I usually find myself on the “high church” or “traditional” side of the worship wars, especially on a college campus. Some of this is age no doubt. It is also an outgrowth of my convictions about the role of worship in the life of Houghton College and in the ongoing lives of Christian liberal arts graduates. We want to have an appreciation of how God has been worshipped in all times and places so that our vision of God is always growing beyond our current personal experience of God. We also want to have resources for worship that will sustain us in all the seasons of our life—when we want to praise, and when we need to mourn.
This summer has given me a deeper appreciation for what the “contemporary” side of the worship divide is trying to honor in our world today. During my travels in the United Kingdom, I worshipped one Sunday morning in the parish church in Grasmere. The sermon was orthodox, even inspiring. The Scripture was read with passion. The hymns were among my favorites: “O Love That Will Not Let me Go,” “The King of Love my Shepherd Is,” and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” They even ended with “How Great Thou Art”—not a hymn that I expected to hear in an Anglican service. The problem was, hardly anyone was there. The younger to middle-aged people seemed to be guests, rather than regular parishioners, despite an explicit notice in the bulletin that this was a “child-friendly congregation.” (This struck me as a case of “protesting too much.”)
Even more troubling were the conversations I had with longtime friends in Wales. The mother in the family had passed away this spring. Despite the fact that the family were longtime members in one of the historic denominations of the country, there was no clergyman available to conduct the funeral service. They further reported that the membership in several of the local “chapels” of their denomination is not sufficient to justify a resident pastor. The daughter (about 35-40) lamented that her generation had gone to Sunday School as children, but that sports had claimed Sunday for families in the United Kingdom in this generation. She mentioned that her teenage daughter had indicated the other day that she really did not know much about “religion.”
The conversation brought full circle discussions we had had over the years — when the family had commented on how much more “religious” Americans are than Christians in the United Kingdom. (They were always surprised at how frequently American Christians attend church on Sunday!)
This reflection could get complicated fast, and there are many directions I could go at this point. I will share only a few of my immediate reactions to this situation: first, how, in three generations, a “good,” spiritually and morally serious family could go from being self-identified Christians to having no understanding of the Christian faith; second, despite the many differences between British church history and American church history, the role of sports is also changing what Sunday means in the lives of Christian families in America; third, based on some experiences earlier in the summer, that it might be easier for teenagers in China, than teenagers in the United Kingdom to naturally come in contact with an inviting presentation of the Gospel in the normal course of their lives today.
Clearly, there are many things going on in these scenarios besides worship styles. Certainly families have a role in determining how best to pass on their faith to succeeding generations. (“There are no second generation Christians,” as some of the old timers used to say!) Communicating the Gospel will be different, depending on how “inoculated” a culture is to hearing the Christian message — so the church cannot work in the United Kingdom today in the same way as in China.
Furthermore, I am not at all advocating turning Sunday morning worship into entertainment. Some of my discussions later in the summer with friends back in North America reminded me of why I still will probably end up on the more “traditional” side of many of the worship discussions.
I enter this new academic year with a renewed burden and sense of responsibility to make sure we at Houghton are preparing graduates who can communicate the message of the Gospel through words and through the arts in ways that speak compellingly to this generation. This is not a simple matter. Forms are not better merely because they are new — any more than merely because they are old.
This is our lifelong calling: to be Christians who, like our Lord Jesus Christ, embody Grace and Truth so powerfully in our lives and in our words that, through us, others may see the heart of our Heavenly Father. (See John 1:1-14)
Please join with us as we seek to be faithful to this task this year at Houghton College.
Grace and Peace to you today,
Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976