Two mantras seem to simultaneously rule American popular culture today: change is good, and tradition is bad. We have all been subjected to this supposedly common knowledge. Sometimes we hear it at work, where it is insisted upon that we must shake up our routines to keep us “on our toes,” to prevent ourselves from becoming “too comfortable,” so that the company can more efficiently bring in profit. In education, traditional methods of instruction must be ushered on their way out in favor of “revolutionary” usages of technology, such as online classes and digital resources. Even in our churches and houses of worship, we must discard with the “dead” ways of old in favor of newer and more “relevant” presentations of our faith to bring in the supposedly disenchanted younger generations. Such notions of continually reinventing ourselves sound incredibly inviting to our American spirit, forged from the Revolutionary Enlightenment that declared war on the very idea of established order.
I would argue, however, that this obsession with constant change is dangerous and harmful to the human spirit and, particularly in light of my own religious conviction as a Christian, this belief that tradition is inherently a negative thing is wrong. Would I argue that change itself is a bad thing as well? Of course not. Change and tradition can both be either good or bad. It is the truth that informs them that determines their moral value. Recently I have begun to notice just how deeply the belief that change itself is superior to tradition has infiltrated our society, particularly in the Christian Church and in my own community. I would like to explore this philosophy, particularly in how it shapes our religious institutions and worship, looking at how the core beliefs of the very Christian faith that has so hastily bought into this conception of change ironically contradict the very philosophy behind that change.
Many church bodies in America have become obsessed with changing to become “relevant”. In a desire to rid themselves of the perceived stuffiness and questionable genuineness of the previous generation’s more formal methods of organizing the Church Body their leaders have become obsessed with attempting to draw the non-believer in with the latest modern trends in music, technology, and comfort. Bodies of believers begin to adopt business-like marketing campaigns with modern new logos (often disposing of the traditional crucifix/cross symbolism), utilization of social media for networking, and large-scale remodeling/construction projects to avoid the appearance of an old, antiquated place of worship, and instead blends the building in with other primarily functional structures of the capitalist West. Enormous amounts of money, time, and resources are poured into these vast overhauls, with particular emphasis placed on intentional welcoming programs, entertaining curriculums for youth and adults alike, and comfortable seating arrangements providing optimal viewing of the worship performers illuminated by lights on stage.
Before continuing, I would like to make it clear that I do not think that the aforementioned things are inherently bad, but I do believe that the intentions behind them are often misguided, and thus the end results will be negative.
With that said, let us examine the intentions behind these changes, and how these intentions are in fact harmful to the health of the Church and contrary to the Gospel it preaches. The intention is to draw more people into the building, so that the truth can be preached to them. The church must be marketed to the community as modern, engaging, and relevant. Newer generations need something familiar, something fun, something comfortable, something attractive to entice them to join the body of Christ. Notice how this mindset for drawing in people and filling seats is focused entirely on creating an environment for the purpose of pleasing the people in the seats. But yet the Gospel of Christ is primarily about the denial of self.
“If anyone desires to come after Me,” Christ says in the Gospel of Luke, “let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me”(Luke 9:23 NKJV). If we are attempting to attract the lost by appealing to their personal desires for material comfort and pleasure, we are in fact acting in direct opposition to the core principles of our purported Savior. “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost?” Jesus asks in verse 25 of the same chapter. What does it matter if our churches draw thousands of people into our buildings with modern light shows and pervading darkness, state of the art sound systems, comfortable seating arranged for personal comfort and a myriad of children’s programs if those same people are not being taught to yield their desires and comforts to the transforming power of Christ? If the weekly meetings of the Church are meant to prepare and equip Christians to live out the Gospel of Christ in their day to day lives, and those same meetings are being changed to reflect what will make those in attendance most comfortable, then how will those same people ever be equipped to truly deny themselves and follow their Savior?
The school of thinking that modern churches are disposing of is one of seeing the building as a sacred and holy place, a true “sanctuary,” if you will, from the fallen world. Not only a sanctuary from the world though, but also a place to equip men to live as light in that same fallen world. These changes are often justified by stating that “that Church is not just a building” and that the old philosophy places too much emphasis on the building itself. Certainly this is true to an extent, but what type of building best serves the Body of Christ is the primary issue either way. The modern church building is often focused on meeting man’s selfish desires, satisfying their thoughts of self, appealing to the lost. The old cathedrals were designed to direct man’s thoughts away from themselves and instead towards the Divine. The late scholar Joseph Campbell, while speculating on the declining role of religion in the modern world, made the following observations on these two schools of thought concerning church construction.
“The cathedral is in the form of a cross, with the altar in the middle there. It’s a symbolic structure. Now many churches are built as if they were theaters. Visibility is important. In the cathedral, there is no interest in visibility at all. Most of what goes on goes on out of your sight. But the symbol is what’s important there, not just watching the show. Everybody knows the show by heart. You’ve seen it since you were a six-year-old child.” (The Power of Myth 119-120).
Campbell makes the point that the design of the church building was not conceived with the churchgoer’s comfort in mind so that they could simply sit back and enjoy the show. The cathedral, uncomfortable pews and all, was designed to draw the layman’s mind away from themselves and draw it to higher and greater things, to represent the Gospel, to involve the churchgoer in the very process of denying one’s self. (I would like to note here that I understand the massive cost of cathedrals, and realize buildings of this scale are often impractical and sometimes even wasteful. I am simply discussing the philosophy behind the cathedrals, and the merit of that philosophy.) Making the churchgoer a participant in the liturgy rather than simply an audience was intended to help mold the individual into being able to actually live out that principle of denying the self, to make the member ready to participate in “pure and undefiled religion…” so that they will “…visit orphans and widows in their trouble…” keeping themselves “…unspotted from the world” (James 1:27 NKJV).
Regardless of one’s opinions on the traditions of Church history themselves, one is forced to admit that at least the design of their structures was conceived with the intention of directing the churchgoer’s mind and heart towards the things of God. The idea of denying one’s self in worship is clearly Scriptural. I ask where the Scriptural basis is for changing our places of worship into comfortable, dark and electronic multipurpose structures stripped of imagery and symbolism for the sake of simply filling seats? Again, I am not against these modern methods themselves, but rather the fact that the intention behind them feeds selfish desires. If our guide for any change in the Church, for which Christ is the cornerstone, comes from anything besides Scripture we must ask “do I now persuade men or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10 NKJV). Our faith, after all, is an unchanging tradition itself, a “faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3 NKJV).
I will end with both a personal anecdote and a question that was provoked by that same experience. Earlier this year, I took a trip to Chicago with a class from my college, Union University. While there, some of us ventured with one of our professors to the Holy Name Cathedral to admire its architecture. We went in at the end of mass, and after the service ended we admired the beautiful and awe-inspiring architecture of the cathedral that drew our eyes ever upward. What struck me most however was when, at least fifteen minutes after the service had concluded, I noticed that scattered throughout the sanctuary there remained worshipers kneeling and praying. Not only did individuals remain, but there were a few who came in to kneel and pray, though they had missed mass itself. These were individuals who saw this church not simply as a functional building for gatherings, but were using it as a true spiritual sanctuary where they could take shelter from the bustling world outside to commune with God.
I ask you the same question that occurred to me at that moment: would you, or anyone else, be compelled to enter our modern “seeker-friendly” churches to simply pray and commune with God? If you are honest with yourself, as I was, I believe you will find the answer a bit disheartening.