One concern I have about my thinking about what kind of community I envison to church to be is that I may just be asking for the church to conform to my own cultral and aesthetic sensibilities, rather than to whatever ones they currently happen to adhere to.
The focus for this concern is the degree to which Christian worship often feels moribund and listless to me, as though the people in the pews aren't really connected to the experience of worship but rather are simply "going through the motions" for the sake of appearances.
Obviously I am referring to the experience of a white Christian in a predominantly white mainline protestant denomination. Things are quite different if you examine the African American tradition of worship, or the more liturgically rich traditions of Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy, and are different yet again if you turn toward the Quakers.
But within predominantly white protestant circles, the options are few: There is the more traditional protestant worship service with roots going back to the Reformation era, and music often going back at least as far, or there is the evangelical praise service, with more informal liturgy and contemporary music.
While there is part of me that appreciates and honors the traditional reformed style worship service, and recognizes the enduring value of traditional hymnody, I can't help but notice how little impact it seems to make in most churches. It doesn't seem to speak to the lived spiritual experience of the congregation, and that's of concern to me.
On the other hand, the "contemporary praise and worship" model is absolutely repugnant to me. The problem isn't so much that I disagree with the theology that underlies it (which I often do), but that it strikes me as being culturally and aesthethically shallow, with prayer that seldom reaches to the depths of human experience and genuinely horrible music. This aesthetic vulgarity actually often seem to extend to the entirety of the evangelical worship experience, whether it is the church buildings that are actually stadiums or re-pourposed warehouses, with enormous parking lots and Starbucks coffee for sale in the narthex, or the kind of kitchy artistic sensibility that views Thomas Kincade as being an artist of note.
I acknowledge that I'm being merciless here, and far more critical of the evangelicals than of the mainline. I suppose this reflects my own background as much as anything else. But any way you slice it, both models are in trouble. And they are in trouble for related reasons: The one refuses to give up traditional models of worship and aesthetic sensibilities while the other is happy to embrace the new, but has no sense of taste, style, or beauty that enables it to discern what is or isn't worthy of adoption for purposes of worship or conveying the meaning of the Christian message.
Having said all of this, I come back to my primary concern: Am I not really just complaining that I have a different cultural and aestheic sensibility than most Christian churches? And if so, why should they change for my sake? So let me cop to the possibility: I may indeed simply be projecting my own sense of taste on what I think is important for the church. That said, I don't think that's the whole of it.
Anyone who's attended a deadeningly dull mainline church service knows that these churches need to change precisely because what they are doing is not in any way spiritually enlivening. On the contrary, these churches are dying a slow death by neglect. On the other hand, many evangelical churches are growing, but they are doing so by appealing to the lowest common denominator of aesthetic sense. This art doesn't challenge or draw us into a deeper understanding of the Christian message or its meaning.
It ought to be possible, in ways that appeal to a wide variety of cultural sensibilities, to construct a Christian cultural aesthetic that can take into account my perhaps eccentric desire to hear the Mountain Goats' music sung as part of worship, and the desire of those who wish to hear more traditional hymns. It ought to be possible find art and music and styles of worship that reflect the best of culture, and not the best of another culture that was meaningful to another time, and not the worst of our contemporary culture.
But there is another dimension to this, that pertains once again to my desire to think of the church as the community of and for outsiders: The degree to which cultural eccentricity can be not only accepted but embraced. Where there is no dress code (either formal or informal), where the pierced and tatooed can be welcomed and embraced, and where those who have no where else to go and no way else to express themselves spiritually can find a home and feel that they belong. I am still feeling my way toward what this might mean, and it pertains a great deal to what I hope to discuss in my next post, namely the nature of the church as a particular, and peculiar, community.