Archive for November 23rd, 2007

America and the Church – More Thoughts

November 23, 2007

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Getreligion.org recently drew attention to a New York Times article on modern evangelicalism and the role that various forms of music are playing in their current configuration. The article contained this striking quote and observation from an interview with Tom Mercer, senior pastor of the evangelical church featured in the article:

“When you start a church,” said Tom Mercer, 52, the senior pastor, “you don’t decide who you’re going to reach and then pick a music style. You pick a music style, and that determines who’s going to come.”

High Desert Church has a sprawling concrete campus that includes a lavish auditorium, a gym, classrooms and office space for its 70 employees. Once a traditional Baptist church, it moved toward nondenominational and evangelical Christianity in the mid-1990s and experienced steep growth. Now more than 8,000 people attend services here at least twice a month.

This very frank quote points to a growing trend in modern American Christianity: marketing. The problem with this marketing approach is only beginning to reveal its flaws (apart from the theology behind it): America is becoming increasingly fragmented in its music styles. Thus Churches, or at least services, are having to be multiplied to meet the growing diversity of the market. Instead of a religion that unifies, the Church becomes the highly segmented, market-driven organization that ministers and feeds the fragmentation of Christianity. It is “enculturation” run mad.

At the same time this phenomenon is occurring, Orthodoxy in America (despite its jurisdictions), bumbles forward and continues to grow, using everything from Byzantine music (quite foreign to the modern ear) to Russian Obikhod (a rich harmony but somewhat repetitive) which does not sound foreign to the American ear, but does not sound like the hymns your mother grew up with. And yet it grows.

Someone asked me once (actually more than once) what St. Anne (my parish) does to grow. I answered simply: “We answer the phone.” I cannot explain where the converts come from, though there is a slow but steady stream. Frequently they have to be patient and become accustomed to the music. On the other hand, a recent delegation from Obninsk, Russia, visited, and though the service was (with but one or two exceptions) completely in English, they felt completely at home. The music, as least as far as “tunes” go, was the same as used at home.

There is no way to say to someone, “Our music is superior to yours.” That’s a very arguable statement. I do prefer the theological substance and meat of an Orthodox hymn when compared to the average American “praise song,” but I will not claim musical superiority. What I can observe is that Orthodox music (indeed Orthodox everything) is not market driven. It is what it is and you learn it as it is. The same is true for the faith. We teach what was given us and what has been “organically” part of the Orthodox Tradition. The faith remains the same whether the “market” is a village in Africa or a suburb of Los Angeles. It is thus truly “inclusive” and “universal” in the extreme.

There is today a great gulf fixed between the organic life of Orthodox Tradition and the ephemeral comings and goings of market-driven American religion. How can we compare such things? These are apples and oranges.

I receive comments and questions here at the blog, asking for comparisons or to offer an answer of “how do you know you are right and others are wrong?” I can never answer such questions sufficiently. But one observation can me made in the light of this posting. What I can say of Orthodoxy could have been said a week ago, a century ago, five centuries ago, etc. With the movements in the market I cannot be sure of what this changing American market-driven Church will say of itself even tomorrow.

Tragically, I’ve heard of some market-driven Churches seeking to put together services that would feel more “ancient,” with a bit of ritual, incense and chant. It is tragic because these things are not organically part of who they are but simply another stab at the American market. As such it cannot save because it itself is captive to mammon and the culture of the market.

Whether these current phenomena will continue in Evangelicalism is anybody’s guess. I have no idea. What Orthodoxy will continue to do I can describe with a fair assurance of being right. We’ll be doing what we’ve always done, with occasional new hymns written (we do still write music) – but it will be much like what has gone before. For some that is a comfort.