Cross Currents and Fellowship at Church

Jaroslav Pelikan, the great Christian historian, was invited to address the issues and opportunities facing churches with ancient liturgies, modern tastes for innovation, and debates about how to honor both the ancient and the new.

His answer still resonates in the ears of many cult leaders and spiritual teachers decades later: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.

My father liked to point out that the measure of a community was how it takes care of the most vulnerable, the less powerful. Thus, the Bible teaches that our social priorities must emphasize the support of widows and orphans, strangers and strangers. His observation, however, was that we really need to be mindful of how we deal with the dead.

Tombstones cannot defend themselves. Cemeteries have a somewhat limited constituency. But a community that cares with gentleness and reverence for such memorials and places is likely one that understands how to make provision for the liveliest groups of underserved people.

And when it comes to tradition, GK Chesterton was on the same thing when he said, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.

Pelikan’s observation is a reminder that it is equally unhealthy to grant the deceased an absolute veto. How to reflect on tradition today is tricky in all sorts of situations. What would Dorothy Day say about a political development? How would the Reverend Martin Luther King take a stand on a current event? You can’t just unplug them from their context and drop them as if they were alive today; when this is done rhetorically, it is usually to serve the speaker’s purposes, which may well not be those of their historical figure’s intentions.

In worship, however, we can trace some strange and interesting patterns through history that give us clues, if not clear direction on how to do our services “in the right way.” Among Protestants I can point out five or six distinct eras in the last few centuries alone where one generation broke new ground in terms of music and preaching, in subsequent decades it became the norm and then a rising generation arrives to watch the latest innovations are dated and uninteresting while their elders uphold this now beleaguered model as a “tradition”. Lather, rinse, repeat. Congregational singing versus professional choirs, or open-air preaching with adapted popular songs, jostling alongside Psalmody that gives way to Watts’ hymnal, organs replacing ad hoc instrumentals, electronic amplification and instrumentals from accompaniment on tape, Singspiration and “Gaither music” to rent the groups at . . . whatever happens next.

I did not grow up in a liturgical tradition, but in a tradition that had many data that was de facto a liturgy. Total improvisation and spontaneity was seen as a mode for different churches, not for us. Now, many of the churches I have been invited to preach to over the past two decades have effectively had no worship orders or fixed prayers, just an outline of “music, prayer, offering, more prayer, sermon, last song”. Sometimes I miss a style that I never really knew, certain old elements and parts of worship that connect us to previous generations, that can offer continuity with those to come.

One of my phrases about what worship is for, when I’m in a space where this can be discussed, is that at its core, I think regular worship is equal parts “birthing classes and funeral rehearsals”.

If you haven’t had the opportunity, as a male partner or female directly involved, to attend childbirth classes, they spend a lot of time teaching you how to breathe. Yes, even the man. Practice now, because you don’t want to try to learn this later. Things will go fast! But you are preparing with the hope of a new life to join the family.

Funeral rehearsals are less something anyone has to do, I suppose, but in a sense we do it whenever we think about eternity, after us, time to come. Preparing ourselves and those around us for the harsh reality of what happens after life goes on, without us.

Birth classes and funeral rehearsals. Every faith community does this at its gatherings, and this is where you really need the perspectives of the older and younger people present and participating. How do we make sense of our journey in the light of God and honor each other along the way?

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller and preacher in central Ohio; he still doesn’t know what the best way to worship is, but he has a strong fondness for fellowship at the heart of it. Tell him where you find the heart of the cult without quoting Matt Redman at [email protected], or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

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