On Tuesday, the very day that the latest Pew Research survey came out that said Christianity is in decline in the United States, a certain pastor in a certain parish in a certain American Midwestern city known as the Rome of the West met with the choir director. For the most part, he was very pleased. However, there were some concerns. His complaints: the choir sings too much choir stuff, too much Latin, too much of it is old, not enough modern pieces, the congregation sinks back to listen and then doesn’t have anything to do and doesn’t participate in other congregational singing, blah, blah, blah. (Never mind that half the people who come to that Mass do so to hear the choir sing all the old special stuff. They tell us this.)
Earth to Monsignor: no Catholic congregation sings completely and you can’t make them…well, other than “Holy God We Praise Thy Name,” but we come out of the womb singing that.
In the Catholic Church, we call this affliction 70’s priests. Most of them are good men who are good shepherds of their flocks, but they have a blind spot when it comes to Latin and REALLY good music at Mass as well as listening being a form of participation even when they are not speaking – and just because of the way Catholicism is, Mass is the center of public prayer, so this is a pretty hot topic. In the time of the 70’s priests’ formation, the rebellion against “the establishment” and tradition was in full swing. For whatever reason, they seem to think that to be relevant, music has to be fresh and new and constantly ephemeral. Not that the traditional literature wasn’t ephemeral at one time, but only the cream of the crop survives. (Music being something other than junk doesn’t seem to come into their consciousness.)
In the few days since that meeting between the choir director and Monsignor, who seems to forget that Latin is still the official language of the Church, the magnitude of the Pew Study sank in a bit (the one that pinned the Catholic Church as shriveling up), one millennial – the people we are assured are leaving the Church in droves – chimed in as to why.
The truth is, my relationship with you is still love-hate.
I love the theology, but I hate the expectations of pseudo piety.
Love the gospel, hate the patriotic moralism.
Love the Bible, hate the way it’s used.
Love Jesus, but hate what we’ve done with him.
Love worship, but hate Jesusy entertainment.
The piece is “Dear Church: An open letter from one of those millennials you can’t figure out.” It rambles and it does reflect the generation that hasn’t quite figured out that they’re not all that (and how the Church really uses the Bible, but that’s another matter), but there are insights there that the wider church, not just Catholicism, needs to know. Basically, the young people can see through the bull$#@! of not being authentic and not teaching morality while living it at the same time, something they have in common with Mahatma Gandhi, actually.
The writer of that piece calls the entertainment aspect the bells and whistles, but it’s what he says farther down that’s more important.
Don’t expect a “worship style” to do your dirty work. Contemporary worship hasn’t worked. The longer we extend the life of this failed experiment, the more we see the results.
In my experience, contemporary worship brings in three groups. Baby boomers who are still stuck in their rebellion against the establishment, parents who mistakenly think that contemporary worship is the only way for their kids to connect to the church, and small percentage of young adults who haven’t left the church and haven’t known anything besides contemporary worship.
In modeling worship after commercial entertainment, you’ve compromised your identity, and we’re still not coming back.
And even if we did, would there be any church left? Would there be anything beyond the frills, the lights, the performance, the affected vocals? Would we still see a cross? Would we still find our place among the saints who have come before? Would we find reminders of our life-long need of grace?
Or would we have been hooked by something altogether different? Would we merely find your answer key for the great mystery of faith?
Answer key for the great mystery of faith…. Great line. And the rock bands around the altar…uh, yeah. There’s a reason traditional Mass is making a comeback in some places.
Using music as symbol of all that is wrong with religion and worship these days, as a classically trained, operatic soprano with over 30 years of training and experience whose choir was just told that we sing too many of the historic motets that I love so much (and too loudly, apparently, even if that church building was built before artificial amplification and it’s a professional challenge to be heard and understood without a microphone) this kid has a point. All the “relevant” stuff comes off as fake, fluffy entertainment. It’s not grounded, good, or lasting. Not only that, it does not inspire to holiness, which is what the point of worship and religion should be – and that should be the same for any follower of Christ, not just Catholics.
But there is more to it than that. There’s the matter of compromise from Tradition, failure to teach morality from the pulpit, and failure to properly form the young in Christ. Every last branch of Christianity is guilty of this in some form. In 1930, the Anglican Communion at the Lambeth Conference broke with tradition to allow birth control. At this point, only Catholicism has not changed from Tradition on artificial contraception (because it can’t). Gay marriage – which isn’t marriage in the covenant sense as marriage is in the Church – is being debated when even twenty five years ago it was an anathema. And that’s just a couple areas of sex. Any compromise there leads to “well, is it really that bad” when it comes to abortion, euthanasia, cheating on your wife, taxes, etc.
