Which wins out: “Some things should never change” or “Adapt or die”?
Every week, while leading a historic liturgical service, I feel the judgment of the world against what we are doing. It is surely just my own insecurities; and yet, I feel like I see it on visitor’s faces. Visitors are utterly confused about both the order of the service and the strangeness of it all, given the weird clothing that the worship leaders are wearing, the lighting of candles, and the employment of an organ, something they may have never even heard before.
I know that since “contemporary” worship has become the norm – deviate from it at your own peril! – liturgical worship that does not bend the knee to emotion and all things “pop” is increasingly out of step with, well, everything that surrounds it. So I am at times tempted to just scrap the vestments, the organ, the hymnal, the paraments…anything that would be a barrier to worshipping God given the aesthetics and philosophy of Millennials.
But there are many reasons I don’t, or really can’t, do that. One is the very basic reason that I would alienate those who have already rejected contemporary worship for liturgical worship. They are convinced that this is a particular reverence and a reality of timelessness that comes with maintaining traditional forms of worship. So losing an existing base, a base that knows how hard it is to find such traditional forms, would be foolish.
I also know that, personally, I would feel like a fraud. As one who is convinced that pulling emotions from people using tried-and-true techniques is nothing less than emotional manipulation, I would honestly far prefer to get a part-time job to support my ministry habit before I led a contemporary service.
The liturgy hasn’t done anything wrong. So why should it be punished?
But a maxim that strikes me as true is, “some things should never change.” I mean, that is true, right? There are some things, some rituals, some ways of life that should never change, no matter what changes around them…right? In fact, in many ways, “old” things are highly prized. People want to buy old houses. Newly-designed pubs and coffee houses all look old: distressed wooden tables, bench seating, even lightbulbs that look like they just left Edison’s factory. People pay good money to fly around the world to experience old customs or to sit among their ruins. “Old” recipes have special value. Vinyl records are selling out among audiophiles…because we all know digital sound just isn’t true.
God himself instituted worship practices that did not change for centuries. (See Exodus and Leviticus.) So surely, as a premise, it cannot be denied that worship of God need not change. After all, we do not fundamentally change, and God doesn’t either. So why should our worship of Him? If liturgical worship is rooted in God’s Word, if the sacraments that Jesus instituted remain front and center, and if the words said continue to speak truth, what is the substantial, defensible reason to change? I just can’t think of one. The liturgy hasn’t done anything wrong. So why should it be punished?
Of course, the answers are many and they are perhaps rooted another maxim: “Adapt or die.” The American economy is a remarkable testament to the power of the ever-changing market. Its complexities and nuances cannot be apprehended by even the most pointy-headed of academics. Businesses, in an effort to sell products or services, adapt to every slight change in the market. They must! For if they do not adapt, their competition will, and they will lose their advantage.
On the whole, the evidence is in and not even contemporary worship can salvage the poor worship habits, low level of theological knowledge, or weak commitment to the scriptures of rich, distracted, and bored Americans.
Well, it isn’t hard to imagine that when we all get accustomed to constant change and custom-tailoring, something staying the same not only feels stale; it must be positively dead. A cursory look at the contemporary Christian scene will demonstrate that once a congregation goes the route of adapting to stay alive, they are on the train that never stops. Do you remember “contemporary” Christian music in the 1990s? Yeah, it looks nothing like Hillsong. The same ol’, same ol’ won’t cut it, even when you have taken the leap of adding the screens, trap set, electric guitars and flannel. No, you need to adapt or die.
And die many have, and many more will. On the whole, the evidence is in and not even contemporary worship can salvage the poor worship habits, low level of theological knowledge, or weak commitment to the scriptures of rich, distracted, and bored Americans. So while shiny contemporary services are peeling off members from already starving congregations, those churches themselves will have to adapt or die, since innovation is the promise they have made to their members.
So I’m stuck between these two maxims. This is the weekly debate I hold between my ears. Which one will give way to the other? I can’t speak for anyone else, but it seems to me that the first maxim remains true and worthy of defending. Adaptation in the marketplace is amazing. But God’s Kingdom and life within the Church doesn’t have to play by those rules. Shame on our culture for demanding that it do exactly that. Worship of God is certainly in the category of “things that should never change.”