There and Back Again…A Pastor’s story

Chapter VI: Out of the Frying Pan – Into the Fire

I think I have fallen into a rut with the blog thing. I’ve often written what I’ve written with an eye for who might read it, writing more for the benefit of another than for myself. That’s my analysis anyway. This entry’s for me.

Anyone who knows me knows that I frankly can’t stand the contemporary praise and worship phenomenon. I have done my very best to keep an open mind about it—truly. I’ve had a stock answer for at least the last thirteen years: if style is limited to style and does not drive substance, I can accept contemporary worship. And truly, if I ever have the opportunity to see such a service, I will celebrate. I have yet to see it, and I’m honestly not holding my breath.

I don’t want to go into too many specifics, because I don’t feel like smearing anyone. I know the situation, but because I am indeed choosing to post this on my blog I will simply say here that I am an associate pastor in a very liberal context. You want proof? I’m currently in Lake Forest, CA. At a conference. The venue is Saddleback. It was determined by others that I should attend, so I’m here. My thoughts about it have certainly been mixed. I’ve gone from, “Why should I agree to this? Why take this money out of our budget to fund Purpose Driven ™ anything? Why simply enter a context that may only anger me?” to, “I can’t tell whether I’m entering the belly of the beast or taking a break from it,” to, “It will be sort of interesting to learn the other side firsthand. Perhaps this may give me some insights that I might more effectively answer these distracting teachings.”

Whatever actually comes of it, it’s certainly been interesting. My first and second observations have been unrelated to theology.

Observation one: this is a compound; a campus. This place is larger than many college campuses—and they’re apparently building. And honestly, more power to them. To be fair, they’ve got a huge income, a huge budget, and a huge operation. There are simply a lot of people working together on a lot of things, and that requires a lot of space. But this place is absolutely amazingly furnished. It’s a slick operation.

Turning onto the campus there is a simple sign on an ordinary office building proclaiming it to be Saddleback Church. You might miss it if you weren’t looking for it. The screens in the main worship center (as it’s named) rival those of a Jumbotron. Like I said, it’s a slick operation.

Non-theological observation two: there is an intentionally sociological agenda going on here. I don’t intend for that to carry judgment. It’s a valueless observation. They’ve got volunteers spread throughout the campus to greet and direct (a necessary function). You cannot enter the aforementioned worship center without being officially greeted by at least four persons (two of these, for me anyway, were the old ‘pull-you-inside’ handshake, more a people moving tool than a greeting on some level). The point, I’m sure, is to make you feel like the most important person in the room. This is a key aspect to it. The Purpose Driven ™ Life begins, “It’s not about you.” Yet just a couple pages later it reads, “It’s about becoming what God created you to be.” And I realize that Warren is trying to say that it’s not about you but about God’s purposes for your life, but just how many yous (and yours) can I use and still have it not be about, well, the first person you? (“You discover your identity and purpose through a relationship with Jesus Christ. If you don’t have such a relationship, I will later explain how to begin one…. God was thinking of you long before you ever thought about him. His purpose for your life predates your conception. He planned it before you existed, without your input! You may choose your career, your spouse, your hobbies, and many other parts of your life, but you don’t get to choose your purpose…. The purpose of your life fits into a much larger, cosmic purpose that God has designed for eternity. That’s what this book is about.” And then a whole chapter about how “you are not an accident.” (Italics are the author’s; bolds are mine))

The rest of the observations are indeed theological, and inspired by—but certainly not exclusive to—being in this place. It may become clear in a moment. It may not.

I enjoyed one piece of the music. I’m a sucker for a drum line. There were some kids who couldn’t have been in high school yet that performed a phenomenal percussion piece with ordinary household items—a la Stomp. That was cool.

Then the band came out and performed and also led some singing. And yes, it was the expected praise and worship music (prior to a revision this read “traditional praise and worship music,” but I thought it a mite confusing). And as expected, “I” was the subject of the majority of the verbs. There was a pressure to be more active as the band played. I hope it wasn’t too crushing to the guy, but when one asked me why I wasn’t singing and dancing I simply answered, “Because it’s Lent.” I don’t know if he knew what I was talking about or not. It certainly wasn’t the only reason. I was in many ways and for many reasons merely observing. I don’t think I need to go into the description so much at this point. It’s pretty standard stuff.

This is where it got interesting. The presentation was begun with a ministry horror story. The speaker on the video was relating a story about some early days of her husband’s ministry. “We were in a very small, very traditional church…” it began. She told of these horrors and how she just knew that God didn’t intend this to be for them, but that God wanted them to stick it out anyway. I’m relatively certain that I was one of a handful, if not the only person who was offended by that statement. It offended me less than hurt me. I don’t know if I was hurting because of a perceived slight against me or because of the implications it carried. This is still all background. One thing that was helpful to me, though, in that this did constitute something of an honesty about the tolerance for traditional or liturgical worship in these circles: that it’s wrong and not God-pleasing, and in fact might be like unto spiritual abuse or something like it by a different name. That was actually refreshing—not the opinion but the honesty. Perhaps it was due to the safe environment that such ideas could be voiced, because a proponent of traditional liturgical worship wouldn’t be found there, would one?

The speakers actually made some good points, in and around the anthropocentric theology (does this make it anthropology?) that serves as the foundation for the belief structure, as far as I can tell.

