Balancing the old with the new is a great challenge for congregations. As church leaders struggle with how to reach the postmodern generation, new and traditional ideas often clash. The tensions are most acutely evident in matters of worship.
“It’s in worship that we most boldly declare that we have a set of values that are not of this world,” says Dr. Terry York, associate professor of Christian ministry and church music at George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. “It is in worship,” he adds, “that we declare the submission of our wills and purpose in life to one sovereign. It is in worship that we find ourselves most obviously subversive to the culture around us. Also, worship has a strong music component, and if people don’t have an opinion on anything else they have an opinion on music, in part because music is so accessible and so much a part of the human emotion and spirit.”
Something New Is Happening
How does a church move forward in a meaningful way so as to maintain relevance while not alienating its long-term members? Is it the church’s job to keep up with culture? Do congregations risk being left behind? In trying to cater to different tastes and styles, does the church risk segregating generations that should be learning from one another? These are just a few of the issues with which many churches are currently struggling as they attempt to reach a generation that is largely unchurched and not particularly committed to Christianity.
York, who is in his 50s, explains that he is an observer of those who wish to minister to postmoderns, the mostly younger generation who by and large reject modernity’s worldview that has “elevated the scientific method to ‘our sacral mode of knowing.’”1
“I’m studying postmodernism because it walks into my classroom every day,” he says. “There are those who refuse to acknowledge that postmodernism is actually happening. Obviously, something new is happening; whether it’s an extension of modernism, I just don’t know.”
Sally Morgenthaler also observes and writes about culture and worship issues. Author of Worship Evangelism (Zondervan, 1995), she is a consultant who tries to help churches bridge the gap between traditional church practice and ministry to postmoderns.
“In the postmodern worldview there is no one story. The world is a totally subjective place, and how you view the world is dependent on your place in the world,” Morgenthaler explains. “Humans are no longer the center, the apex, the measure of all things.” The modern view, by contrast, upholds humans and their ability to reason, study science, explore, and discover logical answers.
“Postmoderns,” Morgenthaler points out, “are very cynical about human beings and the institutions we’ve created. Irony is a major tool in our communication because we don’t have any faith in ourselves.”
Morgenthaler says that those who hold the postmodern view tend to be under 35, but some are older. She believes it’s obvious that ministering to this vastly different group of people requires new tools and approaches. “One of the things many of these young pastors would like to do is to give up the attachment to modernity; give up the way the Bible is dissected and reconfigured into a how-to formula for a ‘successful’ life,’” she says. “These young pastors and leaders would like to put the mystery back into God, keep the art in Scriptures, keep the narrative, and help people respond not just with their left brains.”
One of these young pastors is 29-year-old Chris Seay. Educated at a Baptist college where he studied philosophy and theology, Seay spent a year taking seminary courses but has no plans to return. In 1995, at age 23, he started University Baptist Church with a small group of artists and musicians in Waco. Within weeks, 600 to 700 young people were regularly attending the Sunday service.
A year and a half ago, Seay moved to Houston to begin another church. Ecclesia Church, in downtown Houston, is in an area that Seay estimates is less than 1 percent churched. Seay’s first staff hire was a photographer—a pastor of the visual arts.
Ecclesia’s services are multisensory and take place on Sunday evening. Seay recognizes that Sunday mornings are not the best time for young people. Sunday mornings are for recovering from Saturday nights, running errands, and preparing for a busy week. Also, buying a building in a city is expensive; by holding services later in the day, he can rent from an existing church.
During worship, as Seay teaches and aromatic candles burn, artists may be painting or sculpting while images are projected onto large screens and contemporary music—largely composed by church members—is played. “Visuals and images are worth more than a thousand words,” says Seay. “There are things we learn more with our eyes than through other ways.”
“As pastors,” he explains, “we’re supposed to create a gospel experience. The gospel is something we participate in, not receive.”
According to Seay, the two churches he has founded are differentiated by the culture in each town—an important characteristic of a church that is trying to reach postmoderns. “We do what we do because we’re in an urban setting and in an arts district,” he says. “We don’t want to say that the forms we take are the prescription. We believe people should engage their own local culture.”
Engaging With Jesus Christ
Postmoderns, says Morgenthaler, need more than a dusty Bible. “Those who want to minister to postmoderns don’t want to pound them on the head with the Bible. They want them to hear and participate in the beauty of story and help them engage in something beyond themselves that they might not be able to explain,” she says. “We’re not willing to give up truth, but we really want people to engage in the person of Jesus Christ rather than rules, regulations, concepts, and interpretations. We’re tired of easy-answer Christianity.”
Morgenthaler understands what Seay is trying to accomplish with services that some would say are appealing and others would complain are simply too busy. She believes that postmoderns are primarily visual learners. “It’s not enough for them to get printed information about God. It’s a movement from printed information to experiencing God. You experience God through art and music,” she says.
York suggests caution when it comes to using technology in church. “I’m concerned about technology becoming master rather than servant,” he explains. “For instance, I am all for having sound amplification if indeed it makes the message clearer without distorting it. But I’m not for having indoor fireworks just because it’s technically possible. You should be in charge of technology—it shouldn’t be in charge of you.”
York illustrates his point with a modern medical predicament: “If [the] technology exists to keep someone alive, we now face the ethical dilemma of whether or not we must keep him or her alive.”
York does believe technology can be a helpful tool as long as it doesn’t control worship. For example, he likes the use of film clips during worship. “I think there’s legitimacy to that,” he says. “I see it as a story within a sermon used to illustrate the point of the sermon. It’s a tool.”
Segregation By Generation
York worries, however, about congregations of young people participating in multisensory worship while down the street their grandparents sing hymns from hymnals. He is concerned about generational segregation in worship, a topic h
e is beginning to research for a book.
“[Age-segregated congregations are] paying a higher price than they know,” he says. “They’re losing community and a sense of family. We’re constantly increasing the menu of choices, and I think community and family suffer at that point. Generations can learn from each other. I think we need the wisdom of generations that are older and we need the sparkly-eyed hope of those younger than us mixed in the same worship event.” Without the mix, York believes isolation results.
Seay would argue that the generations are already isolated when it comes to belief in God. He refers to postmoderns as postChristians. He tells the story, however, of an Ecclesia member who graduated from art school and then traveled Europe. Although predisposed to Buddhism, she took the time to tour the great European cathedrals. “Through the art she came to Christianity,” Seay says. “This is now a person who has come to a very real faith in Christ.”
Engaging, Not Following, Culture
“We’re not trying to follow culture,” Seay says. He believes the biblical story of Daniel is an excellent example of using one’s local culture as an opportunity to tell the story of God but not adopting it as one’s own belief. Daniel was thrown into Babylon and taught by sorcerers and pagan priests. “He becomes ten times wiser in those things than the pagans,” Seay says, “but Daniel does not cave in to that. To be a missionary you engage your local culture and you transform. The days of a franchise model of church are gone.”
Morgenthaler has seen the conflict in churches she advises. Of those who complain, in effect, “I can access God from hymns and lectures—why can’t you?” she says, “They want to hang onto the old ways. But if their grandkids don’t, we’ve got a problem.”
She agrees there is no one set of answers for churches faced with this conflict. She encourages congregations to add new elements to their services slowly but adds, “If a church can’t morph, [it] should make an alternative possible, help fund a Saturday night service for young people. The dig-in-your-heels, ‘my way or the highway’ approach isn’t going to work. Not if you want people to come to church.”
1. Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 19.