I believe that a passion to help people experience the Holy, however it is defined, is at the root of every form of worship. Every liturgy developed by every movement at one point was designed to help people experience the Holy. Many congregations today, in all denominations, consistently ask themselves how they can connect people with an experience of God through their worship. And whenever they stop asking that question, others emerge to ask it and to provide new opportunities to encounter the Holy in a way that modifies tradition.
But if we continually transform worship so that it will open people to the Holy, what are we supposed to do with our traditions? Don’t traditions anchor our worship? How can we discard them so readily? Isn’t one of the mainline church’s strengths its ability to adhere to tradition in the face of a world that blindly chases trends? All of these ques¬tions are valid, but they are misleading because often what we think of as traditions really aren’t traditions at all.
It is certainly true that our faith traditions, and the forms they take, are essential to worship. Tradition links us with the source of faith. The practices, handed down across the ages, literally connect us with the original faith practices of Christ and his apostles. Taking part in these practices opens us to God by immersing us in sacred activities that help us become more available to God at our deepest levels—levels that go beyond conscious awareness. We in the mainline church inherently recognize how important tradition is to the life of faith, which is why we argue so aggressively about what to do with traditions—whether to keep, modify, or jettison them. Unfortunately, these fights over traditions also have the power to split churches.
For instance, the town where I grew up has two Presbyterian churches. One is the original church that started around 1835; the other is a church that split away from it in the late 1800s. Before the split, the original church was a thriving congregation. Then it decided to purchase a pipe organ, which was the musical trend of the day. Up to that point, all music was sung a cappella according to the Reformed custom of the time. Many members believed that playing organs in worship was irreverent and against Presbyterian tradition. So they left that church to start their own church, one with no organ. Of course, twenty or so years later, guess what they installed in the sanctuary? A pipe organ. Many churches still fight over organs today, but, ironically, now the fight is whether to get rid of them in favor of drums, guitars, and keyboards.
Why do churches like this one, and so many others today, fight so strenuously over tradition, only to give up their tradition a generation later? The answer is that they aren’t fighting over traditions. They are fighting over accretions. People confuse accretions with traditions, and this confusion leads to worship wars.
Adrian van Kaam, a Roman Catholic priest and spiritual writer with whom I studied in the early 1990s, describes a tradition as the body of wisdom and practices that the church passes down from age to age. It connects us to the Holy. It binds us in faith with all who have come before us. According to van Kaam, we cannot be intentional about connecting with the Holy through our practices until we are able to distinguish between what is accretional and what is foundational to a tradition.
In its original meaning, an accretion is a buildup of sediment atop a rock formation or within water or soil. The sediment is not the foundation. It is the dirt, sand, or eroded minerals that accumulate over time. We confuse this junk with a foundation because it often either surrounds a foundation or is infused in it. When it comes to religious and spiritual practices, accretions are practices that build up around a tradition and become the ways a tradition is embodied in any day and age. For example, singing to God in worship is a foundational tradition. The songs we sing, which change from era to era, are the accretions. So singing is foundational, but whether we sing classical hymns, gospel, Taizé chants, a cappella psalms, or contemporary songs, they are all accretions. Instrumental music in church is foundational, but the use of an organ is accretional. While pipe organs date back to the eighth century and have been used in cathedrals and churches for centuries, they really only came into widespread, common use in the United States between 1860 and 1920. Thus, they are part of our musical accretions, not our musical foundations.
The fact is that all religions, denominations, and congregations build new accretions atop old ones. Thus, each generation adds its own hymns and songs—and fights about them in the process. Sometimes alternative movements emerge in which a generation of adherents, disgruntled over the accretions that have built up and seem to obscure the original faith, try to strip away all the accretions and start anew. This is what contemporary worship attempted to do, beginning in the late 1960s, by creating a new form of worship. They hoped to get back to the foundational passion of the original church. The contemporary worship movement may seem like it is on the cutting edge, but the reality is that it has merely stripped away old accretions, replacing them with a new accretional layer atop the foundational tradition of music and singing in worship.
Why does the church fight over these accretions? We fight because we have become attached to them. We cherish them because they are in a form that is in sync with our generation, our culture, or both. They may be meaningful for us and for others of our generation, but they may not be meaningful for prior or ensuing generations, who see them as sacrilegious or archaic. And so we fight, believing our cherished accretions are the true tradition.
But it misses the point to think simply that accretions are bad and that we should somehow strive to seek only the purest of connections with the original tradition. The sediment that builds upon a foundation often is fertile soil out of which wonderful experiences can grow. However, this soil can also become shaky when centuries of accretions build up to the point that the foundation is inaccessible.
When we continually build worship upon accretions, without regard to the original foundations, we are building worship on shaky sand. We in the mainline church, who persist in building our worship on centuries of accretions, will continue to shrink until we decide to seriously question what is foundational or accretional about our worship, and then act accordingly.
What the mainline church needs to do is to refocus on what is foundational tradition—religiously, denominationally, and congregationally—and work our way back from there. Practicing an accretion is not wrong, as long as it is built on a meaningful foundation, as long as it is fertile soil for present generations and cultures, and as long as we are willing to brush it away when it becomes an impediment to growth.
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Adapted from In God’s Presence: Encountering, Embracing, and Experiencing the Holy in Worship by N. Graham Standish, copyright © 2010 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
In God’s Presence:
Encountering, Embracing, and
Experiencing the Holy in Worship
by N. Graham Standish
Too many worship services, suggests Graham Standish, are perfunctory, suggesting that most churches don’t think much about how to connect people with God. In God’s Presence makes the case that congregations must restore intentionality and authenticity to worship in a way that will open people to the Holy. Intentionality, he says, reflects a deep understanding of what tradition has attempted to do, what contemporary people are hungry for, what is going on in our culture, and how to connect the three.
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Historian and researcher Diana Butler Bass argues against the conventional wisdom regarding “mainline decline.” She sees encouraging signs that mainline Protestant churches are finding a new vitality intentionally grounded in Christian practices as they lay the groundwork for a new congregation.
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