I just finished the book Christianity’s Dangerous Idea by Alister McGrath. First of all, I highly recommend the book. It’s an excellent treatment of the issues surrounding the Reformation and all its major players from Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Bucer and others.
One of the things it talked about was how Protestantism, outside of the Lutheran and Calvinist camps especially, as been so remarkably adaptable to different times, different countries and different cultures. For sure, there have been eras of missteps in missionary efforts where too much emphasis was placed on transplanting a Western European style of Christianity into countries where the cultural norms and such are vastly different. But the overall history of Protestantism has been one of amazing malleability. And to most Protestants, this is a sign of it’s vitality and a source of great strength. Aside from being centered around a sermon, you can encounter scores of different styles from country to country or even within one city. You might walk into a Baptist church that’s very “countrified” with Southern Gospel style hymns and right down the road walk into another with all the high church pomp and circumstance you’d see in a Catholic service. And right down from that would be one with a kickin’ rock band leading worship, congregants in jeans and t-shirts and the pastor sporting a faux-hawk. And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of all the predominantly African-American congregations.
On the other hand, worldwide, Catholic and Orthodox churches are largely the same. This was especially the case prior to Vatican II and the Mass being in the vernacular. You could go anywhere in the world and the Mass was spoken in Latin and was in the same form. Even with the vernacular, because the form of the Mass is consistent, most experienced Catholics can follow the service fairly easily even with the language barrier. And this consistency is viewed by Catholics as a sign of strength and vitality as well. They feel they adapt in more subtle ways to each culture (such as Mass in the vernacular) but that the more consistent liturgy and emphasis promotes unity and cohesiveness in the Church.
And this adaptability vs consistency thing doesn’t just apply to different cultures and countries now. Outside of high church Lutherans and Anglicans, Protestantism is nothing if not willing to change. No matter what era Protestantism finds itself in, there seems to be a near constant desire to change and seek to be “relevant.” This is especially true of the last 30-40 years or so, since those first hippies started coming to Christ during the Jesus Movement, but whether it was John and Charles Wesley, Charles Finney and Dwight Moody, the rise of Pentecostalism or the New Calvinists, this is has been a hallmark of Protestantism.
Catholicism (and to a similar degree Orthodoxism) on the other hand has been marked by its ties to history and (little “t”) tradition. Some of the rites, creeds, prayers, music and other facets of Catholic worship have been around since the earliest days of the Church. Many others have been in consistent use in Catholic services for centuries. There’s a connectedness and a feeling of being anchored in something bigger than oneself but more importantly, bigger than “right now.”
To be honest, I’m torn over which is the best approach. I’ve mentioned my feelings numerous times…how I lament the lack of historicity and the sense that we’ve lost something in all this manic striving to be culturally hip and relevant. I find a depth and richness in traditional, liturgical worship that just seems lacking in much of contemporary styles. But at the same time, I realize that everyone is not like me. No matter how much you explain to some people the richness and deep meanings of the liturgy and its ancient roots, they don’t get it. And it’s not that they don’t get it because they are non-Christians unattuned to the things of God. These are wonderful, growing, sincere believers in Christ. They might be able to appreciate elements of traditional worship from time to time, they prefer the more casual, modern style. They feel like they connect with God on a more personal level in that kind of setting and that their relationship with God is much better partly because of the willingness of churches to loosen up and not be bogged down with attachments to songs and styles and cultural trappings that are no longer a part of modern life. I even felt that way myself at one point, but as this blog attests, that’s changed with me. It doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a well-done modern worship service, I just have different tastes and different things that matter more to me.
What do you think? There are pros and cons to both approaches I believe. What is more important…cultural relevance in worship style or a connection to the past and our Christian brethren from times gone by? As long as the Gospel is being taught and people are being discipled and matured in the faith, should the form in which those things are conveyed matter?