There was more music. At one point the chorus we were invited to repeat and repeat was something like, “It’s just you and me now, Lord.” Again, it really is all about you—er, me—you get the idea. I had to stop myself from the chuckle I had when I looked across the room. There were several people moved to raise a hand, palm facing the stage, as they sang these words. My first thought was, “Hey, Bob’s got a question.” Not charitable on my part, I’ll grant.
So this is the part that I’ve been avoiding writing for some time now. Where it gets personal for me. I’m resisting contemporary worship in my place. It’s here, but let’s just say it’s not my bag, baby. Both contemporary and traditional are offered in my place. I’m in charge of the traditional and my senior does the contemporary. There is something of a cold war being waged here over the issue—and I sense that the traditional service will eventually lose. The praise team grows and the service goes more and more over the top. My struggle with this issue is not just here but at home as well.

I was struck by the increasing similarity that the service at home bears to the one here. It saddens me, because there really is no substance. I thought about it for a bit. I wondered just how these musical pieces would go over were there no drums, no bass, no guitars at all—just an organ. Would they still be the beloved songs they are now? Change nothing else, really. Leave the meter, versification, repeats—leave it all. Just accompany it with an organ. Do these pieces retain their status among contemporary Christians? My guess is no, though I’m honestly willing to entertain an argument on this point. I wouldn’t have guessed it to be Lent by the lyrics or music. I wouldn’t have guessed it to be decidedly Christian by some of the lyrics. The context of the worship service was required for several—if not most—of the texts to determine that they had anything to do with the Christian faith. The Gospel had to be imported, or at least taken as understood. And unfortunately this is also the case too many times at home. It really does seem to be just about the style and instrumentation. It makes my heart sick.

I’ve really tried to do contemporary well. I was asked to put together a service that blended traditional and contemporary. I painstakingly arranged several hymns, all CPH resources, most from the 20th century, for guitars/drums/bass/keyboard. It went according to a synodically approved liturgy, but I ramped up the style to meet the stylistic wants of some worshipers. The praise team’s participation was cancelled in a unilateral decision because it wasn’t contemporary enough. And I’ll tell you what, that was like a knife in the back. Here I had the opportunity to blend substance with style and show how it might be, for those who crave such a style, and it got tanked. One person took a dive on the play and my opportunity was taken away. When I learned about that, several weeks after the fact, I was righteously angry. I had a chance to really offer something to the mix, but it didn’t fit with the contemporary agenda.

What else is there to say? Lots. I could talk about how contemporary worship is anti-community. It feels so emotional, sure, but at the end of the day what’s it about? Me ‘n’ Jesus. It’s anti-corporate-body-of-Christ. It’s all focused on the “you” or the “I” and the “me,” as the central figure in the world and as the subject of the majority of the verbs. It’s kind of like stepping into the Total Perspective Vortex into which Zaphod Beeblebrox stepped. That’s not good for anyone.

It’s late. I’ve rambled. So be it. But there were high points today. I slaked the In-N-Out Burger jones I’ve been having lately. That was nice.

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4 Responses to There and Back Again…A Pastor’s story

  1. Joe Fremer says:

    OSC,

    Your post touched my heart. I feel so sad. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be unequally yoked as you are. [Beat.] Well, maybe that was a bit strong. I will renew my prayers for you, that God will show you how you are to be faithful to your call in this situation, as well as faithful to your own conscience–to the convictions that He has led you to.

    We always struggle with our identity. How much of who I am is what God has made me, shaped me through the circumstances of my life? How much is my flesh, rebelling against His will, stubbornly refusing to see His direction? “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” But I know this: there is no use trying to be something other than I am. God can use it, but it is in spite of my fakery, and it feels awful. I yam what I yam, and that’s all I yam–Popeye could have been a pretty good Lutheran pastor. Maybe that’s why I smoke corncob pipes.

    Anyway. I just wanted to you to know that someone is thinking of you. I would be proud to have you on my staff.

  2. Anoki Ha Ish says:

    I agree. It touched me too. Thanks for the critical and sensitive (never thought I’d call you that) reflection, both on the personal toll and professional.

    “The fear of God is something of a stranger in the contemporary house of religious experience with its saccharine love-piety…all of this, Luther says in the proof, follows quite naturally from the previous thesis: “For where there is no fear there is no humility. Where there is no humility there is pride, and where there is pride there are the wrath and judgment of God, for God opposes the haughty. Indeed, if pride would cease there would be no sin anywhere” (Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, 42-43).

    Lent as repentance – humilty – would seem to indicate a concious and intentional attempt to avoid pride. But, whatever, your discourse not mine.

    Peace, brother.

  3. OSC says:

    Thank you both for your comments. It’s a tough animal for me to wrap my arms around. Certainly I’m not seeking to embrace such things. It remains simple and enigmatic to me at once.

    I guess maybe that’s where I get puzzled. Why would an honest and thinking Christian embrace such a theology? How do you wake up and say, “Give the people what they want,” when you know that you’re called to “Give the people what they need”? There’s a lot more brewing here. I don’t necessarily like where it’s taking me.

    On a brighter note, however, I ran into an ELCA youth worker who is dealing with some serious issues, not only in the youth group but in the congregation. She inspired me to outline the Small Catechism for a global/visual thinker. Since I’m not primarily that kind of thinker it’s a little difficult for me. But it’s turning into a bigger project than I’d anticipated–and a rewarding one at that. Maybe it’s my answer to the Purpose Driven (TM) machine.

  4. OSC,

    Good post. You get at the heart of the matter. Thanks for directing me to the link.

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