can be found here.

4. See the title of Held Evans’s piece.

5. Dany-Robert Dufour, The Art of Shrinking Heads: On the New Servitude of the Liberated in the Age of Total Capitalism, trans. David Macey (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2008), 11–12. For another example, see J.B. Metz, Faith in History and Society, chapters 1–4.

Lauren Smelser White is a Ph.D. student in Theological Studies at Vanderbilt University. Her doctoral work in Christian theology focuses on human participation in the trinitarian event of revelation. Lauren is a fellow in the Program for Theology and Practice, which seeks to form scholars who connect their academic work to the practice of ministry and will be outstanding teachers of people preparing for ministry.

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