That doesn’t touch railing against sin, the s-word that was somewhat shocking when an archbishop used it in a homily about twelve years ago because no one had heard it in so long. We also are not encouraged to do the little things that make living life as a Christian real. Being humble, putting others before ourselves, thinking charitably about others. Giving to the poor we’ve got covered, but it’s the good treatment of our peers that is not stressed. Protestantism, I would imagine, is in the same boat. “What would Jesus Do?” just doesn’t cut it when it comes to being a spiritual shepherd in an era laden with evil. Being a teacher of the faith takes a lot more courage than that. Remember, Jesus turned over merchants’ tables in the Temple and drove them from the place with a whip he made. His message is not all rainbows and butterflies. Standing up to people who are in the wrong is part of being Christian…even if we Christians don’t always agree with what being right on religion is.
Those of us who are Catholic and are post-Vatican II brats with any in depth knowledge of the Faith at all – we learned it on our own because it certainly wasn’t taught to us. Scripture class was a mush of ideas with a little history – maybe – and Church history was a joke. The best religion teacher this writer had was the nun who prepped our class for First Communion in second grade. That shouldn’t be. And none of it was all that inspiring. Plus, there is not much emphasis on the Sacraments at this time. The Sacraments exist to bring us closer to God, and if we allow it in, the peace of Christ that fills the soul is unparalleled. Hiding the Sacraments, or making them inconvenient, which is more normal than not right now, does not encourage participation.
In order to stop the bleeding, and attract the people who are turning to Islam and other religions that require lifestyle changes that bring peace and purpose to everyday living, even if it is deadly to the soul, this has to change. The Church has to realize that tradition became so for a reason: it works. It draws people to God in three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Really, all the senses can be employed as tools for this. Some branches of Christianity use them all, some don’t. Tradition came about with an evolution, but everything evolved for a theological reason and jettisoning it with nothing to fill the void does not get people to stay. But that’s not the only problem. There’s also the matter of cutting through the clutter of American life. In the old days, the church was center of life for a community. That just no longer is.
Since life has increasingly not revolved around religion in the United States, the place we go for authentic Christianity and to be spiritually fed is Church and the people who run the place are falling down on the job of inspiring holiness. American life is busy, very busy, and that shows no signs of decreasing. In order to strengthen the Christian and moral groundings of the people, Christianity must return to its roots and stand on the 2,000 year history that made it the greatest force for good on the planet. That cannot just come from the pews. We are so busy here in America, that Sunday is more and more just another day of the week, not the Sabbath, and we need the clergy to remind us to take the time and give the Lord His day – even the musicians who serve the people of God by trying to inspire them with music that will fade away when the 70’s priests retire. Only the best survives the test of time. Most of the current ephemeral crap won’t.
Another good piece on this same topic was published by Matt Walsh at The Blaze.
And that’s how we ended up here. That’s it. That’s the problem. It’s plain as day, yet every time this conversation comes up, we’re told that Christianity is declining because Christians are too religious, too bold, too outspoken, too moral, and too firm in their beliefs. That’s the conventional wisdom, but as we’ve seen a thousand times over, the conventional wisdom of an unwise society should never be taken seriously.
Writer’s note: For Catholics, employment of the senses in worship is essential and required by Catechesis. A beautiful space dedicated to God inspires. Vaulted ceilings with sweet incense rising inspires to Heaven. (In the east, that is inverted, yes, I know.) Music and chant should be celestial, feeding the soul. Yes, it can be hypnotic. It is supposed to be. The simplicity of Eucharist in being just pressed wheat and unspoiled, simple wine.
In the meantime, it is worth remembering that this is nowhere close to the first time such falling away, apathy and apostasy has happened. One history scholar (Archbishop Fulton Sheen maybe?) said that about every 400 years the laity saves the Church. The most dramatic time this happened may well have been the 12th-13th centuries, actually. In the process of such saving, great saints come to the fore and give the renewal a push. From those time periods, we have monasticism, the orders of friars, the Renaissance, many orders of nursing and teaching sisters, many scientific achievements, theological greatness, and a whole lot more. We’re there, even as the institutional Church is standing in the way of it’s own resurgence. Renewal is happening, just slowly and quietly, at least until the Saint John Paul IIs and Mother Teresas of the world come to our attention and we realize that living as Christ asks is more than possible if one puts their mind to it.
And in this, our greatest friend is a little something called attrition. The 70’s priests might be in charge right now, but the clock is ticking, and the John Paul II generation is waiting in the wings.