Bucking a Traditional Divide

I started reflecting on my experience of being a first-time visitor to churches.  In the process, I identified a criticism of mine: the inarticulate usage of the words “modern” and “traditional” to distinguish the rock band with lead singer from the piano accompaniment and choir.

We’re shopping for churches.

Sara and I are church shopping again. I do not know what else to call it because I think that is a candid characterization of what it is. In the same way we looked for a place to live (this apartment), we are looking for a church home (four walls and a compatible collective of believers).

I start with a Google search or maps query.  A couple of denominations are in play, like Episcopal/Anglican, Catholic, and maybe a nondenominational church.

Growing in our faith together for the past nine years, we affirmed the Episcopal Church for its roots in the Protestant tradition with a hierarchical church structure. We skewed Catholic because of some very influential friends of ours, because of the Mother Church’s strong foundations, and because of a charismatic priest shepherding his flock in Roswell. Also, Sara’s dad’s family is Catholic. Nondenominational? Well, it’s a little more complicated, but we’ve listened to our share of teaching and preaching by those without denomination, Sara was a youth pastor at a nondenominational church, and that style of church is comfortable to both of us who grew up in Baptist churches.

So far we have visited two Episcopal churches, each with its unique flavor: one vibrant in the youth of its priest and the other warm like a favorite, well-worn sweater. We also visited a nondenominational church (Sara happens to know the pastor from her church camp rec team days) that is part of the Acts 29 network. That is a familiar-sounding name by virtue of Matt Chandler and The Village Church, but, until I looked it up, I had no idea what they are about. They are about planting churches (“church-planting churches”, as they call them), which means they are always looking for opportunities to grow outside their own congregations. As soon as one church plant reaches critical mass, perhaps before then, that church plant is charged with planting another church.

There’s something irksome about the message behind a “traditional” and a “modern” divide in services.

One thing that irked me the other morning when I was surveying the Google search results (two different Catholic parishes and an Anglican church) to zero in on our destination is the false dichotomy of “traditional” service and “modern” or “contemporary” service. I note briefly that this traditional/modern divide is rather purposefully pronounced in the Episcopal Church as Rite I (old, quasi-Elizabethan wording) and Rite II (a “contemporary” theological effort with updated wording aimed at an Early Christian Church approach to worship). 

However, when I think of this differentiation, I think exclusively of the music. In the Baptist tradition, “traditional” means hymns with a choir and piano or orchestra and “contemporary” means a band with current refrains, a drum set behind a drum cage, and electric-guitar riffs on old hymns. The unnecessary separation—defining a service based on musical style alone—does not appeal to me. I just want the worship or liturgy to be good—that is, effectual in this way: I want it to guide me to the presence of my Maker.

What goads me: it is an artificial division of people based upon a difference in style. Why should we choose which service to attend based on the style of music we prefer? In speaking for my generation (that remnant that goes to church), the style of church music does not much matter. There is no need to sound counter-cultural for its own sake, nor any need to sound just like everyone else being “modern.” Perhaps Generation X encouraged this divide by updating our modes of worship across mainline Protestant Christendom while the church retained some of its old ways to placate the contingent reluctant to change. 

What really matters in the community of believers is how the instruments of worship unite us.

If the style of music is of little importance, what are we left with then? What matters? The method of worship should be unobtrusive. It should guide the people to that unifying presence, like liturgy is designed to do, and then get out of the way. How is that achieved? If it’s an orchestra, they should play in tune. If it’s a band with lead vocals, two guitars, a bass, and drums, it helps that they practice. If there is unity, consistency, and humility built into the instruments of worship, it will direct us to our object of adoration and then disappear.

So what happened on this particular Sunday morning? Was it traditional or modern? We went to mass filled to the brim with young white families like ours, in addition to older couples, young singles, an abundance of children, with ethnicities and backgrounds as diverse as you can imagine an international city supports. There was congregational hymn singing aided by an orchestra with piano and organ and a choir. I suppose this is “traditional.” What was it in practice, though? A diverse community shedding our differences, embracing the one unifying presence of our Creator, and joining in collective worship.

When the choir of businesspeople, retirees, daughters, daddies, and grandparents sang the refrain to the tune of Old 100th with a chamber orchestra layered over an electric organ on a cool, wet Sunday morning in The Woodlands, Texas, I connected with my old experiences of going to church at home, in Dallas, in Waco, and in Roswell, New Mexico. As I sang, I was rooted in a time and place that was the most present I can be, the most reflective I can be, and the most hopeful I can be. And, I was doing this with hundreds of supposed strangers who are actually my brothers and sisters in faith.

We drew near, which is traditional and modern.